THE CITY OF FALLING ANGELS
By John Berendt
Penguin Press. 414 pp. $25.95 Great cities are so massive and formidable that it's easy to forget how vulnerable and fragile they are, how susceptible to natural and man-made calamities, how delicately balanced between order and anarchy. Thus in this hour of national crisis and dismay, when the mercy killers and doomsayers are arguing for "a carefully planned deconstruction of New Orleans" -- as one "disaster risk management" specialist put it on this newspaper's op-ed page a few days ago -- we do well to look to Venice. Those of us who love New Orleans and are not ready or willing to let it go can take heart from the city in the sea. For 1,500 years the city of floods, Venice has survived them all. It also has survived wars, fires, plagues and far more calamities than any American city has undergone, yet there it is, still beautiful and indomitable.John Berendt arrived in Venice in February 1996, three days after a calamitous event in that venerable city's history -- the destruction by fire of the Gran Teatro La Fenice, the opera house -- and two years after the publication of his amazing bestseller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. That book was still on the bestseller list and remained there for two more years, an extraordinary phenomenon in American book publishing. Surely as he arrived in Venice, Berendt was hoping for more than an enjoyable stay in a city he loves; surely he was looking as well for something to write about, something that would not be a letdown for him or his readers after the incredible success of Midnight.
Not to keep you in suspense: He found it. The City of Falling Angels, Berendt's inquiry into people, places and aspects of Venice that tourists almost never see, doesn't have as strong a narrative line as Midnight, and no one in it is quite so hilariously and engagingly outre as Lady Chablis, the Savannah drag queen, but the story of the Fenice fire and its aftermath is exceptionally interesting, the cast of characters is suitably various and flamboyant, and Berendt's prose, now as then, is precise, evocative and witty.
The tale Berendt tells was deftly summarized by one of the many eccentrics he encountered during his ramblings through the city, Ludovico De Luigi, "Venice's leading artist provocateur," about five years after the fire. He said:
"Look what the story offers: a great fire, a cultural calamity, the spectacle of public officials blaming each other, an unseemly rush for the money to rebuild the theater, the satisfaction of a trial with guilty verdicts and jail sentences, the pride of the Fenice's rebirth and an unsolved mystery. Money secretly changing hands. Unnamed culprits hiding in the shadows. It stimulates the imagination, gives people the freedom to make up any scenario they want. What more could anyone ask?"
Well, actually, one more thing: Set the story in Venice, "a symbol of faded grandeur, a place of melancholy, nostalgia, romance, mystery and beauty," a city surpassingly unique, described by one resident -- in words that just as easily could be said of New Orleans -- as "contradictory, hypocritical, irresponsible, dangerous, dishonest, corrupt, unfair, and completely mad." Not to mention "a disorienting place," incredibly difficult to navigate "even for people who lived there and thought they knew it well," thanks to its "narrow, winding streets, together with the serpentine course of the Grand Canal and the absence of any landmarks visible from a distance." It is a place in which one loses oneself, literally and figuratively, and psychologically as well.
So Berendt decided to stay for a while. He knew enough Italian to "read the newspaper with ease, understand the spoken word passably, and speak well enough" to make himself understood. He found a small, canal-side apartment in the lovely residential neighborhood of Cannareggio, easily accessible to the center of the city on foot or by boat yet for some reason only infrequently invaded by tourists, and set about exploring "not Venice per se but people who live in Venice, which is not the same thing." In Venice, as previously in Savannah, he wanted to get as close as he could to the reality behind the picture postcards, the ordinary -- not to mention the most un-ordinary -- people who call the city home.
There are not all that many of them. "The population of Venice had been declining steadily for the past forty-five years -- from 174,000 in 1951 to 70,000 at the time of the Fenice fire," thanks largely to the "rising cost of living and the scarcity of jobs," or at least jobs not directly related to tourism, which is at once Venice's boon and its bane. On the one hand, tourism is the mighty engine that drives Venice's economy, which has recovered very nicely after a long period of decline following the end of the Venetian Republic in 1797. On the other hand, the city has capitulated "to tourism at the expense of its livability." Having spent more than a week there in November 2004, I can attest to the rude mobs that jam the narrow streets, to the ludicrous pigeon-feeding frenzy in St. Mark's Square, to the endless rows of shops peddling cheesy masks and other overpriced junk, to mediocre food, also overpriced, and to the world's most expensive (and worst) martini, at the stupendously overrated Harry's Bar.
