Category Archives: Venice

I’m telling you stories. Trust me.

The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson

The Passion is not history, except in so much as all our lives are history. The Passion is not romance, except in so much as all our lives are marked by the men and women with whom we fell in love . . .

After reading a book I hadn’t loved and a book I positively hated I needed my next to be something I could rely on. Something that I knew would be good.

Back in March I read my first Jeanette Winterson – Oranges are not the Only Fruit. I loved it. I thought it superbly written, beautifully observed, compassionate and generally just a little bit of a triumph. All that and it was funny too. What better to turn to then than another Winterson?

ThePassion

The Passion is set against the backdrop of Napoleon’s grand campaigns in Europe and Russia, but it would be misleading to call it a historical novel (in fact Winterson specifically disavows that it’s a historical novel, not that her opinion on the point proves anything either way). What’s interesting about Napoleon here isn’t that he conquered much of Europe, created a legal system still used to this day and lost an army in Russia; what’s interesting is the passion he inspired in others that allowed him to do all those things.

Henri is a soldier in Napoleon’s army. He works in Napoleon’s kitchens, and serves him his chickens. Napoleon devours chickens, eating almost nothing else (was that true? I have no idea, I wouldn’t be surprised if Winterson has no idea, it doesn’t matter). The first part of the novel tells Henri’s story. Henri loves. He loves Napoleon, so much so that he leaves home and family and risks his life for him. Later he loves a woman, Villanelle, but she does not love him.

It’s hard to remember that this day will never come again. That the time is now and the place is here and that there are no second chances at a single moment. During the days that Bonaparte stayed in Boulogne there was a feeling of urgency and privilege. He woke before us and slept long after us, going through every detail of our training and rallying us personally. He stretched his hand towards the Channel and made England sound as though she already belonged to us. To each of us. That was his gift. He became the focus of our lives.

The second part of the novel tells Villanelle’s story. She too loves. She loves another woman, but that woman is married and will not leave her husband. Villanelle also loves her city, Venice. Villanelle’s Venice isn’t the Venice that a million tourists arrive in each day by train or cruise ship, chugging through the same few streets to take their pictures of Piazza San Marco before complaining about the cost of a coffee and the smell from the canals. Villanelle’s Venice is the one that brings all those tourists, the dream of Venice.

The reason by the way most of those tourists don’t find the Venice they’re looking for isn’t that it isn’t there (though strictly factually of course it isn’t), and isn’t because it’s not in them to find it. It’s the nature of the cruise experience, the day trip. My first time in Venice was a day trip. We came out of the station, walked crowded streets crammed with other tourists and Piazza San Marco was heaving and overpriced. I hated it.

When I eventually went back, years later, a different we stayed overnight. We didn’t plan to remain long. We had flexibility though (I had just left one job and had a few weeks before starting my next), and Venice in the evening was a revelation. Given time, we stepped off those few streets and found an entire city of canals and back alleys. The city emptied out of an evening, the day trippers and cruise ships gone, and became a different place. It’s a city for me built for twilight, perhaps fittingly since while it’ll probably outlive me I doubt it’ll do so for very long. We extended our stay, and have returned several times. I hope we shall again.

THERE IS A city surrounded by water with watery alleys that do for streets and roads and silted up back ways that only the rats can cross. Miss your way, which is easy to do, and you may find yourself staring at a hundred eyes guarding a filthy palace of sacks and bones. Find your way, which is easy to do, and you may meet an old woman in a doorway. She will tell your fortune, depending on your face. This is the city of mazes. You may set off from the same place to the same place every day and never go by the same route. If you do so, it will be by mistake. Your bloodhound nose will not serve you here. Your course in compass reading will fail you. Your confident instructions to passers-by will send them to squares they have never heard of, over canals not listed in the notes.

Of course none of that exists. Winterson herself has said that she hadn’t been to Venice when she wrote the book. It’s not a city where the boatmen have webbed feet and can walk on water (as Villanelle can, being a boatman’s daughter).

Winterson chose her dream-city wisely, because nobody goes to Venice for its shopping or its restaurants. It’s draw is something much less certain than that. It’s an atmosphere. It’s Henry James, Italo Calvino, Death in Venice, Casanova’s history of his life, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. In a way, it’s like Napoleon. It’s real, but the reality of it seems a small thing to explain the passion it inspires.

The first two sections of The Passion tell Henri and Villanelle’s individual stories. The third and fourth tell of how those stories join together and each become a part of the other. The two meet as Napoleon’s great doomed dream of capturing Moscow collides with the cold reality of the Russian winter. Winterson does not avoid the horror of war:

When our horses died of the cold we slit their bellies and slept with our feet inside the guts. One man’s horse froze around him; in the morning when he tried to take his feet out they were stuck, entombed in the brittle entrails. We couldn’t free him, we had to leave him. He wouldn’t stop screaming.

