This review appears in the February 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to the monthly print edition, click here.
The City of Falling Angels
by John Berendt
(The Penguin Press, 415 pages, $25.95)
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!
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.