Jan Morris, Venice

Cover of the Faber third rev. ed. of 'Venice', publ. 1993

Cover of the Faber third rev. ed. of ‘Venice’, publ. 1993

Jan Morris, Venice was first published in 1960 when she was James, but so timeless and largely unchanging is the fabric and spirit of Venice that the account isn’t particularly dated. On our visit there a week or so back, however, Mrs TD and I saw little of the animal and bird life she describes – apart from the ubiquitous pigeons and seagulls (noisy in the mornings, like sobbing babies). I did catch a glimpse of early swifts darting and screeching overhead. And a community of surprisingly well-nourished feral cats. An old lady was feeding them from a packet of biscuits. They lived in a peaceful central courtyard of the Ospedale San Giovanni e Paolo (San Zanipolo to the locals) – a magnificent Renaissance cloistered complex, including an art gallery, that still functions as a hospital, with its ER access a canalside quay for water ambulances!

Plaque outside Brodsky's house

Plaque outside a house where Joseph Brodsky stayed, near the Zattere. Meant to include it in yesterday’s post. He was buried in San Michele. Because he was a Jew, he wasn’t buried too close to Ezra Pound’s grave.

Morris describes the strutting equestrian statue of condottiere Colleoni in the square outside as ‘incomparable’. This Venetian notable died in 1484, leaving his entire fortune of ‘nearly half a million ducats to the state (which badly needed it) on condition that a statue was erected to him’ on that site. It’s that kind of well-researched detail, engagingly communicated, that makes this account of Venice so readable.

The Marías and Brodsky books I discussed yesterday were impressionistic sketches; this is a full-length biography and socio-cultural history of a city, of the kind Peter Ackroyd has produced more recently – almost a psychogeography. And there are charming personal touches braiding the narrative: Morris standing on her balcony gazing at the breathtaking views, but also pointing out, when the tide is low, that ‘the underpinnings of the Venetian houses are revealed in all their green and slimy secrecy.’ This is so typical of Venice: beautiful exteriors covering a sleaziness under the surface. But even the squalor is only superficial; there’s always something gorgeous if you look beyond.

View along the Grand Canal from Accademia bridge towards San Giorgio

View along the Grand Canal from Accademia bridge towards San Giorgio

She provides almost every detail and history you could desire of the city (its 450+ bridges, 107 churches) and in the archipelago of over 100 islands. As you see flying over the lagoon into Marco Polo airport, there are countless mudbanks and islets that come and go with the tides and currents. It was an uninviting swamp, and the city suffered decimations of population for centuries from the diseases harboured there, from plague (a hazard of the Levantine trade) and mosquito-transmitted malaria to cholera caused by poor water hygiene (that did for gloomy von Aschenbach in Death in Venice). Hence the prominence of San Rocco in the city’s five church dedications to him; they stole his relics, too, from France, for his protection against ‘bacterial demons’. I remember the Visconti neorealist film ‘Rocco and his Brothers’ – rather better as I recall than the more famous and morbid Bogarde vehicle with its picture-postcard superficiality.

A random sample of the Morris narrative tone in an extract from the opening page:

Here is a glowering octagonal fort, here a gaunt abandoned lighthouse. A mesh of nets patterns the walls of a fisherman’s islet, and a restless covey of boats nuzzles its water-gate. From the ramparts of an island barracks a listless soldier with his cap over his eyes waves half-heartedly out of his sentry-box. Two savage dogs bark and rage from a broken villa.

Not just hard facts dug out of histories and archives, then; human observations like the above make this book a pleasure to read.

Those cats in Zanipolo

Those cats in Zanipolo

She also gives a detailed account of the major islands, including Torcello, where the original settlers established a foothold in the 5C to escape the depredations of the invading Goths, Huns and other warlike tribes. This island prospered, then declined disastrously from the 12C, and is now returning to nature, its former glories weed-covered and plundered for materials to build its replacement, Venice itself.

Some highlights from a book densely packed with interesting details. How in 829 Venetian merchants, with typical audacity and cunning, stole the relics of St Mark from Alexandria. To keep the loot safe from prying Muslim eyes they hid them in a barrel of pickled pork. It was a city of policy, trade, chicanery and sharp practice (hence the plot of The Merchant of Venice). It’s a ‘shamelessly self-centred place’, redolent of ‘elderly narcissism’. It can adopt ‘a morose but calculating look’ full of ‘sly contempt’, with ‘a note of amorality’, ‘hard-boiled, sceptical and sophisticated’. But also courteous, ceremonious – ‘a very bourgeois city.’ Full of nosiness, gossip, sex, melancholy and intrigue.

It was also the city of Tintoretto, Titian and Goldoni – and Casanova. They even claim Othello as one of their own.

There’s a fascinating section on the Ghetto (and the cruel treatment of the Jews), and on the visitors from all over the world – not just the usuals like Shelley and Byron and his suicidal jilted girlfriend throwing herself into the Grand Canal from the Palazzo Mocenigro, the Brownings, George Eliot and her canal-bound suicidal husband, swaggering Hemingway and punctilious Ruskin. She shows how the city is cosmopolitan, enriched over the centuries by incomers from the orient, the Middle East (those Armenians and the Riva degli Schiavoni, named for the Slavs who brought cargo to the place that is still a thriving trading and ferry quay.) Oriental influences are seen everywhere, like the arabesque swirls in the windows.

I recall the Venetian style of the harbour at Chania in Crete. Forts in Cyprus. For Venice absorbed features from every culture it dealt with, but also disseminated its own.

There are some good jokes. Like Robert Benchley, who cabled home when he first arrived there: ‘Streets full of water. Please advise.’

In the section on the city’s influence elsewhere in the world, she says she saw a sign in London’s Little Venice: ‘Beware of the Doge.’

Some omissions: she mentions the church of the Madonna dell’Orto, but unlike Brodsky and Marías, says nothing about the Bellini portrait noted yesterday. There’s some reference to Ezra Pound, but not of his grave in the San Michele cemetery, or Olga Rudge.

The six-pronged prow of gondolas, with the curve above maybe representing the sweep of the arterial Grand Canal

The graceful six-pronged prow of gondolas, with the curve above maybe representing the sweep of the arterial Grand Canal. Sunlight, not lamplight

Finally, those gondolas again: even the etymology of the word is controversial. There’s the now discarded felze, or canopy, which concealed all kinds of illicity liasions (see previous posts). Is it true, as the gondoliers assert, that the six prongs on the prow – the ferro – represent the six sestieri, the curved beak at the top is the Doge’s hat/the Rialto bridge/several other theories? Whatever their origins (Roman, Egyptian or Turkish?), they are a magnificent sight,

curved, rampant and gleaming, riding side by side through the lamplight of the Grand Canal.

I’ll not forget the atmosphere of this extraordinary, beautiful, vibrant city. It probably sounds inane, but I hadn’t realised what an effect is gained by having no road traffic. No wonder Venice’s appellation is La Serenissima. It’s a serene city – the only sounds the lapping of the water, the cries of the gondoliers (and those seagulls) and the chugging engines of the innumerable boats supplying the produce for the wonderful markets – but also cleaning the canals, ferrying travellers and transporting the sick to the Ospedale.