This is a story filled with the most extraordinary characters and images. Napoleon’s midget groom. A de-frocked priest turned soldier who if he closes one eye can see 20 miles with the other (“I asked him why he was a priest, and he said if you have to work for anybody an absentee boss is best.”). Villanelle’s stolen heart is kept by her lover in a jar. Henri is given a thread of gold frozen in an icicle that doesn’t melt even in the Venetian heat. This is not a literally minded book.

Running through all of it, like that golden thread embedded in its icicle, is the theme of risk. What really matters to you? What are you willing to risk? Life is risk. At home in Venice Villanelle works as a croupier. At various points she repeats her mantra, her philosophy: “You play, you win, you play, you lose. You play.”

In a casino of course you have a choice in that. You can choose not to play. You can choose not to risk. In life though the only way not to play is to die. As long as you’re here, you play, you win, you play, you lose. You play. The only choice you have is how much you’re willing to risk. What Henri and Villanelle have in common, with each other and with Napoleon, is that they would choose to play even if there was a choice and that they’re willing to gamble what they most value.

At risk of sounding hackneyed, the point being made here is that the act of love is itself a gamble. You place your life in the hands of another person, and sometimes that works out and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes they don’t love you back. Sometimes they betray you. Sometimes they hurt you terribly, in ways only they know how since only they know you so well. Most of us, me included, think the risks are worth the throw of the dice. It is though, however you cut it, a hell of a wager.

The Passion takes place against a backdrop of war. However terrible that war is, and however much it transforms the characters lives (and ends several of them), it is ultimately still just a backdrop. The war defines their times, but it does not define the characters themselves.What makes their lives is their passions. Their friendships. Their loves. What they choose to risk.

I’ll end on a final quote, not because it particularly illustrates anything I wanted to say but simply because I liked it too much to leave it out and what’s the point of having my own blog if I can’t use quotes that don’t otherwise fit? It is, of course, about Venice.

I got lost from the first. Where Bonaparte goes, straight roads follow, buildings are rationalised, street signs may change to celebrate a battle but they are always clearly marked. Here, if they bother with street signs at all, they are happy to use the same ones over again. Not even Bonaparte could rationalise Venice. This is a city of madmen. Everywhere, I found a church and sometimes it seemed I found the same square but with different churches.

Jeanette Winterson’s own page on The Passion is here. I’m not aware of any blogosphere reviews, but if you have reviewed it I’d love to read your thoughts so please let me know in the comments.

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Filed under Venice, Winterson, Jeanette

toasting the Chinese at the Florian

Against Venice, by Regis Debray

I mentioned in my recent post on Paul Morand’s Venices that I was reading Regis Debray’s 2002 book Against Venice (published by Pushkin Press, with an afterword by the author and translated by John Howe). In fact, I only bought Venices because I was already planning to buy the Debray and knew it referenced the Morand.

Well, I enjoyed the Morand, even though I hadn’t really expected to and was seeing it almost as homework before the Debray. Naturally then, I didn’t enjoy the Debray as much as I hoped. That’s not because it’s bad, it’s not – it’s very well written – perhaps it’s just because I agreed more with Debray than I did with Morand.

So what is it exactly? Well, it’s about 70 pages of argument against Venice, or more to the point against the idea of Venice and the way it’s held up as a cultural touchstone. It’s a mixture of insight, exaggeration, wit, sly dig, rant and cri de couer. It’s also (and this is part of its charm) exasperating, unreasonable, unfair, sometimes quite irritating, and by the end unexpectedly serious. If you can, it’s best read in one sitting, it’s just more enjoyable when Debray is given space to get up a decent head of steam. There’s a definite feeling at times that he knows he’s being absurd, but he’s not going to let that stop him.

Debray knows his territory, he knows the city but more importantly he knows its tourists, he understands the lure of the place. At times, he’s very funny and cruelly accurate. If you’ve ever been to Venice you’ll probably recognise this:

“You’ll see,” murmurs the tourist in his trattoria, furtively lowering his voice, “on this route, you won’t see a single other tourist.”

Like most people who love Venice, I want to see the city, I just don’t especially want to see other people seeing the city. There’s an allure to the idea of finding the real Venice, but of course the tourist Venice is the real Venice.

