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Onyx reviews: City of Falling
Angels by John Berendt
It took ten years for John Berendt to publish his follow-up to Midnight in
the Garden of Good and Evil, which holds the record for longevity on the NY
Times non-fiction bestseller list: four years. In City of Falling Angels, he
examines a setting that in many ways parallels the one he explored in his first
book. Like Savannah, Venice is small, geographically isolated and replete with
colorful characters at all levels of society. The literary ghosts of Lord Byron,
Henry James and Ezra Pound haunt the city, as do countless generations of
musicians and artists. Of Venice, James once wrote, "There is notoriously
nothing more to be said on the subject . . . It would be a sad day indeed when
there should be something new to say."
Venetians identify themselves as citizens of their fabled city first and their
country second. Their home is crumbling and may someday sink into the sea. The
population has dropped by over 50% in the past fifty years. The city is
preternaturally quiet: the only motor vehicles in the city travel the canals.
The lack of automobiles means people are always walking in public, which lends a
deceptive air of familiarity. For several months each year, the maze of streets
is overcrowded with tourists on day trips, few of whom ever get to see beneath
Venice's thick veneer. As Count Marcello tells Berendt early after he arrives:
"Everyone in Venice is acting. Everyone plays a role, and the role changes.
The key to understanding Venetians is rhythm, the rhythm of the lagoon, the
water, the tides, the waves. It's like breathing. High water, high pressure:
tense. Low water, low pressure: relaxed. The tide changes every six hours."
Berendt arrived in Venice for a vacation in 1995, three days after the historic
La Fenice Opera House-where several world-famous operas debuted-burned to the
ground. If the winds had been blowing in a different direction, the entire city
might have been consumed. The opera house's destruction is a blow to all
Venetians. In the ensuing days, weeks and years, two themes dominate
conversation: what caused the fire, and how will La Fenice be rebuilt?
Intrigued, Berendt decides to stay on, ultimately spending years interviewing
people and winning the confidence of the city's notoriously guarded citizens. He
learns how to step beyond the well-traveled tourist paths to discover the real
Venice. During the eight years between the fire, the trial and the official
reopening of La Fenice, several other dramas play out. Berendt devotes chapters
to several, including the apparent suicide of a beloved poet, the schism that
forms in the directorate of an American charitable organization devoted to
restoring Venetian buildings and treasures, the financial difficulties of
several families that force them to sell off parts of their valuable estates,
and the dispensation of Ezra Pound's papers after his long-time mistress dies
while under the influence of a pair of manipulative social climbers.
For his own part, Berendt remains mostly aloof and impartial. A former
journalist, he researches his stories while trying to minimize his impact on
them. He refrains from drawing conclusions-except in one situation where he
makes an unstated but unmistakable insinuation pertaining to the significance of
a blue marker. In other situations he considers passing information gleaned from
one interview to another involved party, but stops himself, realizing that he
would be meddling. Becoming a player in the story instead of an observer.
There are elements of Peyton Place to Berendt's books. Readers are placed in the
voyeuristic position of becoming privy to the inner thoughts, gossip and
machinations of a city's socialites. Count Marcello warns Berendt,
"Venetians never tell the truth. We mean precisely the opposite of what we
say." Few of Venice's residents-native and foreign expatriates alike-refuse
to share personal thoughts with Berendt. The author, when possible, explores all
aspects of a controversy. For example, he interviews every member of a famous
glassblowing family feuding over the next generations' right to continue the
legendary business and presents their differing opinions on equal footing.
Berendt withstood criticism for writing himself into situations where he wasn't
present in his first book and for compositing some characters for the sake of
drama. This time he sets the record straight early by stating that all the
characters in City of Falling Angels are identified by their real names and
nothing has been dramatized.
The only recurring thread in the book is the bureaucracy-bound La Fenice
investigation and rebuilding, which by itself isn't as compelling as the killing
that was the focus of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Not every
incident he explores is likely to fascinate every reader. Some of the bickering
and infighting is petty and boring. However, City of Falling Angels is an
ensemble piece, populated by eccentric, flamboyant, larger-than-life characters,
many of whom proudly trace their lineage into the Middle Ages—occasionally
glossing over some of the rotten apples on the family tree. The individual
stories, minor and major, come together to reveal the larger tapestry of
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