Our book today is that toughest of tough sells, Jaws 2, the novelization of the 1978 sequel to Stephen Spielberg’s blockbuster hit Jaws, which in turn was based on Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws. It’s virtually impossible to convince anybody to even momentarily consider the possibility that Jaws 2 might be as good a movie as Jaws, and even that is a walk in the park compared to getting people to consider the novelization, especially since novelizations already have the stench of derivation heavy upon them (even though a handful in the last century have been quite good). And if that basic concept is a tough sell, how much tougher is the novelization of a movie like Jaws 2, which was legendary in the Hollywood of its day for the script-troubles that plagued it from Day 1? The film’s first two scripts were almost entire scrapped, several writers were fired or walked off in high dudgeon, and several potentially fascinating sub-plots were dropped (just as Spielberg dropped the adultery sub-plot from Benchley’s novel). The screenplay that was eventually sent to industry vet and champion hack Hank Searls for novelizing was by Howard Sackler and Dorothy Tristan – and since it wasn’t the screenplay that eventually got shot for the movie, Searls’ book is significantly different from what movie-goers that summer were seeing in the nation’s theaters.
The movie, as noted elsewhere, is essentially a mystical drama about a supernatural shark who targets the town of Amity for revenge after the shark of the first movie got blown up. There’s no sub-plot: it’s just one long delectable shark-rampage. Not so in Searls’ novel, set two years after “the Trouble” at Amity, when the town is just trying to get back on its feat after becoming the shark attack capital of the universe. The town’s selectmen – led by crass Mayor Larry Vaughan – are hoping a proposed casino will revive Amity’s fortunes, although the plan’s propensity to draw the 1970s’ foremost land-predator – the mafia – has made the plan a sore subject for police chief Martin Brody, hero of “the Trouble” and Amity’s sole Good Man.
The Mob wants a piece of the new casino, and the cash-strapped town somewhat sheepishly doesn’t want to refuse. Also noted elsewhere: good mafia-writing in fiction is tough to come by – but Searls was a quintessential professional, always delivering smart, well-researched, and quietly plausible goods on time and on word count, and his main mob character here, a fat, shambling capo who’s been summering on Amity for three years and enjoys a kind of wary truce with Brody, ends up being very pleasingly three-dimensional, as do most of the character in the book. Even Searls’ throwaway scene-descriptions have a kind of sparse beauty:
He looked out across Amity Sound. The sun was setting on his favorite view. The Cape Cod cottages, backed to the waters, had been built in the days when marine views were unimportant, when you always faced your house to the street. The sand on the flats glowed golden, blackened behind the hillocks with speeding shadows. The golden cross on the spire of St. Xavier’s, last point in town to see the sun, was getting its good-night kiss.
And throughout, Searls shows the screenplay-ready sharp, natural dialogue that made him a favorite with directors and stars in his now-forgotten heyday. When town selectman Tony Catsoulis offers Brody what might or might not be a carefully-planned bribe, the interplay is quick and rock-steady:
“You quit,” Tony agreed quickly, “we’ll put in Hendricks as police chief, and I’ll hire you.”
“As what? A night watchman?”
“Foreman, administrator, manager, you name it. As partner, when you get your general contractor’s ticket.”
He looked into Tony’s eyes. They seemed perfectly sincere. “Thanks,” he said, moved. “But I’m afraid not. No experience.”
“You make $7,200 now. I’d start you at $15.”
“Fifteen thousand. Eighteen? I don’t give a damn.”
Brody stared. His heart began to pump. He saw a Kenmore dishwasher, a TV they didn’t have to squint at, and Mike at Yale … Well, NYU. He cleared his throat.
Tony shrugged. “You don’t steal.”
“Is that worth twice what I’m getting?”
“Everybody knows you don’t. That’s what’s worth it.”
The mob’s presence in Amity is subtle and largely invisible – just as the shark is, this time around. The enormous, marauding beast (in the novel, it’s not malevolent, just pregnant and therefore crazed by hunger into taking outlandish risks) is responsible for a good half-dozen disasters and fatalities of one kind or another, but none says “shark” but the last one, so the town (and Brody) are allowed to look the other way and hope for any other explanation in the world. The suspension of revelation is in itself a neat thrill, expertly exploited by our author.
