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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, December 11th, 2005


The City of Falling Angels

by John Berendt

Who Lives There?

A review by Sheila Hale

In 1969 UNESCO published a report about the problems of Venice which included a chapter entitled "Is It Possible to Live in Venice?". Since 1951, the resident population of the historic centre had declined from 175,000 to 120,000. A shortage of affordable housing and of jobs unrelated to the tourist industry was driving Venetians, some of whom had never crossed the boundaries of their native sestieri, across the lagoon to the mainland. The population is now under 70,000, and its average age has risen, as has the proportion of foreigners who have snapped up the properties of the fleeing natives.

Nevertheless, if John Berendt's The City of Falling Angels is anything to go by, it is still possible to live in Venice -- but only if you are super-rich; grotesquely snobbish; the scion of an old Venetian family; foreign (preferably American); engaged in a bitter, prolonged and complicated feud; and/or eccentric to the point of insanity. One theme of the book seems to be that the city's Byzantine heritage, "the unfathomable mind of the East", is somehow responsible for a level of corruption in Venice that the author's informants like to insist is more profound, or at least more romantic, than in other Italian cities. It is a bit like saying that England is still conditioned by the Wars of the Roses, but that scarcely matters. What Berendt is really after is gossip, the nastier the better, which is apparently the favourite sport of a small, selfregarding group of vultures who feed on each other and on the decaying city.

While warming up for the kill, Berendt wanders around Venice looking for real, innocent Venetians. On the Strada Nuova, he finds a comic character dressed like a clown who trades affectionate banter with the locals to whom he sells plants and organic chickens. On the Giudecca, he comes across an electrician who dresses up in various uniforms, posing as a vaporetto conductor, carabiniere, soldier, sailor, airman, and so on. At a carnival ball, Berendt shares a table with a man from Treviso who has made a fortune from concocting recipes for rat poison that will tempt rodents whose palates are accustomed to garbage rich in leftovers from the local cuisine -wurstel in Germany, hamburgers in New York, curry in Bombay. Also at the table is a famous Venetian bore who talks exclusively about the importance of his family, until led away by his apologetic wife.

Berendt rents a flat from Peter and Rose Lauritzen, who are among the few appealing and honourable foreigners in the book. Rose is a willowy and stylish Anglo-Irish patrician, as well as an accomplished and witty gossip. Peter, a Jamesian American historian and leader of "high end" tours of Venice and Eastern Europe, is affectionately sent up for his habit of interrupting Rose's flow of gossip with little lectures about Venetian architecture and history. The Lauritzens are not on speaking terms with Jane and Philip Rylands. Jane is portrayed as a thick-skinned, unscrupulous, social-climbing American from nowhere. The painfully shy Philip (nephew of the well-known and much liked Cambridge English don "Dadie") is Director of the Guggenheim Museum, which is Jane's power base. Jane, in contrast to Rose, is short and sturdy -- definitely "not petite" -- but clever and good fun, assuming that she considers you important enough to be of use to her. Nobody likes her, but she usually gets her way, as she did when she preyed on the geriatric Olga Rudge, Ezra Pound's widow, from whom she managed to filch trunk-loads of Pound's very valuable papers, which, when found out, she either did or did not flog to Yale University for an undisclosed but possibly enormous sum. "It is not a nice story", as Arrigo Cipriani, famed proprietor of Harry's Bar, tells the author.

But this is nothing compared to the monumentally juicy power battle between the two men in charge of Save Venice, an American charity that restores buildings - and throws ultra-glamorous parties to guests only too eager to pay $3,000 for the privilege of attending. Dr Randolph ("Bob") Guthrie, president of Save Venice, is a plastic surgeon in New York. When in Venice, he drives his own private motor launch, a Boston Whaler, and insists that the authorities permit his guests and committee members to be ferried around in oversize motorboats at speeds that are usually forbidden because they make waves that damage the foundations of the buildings. Bob has been heard to say that Venice would be better off without the Venetians. Larry Lovett, Chairman of Save Venice, is Bob's temperamental opposite. Glamorous heir to the Piggly Wiggly chain of grocery stores, he loves to entertain royalty in his palace on the Grand Canal. He is so fond of royalty that if one of them is in mourning he demonstrates his friendship by abstaining from going to parties. After much jockeying for power, Larry accused Bob of having his hand in the till and then stormed out of a meeting to start his own charity called Venetian Heritage. "Save Venice, Venetian Heritage", says a tough old Venetian, "What's the difference? They're both really just glorified package tours . . . . Why must they come to Venice to save it? . . . Forget it. Venice will save itself. Go and save Paris!"

The thread that runs through the book is the fire that destroyed the Fenice, the jewel of European opera houses, in 1996. Berendt, who happened to arrive a few days after the fire, returns to the story at intervals, recounting the conspiracy theories -neglect certainly; but also the Mafia? arson?; the arrest of the two electricians accused of setting it off to avoid paying a penalty for finishing their job late; the chaos and malfeasance that delayed the reconstruction, which was finally celebrated with an inaugural concert in 2003, at which Berendt assembles his cast of characters for a farewell bow.

The book is written entirely in the past tense, so that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the living and the dead; Henry James, Peggy Guggenheim and Olga Rudge occupy the same time frame as people who, one hopes, are still alive. Berendt tells his stories fluently, and there are some well-timed surprises and jokes. The problem is, who cares? For those in the know it is stale gossip by now, while the interested but uninitiated general public have had ample opportunity to follow the salient scandals in the press. The row of the moment, which Berendt doesn't touch, has been between Massimo Cacciari, the Mayor of Venice, and the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, who disagree about whether or not to build the flood barriers that have been delayed for nearly forty years and may, or may not, save the city from submersion. The latest news is that Cacciari has now decided to support Berlusconi's controversial inititative, first developed in the 1970s, which involves seventy-eight gates being laid on the seabed and raised within hours of a predicted flood.

The City of Falling Angels is packaged for the carriage trade in a silky blue dust jacket, with matching ribbon page marker and the title embossed in gold. An Italian glossary includes palazzo, prosecco, St Mark's, Rialto and ciao ("Hello, also goodbye. Used in the familiar."), presumably for the sake of the 15 million unwashed tourists who trample unknowingly through the city of scandal each year. It does not list sgroppino, a mixture of prosecco and lemon sorbet, which slips down quite easily but can set the teeth on edge and make one belch.

Sheila Hale's book, The Man Who Lost His Language, was published in 2002.

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