Published in 1995, John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was one of those books whose success could be measured by the fact that dozens of people pretended they had read it when they hadn’t. Was this a novel, we wondered, or just snappy reportage with a few names changed and a spot of discreet decorative interference with actuality? Not that it mattered, so enjoyable was the pungent cocktail of murder, voodoo and gender reassignment amid the premier gratin, white or black, of Savannah, Georgia.
Some ten years on, Berendt has attempted a repeat performance in The City of Falling Angels, turning his attention from criminal Dixie to a Europe over whose unregenerate wickedness Americans have lately delighted in tut-tutting. Sin City in this new book is Venice, a place burdened for several centuries with a largely undeserved reputation for decadence and skulduggery. A powerful whiff of the latter nevertheless hangs around the charred remains of Teatro La Fenice, whose destruction by a pair of somewhat hamfisted arsonists is the signal for Berendt to drop his pose as an innocent tourist and trouble the waters of the Grand Canal with a few inconvenient questions.
Penetrating La Serenissima at her smart end — on the piano hobnobile, as it were — he chums up with the Lauritzens, hits the carnival scene in Palazzo Pisani Moretta and schmoozes among Golden Book aristocracy, bagging a Marcello, a Loredan and a Foscari along the way. Evidently they are no more inclined than we to accept his presence in the city as purely coincidental. Their obiter dicta on family pride, on the inability of Venetians to tell the truth or on the ownership of the doge’s box at La Fenice are dispensed with calculated nonchalance, nourishing scraps to appease Berendt’s hunger for copy.
Some of the stories he uncovers possess considerable mileage in terms of motivation, dramatis personae and richness of corroborative detail. The whole affair of the Fenice fire lays bare the deep faultline in modern Venice created by a working population which migrates to the mainland each evening and shows no sentimental affinity with the city, whether as abstract concept or physical entity. Even the dwindling band of resident Venetians can muster no kind of practical unity when confronting the disaster. In this context Berendt gleefully exploits the divergence between the hard-nosed civic prosecutor Felice Casson, hot on the trail of two electricians who started the blaze to dodge a contract penalty clause, and Venice’s mayor, the sadly ineffectual philosophy professor Massimo Cacciari, with his implausible pledge that a rebuilt theatre, ‘as it was, where it was’, would be up and running within two years.
Lift the stones of Venice, the book implies, and we shall discover life forms quite unknown to Ruskin wriggling beneath them. One such, according to Berendt, is Jane Rylands, wife of the director of the Peggy Guggenheim collection and fingered here for trying to scoop up Ezra Pound’s papers in the name of a foundation established with the blessing of his mistress Olga Rudge. Shabby as her behaviour is made to seem, Berendt’s animus against Mrs Rylands, portrayed as a gold-digging harpy from the wrong side of the tracks, is virulent enough for us to hope that she has secured the services of a competent lawyer.
He is on safer ground with his comic exposé of the brouhaha among leading fundraisers of the USA Save Venice organisation. Few visitors to the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli will guess that its restoration, lasting some ten years, concealed a grotesque Italo-American scenario featuring insult-trading, hissy fits, queeny flounces, scrapping over the placement at a gala dinner and a snub from Princess Michael of Kent. As one of Berendt’s rent-a-nob acquaintance remarks, ‘Why must they come to Venice to save it? It’s nice of course, the money they give, but it doesn’t have anything to do with generosity.’
Such episodes briefly divert us, but The City of Falling Angels hardly turns Venice into the festering Babylon-on-sea created from Savannah in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Had Berendt arrived 50 years earlier, when the place was less like a theme park with a container port attached, maybe the quality of the sleaze would have been more rewarding. Doubtless unintentionally, in seeking to get at other kinds of truth he discloses present-day Venice’s most embarrassing reality. Beyond the clinking Bellini flutes, the Murano lustres and the Brustolon sconces lies a small Italian town like any other, riven with the same feuding and intrigue, blistered by the same corruption and poisoned with the same insularity and greed as anywhere at the other end of the viaduct across the lagoon. ‘To know how to live in Venice,’ pontificates an elderly count, ‘is an art. It is our way of living, so different from the rest of the world.’ Once upon a time that was true. Nowadays Venice’s tragedy, as serious in its way as anything caused by rising tides, pollution or locust tourism, is that it all too often fails to put enough distance between itself and the increasingly squalid mainland Italy adjoining it.