There was a water fire-engine moored at the canalside, attending a blaze on Murano, with a chic uniformed fireman posing for the tourists’ cameras while his colleagues buzzed in and out of the burnt shell of the building a hundred metres away. He looked like a young Robert de Niro.

Brodsky and Marías on Venice

Joseph Brodsky, Watermark: An Essay on Venice. Penguin Classics, 2013. First published 1992.

Javier Marías, Venice: An Interior. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. Penguin Books, 2016 [and part of the essay collection Between Eternities, 2017]. First published in Spanish, 1988.

Jan Morris, Venice. 3rd rev. ed. 1993; first published 1960 – next post

Brodsky, Marías and Morris book covers on VeniceMy previous two posts on Venice have touched on recommended Venice-based or –set reading; the Brodsky I read after my return from the recent visit with Mrs TD to celebrate her birthday – our first time in the city – and was inspired by this post by Karen at Kaggsysbookish Ramblings. She provides an excellent introduction and background to the Russian poet, and a perceptive review – so there’s not much more for me to add about his book here.

As she says, it’s a prose poem/meditation. I too found the strange visit to Ezra Pound’s former mistress, Olga Rudge (with Susan Sontag, of all people) a stand-out scene. There’s a beautiful anecdote about her first meeting with Stravinsky, at a violin recital she was giving (she was an outstanding concert violinist, which is how Pound first encountered her. She survived him by several decades and was buried beside him at San Michele).

He’s interesting on – and a little dismissive of — Pound as deluded politically; detention at St Elizabeth’s was ‘nothing to rave about’ in Russian eyes. The Cantos left him cold:

…the main error was an old one: questing after beauty. For someone with such a long record of residence in Italy, it was odd that he hadn’t realized that beauty can’t be targeted, that it is always a by-product of other, often very ordinary pursuits.

He listens to Sontag trying unsuccessfully to deflect Rudge from her lengthy whitewash job on her fascist-sympathising, anti-Semitic lover; having dealt with countless ‘old CP members’ it was a tune that rang a bell. They left the house and found themselves, significantly, on the Fondamenata degli Incurabili.

Brodsky’s love for the city and its ‘serene beauty’ is rapturously told – ‘this city is the eye’s beloved’ – though he’s not blind to its occasional decaying squalor, its decadence and artificiality and superficiality. I wasn’t so keen on the objectification of women, including his unreconstructed lusting over the beautiful (married) Veneziana who met him at the station on his first visit and introduced him to her city.

Among several enigmatic images (others include his repeated, interwoven references to chordates and fish-eye perception; tears, surfaces, reflections/water, beauty and time – and a woman with mustard-and-honey coloured eyes) is a strange description of the ‘wonderful’ Bellini tempera portrait of the Virgin and Child that was in the Madonna dell’Orto church in Cannaregio sestiere near the Ghetto (he couldn’t have mentioned its theft in 1993, after he was writing this essay).

Bellini, Madonna and Child

Bellini, Madonna and Child (Wikimedia Commons)

He was unable to enter the church one night to steal a look at it, and at

the inch-wide interval that separates [Mary’s] left palm from the Child’s sole. That inch –ah, much less! – is what separates love from eroticism.

This is Javier Marías: he refers to

…the beautiful Bellini Virgin depicting a lunatic Christ Child who looks as if he’s either going to choke to death at any moment or pounce on his extraordinary mother…

When I look at the image I think it’s this description that makes more sense.

In fact the Marías essay is in some ways the most interesting of the three texts discussed here and elsewhere (though it’s probably apparent from some of my earliest posts at TDays that he’s one of my favourite authors: list at the end). Morris is more of a comprehensive guidebook, but his is the most vivid.

He can be as poetic as Brodsky in his palpable love for the city – he visited it fourteen times between 1984-89 – but without the sometimes mannered obscurity. His description of night-time, when the inky darkness accentuates the city’s ‘stage-set’ dramatic quality, is beautifully evocative. He also identifies in a few succinct, vivid images the essence and soul of this compact city (in theory one could walk from end to end in just over an hour; in practice this is impossible because of the dead ends and distractions).

There’s what he identifies as its harmony and homogeneity, its seediness and ostentatious glamour, and, paradoxically, its fragmentation and articulation.

He’s particularly good (as his title suggests) on the interiority of Venetians’ lives (‘they don’t go out very much’). And he’s characteristically funny, too: his account of the glamorous women (and men), who seem to be ‘always on their way to some elegant party’ when they do venture out accords with what I saw. Nearly everyone is chic and on display:

Singers at the theatre sometimes complain that their voices cannot be heard above the rattle of jewellery and that their eyes are dazzled by the glint of gold in the darkness, because some ladies do rather over-adorn hands, ears and neck in their eagerness to outshine, well, themselves, principally.

At the beach on the Lido they’re dripping in jewels (even when they go for a swim) and dressed to the nines.

He gives an entertaining account of the love-hate relationship between the Venetians and the hordes of tourists. Each sestiere or district (there are six, as the name suggests) has its own distinct atmosphere and ‘idea’. Locals from one area are unlikely to venture beyond the end of their nearest canal, rarely straying into the tourist honeypots – and they’re snootily dismissive of any place else. The same thing or person seen in one sestiere appears different in another (he gives the example of a beggar who moves about the city, shifting shapes mysteriously). I find these perceptions more human than Brodsky’s rather cerebral musings.

Marías identifies the strange ways that distances between places on the island can’t be measured by space alone. That account of the Bellini was to demonstrate that even though it’s found just a stone’s throw from the Grand Canal, it seems ‘a thousand leagues away’.

Both he and Brodsky are dismissive of Visconti’s film Death in Venice. Both are good on the best perspective from which to admire the architecture: from the water. But they agree that only the tourists can afford the gondola. When my wife and I were there it was 80 euros for a half-hour ride. We adopted the practice of the locals: take a gondola traghetto across the Grand Canal for two euros. It only takes minutes but is a much better deal. Otherwise the vaporetto (with a tourist pass) is good value, but often crowded.

I could go on, but had better stop, but I must quote the closing lines of the Marías, in which he poetically relates the timeless beauty of Venice, as it impacted on him on revisiting the city twenty years after the first Spanish edition of this text in 1988, when its people and places might have been expected to be lost:

We probably only really lose what we forget or reject, what we prefer to erase and no longer wish to carry with us, what is no longer part of the life we tell ourselves.

Readers of his fiction will recognise that haunting allusiveness to the elasticity of time and experience, universalised.

Javier Marías texts posted about here include the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy

The Infatuations

Thus Bad Begins

and the essay collection Written Lives

Next time, as I’ve gone on too long here, I’ll return to the Jan Morris.

 

Sex and death in Venice: post 1

I started this post intending to discuss the three books about La Serenissima [see my picture] by Brodsky (thanks to Karen of Kaggsysbookishramblings blog for the recommendation), Marías and Morris. I became sidetracked – hence this is now an Aside-type post.

