Troppo Sottile

In Search of VeniceISOVBox

Pushkin Press, 2012Recently I visited New York City's Frick Museum with a young friend on a chilly winter afternoon. We toured the high-ceilinged rooms, refusing the hand-held audio-tour devices we saw clamped to the ear of so many earnest patrons – we preferred looking and chatting. I had been to the Frick often enough not to need a guide, and he had been seldom enough not to need a better guide than I. We walked slowly from room to room, pausing in the wan light whenever something struck our fancy. He stood appalled in the midst of the stunning splendor that is the Fragonard Room (“the most hated single room anywhere in the city,” he hissed), I stood appalled at the (appropriately) dead end little gallery of old clocks (“old clocks,” I hissed). We synchronously peered close at the Holbeins, I at Thomas Cromwell (“He looks like he wants a kinder paymaster”) and he at Thomas More (“He looks like he's worried his house has cockroaches”). We marvelled at the Dutch masterpieces – the bulky Rembrandt self-portrait in which the artist manages to capture the precise moment (known to men of a certain age) when every last little thing goes to Hell; the swarthy burgomeisters in their slashed sleeves and black satin; the austerely reserved Snyders, husband and wife, visibly wanting nothing so much as to finish their sitting with Frans Hals and tear the clothes off each other. We stood agape at “The Lake,” a crepuscular little stunner by Corot.And of course I looked forward to the big Venice painting in the East Gallery. You pass the portrait of goggle-eyed, buffoonish General Burgoyne, and there it is, right between Jean-Baptiste Greuze's winsome wool-winder and Jacques-Louis David's take-me-or-leave-me portrait of Comtesse Daru: a big colorful view of Venice seen from the Guidecca looking onto the Zattere as the early morning light just begins to strike the buildings facing the water. Already gondolas and merchant punts ply the murky green bay, but a gorgeous powder-blue sky opens fully half the painting: the city itself, as always, pressed like an alluring, overpriced ribbon between heaven and sea. All along the Zattere the artist has caught a succession of little bridges as though they were the humps of some mythical sea-serpent, each bridge an entrance-point to the cramped interior of the city proper.I smiled at the near-photographic fidelity of the moment, as I had seen it many times when I lived in Venice (although seldom from the water looking in, since a gondola is a tricky enough conveyance without a bossy horde of beagles clambering over the seats and arguing with the gondolier). I fancied I could practically see my old building from the view the artist gives, and I said as much to my friend.“What are you talking about?” he asked.“This big lovely painting,” I replied.“There's no painting,” he said. “That's a blank wall.”And so, Venice.Almost for as long as the place has been there, it hasn't. Countless painters, sculptors, poets, novelists, composers, and memoirists – not to mention great teeming multitudes of ordinary tailors, business executives, housewives, school teachers, shopkeepers, and movie stars – have encountered a Venice that ensnares them on some deeply personal level and then vanishes completely. People who write about Venice – as so many, many have – are never writing about an actual, seeable place, even when they're writing in that place. Instead, they're always writing about a city glimpsed in a passing moment, a season, a splurged royalty check, a followed lover, a forlorn hope of re-invention. The bedroom curtains shift listlessly in the hot afternoon breeze; the reflection of canal-water forms an intaglio on the ceiling; a beautiful woman wanders past you in an alley softened with nighttime mist – she's missing one shoe, and she's been crying, and as you pause wonder if you should offer assistance (although what assistance could you offer? The guest-bed in your flat, complete with some hard cheese, some old wine, and the hostile suspicion of the aforementioned beagles?), she looks at you, whispers, “Inutile, inutile,” and disappears into the mist.Tourists look at their photos without remembering taking them. Painters freeze a glint of pewter light that lasts less than a minute and will never be faithfully duplicated; the long-absent traveller finds his little canal a filled-in