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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The City of Falling Angels

Continuing my inadvertent theme of reading books with a strong sense of place, I just finished The City of Falling Angels, by John Berendt of Midnight in the Garden or Good and Evil fame. In this case it’s not a coincidence, as it was recommended by an Italian teacher with whom I was discussing Blood from a Stone. Like that book, The City of Falling Angels is about Venice; unlike that book, it is non-fiction. As Berendt points out in an interview that constitutes the afterword, Venice shares many characteristics with Savannah, even though they’re actually totally different: both are unique, bound by their history, and inward-looking.

Berendt recently spent several years living in Venice, and this leisurely book is the result. Don’t read it if you want fast-paced action! Although it’s written in the form of a novel — with a story line, three-dimensional characters, conflict, and resolution — it’s definitely not a novel. And it’s not a comprehensive view of Venice and Venetians; some reviewers justifiably complained about Berendt’s focus on upper-class Venetian society, but read the book for that particular perspective, that slice of life in Venice. It’s not only not a novel, it also isn’t a sociological treatise. What it does is bring Venice to life, along with many of its fascinating characters. (Unlike what he did in Midnight, Berendt has created no composite characters and no fictionalized events: this is totally non-fiction.) The principal narrative arc is the famous arson fire in the Fenice opera house, which frames the story line but in no sense dominates it. Yes, you do find out who (probably) set the fire, but that’s not the point: you have to enjoy hearing in depth about the many people Berendt meets or learns about in Venice, thinking about them as forming the big idea of the book, not as asides. There is a lot of focus on the ex-pat community — not surprisingly, since Berendt was temporarily one of them. Peggy Guggenheim and Ezra Pound may not spring to mind as true Venetians, but they’re an important part of the story. Read it before you go.

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