Impressions: The City of Falling Angels – John Berendt

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I am currently reading John Berendt’s – The City of Falling Angels. The author is most celebrated for his book set in the Savannah –Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The book was much celebrated and even became a movie starring Kevin Spacey. I haven’t read this book nor have I seen the movie. Somehow I am never tempted to pick up ‘much celebrated’ works. But I was curious enough to pick up his second book set in Venice. I had read a complimentary review or two and while browsing through the local Border’s bookstore I decided to pick it up and glance through it.

The first few pages had me hooked, the opening dialog between Count Marcello and the author when they talk about the importance of bridges to Venetians and how they view a bridge as a transition and not necessarily a hurdle as do most people. The discussion leads to the transitional elements in Venetian life, constant shifting, moving, changing, even the sunlight taking a detour into people’s homes by first hitting the waters below and then getting reflected back into the windows. I had to read on.

I am glad I did. I am only a little more than halfway through the book and it has already proven to be as memorable as an actual trip to Venice might be. I have been spending many hours doing various searches on The Gran Teatro La Fenice, a Venetian splendor that keeps rising from the ashes like the phoenix. The book is set in 1998 when the last opera house fire happened.

I would like to write a review of the book once I’ve finished reading it but for now I want to talk about some of the things that have grabbed a hold of my imagination:

1. American expatriates in Venice: Notably Daniel and Ariana Curtis who rejected Boston in favor of Venice and never came back. The legends that surround Daniel Curtis’ departure from Boston are even more intriguing in that he supposedly twisted a judges nose and got sent to prison for a couple of months on assault charges. The author further explains the circumstances that may have contributed to Daniel Curtis’ move to Venice. For a long time before the unfortunate event that resulted in the assault on a judge Curtis had been mourning the decline in civility in America. He was noticing an erosion of values and had mentioned his concerns in a letter to his sister. The incident that proved to be the last straw for him was in a commuter train where the judge in question boarded the train and proceeded to pile his numerous packages on and around Curtis’ limited leg space. Curtis politely requested their removal. The judge reluctantly complied but just before disembarking got up and said, “You are no gentleman Daniel Curtis”. This appears to have been the limit of his patience and he twisted the judge’s nose in anger.

Upon his release from prison he eventually decided to leave America for good. Four generations of Curtis have been prominent Venetians since then. Among them artist Ralph Wormeley Curtis, a painter who studied his craft under John Singer Sargent.

Daniel and Ariana Curtis at first rented and finally owned and restored the famed Palazzo Barbaro.

The idea of American expatriates really intrigues me. The whole world wants to emigrate to American and yet, historically, there have been prominent Americans who spent almost all their lives out of America – Ezra Pound, his mistress Olga Rudge, Henry James, Gertrude Stein. Perhaps their muses could only flourish away from America. Do their future generations feel American or Venetian? Does their English take on a European accent? Or do they forget it entirely, just like third or fourth generation Germans, Italians or Indians more often than not lose all traces of their ancestry?

2. The other thing that is of interest is the existence of literary and artistic circles in the late 19th century – the Palazzo Barbaro Circle included Henry James, John Sargent, Robert Browning,Isabella Stewart Gardner, Ezra Pound and so many others. They must have felt a synergy of sorts in getting together so often and in such pleasant environs. Their writings, poetry and paintings always reflect that certain something. Such circles were prominent in London, Paris, New York. The late 19th century must have been a literary renaissance of sorts.

3. Ezra Pound’s life with Olga Rudge is also discussed in detail. Olga was the one love of his life even as he was married to Dorothy Shakespear. The interesting thing here is that there were many occasions when Pound, his wife and Olga had to share the same quarters even though the two women couldn’t stand the sight of each other. They both bore him children and continued living a life where they were so inextricably although antagonistically intertwined with each other. Although Olga was the one who stood by him during his incarceration at the facility for the criminally insane after he was exempt from being tried as a fascist by reason of insanity. Later on he refused to speak and withdrew into a shell, but Olga was always there.

There are several glimpses into a pre-Napoleonic Venice and the ensuing rape and pillage of the Venice that used to be, the masquerades, the general make up of a Venetian persona, a glimpse into a culture I wouldn’t ordinarily have been exposed to.

More later.

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