Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Midnight in the Piazza San Marco of Whiny Rich People

Eleven years after his Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil bestrode the bestseller list, John Berendt has returned. Why was he gone for so long? Well, he went to Venice for a few weeks’ vacation, and he stayed. A fire had destroyed Venice’s 500-year-old opera house, La Fenice, just before he arrived, and the uproar surrounding that loss gave Berendt the excuse he needed to start doing what, it seems, he does best: meeting the rich, the meddling, and the untrustworthy. Just before a three-day trip of my own to Venice, I read the resulting book, City of Falling Angels.

In Venice, Berendt quickly found a small, isolated, wealthy society, riven by feuds and infighting—very similar to what he’d chronicled in Savannah in his earlier book. That set—the set, I suppose--really does seem to be Berendt’s natural subject, and they turn out to be the same in Venice as anywhere else: hideous and fascinating in their utter self-involvement.

Berendt talks to the mayor and a master glassblower. He meets a pair of American expatriates, one of whom has affected an upper-class British accent. He lets a particularly irritating artist rail against the hypocrisies of Venice while painting what sound like godawful scenes of submarines ploughing St. Mark’s Square. He meets an Anglican minister whose obligations are minimal: some tourists and a permanent congregation numbering in the teens. There is no evensong:
Reverend Jim swirled his drink pensively, no doubt recalling how, at some defining moment long ago, he had faced up to the necessity of choosing between evening prayers and cocktails, and chosen cocktails.

Smart man. Another American expatriate talks about his family’s attempt to offset the costs of maintaining their palazzo, Palazzo Barbaro:
For a while, we rented out the piano nobile for private parties, hoping it would be a harmless way to help pay expenses. We signed a contract with Jim Sherwood, who owns the ‘21’ Club in New York and the Cirpriani hotel here, to do the catering. He went to great expense. He bought a lot of equipment and even installed a standard industrial kitchen, but it all got to be too much. He created menu with really objectionable phony names like ‘Tournedos Barbaro,’ and he commissioned sets of glasses and dishes that had the Barbaro insignia, which is a red circle on a white background.
I said to him, “Jim, do you know where that insignia comes from?’” He didn’t know. I said, “It’s from a battle during the Crusades when a Barbaro commander sliced an arm off a Saracen infidel and swabbed a bloody circle with it on a white cloth to make a battle flag.” I said, “This is scandalous!”

By far Berendt’s favorite technique—one which makes me think he must seem a remarkably sympathetic listener, similar to how I imagine Joseph Mitchell—is to insert himself into an argument where facts are in dispute. He’ll talk to one disputant, then the other, passing arguments back and forth. In the process, both parties tend to slowly destroy their credibility in the eyes of the reader. Self-interest and self-deception are laid bare, but the disputes themselves rarely become clear.

That’s this book’s flaw, really, and the reason it isn’t as much fun as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: Berendt this time has no real mystery; instead, he has a series of inconsequential disputes among the privileged. The characters are less compelling and personable than in his earlier book. Eventually, I tired of hearing them complain about one another. The rich have, presumably, feuded in Venice for centuries, and with or without John Berendt, they’ll continue to do so until rising sea levels put an end to the squabbling.

But Venice itself? Oh, it was excellent. We didn't meet the rich, didn't get involved in their squabbles, didn't stay for ten years. But we did eat good food, drink cheap wine, and gape at art and architecture.

Thanks to guest blogger Vince for pinch-hitting and making me think some more about Black Hole.

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