Sunday, October 09, 2005

Interview: John Berendt, Sinking into the Lifestyle of Venice

Sinking into the lifestyle of Venice

'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil' author John Berendt returns to print with a portrait of the world's most enigmatic island.

By Edward Nawotka

This article originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman

Sunday, October 9, 2005

It's been more than a decade since John Berendt's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" became a publishing phenomenon, spending an astounding 42 months on the best-seller lists. Berendt's follow-up, "The City of Falling Angels," exchanges Savannah for Venice, Italy, where he finds a cast of titled aristocrats, high society patrons and artists equal in eccentricity and intrigue to Jim Williams and Lady Chablis of "Midnight."

In 1996, Berendt was just three days into a visit to the city when a suspicious fire destroyed the Gran Teatro La Fenice opera house (where Verdi's "La Traviata" and "Rigoletto" debuted). Sensing a story, Berendt began a casual investigation, interviewing witnesses and other interested parties, from an elderly Murano glassblower who interpreted the fire in a series of vases, to a variety of wealthy American expats.

While the book does unravel the mystery of the fire, it is more of a travelogue than a true crime tale. The reward of reading it is in the way Berendt decodes dramatic episodes from day-to-day life along the canals of this ancient watery port city, from the annual ritual of the masked Carnevale to whose palazzo is most prestigious and why.

Berendt, whose book tour brings him to Austin on Wednesday, spoke with the American-Statesman by phone from his home in New York City.

Austin American-Statesman: You quote the writer Mary McCarthy in her book "Venice Observed" as saying of Venice that "Nothing can be said (including this statement) that has not been said before." Yet, you persisted in writing a book about the city. When did you realize that there was indeed a story there for you?

John Berendt: Venice is a magical city that I just loved. I'd been there a dozen times since 1977, and initially I went there looking for a book. ("Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil") had a very strong sense of place and I thought it would be worthwhile to do another book where the locale was strong. I had been living there a little less than half the time since the fire, but I didn't commit to writing a book until 2000.

Unlike your first book, which is driven by a true crime story, "City of Falling Angels" is much more a series of vignettes about various people, many of them eccentrics, whom you meet along the way. Was this deliberate or did you find that the story of the opera house was less dramatic than you initially hoped?

While the book is bracketed by the fire and the rebuilding of the opera, what I wanted to do was give a sense of what life was like in Venice. I found I was much more interested in what the natives and the expatriates were like, and less interested in issues like the high water or gondoliers.

Very soon after I got there, someone told me "Everybody in Venice is acting," which intrigued me. I do tend to gravitate toward eccentric people. In Venice, I found the same thing that I found in Savannah: people who regard their lives as works of art in progress. An eccentric is a person who is creating their own reality.

Is that why so many expats, writers in particular, live there? You mention Henry James, of course, Byron, and Ezra Pound, whose story you recount, but I'm reminded of many others, such as Joseph Brodsky (author of "Watermark"), Harold Brodkey (author of "Profane Friendship") and, recently, people like the mystery novelist Donna Leon (author of the Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries).

In general, Venetians are open to befriending foreigners and there are a lot who are integrated into Venetian society. There is an awful lot of doubletalk there. People tend to say whatever they feel like saying, and they tell stories even if they are not true. If you don't exaggerate, they will write you off as a bore. There is a great deal of imagination, pretense, playacting and role playing.

Whenever you're an American outside the U.S., you get a better sense of who you are in relation to other people in other countries. Maybe that's it. Being in Venice, I felt I was in a special place. It's very cut off from the outside world.

Was that what was meant by the poet Mario Stefani, who joked that "If Venice didn't have a bridge, Europe would be an island." Or is that more an indication of the pride Venetians take in their city, however at risk it is?

In a sense. Some people feel it is confining and claustrophobic, but Venice does have a constancy about it that is unusual. You really know that you are quite removed from the rest of the world.

One of the things that they say about Venice is that the history is right in front of you. The republic, which was the most powerful in the world at one point, lasted for 1,000 years and it has a spectacularly beautiful culture that is unique and has for the most part survived.

Another thing that Stefani said was that "Anyone who loves Venice is a true Venetian, even a tourist, but only if the tourist stays long enough to appreciate the city. If he stays only one day just to say he's been to Venice, no."

The ones they don't like are the ones that come in on the cruise ships. They don't go to restaurants, since they eat on their boats. They don't spend money. That's why they don't like them.

In restaurants, if you're noticed as a regular customer, they will give you a nice big discount.

That said, the old cliché is that the best way to see Venice for the first time is by water. Does that still hold true?

Yes. The best way to go into the city is across the lagoon in a boat. You can go in a water taxi or a motorboat. It's not cheap, it will cost 80 and 90 euros, and it takes 20 minutes. Or you can go in by mass transportation, but that takes 90 minutes. It's worth the splurge.

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