Debray contrasts Venice with Naples, one of my favourite cities on Earth. I studied Italian in Naples, staying in the Spaccanapoli, and I love the place. I love its noise, its chaos, its grandeur so differently faded to that of Venice. Debray loves it too, and he uses it as an effective counterexample, the living versus the preserved, the populist versus the elite:

THE ISLAND CITY with its little finger genteelly stuck out, used as a drawing room by the whole planet, is a place where “people of quality” display common behaviour. While in the volcano town, shrieking with vulgarity, the common people portray an air of distinction.
This does not prevent the lagoon from being ten times more frequented by tourists than Posilippo. The ones who do cross Naples scuttle through with lowered eyes, petrified of scippo, of pickpockets and bag-snatchers, heading as quickly as possible for that direst of school impositions, Pompeii. The popular town repels the populace, the snobbish one attracts it. An overwhelming majority for the adulterated and dressed-up. As usual.

Every section opens with a few words in block capitals by the way, there’s no significance to it (no obvious one, anyway).

There’s a subtlety to Debray’s argument at times, an underlying thread which only really becomes apparent as you go on. It’s the issue of whether it’s a good thing to be a monument, a cultural treasure, whether perhaps it might not be better to be less refined but more alive:

It is possible to weep hot and bitter tears in Naples, city of extravagance, for the same reasons that hearty laughter is normal there; people do not sob in Venice, city of autumn, city of evening, for the same reason that Venetian gaiety must content itself with a thin smile. It is a polite place, where people get depressed but stop short of suicide.

Another element of Debray’s argument (there are several) is the way Venice affects artists. Debray isn’t at all hostile to Morand it turns out, he tweaks his nose a bit but of the four or so references to him most are pretty positive. What he hates is Morand-lite, people who write of the city in the most romantic terms, but who lack Morand’s sheer skill and so just become banal:

For one quicksilver Morand, for one mandolin pizzicato from Fauré, how many boating songs are there, how many serenades and other pieces of gondolier kitsch (a word, incidentally, that seems to come from the wrong country?).

Debray also mocks the heirarchies of tourism. The cultured wander about clutching their abridged copies of Ruskin’s Stones of Venice, looking down on backpackers, people on cruises and those doing eight cities in eight days (or whatever):

The sight of two broke, bare chested trippers with “structuralist beards”, gulping grappa out of the bottle, was enough to send Paul Morand into a deep depression described in the closing passage of his post-1968 work Venises.

Actually, it didn’t. What Morand objected to was someone drinking his grappa and not saying thanks, it was the lack of gratitude that depressed him, not the appearance or the gulping.

For Debray, it’s almost impossible now to engage with Venice. The whole place has been so written about, there are so many novels and guidebooks and histories, so many films too and photographs and received stories, that we struggle to see it at all. We see it through a prism of others’ experiences, we know so much before we arrive we risk inhabiting what others said about it, not what we see ourselves.

We ourselves are afloat on a raft of references, every glimpse of the landscape releasing, like a conditioned reflex, this or that association with some paragraph, picture or sequence.

Still, he understands its charm, the pleasure of walking through its streets devoid of cars, its history and architecture, its theatricality. He loves the place, he despairs of convincing anyone, even himself, of his argument. After all, it’s Venice isn’t it? It’s an easy place to love.

For Debray though, ulimately, there is a tragedy to Venice and it is that it is no longer a living city. He contrasts religion in Naples, fervent, impassioned, almost pagan, with its absence in Venice where the churches are places for mass tourism and the paintings and statues objects of cultural appreciation rather than devotion. He is particularly scathing about the practice of having coin-activated lights which briefly illuminate some particularly highly regarded artwork for the paying public:

In the mini-Babylon of the cultured, a glance at the angels may no longer bring salvation, but that does not prevent it from being lucrative.

As Against Venice draws to its close, the real issue emerges. Could Venice be a mirror that shows us Europe’s future? As he says

I seem to remember that in the period of its greatness – the iron-willed “triumphant city” was not loved. When it still had military strength and rights of veto, in the Lepanto era, nobody praised its mysterious grace or its cats slumbering between embroidered cushions. Its power – nuclear, industrious, restless and confrontational – was feared, not contemplated. “Sweet and magical clarity” is a thin recompense for inventing a world.

If Venice can become a theme park, why not Paris? Why not London? Madrid? Arguably, much of Britain has already gone down that route, a service economy serving more vigorous civilisations elsewhere. Venice once ruled, it was a power, now other powers send their tourists to visit it and praise its charms and there are hardly any Venetians left.

Debray is not Morand, I felt here no racism, no resentment of other cultures rising to their own day in the sun. That said, he’s not ready for Europe’s day to be over just yet, and for him Venice is essentially a museum while Naples is anything but. Venice is beautiful, yes, but Naples is the better place to live.

