John Berendt, author of the bestselling “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” (216 weeks on the New York Times Bestsellers List), arrived in Venice in the winter of 1996, only a couple of weeks after a fire had destroyed the La Fenice opera house. The building had previously burned twice, in 1774 and 1836, and had been rebuilt both times.
What Berendt recognized was the fire was a story, an intriguing story, and it just might be the prism through which to tell the larger story of Venice. And so he stayed on, rented a room, and began to talk with people.
The opera house fire becomes a framework to write the story of Venice – its history, its politics, its maze of bureaucratic rules, its first families (how many doges do you have in your family line?), the expats who live and have lived there (especially Americans), the rivalries of the charitable organizations set up to save and restore city buildings, artwork, and icons. But it’s not only a story of rich people; Venice is also the story of artists and bakers, gondola drivers and electricians, and the crazy time that is Carnival.
City authorities initially investigated the fire as one of negligence, and there was plenty of ongoing negligence to go around before the fire – cans of solvents left open, blow torches left burning, improper ventilation. And then, in the way that really good stories do, the investigations focuses on arson.
With the story of the La Fenice fire comes the stories of a family of glassblowers, what happened to the papers of poet Ezra Pound, a wealthy American family that has lived in self-enforced exile since the late 19th century, and the battle of Save Venice vs. Venetian Heritage (the rich can be just as petty as the rest us, and perhaps more so). It’s an entertaining mix of fact and myth, perception and reality.
Berendt, a native of New York State, received his B.A. degree in English from Harvard University. He’s worked in publishing, writing for television talk show hosts (David Frost and Dick Cavett), and worked at New York Magazine and Esquire. His story of murder in Savannah, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” was virtually an overnight sensation when it was published in 1994.
“The City of Falling Angels” was published in 2005, the year after the rebuilt opera house was opened. And the story Berendt tells, a story of Venice, is a fascinating one.
As a fan of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" I probably am in the same class as most readers of both books in being disappointed by this second one. It has many similarities to the first: both are first person accounts of several years spent as the "outsider" observing the strange customs of an unknown foreign tribe, like an an early explorer in the wilds of who-knows-where. He brought that sense of awe and naivete more believably to us in "Midnight" where the people of Savannah, his fellow Americans, did come across as truly an unusual group with customs and ways new and different from the rest of us. Somehow, though Venice is an actual "foreign" city for most of us, it doesn't seem so strange; the author doesn't bring to the table the same sense of excitement, of being in a really new environment. And it shouldn't have been that way! There are certainly a large cast of characters; a possible murder that sort of fizzles out; the fire which destroys the old Fenece Opera house, a tragedy for Venetians and Opera lovers; but somehow I never FELT the loss myself...The only one of his little vignettes of which the book is made that I became emotionally involved in was the story of Ezra Pound, and his long-time partner Olga Rudge, their daughter and her family, and the attempts by a nefarious American woman to fleece Olga, then in her 90's, of not just money but more importantly the rights to the papers, and the memorabilia over 50+ years that she had from the late Pound. It is a sad story that if it took place here and now in the States now would fall under elder abuse laws, but there and then seemed to have been brushed off by the authorities, and even Ms Rudges' adult daughter and grandson seemed not to be overly concerned though they themselves took a financial loss. Berendt was perhaps prevented from pursuing further into this, but is was by far the most interesting and heart-tugging episode: Olga in her late 90's going by foot to the bank to get some of her papers from Pound and being told no, she couldn't have them, they now belonged to the "Ezra Pound Foundation" that is, the dummy foundation headed by the American woman and her attorney, and to whom Ms Olga Rudge had unwittingly signed over her control of everything she owned, even her house. That story just stops too. All the side stories seem to just end, with no real feeling of completeness. I know its non-fiction, and things don't neatly wrap themselves up, but in some of the cases, thing ends with a sort of flat thud. I also never got a clear visual of Venice, which is odd too; one would think the gondoliers, the palaces and St Marks Square would all be brought to life...It should have been but it was never clearly painted for me, I think it was assumed I knew it from photographs, but that should not be assumed by an author. Nor were the people he discussed well "painted " verbally. Overall-- though I stayed with it-- a disappointment.