calle; well-read inebriates stagger out of Harry's Bar into a world of $20 cups of coffee; a Republic that stood and fought and thrived for a thousand years has become a curio rapidly sinking into the Adriatic. Venice has traded flinty commercial acumen and world-weary merchant princes for an ennui worthy of M. John Harrison's science fiction; her profession has now become the art of insubstantiality. The churches, towers, campi and canals still enchant, but only the most nervous, forward-looking cells of the brain are affected; the dreaming-neurons see a city of wonder and then haphazardly forget it in order to see it again.Writers, whose very profession is capturing the evanescent, have been more tightly attuned to this than most ordinary civilians. For centuries, they've made their pilgrimages to the Queen of the Adriatic and assiduously recorded every disappointment, every Akron associate accidentally encountered in the Piazza San Marco, every overpriced hot pretzel. Dickens, Goethe, Stendahl, George Eliot, Mann, Henry James, Hemingway – all had barely unpacked before they started scribbling, scribbling, scribbling.The result, of course, was a monstrous pile, an entire separate city of Venice books, rising like a literary aqua alta every season, swamping bookstore shelves from Jakarta to Jamestown. Simply writing a Venice book, simply making an effort to pin down your particular Venice experience, has become almost as rote a prerequisite as festooning yourself in over-snug clothing or bawling complaints about the smell of the canals. You check in; you begrudge your porter his extortionate gratuity; and then you figure out how to re-quote Robert Benchley (“Streets full of water. Please advise”) before expensing your early lunch. And then back home in London or Paris or New York, you write your book and it goes onto the pile. The result, to put it gently, is something of a surfeit – all trying to find some Venice that isn't quite there anymore, most exulting gloomily in their failure to do so.Ruskin watched the city slip between his fingers as the railway bridge was built across the lagoon; Mary McCarthy cashed her royalty checks for a Venice-book she admitted was almost entirely cribbed in a library, the “real thing” being impossible to convey; Jan Morris left the city “puzzled, like a young man who, withdrawing happily from an embrace, suddenly realizes that the girl's mind is elsewhere, and momentarily wonders what on earth he sees in her.” The endeavor is virtually self-defeating – but the books can often be wonderful, since even the most hopeless hack is seldom more charming than when he knows his reach exceeds his grasp. Ruskin's writings on Venice are a dreamscape of barely-encoded longing McCarthy's The Stones of Venice has glints of wit as sharp as anything in her novels; of all the travelogues Morris has written, The World of Venice is by far the best. Venice herself may be too subtle for her chroniclers, but she is at least merciful enough to lend their failures the Carnival costume of successes.Somebody at fledgling publisher Pushkin Press must know this: their recent little boxed set (tellingly titled In Search of Venice) consists of six beautifully-designed booklets that pluck some glittering gems from the tidal LetterPalazzoJames slush. The box is the shape and weight of a Bach cantata set on CD, a textured brick in the hand, as solid a soil sample of a mirage as readers have seen in many a season.The collection's most recognizable name is Henry James, who visited Venice often from 1869 to 1915 and was the frequent guest of Isabella Stewart Gardner when she was renting the famous Palazzo Barbaro. The city spoke to the melancholy sentimentalist in James as well as to the stillborn painter, and all the color and subdued Venice-stirred passion readers know from “The Aspern Papers” and The Wings of the Dove (and his nonfiction masterpiece Italian Hours) are present in these long letters. James was always di passaggio, “on my way to other parts,” when he was in Venice, and even on his first visit, at the age of 25, he could already feel the place as being “strangely the Venice of dreams, more than of any appreciable reality.” In 1869, less than a third of the way through this little volume, he's already reveling in his sense of departure, writing to his brother William that he'd been “abroad all day bidding farewell to Venice”:

After which I took a gondola over to the Lido and took my last look at the Adriatic. It was a glorious afternoon and I wandered for nearly two hours by the side of the murmuring sea … I'm curious to know how this enchanted fortnight will strike me, in memory ten years hence …

Something by Henry James may feel inevitable in a collection like this one, but the presence of 19th-century Viennese novelist Arthur Schnitzler is a genuine puzzle. Ilsa Barea's 1930 translation of his novella “Casanova's Homecoming” has been re-titled “Casanova's Return to Venice” and given the collection's prettiest cover (designed by Joohee Yoon), but the text itself is the usual Schnitzlerian mess of wooden dialogue, pointless melodramatics, and poorly-integrated sermonizing. The one thing connecting it to the other works included here is that same sense of longing that Venice so effortlessly inspires in all her visitors. Always that longing is shaped in the clay of some baser obsession, and for history's most legendary lover, now aged and brittle after a lifetime of exile and wandering, Venice is youth. And it's gone forever; in one of the novella's only truly powerful scenes, Casanova wakes from a terrifying dream of drowning (“far from Murano, far from Venice”) to find a young woman standing at the foot of his bed looking at him with undisguised horror:

What he read in Marcolina's countenance was not what he would a thousand times have read there; it was not thief, libertine, villain. He read only something which crushed him to earth more ignominiously than could any terms of abuse; he read the word which to him was the most dreadful of all words, since it passed a final judgment upon him – old man.

CasanovaReturnAnother, more understandable inclusion – the longest work in the box – was written by a very different old man: Paul Morand wrote his Venices at the age of eighty-eight. Morand was born in Paris in 1888 and served in the diplomatic corps in London, Rome, and Bucharest; he was a successful novelist, but for a long time infamy attached to his name because of his enthusiastic support for the Vichy government and his collaboration with the Nazis. Considering how loathsome the author was, the good folks at Pushkin Press take something of a risk in reprinting his writing – and readers benefit, since whatever else he was, Morand was a first-rate stylist and a memoirist of rare perception. His Venices, translated from the French by Euan Cameron, shimmers with mirthful malice, dishing out lancet-sharp sketches of the demi-monde through which Morand moved with such gliding ease. Cecil Beaton, Gabriele D'Annunzio, “Baron” Corvo, Henri de Regnier, Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob – all make their appearances in these pages, as the currents of the author's life take him all over the world but always back to Venice, Venice in all her seasons:

Venice in the Autumn, disinfected of tourists … her buildings decked in dust covers, cloaked in rain; it’s the least frivolous time. Venice in spring, when her paving stones start to sweat and the Campanile is reflected in the lake that forms in St. Mark's Square. Venice in winter, the time of the temperature rigida and the congelamento, when the fire-wardens watch out for fires in the tall chimneys, and the wolves come down from the Dolomites. As for Venice in the summertime …

The place is bound up with so much of Morand's life that it can't help but reflect his sometimes morose reflections. “A person's life frequently resembles those palazzi on the Grand Canal,” he observes, “where the lower floors were begun with an array of stones carved in the shapes of diamonds, and whose upper floors were hastily completed with dried mud.”Like Morand, Hungarian novelist and critic Antal Szerb also felt compelled to return to Venice over and over again, although mainly in his imagination. In Search of Venice includes a fascinating 15-page snippet called “Journey to Venice,” Szerb's reflections on Italy and Venice (translated especially for this collection by Len Rix, who comments that for Szerb, Venice was “both a destination and a state of mind”), clearly some roughing-out sketches for the author's great work Journey by Moonlight (also published in a sturdy, attractive edition by Pushkin Press, bless them). “Journey to Venice” is barely anything, a few paragraphs, a journal entry, and yet it conveys much of Szerb's wry intelligence and playful wit – and as with all the others here, his plastic desire, which Venice is placidly happy to accommodate:

Venice is the city of intimate closeness. The most human-scale of all cities. Here Western culture's Faustian rush to infinite expansion comes to a halt. Venice cannot “develop”. It cannot become any larger than it already is, because every square inch of the available dry land has long ago been crammed full. Nor is there much of this land. Wherever you set out from, the city can be traversed from one end to the other in half an hour, almost all of it on foot. Everything is to hand, and distant objects are brought close enough to touch. Great seafaring ships make their way between the streets, for here the wide ocean comes home. That is perhaps why Venice is more of a city than any other. It holds more. It is more of a home.

