. . . Venice

. . .

For most people I know, depression is a habitual preoccupation, like water damage in Venice.

. . .

Self-expression: It's clear to the most casual reader of his books that Fr. Rolfe (aka Baron Corvo) was always his own hero. But since it's also clear that he was a raving loon, his attempts at self-portraiture convey nothing of what he was actually like. Thus my delight in The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography by A. J. A. Symons, which proves again that Venice is, in so many ways, the perfect place for a sponge.

My Penguin edition changes the subtitle to "Genius or charlatan?", but that's a stupid question when you're talking about a fiction writer. Symons's is more accurate: this biography is emphatically experimental in ways that gain Cholly's full approval:

1. Primacy of primary sources

Rather than going omniscient on us, Symons makes room for quoted documents and testimony (with the first-person account of his own research as a bridge), preserving subjectivity and increasing the odds that the reader will actually learn something.

As a leeching paranoid, Rolfe/Corvo thoughtfully minimized the formal difficulties of implementing this approach, dividing his life neatly into sausage-shaped episodes wrapped around one (and usually only one) acquaintance who was first obsessively latched onto and later obsessively tied off.

2. Sympathy for the subject

Most biographers suffer from wildly inappropriate self-righteousness, and Rolfe/Corvo, who wears his faults not just on his sleeve but all over like a paisley three-piece suit, has been a particularly efficient self-righteousness vector: none of the books I've found by him have escaped a mean-spirited introduction. But Symons, bless 'im, bears in mind, through all storms of icky gossip, the gratitude befitting anyone who's been successfully intrigued by another human being.

Symons bends over backwards to interpret the life's events as Rolfe/Corvo might have, and, on top of that, as his first-person sources might have. And if his Unified Corvo Theory (all the Baron's problems stemmed from being born gay into an intolerant world) seems excruciatingly naive (I'm pretty sure Symons had plenty of gay acquaintances who didn't act like Rolfe/Corvo), at least it's helped bring other sympathetic readers into the fold.

Speaking of bending over backwards, Symons may be explicitly experimental, but that's the only way he's explicit. And I'd go so far as to call him a downright little tease when it comes to Rolfe/Corvo's final literary remains, a bundle of pornographic letters. On the Web, we can at least learn the name of the letters' recipient (Henry Scott Tuke's "most intimate friend, the pederast Charles Masson Fox") and their motive (to entice a new source of funds to Venice). But as for their contents -- and as for the Rolfian novels I've not yet found -- well, Symons may be able to conclude his book by saying that his Quest for Corvo has been satisfied, but I'm stuck with legendary-Bomp-recording-artist Professor Anonymous:
You know, it's been said many times:
Seek and ye shall find.
Well, I have sought,
And yet I'm still searching for the one.
And you know?
I guess my search has just begun....

. . .

The Hero with a Thousand Pages

And a related note on Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren, courtesy of Michael Richard on the rec.arts.books newsgroup:

"I was just thinking this would make a great Survivor/BigBrother kind of tv show. Go rent out some burned out city like Grozny, or maybe get a better deal with Kisangani, stuff it full of cameras, and sell tickets to get inside."
Back in the late '70s, me and my college friends used to discuss our dream cast for a movie version of Dhalgren -- Donny Osmond as the Kid, Marie Osmond as Lanya, Mason Reese as Denny, Charles Nelson Reilly as Bunny, and Sammy Davis Jr. as George Harrison -- but I gotta admit, this miniseries idea beats it.
Mason Reese

. . .

Marketing Ideas for Beggars in Highly Touristed Areas
first in a series
  • Deaf in Venice
  • Venetian Blind
  • My Mom Went To Venice And All I Got Was This Crummy Sign
  • Hard Rock Cafe

. . .

The Terrorist of Malta, Part I

(Also at The Valve, with comments)

"Another Country: Marlowe and the Go-Between" by Richard Wilson,
Renaissance Go-Betweens: Cultural Exchange in Early Modern Europe,
ed. Andreas Höfele & Werner von Koppenfels

I first read The Jew of Malta as shallow trash at about the level of The Abominable Dr. Phibes, with hand-waving taken care of by anti-Semitism in lieu of horror conventions.

Richard Wilson read it as a torn-from-tomorrow's-broadsides thriller, fueled by insider knowledge of London's hottest political and economic issues.

In my reading, Marlowe's Malta was as flat a backdrop as Shakespeare's Verona, the temporary alliance of "Christian" and "Turk" was pure plot convenience, and the long-winded wheeling-dealing of Barabas made a poor verbal substitute for the wallows and dives of Uncle Scrooge's vault.

