I lived in Venice for two years, and I hated it. In conversations I used euphemisms and turns of phrase (among my favorite either you love it or hate it! and it’s a… difficult city), but I was lying through my teeth. I fucking hated it.
I came there from Milano to get my Master’s at Ca’ Foscari University. I consider it part of my cultural heritage that I look at Life in all its forms with the deepest skepticism and contempt. It is a marvelous thing and a disgusting horror how Milanese my age–think the cultural region rather than the municipality–feel the need to question everything, cannot physically accept a statement without looking for a fight, usually through that ready verbal sword: yeah, but.
There’s the small things you don’t quite expect. Garbage collection will have you get up at seven to take down your trash, with little care for your sleep habits. You’ll be going to bed early anyway: everything tends to close down early around town. Getting to classes or work in the morning sometimes feels like playing hopscotch, as you avoid both trash bags and the killer seagulls feasting on them. The seagulls are vicious; they will attack you. I have seen them steal sandwiches and do all sorts of perverted things.
There’s absolutely no traffic, so that yeah, there’s no smog and little noise, but the pizza guy can’t get to you, and you’ll have to go and collect your pizza yourself—an outrage.
Venetian cuisine is delicious, alternating luscious aristocratic treats with genuine popular dishes, soups and stews that will make your forearms grow hairy. It is also a well kept secret. Very common in its place are those checkered-tablecloth tourist traps where you’ll get microwaved pasta someone scribbled with a pen and called spaghetti al nero di seppia.
Historically, Venetians have had to exploit every useful inch of land. Their houses tend to be very close to one another. I have spent weeks stuck in a timeless limbo, unaware of weather conditions, every hour of the day turned into a perennial dusk by the building in front of my windows, until the need for pizza drove me outside and straight into Venice’s number one major no-joke problem.
All those hordes of tourists, turning into sheer madness a place that already, by its very nature, sounds like a pretty whacko idea.
The most perceivable sign of the locals’ growing lack of patience with tourists is the No Grandi Navi movement, its banners ubiquitous around town. They oppose cruise ships gliding by the town, a literal stone’s throw away from St Mark’s, the Doge’s palace, the houses and shops of 50,000 people.
Top all of this off with the threat of global warming, and its implication of rising sea levels. There have been attempts at building dams, barriers, other high wizardry from Northern Europe. Corruption has eroded all of that faster than any killer algae.
All of this mess is not theoretical: it is never in the back on your head. You have it forcefully-injected in your system when you get stuck on a congested tourist route. You feel it pierce your insides when you look for an apartment in Venice’s saturated, tourist-oriented market. You have it spread over your body when you are pressed, car wash style, between enraged locals and oblivious tourists, you innocent soul, just out looking for a pizza.
How peculiar that Venice, so proud of its independent heritage and never too far from dreams of secession, is enshrouded in a quintessentially Italian air: that of an immense beauty cursed by an impending doom, marred by a lethal combination of incompetence, carelessness, and somebody else’s fault, which will one day soon lead to the inevitable total collapse.
I first heard of Ascension at a presentation in a fancy Venetian hotel. Golden stucco in every corner, frescoed ceilings, people everywhere with one surname too many. Gregory Dowling introduced his 18th-century adventure by commenting on how happy he was to be living in what was, after all, the most beautiful city in the world.
YEAH BUT what do you know. You’re from Bristol.
He proceeded to illustrate the reasons why he had written the novel. Established Venetians complimented him for his historical accuracy. The sexual habits of the Venetian nobility was discussed. I decided to read the book.
Venetian fiction abounds. Not even Yours Truly at the nadir of his relationship with Venice (the day that gondolier almost beat me) could deny that Venice is the perfect setting for pretty much any story, from romance to comedy, from the high-octane thriller to the horror tale. I myself wrote, and buried, a half dozen Lovecraftian stories set in Venice, turning the city’s climate of secrecy, pride, and hostility toward foreigners into a curse originating in underground fungi, in covenants with fish people.
Literature has given us so many brilliant Venice books. I know people who make a living studying Henry James’s Venetian fiction. Yet it seems to me that so many Venice stories do not do justice to the marvelous mess they exploit. Mann’s Death in Venice, if you allow me the blasphemy, could have been Death in Gatteo a Mare without changing much of its marrow. Donna Leon’s highly popular Venice stories undoubtedly make for excellent page turning, but I have it from native sources that their murdery, incestuous Veneto shares little with the one you and I can get a flight to.
Dowling’s Venice is the real deal.