So I recommend it, dammit! I recommend the novelization of Jaws 2, not just because it’s the Harry Searls novel you’re by far most likely to come across at your local Book Shack, but also in its own right, as a taut, involving novel a good many far more pretentious novelists (Benchley post-Jaws most certainly included) couldn’t write if their lives depended on it. If you find a copy, buy it and read it – you’ll count it an afternoon well-spent.
Our book today is James Hogan’s 1980 time-travel novel Thrice Upon a Time – the one with the, um, interesting cover by Rowena, featuring a suit of armor, a cat, a gorgeous young man, and a big honkin computer. As some of you will know from visiting the Ancient History wing of your local Old Things Museum, computers in 1980 actually looked like that – they weighed fifty pounds, came in that uniform beige casing, and had those black screens with neon green letters. They made a strange, alien addition to, say, a small-town newsroom – sure, they were neat to play with, but it hardly seemed possible they’d ever actually be useful – unlike suits of armor, which once were useful (or even cats, which are at least useful in filling up the world’s ‘Bad Pet’ quotient)(as for gorgeous young men, well …), much less the focal point of anything like drama. And yet Hogan’s novel effectively centers all of its drama around just such a computer, and such is his plodding determination that the reader doesn’t really notice.
This is a time-travel story as only a working scientist could imagine one: it’s just information that travels through time. And while the plot concerns a small group of nerdy protagonists sending messages backwards in time, the most noticeable time-travel element involves not the book’s plot but the book itself: it was published in 1980, but it’s set in 2009. In these pages, Hogan is envisioning a future that’s now our past. It’s both jarring and deeply nostalgic to read how a very smart man envisioned a future thirty years from when he was writing.
You start barking your shins on things right away. In the book’s opening chapter, for instance, the main character (and cover-hottie) Murdoch Ross is waiting at a U.S. airport for the arrival of his friend Lee so they can both travel across the ocean to Scotland – trivial distances, we’re told, because the planes propel themselves sixty miles almost straight up and then come down in a tight parabola to their destination. The airport is buzzing with groundcars and also (inevitably) air-cars as Murdoch waits, but it’s tough to know which is more halting: the air-cars, or the fact that when Lee arrives, he lights a cigarette inside the terminal.
Murdoch’s grandfather in Scotland has had an amazing breakthrough. By harnessing something called ‘tau’ radiation, he’s managed to get his laboratory computer (powered by stacks of processors) to send a six-character message up to two minutes back in time. Hogan may be a thorough wonk, but he’s fairly effective at setting up a tense scene, and the novel’s first few moments showing our heroes receiving these cryptic texts from their future are very well done – especially when it becomes apparent that the future doing the sending isn’t their present, if you follow. The word ‘quantum’ is never used in Thrice Upon a Time, but much of the nonsense of quantum ‘physics’ is here just the same.
An eerily familiar note is struck – accidentally? – when Hogan tells us about young Murdoch and Lee directly after college:
Lee’s main interest lay with computers, an addiction he had been nurturing since an early age. He didn’t find the executive image challenging or inspiring and, like Murdoch, was preparing to go his own way; again like Murdoch, he didn’t know where to. After completing their courses at the university they had stayed for a while at FEC, and then left to set up the consultancy at Palo Alto, on the bay shore a few miles south of San Francisco.
You almost want to substitute the real-world names: they’d fit virtually without alteration. Except that nobody in Thrice Upon a Time actually owns a computer in 2009 – there’s no miniaturization, no conception on the author’s part that computers would ever be anything other than the heavy pieces of lab-equipment they are for Murdoch’s grandfather (it’s a mystery to me why Hogan felt he needed to set this thing in the future at all – perhaps he thought Del Rey wouldn’t consider it ‘sci fi’ enough if he didn’t).