Venice has been so often painted, written and sung about, filmed and celebrated that I felt before my first visit there last week with Mrs TD (for her birthday) that I already knew the city; I was prepared to be disappointed. I wasn’t: it’s breathtaking.

For centuries it’s been associated with decadence, sin, dishonesty and deception, ruthless capitalism, danger, sickness and death. From The Merchant of Venice and Othello, Moor of Venice to Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice (and the lush 1971 Visconti film with Dirk Bogarde) and Nicholas Roeg’s Du Maurier-derived 1973 film Don’t Look Now, it’s been the setting for all of the above. Don’t pursue the diminutive figure in a red cape beckoning you down a canalside alley cul-de-sac…

A few years ago, in a sequence of posts about Henry James, I wrote this on his 1888 novella The Aspern Papers, one of several by him with a Venetian setting.

Twitterfolk recommended some more Venice-set reading to prime us for our holiday; I posted back in December 2018 on Wilkie Collins’ so-so ghost story ‘The Haunted Hotel’

Photo from the 1880s by Carlo Naya, ‘Panorama da San Giorgio e gondola’; the Doge’s palace and the Campanile (which a few years later fell down) in the background.

Last month it was Hemingway’s rather unpleasant late novel Across the River and into the Seaduck-shooting and execrably written gondola sex with the 50-year-old protagonist-narrator and his fantasy teenage lover. This seems to take place under cover of the ‘felze’ – the curtained or solid canopy-cabin that used to be common on gondolas to maintain the privacy of the passengers. Gondolas today all seem to be open, like punts, with no such concealment.

This is where I start to digress. Hemingway’s Colonel’s gondola tryst with his seductive young Contessa reminded me of Byron, one of Venice’s greatest advocates (perhaps because he indulged in such unbridled debauchery there; Hemingway namechecks the poet in the narrative with approbation about his popularity in ‘this town’).

Soon after his wife Annabella finally left him, taking their newborn baby Augusta Ada (later Ada Lovelace, the pioneer mathematician to whom the notion of the computer is often ascribed) with her. He thought it expedient to leave England in 1816. He never returned.

I’ve written previously about the first parts of his trip, including the stay at the Villa Diodati with the Shelleys (her stepsister Claire Clairmont had thrown herself at him by this time. She was soon to be abandoned, as was their ill-fated daughter Allegra, who died aged five – a familiar pattern emerges). He travelled on to Milan, arriving in Venice in autumn 1816.

Byron's visit to San Lazzaro by Ivan Aivazovsky (1899)

Byron’s visit to San Lazzaro by Ivan Aivazovsky (1899). Gondola with ‘felze’ clearly seen

He was immediately smitten. He also threw himself vigorously into sexual profligacy. When not debauching, swimming or riding, he took to visiting the Mechitarist order of Armenian monks on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, where he redeemed himself somewhat by learning (or trying to learn) Armenian, helping translate several of the order’s texts into English, and with the compilation of an Armenian grammar guide and Armenian-English dictionary. Unfortunately I didn’t get time to visit the exhibition at San Lazzaro on this aspect of his contribution to Venetian culture during my stay; maybe next time. [Jan Morris has a lovely account of this island monastery and the Byron connection at pp. 272 ff.; more on her book in a later post.]

After several passing references in earlier poems to Venetian matters, he wrote a Venice section in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1817) – where he informs us that unlike in the time of Goethe’s visit in 1786, the gondoliers no longer sang the words of Tasso and Ariosto to tunes of their own composing.

Beppo (1818) is set during the Venice carnevale; the garrulous narrator describes with gleeful ribaldry the potential for decadent sensuality during a gondola ride:

Didst ever see a Gondola? For fear

You should not, I’ll describe it you exactly:

‘Tis a long cover’d boat that’s common here,

Carved at the prow, built lightly but compactly,

Row’d by two rowers, each called Gondolier,

It glides along the water looking blackly,

Just like a coffin clapt in a canoe,

Where none can make out what you say or do.

 

And up and down the long canals they go,
And under the Rialto shoot along,
By night and day, all paces, swift or slow,
And round the theatres, a sable throng,
They wait in their dusk livery of woe, –
But not to them do woeful things belong,
For sometimes they contain a deal of fun,
Like mourning coaches when the funeral’s done.

He celebrates in this poem the looser, more pragmatic morals of the Italians, especially in their liberal attitude towards adultery, which he compared favourably with the more hypocritically puritanical (as Byron saw it) English. He gave prominence in this poem to the figure of the cicisbeo or cavalier servente: a gentleman who’d escort and protect a married lady in society, with the collusion of her husband. This ‘escorting’ might also include a sexual element – the part that Byron found particularly exhilarating: here’s his account of Laura’s response when her husband goes missing on a voyage, feared dead:

And Laura waited long, and wept a little,
And thought of wearing weeds, as well she might;
She almost lost all appetite for victual,
And could not sleep with ease along at night;
She deem’d the window-frames and shutters brittle
Against a daring housebreaker or sprite,
And so she thought it prudent to connect her.
With a vice-husband, chiefly to protect her.

In June 1818 he moved into the Palazzo Mocenigo, beside the Grand Canal (the length of which he liked to swim, when he wasn’t doing so off the Lido).

Palazzo Mocenigo Casa Nuova (Wikipedia image, public domain)

Palazzo Mocenigo Casa Nuova (Wikipedia image, public domain)

I thought I’d taken a picture of this grand palazzo from a vaporetto, but on checking online I found I’d mistakenly framed the building next door. His ménage included fourteen servants, a menagerie including several dogs, monkeys and a fox. In his letters he loved to present a raffish image, claiming he’d bedded over 200 women and spent a fortune – such services didn’t come cheap in a city where sex was widely for sale. Shelley’s account of his friend’s amorous activities is less poetic; he claimed Byron made extensive use not of elegant courtesans but of the lowliest women in the city. Like John Addington Symonds and Frederick ‘Baron’ Rolfe in later years, he appears to have indulged in a squalid kind of sexual imperialism, not romantic trysts.

Here’s how he presented, with mock sobriety and restraint, in a famous letter of 1819 to his friend Douglas Kinnaird, what happened during this sojourn in the palazzo [link to online source, which contains the hyperlinks]:

I have been faithful in my honest liaison with Countess Guiccioli — and can assure you that She has never cost me directly or indirectly a sixpence — indeed the circumstances of herself and family render this no merit.  — I never offered her but one present — a broach of brilliants — and she sent it back to me with her own hair in it (I shall not say of what part but that is an Italian custom) and a note to say she was not in the habit of receiving presents of that value — but hoped I would not consider her sending it back as an affront — nor the value diminished by the enclosure. — I have not had a whore this half-year — confining myself to the strictest adultery.

The nineteen-year-old Contessa Teresa Guiccioli had only been married a year to a count in his late fifties (how Byron would have loved reading that Hemingway Venice novel with its similar liaison). She and Byron were to spend the next four years together in various Italian cities.