You can’t portray a mess such as Venice through a single perspective, except when you pull it off. It helps that Ascension’s first-person narrator, just like its creator, is at once a Venetian and an outsider. The son of an Venetian actress, raised and educated in England, our hero Alvise has come back to Venice to work as a cicerone, a guide for wealthy tourists on their obligatory Venetian leg of their Grand Tour around Europe.
Alvise’s love of Venice is not the visceral love of a patriot or proto-nationalist, the type the pressure cooker of history is very good at making fester. It is the nuanced, contradictory, slow-cooked passion of someone who can remember the first time they saw St Mark’s square, and Venice beckoning like an impossibility from the mainland. It is the type of lucid love that allows you to lose yourself into your adored while aware of their manias and horrible flaws.
Alvise’s status as a foresto, a perennial stranger to Venetian eyes, allows Ascension—and even more its sequel, The Four Horsemen—to play with topics and social dynamics that will be familiar to anyone inhabiting this constellation of messes called Europe. Alvise’s Venice is a city whose squares and salotti allow for the intermingling of people from all over the 18th-century world, each one convinced to be carrying the torch of civilization. Dowling’s British noblemen look upon Venice as a place of intrigue and mystery, one best experienced without wandering far from a gondola and a guide. Venetians see these wealthy visitors as opulent, uncivilized barbarians. Wandering poets from the eastern Mediterranean look at the “civilized” Venetians as nothing but thieves and raiders, a pirate empire now facing a well-deserved decadence.
Whenever Dowling stages such a two-paragraph clash of cultures, one is reminded of coffee room discussions about the backstabbing extravaganza of a morning spent in line at an Italian post office; of philosophical tirades against any people barbarous enough to reject the bidet.
This intermingling of people, giving them the chance to bitch about each other, may very well be what made Venice great. It definitely is where the genius of Dowling’s novels lies: in the way they portray, without renouncing the clarity and immediacy of immersive fiction, an almost Cubistic overlap of perspectives on Venice. There are people in Ascension who love the city; there are people in it that hate it. A young Englishman just arrived into town cannot wait to find a casino, maybe a brothel too. He finds the palaces impressive, totally worth casting a glance at, as long as they’re on the way to a place where you can gamble, hopefully fornicate. He is your classmate’s cousin from suburban Massachusetts, ready to swear that seeing Venice has always been his supreme dream in life. He will be turbo-ejecting his kebab+spritz combination from on top of the Rialto Bridge by nine o’clock at the latest, hopefully not on anyone’s gondola. (You do not fuck with gondoliers).
You get the snotty foreigner enjoying the salotti and palaces of the city while carefully maintaining the contemptuous air of someone who’d rather be in a more civilized place.
You get eastern Venetians mistrusting western Venetians, living up to the fullest the animosity between the town’s sestieri, its districts. These people built their bridges keeping clan wars in mind, and to this day you can perceive some of the internal rivalries one finds in any big city. If the Brooklyn-Queens feud seems somewhat pointless today, imagine it translated to a place where you can stroll from one end of town to the next in less than an hour. No one ever said Venice made much sense.
So far I have avoided talking about the plot of Dowling’s novels. That is part of the fun I’ll let you have by yourself. Suffice it to say that some of their charm lies in their generic contamination. They are thrillers alright, but not the type that feels the need to close every chapter with a cliffhanger. Dowling can rely on characterization, humor, sometimes on sheer lyrical prose to carry you from one page to the next. While fast-flowing and action-packed, these books leave enough space for reflection, romance, and for the vicarious satisfaction of the senses. Every fan of Andrea Camilleri or George R.R. Martin knows that part of the fun of it all lies in gormandizing the verbal banquets these masters set up for you, in rustic Sicilian restaurants or toasty wilderness outposts. So one reads Dowling to take in the palaces and monuments, to talk crap about the last failure or success in Venetian theater, to take in the smell of a cheese shop in Dorsoduro, taste the coffee and discuss poetry in a noblewoman’s salotto.
One can use Ascension and The Four Horsemen as a sort of guide to Venice, I imagine, either to prepare for a vacation or to whet the appetite before the next visit. Indeed, one can cook and enjoy an outlandish, opulent fantasy feast: I hear they offer this type of thing these days. It would be a mistake, though, to believe that such literary pleasures exhaust themselves as props for the real thing. Dowling’s Venetian novels are not to be mistaken for guidebooks any more than Camilleri’s Montalbano series is a recipe book in disguise. Their beauties and flavors are there to be enjoyed, first and foremost, for their own sake: they are there to lull you into a stupor and get your feet up on the ottoman, so that when you put them down again they’ll be touching 1749 Venice, rather than your ugly carpet.