Of course the book’s somewhat nominal plot involves a catastrophe that only the future can help the past prevent, and Hogan deploys half a dozen time-travel cliches to good effect. But a 21st Century reader will still find himself smiling at places the author didn’t intend. Like when our heroes get an expanded message from far-distant 2009 telling them they’ll need to increase the storage on Murdoch’s grandfather’s super-advanced computer in order to receive a bigger temporal transmission. Somehow, they’re going to have to get that baby up above 50 Megabytes …
One quick comics side-note that I just couldn’t resist making: buried in this week’s issues was something called “Thanos: The Final Threat” – a full-color reprint of the two-part story Jim Starlin did for Marvel back in 1977 (back then, the first part appeared in “Avengers” Annual #7 and the second part in “Marvel Two-in-One” Annual #2 – a title-jumping gimmick that was almost unheard of at the time). The story boils down to an epic tussle between the Avengers and a ‘mutant demi-god’ named Thanos who’s in love with Death and wants to bring about the end of all life – and that little synopsis right there should tell you why Marvel would reprint this thing in such a nice volume: at one point in this summer’s gargantuan $400-million-grossing Hollywood blockbuster movie “The Avengers,” Thanos makes a teaser appearance that sets him up as the villain of the next movie. Comic book fans were overjoyed by the move, since it guarantees the next movie will be a sprawling space-epic of the type such fans have always enjoyed, but all non comics-fans saw was a weird-looking purple guy. It’s in Marvel’s best interests to begin raising Thanos’ profile a bit (they’ve been doing that over in the pages of “Avengers Assemble” as well, and very enjoyably). Hence this reprint.
Not that it matters: I’ll take any reason at all as long as it gives truly classic comics moments more time in the sun. And this story – conceived as one big unit by the freakishly talented Starlin, written by him with a winning combination of cosmic grandiosity and simple human emotion, and drawn by him with almost Hogarthian intricacy – is certainly a classic. In Thanos and his endless army of minions, Starlin gives the Avengers an enemy big enough to fight on even terms, and there are some truly definitive action-sequences throughout these pages. But Starlin also very smartly counter-balances all the cosmic stuff with some refreshingly quotidian grounding – in this case, in the form of Marvel Comics’ two best ‘everyman’ heroes, The Thing from the Fantastic Four, and of course Spider-Man.
Starlin’s pursuing his own agenda here as well, giving a finale to one of his most lovingly-shaped characters, Adam Warlock (weird to see Captain Marvel alive and well in these pages too, knowing that his death will be the centerpiece of Starlin’s other Marvel masterpiece, only a few years later). The climactic moment when Warlock comes back from seeming defeat and death to deal with Thanos is every bit as thrilling now as it was a mind-boggling forty years ago.
Classic comics stories like this one are odd things, sometimes determined only by the slowest of consensus. But some of us were eating this stuff up the weeks it was being published – which makes seeing it presented again now on the shelf at my beloved Comicopia all the more thrilling. Comics fans with even an inkling of interest should take advantage of the luxury and snap this issue up.
As I’ve made pretty clear by now, I’m not the world’s biggest fan of DC Comics’ company-wide reboot “The New 52.” When it launched a year ago, I thought many of the titles – including some of the most iconic characters in the world (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, the Justice League, etc.) – were too often muddled, jumbled, and poorly thought-out.
I still think this is mostly true, although a year of work by some of the industry’s top talents has mollified me somewhat. The “New 52″ Batman, for instance, is fantastic, and I was grateful that my beloved Legion of Super-Heroes was largely spared any invidious changes (in fact, it was largely returned to a state of grace, a rare enough thing for that title in the last decade).
This month DC is releasing “Zero” issues of all its titles, designed to give readers a little background to all these new versions of old characters – something it very pointedly didn’t do a year ago, since at the time they really wanted readers to leap right into each title, rather than get bogged down in origin stories. Instead, we’re getting many of those origin stories this month (although told with plenty of leeway for future writers to elaborate), and many of them are, I must confess, nifty. But what struck me most in this week’s batch of comics (apart, that is, from the highlights pointed out on the new blog of Open Letters Contributing Editor Justin Hickey – it’s hands-down the best comics-writing happening on the Web, so if you haven’t checked it out yet, by all means do so)(I’ll be adding it to the blogroll here at Stevereads just as soon as I can recall the proper incantation to make that happen) is how it highlights one of the incontestable great things about “The New 52″: DC gave ongoing titles to virtually all of its best and most iconic female characters.