VenicesSzerb would never know such a home (indeed, he would meet a squalid, brutal end in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945, and we can hope his terrified thoughts strayed back during those last minutes to sunlight-dappled Venetian alleys on a calm summer day), nor would any of the intellectual expats and wanderers in this collection. There are no Italians, let alone Venetians, among these authors, although the two real treats here – Prague-born Petr Kral and Paris-born Regis Debray – share in full measure the mordant Venetian eloquence.Actually, it's rather puckish of Pushkin Press to include Debray's 1995 screed (translated from the French by John Howe) Against Venice at all. Incensed by elephantine tourists and out of control commercialization, Debray unloads on “the Venice industry” for 75 gloriously bad-tempered pages about “the town where the number of cliches per square metre surpasses the levels prevailing in comparable sites.” He turns a meanly assessing squint on the works he's found on that book-pile – and he has precious little sympathy for the scarcity of real choices facing his fellow authors:

Two registers are available to the honest individual (the range being somewhat narrower than people imagine): madrigal and epitaph. Which should he give up? Should he play the dry classicist or the wet romantic? Two respirations, two prosodies. Double or quits.

He also has an infallible nose for sniffing out fellow malcontents, the other writers who've insisted on seeing the city's muddier contradictions, which he evokes with not-so-gentle irony:

The lagoon doesn't just shelter us, it absolves us of our everyday nastiness. A lustral bath, a philistine's stoop of holy water, in which Celine (that miscreant) spotted a variant of redemptive love, defined as “the infinite brought within reach of poodles.”

Almost in point-by-point response comes Petr Kral's 1999 book Aimer Venise, here translated from the French by Christopher Moncrieff. Kral, a novelist and screenwriter in his native Czechoslovakia, very much writes Loving Venice in the madrigal register. On page after page, he seems content merely to stand and watch all the little games Venice plays with passing time:

This grey, shivery, flaky Venice, which with her lack of entertainment is so inevitably tedious for the average visitor, now charms us with her candour alone, the unaffected way in which she shows us the essential things in life – how ephemeral everything is, how essentially ancient, and how any memories they might have are doomed to disappear. And, long before it fades completely, even the bright blue sky which lights up the rooftops above us recedes as if behind a sheet of glass …

Loving VeniceThat mention of daylight playing on the piano nobile floors of Venetian palazzi strikes a familiar chord, one sounded all through Loving Venice, in which Kral writes, “Standing in the Piazza San Marco, we only have to glance up at the afternoon sky beyond the roofs, which a moment ago we thought was still quite glorious, to find its blue now discoloured into a dull, leaden tone – subtle yet immutable …”The contrast – brassy daylight striving against darker, more fallible palates – brings us back to that magnificent Venice painting in the East Gallery, the painting my young friend couldn't see, the painting the Frick doesn't deign to acknowledge it owns, the painting that so perfectly illustrates my own personal encounter with Venice, in which the close darkness was dispelled in one uplifting rush by a golden wash of new-day possibilities. That Venice, with its rain-silvered morning streets and its imperious old ladies (including the fiercest of them all, my landlady, who first hated me for being a foreigner who'd somehow mastered the weird, spitting Venetian dialect and then defended me to all the world when she saw me take in a shivering stray dog), with its impossibly narrow canaletti full of pleasant secrets, with its feathery dustings of winter frost so different from the four-day blizzards of the American plains, with its blessed quiet ruling the places long since colonized by noise in all other cities.I looked at that painting and saw everything I wanted it to be: a degree freshly won against acrimonious opposition, a squat, four-legged best friend who'd just celebrated an impossible 19th birthday with imperturbable health, a renewed correspondence with a crusty old sailor-friend, and, not incidentally, a gorgeous, bad-tempered young Italian woman and her equally gorgeous, sweet-tempered brother. I recognized the churches the painter picked out for his humble skyline; I saw the domes and spires, and I felt just as poor Antal Szerb felt: at home, however briefly, however di passaggio.And my young friend, looking confusedly at a blank wall? I don't worry about him – some Venice will be waiting for him too, if he goes in search of her.____Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.