He composed the first cantos of his ‘Epic Satire’ Don Juan in Venice’s stimulating environment. When the first cantos (unsurprisingly) provoked as much opprobrium for their immorality and bawdiness as praise for their comic genius, he defended himself with characteristic flamboyance that same Kinnaird letter:

As to “Don Juan” — confess — confess — you dog and be candid that it is the sublime of that there sort of writing — it may be bawdy — but is it not good English?  It may be profligate — but is it not life, is it not the thing?  — Could any man have written it — who has not lived in the world? — and tooled in a post-chaise? in a hackney coach? in a gondola? [my emphasis] against a wall? in a court carriage? in a vis a vis? — on a table? — and under it?

Venice gondola BL 16CToday in my Twitter feed I came upon this lovely image from the British Library: what appears to be a double-prowed Venetian gondola in an image from a 1588 ‘friendship album’, publicising a free exhibition at the BL, Friendship Before Facebook, that’s running until May 12. Click the link to (hopefully) access the BL’s gif in which the felze cabin covering is cheekily removed to reveal the seduction taking place inside.

Clearly it would have been easy to conduct illicit dalliances in such a vessel. Like Madame Bovary in her curtained carriage – but on the canal waters with an indulgent gondolier turning a blind eye – and deaf ear – to what was going on inside the felze. (I’m indebted to Jan Morris’s fascinating account of gondolas for the Venetian terminology).

More on Venice next time.

One of my first posts here was about some lines from Beppo cited by TS Eliot (dining on ‘becaficas’) and Byron’s ingenious, audacious rhyming practices.

Previous posts on Don Juan here (where that notorious Kinnaird letter is again quoted) and here

Posts about Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, the visit with Byron by the Shelleys and Byron’s physician Polidori at the Villa Diodate (before Byron reached Venice), and related matters here

[All images in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

Venice, Tintoretto, and not a St Mary of Egypt

It’s the feast day (in most western calendars) of St Mary of Egypt, the penitent sinner about whom I’ve written here a few times, since she was the subject of my postgrad thesis.

I returned yesterday from a few days’ break with Mrs TD (it was her birthday) in Venice. I was surprised by how beautiful La Serenissima is. So many films, books and so on had made me feel like I knew what to expect. The reality took my breath away.

More perhaps on that trip next time. For now, a quick reminder that penitent Mary was, according to the original legend, so ashamed of her formally promiscuous life that she entered the Jordan desert and lived there in penitent solitude for 47 years. Her story was disseminated, according to the legend, by the monk Zosimas, who encountered her near the end of her life, and to whom she related the details of her extraordinary ascetic life.

I’d known that one of the relatively few painted representations of her in the early modern era was by the Venetian artist Tintoretto, aka Robusti (1518-94). Born Jacopo Comin, he acquired the first nickname because his father was a dyer (‘tintore’) – i.e. he’s ‘son of a dyer’. He won the commission from 1565 to produce the wall and ceiling paintings of the charitable foundation of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, eventually producing some 60 huge works. The interior of the building is so gloomy he adopted a technique that’s difficult to admire when seen in reproductions, but which enables the images to spring to life when seen in the half-light – the highlights seem to glow from within the artwork itself.

According to Vasari he won the gig in an underhand way. He and four other prominent local artists were invited to submit sketches for their projected designs. Our chap simply jumped the gun and painted the work in situ, gifting it to the foundation’s titular saint (patron of plague victims – a big deal in swampy Venice); their statutes forbade them from declining donations – so he carried on initially unpaid, and then, having started, was paid to finish. His competitors were furious.

Tintoretto's first portrait of a woman saint in the desert, reading and meditating

The man serving in the Scuola shop kindly gave me this postcard of the first portrait discussed here, after we’d discussed the identity of the figures in both pictures

In the Sala Terrena (ground floor hall), two female figures are depicted on facing walls. On the left wall a small female figure is depicted, glowing with that inner light I mentioned, a nimbus or halo around her head partly producing that glow. She leans on her left elbow, propping an open book, which she is reading, on her lap with her right. It’s a forest scene, wild and uninhabited. From medieval times the west considered ‘silva’ or forest the equivalent of eastern ‘desert’: both were devoid of human presence, and therefore intimidating and alien, hostile and fearful.

My photo of the tiny card doesn’t do the original justice: it must be three metres high.

The gnarled, twisted roots of the tree under which she reads and meditates highlight the serenity and concentration of the saintly figure: she’s oblivious of the wildness of her surroundings.

Tintoretto, Virgin or Mary of Egypt meditating

Virgin Mary or Mary of Egypt meditating, by Tintoretto

In the right-hand corner is the partner portrait. Here the seated woman has her back almost turned to the viewer. She too is sitting reading, though her gaze seems to have momentarily lifted from the book she holds in her lap, perhaps to ponder on the words she reads. There’s a stream beside her, and some buildings in the middle and further distance – maybe not quite the desert one might expect, but still a wild, inhospitable landscape.

Here’s the difficulty. According to the sources I consulted many years ago when doing my research, this second image was described as depicting Maria Egiziaca – Mary of Egypt. The Jacopo Tintoretto website today does the same. Even the leaflet the Scuola provided (in English) when I bought my entrance tickets lists these two paintings as of, respectively, Sts Mary Magdalene and Egyptian Mary.

But the same leaflet elsewhere gives a different story: both depict, in this alternative version, the Virgin Mary meditating, or else Mary Magdalene and St Elizabeth. The Scuola’s own website repeats this confusing inconsistency.

When I looked unsuccessfully for a postcard of the painting in the Scuola shop, the charming young man serving was dismissive: of course both pictures represented the Virgin. I pressed my point about the Egiziaca; no, he was adamant – it was proved, he said. The Virgin.

Cowed and crushed, I was about to slink away, when he called me back. He looked in his stock drawers by the counter, and found the postcard of the first image I’ve posted here: the alleged Magdalene. He didn’t have the not-Mary of Egypt. He gave it to me as a gift: must have seen how crushed I was.

Their website’s home page even reproduces the two images, and points out the ones currently on display are reproductions; Sky Arte HD has sponsored the restoration of these pictures: ‘The Reading Virgin’ and ‘The Virgin in Meditation’. After an exhibition in Venice in honour of the fifth centenary of the artist’s birth, the originals will be exhibited in the National Gallery in Washington.

I have to admit, there are none of the usual attributes of Egyptian Mary in this second portrait. She’s usually depicted holding the three round loaves that she bought to take with her into the desert, and with long, flowing hair – hence the similarity to the Magdalene in iconography – as I’ve said in previous posts, the two penitents are often only distinguishable by their distinctive attributes. Here she wears a sort of headscarf, holding a book, not loaves.

I’d like to think my Mary is, nevertheless, smouldering (and meditating) in the Hall of the Scuola Grande of San Rocco in central Venice.

