May 20, 2010

LIFE in Venice.

If you have read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, you will remember how Gustav von Aschenbach is rowed to the Lido by a gondolier who refuses to take orders, mumbles about going his own way, and finally slinks off without being paid. The gondolier is, in Mann’s mythical underpinning, the boatman Charon who ferries the dead. In real life he is probably drunk. The Italians generally abhor drunkenness, but the Venetians accept it. This may have something to do with the damp. They are always downing un’ ombra, a shot, literally “a shadow.” If Mann had known about this, he could have strengthened his myth with “a boatman of shadows, conducting one soon to be a shade.” But, Mann did not know the Venetians, or Venice, very well.

Venetians may get drunk, but foreign visitors are supposed to be intoxicated only by the beauty of the water-city. Aschenbach does not see much of it. When he visits it from the Lido he is too busy following young Tadzio through the dark alleyways or listening to the man at Thomas Cook’s who tells him about the exotic provenance of the plague that is hitting Venice. To plop oneself down at the Lido is, in a sense, to reject Venice. The Lido is a boat ride away from San Marco, and it is all too much dry land. If you have a Tadzio as a son, it is best to keep him out of the lagoon for he will emerge from it encrusted with algae, which you have to remove with a scrubbing brush. There are no aristocratic Polish families there now, and no elegance.

But look at Carpaccio’s painting of the fifteenth-century Grand Canal with its jostling gondola traffic-the exquisite cut of the gondliers’ hose, silver, the scarlet of the lordly or mercantile passengers. There was a time when Venice found in its citizens or visitors a sumptuous counterpart to the palazzi.

What Thomas Mann and his creation Aschenbach were looking for was suedliche Schoenheit – southern beauty. He wanted sunny indolence of a kind that did not exist north of the Alps. But, Venice was not the right place to find it. The beauty of the place is breathtaking, but it is the product of hard and ingenious work. Only mad men or people motivated by great fear would take the trouble to string islands together, make artificial islets on piles of Elmwood, and render the composite city not merely habitable but gorgeous. Venice came out of a fear of Attila, who rode horses but could not build boats. Men of the mainland, which Attila ravaged, saw survival in an impossible creation, and there it still is-impossible, incredible, beautiful yet curiously practical, the great center of oriental trade.

The republic and the Doge are long gone, though the Doge’s palace remains, and the great wealth of a trading city has been reduced. But, there is none of the indolence that Mann wanted.

Up and down, over the bridges which span the Grand Canal, hurry working Venetians in suits and with briefcases. Murano produces glassware that is sold in Venetian shops; Burano makes decoy ducks for shooters. Venetian printing and leatherwork has replaced the heftier commerce of spice imports and the shipping of crusaders to the Holy Land. But the wide, deep Guidecca Canal still has great ships moving to and from Istanbul.

Tourists see the place as a museum, which it partly is, and Peggy Guggenheim has placed her name on the Grand Canal as a contributor to the shows of beauty. In Harry’s Bar, with its air conditioning and Franco-American cuisine, tourists seem to wish to escape from the watery reality. They cannot quite take in-the truth that the endless traffic of vaporetti and traghetti is in the service of daily trading and living, and not just a show for the camera-clickers.

What most visitors cannot comprehend is the total absence of the automobile. The boats proceed with never a collision, swift to moor and unmoor, giving summer travelers a cool whiff of water. In the little squares, the cats lie and sun themselves, at peace with the pigeons, which leave a souvenir on your shirt.

As you approach the railway station, you see cars parked on the Piazzale Roma, where the mainland begins, but they belong to an alien world that you are not sure you want to visit again. You become so used of the rock and roll of the deck, the suspended magic of the architecture with its roots in water, that you feel yourself to have become part of a placid stage piece with no real action.

Aschenbach on the Lido sees nothing of this, and you wonder why he had to go to Venice at all in order to feel the twinges of love and die.

Erica Young, who had been living on Guidecca in order to write her novel Serenissima, insisted that Venice is the only possible place for illicit love. Friends who live on the main Venetian island point to the multiple ways in and out at the back of houses, useful for slyly entering or swiftly escaping.

That Venice promotes sexuality seems to be true: It must have to do with the sense of weightlessness in the gondola that takes you to your fish dinner, Venus’s food.

Our hero, eats at the Hotel de Bains, where the cuisine is not Venetian. I, unlike him, have wandered from ristorante to trattoria, sampling gamberetti and civale, lumache and polipi and tartufi, datteri and cozze and cappelunghe as antipasti, moving to the main cource of calamaretti or seppioline or sogliolette or giant scampi or branzino or coda di rospo. Later comes the desire for a big hunk of meat, which means a fiorentine or T-bone steak, but that is served by foreign, or Tuscan, restaurants. If you want to eat Venice, you must swallow the Adriatic.

I look at the joy at the dawn or sunset of the skyline, Che be’a, one says in good Venetian, and then I, for one, feel hopelessly transported. Beautiful, yes, but what can I do with it? Art has taken it over, and I cannot describe it in words. Music? Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice gets it as well as anybody could, in the slow undulations in D major that greet Aschenbach’s first view of the city. Literature has never done well by it.

I have been to sessions of drinking Bellinis in those sumptuous gardens that extend endlessly behind this palazzo or that. I have met poets and painters. Yet there is Aschenbach, alone, wistfully searching for Tadzio, eating diseased strawberries, the man of the world reduced to a voyeur. If you are an artist, you should be involved in Venice’s art. For Venice is art in itself, and is greedy to be enclosed by more art.

