Venice, a city steeped in a thousand years of history, art and architecture, teeters in precarious balance between endurance and decay. Its architectural treasures crumble--foundations shift, marble ornaments fall--even as efforts to preserve them are underway. This book opens in 1996, when a dramatic fire destroys the historic Fenice opera house, a catastrophe for Venetians. Arriving three days after the fire, Berendt becomes a kind of detective--inquiring into the nature of life in this remarkable museum-city--while gradually revealing the truth about the fire. He introduces us to a rich cast of characters, Venetian and expatriate, in a tale full of atmosphere and surprise which reveals a world as finely drawn as a still-life painting. The fire and its aftermath serve as a leitmotif, adding elements of chaos, corruption, and crime and contributing to the ever-mounting suspense.--From publisher description.
The story begins with the burning of the historic Fenice Opera House and winds through the many different odd and glorious people that are involved with the fire and the reconstructions. Interspersed throughout the story is the tale of Ezra Pound's mistress, Olga Rudge, and their daughter dealing with a couple who has taken advantage of Olga in her old age.
This is another story I listened to on cd in the car. Doing a lot more of that lately than actually reading books! It was hard for me to get into this and I might have stopped listening if I had something else to listen to in the car. However, I did finish it and enjoyed it for the most part. The story felt a little disjunct (spell checker says this is not word but I know it is! I hate that!) though. Not only did the author never unite the two stories in any meaningful way, besides the fact that they both take place in Venice, but he also did not make me feel that the main story of the Fenice was all that important to the people involved. It seemed more important to outsiders than to the people of Venice itself. And maybe it was, I don't know. Maybe that was the point. Overall, I enjoyed listening to Berendt read his tale, but I doubt this will make my list of favorite for the year.
Here his main event is a disastrous fire than destroys the Fenice Opera House in January 1996. The Fenice is hundreds of years old. Because the canal adjacent to the structure has been drained for needed repairs and renovation, firefighters can't quickly deluge the blaze. They have to jerry-rig hose-lines through walkways and even through some buildings. In the aftermath, new threads develop, following investigations into the cause, following various plans for reconstruction, following competition for the reconstruction contract. The ornate structure's been expanded, renovated and its interior altered over the years, of course, but the archive of architectural plans, of construction plans, is spotty. Recent photos of the interior spaces are nonexistent.
As this tale unfolds, Berendt intersperses it with sidebars.
• Archimede Seguso, whose apartment is across the canal from the theater is stupified by the inferno, sitting in a chair by a window, watching the fire all night, ignoring pleas from fire officials, his wife, his son to vacate to safety. He is, we learn, a master glassblower, active for 75 years, and now in his late 80s is the patriarch of one of Venice's most significant firms. Berendt recounts the story of glass making in Venice, of family feuds that threaten the creative and business integrity of the firms, and how Signor Seguso energized by the fire.
• A group of wealthy Americans are gathering in Venice, when the fire explodes. These men and women are the leaders of Save Venice, a New York-based charity that funds repairs and restorations. Several own palatial residences bordering the Grand Canal and other waterways. Some represent inherited wealth, while others built their own fortunes. As time passes, these powerful folks get to squabbling amongst themselves. Berendt tells pretty much of it.
• Ezra Pound was long a resident of Venice, where he lived with his mistress of 50 years, Olga Rudge. When Pound, then his widow, died in the early 1970s, Olga was left in possession of their house and several large chests with the poet and editor's papers. Berendt is drawn to the end-of-life machinations to gain control of those papers and the house. (Now I have to read Pound and about Pound!)
Oh, there's a lot more. Anecdotes about daily life in a city without cars. Profiles on the rich, the aristocratic, the political, even ordinary mortals. Can you tell that I really enjoyed this book?
What's missing? Photos and drawings. How can you tell about this unique city and its artistic and architectural wonders, about a devastating fire and an enormously complicated construction without SHOWING at least a handful of pictures. The endpapers are printed with a marvellous bird-eye view of the city with many buildings highlighted. But it isn't enough. Check Google Maps as you read.
One thing that struck me, and it could have been Berendt’s telling and not fact, was the hard-headedness of the bureaucracy of Venice. They choked themselves with so many rules and petty slights that no wonder there’s no progress to speak of there. It seems to be backwards for backwards’ sake. I would lose patience in about 5 seconds I imagine.
The part about the curators of the Guggenheim was fascinating; the plotting calculation of the wife and the utter degradation of the husband. Ruthless and transparently so, but successful despite that. The same woman seems to have positively and completely stolen the papers of the widow of Ezra Pound.
But the ruthlessness and backstabbing aren’t limited to just that story. The Save Venice Foundations was/is equally rife. What a load of snarling bitches. Privilege breeds this kind of contempt and self-adulation I suppose, but it seemed really petty and stupid. Fun to read though.
Even though it will probably be another 10 years before we have another from Berendt, I can’t wait.
I couldn't have found a more perfect book in Falling Angels. While Berendt's tale is ostensibly focused on the fire that burned down Venice's famous Fenice Opera House, the story turns quickly into multiple threads all orbiting around modern and historic Venice.
Berendt lived in Venice and so can provide a peek into a Venetian's view of life and existence within this unique city, but he never becomes a true Venetian and so is able to retain objectivity and perspective.
