- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 8, 2005


By John Berendt

Penguin, $25.95, 414 pages

It has been 10 years since John Berendt’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” seemed to hold a permanent slot on international bestseller lists. Ever since, loyal readers have wondered what the intrepid journalist who gave the world Lady Chablis (a transvestite chanteuse) and a decorum-tweaked Savannah, Ga. would do next.

Well, next is here in the form of “The City of Falling Angels,” and while the book is a little less startling and perhaps a little less fun than its predecessor, it is filled with the kind of graceful writing and captivating detail that won Mr. Berendt his following.

And taking up as it does a beloved, but drowning city the book could not be more timely. While it is Venice that Mr. Berendt visits, reveals, celebrates and ponders, readers will find it hard not to think of New Orleans, and think of it often.

The book begins with an observation about Venice that sticks with the reader throughout. “‘Everyone in Venice is acting,’ Count Girolamo Marcello told me. ‘Everyone plays a role, and the role changes. The key to understanding Venetians is rhythm — the rhythm of the lagoon, the rhythm of the water, the tides, the waves …’”

So, once more readers learn that while a city is Mr. Berendt’s subject, it will be the people of the city who will shape its fate when disaster strikes.

The disaster in question took place the evening of Jan. 29, 1996. On that night, at a time of year when all the tourists had gone, a fire destroyed the Fenice, the Venetian opera house.

As Mr. Berendt writes “The Gran Teatro La Fenice was one of the splendors of Venice; it was arguably the most beautiful opera house in the world, and one of the most significant. The Fenice had commissioned dozens of operas that had premiered on its stage — Verdi’s La Traviata and Rigoletto, Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. For two hundred years, audiences had delighted in the sumptuous clarity of the Fenice’s acoustics, the magnificence of its five tiers of gilt-encrusted boxes and the baroques fantasy of it all.’”

When the city begins to ask itself how did this happen and arson becomes the answer, Mr. Berendt, who had arrived in Venice three days after the fire, is given the gift of a plot line.

Sort of.

Because the truth is while Mr. Berendt will dutifully follow the course of the investigation from indictments to trial, that narrative line pales by comparison to the tapestry of characters and subplots that give Venice its life and enigmatic charm — a technique the author employed in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

One has the feeling that a fire was the random circumstance which allowed Mr. Berendt to do what he intended to do all along: write about Venice. He must have known before his trip just how irresistible it has always been to wax poetic about this city of “faded grandeur, a place of melancholy, nostalgia, romance , mystery and beauty.” And after charting what many — from Lord Byron to John Ruskin to Henry James to Charles Dickens and Thomas Mann had to say, it is Mary McCarthy who seems to have thrown down the gauntlet that Mr. Berendt picks up. She observed: “‘Nothing can be said [about Venice] (including this statement) that has not been said before. McCarthy’s parenthetical comment, ‘including this statement’ was an allusion to Henry James …”

From there, Mr. Berendt moves forward, offering delightful glimpses into the lives of artist and provocateur Ludovico De Luigi, glassmakers Archimede Seguso and his rival sons Giampaolo and Gino, rat catcher Massimo Donadon, violinist Olga Rudge who was Ezra Pound’s mistress and companion for 50 years and friends Peter and Rose Lauritzen who were the American man and English woman who provided Mr. Berendt with an apartment and, through their connections, access to Venetian cultural life. With the help of the Lauritzens and others, Mr. Berendt was able to piece together a city rallying after it was stricken.

And as he recounts missteps, unfair accusations, examples of personal pride and greed, it is impossible not to think of Katrina and its aftermath. And curiously, and not flatteringly, players who came together pre-fire in a philanthropic effort called Save Venice are Americans all. And feuding Americans to boot. His descriptions of the battles between grocery magnate Lawrence Lovett and plastic surgeon Randolph (Bob) Guthrie are telling and unsettling. It does not help this reader with Mississippi and Louisiana roots that Mr. Lovett’s claim to fame is the Piggly Wiggly chain of grocery stores, a chain that thrived most prominently in the very Southern states that were battered by Katrina.

But comparing disasters has its limits and in the end Mr. Berendt’s tale can only be a Venetian one. While Mr. Berendt stops short of giving real closure to the question of whether the perpetrators of the fire at the Fenice got their due., readers do learn probably more about rat catching in Venice than they ever wanted to learn. Nevertheless, it is Massimo Donadon (Rat Man) who is my favorite character. Holding forth on why he poisons rats according to the cuisine to which they have become accustomed — “for Germany I make a rat poison that is forty five percent pork fat. My French rat poison has butter in it”— he is all laughter and bonhomie. And when he explains that his company is named Bocaraton for “rat’s mouth” and questions why anyone would want to live in a city with such a name, one cannot help but be charmed beyond measure.

Or at least charmed enough to forgive the plot line its shortcomings. As painter De Luigi tells Mr. Berendt. “‘This is the sort of ending Venice can live with, happily and forever.’ He daubed gold paint of the canvas. ‘Look what the story offers: a great fire, a cultural calamity, the spectacle of public officials blaming each other, an unseemly rush for the money to rebuild the theater, the satisfaction of a trial with guilty verdicts and jail sentences, the pride of Fenice’s rebirth …’”

Look, indeed.

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