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The City of Falling Angels — the too-clever title comes from a sign once posted outside a crumbling Venetian church — serves up a titillating cast of weirdos ranging from the Rat Man, who matches his rat poison recipes to a country’s national eating habits (olive oil and pasta for Italian rats, pork fat for German ones), to an English lord with 4,000 neckties, a poor deluded soul who likes to dress up as a soldier, fireman, vaporetto conductor, and so on, and the scion of an old expatriate American family who transformed part of the Renaissance Palazzo Barbaro into the Earth liaison station of the Democratic Republic of the Planet Mars, among others. A more straightforward title (with apologies to Reader’s Digest) might have been My Most Unforgettable Venetian Characters.
TO BE SURE, along the way we do get an exhaustive, well-researched account of the tragic fire that destroyed the beautiful, historic Fenice, where several Verdi operas premiered. Here Berendt carefully details the malfeasance, negligence, and unlucky coincidence — a canal beside the opera house had been drained for dredging, depriving fireboats of access and firemen of its water — that allowed it to burn to the ground. He also follows the subsequent investigation and trial of those accused of either carelessness or, in the case of two of the accused, criminal arson. In these chapters he shows himself to be a good reporter who does his legwork.
The problem is this part of the book doesn’t get the prominence it deserves until page 233. Until then we get a tangled, disconnected tale of people and gossip, like the 42 eyeglazing pages devoted to the squabbling among the members of Save Venice, a well-meaning American fund-raising organization that finances preservation and restoration of the city’s art and architecture. Throughout, the tone is bland and detached, a voice reminiscent of rambling articles in the old New Yorker under the laissez-faire editorship of Mr. Shawn.
Much of this is presented in the form of interminable reconstituted dialogue of the New Journalism school that quickly becomes both unconvincing and tedious. Mixed in are passages of purple, like the description of officials discussing the Fenice, who speak beneath a painted ceiling where “legions of tormented souls languished in Palma Giovane’s Cycles of Purgatory, in silent mockery of their every word.” Elsewhere, the city’s “sinister moods” are attributed to “the unfathomable mind of the East.” Oh, please.
And while there are enough references to Harry’s Bar, a vastly overrated eatery with prices to match, to ensure a lifetime of free lunching on its mediocre food, there is scant mention of the real problems facing Venice and its ordinary citizens. Little things like slowly sinking into the lagoon. Or the frequent acqua alta flooding and the novel, $3 billion project of tidal barriers to control it, or the pervasive problem of the destructive moto ondoso wave motion churned up by powerboats, undermining the foundations of canalside buildings. These are the things I found real Venetians, the ones who never go within a gondolier’s oar of Harry’s Bar, talking about the last time I was there.
Similarly, the book is sorely deficient in anything useful or interesting for travelers. Without being a guidebook, sans addresses, recommendations or telephone numbers, a graceful, literate portrait could have whetted the appetite for the city, rather than painting it as a decadent grotesquerie full of corruption, feuds, scandal, and eccentrics. When a friend packing for a stay in Venice asked me whether “that book you’re reviewing” was something he should take along, I had to say no.
Finally, one misses a sense of wonder at this most wonderful of cities: a personal, literate sense of place that Berendt, obviously a talented writer, could have given us if he hadn’t gone for calculated formula instead. Something, for example, resembling this passage from Jan Morris’s sonorous vintage classic, Venice: “It is a gnarled but gorgeous city… the whole scene seems to shimmer — with pinkness, with age, with self-satisfaction, with sadness, with delight.”
I know, comparisons are odorous. But when a writer is brave or foolhardy enough to take on Venice, he’s asking for it.
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?
H/T to National Review Online