Against Venice makes a perfect companion with Venices. It’s definitely enjoyable to read them in order as I did, Venices then Against Venice. Debray is serious and joking at the same time, no small trick, and there’s a brio to it all which is hard not to admire. There’s a scene in the Patrice Leconte film Ridicule, the Abbé de Vilecourt is making a speech proving the existence of God before the court of Versailles, entertaining the King with the fluency of his logic and rhetoric (before boasting that he could prove the opposite just as easily). Debray reminds me of the Abbé in that part of that scene, at the height of his powers and in full enjoyment of them.

Before I go, it’s worth noting that Nicholas Lezard at the Guardian did a combined review of Venices and Against Venice here. It was his review that partly helped put me on to these works, and it’s well worth reading.

Against Venice

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Filed under Debray, Regis, French, Italy, Morand, Paul, Naples, Venice

I threw myself upon Italy as if on the body of a woman

Venices, by Paul Morand

I recently purchased Against Venice, by Rene Debray (I’m reading it at the moment in fact). It’s a sort of diatribe against Venice, and more to the point against those who romanticise it. I love Venice, and I trust Pushkin Press and they published the Debray, how could I resist?

Before I bought the Debray, I had a look online for reviews, and the only one I found mentioned it was written in part in response to Venices, by Paul Morand. I’ll come back to that when I write up Against Venice, but the temptation of reading an argument and counter-argument was too much for me, and I bought Venices too.

Venices is also published by Pushkin Press, with an excellent translation by Euan Cameron. It was written back in 1971, when Morand was in his eighties, and it’s a rather melancholy work as a result. It’s a contemplation of his life, of the things he has seen and the people he knew – all of it tied to his recollections and experiences of Venice over the years. Venices then is not really about Venice, or at least is only in part about Venice. Rather, like Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Wind, Sand and Stars it’s a sort of meditation. As Morand says:

Venice has not been my entire life, but she constitutes a few fragments of it that are otherwise disconnected; her tide marks fade away, mine do not.

The difficulty with this sort of work is it’s only as enjoyable, as interesting, as it’s well written (not true of all books, as Stephen King will attest). Debray, in his book, refers to Morand as “quicksilver”, which isn’t far off. Morand is often witty, clever, sometimes even rather beautiful if always a little detached. However, there are times when the prose seemed to me simply overwrought, when I grew tired of his constant namedropping, when he simply annoyed me. In the end, I enjoyed it, but not without reservations. Here’s the opening two paragraphs:

All of our lives are letters posted anonymously; my own bears three postmarks: Paris, London and Venice; fate, often unwittingly, though certainly not thoughtlessly, has decreed that I should have settled in these places.

Within her restricted space, Venice, situated as she is in the middle of nowhere, between the foetal waters and those of the Styx, encapsulates my journey on earth.

That second paragraph is, for me, a précis of what can be infuriating about this kind of work. In what possible sense is Venice situated next to the waters of the Styx? Clearly, Morand is being poetic, but even so does this actually make any sort of sense? I’m not personally persuaded it does, and it’s not the only passage of that nature by any means.

Coupled with that, Morand uses on two separate occasions the repugnant phrase “the white race”, regretting the lack of a peace treaty between France and Germany in 1911 and later complaining of the loss of what he regards as the old pride that helped Europe fight the Turks. His view is that Europe is declining, that he is passing into old age but that the civilisation of which he formed part has preceded him, perhaps is already the grave. It is an ugly element, and given Morand’s service in the Vichy regime (the period following June 1939 until 1950 is noticeably absent from a text that otherwise largely proceeds in chronological order, year by year) and an apparent sympathy for fascism it makes him in some ways a rather uncomfortable travelling companion.

So, I’ve accused Morand of namedropping, occasional pretension, of racism and fascist sympathies, I should add that he’s also a huge snob and a man who while claiming his family not to be exceptional makes sure to include sufficient anecdotes to make it plain quite how refined, wealthy and connected they in fact were:

… occasionally, in the evening, I would hear [my father] say to my mother: “I’m going to the opera, in Mme Greffulhe’s box; put some money (he never counted in louis d’or, that was mundane) in my waistcoat pocket, in case she asks me to take her to supper at Paillard’s.”

On top of all that, he rarely fails to illustrate how brilliant he himself is, noting that as a child he learned nothing from school and scorned the classic authors, instead discovering for himself Shakespeare, Schopenhauer, Zola, Maupassant, Huysmans (and mentioning, by the by, that his father translated Hamlet for Sarah Bernhardt).