 

Ernest Hemingway, Across the River and into the Trees

Ernest Hemingway, Across the River and into the Trees. Penguin, 1966; first published 1950

Hemingway scholar Mark Cirino published a sporadically helpful ‘Glossary and Commentary’ to this novel (Kent State University, 2016); in his Introduction he provides a useful summary (I edit slightly):

[The novel] is the story of Richard Cantwell, a dying fifty-year-old American colonel stationed in Trieste, who spends his weekend leave in Venice in order to hunt ducks; enjoy the city that he loves; spend time with his war buddies; and wine, dine and romance an eighteen-year-old contessa named Renata, the love of his life. Cantwell is a veteran of the Italian front in World War I, having defended the Veneto in 1918, and also World War II, having fought with the 4th Infantry Division in Normandy, the rat race through France, the Hürtgen Forest, and the Battle of the Bulge. Much to his bitterness, Cantwell has been scapegoated and “stars had been removed”; he was demoted from brigadier general to colonel for following “other people’s orders” and obeying the feckless, unrealistic expectations of the masters of war, the office-bound, ‘no-fight’ generals that killed many good Americans. Cantwell takes enormous pride in his generalship, and despite the four or five years that have passed since his demotion, he is haunted by those mistakes and those events, even though the novel does not explicitly dramatize those past moments.

Hemingway ARIT cover

My battered old paperback is ex-library stock, with badly faded cover. That’s a dead duck on the left.

Instead what we get for a sizeable chunk of the narrative is Cantwell’s meandering wartime reminiscences to his youthful lover as they lie in bed in his opulent hotel, the Gritti Palace – which still exists. The novel is riddled with allusions to and quotations from the Western Canon, from Dante to Eliot. It’s difficult not to find Hemingway’s intertextual tendencies, and the locations in which he places his action, a little like showing off.

The grizzled colonel also happens to be an expert on Renaissance Italian artists and Venetian history and architecture. He notices the palazzo once occupied by Byron (‘well loved in this town’, he muses; ‘You have to be a tough boy in this town to be loved’. He clearly places himself in this category. ‘They never cared anything for Robert Browning, nor Mrs Robert Browning, nor for their dog’. Best joke in the book – though there aren’t many).

The novel is in part an unconvincing reworking of the Purgatorio (and Death in Venice). For Renata (catalyst for his being ‘re-born’?), lying in bed with the cranky colonel, encourages him to ‘purge [his] bitterness’ – those haunting memories, that disabling guilt. She’s his lover and his confessor, ‘not an inquisitor’, his analyst and daughter – there’s a running “joke” (difficult to find amusing) that he’s her father; he’s old enough almost to be her grandfather. His dismissal of Othello as ‘garrulous’ is a bit rich, given his own loquacity. He never stops talking. “Do I bore you?” he repeatedly asks Renata as his war ‘confession’ starts to resemble in its prolixity the battle sections of War and Peace. Except his account is much fuller of self-pity.

When he’s not talking to Renata or his chums in the hotel bar – and being bitchy about a figure resembling Sinclair Lewis, or ex-wives and girlfriends who bear a striking resemblance to Hemingway’s own – Cantwell is boozing with fawning cronies in Harry’s Bar. We seem to be expected to be impressed by his sexual successes, his fluency in most of the major European languages, and the narrative is often bizarre in register to reflect its being a rendition of the Italian idiom he speaks. Our narrator takes for granted that readers will believe that this expat American bar is enviably chic and an indication of Cantwell’s classy assimilation into the Venetian social scene.

There’s a bizarrely bad sex scene in a gondola (and some off-colour male gaze description of Cantwell’s beautiful teenage lover), and more duck-shooting narrative than anyone could desire. Cantwell heroically sees off potential street muggers or assailants – twice. He, like Byron, is such a tough boy. Certainly heterosexual. Despite that odd gondola sex. And the bevy of male admirers he surrounds himself with. I often find with Hemingway – and of course others have, too – that he protests just a little too much how macho he is (for his narrators are usually flimsily disguised avatars of himself).

Apparently this novel was mauled by most of the critics when it came out. It had been much anticipated: ten years since For Whom the Bell Tolls was a success, his previous novel. It was to be his last. Despite Cirino’s spirited defence, it’s a flawed and excessively mannered exercise in egotism. True, there are some of Hemingway’s ‘iceberg’ stylistic successes, but for the most part I found it pretty unpleasant.

The love-talk and sex-talk between Cantwell and Renata reads uncomfortably like the fantasies of an ageing roué – though it seems Hemingway did have an affair of sorts with a young contessa in Venice after the war, so maybe I’m being unfair about his hero’s Casanova complex.

But the character of Cantwell fails to engage as he seems intended to: instead of a broken-hearted, dying romantic hero, he comes across as a swaggering, disgruntled windbag, wallowing in his own sense of superiority in a world that’s too corrupt to value his valiant independence and integrity.

I’ve posted on Hemingway’s story ‘Cat in the Rain’, and some longer works by or featuring him, here

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wilkie Collins, The Haunted Hotel

The Haunted Hotel is the second novella or long short story in the trilogy by Wilkie Collins (1824-89) published by Oxford World’s Classics; I posted yesterday on the first one, Miss or Mrs? 

Collins Miss Mrs cover

The rather handsome image on the cover of the OWC paperback is a detail from a watercolour by James Holland, ‘The Steps of the Palazzo Foscari'(1844)

The Haunted Hotel was first published in six monthly instalments, June-November, 1878, in Belgravia: An Illustrated London Magazine. This was a popular journal initially edited by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, author of the best-selling sensation novel Lady Audley’s Secret (serialised in 1861; first book form 1862) and established by her lover, the publisher John Maxwell, to provide an outlet for her copious fictional production. It was sold to Chatto and Windus in 1876, when its huge sales had already started to dwindle.

Hardy’s novel The Return of the Native appeared in serial form in the same magazine in the same year as The Haunted Hotel. That’s where the connection ends. Collins’s novella is nowhere near in the same class as Hardy’s sixth published novel.

Like Miss or Mrs? it is highly melodramatic and plot-driven. It differs in that it is has more in common with the gothic romance wing of sensation fiction, as its title suggests. Its first major player is the mysterious Countess Narona – whose very name resembles that of the equally demonic (and dangerously foreign) Count Murano in Radcliffe’s seminal gothic romance, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). The eponymous Venetian hotel, like the castles in that predecessor, is decaying, putrid and full of dark, spectral secrets – including a lab-workshop in the cellar that would have pleased Victor Frankenstein.

Although once again Collins keeps his plot rattling along at a good pace, ending every few chapters (presumably these were the final pages of each monthly instalment) with a cliffhanger. But these aren’t sufficient to hold the modern reader’s attention. The narrative only fully arrives in Venice at ch. 17, almost half-way through the story. Collins attempts to build suspense leading up to this point with a variety of familiar gothic-sensational devices, from letters and legal reports to oral narratives delivered by marginal characters.

The single unifying principle, on which the author stakes his whole supposedly terrifying mystery, is the probability that the room in which a character died under suspicious circumstances has lingered in ghost form and appears to his family members when they come to stay in the rambling, ruinous palazzo he’d rented during his stay in Venice, and which has subsequently converted by developers into a fashionable hotel.

Unfortunately, although there is a certain frisson when the ghastly truth arrives, it has taken far too long to arrive, and the  clichéd plot, full of stereotypical characters and implausible coincidences and developments, once again weaken the story. Collins tweaks that ending to leave a slight possibility of doubt whether the supernatural element really does have a more mundane explanation – but that’s not enough to rescue the novella from mediocrity.

