A Venetian Affair, by Andrea di Robilant

venetian affair

I’ve been thinking about romance. I’m still on my virtual visit to Venice, which may be the most romantic city in the world.

What I remember of Denis de Rougemont’s classic Love in the Western World—it’s been over forty years since I read it—is that in our western civilisation, the definition of romantic love is one that is doomed (think Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde).

Until relatively recently, marriage was a business relationship, adhering to social and religious rules. The idea of romantic love, while glorified by medieval troubadours, has only lately become a requirement for marriage. It has been argued that adding the weight of passionate love to the already heavy requirements of marriage—a spouse must not only be one’s financial support and partner in raising children, but also one’s best friend and true love—is a reason so many marriages falter.

For me, romance novels end just when they get interesting. Yes, of course, there’s the fun of the chase, the misunderstandings and so forth, but what happens after the wedding? How do the couples fare over the decades to come with all their challenges? That’s why I’m drawn to authors such as Anne Tyler who take the long view of a marriage.

Back to Venice, though. Here we have the true story of a couple’s doomed love. In the mid-1700s, the last decades of the Venetian republic, twenty-four-old aristocrat Andrea Memmo, heir to one of the city’s oldest families, catches sight of beautiful sixteen-year-old Giustiniana Wynne. It is a coup de foudre for both. Sadly, her social position is too much lower than Andrea’s for them to marry.

Not only are both families opposed to the match, but at that time a marriage must be approved by the secular and religious authorities. Giustiniana’s father is dead, and her mother rightly fears that Andrea may ruin her daughter since he cannot marry her, and thus forbids them to see each other.

Of course that only adds fuel to their flame, and they plot one rendezvous after another, creating their own cipher to encrypt their notes. They come up with schemes to persuade their parents and the authorities to allow them to marry.

The story is told through the couple’s letters to each other over their secret seven-year-affair, with historical and cultural context added by the author who is in fact descended from Andrea Memmo. That, too, is something out of a romance: the discovery of a packet of frayed compacted letters found in the attic of Palazzo Mocenigo, the home of the author’s father (It was also Byron’s home when he lived in Venice).

What I loved best about this book was the rich detail of the history, politics and customs in Venice at that time. There are little things, such as the names and meanings given to patches depending on where they are placed on the face, and larger things, such as the need to deal with the Inquisitors. And there are always the palazzos on the Grand Canal, masks and Carnivals. There are also incidental characters, real people such as Casanova, who befriend the young couple and whose letters and memoirs have contributed to the book.

I was afraid the story might be too dry or dull, but I was fascinated by it. I did listen to the audio version narrated by Paul Hecht with the letters from the two lovers read by Lisette Lecat and Jeff Woodman. I don’t know if reading it would have been less engaging. I loved how it added romance and an understanding of eighteenth century Venice to my virtual vacation.

If you want a true account of two star-crossed lovers and their forbidden affair in the mid-eighteenth century, with a vivid rendering of the social and political context, give this book a try.

Help me keep my trip to Venice going. Can you suggest any other stories set there?

The Unfinished Palazzo, by Judith Mackrell

palazzo

To make up for not being able to travel, I’ve been taking virtual trips to various places around the world using books, movies, and online resources. Italy called out to me, so I picked up this nonfiction book, subtitled Life, Love and Art in Venice. It is the story of three women who, in succession, owned a palazzo on the Grand Canal.

The Palazzo Venier was built in the mid-18th century by a powerful Venetian family, but left unfinished because of financial problems and the lack of an heir. Thus it became “il palazzo non finite”.

For wealthy noblewoman Luisa Casati, the dilapidated palazzo held an air of mystery and romanticism that appealed to her. Separated from her husband, Luisa took on lovers, including poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, whose credo that “one must make one’s own life as one makes a work of art” matched her own efforts to make an ever more spectacular splash in society. In addition to designing her own outrageous costumes and keeping a menagerie of exotic animals, she gave elaborate belle époque parties that made her famous, including one where she rented the Piazza San Marco itself for her guests, with police to keep out locals and tourists.

The 1929 crash combined with Luisa’s expenditures eventually forced her to sell the palazzo. In 1938 it was bought for British socialite Doris Castlerosse, who had gone from working in a shop to being the mistress of powerful men. Her parties too were legendary, as she hosted film stars and royalty such as Cole Porter, Noel Coward, and Prince Philip while recklessly running up debts.

Ten years later it was bought by Peggy Guggenheim, who had fallen in love with Venice some years earlier and was looking for a place to reinvent herself. She remade the palazzo into a living museum for her modern art collection, opening her home to the public on certain days of the week. Dying, she turned it over to the Guggenheim Foundation which has made it into one of the most famous museums in the world.

The three women come to life in this smoothly written book. There’s lots of drama, but it doesn’t slip over into melodrama or tabloid revelations. You’ll run across lots of famous names, but Mackrell’s respect for her characters keeps the story from seeming too gossipy.

