Thursday, 10 September 2015

James Bond meets Goldoni, and more musings on the Byron question - Michelle Lovric

Gregory Dowling’s new historical novel, Ascension, is set in Venice in the 1749. By coincidence, my current WIP is set in La Serenissima in 1740, so I devoured his book with particular voracity. It’s also a fine read – pacy, humorous and well supplied with edge-of-seat factor. So I asked Gregory, whom I’ve known for far too many years, if he would agree to being interviewed. Very kindly, he did.

First, a little background.

Gregory Dowling – novelist and academic – is Bristol-born. He read English at Oxford. It’s now more than thirty years since he moved to Venice, where he is Associate Professor of American Literature at Ca' Foscari University. He has published four novels, co-edited two anthologies of poetry, written various non-fiction books and academic articles on Italian, British and American literature. He has a special interest in British and American writers in Italy, from the Romantic age onwards, and has written extensively about Byron in Venice. From the last fact, regular readers will know that Gregory and I have something to argue about.

But let us not dive head-first into controversy, and begin with the basics.

How did your personal and professional relationship with Venice begin?

First of all, thank you, Michelle, for offering me this chance to talk about my book – and thanks for your kind words on it. I’m very glad you enjoyed it; that means a lot to me.

 I first saw Venice in 1979, after four months teaching English in Naples. I came up to the north of Italy in June to visit an old school-friend who was working at a language school in Treviso and we went to Venice on a day-trip. And then I went back again by myself the next day. And the next day… And I knew I would be going back often. After Naples I did a stint at a language-school in Siena; and then, in January 1980, I got a job at a language school in Verona and while living there (for the next year and a half) I used to spend almost every weekend pottering about in Venice. In summer 1981 I was beginning to think I ought perhaps to go back to England and get a “proper job”—but then I said to myself if I could just have one year living in Venice… And I moved to a language school in Venice. And one year turned into another, and then I was offered the chance to start teaching at the university. And here I still am, now teaching American literature as well as English language. So I never got that “proper job”.
the view from Sant-Elena - Gregory's part of Venice
In a sentence or two, tell us what Ascension is about.

It’s a spy-story set in 18th-century Venice, with a hero, Alvise Marangon, who finds himself, against his will, inveigled into the Venetian secret service. Alvise was born in Venice but brought up in England in the world of theatre and so a certain amount of make-believe comes naturally to him. It is intended as a thriller, with, I hope, some elements of comedy. James Bond meets Goldoni, perhaps…

Why did you choose 1749 for the setting of this novel?

 Well, my choice was originally a little vaguer. It’s still there as an epigraph to the novel: “Venice, under the Dogeship of Pietro Grimani (1741-52).” As I wasn’t tying myself to any specific historic event I was quite happy with that general indication—rather like the old-fashioned convention you find in Victorian novels of leaving the last digit in the date as a dash. Those years attract me as a historical setting for a number of reasons: the final decline of the city is still several decades off; great art, music and literature are still being produced, and—should I so choose in future novels—I can bring in such figures as Casanova and Goldoni, who were very much part of the scene. However, the publisher decided that the “shout-line” on the cover needed a specific date, so after some hemming and hawing I opted for 1749, which seemed right.
Arsenale, setting of one of the climactic scenes of the new novel
One of your characters says, ‘In this city, everything is connected with everything else.’ Can you explain how this applies especially to Venice.

It still seems true to me. Perhaps it is just that Venice, despite its glittering cosmopolitan image, is also at heart a village, where people tend to know what everyone else is up to—and who they are related to.

 Another observation that caught my attention: ‘this city does bring out the histrionic in everyone’. Do you think that this is as true in 2015 as in 1749?

 Well, I suppose we can still point to carnival. However, there is something a little forced and artificial about carnival today (I used the contemporary carnival for the climax of my previous thriller set in Venice, Every Picture Tells a Story, St Martin’s Press, 1991). Or, to put it in another way, the artifice doesn’t seem to come quite so naturally today. Nonetheless, there’s still a good deal of performance in Venetian life, whether at the Rialto market or at faculty meetings at the university.

How do you make use of your locations? Do you physically go to write in the settings of your scenes? Do you superimpose a map or diagram of how things were then over how they are now? I am particularly thinking of your description of the Piazza San Marco at night, which well illustrates how things were different then. I also loved your description of the cheese shop in the middle of the fishiest bit of Dorsoduro.

