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A provocation – differing views on Venice: Part The Second…

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Against Venice by Regis Debray
Translated by John Howe

Debray’s book is the third of the titles discussing Venice I’ve read in recent months; and honestly I’m not sure quite why I’ve been drawn to them at this particular time! I’ve never been massively attracted to the city, although it *has* featured in books I’ve read like Antal Szerb’s “Journey by Moonlight“. My views on the city may well have been a little disparaging, from reading about the mass tourism which afflicts the place and also from hearing about the smelly flooding my aforementioned boss suffered on a visit! Nevertheless, both Brodsky and Simmel laud the place; Regis Debray, however, offers a counterview which is just as interesting as the arguments in the two other books and which is one which might be expected to find favour with me. But I’m not so sure…

Debray himself is a fascinating character. A noted French intellectual born in Paris, his life includes a spell fighting with Che Guevara in Bolivia, a period as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Havana, and even working as a Government adviser back in France. “Against Venice” was originally published in French in 1995, and then issued by Pushkin Press in 2002, with an afterword by Debray written at the end of 2001. Mine is a later Pushkin edition from 2012, with lovely French flaps and gorgeous design, and I happily picked it up in a sale at the LRB Bookshop! But enough of that – what of Debray’s essay?

It is a polite place, where people get depressed but stop short of suicide.

Well, it’s very clear from the start that Debray is declaring himself as emphatically not a fan of Venice. He deplores its artificiality which he equates with a lack of spontaneity; and he makes numerous comparisons with the living, changing city of Naples, the latter always coming out on top. He rails against its falsity, the vulgarity of the place and its occupants, as well as the social-climbing of the latter. This is a Venice seen in the middle of its busy season, swamped by tourism (unlike Brodsky’s off-season visits) and it’s not a pretty sight. Debray seems to feel that the city has been so commercialised that it has in effect been ruined and even if you were to allow for its various attractions, any appeal has been wiped out. Certainly, as Debray makes clear, it’s hard at times not to see the city as a cliché of gondolas, canals, masks and glitter.

Regis Debray in 1970 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The author, as befits someone with his intellectual pedigree, is an erudite commentator and the essay is littered with literary references to everyone from Proust to Paul Morand. However, he’s perhaps being a little disingenuous in his railing against Venice as he does claims in his afterword that it is only what has become of the city, what’s made of it by tourism that he has an issue with. Certainly tourism can set a place in aspic; once it ceases to evolve and change but is (as Debray calls it ) museumised, then the real appeal, the living breathing heart of the place has gone. I can’t judge if that’s the case with Venice, as I’ve never been, but I’ve certainly seen it happen with places I love and I understand what he’s saying (though I don’t know if the original essay is always clear enough about this aspect). Debray reminds us that the Italian Futurists condemned Venice for being fixed in the past, wanting it smashed up, and it’s a provocative viewpoint.

Venice plays at being a town and we play at discovering it. Like urchins, like actors. With time for a time suspended, we abandon the seriousness of real life for the as-if of a charade of life. It’s like going up in a balloon.

If I’m honest, I’m not sure I entirely agree with Debray’s viewpoints on art of all types; he’s pretty dismissive of much of Baudelaire, for a start! His insistence on the authentic is almost strident at times, and I found myself questioning just how subjective his (or anyone else’s) view of what is authentic might actually be. If you approach Venice expecting it to be smoke and mirrors, mask and illusion, where is the harm in that? I suppose his point, perhaps, is that Venice is too venerated when you bear in mind what it actually is, which is an artificial construct built on a piece of reclaimed land with a debatable function. Is it art? Is it a living city? Who knows? And like so many places we might dream of visiting, but never do, there is the question of whether the Venice of the mind lives up to the real city; which is doubly so in a place so rooted in illusion.

… here we are, elsewhere and moving differently, on foot or like a cork on the water; no doubt about it, we have passed through from the other side of the mirror.

So “Against Venice” ended up being a slightly ambiguous, often playful, never dull and probably never entirely serious take on “The City of Masks”. Debray is perhaps less seduced than the other two writers I’ve read on the subject, preferring the hustle, bustle and down to earth nature of Naples to the artificiality of Venice. Nevertheless, his essay took a fascinating look at this very individual city; and all of this reading about Europe is giving me very itchy feet… 😀

Stepping into Spring – dare we consider reading plans…? :D

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You might have noticed that not only am I bit rubbish at doing monthly round ups, I’m also notoriously bad for not following reading plans (when I’m silly enough to make them). However, I realised over the weekend that I’ve actually read very little during March – so little it was actually shocking. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s my busiest time of year at work (with financial year ends and budgeting and the like) and admittedly I’ve been fairly worn out at the end of the day and haven’t had the energy to do much at all; even the Dostoevsky marathon has slowed down a little…

But with spring approaching, as well as the Easter hols, I’m hoping for a bit of a resurgence of reading energy; and on that basis, here *are* some very loose plans of what I hope will happen on the Ramblings in the next month!

