This review appears in the February 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to the monthly print edition, click here.p> em> The City of Falling Angels br> by John Berendt br> (The Penguin Press, 415 pages, $25.95) /em> /p>
The writer who takes on Venice is either brave or foolhardy. The beauteous Serenissma, Bride of the Adriatic, has been praised, palpated, dissected, and described so often in print that, as Henry James, who wrote so perceptively about it, lamented, “There is nothing left to discover or describe, and originality of attitude is utterly impossible.”
More recently, Mary McCarthy came up against the same anxiety of influence. “Nothing can be said here (including this statement),” she admitted, before going on to write her excellent Venice Observed, “that has not been said before…. No stones are so trite as those of Venice.” Mere statistics bear this out. Amazon lists nearly 61,000 works on it, Google over 58 million references.
That aside, this unique watery city is daunting in its complex history, baffling topography, and quirky, querulous citizens. Every time I have done reporting there I have spent a good part of the day lost in its maze of passages, canals, bridges, and dead ends, anxious to be on time for an interview and mystified by the inevitable reply to my request for directions: Sempre diretto, Venetians always say, “Straight ahead.”
Even the obsessively well-organized Napoleon was unable to figure out the place and its people after his conquest in 1796. As he began systematically plundering its treasures for Paris museums, he ordered a study of the local mores in matters of politics, tastes, and manners. He never got it, because his perplexed experts finally threw up their hands. Still today we wonder whether Venice is Thomas Mann’s “fair frailty that fawned and that betrayed, half fairy tale, half snare,” or Evelyn Waugh’s “greatest surviving work of art in the world.” You pays your money and you takes your choice.
So why did John Berendt, he of the fancy blind title, decide to perpetrate still another book about Venice? No mystery there. As a journeyman writer between engagements, he was looking for a subject. Coming off the surprise success of his 1994 Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a piece of contrived Southern Gothic that somehow spent four years on best-seller lists and spawned a movie, he cast about for a follow-up. Berendt, a former editor of New York magazine and writer for Esquire, looked for something resembling the Midnight story of an exotic locale — in that case, Savannah — with its lurid cast of a black drag queen, voodoo priestess, sexually deviant antiques dealer and his murdered playmate, and other assorted oddballs.
That book was a good example of that stock genre, New York Writer Discovers America. Reading his statement, “I suspected that in Savannah I had stumbled on a rare vestige of the Old South,” you knew this slicker had a lot to learn about the cross-Hudson hinterland. And when he said, “The story of blacks in Savannah was, of course, a very different one from that of whites,” you felt like welcoming him to the U. S. of A., a place full of people who talk funny and have never even eaten a pastrami on rye with a kosher pickle. “I mean,” you could almost hear him telling his editor back in Manhattan, “these guys are really characters.”
What to do for an encore? Berendt has told interviewers he thought he had his subject when he learned of two escapees from a leper colony. But, dammit, one of them died before he could do an interview. So, aiming for another best-seller, he strictly applied the Midnight formula: Venice would replace Savannah, palazzos stand in for antebellum homes, and counts and marchesas substitute for old-line Southern families. The 1996 burning of the La Fenice opera house and subsequent investigation and trial would replace Savannah’s murder trial. And as for colorful characters!
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?