Arts Editor’s Note: This regular column about books and reading begs the question: Which books would you take to a desert island?
Very rarely, you find a book that forces you to slow down your reading so as not to miss a word.
So it is with Jan Morris’ Venice, first published in 1960. Morris lived in Venice for years and writes as only one with intimate knowledge of every alleyway of a city’s body and soul can. The writing is astonishing in its consistency: every page holds a richness of language and of imagery that is at times breathtaking, and the writer’s imagination routinely transforms the mundane into glorious metaphor. Here, for example, she talks about summer tourism (which even in the 1950s overwhelmed the city):
“Confronted by these multitudes, in summer the character of Venice abruptly coarsens. The cost of a coffee leaps, if you are anywhere near St. Mark’s, and is gradually reduced, in topographical gradations, as you take your custom farther from that avaricious fulcrum. The waiters of the Piazza brush up their brusquest manners, in preparation for the several hundred people each day who understandably believe that there must be some mistake in the bill… The unsuspecting visitor, stepping from the steamboat, is accosted by a pair of ferocious porters, who carry his bags the fifteen-odd feet into his hotel lobby and demand, as their compulsory payment for this service, the price of a substantial meal, with wine. The withered sacristans of the famous churches, brushing the dust from their cassocks, emerge eagerly from the shadows to drag you to the very last dismal pseudo-Titian of the vestry… The cry of Gondola! Gondola! follows you like an improper suggestion down the quays.
“And chanting a sing-song melody of triumph, the guides of Venice come into their own again. “Guides”, wrote Augustus Hare in the 1890s, “are usually ignorant, vulgar and stupid in Venice, and all but the most hopelessly imbecile visitors will find them an intolerable nuisance”… Nevertheless the guides of Venice flourish, the directors of itineraries boom, and many a poor holiday-maker staggers home at the end of a day’s pleasure as though she has been grinding corn on a tread mill… There are 107 churches in Venice, and nearly every tourist feels he has seen at least 200 of them.”
Or this, about Venetian cats:
“Venice is a metropolis of cats. Now and again the sanitary authorities have conducted a cat-hunt, to sweep away vagrants and scavengers: but so fond are the Venetians of their cats, even the mangiest and scabbiest of them, that these drives have always ended in ignominious failure, and the animals, spitting and scratching, have been hidden away in back yards and boxes until the hygiene men have gone. The population of cats thus increases each year. Some lead an eerily sheltered existence and are rarely allowed out of doors, only appearing occasionally, like nuns, upon confined and inaccessible balconies. Many more are only half-domesticated and live on charity, in old drain-pipes from which sympathetic citizens have removed the grilles, under the seats of laid-up gondolas, or in the tangled recesses of overgrown gardens. You may see them any morning wolfing the indigestible entrails, fish-tails and heads, wrapped in newspapers, which householders have laid down for them: and on most winter afternoons an old lady arrives to feed the cats of the Royal Gardens, near St. Mark’s, while a man in a sweeping overcoat so manipulates the flow of a nearby drinking fountain that a jet of water is projected into a declivity among the paving-stones, forming a cat’s basin, or a cat-bath.”
Morris packs more imagery and life into each paragraph than most writers manage in a chapter — or an entire book. Indeed, this is the type of book that makes those of us with delusions about our own writing want to just give up. As one who has traveled widely, I have never found a book that so perfectly captures the life and character of a great city as this does. For those who love language – and Venice – it is pure pleasure from start to finish.
Biographical note: if you search for a 1960 first edition of this book under Jan Morris’ name, you won’t find one. That’s because Jan Morris was originally James Morris; she transitioned from male to female in 1972 (and wrote a fascinating memoir on this topic, entitled Conundrum, in 1974).
More next time. Which books would you take to a desert island? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Phil Clapham is a retired whale biologist who lives on Maury Island.