And yet, and yet. He has insight. He points out how much his schools did not attempt to teach, how vast some of the gaps they left were. Like him, I was not taught in school about Byzantium (I don’t think it was ever mentioned), or of China and the far east, I wasn’t taught economic geography or the history of art, my education like his and like that of most of us was patchwork and many of the gaps are essentially ideological. To include in an education a history of the Kings and Queens of England, but to leave out the history of the gold standard, is to make a political choice. Suddenly, Morand has me thinking.

As the book continues, it improves. Once Morand has established his background, he reaches the 1920s and his days with some of the brightest (and most fashionable) minds of Europe. He is not quite gossipy, but he is proud of what he sees as a flowering of greatness and is always happy to share details of who he spent those days with. His descriptions are well written, illuminating, often again exasperating (did Morand know nobody in trade? Of course not, he knew artists, actors, thinkers, the consequenceless rich), but his tone kept me reading. Morand sees himself as a forerunner of modern (1971) youth, an avant-garde of the teenage entitlement that was to follow, he rather approves of the young of the age he now finds himself in, with their insistence on the importance of leisure and their desire to live according to its own terms. All he truly objects to is their age, which he envies, and their occasional lack of manners.

Morand is conscious of quite how much history he’s seen, how much he’s lived through and seen fade away. To pass time with this book is to pass time with an elderly man, one in full command of his faculties who has lived through remarkable events and wishes to tell you of them. Not all he has to say is palatable, or even interesting, but this was real and it is fascinating to hear of it and to share the perspective of someone who has outlived his world. It is that awareness that gives the book its elegaic tone, Morand’s world died with the second world war and he knows that, he knows it’s not coming back. Worse, his prejudices make his present bleaker than perhaps it truly was, Europe today continues and isn’t doing too badly, for Morand it was finished. The final chapter ends with a description of Morand selecting his tomb, viewing the site and speaking of where he “shall lie, after this long accident that has been my life.” It is not an ending written by a man who continues to have hope in the future.

Still, there is no sense Morand resents those who follow him. He simply sees this as our world now, not his, he is saddened by the loss of what was but he does not blame us for being what we are (in the main, anyway, there is the odd bout of irritability – he is distinctly ambivalent on the changing role of women for example).

Structurally, Venices is an unusual work. Each chapter is simply a date and some observations. Sometimes a whole chapter consists of just one paragraph, sometimes it runs on for pages, at times he just brings the past to life as here just after the war:

On the quaysides, French officers were sampling long virginia cigarettes that were perforated with straws; in the Red Cross lorries, wounded Senegalese soldiers sitting side by side with Neapolitans in their hospital gowns mingled with bersaglieri, shorn of most of their feathers, with Austria prisoners of war, Tyroleans wearing grey-blue uniforms, and with carabinieri who had exchanged their cocked hats for a helmet rather like Colleone’s; Russian prisoners who had been returned by the Austrians were sweeping the docks with brooms made from leaves of maize; on walls, menacing posters ordered deserters from the Caporetto to rejoin the 4th Corps or risk being “shot in the back”.

At others, he comments directly on how he sees the world, as it was or as it is now:

These Leicas, these Zeiss; do people no longer have eyes?

And then, sometimes, he writes simply and beautifully about the city he loves above all others, as here:

1970

An overcast October sky this morning; an opaline grey, the colour of old chandeliers, so fragile that they sell marabou feathers with which to dust them.

I was in Venice this weekend, and the sky was that colour. I looked up from the book, and it was there.

In an afterword, the art critic Olivier Berggruen describes Venices as leaving the reader with a sense of “melancholy, elegance and poise”. He’s right. What I would add is that on occasion Morand is also funny, generous, thoughtful and genuinely challenging. Yes, he’s an elderly racist and was a wartime collaborator, but he writes with unusual skill and much of what he says is worth hearing. I enjoyed this book, I often felt that I shouldn’t, but I did. I’m glad I read it.

I’ll be buying more Morand. I doubt I would have liked him, he was a bigot and a snob, and I doubt he particularly would have liked me, but for all that his book deserves its translation and its native acclaim and if you can separate the man from the work (peculiarly hard with a work of this nature, which is after all about the man) then it’s fair to say it’s a remarkable achievement. It’s beautiful, despite its many blemishes, and it is profoundly human. It’s just a shame that Morand lacks Saint-Exupery’s gift of seeing the humanity in everyone else, not just in one’s social equals.

Art does not make a man good, it is no guarantee of virtue in the artist, rather it is simply a good in itself. Venices is good art, even though Morand was not a good man.

Venices

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Filed under French, History, Italy, Morand, Paul, Venice