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4.0 out of 5 stars You can smell Venice, but its taste eludes., December 12, 2007
This review is from: Venice: Tales of the City (Paperback)
This is my first encounter with Michelle Lovric, and it is probably unfair of me to comment on her writing, since this volume is an anthology of other writers on the city (but see below). The blurb on the back states, "Elusive and fantastical, Venice is a multi-layered confection of history. The writers here have captured what is most important to them in pieces ranging from the foundation of the city up to the present time. The voices, entirely diverse, are both international and native." That's as maybe, but to hope to meet a reader's expectations in this way is never likely to prove successful, for any city's charm is bound to be too personal for an anthology to cater in a meaningful way to the tastes of the denizen or visitor. The anthologist can only ever skim the surface in her own chosen part of the lagoon and hope that her tastes match those of the reader.

Now it is quite clear that Michelle Lovric has drunk deeply from the well of writings of both visitors and Venetians alike. The breadth of her reading is also clearly on show, not only in the choice of entries and in her informative and insightful introductions, but it is also clear in the eight pages of her select bibliography at the book's end. We are told that she lives in both London and Venice and has written three novels based in the latter. To her I can only bow in wonder at the extent of her knowledge and be envious of the time she has spent devouring books from such a diverse range of writers, from such a diverse range of times. But, alas, I felt, once I reached the end of her presentation, that her choice would not have been mine, and that the length of her choices were so fleeting as to convey little more than a mere indication of the riches that might be found by digging deeper into its context; in short, I could smell the food but could not taste it. In a sense, this can count as a success, since, armed with the bibliography, I can now - and I will - explore further into the depths offered by certain chosen writers, the range of which is indeed wide.

It did not bode well that the introduction to the very first set piece by Francesco Morosini gives his dates as 1619-94 and then proceeds to refer to his surrender of Candia in 1469. But this is, as far as I can tell, one of only two errors I came across. (The other is in the bibliography where Bernard Berenson's four-volume history is of the 'Italian (i.e. not the Venetian) Painters of the Renaissance'; the Venetian volume is but the first of the four.)

She divides her book into topical chapters so that we have writings about gondolas and gondoliers grouped together, and one on artists, and one on Carnevale, etc etc. Each chapter is preceded by a short collection of Venetian proverbs ("First Venetians, then Christians" being for me the cardinal one of all) and some short extracts that act as an antipasto to the main course. Many of these are amusing. I particularly enjoyed Horatio Brown's sardonic riposte to a Venetian doctor's treatise on the art of sitting in a gondola - "The art is all too easy to learn; it consists in yielding yourself to the cushions and the boat." Mark Twain is equally amusing in his attempts to identify the saints appearing in the artistic treasures of the city - "We do this because we humbly wish to learn. We have seen thirteen thousand St Jeromes, and twenty-two thousand St Marks, and sixteen thousand St Matthews, and sixty thousand St Sebastians, and four millions of assorted monks undesignated."

There are clearly some writers on Venice that cannot be omitted - Goldoni, Byron, Casanova, Whistler, James (Venice, "being the most beautiful of tombs"). They are all here, but I was pleasantly surprised to be introduced to others, of whom I did not know had connections with the city: William Dean Howells, Benjamin Disraeli, Joshua Reynolds. But where this anthology might rise above the claims of others, is that perhaps half of the book consists of the words of Venetians - or, at least, Italians - themselves. Michelle Lovric has clearly done us a service in translating and introducing us to the voices of the natives, from the traitor Doge Marino Faliero to the modern-day Doge Paolo Barbaro.

Some may raise eyebrows that Michelle Lovric has included an extract of her own, from her first novel 'Carnevale', but, actually, the writing is quite good, and I hope to explore her novels in the not-too-distant future. One of the strengths of her anthology is that she can point us in the direction towards other literary works about the city that are not so well-known as, say the novels of Henry James. These little-known gems include novels by Hans Habe, L.P. Hartley and George Sand. One other benefit of this book is that she tells how it is possible to adopt a Venetian cat long-distance.

So, in conclusion, whilst there are gems to be had within this volume, overall I cannot claim to have been inspired by the choice of voices, but this negative reaction is due largely perhaps to the brevity of the choice cuts on display. A lesser number of entries, with those that remain being treated at greater length, would have been, for this reviewer, more satisfying.

But as an example of some of the wonders within this anthology, I'll finish this review with an extract from my favourite poem presented therein, one whose words of charm and promise immediately attracted my playful soul. In his poem 'Blindfold', Gregory Warren Wilson teases his lover thus: -

"If you ever take me for granted, I'll take you by the hand, confound you this way and that in a maze of Gothic passageways I memorised year by year, nameplate by shutter by headstone, to a place where the scent of a crushed geranium mingles with the sour lagoon - a blind alley that comes to an end in three scooped steps down to a green canal; there I'll unfasten the muslin binding your eyes and say `Venice all Venice is lapping your feet and darling you'd be lost without me'."

You won't be lost without this book, but you will find some places where some crushed geraniums mingle with the sour lagoon.
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