I visited Venice as a true tourist, but as someone who wanted to understand what Venice is really like (beyond its reputation as an Adult's Disney World), I felt that Falling Angels added wonderful flavor to my brief taste of the city.
The book is well written, very readable and has a strong sense of drama throughout. I highly recommend it.
His descriptions are so vivid that you can smell the damp,the hot chocolate at Florians, the sewers. You can see the hoards of tourists who are the life-blood of the Venetian economy and paradoxically are destroying the city by their very numbers. You watch with amazed amusement as the various "Save" Venice organisations jockey for pre-eminance and prestige.
This is a wonderful book, and I had to keep reminding myself that it is Non-Fiction, and that ALL the characters are real people and use their real names. If you are going to visit Venice for the first time, read this book; if you already know and love Venice, read this book; if you are an armchair traveller, read this book. You WILL enjoy it!
I can’t say it wasn’t interesting, but it was only moderately interesting, with some fragments more interesting than others. Ezra Pound’s life history belonged to those more compelling. This book needed, as a friend puts it, a good friend with a red pen. It definitely didn’t need to be 400 pages long.
The City of Falling Angels is set in Venice and revolves around the author's inquiry into the fire which destroyed the Fenice Opera House. Along the way he meets all kinds of eccentrics (feuding glassblowers, rat catchers, intinerant plant salesman, American expats) and paints an unflattering portrait of the city's underbelly. Berendt uncovers some fascinating material but fails to make the most of it - it reads like background research waiting for a novel to happen. But the writing plods and is at times dismaying clumsy.
I also can't fathom why there are no picures at all. Is it just assumed that we know our way around the architecture and geography of Venice? I certainly don't.
The City of Falling Angels begins as a story about the Fenice Opera House fire of 1996. It unfolds as a glimpse at Venetian life, customs, and people, especially of the high-brow variety. He discovers scandal after scandal, not the least of which involves the Fenice fire itself. Multiple stories unfold, mainly involving relationships gone awry because of greed and the need to gain - and likewise assert - power or authority. Like the story of the fire, it seems that the undercurrent of Venetian society is one of greed and negligence.
He closes the book very well, bringing together story lines and tying up loose ends. While I admire Berendt's style and his attention to both detail and conversation, I do wonder about the real truth behind what he was told. I suppose he does too, as he quoted a Count Marcello twice: "Everyone in Venice is acting....Venetians never tell the truth. We mean precisely the opposite of what we say."
Lasch and I remain focused on writing our respective classics and then being pampered guests of the rich and famous with our world celebrity status in our travels to such classic destinations. “It’s contradictory,
hypocritical, irresponsible, dangerous, dishonest, corrupt, unfair, and completely mad. Welcome to Venice.” The personalities Berendt meets and shares from Venice are colorful, some times controversial, and often pampered and pompous. I enjoyed his story on the trial and the follow-up of the restoration of the Opera House. I discussed the book with our resident Italian history expert, Brain Viglietti, who gave me the correct pronunciation of Fenice (fah-KNEE-chay) and shared other historical details of the city. (By the way, Brian Viglietti is preparing his remarks to me on the Historian which I lent him as well-VLAD 1 is his
'license plate' on his custodian's cart! We spend more time talking about our book club selections than we do at dinner! He will be in charge of checking details and editing Paul's and my first novels as well.) Berendt
made me consider adding Venice as a destination in a European vacation.
So says Mario Stefani, one of the myriad of characters that populate John Berendt's latest book. If he is correct, then, John Berendt must be a true Venetian. Berednt spent years in "La Serenissima," investigating the occurence of the fire that burned the Fenice theatre on January 29, 1996. His investigation takes him to a variety of places, exploring Venetian culture and history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The book meanders; often one wonders, "what does Henry James have to do with the burning of the Fenice? But the characters are intriguing. John Berendt has a gift for observing and describing people, and he does this to perfection in The City of Falling Angels. There are the two ex-presidents of the Save Venice Foundation, dedicated to the saving of Venice as well as a petty quarrel over the running of the foundation; a glassblower whose family has been in the business for centuries; the so-called Rat Man, who has invented a fool-proof recipe for killing rats; the First Family of American ex-patriots, the Cabots, who have been living in the same palazzo since the 1880s; electricians; politicians; mafiosi; lawyers; and many more.
John Berendt interviewed scores of people, getting the story from several different viewpoints. Its difficult to realize, sometimes, that this is a work of nonfiction. All these people are (or were) real; Berendt proves that sometimes real people are more interesting than those who are created in the imagination.
The beginning of this book completely drew me in. I could picture myself strolling the canals with Berendt, sharing his anticipation to delve into the Venetian world. But by the end of the book, I felt what had started as a tribute to a beautiful and distinctive place and its inhabitants had evolved into narrative that consisted mainly of a bit too much high-society name dropping for my taste. I especially could have done without the entire chapter about the purely status- and ego-driven feud in the nonprofit Save Venice organization.
Overall, I think the book was worth reading, but that Berendt, somewhere along the hidden byways of Venice, lost his way. How accurate the picture he painted was--only after my trip will I be able to say for certain.