At my age, I can die anywhere, including Venice. But Venice promotes life and enhances it. It cannot depress, for it is a reminder of what humanity can do when it really tries. It is wrong to feel relief once we are safely on dry land again and will remain so. To think the whole world is dry, with occasional irrelevancies of water, is a fallacy. Venice trumpets the idea that man is a water creature and can build more beauty on that cold element than he ever can on land.

Re-reading Death in Venice in the city that inspired it, I saw how little is has to do with the whole bundle of islands dedicated to living. It is a study of the Germanic soul longing for the South but really scared of it, for it releases the demons of pleasure and self-abandonment.

Did Shakespeare ever see it?

His Venetian plays do not seem to be something he got solely out of books. Venice is above all a Shakespearian city-gorgeous, drunk, expansive, shimmering, with a sharp eye on the money. Aschenbach is not Shakespeare; nor, for that matter, is Thomas Mann.

May 03, 2010

A Librophiliac’s Love Post-

A visit to the Bibliotheque Nationale, Rue de Richelieu, the “old site”, of course. You know what an incurable romantic I am.

Every city has its forbidden place. It might be anything from a presidential palace to a dangerous ghetto, but in Paris, and for me, it is a library. Unlike the Louvre or the Center Pompidou, the Bibliotheque Nationale is an ivory tower, a citadel apart. Set in the very heart of the city, between the Bourse and the Palais Royal. The B.N., as its habitues call it, remains one of the of the world treasure houses.

Apart from experts and connoisseurs, astonishingly few people have an inkling of the extent of its riches. To say that it contains one hundred thousand manuscripts (1986 numbers when I visited the first time), twelve million books, and fifteen million prints and drawings may give some notion of the scale of holdings, but nothing of their range and quality. The figures begin to become alive only once one knows that the stocks include the manuscripts of Beethoven’s Appasionata and Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, two of surviving forty or so Gutenberg Bibles, and works by the likes of the fifteenth-century Master of the Playing Cards, Albrecht Dürer, and Jaques Callot. It has paintings by Fragonard and Toulouse-Lautrec-to mention just two-and a collection of uniquely rare objects d’art. Go beyond these obvious “highlights” and you will find out that the collections encompass everything from ancient maps to botanical engravings, from daguerreotypes to Egyptian papyri of astonishing antiquity, from Celtic burial treasure to Greek coins, from comic books and greeting cards to century-old proclamations.

The timeless monuments of the creative mind lie stored side by side with centuries of ephemera. As one begins to perceive the extent of the library’s holdings, a sense of vertigo sets in. Alain Resnais, the nouvelle vague cineaste of Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima Mon Amour, once made a short documentary about the B.N. and called it The Memory of the World, and since the library burned at Alexandria, not other archive can so have deserved that lofty title.

Aside from the scholars, who gets a chance to see the B.N.’s treasures? For centuries, the answer has been “Next to nobody.” Certain masterpieces are occasionally shown in temporary exhibitions, but such events have traditionally been mounted without fanfare. Generally speaking, only a handful of the B.N.’s holdings ever see the light unless they have been requested by specialists engaged in some proven form of research. The majority of the riches remain the preserve of an exceptionally well informed or influential few. Why so elitist a situation should still obtain in these days of mass-marketed haute culture becomes clear as one penetrates the labyrinthine ways of this ancient and complex monument.

The library origins are royal, going back to 1367 or 1368, when Charles V put together a collection of manuscripts in a tower in the old Louvre Palace; but the main nucleus of the future B.N. can be traced to an iron- and- leather- bound trunk of volumes bequeathed in 1483 by Louis XI, who had his ambassadors seek out Greek and Oriental manuscripts.

For that slender treasure, known as the Bibliotheque Royale, to grow into twenty million volumes, two major events had to take place. One was the institution, in 1537, of the depot legal, an act that obliged (and still obliges) all printers and publishers in France to donate a copy of everything they produce to the Bibliotheque. The other was the Revolution of 1789, when many of the rich contents of abbeys and aristocratic houses wound up at the B.N., whose collection of books alone more than doubled as a result.

Even so major changes have taken place since last I visited; the B.N. will always be less accessible to the public than the international museums with which it ranks. There are very practical reasons for this: even with optimal climate control and lighting, its treasures are too fragile for everyday display. You can have a million people walk by the Mona Lisa, properly protected no harm will come to her. However, you cannot let a million people finger a manuscript, no matter how careful they are. It would not survive.

Still, hardy scholars are drawn here like moth to the intellectual flame. In the fast book-lined space, with its soaring gilded arches the air seems to crackle with the united effort of straining minds. Down dark corridors and up spiral staircases, as in some exalted scholarly Dungeons and Dragons, are the libraries specialized departments. The least expected aspect of the B.N. is the fabulous rich Cabinet des Medailles, which houses coins, medals, and objects d’art.

Through endless corridors lined with unimaginable riches, you arrive in a brightly lighted world of technological prowess. State-of-the-art conservation equipment bathes damaged scraps of manuscripts and magically pulls them back into page form. But, the B.N. is not a traditional institution for nothing. Side by side with the modern machinery are tools and materials that have been used for centuries. Just to give you an idea of the of the work involved; to restore a twelfth-century Arab manuscript took 1,200 hours, no dawdling. The manuscript of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables was a little easier-only 900 hours.

The things you will find at this library have a personal resonance for the French people. To them the Bibliotheque Nationale is not a silo for books, but the memory of a nation.

Or, indeed, as one or two others have said, of the world.