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.


Anonymous said...


Sylvia said...

dreaming Venice again, still, always?

L.A. expat said...

Well Venice is a magical and unique city. Also a photographer heaven. I have been there 4 times and i wish i could do it every year.

Anonymous said...

Never Forget-
Reason is, and ought only to be
the slave of the passions,
and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.
- David Hume

a writer said...

Writers tend to hold themselves apart from everyone. They are considered observers of and commentators on humanity. In order to describe and comment on the human condition, it seems necessary to hold oneself aloof. And so, there is this tension between participating fully in one’s own life and emotions as a regular person and standing back, isolated as the observer. I think Thomas Mann has much to say about this aspect of the writer’s life in Death in Venice.

Clive said...

In the dizzying euphoria after the last test, I managed to read your post, in between bouts of endless movie watching (including the mesmerizing Dirk Bogarde in Death in Venice), napping and otherwise avoiding anything to do with life. Now that I’ve come back from “the absent from life stage”, and finished re-reading Death in Venice, all I have left to say is…
Life is never what it seems, truth is always other.

living in venice and loving it said...

all the water and none of the sand. i will be here until they move me out....

Charles said...

...and this is why "they" call us
'pragmatic romantics'. Love...

Anonymous said...

complimenti per il blog, è bellissimo :)

Anonymous said...

thanks, your blogs are on my PERMANENT RSS feed..

more venise said...


Anonymous said...

S'il ne manque point d'un certain ridicule à écrire un livre sur Venise, le risque en est compensé par le plaisir qu'il y a à le courir. C'est, du reste, le sentiment de plus d'un et je n'en veux pour preuve que les nombreux ouvrages qui ont Venise pour sujet ou pour cadre. On en formerait une bibliothèque à laquelle ont contribué la poésie et le roman aussi bien que l'histoire et l'érudition. Le puissant et magique attrait qu'a exercé la Ville incomparable diminue le péril d'y céder à son tour.

-Henri de Régnier