Wonder Woman, Catwoman, Supergirl, Batgirl, Batwoman … it’s a lineup strong enough to remind people that many of these characters have comics histories going back over 50 years. Seeing them all in stand-alone issues of lovingly-produced comics, after long decades of most of them being given at best guest-starring roles … well, it was a nice sight, long overdue. Granted, the sight is almost immediately undercut by the hit-or-miss quality of the contents (and the rampant sexism evident elsewhere in the reboot, of course), but still … a mighty nice ground-clearing for the future.
I might not agree with some of the editorial choices in “The New 52″ (“I, Vampire” instead of Adam Strange? “Red Hood and the Outlaws” instead of the Atom?) – and even this one is missing at least one 60-year-old pretty face (I refer, of course, to Mary Marvel) – but for all its problems, it’s a step in the right direction.
Our book today is Ivy, the mighty Hilary Spurling’s enormous, definitive 1984 biography of the once-lauded and now completely forgotten Ivy Compton-Burnett. I recently re-read a few of Compton-Burnett’s twenty novels and was amazed all over again by their lean, acerbic, utterly original virtuosity. The lunging enthusiasm of that New Statesman reviewer over Pastors and Masters (way back in 1925) comes always to mind: “… astonishing, alarming. It is like nothing else in the world. It is a work of genius.” We expect such enthusiasms of our daily-grind critics, many of whom mistake for genius anything even slightly more meaty than the heartless, soulless slop they’re fed morning, noon, and night every day of their professional lives (little wonder that so many professional book critics I’ve known in the past degenerated to the point where they could only bear murder mysteries starring “The Toff” while on vacation). But in this case, the enthusiasm was well-earned.
Spurling is best known for her massive biography of Matisse, although this big book on Compton-Burnett is in fact her best work (narrowly beating out The Girl from the Fiction Department, her book about Sonia Orwell, which I highly recommend)(her seemingly effortless, chatty book about Paul Scott is well worth your time also) – best, and of course most melancholy, since the thing represents an gigantic amount of research and original investigation (published to coincide with the centenary of the subject’s birth) done almost pointlessly: not only is Ivy out of print, but so is most of Compton-Burnett (not all, though – thank gawd for the New York Review of Books!). This novelist who was hailed a genius by everybody during her lifetime has failed to find a posthumous audience.
It certainly isn’t from want of anything on Spurling’s part; this is a magnificent biography. Spurling steeped herself in the novels (not at all an arduous task, as anybody who’s read them knows), but she’s also managed that quintessentially rare biographer’s trick of really understanding her subject – no mean feat in this case, because Compton-Burnett, with her Victorian/Edwardian affectations, her formidable intellect, and her somewhat guarded domestic arrangements (she lived most of her life in a splendid London apartment with feminist reformer – and wonderful, though uncollected, literary journalist – Margaret Jourdain), was famously difficult to understand. Somehow, as in all her biographies, Spurling manages it, pulling off passage after passage of sharp insight:
For Ivy especially the strain and horror of the past meant always that relief was the keenest form of joy. If she was still vexed at not having brought off a bestseller, she could count on a gratifying amount of attention, especially from the young (‘All Ivy’s fans are under eighteen, you know,’ said Margaret sourly at the beginning of the war when the bookseller Heywood Hill produced yet another young man anxious to meet or hear more about Ivy); and she must have been pleasantly conscious that as a writer she had at last come into her prime. She was steadily deepening and darkening her range with the series of irresistibly entertaining, unsparing and profoundly unsettling family novels that started in 1935 with A House and Its Head and continued thereafter, with only a brief hiccup in wartime, at two yearly intervals.
Those ‘family novels’ are harrowingly pure, and they awed most of the literary world as they appeared. Compton-Burnett had herself photographed sitting poised at a writing desk, but she actually composed all of her novels in pencil on pads of paper, while sitting in a deep comfy chair by the fireside. If scenes, bits of scenes, dialogue, or clarifications of dialogue occurred to the author at other times, she’d often jot them down on the nearest scrap of available paper – bills, receipts, envelopes – and then hand the whole mess to the worshipful younger woman who came to the apartment regularly to do the typing for both women, and who often, after typing a particular gemlike sentence, would simply stop to marvel at it.
