Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Berendt’s Outsider Status in Venice in "The City of Falling "

(This interview originally ran in the Westchester Journal News in October 2005)

By Dylan Foley

John Berendt’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” was published in 1994 and is a wonderful nonfiction murder story that explores the eccentrics, lush gardens and squares of Savannah, Georgia. The book remained on the national bestseller lists for four years and sold an astounding 2.7 million hardback copies.

Eleven years later, Berendt is back with his second book, “The City of Falling Angels,” set in the palazzos and canals of Venice. “The writer Gay Talese told me, ‘Don’t write another book,’” says Berendt, from his immaculate townhouse in New York City. “He said, ‘The critics will lie in wait and kill you.’”

Despite the intense pressure to equal the success of the first book, the 65-year-old Berendt has turned out a beautifully written story of Venice, a city that hasn’t changed much in 500 years. The starting point is the fire that destroys the Gran Teatro La Fenice, Venice’s only remaining opera house, in January 1996. Berendt arrived three days later and started asking questions. Stories swirled around that it was gross negligence, arson or the Italian mafia was involved in the destruction of the theater.

“I knew the Fenice was going to be the background,” says Berendt, a journalist who once edited New York Magazine. “I didn’t know it would become the book’s framework. Venice was one of the birthplaces of opera, and at one point had 12 opera houses. Now they hadn’t any. The significance of this fire to the Venetians was that this could be the death of their city as a living city.”

It is fitting that a burning theater opens the book, for Venice is a city of operatic grand dramas and betrayals for both its natives and expatriates. Berendt covers scandals and civil wars, including the break up of a 1300-year-old Murano glassmaking family, the swindling of poet Ezra Pound’s mistress of valuable papers and the outcry dogging the rebuilding of the Fenice.

What drew Berendt to writing about Venice were some of the same things that made him write about Savannah. “Savannah and Venice are isolated cities, both geographically and emotionally,” says Berendt. “They are both beautiful cities steeped in history, with ritual and traditions. They are both culturally self sufficient.”

Berendt had been visiting Venice for 30 years, but wound up staying for months at a time to report the book’s multiple story lines. One of his problems in his research was the closed nature of Venetian society. Berendt needed sophisticated guides to break into the local social order. “I knew a Venetian who lived in New York, then I met the Lauritzens, expatriates in Venice, who opened up and talked,” he said. “They introduced me to people.”

Berendt’s techniques for getting his subjects to confide in him were subtle. “As an observer, you are personable,” he said. “You don’t just demand answers. You ask for stories and you tell stories of your own. It’s give and take, and then people relax. I also made sure I always told people that I was writing a book.”

Berendt pulls out the great Venetian characters, like the artist and provocateur Ludovico De Luigi, famed for hiring a nude woman on a horse to appear at one of his staged protests. The artist was virulent in attacking the Venice authorities on the rebuilding of the Fenice.

“De Luigi is outrageous and dynamic,” said Berendt. “He also had a very keen fix on what Venice was. Venetians also like talking about nothing so much as Venice. It’s their number one topic.”

Berendt returned to some of the winning components of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” to make the new book work. A probable case of arson at the Fenice may start and drive the story, but Berendt uses the fire as an opportunity to explore the quirky nature of Venice and to write about the human comedy he found.

“It may just be my style,” he admits. “I didn’t do it intentionally, but I found myself gravitating to the same approaches from the first book. With the Fenice, I like to have suspense, to draw people in. I didn’t know how it was going to end.”

Berendt finds intrigue, high drama and some comedy when he digs into the battles of the city. Case in point is the war for control over Save Venice, a philanthropic group of very wealthy Americans who preserve and rebuild Venice’s architectural treasures. The group split on grounds of class warfare, where it became old money versus new money. Berendt recorded both sides of the tragicomedy.

“Save Venice is again Americans using Venice for social purposes,” says Berendt. Quoting a local Venetian gadfly, he notes, “As Count Volpe says, “The money they give us is nice, but they really are here to beat their breasts to show how important they are.” In the book, Volpe urges the Save Venice people to “Go save Paris!”

One of the joys of reading Berendt is his glorious tangents. By writing about the opera house, Berendt gives a fascinating account of how Napoleon's defeat of the Venetians 200 years ago turned the city into a museum-like backwater. One meeting with the flamboyant De Luigi leads Berendt to a humorous digression on the history of gondolas.

Berendt’s style comes in part from the New Journalism of the 1960s, the reportorial method where the writer often became part of the story. Berendt worked at Esquire and New York Magazine at a time when his colleagues were writers like Tom Wolfe and Terry Southern. The reader winds up being Berendt’s constant companion on this guided tour of Venice.

“I’m always on the periphery,” says Berendt. “I’m an on-the-scene observer, but in both books I am always the outsider. I’m not an expert from Day One. I come across things that surprise me and I find out more about them.”

The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt (Penguin Press, $25.95, 415pp.

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