By Michael Hulse
Goethe’s father had brought back from his own journey to Italy a model of a gondola, which he occasionally allowed his son to play with. Venice was one of the Italian destinations that Goethe most longed throughout his early life to see, and when in his late thirties he finally arrived, by boat down the Brenta, his exultation sounded a high note: “It was written, then, on my page in the Book of Fate that at five in the afternoon of the twenty-eighth day of September in the year 1786, I should see Venice for the first time.”
The Wings of the Dove, Death in Venice, Don’t Look Now and other modern treatments have perhaps conditioned us to expect the Venice of writers to be doom-laden. The imperilled state of the city has been familiar for a very long time indeed, and the use of Venice as an emblem of fragility, decay and death has surely become a cliché. Goethe, always on the side of life, had other things in mind. He pursued his love affair with the architecture of Palladio; he observed the Doge at the annual f estivity commemorating the Battle of Lepanto; he went to the theatre, attended a trial (which he found to be theatre too), and looked at paintings and sculpture; and he “made arrangements to hear the famous singing of the boatmen, who chant verses by Tasso and Ariosto to their own melodies”. This last has a particular poignancy, because when Byron was in Venice, not thirty years later, he found the custom no longer alive, as he tells us in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The testimony of these two visitors to the city makes their readers witnesses to the extinction of a beautiful tradition.
Byron’s Venice is best savoured in Beppo, his squib-length dress-rehearsal for the epic Don Juan. The gondola’s potential for grimness, worked by others for all it is worth, is made hilarious when he briskly describes it as “like a coffin clapt in a canoe” – and, of course, Byron delights to lay on innuendo, adding, “Where none can make out what you say or do.” Beppo is a poem of carnival, and relishes the “fiddling, feasting, dancing, drinking, masquing, / And other things which may be had for asking.” Byron celebrates the “dance, and song, and serenade, and ball” as well as the “mime, and mystery” of carnival, and rejoices to present the “sea-born city [...] in all her glory” as its capital.
Two centuries after Goethe, Byron’s pleasure in the flesh – twisted into the macabre and monstrous – was the mainspring of Pinocchio in Venice, an unusual, ribald sprawl by American novelist Robert Coover. Venice here is a “shabby but bejeweled old tart of a city”, and one characteristic description declares that “San Giorgio Maggiore, with its sagging cheeks, carbuncular dome, and stiff cone-capped campanile at its rear [...], sits gravely at anchor like an ordered thought within a confused sensuous dream”. A marriage of thought and sensuous confusion is the hallmark of Coover’s writing, and so is his “Burgessy splatter of vocabulary” (as an admiring Salman Rushdie calls it). In one chapter envisioning a procession worthy of Bosch, a Conte, attended by a retinue with “genitals where their faces should be and their faces between their legs”, exuberantly addresses Venice: “‘My fulcrum! My feedbag! My fetish! My fenny fount and fungous funiculus! Floating fleshpot of my fancy! My foolscap, figzig, flophouse, and fantod! My foreskin! My fistulae!’” Goodness.
Coover’s book leaves no Venetian stone unturned; one critic has seen in it “a prophetic version of the destiny of tourist-infested Venice”. Contemporary writing located in Venice has to contend with the difficulty that every church, painting and piazza has prompted the spilling of ink, every alleyway has been worn smooth by numberless tourists. How to find a “new” angle? Bernard Malamud’s Fidelman befriends a Murano glass-blower and learns his craft: “Give the bubble a mouth and it became beaker, ewer, vase, amphora or burial urn, anything the mouth foretold, or heart desired, or blower could blow.” William Logan’s Macbeth in Venice, a book of Venetian poems that rings unusual changes on themes we thought familiar, bases its title sequence on the curious circumstance that James I (or VI) sent an altered version of Macbeth to the Doge shortly after the frustration of the Gunpowder Plot.
Two poets who have written about Venice have a special place in my affections. One friend, the late New Zealander Allen Curnow, suggested we meet in Venice when we had an edition of his poems to discuss; and, sitting with him and Jeny at their favourite pontoon restaurant on the Zattere, I learned to savour as they did the “Russian ships / dead-slowing up the Giudecca” as they came close to splintering our platform to matchwood. Another, the Australian Robert Gray, was my best man when Kathrin and I married in Venice in 2005. The poem he wrote for us as a wedding gift begins by seeing the Grand Canal on maps as a swan’s neck, and later observes that Venice “has sung before it dies”; it notes excursions of schoolgirls on mobile phones, the gangrenous lower reaches of palazzi, the “seething, powdery, / sifted light” that leaves the city looking as if pink and white rose petals were strewn on it; and it declares, “Venice is a diet of pastries”. I admit to being partial – but for the sharpness of its observation and the firmness of its thinking and language, Robert’s ‘The School of Venice’ seems to me the outstanding literary response to the city of its generation.
‘The Wings of the Dove, Death in Venice, Don’t Look Now and other modern treatments have perhaps conditioned us to expect the Venice of writers to be doom-laden. The imperilled state of the city has been familiar for a very long time indeed, and the use of Venice as an emblem of fragility, decay and death has surely become a cliché.’
Michael Hulse is a poet and translator, and teaches in the Warwick Writing Programme. He has won many awards for his poetry including first prize in the National Poetry Competition. At Warwick, he co-founded the Hippocrates Prize for a poem on a medical subject (www.hippocrates-poetry.org), and this is a continuing area of research. Michael’s most recent publications include ‘The Secret History’ (poems, Arc, 2009), ‘The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge’ (translation of Rilke’s novel, Penguin Classics, 2009) and ‘The Twentieth Century in Poetry’, an anthology co-edited with Simon Rae (Random House / Ebury Press, 2011).
Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies
M dot W dot Hulse at warwick dot ac dot uk