Compton-Burnett’s novels were greedily consumed by both her own generation’s sharpest minds (they unsettled Virginia Woolf, sent Vita Sackville-West into rhapsodies of praise, and struck the author’s long-time friend Rose Macaulay as likely to survive into immortality) and the sharpest minds of the younger generation of writers, figures like Elizabeth Bowen, L. P. Hartley, and Elizabeth Taylor (all three of whom could certainly stand to be better known today). Compton-Burnett was almost unfailingly kind to these younger writers, although in private she was often hilariously cool in her assessments, as when she drawled of Evelyn Waugh, “One must not ask people to do more than they can.” When philosopher A. J. Ayer found himself seated next to her at a dinner, he managed to work up his courage enough to ask her if she minded when people talked to her about her books – and got back the smiling, seemingly mild response, “Not if they have something interesting to say.” Spurling captures it all perfectly: her Compton-Burnett is both prickly and adorable – it’s a thoroughly convincing portrait of a self-consciously difficult subject.
Long before Compton-Burnett’s death in 1969, she had her characters talking with typical frankness about the end of life, the wonderfully telegraphic summation of life. And by the end of Spurling’s masterpiece, we feel as though we lived enough of that life to feel the wistful irony of such comments:
“I am old. I have seen and heard. I know that things are done. Temptation is too much for us. We are not always unwilling for it to be.”
Many years ago, I was briefly hospitalized with deafening ringing in my ears and frequent, completely world-stopping attacks of vertigo (only people who’ve never experienced such attacks refer to them as ‘feeling dizzy’ – ‘feeling dizzy’ is what happens when you stand up too fast; this was the absence of any intuitive feeling of ‘up’ and ‘down’ – or even ‘stationary’ and ‘moving’ … as debilitatingly bewildering as anything I’ve experienced). I went to the hospital unexpectedly, and for the two days I was there, as I recovered, I found myself cut off from my books – always a disorienting feeling. I told this to the young friends I had at the time, and they promptly obliged me … by going to one of our little town’s used bookstores and buying me a random old pulp magazine they were certain I’d hate (they were wags, the lot of them). It was Zane Grey’s Western Magazine, dated March 1956.
They smirked, they left, I read it, and I loved it. It wasn’t the first time I was saved by not being a book-snob, and it wouldn’t be the last.
In that musty old square-bound issue, I found the last thing I was expecting: romance-stories as pure and straight-laced as any Regency. Despite the ultra-masculine cover-illustration and black-and-white line-drawings inside, the actual stories were nothing of the kind. Oh, they contained the requisite gun-play and fisticuffs – but their main point always was love, stumbled across and reluctantly embraced out beyond the frontiers of East or West Coast refinement. That issue contained half a dozen stories of varying lengths, but they all had three things in common: the writers were uniformly more talented than the venue would suggest to those owlhoots unfamiliar with the genre; the male protagonists were almost always very young (early 20ts was the norm); and the whole point of the tale wasn’t that young hero facing down desperadoes or horse thieves but rather that young hero finding a spunky, spirited wife. It wasn’t How the West Was Won – it was How the West Got Married.
I was soon better (that’s a sign of how much time has passed – then, what I had was referred to as a “syndrome” and I recovered; now, four PDRs and the rise of Big Pharmacy later, it’s classified as a ‘disease’ from which you don’t recover – but which you can manage with the aid of a lifetime re-supply of Drug X, Y, or Z), and I came to know the Wild West genre – and the gigantically fantastic works that regularly transcended it … books like True Grit, Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight?, Warlock, the great westerns of Loren Estleman and Elmore Leonard, and most of all, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.
But I reserved a warm spot in my heart for the far cheesier pulp-style western yarns of that old magazine. So you can imagine my smile when I came across a whole bunch of them at my beloved Brattle Book Shop a while back. Some of them were in excellent condition (they obviously hadn’t been ridden hard and put away wet), well able to withstand my nostalgic page-turning on the subway.