John Berendt's book is a fascinating read for anyone who wants to read about the odd characters from outside the city who have populated it over the last decades. He enjoys showing up hypocrisy, whether it is in connection with the estate of the poet Ezra Pound or those responsible for the fire at the Fenice opera house with which the book opens. Ordinary Venetians scarcely get a word in edgeways. If you have been to Venice and wondered about the forces which have kept it going over the last few years, this is the book for you.
This is the book I buy my friends when they plan a trip to the lagoon city. The Fire at the Fenice Opera House on the Monday evening, 29th January 1996 is at the heart of this wonderful account of post fire Venice. Was it arson, was it negligence? John Berendt trawls the evidence, meets some wonderful people as he trails the calli and campi of Venice, and traces bits of history with myth and memory interwoven into the fabric of his story - this is like a tapas of interwoven stories. We meet the Curtis family, 4th generation Americans who came from Boston; the Volpe family who have been inextricably linked with the development of the city in more recent times. We meet the rat expert whose company has to deal with infestations, who enthuses about the discoveries he makes about rat eating habits (American rats love popcorn, Italian rats love Nutella, plastic (!) and Parmesan, Dutch ones love Salmon and cheese - but none will eat the food popular with the others). We learn of Jane and Philip Rylands who allegedly insinuated themselves into the company of Ezra Pound's widow and appeared to take control of all his papers and memorabilia. Berendt tells the story of the two electricians finally charged with setting the fire at the Fenice, Carella and Marchetti; and of Gianni Agnelli (head of the Fiat Empire) who tendered for the rebuilding of the Fenice but didn't get it. Eight years of rebuilding, shenanigans at every twist and turn, and the first opening concert after the rebuilding was held on the day that Saddam Hussein was discovered, 14th December 2003....
A book written possibly from an American point of view emphasising the various and ongoing fascination and connections that Americans continue to have with La Serinissima. Nevertheless John Berendt gets under the skin of Venice and its people to such a degree that you feel that if you passed them in the Calle you would immediately recognise them from Archimede Seguso to the man of a hundred identities and uniforms to match. Whilst your typical Venetian gets quite emotional quite easily on subjects ranging from pigeons in the city to the increasing maritime traffic through the Lagoon, the author does not let it cloud his view of the situation.For example he provides an insight into the fire at la Fenice from a very different slant, including a view from a near neighbours window of the ongoing tragedy, but one I think that captures the effect of this catastrophe on the city and its inhabitants with a closeness that I have not seen in other accounts of the fire. If you are travelling to Venice do read this book as it will, I believe, make you appreciate the city and its inhabitants with a different view, but one which I believe will get you much closer to what living in Venice is all about. A very good read, however you get the feeling that Mr. Berendt hasn't finished yet with Venice despite everything still captured by the magic of this city?
Amazing - this book is not at all what one may think one's getting! Maybe one expects a gentle wander through Venice, with the odd anecdote, and of course plenty of historical knowledge served up in an oh so casual manner. In short, like a little book of journalistic appreciation of a beautiful place. One or two readers may even expect it to be an insider's guide to Venice- to which they can then point and say "Oh really, he doesn't understand Venice at all". But read the book, and you'll be flabbergasted! Much like the town he is writing about, Berendt confuses you, sets wrong trails, surprises you and eventually makes you realize you've gone in a huge circle to where you've started out from, only with so much more knowledge and experience. His account of the fate of the Ezra Pound papers for example, is one of the most astounding "real crime" accounts I've read - and of course Berendt manages to spin a web which craftily links it up to Henry James' "Aspern Papers". This is a simply amazing book which leave one gasping at his cunning and elegant way of exploring the dark side of the mysterious town called Venice.
If you loved 'Midnight in the Garden of Eden' and were seduced by Berendt's treatment of Savannah, prepare to be a little disappointed. Whilst he has undoubtedly spoken to many Venetians and American ex-pats, at no point does he convince that he has been accepted by Venice as one of her own, or that he has managed to unearth anything even lightly hidden.
His evocations of the city are wonderful, or course, but he doesn't really get beyond second-hand depictions of Venice itself. He may have won a 'sconto' in one of the restaurants, but most of the natives in the book seem to be periphal characters he speaks to once, or twice at most. An American book, by an American.