Interest perks up slightly when it takes a surprising metafictional turn in the Venice section: the evil Countess suggests to a theatrical entrepreneur that he produce a play she’ll write called ‘The Haunted Hotel’, involving, guess what, a Venetian palazzo with a terrifying ghost, a plot contrasting credulous superstition with more rational villainy, and some twisty secrets. This too soon palls and becomes yet another creaky implausibility. As in Miss or Mrs? there’s some nasty casual racism and sexism.

Nevertheless I also found this second dose of sensational Collins – this time with a gothic flavour – entertaining enough for the post-Christmas torpor. It was this novella in the OWC volume that was recommended to me by the literary folk on Twitter when I put out a request for Venice-set literature to prepare me for a planned short break there with Mrs TD next spring.

Collins had visited the city several times, including one stay with his collaborator-friend Dickens and their mutual friend, the genre artist Augustus Egg, and most recently in 1877 while on a tour to alleviate the symptoms of gout in the eyes – for which he also turned to opium for relief. This first-hand knowledge doesn’t show itself in the story, however. I thought the detail about the setting could have been arrived at by any half-decent writer of potboilers armed with a tourist guide and a few poems by Byron.

Betrayed by her singer: Henry James, ‘The Aspern Papers’

This first appeared in slightly different form at The Mookse and the Gripes site on July 15th.

The Aspern Papers – more a novella than short story – was published in 1888, soon after “Louisa Pallant”, which I wrote about here and again here recently. It therefore seemed logical to tackle this one next, but I very nearly didn’t write about it — it just didn’t at first satisfy as much as the others I’ve written about here and at the Mookse. I thought I’d explore why this might be.

I find it necessary to talk about the ending as I go along, so if you haven’t read the story yet you might want to do so and (I hope) return here afterwards.

Like so many of his ‘tales’, James based this one on an anecdote he was told, as recorded in his Notebooks, during his stay with friends in Florence in 1887. It concerned a ‘curious adventure’ that befell Edward Silsbee, ‘the Boston art-critic and Shelley worshipper’ or ‘Shelley fanatic’:

Miss Claremont [more usually spelt Clairmont], Byron’s ci-devant mistress (the mother of Allegra) was living, until lately, here in Florence, at a great age, 80 or thereabouts, and with her lived her niece, a younger Miss Claremont – of about 50. Silsbee knew that they had interesting papers – letters of Shelley’s and Byron’s – he had known it for a long time and cherished the idea of getting hold of them. To this end he laid the plan of going to lodge with the Misses Claremont – hoping that the old lady, in view of her great age and failing condition would die while he was there, so that he might then put his hand on the documents, which she hugged close in life.

His scheme is initially successful: ‘the old woman did die’, having spent the last nine years of her life in Florence, where she died in 1879;

and then he approached the younger one – the old maid of 50 – on the subject of his desires. Her answer was – “I will give you all the letters if you marry me!

He adds wryly that his informant said that Silsbee was still running.

From this scanty ‘essence’ James developed his novella, delighting, as he puts it in the Preface to the New York edition (1907-09), in ‘a palpable imaginable visitable past’ in which the ‘divine poet’ is connected with James’s own modern world.

Edition used: Everyman Collected Stories, vol. 1 (ed. J. Bayley, 1999), pp. 815-910

Edition used: Everyman Collected Stories, vol. 1 (ed. J. Bayley, 1999), pp. 815-910

He changes quite a few of the details of the anecdote he had heard. The English Miss Clairmont becomes the American Juliana Bordereau, while the younger woman is either her niece or grand-niece, Tita (renamed Tina in the New York edition). The location is shifted to Venice. Shelley (with elements of Byron) becomes the New York poet Jeffrey Aspern: in this same Preface James makes several references not just to Shelley but also to Byron; he postulates ‘an American Byron to match an American Miss Clairmont’. This too is significant, as we shall see.

The end of his Notebook entry adds that a Countess Gamba, who married a nephew of Byron’s last mistress, had inspired the telling of the anecdote, for her family was in possession of ‘a lot of Byron’s letters of which they are rather illiberal and dangerous guardians’. They refused to publish any of these papers, scorning attempts to persuade them that it was in the literary public’s interests to let them at least be seen. Their contents he describes as ‘discreditable to Byron’, and the Countess admitted that ‘she had burned one of them’.

These details are found in The Aspern Papers; our unnamed narrator’s ungallant response, at the end of the story, in rejecting Miss Tita’s offer of the papers in return for his marrying her, is brutal, and her reaction is to tell him next day that she had ‘done the great thing’ and burnt the papers, ‘one by one, in the kitchen.’

This is surely fair enough, for James makes us privy, as he does throughout the story through the device of free indirect discourse, to the narrator’s cruelly unpleasant thoughts when she proposes her humiliating, ‘embarrassing’ (for both of them) offer of her hand:

That was the price – that was the price! And did she think I wanted it, poor, deluded, infatuated, extravagant lady?

His rationalizations conveniently excuse his rejection:

I could not pay the price. I could not accept. I could not, for a bundle of tattered papers, marry a ridiculous, pathetic, provincial old woman.

He bemoans having succumbed to ‘that most fatal of human follies, our not having known when to stop’.

Like Silsbee, he runs for it. This first ungentlemanly reaction is succeeded by shame; he blushes, hiding his face from the gondolier who is rowing him to cowardly safety away from the dilapidated palazzo. He wrestles feebly with his jaded, guilty conscience. When he does finally consider the possibility that ‘her delusion, her infatuation’ might have been his own ‘reckless work’, that he had made love to her, just to get the papers, he tells himself –

I had not, I had not; I repeated that over to myself for an hour, for two hours, till I was wearied if not convinced.

Back on land, bewildered, it exhausts him to think that he ‘had been so much at fault’, had ‘unwittingly but none the less deplorably trifled.’ This uncharacteristic but fleeting shameful thought is brusquely quashed:

But I had not given her cause – distinctly I had not. I had said to Mrs Prest [a friend who had first given him the idea to lodge at the palazzo in order to have a chance at the papers] that I would make love to her; but it had been a joke without consequences and I had never said it to Tita Bordereau. I had been as kind as possible, because I really liked her; but since when had that become a crime where a woman of such an age and such an appearance was concerned?

His capacity for self-delusion and –justification is ugly but horribly convincing, so artful is James’s narrative technique. Consider how, when his resolve falters next day – ‘Was I still in time to save my goods?’ – and he returns to the decaying palazzo, having restored his ‘passionate appreciation’ of the papers, he has changed his viewpoint: ‘I would not unite myself and yet I would have them’ – though he has been unable to devise an alternative stratagem for persuading Tita to part with them.