I found their world unchanged from that hospital sample of years ago: dozens and dozens of stories (the western short story market boomed in the post-war years, but the 21st Century presides over the last spasms of its long, slow death) of mysterious strangers, desperate loners, smug cattle-barons and their brutal minions, and innocent women-folk sprouting up all over the prairie like baby’s-breath-in-bloom. I found the same tone-deafness for the obsessions of later decades – American Indians are mostly villains here, or else pidgin-talking stooges (to be fair, this is mostly the case even in such modern masters as McMurtry, although it’s a pattern as often as not disregarded by the genre’s reigning king, Louis L’Amour), prostitutes are mostly both smart and virtuous, and for plot-convenience, everybody just plain forgets what everybody elselooks like after, say, two years apart – so surprise identity-revelations are as common as mattress-ticks.
There’s still plenty of corn-dog lyricism, as in “The Ways of Men,” chapter 8 of L. P. Holmes’ “The Fight for Bunchgrass Basin”:
It was saddle work from dawn to dark. The trails of men and cattle crossing and re-crossing. The range, as Cleve Fraser had put it, being tidied up. Brands being hazed back to their proper range after the scattering effect of the big winter drift. Long days and sunny ones, with spring heat giving promise of the summer’s fierceness to come. Earth drying out and dust’s amber haze lifting wherever men and cattle travelled.
But in virtually every case, things still come down to flirtin’, sassin’, courtin’, and woo-in’ … the ending of Philip Ketchum’s “His Brother’s Gun Hand” is a case in point:
“In just about another minute,” Nels said, “I’m going to dismount, pull you down from that horse and kiss you.”
“I think you should,” Callie said. “I’ve been wondering why you waited so long.”
It’s easy to dismiss this stuff for the silly nonsense it almost entirely is – especially from the vantage point of our modern America, with its more complicated views of what constitutes masculinity, its (generally) more respectful attitudes toward women and minorities, and of course it’s sobered geography – most of the sprawling Wild West territories being fought over and died over in these stories is now emptied of people and wholly owned by the U.S. government for its own nefarious purposes. These stories are as lost to the current American world as the stories of King Arthur and his knights are to the England of the European Union – in fact, gawd help us, maybe these stories are the American Arthurian legends, with their dry gullies and long cattle-drives and dusty saloons providing the stage for an entirely lower-rent assemblage of knights, whose only armor is slung on their hips, but whose hearts are just as pure as Galahad’s when it comes to rescuing damsels in distress.
And of course they wouldn’t put up with having no king.
Like everybody else, I turned to the latest New Republic mainly to read Leon Wieseltier’s already-legendary evisceration of Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan. And while that piece definitely lived up to its billing (it’s a shame that the person who could most benefit from it – Ryan himself – will never read it), I was struck even more by Wieseltier’s “Washington Diary” in the same issue, in which he offers his personal tribute to the late Robert Hughes.
I was hoping for just such a tribute from him (like a few other people, I’m hoping for one tribute more, although it may never happen; some things really are just too painful for words), and it pleased me enormously:
He was a charismatic bundle of unmediated terms: refinement and ribaldry; extroversion and absorption; the analytic and the artisanal (in his virtuosity with the saws in his workshop I detected one of the sources of his prose style); floridity and precision; exaltation and black gloom; reverence and profanity. His spectacularly entertaining volubility was furtively supported by what he once called a “freely chosen solitude”: the fray was never all there was. Bob dispensed curses and blessings, and lived a life of both.
What surprised me was the stunning coda that followed this tribute:
I saw [after Hughes’ death] a chilly picture of friends living dispersed and dying dispersed, of time wasted by distance, of the companionship of souls thwarted by all the mindless movement, the swirl and the bustle, the life-tourism that now passes for experience. I miss so many people, and some of them are not even dead. Too many cherished voices are unheard, and the silence of the infinite e-mails terrifies me. I do not wish only to remember. It is not good to commemorate one’s own life. But the world is who you inhabit it with; and it empties out.
The death of friends (or worse, their disappearance; I’ll remember that line “I miss so many people, and some of them are not even dead” for a long time) often prompts such dark and searching thoughts as these, but I don’t expect to see them written for the public, let alone written with such elegance and courage. Hats off once again to our Washington Diarist.