I don’t feel the need to actually be in the place while writing a scene. Sitting down with my laptop in the Doge’s Palace would be a little inconvenient, after all. But I do try to remain faithful to the city’s geography as it was then, which essentially means remembering that streets like Via 22 Marzo, the Strada Nova, and Via Garibaldi did not exist; that there was just the one bridge over the Grand Canal; that Venice itself was a true island… Obvious things like that, for a start. It’s possible that a real expert might find I’ve allowed my characters to cross a bridge that wasn’t there at the time and I’ll be happy to accept correction on such points. However, I won’t lose too much sleep over it, since it’s the overall faithfulness to the period that counts, I feel. And I hope I captured that in such things as my descriptions of Piazza San Marco at night.

 I’m glad you liked the cheese shop; that, of course, is purely imaginary. I’m not drawing on any records of such an establishment in the archives.
Sant'Isepo, one of the little-known corners of Venice explored in the novel

Were you able to go inside the Palazzo Garzoni to research the scenes you set there? Was that during its recent restoration?

Actually, the department I belong to at the university was situated in Ca’ Garzoni for many years, until the university sold the building. So I know the palace well. I allowed myself a little licence in describing its attic, mind you. And I never climbed on to the rooftop either…

The Missier Grande is inevitably part of the crime-and-punishment scenario of all novels set in Venice. But your book offers the first time I can remember him being an actual character with a personality. How did you come up with your particular and charismatic Missier Grande, in the context of his political role?

I was drawn to the character precisely because he is usually such a vague figure. I imagine that at the time a certain anonymity was considered desirable, in order to instil the necessary awe among the populace. That gave me some scope to make what I wanted, more or less, of the figure. I was also intrigued by the fact that the post was held by figures for fairly long periods, amid a context in which most positions of authority had very strict time-limits. So I was interested in how this would affect relations between such figures.

How do you deal with the issue of info-dumping – trying to get on with the story while accommodating the need to explain the strange workings Venetian life in the 18th century? Lately I have been shucking off history in favour of character in my books, but that doesn’t mean I don’t do the research. However I find that I increasingly discard explanations of Venice from the novel I submit, partly to avoid the editor’s red pen. What is your attitude to the balance between educating the reader and entertaining him/her?

Well, the particular position of my hero-narrator helps here. He is Venetian by birth but not by upbringing, and that means he has had to learn most of the strange workings of the city for himself. Also he is a professional cicerone, so it isn’t too unnatural that he should occasionally feel the need to explain things as he narrates. And I also imagine that a reader who chooses such a novel will have a certain amount of curiosity about the city and the period and thus a certain degree of toleration for such information. Having said that, I will always tilt the scales in favour of entertainment over education.

I understand that you, your wife and children were charmingly inserted by your father into a copy he made of a Francesco Guardi painting of the Bucintoro, the Doge’s ceremonial boat, which features at the climax of the novel. I am envious of that picture! I guess this is what historical novelists do – we insert ourselves into history. Do you agree? And can you tell me more about the painting?

My father, after he retired as a G.P., took up painting, something he hadn’t done since schooldays. He regularly attended an art-class for years and did countless view-paintings, as well as portraits. Occasionally he did copies of famous paintings. One of these is of the Francesco Guardi painting you refer to, and in the bottom right-hand corner he included my own family: myself, my wife Patrizia and our two sons, Christopher and Alessandro.

Judging from the fact that Patrizia and I are holding the boys in our arms, the painting must have been done about 24 or 25 years ago. The painting now hangs in my father’s bedroom, just one of numerous Venetian views that cover three of the walls of the room. It is possible that when I began thinking of a plot for the novel, I was unconsciously influenced by this painting, since, as you say, we have been inserted into history—into a particularly splendid moment of history.

It’s hardly a secret after my novel Carnevale that I fail to admire Byron. I find much of the poetry facile, and even brilliant poetry could not make up for the cruel way he treated his mother, daughter Allegra, and nearly every woman who passed through what I cannot even bring myself to call his ‘romantic’ life. As far as I am concerned, Byron’s only big love affair was with himself. I enjoy his letters, but only because I like the dark, vicious humour there. I still pity his targets. Those letters are rampantly self-conscious, knowingly destined for publication. So they are only half letters; other half is posing with curlicues. Well, I got off the fence! I think you would defend Byron, would you not? Tell us what about your own writings on him. 

Byron by George Henry Harlow,
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Well, now here is where I could wear out your and your readers’ patience, since I could bang on about Byron for pages and pages (if we can refer to a blog having pages). The first thing to say, of course, is that Byron’s behaviour is at times indefensible. The story of Allegra is a terribly sad one and Byron comes out very badly from it. (People might be interested in this half-hour BBC Radio 4 programme by Michael Symmons Roberts that was made about her short life a few weeks ago, in which I feature briefly: ) And I won’t try and defend his behaviour towards his wife, either, just as I wouldn’t try and defend that of Charles Dickens or that of Graham Greene towards their wives. But it is worth saying that not all women had such negative experiences with him; you only have to read Teresa Guiccioli’s adoring account of his life to see that. And another interesting case is that of Mary Shelley, an extremely intelligent and sensitive woman who had every reason to have a very negative view of him, since she was so closely tied to the story of Allegra, but who after his death had to admit to the enduring fascination he exerted over her.