In Wilson's reading, these desiccated passages reincarnadine.

* * *

The play's first scene describes an economic revolution. Shifting the plunder of the New World eastward had become immensely more profitable than the traditional markets for European goods. Between English ships and that Mediterranean trade stood the island of Malta.

Maltese affairs were subject to intense speculation in the City, with proposals for a conglomerate combining the Venice and Turkey merchants into one consolidated Levant Company. In effect a takeover by the Turkey Company, this merger laid the foundation for the mighty East India combination of 1599.... When launched in January 1592 [a month before The Jew of Malta's first known performance], the Levant Company remained, Brenner notes, 'a highly ramified network of interlocking families,' dominated by Walsingham, who together 'drove a trade worth more than £100,000 a year,' a colossal return.
- Richard Wilson, "Another Country"

Members of the Marrano intelligence network and David Passi, a Jewish-Italian quintuple agent, played key roles in Anglo-Turkish conspiracies against Malta's Catholic rulers.

... the great game hinged, as Edward Barton, the Turkey Company agent, wrote from Istanbul in 1589, on bribes: 'It would cost no more than the setting forth of three of Her Majesty's ships, for all are well-affectioned here and could easily be bought. The sum need not be so great nor so openly spent as to allow the Papists to accuse Her Majesty of hiring the Turk to endamage Christendom.' The state papers covering this Anglo-Ottoman conspiracy were only fully published in 2000; but they reveal the cash nexus connecting the Turkish military, via 'the very knave' Passi, with ministers in London. ... With £20000, which he would 'distribute so secretly no suspicion would be aroused,' he promised to 'do Her Majesty more good and Spain more harm than she could with infinite expense, and save many an English life.' No wonder the Turkish generals complained that 'this expedition, to send the monks of Malta to the Seraglio, is calculated more by a merchant than by a prince.'
- "Another Country"

As Barton worried, lucrative or not, this wouldn't make good propaganda. At the same time that religion was providing a pretext for a Dutch alliance and the Anglo-Spanish War, English policy-and-profit makers were going after the Ottoman market so furiously that the Sultan is reported to have said they "wanted only circumcision to make themselves Muslims."

Elizabeth's spymaster, Francis Walsingham, took the moral low ground: "If any man take exception against our new trade with Turks and misbelievers, he shall show himself a man of small experience in old and new histories." A weak argument, especially given the extent to which this "new trade" was devoted to arming the infidel, exchanging munitions (and their raw materials) "for their weight in gold."

* * *

I've seen critical "appreciations" of The Jew of Malta run the gamut from half-hearted to disingenuous. Seemingly motivated more by Marlowe's canonicity than by the play itself, they discard the text in favor of unprovable but more savory subtexts.

The tradition continues in this assured online piece by Lisa Hopkins. The play's "often been accused of being anti-semitic. Surely, though, the point is that everything Barabas does is either learned from Christians or Turks in the first place, or promptly imitated by them."

Well, no. Barabas himself describes his people as cunning, canine, and miserly by nature.

And no. Christian leader Ferneze and Turkish leader Calymath didn't poison wells, slaughter the sick, murder their only child, or blow up a monastery. Since greed, hypocrisy, and slave-trading are practiced and suffered in common between Christian, Turk, and Jew, only such super-villainy could justify the denouement about which Hopkins asserts "there is no real suggestion that this is divine retribution."

In fact, the script's last words are "let due praise be given / Neither to Fate nor Fortune, but to Heaven." Hopkins's reasonable-sounding (and, as I say, not at all eccentric) interpretation doesn't even recognize the bulk of the play and the closing lines as suggestive.

If Marlowe was counting on such X-ray insight from listeners and readers, I'm afraid his ghost suffered centuries of disappointment. Ernst Stavro Blofeld is admirably resourceful, James Bond is vicious and hedonistic, but audiences don't do a lot of soul-searching over the fineness of the distinction.

* * *

One difference between these readings is what's been read. Traditional critics and the younger me restricted ourselves to the canonically literary, whereas Wilson read other things too.

Another difference is that one reading is thin and dull while the other is richly convincing.

... to be continued ...

. . .

Ba-lue Guy-eed-are : Venice

The Islands

According to her cap, her name is Ada Best; her rule, "You must be dab at life."