A recent triptych of reviews over at Open Letters Weekly would probably have been impetus enough, but there’s also the fact that it’s (on the calendar, anyway) the end of summer, and summer’s end was the last time I saw (or shall ever see?) Venice, the second city of my heart. I went to live there on the inspiration of a love affair, and I stayed on in appreciation of that affair’s surprisingly congenial sequel, and the whole time I had the most enviable of Venetian luxuries: a redoubtable old landlady who tolerated my dogs, guarded my privacy, and insisted on doing my laundry. I was so thoroughly enamored of my narrow, curving apartment (one of those inimitable ad hoc shapes native only to Venice) that I would pass whole days there in succulent, unaccustomed languor in the summer months, with hot breezes stirring the curtains and bright water-shadows dancing on the ceilings, well-fed dogs (my beagles and the strays I took in) sleeping peacefully all around me. I read Herodotus and Ovid and listened to the slush and suck of the thick green canal water just outside, the lazy traffic of my beautiful littlerio in the Dorsoduro.
I read no books on Venice, then, of course – but outside of Venice they’re unavoidable, and they persist in uncountable multitudes. Fond memories admittedly make me a softer touch for the purchase of such multitudes than I am on, say, Istanbul. I couldn’t resist, for instance, Life on the Lagoons, the chatty, charmingly credulous ‘spirit of the place’ 1909 best-seller by Horatio Brown, which mixes snatches of Venetian history with bits of folklore, the occasional ghost story, and plenty of, er, appreciation for the lusty, brawny gondoliers who plied their trade along the waterways and lagoon of the day. Brown and his gondolier Antonio Salin were fixtures of the city for many years (Brown dedicates Life on the Lagoons to Salin), and it’s safe to say Brown – fat and perspiring displaced scion of Scottish lairds – hoped that by some process of osmosis, he might grow to become Venetian, to somehow overcome that impediment that extracts such pity from Venetians: not having been born in Venice. For all his picture-painting enthusiasm (and vast historical knowledge), Brown never quite pulls it off, although his books on Venice were the toast of the Edwardian world.
American expat Gore Vidal would have understood that desire to become a Venetian by osmosis; he spent a good deal of his adult life living in Italy and was acutely aware of the allure of Venice. In 1987 he … commissioned? Inspired? Oversaw? Claim-jumped? … a book called Vidal in Venice, which consists of page after page of excellent photographs (one of the many rumors surrounding this odd book is that the photos were, to put it mildly, the point of the whole project) accompanied by copious vignettes from Venetian history, all packaged and polished by Vidal with his typically mandarin light touch. Most reliable seems to me to be the urban legend that the book was originally intended to be a “coffee table” thing only, with brief captions and running photo-commentary from Vidal, who then took it upon himself to flesh the thing out with more meaty renderings from the standard Lives of the Doges – the end product has always struck me as having an improvisational feel to it, a very alien feel to the great bulk of Vidal’s work. And in this case it works an undeniable magic, conspiring to make the whole performance feel impromptu, as though one were sharing an endlessly urbane walking-tour with the author.
The photos really are the key to Wright Morris’ beautiful little 1972 book Love Affair – A Venetian Journal, in which Morris, a now-forgotten novelist, book-reviewer, and damn fine photographer, burned through some of the obscene profits he got writing movie screenplays to take an extended, leisurely vacation in Venice, get to know the natives (he could be exceedingly charming when he wanted to), and take an ungodly number of photos of cats (they gravitated toward him in a weird and unseemly manner which never failed to bring him joy). There’s almost nothing in Love Affair that’s touristy or post-cardy; every page features a gorgeous, thoughtfully-composed shot of some unfrequented byway, plus a long paragraph of Morris’ wry, gentle prose – all of it designed to show readers a Venice they haven’t seen, one tourists seldom if ever see. Morris and his wife were good-natured souls, but even their prairie-born tolerance had its limits, and the crushing mass of tourists then booming everywhere in Venice brought them close to exasperation (“Why do the wrong people travel,” asked the century’s best songsmith, “while the right people stay at home?”).
