Friday, February 19, 2010

The City of Falling Angels

John Berendt

New York, The Penguin Press, 2005

Week 7 Non-Fiction

This book had been stacked on my “books to read” pile for a couple of years. Not sure why I hadn’t read it before. I love Venice and I loved Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which is John Berendt’s other book.

The City of Falling Angels has a bit of everything—history, mystery, travel writing, and gossip,—much like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Basically Berendt uses the same format with similar results. The mystery is not so tawdry and compelling; instead of a murder there is the arson burning of the opera house, Le Fenice. The cast of characters is just as colorful; there are artists, poets, glassblowers, Mafiosi, and various and sundry American expatriots.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book is the history of the artists, writers, and musicians who spent time in Venice, including Henry James, Ezra Pound, John Singer Sargent, and Robert Browning. More than once, I wished to return to Venice and look up the palaces and cottages where these people lived. I plan to read The Aspern Papers by Henry James this weekend. James also wrote Wings of the Dove in Venice, Ezra Pound lived there in a small cottage with his mistress, Olga Rudge, for all of his declining years, and Robert Browning died there of a broken heart.

Berendt tells the story of the decline and death of Ezra Pound and the way in which Olga Rudge was bilked out of his papers through the machinations of the couple who managed the Guggenheim museum in Venice. An additional poignant story concerns the beautiful Palazzi Barbaro and the American family that lived there for over 100 years before they were forced to sell it because of the cost of upkeep. Other interest characters include the premier glassblowing family, a suicidal poet, and the inventor of a best-selling rat poison.

Of lesser interest is the story of the infighting within an American non-profit called Save Venice. Berendt tries to help the reader understand the nature of the idle rich party-going expatriates who make Venice their second home. He succeeds in conveying the infighting but fails to help us identify with them. And surprisingly, the narrative regarding the burning of the opera house, upon which Berendt hangs his story, is anti-climatic and relatively uninteresting.

I found myself Googling photos of palaces, churches, and individuals as they appeared in the book. Berendt really helps the culture of Venice come alive for the reader. One of my favorite passages concerns the reconstruction of the Maliban Theatre. As construction began, workers dug up one floor only to discover another floor beneath, and then layer after layer of flooring going all the way back to the sixth century.

The sum of the book comes in a speech made to the Board of Directors of the Save Venice foundation by one of its Venetian members. “To be Venetian and to know how to live in Venice is an art. It is our way of living, so different from the rest of the world. Venice is built not only of stone but of a very thin web of words, spoken and remembered, of stories and legends, of eye-witness accounts and hearsay. To work and operate in Venice means first of all to understand its differences and its fragile equilibrium. In Venice we move delicately and in silence. And with great subtlety. We are a very Byzantine people, and that is certainly not so easy to understand.”

I think as I am writing this review that I liked this book better in retrospect than I did as I was reading it. Although it was not a compelling read, I learned a lot, and it definitely made me want to read some Henry James and watch the movie version of The Wings of the Dove and rewatch The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Below is an interview with John Berendt regarding the writing of this book. In it he discusses his writing form, which he calls Narrative Nonfiction or Literary Nonfiction. It’s an interesting part of the interview.

Here is the review of the book in the New York Times:

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