It is a typical feature of a James story that much of the interest in the narrative resides in his presentation of the protagonist’s point of view. For an apparently scholarly, intelligent literary biographer our narrator knows himself (and others) very imperfectly; shortly after Juliana’s death had left Tita feeling isolated and vulnerable, and before the marriage offer she decided would provide her lifeline, he’d weighed up his options (in a manner reminiscent of the equally unattractive narrator in “The Pension Beaurepas” who also briefly considered behaving like the hero in a romance and whisking Aurora away to her beloved America – a point I discussed in my recent post on that story):

I certainly was not prepared to say that I would take charge of her. I was cautious, not ignobly, I think, for I felt that her knowledge of life was so small that in her unsophisticated vision there would be no reason why – since I seemed to pity her – I should not look after her.

He had earlier thought he might have killed Juliana by allowing her to catch him on the point of rifling through the desk in which he believed she had secreted Aspern’s papers: ‘Ah, you publishing scoundrel!’ she’d cried. When she fell in a dead faint he bolted, touring Italy for twelve days, with the rankling feelings that her accusation had some foundation, grudgingly admitting to himself that he ‘had not been very delicate’, while indecisive whether to do the decent thing and stay away, or return to see how things stood with Tita. Of course he can’t resist returning to have another go at the papers.

Very soon after this return his selfish, misogynistic callousness re-emerges in his thoughts: ‘I could not linger there to act as guardian to a piece of middle-aged female helplessness.’

I think my initially lukewarm response to this story was indicative of my superficial reading. I’d seen it as a too-neatly constructed narrative in which the two climaxes – Juliana’s swoon and Tita’s humiliation – were melodramatic and contrived. Now I’ve looked at the story more closely I appreciate its subtleties. As I’ve gone on at too great length already let me end by pointing out a few more of these qualities to add to what I hope has become apparent in what I’ve said and quoted so far.

First there’s the ingenious double plot: the cat-and-mouse game of ‘watchings and waitings’ (James’s words in the Notebook) played by the narrator as he heartlessly schemes to acquire the Aspern papers is matched by Juliana’s own predatory stratagems, in a way he only dimly perceives (‘Do you think she has some suspicions of me?’ he asks Tita early on, for he soon reveals his plans to her, hoping to enlist her support in his plans). He toys with the notion in chapter 5 that there is ‘a trap laid for [him]’ and his putative wealth, that he had presented himself to Juliana ‘in the light of a victim’, and several times refers to her as an ‘old witch’, a ‘terrible relic’, her room when he enters it is likened to that of ‘an old actress’, she is ‘very cunning’ and ‘a sarcastic, profane, cynical old woman’; yet he unwisely prides himself on his superior duplicity, and he is the one at the end left filled with ‘chagrin’ at his ‘intolerable’ loss. Meanwhile the reader is alerted to what he fails to perceive in Juliana. This is largely done through the frequent, suggestively ambiguous narrative references to darkness and light, clarity or obscurity of vision, and to eyes.

Juliana habitually wears a ‘horrible green shade’ that covers her eyes, making her face resemble a ‘mask’. This means the narrator can’t really see what she’s thinking, but the implication is rendered clear to the reader: she sees through him from the start. He dimly, dimwittedly realises that the mask means that she can ‘scrutinise’ him ‘without being scrutinised herself.’ At the same time it

increased the presumption that there was a ghastly death’s-head lurking behind it. The divine Juliana as a grinning skull – the vision hung there until it passed.

 He’s so greedily intent on his literary spoils that he allows this perception to turn into a speculation that her appearance simply confirms that she must be at death’s door – ‘then [he] could seize her papers.’

When Juliana catches him about to rifle her desk he sees for the first time ‘her extraordinary eyes’ that make him ‘horribly ashamed’.

My final thought concerns the possibility that some critics have entertained that Tita is in fact Juliana’s daughter, not her niece. I can find no evidence in the text to support this theory, but it is odd that Tita seems to have spent her entire life at the palazzo in sequestered ‘seclusion’ (‘We have no life,’ she frankly, sadly tells the narrator; ‘[t]here’s no pleasure in this house’.) The narrator sees the two ladies as ‘like hunted creatures feigning death’; they receive no visitors, there’s no ‘comfort’ in their ‘darkened rooms’, or contact with the outside world.

Is this a sign of the old lady’s guilt, her shame once her infatuation with Aspern had died out, leaving her with an illegitimate daughter that she shields from the world’s view? It’s true that she demands an extortionate rent from the over-eager biographer as a kind of dowry for Tita; the younger woman tells him frankly ‘the money is for me’, yet this unromantic ‘pecuniary question’ simply convinces him that Juliana is too greedy to see that he intends to ‘take an advantage of her’.

This raises the question about the narrator’s extraordinarily obsessive desire (his ‘eccentric private errand’ he calls it euphemistically) to obtain the papers. He justifies this with the airily aesthetic justification that his quest is part of his ‘mystic companionship’ with other Aspern scholars, that ‘moral fraternity’ who he sees himself as part of ‘in the service of art’:

They had worked for beauty, for a devotion; and what else was I doing? That element was in everything that Jeffrey Aspern had written and I was only bringing it to the light.

What could be in the letters that hasn’t already been written about Aspern? The narrator tells us that the god-like Aspern returned to Italy for Juliana’s sake when she was just twenty and beautiful, that there was something ‘positively clandestine in their relations’, and that he’d written some of his most sublime verses about his love for her, ‘works immortal through their beauty’. The narrator’s view as early as chapter 1 is that his early death was the only ‘dark spot in his life’ – ‘unless the papers in Miss Bordereau’s hands should perversely bring out others’:

There had been an impression about 1825 that he had ‘treated her badly’, just as there had been an impression that he had ‘served’, as the London populace says, several other ladies in the same way.

He had always been able to find evidence, however, to acquit Aspern, in those previous cases, of ‘shabby behaviour’. The Bordereau case is still unresolved, hence his desire to acquire the papers for some answers.

Statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni by Verrochio, in Venice

Statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni by Verrochio, in Venice

‘By what passions had she been ravaged? By what sufferings had she been blanched?’ the narrator wonders in chapter 4; there is a ‘perfume of reckless passion’ about her and he has ‘an intimation that she had not been exactly as the respectable young person in general.’ Was this a sign that her ‘singer had betrayed her’? That her ‘fair fame’ had suffered some obscure ‘imputation’? Did the letters Juliana hoards ‘affect her reputation’, he asks Tita at one point, to which she gives him a ‘singular look’, a ‘kind of confession of helplessness’; “Do you mean she did something bad?” she eventually replies. Is this an allusion to Juliana’s being her mother?

In chapter 7 the old lady asks him if ‘it’s right to rake up the past’, batting away his defence that he likes the ‘discoveries’ made by questing critics by retorting that they’re ‘mostly lies.’ When he defends them as often being the truth, she responds that the truth ‘is God’s, it isn’t man’s’.

In chapter 5 the narrator considers the women are ‘worse off than Carmelite nuns in their cells’; he later learns that Juliana was Catholic. This accords with the fact that Claire Clairmont converted to Catholicism in later life. She had thrown herself at the tender age of eighteen at the rakish Byron, first by bombarding him with increasingly frank letters, and borne his daughter after what may well have been their one sexual encounter. He rapidly tired of her (he described her as ‘that odd-headed girl’, a ‘fiend’). When Allegra was barely one she was persuaded by the Shelleys to hand her over to the father’s unwilling custody; Byron was by then living in – no surprises here – Venice. When the child was just three he broke his promise to care for her personally and placed Allegra in a convent, where she died two years later, breaking Claire’s heart a second time. She continued to send Byron importunate, melancholy, obsessive letters. Maybe it’s inflammatory correspondence of this kind that Juliana has kept so carefully guarded.