I always like to read about independent, creative women. These three were all a bit over the top: I wouldn’t have liked them in real life but found their stories fascinating. Luisa in particular appealed to me, in part because I too in my less spectacular way believe in treating my life as a work of art. Also, I admired her resilience as she found ways to continue doing so even when she had almost no money.

While the story is really about the three women’s lives and very little about Venice or the palazzo itself, it is an enjoyable read, one I recommend, especially to art lovers or those curious about society during the early twentieth century.

What books have you turned to for distraction during a difficult week?

Best Books I read in 2020

Best Books I read in 2020

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. In no particular order, these are the ten best books I read in 2020. In general, this year I gravitated toward books that either comforted me or gave me courage. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. Horizon, by Barry Lopez
In this profound and generous book, Lopez looks back over some of the travels that have shaped his understanding and philosophy. We go from Oregon to Antarctica, from Nunavut to Tasmania, from Eastern Equatorial Africa to Xi’an in China. The horizon he explores is physically and metaphorically the line where our known world gives way to air, to the space we still know almost nothing about. That liminal space is where exciting things can happen. The quest for knowledge and understanding—along with compassion—are what I value most in human beings.

2. Visitation, by Jenny Erpenbeck
The main character of Erpenbeck’s novel is a plot of land by a lake in Brandenburg, and the homes built there, especially a fabulously detailed home built by an architect in the 1930s. The succession of people who live in this house and next door mirror the changes in East Germany during the ensuing decades. Though short, this novel is surprisingly intense. It made me think about what inheritances are passed on and what are lost, about the so-brief time that we inhabit this world that is our home, and how the earth itself, though changed, persists. Our cares and worries, even in this terrible time, will pass.

3. Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk
This unusual and fascinating novel explores the border between poetry and prose, story and fairy tale. The quirky voice of the narrator is firmly established with the first sentence and sustained throughout the book. Living alone in an isolated community in western Poland, Janina is an older woman who manages her vocation of astrology, the translations of William Blake’s poetry that she and a friend are doing, and the griefs that accumulate over the years. The story sometimes feels like a fable, sometimes a prose poem, sometimes a wrenching view of age and isolation, sometimes a paean to friendship.

4. A Woman of No Importance, by Sonia Purnell
Subtitled The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, this is a fascinating read. If you thought, as I initially did, that the subtitle is a bit hyperbolic, rest assured that it is not. Born in 1906 to a wealthy and prestigious family, Virginia Hall grew up in Baltimore but preferred adventure to marriage. During WWII, she became one of the first British spies—and the first female—in France where she organised Resistance units and provided critical intelligence to the Allies.

5. Abigail, by Magda Szabó
Originally published in 1970, it is the story of 15-year-old Gina who in 1943 is exiled from Budapest by her beloved father, sent to boarding school near Hungary’s eastern border. Headstrong, a little spoiled, Gina rebels, finding creative ways to break the rules at the strict academy. While having many characteristics of a traditional coming-of-age story, and echoes of books like Jane Eyre, Gina’s story is unusually perceptive and complex.

6. Blackberries, Blackberries, by Crystal Wilkinson
These stories feature Black women in rural Kentucky, young and old, each with her individual take on the world, her own idea of herself. In every story, Wilkinson demonstrates the writer’s mantra that the personal is universal. These may be Black women in Appalachia, but I saw myself in each of them. Reading their stories has been a gift, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

7. Gellhorn, by Caroline Moorehead
Moorehead’s biography brings the brilliant war correspondent to life, enhanced by the hundreds of letters Gellhorn wrote during her life, openly detailing personal and professional undertakings as well as her own thoughts and feelings. The biography is subtitled A Twentieth-Century Life. Indeed, although she was always out ahead of others, few things could be more emblematic of that turbulent century than the life of this remarkable woman who challenged customary women’s roles, stuck to her own moral code, and worked relentlessly at her chosen métier.

8. The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
This first novel from Coates is the story of Hiram Walker, a young slave in Virginia whose been assigned to be the personal servant for his half-brother: the white, legitimate son of the plantation owner. The writing, as you would expect from Coates, is gorgeous. I loved the first part of the book, but after that, the story seemed to bog down. Still, this coming-of-age story of a man’s journey to freedom is one of the best books I’ve read recently. I loved the unusual and nuanced way the story embodies the themes of family and memory.

9. Grace Notes, by Brian Doyle
These days I’m turning to books not so much for escape as for courage and comfort, and welcome anything that might help replenish my stores of both. For me, that often means returning to one of my favorite authors. In addition to writing unforgettable stories and essays, Brian Doyle, who died much too young in 2017, was a teacher, magazine editor, husband, father. In this collection of short essays, while not shying away from the darkness, Doyle reminds us of what is good in the world.

10. Anything Is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout
A book by Strout is a balm just now, when we are so traumatised by grief and fear and anger. Yes, she takes us into the terrible crimes human beings, even those in quiet Midwestern towns, visit upon one another, yet she also shows us the complicated people that we are. Without dwelling on the ugliness, Strout evokes in us the emotions of these characters, their trials, their loneliness, and sometimes their quiet redemption.

What were the best books you read last year?