From Daphne du Maurier and Thomas Mann to Henry James and Italo Calvino, the ‘classic’ texts on Venice are amongst the most evocative and timeless …
The ‘Classic’ texts set in Venice include The Aspern Papers (1888) and The Wings of the Dove (1902) by Henry James (1843-1916). The Aspern Papers is one of James’ less heavy novels – in fact it’s just a novella. The narrator, in a bid to get his hands on the correspondence of a dead great writer, goes to Venice and insinuates himself into the lives of the writer’s former lover and her niece. (No spoilers about the end result …).
The Wings of the Dove, considered one of James’ masterpieces, centres on an American heiress, Milly, who has an incurable disease (she is based on a much-loved cousin of James’, who died of tuberculosis). Betrothed Londoners, Kate and Merton, are too poor to marry and Kate hatches a plan to change the situation: it will involve her fiancé marrying the moribund heiress … for which reason the couple follow Milly to Venice.
Lush and dangerous
But ‘the’ classic has to be the novella Death in Venice (1912) by Thomas Mann (1875-1955). Gustav von Aschenbach, a very disciplined, ascetic writer, just turned fifty, decides to take a holiday in Venice. An aristocratic Polish family is staying in the same hotel and the son, Tadzio, is an exquisitely beautiful youth for whom Aschenbach feels an increasingly obsessive attraction.
The extremity of his physical response to the boy seems to be one with the lush and dangerous setting (warnings of ‘the plague’ have been posted around the city) of Venice itself – so different from the writer’s restrained life in Munich. There are various ‘mysterious’ figures that maintain an atmosphere of menace, and though the outcome seems ‘inevitable’, it’s a powerful story with some unforgettable images.
Another short text set in Venice is Don’t Look Now (1971) by Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989). Trying to recover from the anguish of losing their young daughter, a couple travel to Venice. here they encounter two old women who claim their daughter is trying to contact them from the ‘other side’. But the small figure in the same red coat their daughter wore turns out to be something much more sinister. It’s both a spine-chilling story and a study of the effects of extreme grief upon the human mind.
If you’re into Wilkie Collins (1824-1889), The Haunted Hotel (1879, latest paperback 2015) has a Venice setting. Short, spooky crime from a master of the genre.
Before we leave ‘the classics’, it’s worth noting that a number of great writers have recorded their impressions of Venice: Goethe‘s Italian Journey (1786-88) contains a substantial amount on Venice, while Charles Dickens records his impressions in a rather strange, dreamlike way in his Pictures from Italy (1846).
Here’s an extract to enjoy – it manages to be both real and dreamlike at the same time:
I came upon a place of such surpassing beauty, and such grandeur, that all the rest was poor and faded, in comparison with its absorbing loveliness. It was a great piazza, as I thought, anchored, like all the rest, in the deep ocean. On its broad bosom was a palace, more majestic and magnificent in its old age than all the buildings of the earth in the high prime and fullness of their youth. Cloisters and galleries ― so light, they might have been the work of fairy hands, so strong that centuries had battered them in vain ― wound round and round this palace, and enfolded it with a cathedral, gorgeous in the wild, luxuriant fancies of the East. At no great distance from its porch, a lofty tower, standing by itself and rearing its proud head, alone, into the sky, looked out upon the Adriatic Sea.
Needless to say, Henry James gives plenty of attention to the city in his Italian Hours (1909) – though he does bemoan the city’s touristic fate of becoming ‘a vast museum … a battered peep-show and bazaar … the city of the Doges reduced to earning its living as a curiosity-shop.’ But he loves the absence of traffic noise (wouldn’t we all!), which, he believes, makes it ‘a city of conversation.’
If you find you’re really ‘into’ James on Venice, there’s the selected correspondence in Letters from the Palazzo Barbaro (edited 1998, re-print edition 2013) which adds further depth to our knowledge both of James himself as a writer on the city and of the city itself – but probably not for the early stages of a literary exploration of the city.
A ‘modern classic’ associated with Venice is Invisible Cities by the great Italian writer Italo Calvino (1923-1985). The framing device is the great traveller Marco Polo returning to Venice after his journeys in the East and describing the cities he has seen – though these cities are really just aspects of ‘citiness’ and seem, in the end, to refer to one of the world’s greatest cities of the time – Venice. For the literary enthusiast rather than someone wanting a handle on the actual city and its history.
Heather Reyes is the editor of the acclaimed city-pick urban travel guide series and the editor of city-pick Venice, featuring over sixty writers on the city.
She is also the author of An Everywhere: a little book about reading (‘a brilliant travel guide to the city of books’ Helen Dunmore) and Bookworms, Dog-Ears & Squashy Big Armchairs: A Book Lover’s Alphabet (Reader’s Digest Book of the Month) and the novels Miranda Road (‘rich, poetic, painterly, wise and tender’ Maggie Gee) and Zade (‘tremendous verve and wit’, Jill Dawson). All the titles are published by Oxygen Books.