* * *

La Scuola Grande di San Rocco

Onto a balcony overlooking the street walks a middle-aged dame with an empty champagne bottle, an empty champagne coupe, and a scowl. She lifts the glass, lifts and tilts the bottle, and seizes her face into a frozen grin. Looking down a 45° incline, you'll find the middle-aged man with the camera.

* * *

Mosquitoes collect on the net, shuffling and stumbling over confused stabs of the proboscis. English couples jostle like a clutch of balloons outside the osteria at 17:55, each holding a bit of guide book.


The Lagoon: Byron's ghost swims through water the texture of saliva studded with cigar butts and the remains of a gondolier's lunch.

The Venetians love their little dogs as much as ever, but are still working on pooper-scooper technique. One afternoon, I saw a tanned-and-bleached lady plastic-bag her darling's excrement only to flip it into the Canal.

That's the moment that made me think of Byron.

. . .

Ba-lue Guy-eed-are : Venice

You won't take this advice, but if you reside in Venice for less than three weeks, don't bother attempting the interior of San Marco's. Imagine the midtown subway at rush hour with three-quarters of the platform cordoned off after a week of heavy thunderstorms, all for the sake of a profound religious or aesthetic experience....

It's too absurd. Or rather, it's too much effort for the absurdity you get. The knob only goes to 10.

Here's a substitute itinerary:

Very early in the morning, walk to the piazza and stroll very slowly around the Ducal Palace, enjoying the column carvings. Alongside you'll observe a thick outer wall of tourists waiting to buy tickets or to be led inside: flies trapped in an amber of flies. How absurd.

Then stroll slowly around the basilica. There are pleasant things to see there.

Bringing your eyes groundwards, you'll find a maze of cafeteria tables on which huh people are standing. Many people. These tables lead up to the still-closed entrance "for groups only", and they're jealously guarded by tour guides. To their side stands a smaller but growing queue of our fellow polite go-it-themselfers waiting for some other, less exclusive, closed door. It's very absurd.

A good while before the church opens to the dammed, nature begins a flood of her own.

At first, it's just a bit soppy, as if the janitor's been through. But soon you see pools, with air bubbling and water actually jetting from the pavement.

As the water rises and spreads towards them, the law-abiding ground-dwelling independents stir, back away, panic, and finally leap, hoping for a few inches of space on the packed cafeteria tables. Some miss; some wade; few retreat.

Find a place to while away another hour or two say at the Correr, winding through tour group interstices and then return to enjoy the full effect: A tangled solidly constipated bowel of tables above the lapping waters; the photograph-weary cafe tables and chairs sunk calf-deep; a one-fat-guy-wide channel of dry splitting the piazza and full of tourists attempting Audrey Hepburn poses....

In humanly comprehensible terms, this is the peak of absurdity. Climbing any higher would just be for the stats.


Regarding, I guess, the Tyro pyro:

What *is* that thing he's standing on? Is it a korokodil? A dinnozaur?

I thought it looked more like a stiff seal or a stuffed fish. Anyway, you can see why the Venetians would want to swipe-and-switch saints. Flying lions are much cooler.

. . .

Ba-lue Guy-eed-are : Dining

We eat, we drink, we eat and drink prodigiously, with gusto, it would do your heart good to see us, you'd get bored, you'd be appalled, you'd resent me, no, this will not become a food column, albeit I am a column of food.

I will meet two obligations, that's all.

La Zucca card

1. La Zucca, Venezia

Admirers of strong flavors and grace under pressure will have no trouble finding a good time in Venice. La Zucca stood out by its lack of frenzy. Frenzy's fine, some of my best friends are frenzied, but modulation is nice, too.

Especially the kitchen wasn't frenzied, nor slow, but lent focused attention to each dish qua dish, which tells with that stuff that's not boiled dough or fried squigglies you know, vegetables.

The overall effect was very California cuisine, except with Italian produce, and except for the cost. Those familiar with the Bay Area, imagine if Alice Waters priced the way Berkeley Bowl does. As if observation and accuracy were necessities of life instead of luxuries accessible only by the wealthiest.

After we paid, our extremely efficient server (who might've owned the place) came back and gave us each a stack of business cards, I guess to hand out to our fellow movers and shakers, so here you are.

All'Allegria logo

2. All'Allegria, Udine

Udine is a good town to get out of. That's why we went there, and why we slept for three nights in a comfortably sterile and soundproof hotel on the same block as the train station and the bus station.