Finishing Dostoevsky

The Russian Chunkster…

First up, I *will* finish “The Devils” – of that I am sure! It’s a wonderfully involving, very dark and very funny and yes, very Dostoevskian read and I’m loving his characters and situations. It’s a long book that needs stamina and I think I’m about to get my second wind! 😀

More Thoughts on Venice

When I haven’t had the gumption to pick up the Russian Chunkster, I’ve been enjoying some slimline books about the City of Bridges (or Masks or Water or Canals, depending who you consult) – Venice! It’s a place that seems to polarise opinions, and it’s been fascinating and bracing to read what people think of it. There’s one more book to be covered and that will hopefully be soon.

The 1965 Club

Most important of all (hah!) in April is of course the next of our reading week Clubs. Simon at Stuck in a Book and I are looking forward to co-hosting this and the year in question will be 1965 (so hopefully you’ve all been planning and reading up in advance). The Club will take place from 22nd to 28th April, and I’ll have a page where you can post links as well as coverage of what I’ve read, what I recommend and what I loved in the past from that year. The Clubs are always great fun so I do hope you’ll all join in with the #1965Club – we’d love to have you take part!

*****

So that’s what I potentially have lined up for April. I’m particularly excited to see what people discover for the #1965Club, and am looking forward to some interesting reads myself – watch this space! 😀

Masks and illusions – differing views on Venice: Part The First…

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Watermark: An Essay on Venice by Joseph Brodsky

Venice is a city which inspires extreme reactions; Georg Simmel, in his book I reviewed here, claimed that “Venice possess the ambiguous beauty of adventure, floating rootlessly through life, like a torn flower borne on the sea.” Russian poet Joseph Brodsky is equally entranced, as I’ll discuss in this post. However, I’m following that read with a counter-voice which comes from French intellectual and activist Regis Debray – more of that in a future post. Certainly, it’s a city that’s unique…

Very pretty and festooned with post-its….

Brodsky’s book was first published in 1992, and the lovely Penguin Modern Classic edition caught my eye during my recent Waterstones Wobble. I already own a collection of Brodsky’s essays, also in the Penguin, but a quick flick convinced me this would be interesting. Brodsky himself was a fascinating character; born in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was known at the time) in 1940, he and his family survived the siege, although it had a lasting effect on his health. Because of their Jewish background, the Brodskys were often on the receiving end pf anti-Semitism, causing Joseph to feel like a dissident from an early age. He began writing poetry from an early age and eventually was mentored by no less than Akhmatova. However, he fell foul of the Soviet authorities, eventually being expelled in 1972 and after a little wandering, ended up in the United States where he lived and taught until his death in 1996. That sense of dislocation, of being peripatetic, certainly comes through in this essay, which I found quite mesmerising. And what’s not to love about a book that opens with these words:

Many moons ago the dollar was 870 lire and I was thirty-two. The globe, too, was lighter by two billion souls, and the bar at the Stazione where I’d arrived on that cold December night was empty. I was standing there waiting for the only person I knew in that city to meet me. She was quite late.

“Watermark” is subtitled an essay, but that’s perhaps a little misleading as it certainly isn’t structured in a traditional way. Instead, Brodsky ranges very far and wide, taking in his memories, his experiences of Venice, his reactions to its climate, its architecture, its very soul. The result is a wonderfully impressionistic sketch of a city which in many ways defies definition. He discusses books set in Venice that were pivotal in his reading life; and objects from his past which drew him to the place. An encounter with Ezra Pound’s mistress, Olga Rudge, is entertaining and yet disturbing. One piece which resonated was his description of the flooding of Venice, an event that takes place on a regular basis; I recall my last boss telling me of her visit to Venice when the city was overtaken by water, and her experience of walking around in waders and the stench…

But crucially there are musings on beauty, where it exists and how our eye finds it. That element of vision, and the visual, is crucial to Brodsky’s reading of Venice; it’s a place of reflections, both from multiple mirrors and the water itself, and the book is bursting with aquatic and seafaring language and imagery. Of course, Brodsky’s language is beautiful (as befits a poet) if sometimes a little oblique, and full of allusion – I’m guessing that some of its unique quality perhaps comes from the fact it’s written in English which was not Brodsky’s first tongue, and certainly there’s almost an air of Nabokov in there at times. As you can see from the sheaf of post-its in the picture above, I could have pulled out all manner of quotes but in the end I think you need to read the whole work in one go.

In “Watermark” Venice comes across as very much a mixture of decay and artifice, a city which attracts some and repels others. It’s a place with canals instead of roads, all glitter and surface, full of facades and although the falsity can be off-putting for some, Brodsky is seduced. Venice cast its spell so strongly over him that he returned annually over a period of 17 years; I wondered if perhaps something about the city was more appealing to an exile, a city suited to someone transient, an observer. Additionally, the constant recurrence of the aquatic motifs left me thinking that Brodsky might have been drawn to the place because of its similarity to Petersburg, another city constructed on land reclaimed from the sea.

In the end, Brodsky’s take on Venice is a very individual one, more of a prose poem than an essay, an extended meditation that is as much about his life, his loves and his thoughts as it is about Venice. It’s a fascinating and absorbing piece which creates a haunting effect which lingers in the mind; and it does seem that Venice left a watermark on Joseph Brodsky’s soul.

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