Several weeks ago I picked up The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt (who also wrote Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil—and he has awesome titles). I read the prologue and first chapter pretty quickly, and then came back today to read the second, which is all of fourteen pages long.
And then I had to stop and respond.
Indeed, I held the pages open, grabbed my sketchbook, and wrote four pages all at once—it’s a smallish sketchbook. But up till now it was a sketchbook and not another of my random doodles book. Oh wells, it was available it happens. At least I didn’t try to write it on a series of old receipts (although wouldn’t that make an interesting art piece? hmmm).
And then I tried to read pulp fiction after that to actually read something without having to start another blog, and promptly wrote three-and-a-half pages on Star Trek: Killing Time in less than fifty pages. Yeah. I’ve got to stop doing that. Spies, though, by Michael Frayn, seems to be going well. The main character is already super engaging and there’s a mysterious bush that wouldn’t be mysterious if I looked it up but I don’t want to do that because this is definitely a book I could get lost in and I’m looking forward to it but I had to write this post first.
The City of Falling Angels is about Venice. As I am only 45 or so pages in, I’m not entirely sure of the premise although it appears to be primarily about the native Venetians and how they feel about living in such a city, framed by La Fenice (meaning the phoenix) and how it burned in 1996 (hence the picture).
Berendt’s style is very lyrical. The destruction of the Fenice and the reactions of the people watching nearly brought me to tears—especially the glassblower who couldn’t stop creating.
When I tried reading today, I got caught on the description of Venice as a city in the modern era. Now, I don’t actually know really anything about Venice other than its sinking, which is of course shameful. But from the description, so far I don’t have the most favorable impression from a cultural standpoint (don’t worry, most of the review isn’t actually bashing Venice, or the author for that matter).
Berendt calls Venice “dying” but if its centuries of poverty have left it so much like the paintings of the eighteenth century—no “modern intursions”—then I could only call it a dead city.
Much as I lament the loss of old buildings—my first thought when I learned of the controversy of the ‘mosque’ near ground zero was ‘must you take down a 100-year-old building to do so?’—I have to concede that that isn’t the way the world works. Things change. For one thing there are a lot more people (duh). As pretty much everything used to be, they don’t work in the modern world. Which like it or not, we live in. And modern architecture is hardly all bad. Much is boring (and some is bad) but unlike earlier time, they aren’t designed to last forever. Common architecture is not how we make our mark. and anyway, most common dwellings and other structures from the olden golden days were quite gleefully torn down for the next generational architectural statement.
And does no one realize what it takes to make such lovely cities? Berendt mentions Venice’s eight of power when it was a conqueror and an empire. Only in the case of art does this get described as a good thing. Artists definitely live in a happy world where they don’t have to consider things like that. Only in this situation is this description a positive. Try saying the same about the Imperialist United States or British colonialism . To get a pretty city generally requires human suffering.
So Berendt’s blank admiration for Venice for its oldness and prettiness just slightly got on my nerves. Which is totally hypocritical of me, I admit, as I love most old cities for that very reason and why I want to live in one (I never would survive).
As I said, the first chapter of this book made me want to cry. It hurts to hear about the diamonds of history being so easily destroyed—and before I would ever get the chance to see it! Something so beautiful in which went so much work and love, something visited by so many people, and it burns to the ground and everyone loses. I’m not very good at dealing with this stuff, I take it far too personally. I read about libraries burning in Russia and cried for them too. (What book was that?)
Still Berendt gets on my nerves the next chapter and it has to do with how closely he identifies with the Venetians. What was so lyrical in the first chapter is now rubbing me the wrong way. Because the first few pages of the second chapter is all about how evil the tourists are, and such a pain. (Okay, you’re still not a native, no matter how much you empathize.) And in many ways they are invaders, but as I said before, Berendt has already described Venice as a dead city. People are still living there, but only because the tourists like to visit. I’d hate to think of what would happen to all those beautiful old buildings if they weren’t there to be looked at. And what other industry is there? So far, I’ve read about the art, but art isn’t self-sustainable.
And if there weren’t tourists, it would still be a museum, just not one hat people visited. And once the scholars had their share it would be left to rot—excepting the straggling archeologist and student historian who needs a thesis.
Can I say, here, that I can’t stand people like Berendt describes and transcribes Ludovico De Luigi? As described he’s just obsessed with getting attention. Berendt calls him an artist—but without having seen his art, all I can imagine is one of those post-modernists who confuse concept and flash with art (I don’t think I’m using ‘post-modernist’ correctly, but anything after that art period I don’t know). He (the theoretical artist I’ve switched to rather than the real person) likes to make a lot of noise, and get attention, but his art is nothing that will stand the test of time once people get over the surprise.
*end rant* (of an entirely different subject)
Not that I disagree that Venice’s citizens would be an interesting subject. I look forward to learning more about how people deal with living in a dead city—or does their conviction of its ‘aliveness’ convince me? I just wish Berendt had a better understanding of tourists because his whining about them is just a little irritating. (Honestly, it’s rather subtle, and only a few comments over the entire chapter, I’ve just been thinking about it lately.) Why has being a tourist always been such a bad thing?
It seems to be a popular exercise for the intellectual, as far as I can tell, to be intellectual and look down on the plebeians. Which is rather odd because not everyone can be an intellectual and we shouldn’t want them to be—because frankly I would consider myself an intellectual (although I make no claims as to my relative intelligence) but intellectuals on their own aren’t all that useful in regards to practical applications, i.e. getting food to put on the table. Yes, I will make that argument.
Mind you, I’m not referring to stupid obnoxious people (that is, when talking about tourists, not intellectuals) here—because they do exist (and aren’t necessarily American) and they behave exactly the same there as the do at home, I theorize. They aren’t any more loved there either, so give the people who behave at home and abroad a break, eh? (<- where did that come from?) When you have to put up with those people and then find yourself treated like one? Well, I guess that’s what they call a vicious circle. Resentful people don’t make nice visitors and not nice visitors make resentful locals.
That’s my pithy comment for the day.