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Venice (October 2018)

Part one of the trip which I took from Venice to Budapest in October 2018. This video features the marvellous Libreria Acqua Alta, gondolas, and some beautiful buildings and bridges.

Music: ‘Neighborhood (Laika)’ by Arcade Fire | ‘Fire Escape’ by Fanfarlo

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‘Leone Leoni’ by George Sand ***

George Sand was an incredibly prolific author, and published many varied works over her career.  Leone Leoni, first published in France in 1835, was released in this particular English translation by George Burnham Ives in 1900.  The novel – or, rather, novella – is set in the early nineteenth century, and focuses upon the title character, as well as a young Belgian woman named Juliette Ruyter, and her ‘protector, the noble Spaniard’ Aleo Bustamente.

Juliette and Aleo have arrived in Venice just before its annual carnival, and receive the news that Leone Leoni is in the city ‘with his wealthy playmates’.  Juliette soon feels compelled to tell Aleo ‘the whole story of her progress of ruin and degradation at the hands of one of the most infamous and charming scoundrels of his time’.  The blurb writes that Leone Leoni ‘tells of innocence trapped by debauchery in a dazzling round of intrigue, impersonation and emotional deception.’9780648023302

Sand’s introduction to the volume has been included here, and immediately intrigues: ‘Being at Venice, in very cold weather and under very depressing circumstances, the carnival roaring and whistling outside with the icy north wind, I experienced the painful contrast which results from inward suffering, alone amid the wild excitement of a population of strangers.’  Clearly, this firsthand experience of the city which Sand had allows her descriptions of Venice to feel incredibly present and immersive.  The novella’s opening sentence proclaims the following, in what feels like an echo of Sand’s introduction: ‘We were at Venice.  The cold and the rain had driven the promenaders and the masks from the square and the quays…  It was a fine carnival evening inside the palaces and theatres, but outside, everything was dismal, and the street-lights were reflected in the streaming pavements, where the hurried footsteps of a belated masker, wrapped in his cloak, echoed loudly from time to time.’

Leoni is cocky, and filled with his own self-importance, and delusions of grandeur.  When Juliette tells Aleo of her history with Leoni, she describes the way in which she at first refused to dance with him at a ball, but was soon swept under his spell.  At first, she is not at all happy with the way in which he deceives her mother, and pushes himself into their lives: ‘By such petty agitations did the coming of Leoni, and the unhappy destiny that he brought, begin the disturb the profound peace in which I had always lived.’  As time goes on, though, her feelings for him change: ‘I was dominated by his glance, enthralled by his tales, surprised and fascinated by every new resource that he developed.’

The novella is told from the perspective of Aleo at first, and much of Juliette’s later commentary is displayed in dialogue, thus allowing Sand to use a contrast of voices.  These are perhaps not different enough, however, and do tend to blend a little, using similar phrases and exclamations.  The real strength of Leone Leoni lies in Sand’s descriptions, which pick up on the minutiae of place, movement, and character.  Of Juliette, for instance, she writes: ‘She rose and walked to the window; her white silk petticoat fell in numberless folds about her graceful form.  Her chestnut hair escaped from the long pins of chased gold which only half confined it, and bathed her back in a flood of perfumed silk.’

The prose of Leone Leoni is rather melodramatic at times, although one can rather predict this if they are at all familiar with the period in which the story was written.  Despite the sadness of her story, I felt no empathy whatsoever for Juliette, and the way in which she was treated; to me, she felt rather insipid, and seemed to spend most of her time swooning.  Aleo was not much better.  I found the plot of Leone Leoni to be rather predictable, and whilst the writing and translation are generally strong, I did feel rather disappointed with it overall.

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‘The Spirit of Venice: From Marco Polo to Casanova’ by Paul Strathern **

With many of us dreaming about foreign shores, it seems on the face of it that The Spirit of Venice: From Marco Polo to Casanova offers a myriad of information to the discerning traveller. Strathern outlines in his introduction that he has attempted to describe Venice’s most famous inhabitants ‘against the background of events that over the centuries forged and finally destroyed the most powerful of all Mediterranean cities’.