Yet my wife and I were there in November, well past the heaviest tourist glut of summer. One can only shudder at what it must be like in July and August, the invasion of tourists compounded by heat and humidity sucking dank, fetid fumes off the canals. Small wonder that Berendt decided to go there in midwinter, "without the obscuring overlay of other tourists," a time when "I would have a clear view of Venice as a functioning city" but also a time that was, thanks to the fire, "an extraordinary moment," one that provided this gifted writer what he was looking for: a subject.
No, Venice didn't give Berendt what he had found in Savannah: "a plot involving sodomy, murder and theft," but it gave him more than enough. The gutting of the Fenice, "arguably the most beautiful opera house in the world, and one of the most significant," was "an especially brutal loss for Venice" because it "had been one of the few cultural attractions that had not been ceded to outsiders" and "Venetians always outnumbered tourists [there], so all Venetians felt a special affection for it, even those who had never set foot inside the place."
At the time of the fire, the Fenice was closed for extensive renovation, much of it underwritten by wealthy American members of Save Venice, "the American non-profit organization devoted to raising money for restoring Venetian art and architecture," including the Fenice's "painted curtain, at a cost of $100,000." Immediately, and understandably, suspicion was directed at various contractors and subcontractors working on the building and at the Mafia, which automatically goes to the top of the list of suspects whenever anything goes wrong in Italy. Conspiracy theorists of various stripes came to the fore, while officials in the city's paralyzed bureaucracy began their slow, inconclusive inquiries.
Meantime other matters, some directly related to the fire and the investigations, some peripheral, attracted Berendt's attention: Archimede Seguso, an octogenarian glassmaker who saw the fire at close hand and spent the rest of his life making an exquisite "record of the fire in glass -- the flames, the sparks, the embers, and the smoke"; two of his sons, also glassmakers, who eventually went separate courses in "a dynastic rupture of sweeping proportion"; the aforementioned Ludovico De Luigi, who over the course of Berendt's stay had many things to say, some wise, some cynical, not least that the aftermath of the fire was "all about money, as usual"; Peter and Rose Lauritzen, he American and she British, adopted Venetians who helped ease Berendt's way into the unknown city; various wealthy Americans, none of them unduly attractive, who squabbled over policy and position within Save Venice and staged hissy fits that did none of them any credit; Philip and Jane Rylands, he British and she American, who had attached themselves to the heiress, art patron and voluptuary Peggy Guggenheim in the 1970s and eventually played highly questionable parts in the allocation of the estate of Ezra Pound, who had spent many happy years in Venice.
In other words, a cast of characters just as one would expect to find in a book by the author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. A tangled tale as well, for after the arrest of two young electricians who had been working on the restoration of the Fenice and had been in the neighborhood when the fire broke out, the city became consumed by gossip and speculation about who had set the fire, and how and why. It is not as dramatic a mystery as the one Berendt followed in Savannah, and there seems plenty of reason to believe that those eventually found guilty actually were not, but it provides enough of a story upon which to build this most entertaining, intelligent and engaging book.
It is that and more. It is also a book about the American passion for meddling in other people's affairs, for trying to set the world aright, for being Lord and Lady Bountiful. One prominent Venetian nailed it smack on the nose:
"I don't know why Americans can't come to Venice and just have a good time, instead of coming here and beating their breasts. You know what I mean? It's this thing of having to come here on a mission. Why must they come to Venice to save it? It's nice, of course, the money they give. But it doesn't have anything to do with generosity. It means they want to look important. And, really, it's just a drop in the ocean. They should come and have a good time. Period. Right? Walk around. See some paintings. Go to some restaurants, like they do in other cities. Americans don't go to Paris to save Paris, do they? Right? When you see a five-hundred-year-old Venetian building, it may be a bit shabby and possibly even in danger. But you can't describe it as 'decaying.' It has endured five hundred years! The 'decaying Venice' is all a big myth. That's what I mean about Save Venice. Forget it. Venice will save itself. Go save Paris!"
No. Go save New Orleans. *
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.