For ten centuries, those tourists had been spellbound and urged to visit Venice by the gorgeous picturesthey were constantly seeing, pictures of this strange and fabled city rising out of the sea. The vast gallery-clogging mass of those paintings form a genre of their own, and in 2007 the great Abbeville Press published a truly amazing thing: a massive (gorgeous, slip-cased) visual history of that genre, with wise (if slightly dazed) accompanying text by Georges Duby, Guy Lobrichon, and their colleagues. The pages are stiff and permanent; the coloring of the over 350 plates is incredibly vivid; the sheer scope of the thing is mind-boggling, even surpassing Abbeville’s magnificent History of Rome in Painting. The end result is a bit on the expensive side but, in this rare instance, entirely worth it – here, on page after page, readers can see the otherworldly waterscapes that were tempting visitors from all over Europe for so long that Venice became an institutional stopover on the Grand Tour. This is that rarest of things, a city that consciously embodied its own artistic representation – and in the pages of this book (a dangerously heavy book, a permanent adornment) show that process starting and then reaching full tide. It’s an astonishing work of art in itself.
Even those generally unfamiliar with the artistic history of Venice will recognize the pinnacle of that history: the paintings of Giovanni Antonio Canal, known to history as Canaletto. It’s a truism to say that in all the world of art, there’s nothing quite like the Venice pictures of this artist, pictures that seem to shimmer and gleam in a noon-day sun that hasn’t dimmed in four centuries, pictures that combine a photographic realism with the most skilled shaping of light by any artist in history. This book, Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals, wants to explode that truism – it’s the companion volume (by the great Charles Beddington) to a gorgeous exhibit that ran at London’s National Gallery, and its purpose is to show that Canaletto doesn’t stand alone, in his time or ours: he had rivals of very nearly the same talent-level (and business hustle) as himself, painters like Guardi, Bellotto, Marieschi, Vanvitelli, and Carlevarijs (the last of whom underwent a mini-renaissance in private sales specifically because of this volume). Although the book wisely cedes the top spot to Canaletto in the end, it conclusively demonstrates that he had a great deal of help selling the allure of Venice to any willing buyer.
Some of those willing buyers in Canaletto’s day were foreigners (now, they all are), people so struck with that allure that they wanted nothing more than to become a part of it (it’s a natural impulse – even those of us whose hearts have been permanently claimed by other cities can feel it’s pull). This is the point of Blake de Maria’s dense and extremely rewarding 2010 volume from Yale University Press, Becoming Venetian: Immigrants and the Arts in Early Modern Venice – that the middle-tier status of citizen (cittadini) in Renaissance Venice was open even to people not born in Venice … that it was in fact possible to become Venetian. Yale did a typically fantastic job on de Maria’s book: it’s oversized and stuffed with illustrations. But it’s de Maria’s strong, flowing prose that’s the main draw here: she’s every bit as good relating chunks of history as she is engaging in wonderfully insightful art-analysis (she also includes several highly detailed appendices on the generations of some famous Venetian families, including, probably because she’s something of a nerd, Giacomo Ragazzoni’s last will and testament … at seven double-columned pages … in Italian …). And her subject – the dream and the reality of becoming Venetian – is smartly chosen: it’s the fuel that powers virtually all those innumerable books on Venice.
These six are just the smallest insignificant fraction of that mighty library of books, although each worthy in its own way (if you’re in a buying mood, however, The History of Venice in Painting is the one to get, heavy and pricey as it is), each responding in its own way to that dream. Those of us who’ve been lucky enough to live in Venice (as opposed to visiting it) can feel the pull of that dream a little more sharply because we’ve tasted the reality before our true homes pulled us back. Books like these form nice garlands to the memory of those salt-air dalliances.
The sublime Anthony Lane (surely it’s time for a follow-up to Nobody’s Perfect?) on the novels of Henry James:
His books are drenched in time: the times at which they were written, and the times and ways in which they were rewritten or left alone; the times in which they are set; the times that elapse in the careers of the characters, as they thrive or sour; the time it takes for a man to split into two, like the hero of “The Jolly Corner,” and to see what he might have become; and, last, the times at which we read them, and, if we happen to be incurable Jamesians, at which they leave us other than we were.