But on our last night, after many rebuffs, we were determined to extract some pleasure from Udine's hard nut. A kind Venetian gentleman had recommended some restaurants. With his list, we ventured forth. Then returned to the hotel rebuffed. Then ventured again.

Cranky, tired, and in my case bruised and bleeding, we made unpromising material all'Allegria. We fell into the hands of a master.

I tell you, Myrtle, it was just like meeting Charles Boyer. Solicitous without smarminess, engaged without familiarity, quick to suggest, quick to catch demurral, he seated us, he soothed us, we fascinated him, later he conveyed the chef's fascination as well. When we asked for a wine suggestion, he apologetically wondered if we'd be willing to take a fresh selection with each course; he opened, poured, discoursed, succinctly, sufficiently.

In all this, not a hint of the obsequious, only noblesse oblige. He represents the kitchen: he controls our food; we are at his mercy; he is a warm-hearted man.

I took notes, it seemed the thing to do. Prosecco to soften the edge of evening. First course: Thin slices of peppery salami, of crudo di San Daniele, of cooked prosciutto, startlingly fresh, almost milky. Second courses: Pasta e fagioli. Cjarsòns, large ravioli with a sweet-and-sour filling, covered with grated smoked ricotta, a line of ground spices on the side. Stanig Sauvignon Blanc, from Colli, full, perfumed. Third courses: Frittura mista, squid, sardines, zucchini, something crayfish-like. Frico, a sizzling slowly roasted loaf of cheese and potato, served with polenta and perfectly intense arugula. Tenuta Beltrame, a Cabernet Sauvignon from coastal Aquileia, tasting of surf, bridged the dishes; our host expressed special satisfaction in our approval, the wine was made by his best friend. Finishing with an air of vanilla and stone fruit, Malvasia di Nonino ÙE grappa.

We were by no means alone. The dining area filled with the locals who had filled the bar; next to us was a table of physicists, from Germany, from Poland, from Russia, from the UK, attempting ethnic jokes, possibly part of the conference for whose sake Udine's galleries had been closed; their voices were muffled by the womb.

King of Hosts! We were hungry, and you fed us; we were weary, and you gave us shelter; I left a tip.


wot no risi e bisi?

In northeast Italy, October's not big on fresh peas. On the other hand: mushrooms!

. . .

The past is a foreign country; we buy postcards there

There are two pictures of Venice side by side in the house where I am writing this, a Canaletto that has little but careful drawing and a not very emotional pleasure in clean bright air, and a Franz Francken, where the blue water, that in the other stirs one so little, can make one long to plunge into the green depth where a cloud shadow falls.
- William Butler Yeats, Discoveries
Her new Novel called Cecilia is the Picture of Life such as the Author sees it: while therefore this Mode of Life lasts, her Book will be of value, as the Representation is astonishingly perfect: but as nothing in the Book is derived from Study, so it can have no Principle of duration Burney’s Cecilia is to Richardson’s Clarrisa what a Camera Obscura in the Window of a London parlour,— is to a view of Venice by the clear Pencil of Cannaletti.
- Hester Thrale, c. 1782, Thraliana,
extracted from that mammoth lump of flarf
by Burney editors Troide & Cooke

As always, Thrale's of her time. And at that time objection was most often made to Cecilia's untraditionally mixed conclusion, defended by Burney as naturalism:

With respect, however, to the great point of Cecilia's fortune, I have much to urge in my own defence, only now I can spare no time, & I must frankly confess I shall think I have rather written a farce than a serious history, if the whole is to end, like the hack Italian operas, with a jolly chorus that makes all parties good & all parties happy! [...] Besides, I think the Book, in its present conclusion, somewhat original, for the Hero & Heroine are neither plunged in the depths of misery, nor exalted to unhuman happiness,—Is not such a middle state more natural? more according to real life, & less resembling every other book of fiction?
[Edmund Burke] wished the conclusion either more happy or more miserable: ‘for in a work of imagination, said he, there is no medium.’ I was not easy enough to answer him, or I have much, though perhaps not good for much, to say in defence of following Life & Nature as much in the conclusion as in the progress of a Tale; & when is Life & Nature completely happy or miserable?

A taste for what is permanent would prove as transient as any other taste, and a century after Thrale's bon mot, even Cecilia wasn't real enough to satisfy:

Fanny’s Diaries are now much more studied than her novels. Few of us would wish to exchange the journal of her life at Court for another fiction from her pen.
- Leonard Benton Seeley, Fanny Burney and Her Friends:
Select Passages from Her Diary and Other Writings


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.