Again I have dodged the question of the plot, so here it is—very simply put, after a series of fateful encounters our hero, Alvise, is vividly encouraged to work for the Venetian government in order to collect information about those who would put the safety of the Most Serene Republic in jeopardy.
With its thick web of spies and summary justice, 18th-century Venice is paralleled in The Four Horsemen to Stasi-ruled East Germany. Indeed, never at any moment do either Alvise or Dowling try to disguise the ugliness of the city they’re so in love with. All successful urban fiction—all honest urban fiction at least—has to find a way to tackle the contradiction at the heart of New York, Vigata, and everything in between: the fact that any city worth talking about is going to be an example of the best and the worst its people are capable of.
Dreamy as it is—I’ll get to the dreamy part soon enough—Venice has a messed-up history of segregation, injustice, terror. Think of the Jewish ghetto. Think of the opulence of its palaces and upper classes, side by side with cramped houses packed with people who’d spend their lives confined to their fraction of an already tiny kingdom: a square, a church, a few canals to draw the boundaries of your universe. One cannot fully love a town without facing all this madness. Alvise faces the madness of Venice time and again in Ascension, time and again in The Four Horsemen.
It makes all the more sense that the people he works against are often Venetian patriots whose love has grown cancerous. There are traces of the occult in Dowling’s novels, bizarre acquatic contraptions, half-assed plans to take Venice back to its past glory or avenge some long-forgotten crime. Hidden behind all this like a barge behind a bush is the sneaky suspicion—which titillates my Milanese smartassery most pleasantly—that people are just full of shit, and use patriotism and history as tools to get what they want, which generally is “more.”
If you think all this talk of weird contraptions does not become a Venetian historical novel, then you have obviously not heard of those people who were arrested in 2014 for planning to invade St Mark’s Square with a tank (!) and proclaim Venice’s independence.
During my last evening in Venice, I took a walk by the Zattere, my favorite place in town and—damn you, you cursed city, you—why couldn’t you just suck.
There was a pink sunset instead. You can see the mainland from the Zattere, the steel arches and chimneys of Marghera. Europe’s largest chemical plant is somewhere over there, both close and worlds away from your dreamy floating city.
The feeling I got that night, and on many others during my time in Venice—when the light is right and there’s people around you, but not too many, speaking all sorts of languages and dialects—is the same feeling I got while lost in Dowling’s novels. The pleasure of inhabiting a dreamy reality, away from the world and its pollution. There is a danger in there, in forgetting how your island of bliss is part of the larger world, with its doom and failures. Dowling’s novels, not even at their most thrilling, allow you to forget for more than a few pages that the issues faced by their characters, while making for excellent entertainment, are the same ones waiting outside your door. The tide keeps rising. The ships keep coming. Those whose love of Venice has grown deformed threaten all sorts of measures to hold the city in their suffocating embrace.
The characters in Dowling’s Venice talk of the city as doomed, a once-great Empire turned into a pleasure house for foreigners. More than two and a half centuries later, Venice has survived much grimmer times than any of them could imagine. The talk around town has not gotten any less bleak. Seeing how the city has come so far, it would be easy to dismiss its problems as the hysteria of any one party. The locals are just crazy, them and their hate of ships; the masses just need to leave, and everything would be fine again.
This seems doubtful. One will have to confide in Venetians—in the wise gondoliers, enlightened storekeepers, down-to-earth noblewomen Dowling sketches and animates. You can be a pessimist all you want, but if you can convince someone from Castello that Western Venetians are people too—and I have seen it happen, in Dowling’s fiction and in real life—than there is hope for the human race.
I am in England at the moment, not too far from Dowling’s Bristol—definitely a place you either love or hate. There’s a canal not far from here that people come from all around the place to see, photograph, take strolls by. They claim it is very pretty.
And I miss Venice, miss its dark silent calli and the quiet you get in November and January, when tourists leave the town be for a while and you can take in its foggy air, saturated with centuries of messy history. This is the real curse: to know that I hated Venice when I was there, and now have to hate myself for the time I spent complaining about pizza. To know that I will keep missing it.
I feel it calling me, like the ancestral urges of a Lovecraftian character waking up one morning and finding gills on his neck. I was in Milano the other day, cycling through the five p.m. traffic and cursing at people who learned to drive on YouTube. Someone honked at me and questioned my grasp of road rules, and my mother’s.
And I found myself thinking, in the most spontaneous of ways: ghe sboro.
The curse is in me alright.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.