Or maybe they were part of a cache of her voluminous correspondence with others in the Shelley circle. One critic has suggested that Claire was less attracted to Byron (and possibly Shelley) than she was to Shelley’s eventual second wife, her step-sister Mary (and it’s also possible to detect a homoerotic element in the narrator’s reverential hero-worship of Aspern; it can be seen as a story of wished-for and undesired, past and future, fruitful but disastrous consummations, while our narrator is ultimately hopelessly impotent as a literary or romantic ravisher). Claire wrote to Mary often (and to her poet husband, with whom many believe she not only had an affair but another illegitimate child), despite Mary’s finding her increasingly tiresome and wilfully wild. Although I find this a little speculative, it might also explain some of the hints alluded to above about the dark secrets that might lie in the Aspern papers, and our narrator’s obsession: rather than being a ‘rich dim Shelley drama’, as James calls it in his Preface, perhaps it’s a sordid, scandalous Byronic one. Whatever the case, I think you’ll enjoy the teasing, mysterious, densely textured story that James managed to concoct out of this titbit of Romantic gossip. It’s pertinent that James, that most private of writers, who guarded his detachment from sexual entanglements fiercely, and burned many of his own letters, encouraging his correspondents to do the same with the ones he had written them, should dramatize this duplicitous invasion of privacy with its anomalous role allotted to snooping literary biographers, and its paper-burning at the end.

Although it’s dangerous to indulge in the ‘biographical fallacy’, it’s tempting to see traces in the story of James’s own growing unease in his relations with his emotionally needy Venice-based friend Constance Fenimore Woolson – maybe she owned incriminating letters from him that he’d rather were burnt, Edel speculates in his biography. Certainly his portrayal of the once-beautiful Juliana is dominated by the delineation of her manipulative cunning that is more than a match for our narrator’s, so that we are left with a typically Jamesian bleak view of the appeal of romantic attachments, the female psyche, and the mutable shallowness (and danger to men) of feminine beauty and attractiveness.

We can’t even know for sure whether Juliana ever actually possessed any papers – the narrator never sees them, and has only witnesses as unreliable as himself to vouch for their existence. These are the moral, ethical ambiguities, paradoxes and complexities that I failed to detect initially, and which provide much of the story’s satisfying richness.

 

 

 

 

 

Rhyming Byron: Orioles and Eliot

 ‘I also like to dine on becaficas’: T.S. Eliot, epigraph to The Sacred Wood

In  Beppo (written in Venice in 1817) stanza 42 Byron’s narrator says he likes ‘on Autumn evenings to ride out’ without worrying too much whether the weather will be clement, for in Italy everything is less mundane than in England.  He goes on, in the next stanza, with further examples of why he finds Italy superior to England:

I also like to dine on becaficas,

To see the Sun set, sure he’ll rise tomorrow,

Not through a misty morning twinkling weak as

A drunken man’s dead eye in maudlin sorrow,

But with all Heaven t’himself: the day will break as

Beauteous as cloudless, nor be forced to borrow

That sort of farthing candlelight which glimmers

Where reeking London’s smoky Caldron simmers

We can still find genuine pleasure in the playful pararhymes in Byron’s verse; ‘becaficas’ clearly chimes visually as well as in a sonic sense with ‘weak as’ – the vowel sounds are identical if one adopts a vaguely Italian pronunciation for the ending of the first line, and the consonants are also symmetrical (although the sibilant Italian terminal ‘s’ clashes with the ‘z’ sound in ‘as’).  But this pattern is subverted when, according to the rhyme scheme, we expect line 5 to chime with lines 1 and 3; instead we get ‘break as’ – which only rhymes if we pronounce this already irregularly sounded word falsely, as if it were an ‘ee’ vowel, not ‘ay’.  It’s an eye-rhyme, a sonic corruption, and it thwarts the very pattern established by the preceding stanzas.

It’s this subversive teasing with words and sounds that is one of the reasons I enjoy Byron’s lighter poems: he refuses to take himself or anyone or anything else seriously; it’s the opposite of po-faced (‘smiling’?)  Here’s another delightful example (he’s writing about Venetian ladies’ pretty faces):

And like so many Venuses of Titian’s

(The best’s at Florence – see it if ye will),

They look when leaning over the balcony,

Or stepping from a picture by Giorgione’…

Once more he’s teasing his pretentious readers with their smug awareness that the Italian name ‘Giorgione’ is pronounced ‘George-oh-nay’, and that therefore one’s reading of ‘balcony’ renders the next line-ending problematic – he’s forcing us to consider pronouncing the artist’s name ‘GEORGE-oh-nee’, with the stress on the first syllable, to rhyme with ‘balcony’; or else we have to consider the ridiculous possibility of retracing our readerly steps and retrospectively re-pronouncing ‘balcony’ as ‘bal-CONE- y’, with the stress on the second syllable!  As the academic F.V. Bogel helpfully explains, this produces for the reader a ‘division…between visual and auditory modalities’ (The Difference Satire Makes: Rhetoric and Reading from Jonson to Byron [Cornell UP, 2001]).  While we’re looking at Beppo, here’s one of my favourite lines, a beautifully balanced and modulated artifact in words: the narrator is mockingly praising England – ‘Our cloudy climate, and our chilly women’.

So what on earth IS a ‘becafica’?  The OED spells it ‘beccafico’(although an ‘a’ ending is one of its variant forms), deriving from the Italian for ‘fig-pecker’:   ‘A name given in Italy to small migratory birds of the genus Sylvia, much esteemed as dainties in the autumn, when they have fattened on figs and grapes: they are identified with the British Pettychaps and Blackcaps’.  Marquez often writes about his characters eating such small fowl, maybe baked in pies.  Conrad Aiken in an essay about Eliot defines ‘becafica’ as a small bird, a warbler, a garden oriole, loosely termed by Italians as one of the ‘uccellini’.   He says that by using Byron’s line as an epigraph to this book published in 1920 Eliot was suggesting that he likes to ‘dine on song-birds’, apprizing us, ‘with a gleaming and slightly sinister politeness, that he is about to do so’.  He intends, that is, to be ‘severe to the point of destructiveness’ (‘The Scientific Critic’, in Freeman, 2, [2 March, 1921], pp. 593-94).

How fitting that Eliot should choose to head his collection of essays  about poetry, published in 1920, two years before The Waste Land, with this particularly ambiguous line; while delineating the modernist notions of technique, feeling and a  ‘tradition’ in poetry, (here we find his famous pronouncement: ‘Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality’) Eliot illuminates the text and prepares us for the bombshell of The Waste Land with jewel-like fragments like those ‘becaficas’, which fail to sate our appetite, but  charm us with their song.