Our book today is A Wanderer in Venice by our old friend E. V. Lucas, written in the last halcyon interval the world has ever seen and published just as that interval was ending, in November of 1914. Lucas was an indefatigable writer (as shocking as it will seem to our modern ethics, he even wrote some book reviews under a series of assumed names), and throughout his professional career, he enjoyed the rare and enviable opportunity to do that most exotic and profitable of all freelance work: travel-writing. His “Wanderer” columns are all worth reading, and the string of his books titled “A Wanderer in (fill in the destination)” are all hugely worth reading – he’s a wonderful, genial companion on the page, as generous to other writers (in A Wanderer in Venice, he has several nice things to say about William Dean Howells’ own charming Venetian volume, Venetian Life) as he is alive to their occasional shortcomings. He himself has almost no shortcomings – his travel-books are as glittering and assured as only a very bored man could make them. When he writes about St. Mark’s: “…you must be passive and receptive. No cathedral so demands surrender. You must sink on its bosom,” he’s quietly giving the reader some very pointed instructions.
The professional travel-writer must never hate any destination in print, and Lucas knew that in his bones. He, too, is practiced in the art of surrender. Although in the case of Venice, he correctly describes the laid-back atmosphere of the whole place back before the bulk of the deplorable 20th Century:
I too have seen the beginning of many quarrels, chiefly on the water. But I have seen only two Venetians use their fists – and they were infants in arms. For the rest, except at traghetti and at the corners of canals, the Venetians are good-humoured and blessed with an easy smiling tolerance. Venice is the best place in the world, and they are in Venice, and there you are! Why lose one’s temper?
In a typically self-deprecating move, Lucas opens A Wanderer in Venice by telling his readers that they really ought to go elsewhere if they’re looking for in-depth history of the city, or in-depth analysis of its artwork or social structure, etc. He nevertheless mixes in as much of this sort of thing as could be harvested in some comfortable trips to the Reading Room of the British Museum – but the passages are distinct from his lovely, eloquent personal reflections, and they’re always offered with a faint air of apology. The incredible back-log of books generated by Venice doesn’t exactly oppress our author (he was too prolific for such paralyzing thoughts), but he’s aware of it all the same:
Venice needs a whole library to describe her: a book on her churches and a book on her palaces; a book on her painters and a book on her sculptors; a book on her old families and a book on her new; a book on her builders and a book on her bridges; a book – but why go on? The fact is self-evident.
Venice doesn’t just need those things – it’s received them, many times over. Already in Lucas’ day, the idea of adding another volume to the pile should have been considered a fantastic extravagance, almost completely indefensible. He knew that as well as anybody, and his own defense is typically wistful:
Yet there is something that a single book can do: it can testify to delight received and endeavour to kindle an enthusiasm in others; and that I may perhaps have done.
The real defense – that the public is always buying – he leaves unsaid. Gallant man.