Fiction like Verona
Filbin, Thomas, The Hudson Review
Fiction like Verona
QUITE A FEW RECENT WORKS OF FICTION find their setting in Italy, but who could blame a writer for that? Reading them recalled a day spent in Verona last year, a city of layers if ever there was one: ancient Roman, Renaissance Italian, and modern European. Fiction is like Verona in that respect, possessed of many aspects but bound together so seamlessly that they enter your consciousness as an organic whole, not a jerrybuilt contrivance. Plot, dialogue, and description are individual notes, and in harmonious joinder they become literature.
One visitor destination in Verona is also like an attribute of fiction. The Casa di Giulietta on the Via Cappello is said to be the house of the real Juliet. All the guidebooks debunk this as being without a shred of evidence, but crowds wait in the courtyard under the balcony to be photographed next to the bronze statue of her notwithstanding. The exterior wall is plastered with little love notes ("Ti amo, Mario" and "Chiara, tu sei deliziosa") stuck on with chewing gum of all types and colors, like some Jackson Pollock painting when seen from a distance. Young people there exude gaiety and mirth, for who could be cynical about love in Italy while thinking of Shakespeare's play? A wink and nod hung in the air, though, as if everyone would admit under pressure that it was a tourist trap, but they plainly considered that unimportant next to enjoying the moment. In this it operates like the first principle of fiction: to be so credible and moving that we suspend any disbelief that certain events didn't happen in favor of vehemently believing they did or could have. Some recent books that satisfy this Veronese standard are discussed herein, but readers are encouraged to find their own geographies of fiction in whatever continent or hemisphere.
William Riviere has written a novel1 of Venice so evocative that it is a post card for the five senses. The sea air of the Adriatic, the vistas of the canals, and the lapping of waves against stone all take us to one of the most magical places on earth. This book is a story of families, English and Italian, immediately after World War I when the dead not yet forgotten bump up against the demands of the living like old gondolas tied to moorings. Hugh Thurne, a British diplomat, returns to Venice in November of 1918, fond of the Venetians and their antiquated, crumbling city. His affair with a beautiful but difficult opera singer is collapsing under its own weight, and he finds himself more emotionally drawn to the wife of his best friend, who died in France during the war. The measured revelations and discoveries by the central characters are almost Jamesian and harken back to the time when understanding the surroundings and gauging the room temperature was a social skill.
A delicate mood of introspection governs the scenes, such as in the descriptions of a moment in the consciousness of one character: "She went off into a dream in which the church of San Stae that stood almost opposite her window, with the weather-stains on its pale bulgy buttresses, took its place in her half-consciousness alongside how the wisps of woodsmoke in the kitchen, which all winter smelled the same as in the other rooms that had fires, somehow had a different nice tang to them when spring came and the other hearths were not lit."
Thurne is forced to confront his own needs and desires and set a course for happiness, aware that the mysteries of Venice, like some drug, can distract one so far from one's own life as to become oblivious to it. This novel is a dreamy paean to a place that at times seems to transcend the bounds of reality. The writing touches bare fingers to the stones and timbers of the old world while pondering the first steps toward new beginnings.
Sarah Dunant has given us a story2 set in Florence in the late fifteenth century at the time of Savanarola's rampage of righteousness. Alessandra Gecchi, whose father is a prosperous merchant, is trained to paint, but for a woman this can never be a profession, only a cultivated pastime. …