9781845951924Its premise is fascinating, but sadly it does not always deliver. Its introduction is incredibly short and only covers two printed pages. Whilst it is informative on the whole, there is no real reasoning which Strathern gives for wanting to undertake such a project, which is a shame as such a personal addition would have been a nice touch to the volume. The book has been split into four separate sections – ‘Expansion’, ‘The Imperial Age’, ‘The Long Decline’ and ‘Dissolution and Fall’, and it begins in 1295 with Marco Polo. Strathern has used quotes from additional sources throughout, ranging from the thoughts of Marco Polo and the unnamed ‘man to whom Polo would one day dictate the story of his travels’, to Byzantine Emperor John VI Cantacuzenus and Dante Alighieri.

The historical background of Venice is set out well, and Strathern features early cases of germ warfare, slavery, a dearth of manpower in fields and homes, the doges of Venice, Cretan rebellions and travel in and out of the city. The overriding focus in the book, however, is upon battles, warfare and the use of the Navy. Whilst this is evidently important in terms of Venice as a whole, this aspect feels rather overdone. In rather an ironic consequence, The Spirit of Venice does not present the spirit of the city as well as it could.

Whilst The Spirit of Venice is an interesting volume for the most part, it feels overly academic in its style, and is rather bogged down in small details, some of which do not hold much importance in the grand scheme of things. The writing can feel dense, and at times the reader has to wade through its pages. Sadly it is rather a weighty tome and is probably not the easiest book to cart around with you whilst on your trip, but it is one which can be dipped into beforehand. As far as history books pertaining to Venice go, this is rather interesting at times, but there must be far more accessible tomes ot there, which may even be lightweight enough to take with you on your travels.

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‘Territorial Rights’ by Muriel Spark ***

‘Territorial Rights’ by Muriel Spark (Virago)

The blurb of Territorial Rights, one of prolific author Muriel Spark’s novels, says that it is ‘a celebration of human imperfection and complexity, with as many shifting identities, wardrobe changes, and sumptuous settings as a comic opera’.  The novel was first published in 1979, and has been recently reissued by Virago.

The novel’s protagonist, Robert Leaver, has one aim in life – to become a serious art historian.  The blurb, however, shows that there is an obstacle in way of his plans, when ‘his hopes for an academic life are put on hold when he flees from London to Venice to escape one lover and seek out another: the enigmatic Bulgarian refugee Lina Pancev’.  Spark states that the trip which her protagonist takes is his first to the city, and goes on to describe that ‘he was young; but he had only half a mind to feel enchanted, the other half being still occupied with a personal anxiety in Paris from where he had just come’.

Lina, the woman with whom Robert meets up with in the city, has her own problems.  Her father, Victor, was suspected of being involved in a plan to poison King Boris of Bulgaria.  She has journeyed to Venice in order to locate her father’s grave and pay her respects.  Robert’s friend Curran, a sixty-something American, who is also introduced rather early on in the story, believes that Lina is ‘dangerous.  She’s a defector from Bulgaria and it seems to me she’s being followed’.  Indeed, many of Spark’s characters in Territorial Rights are not quite as they seem from the first.  Elements of smoke and mirrors have been used throughout, to create almost a mystery novel of sorts.

Territorial Rights soon turns into a family affair.  Rather than remaining the protagonist of the piece, Robert is merely the link in the chain, allowing Spark to tell the stories of many other characters whilst using their relationships with him as a starting point.  Robert’s father, for example, turns up in Venice on the premise of having a ‘little holiday’ with his mistress, Mary Tiller.  A parallel story also runs alongside the action in Italy, which details the actions of Anthea Leaver, who decides to appoint a private investigator from the ‘Fidelity Department’ to watch her unfaithful husband.

As with the majority of Spark’s novels, the third person perspective has been used throughout.  In this way, Spark highlights the differences between her characters, from the rather eccentric and adulterous Lina, to caddish Robert, and his sensible mother, Anthea.  The characters are introduced at intervals, and the way which Spark has of launching her readers directly into the action which involves each and every person she creates is marvellous.  She is so gifted at crafting believable scenarios and memorable characters.

Throughout, Spark’s writing and the sense of place which she creates are certainly strong.  As in her other books, her wit and cunning find strong footholds throughout the novel, and she does sarcasm so very well.  The political undercurrents, which are brought to the forefront of the novel from around the halfway point, have all been well considered.  Territorial Rights is not the best of Spark’s stories, but it is a clever and thoroughly entertaining one nonetheless.

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