Venice is his muse
Harsh Desai

John Berendt: A story is more compelling if the reader knows it is true
John Berendt: A story is more compelling if the reader knows it is true

His nearly unforgettable first book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, based in Savannah, Georgia which had blazed international best seller charts for several months if not years, after its publication in 1994, was slowly being forgotten and those who remembered, asked whether John Berendt was just another one-book wonder? Then out of the blue one day came the call "There is a book by John Berendt and it is on Venice. Will you read it and ask him questions, if any?"

I promptly dropped everything, including my cup of tea, and sat down to read The City of Falling Angels. The questions I put to Berendt were answered with unfailing courtesy.

It has been 10 years after your last book. How much time did you spend in Venice to research for your book ?

Why has it taken me 10 years? Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was published in America in January 1994.  For the next two years, I dealt with the aftershocks of the book—touring, giving talks and readings and, in general, savouring its unexpected success.   Then I embarked on a mission to find a topic for another book.  I went to Venice, which I knew pretty well, on a hunch that I might find a story there.  By sheer coincidence, the Fenice Opera House burned down three days before I arrived.   For the next four years, I looked into several stories in Venice, including the Fenice fire of course, while at the same time I investigated possibilities in other places.

In 2000, I decided that I had gathered more than enough material to write a good book set in Venice, and at that point I signed a contract with my publisher.   For the next four years I continued research and wrote the book, living in Venice 40 per cent of the time.  There’s your ten years.  I should also add that during the decade following publication of Midnight, I enjoyed myself enormously and indulged my tendency to procrastinate.

 There are interesting characters in your book and ghosts of great men such as Ezra Pound walk through it. The most interesting character is Venice herself.

Venice is hauntingly beautiful, and it has a theatrical air, full of drama and mystery.  As you walk through the city, you feel yourself transported 300 to 500 years back in time.   The 19th and 20th centuries have left virtually no mark on it at all.

Is this a typically Venetian story? Could it have happened elsewhere in Italy?

What makes the stories in my book typically Venetian, for me, is the abiding uncertainty, the impossibility of coming to any firm conclusion about any story. Yes, two young electricians were convicted of setting the Fenice Opera House on fire, but the judge and the prosecutor believe there were "others lurking in the shadows" who paid the electricians to do it.   The poet Mario Stefani did commit suicide, as he is portrayed in my book, but we’ll never know his precise relationship with the young fruit-and-vegetable dealer to whom he left his considerable estate.  The loss of the Palazzo Barbaro by the expatriate American family, the Curtises of Boston, could have happened anywhere in Italy, but the building in question would obviously not have been on the Grand Canal nor would it have had such a rich cultural history, enlivened by visits from Henry James, John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet, and Robert Browning, among others.

 There are many dark deeds chronicled in your book. Are Venetians more eastern in this regard?

Yes, and Venetians often describe themselves as being very Byzantine.

 You say in the book that the twin dangers to Venice are from the sea and tourists. But Venice cannot do without either.

 I agree with Mary McCarthy who wrote that the tourists’ Venice is Venice.  Venice is truly a museum city.  It wishes it could be more than that—it gamely strives to be a living city—but its most prominent characteristic is that it is a repository for art and architecture, and therefore it is really a museum city. 

The battering from the sea magnifies the sense of decay in Venice, but beyond that I don’t think the threat of high water has much of a daily impact.   People in Venice pay very little attention to the problems of flooding—until it happens.  They’ve been debating for 25 years whether or not to build a system of movable dikes that will solve the problem once and for all.   Eventually, when the water is lapping at the very life of the city, Venetians will finally take appropriate measures.

Venice is by the sea and one day will probably get gobbled up by the sea.

I don’t think it is a foregone conclusion that the sea will swallow Venice.  Something like the solutions used in Holland and London will be put into effect to save Venice.

After Savannah Georgia in Venice, where are you headed for your next book?

I’m looking into another story now, and it is somewhat closer to home—that is, closer to New York.

 Describing a musical programme at the Fenice, you say "After Beethoven came Igor Stravinsky (buried in Venice) Antonio Caldara (born in Venice) and Richard Wagner (died in Venice). What has drawn the best people through the ages to Venice? Is it just the physical?

To quote Henry James:

"It is a fact that almost every one interesting, appealing, melancholy, memorable, odd, seems at one time or another, after many days and much life, to have gravitated to Venice by a happy instinct, settling in it and treating it, cherishing it, as a sort of repository of consolations; all of which today, for the conscious mind, is mixed with its air and constitutes its unwritten history. The deposed, the defeated, the disenchanted, the wounded, or even only the bored, have seemed to find there something that no other place could give."

The attraction of Venice has always been its beauty, and before its defeat at the hands of Napoleon, it was also its wealth and power.

Venice in your rendering seems to be a very tolerant city, an inclusive city where anything goes. Has this been its character throughout history?

In general port cities, like Venice, tend to be more tolerant than inland cities.  Their inhabitants are used to meeting and playing host to people from distant lands, and this makes them more worldly than people who live in the interior

Truth is stranger than fiction. Is that why you stick so close to it?

Absolutely.  As I work on my non-fiction books, I find myself saying to myself over and over again, ‘I couldn’t make this stuff up.’ And anyway, a story is always more compelling if the reader knows that it’s true.