Tuesday, December 16, 2014

City of Falling Angels, by John Berendt

In the closing pages of City of Falling Angels (Penguin Press, 2005) John Berendt writes that “I knew that in Venice I had been told truths, half-truths, and outright lies, and I was never entirely sure which was which.” The narrative begins in 1996, with Berendt’s arrival in Venice, around the time of the burning of the famous La Fenice opera house.  Berendt gives to this calamity a treatment similar to the one he gave to the murder of a male prostitute by an antiques dealer in Midnight in the Garden of Evil (1994).  What we got in that book was a cultural and social study of Savannah and its history.  What we get in this more recent book is the political, social, and cultural history of Venice, with special attention paid to leading citizens of the day, both Venetian and American.  The question at the center of the story is why did La Fenice burn.  Considering that question, Berendt engages in 400 pages of history, commentary, speculation, rumor, gossip, and hypothesis about leading citizens of the city, and about the wealthy Americans who set as their goal saving the city and its cultural attractions.  Someone tells Berendt early in the book that when a Venetian makes a statement, he really means the opposite of what he says.  He never quite loses sight of that observation, reminding us of it occasionally as he recounts his meetings and interviews with various people implicated in the burning, or trying to rebuild the opera house, or simply interested in the story.  His account of infighting among a group of wealthy Americans called “Save Venice” is particularly entertaining.  For those who enjoy listening to people talk and gossip about each other behind their backs, this book will be of interest.  Berendt must be an affable, sociable man who likes to hear people talk, and he puts his skills effectively to use in this book.

No comments: