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Tom Chaney: Beware of Falling Angels

Of Writers and their Books, The City of Falling Angels is a John Berendt novel set in Venice, Italy. This review first appeared 21 October 2007
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Tom Chaney: Playing for Pizza

By Tom Chaney

Sign in Venice outside Santa Maria della Salute Church
before restoration of its marble ornaments

John Berendt opens his book about Venice with an account of a conversation with Count Girolamo Marcello as they stroll from the deep shade of Calle della Mandola into the open sunlight of Campo Manin.

Marcello observes, "Sunlight on a canal is reflected up through a window onto the ceiling, then from the ceiling onto a vase, and from the vase onto a glass, or a silver bowl. Which is the real sunlight? Which is the real reflection? ... Venetians never tell the truth. We mean precisely the opposite of what we say."

Much later in the story Marcello suggests that even this statement is not necessarily true.

Thus Berendt begins The City of Falling Angels, a tale from the city of Gothic palaces, gondolas, domed churches, and shimmering light reflected from canals that are little better than open sewers skirting bright plazas populated by uncountable pigeons whose excrement creates glacial deposits in dimly lit passageways as well as falling angels.

Berendt arrives in Venice to begin his research just four days after the devastating fire which destroyed the Gran Teatro La Fenice (pronounced feh NEE cheh). That fire and the decade-long rebuilding of the grand opera palace becomes the framework for the new book.

His story-telling ability lies, in part, in his ability to ferret out the back stories -- the events behind the main events.

One of the back stories to the burning Fenice is that of legendary glass blower, Archimede Seguso who refuses to leave his apartment just across a canal from the fire, and who stands silently watching the fire through the night. For the next decade Seguso works furiously at his forge creating more than one hundred glass images of the fire.

The story is also that of the split between the Seguso sons over the work of Archimede and the attempt of one brother to usurp the firm by having his father declared incompetent.

The Fenice story is also about rival fund-raising groups. The Save Venice foundation is meeting for a fund-raising banquet in New York when news of the fire arrives. The two leaders of the foundation battle each other for the decade it takes to rebuild the Fenice.

It is also the story of the search for the culprit in the origin of the fire. Was the conflagration caused by negligence of which there was plenty and to spare? Or was it the result of arson as subsequent trials seem to bear out?

Berendt mines the rich literary history of Venice from the days of Lord Byron to Browning, who died there, to Henry James who wrote Wings of a Dove in one of the many palaces, to Ezra Pound who spent his final years in a Venetian cottage with his lover Olga Rudge.

And of course it is the story of art and architecture. The paintings of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection recall that quixotic and flamboyant collector (now buried in her garden among her dogs) who gave a grand party on the theme of the Titanic despite the fact that her father died in that disaster. Berendt revels in the details of the city including the "polychrome churches [which] disappear behind the crust of oily grime."

He details even the theatre of the plaza when a seagull "dive-bombs a pigeon and conducts surgery with its beak, extracting the beast's frightened heart and gulping it down."

He also warns us at the start that "THIS IS A WORK OF NON-FICTION."

After criticism of his first book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, in which a disclaimer for fact is buried at the end, Berendt opts to sternly inform us that, when he writes about Venice, he is not a novelist.

To call him a novelist is to belie his self description and the nature of his prose. To call him a writer of non-fiction is to deny the nature of his vision and the quality of his language.

The earlier book, four years on the best seller lists (non-fiction), set in Savannah, Georgia, deals with bizarre murder, sodomy and transvestite drag queens.

Two years after the publication of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil Berendt flies to Venice in search of new material.

Savannah may have been given over to the tourists after Midnight -- known as the book that launched a thousand air-conditioned tour buses. Since its publication the transvestite performer Lady Chablis became the toast of the Elderhostel circuit.

Fortunately the same will not be true of Venice. Buses cannot navigate the canals.

"Deliver us from those who wish to do us good," say some Venetians who prefer the tourists from America come not to save, but to enjoy the city.

In fact, it might be noted that were there not a bridge from the city to the mainland, 'twould be Europe and the rest of the world that was cut off.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2012-10-21 06:19:01
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