“Everyone in Venice is acting” are the first words of this book, and the opening has the feel or reach of fiction working in what the author insists is nonfiction. “I had been walking along Calle della Mandola,” says the author, “when I ran into Count Marcello.” And just like a wise, sardonic and not necessarily reliable character in an intrigue, the Count treats us as if we had asked, “Tell us a story, Count.” You can see Vittorio Gassman in the role: tall, gloomy, distinguished and oddly worried.
You have to get the rhythm of Venice, says the Count, and “the rhythm in Venice is like breathing.” What he means by that is the rise and fall of tides and water pressure. He expands his own theory. He takes in the light (it served Tintoretto and Whistler), its painted quality. After all, is this a city, a plausible city, built on piles as the water rises, or is it just the scarred backdrop in a play about peril, a city that can hardly be mapped, where the stranger must either gain assurance or let himself get lost? (Sometimes it’s a matter of following your nose or some odd, childlike figure in red.) The Count is as arresting as the brass at the start of a Mahler symphony. He’s just three pages, with a knockout exit line. Having shared his theory, he announces: “Venetians never tell the truth. We mean precisely the opposite of what we say.”
Aha! You may be realizing we’ve been here before, with John Berendt’s last book—his only other book—Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. A decade later (after he’s read at nearly every bookstore in America), he’s chosen Venice as his new Savannah. It’s another port city, with odd characters and a twisted history. We’ll get a crime and a trial, and we’ll be left not quite sure whether we’ve been reading a new form of thriller or a ravishing travel book. Isn’t the strongest pull left after the last page simply the desire to get yourself to Savannah, or Venice, and to be part of the smoke-and-mirrors routine?
Well, be warned: Mr. Berendt is a tricky narrator, a spellbinder but not entirely straightforward. If you remember, the movie of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil—no matter that its director, Clint Eastwood, prides himself on unfussy storytelling—made the most dreadful hash of an intricate book; it was a coarse-grained sieve that couldn’t hold the all-important atmosphere. The City of Falling Angels, I suspect, is a better book, so yes, you may need to alter the way you breathe—and at the same time keep track of the risks of doing so, which seem as obvious as air.
It’s not quite clear whether John Berendt has come to Venice as an author on holiday, a success wandering for fresh material, or as a dangerous man himself, invisible, or anyway indistinct, who’s stirring it all up. There are times when he finds fascinating people who’ll talk to us for a few pages, though we still want the camera to turn to show us Mr. Berendt’s listening face. Is it that of an honest traveler? Or is he a director willing his people to speak their speeches beautifully, yet cryptically enough so that we seldom relax in that summery thing called trust? (And truly, Venice in summer is too much audience.)
Yes, there’s an incident that will lead to a trial—the burning of the Fenice Opera House on the evening of Monday, Jan. 29, 1996, a treasure amid all the other treasures of Venice, a place where five Verdi operas had their premieres. Was the fire the result of negligence or arson? As we begin to realize, flames are all very well—they stay in the memory, they inspire stories and works of art—but accident v. impulse takes you to the very heart of the perplexity of being in Venice. Does human motive rise and fall, just like the tides? Or is it constant, and playful? Or worse?
Not that The City of Falling Angels intends to be anything like as tightly organized as that “thriller” from Savannah. That was a book about a small knot of people, and we knew that even if all of them were lying, some had a darker design. The new book seems at first far more like an anthology of Venetian views and characters, a kind of “People I met while I was thinking about the Fenice fire.” It’s as if The Third Man took time off from wondering about Harry Lime to ask itself where the city of Vienna was keeping its Schiele paintings, how the Prater came to be, and why people of a certain age are inclined to blame “the whole thing” on Vienna. What whole thing? Don’t ask—if you have to ask, start again.
So Mr. Berendt meets glassblowers who’ve blown glass on Murano for generations—and who’ve quarreled just as long. He surveys dark piano nobiles and wonders if they’re rotting, or just waiting for the next ghostly rental. He touches on the uncomfortable story of what happened to the Ezra Pound papers, and Olga Rudge and Jane and Philip Rylands, custodians of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. (Yes, I know they’re real people, real enough to sue—but are they sound?) We learn about an inexplicable suicide. We discover a fierce but very shy lawyer. We meet a man whose special trade is to rid the world of rats, who makes a rat poison for every national culinary taste. We see two dark figures bundle up several hundred of the city’s damnable pigeons in a net. We learn how American money and self-importance meant that the Save Venice foundation split. (That’s a very Venetian story, with two institutions at war in the cause of salvation.)
And all the while, we’re passing the great sites—the Rialto Bridge, Santa Maria Della Salute, the Volpi Palace, slipping back and forth, like the vaporetti or like the tides, with the gondolas like sleek coffins. There will be some readers, I fear, who complain that there’s not enough suspenseful organization, that there are too many diverse strands, that it doesn’t quite add up.
It was all I could do to restrain myself from making a winter reservation for Venice. This is not so much a companion for travelers as a book to carry you away. Venice is not large. You could walk it in a day, getting lost and making the most fabulous discoveries, while hearing Verdi and Vivaldi in the slap of the water, and feeling that Milly Theale, Colonel Cantwell or the sickly gaze of Herr von Aschenbach were following you, as you did your best to keep up with that elusive figure in red. I know, I shouldn’t go farther—there are gloomy, wet narrows in Venice that are the black blood of noir. But this is a haunting book, and if you’ve ever had notions of being an angel, or falling, you’ll love it.
By the way, the title comes from a warning posted on the Salute church in the early 70’s, when the occasional plunge of a carved angel promised deliverance to a passer-by.
David Thomson, author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Knopf), reviews books regularly for The Observer.