And if you want to get a much more positive view of Byron it is well worth reading accounts of his last year, the year of the so-called Greek adventure. A very good book on it came out two years ago by Roderick Beaton, Byron’s War. It’s a period that is extremely well-documented, since almost everyone who came into contact with Byron during his time in Greece wrote their own accounts of the story and of his death. And it is clear that Byron made a strong and favourable impression on most of these people, who are extremely diverse in character and background. Particularly touching is the account by Teresa’s brother, Pietro Gamba, who accompanied Byron to Greece and also died there; before meeting Byron he had tried to warn his sister against associating with him, influenced by the tales he had heard of Byron’s behaviour; after meeting him he became one of Byron’s most loyal friends.

Another book that is a passionate defence of Byron the man as well as Byron the poet is the recent L'estate di un ghiro - Il mito di Lord Byron attraverso la vita, i viaggi, gli amori, le opere by the Italian critic Vincenzo Patanè, who lives and works in Venice, the first full-length Italian biography of the poet. A very good book.

 But of course the real reason we continue to be fascinated by Byron is his poetry and here I have to disagree vigorously with your opinion—while at the same time acknowledging that there is a nugget of truth in what you say about it. There is a lot of Byron’s poetry that is “facile”, as you put it; it’s the stuff that made Byron famous: much of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the Oriental Tales etc. The kind of stuff that created the Byronic legend, and made him famous throughout Europe. The kind of poetry that Byron himself said had “corrupted the public taste”. It’s enjoyable enough, in its own rather undemanding way, but it is not what keeps Byron’s reputation so high today. Byron’s greatest works are the poems he wrote in ottava rima, the Italian stanza form he encountered in Italy: Beppo, The Vision of Judgement, and, in particular, Don Juan. Beppo gives us a delightful picture of Venetian society, in a story that works as a parody of his own oriental romances. The Vision of Judgement is one of the greatest satirical poems in the language, and is also highly imaginative. Don Juan is an extraordinary work, varying in tone and register from canto to canto, ranging from tender love poetry to bedroom farce, from epic adventures to literary parody, from scenes of war to humorous reflections on religion, politics, high society… While his poetry in the “Byronic” style had a huge and immediate influence on so many of the other European Romantics of the day, in all fields of art, from Turner to Delacroix and Gericault, from Tchaikovsky to Berlioz and Schumann and Verdi, Don Juan had a long-lasting but even more powerful influence on such great works as Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Auden’s satirical poetry and, to come up to our own days, Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate. In fact, I’d leave the last word on Byron to Auden, by far and away the best critic on Byron.

“Whatever its faults Don Juan is the most original poem in English; nothing like had ever been written before. Speaking for myself, I don’t feel like reading it very often, but when I do, it is the only poem I want to read: no other will do.”

 Which writers, in your opinion, do Venice justice on the page? (I’d love to ask you who doesn’t deliver, but let’s not be uncharitable, shall we? At least to the living.)

Well, I’ll start with Beppo, then. And in fact I could remain with Byron to make a distinction between those writers who are good at the Childe Harold vision of the city—describing Venice in terms of sheer romantic spectacle—and those who are good at the Beppo mode—describing Venice in terms of its daily life, depicting it, one might say, from a more intimate point of view, the point of view of the long-term Venetian resident. Some, like Byron, can do both, but in general writers tend towards one or the other.

The best of the former kind is Anthony Hecht in his extraordinary poem The Venetian Vespers, which contains some of the most moving descriptions of the city’s beauty in all literature: I’m thinking of the end of the second section and the beginning of the third, with the description of the interior of San Marco, or the final section, with its sunset description. All as part of a great psychological portrait of a tormented American exile in the city. Other poets I admire on the city are James Merrill and John Drury.

Henry James also has some wonderful descriptive passages; perhaps not so much in the novels (although the storm and its aftermath in The Wings of the Dove are wonderful) as in his essays in Italian Hours.

Remaining more or less in that period, I would say that the best of the “Beppo”-type writers is William Dean Howells, in his wonderful book Venetian Life, a great account of everyday life in 19th-century Venice.

My favourite essayist on the city is Mary McCarthy, whose book Venice Observed contains some of the most acute and brilliant descriptions of different aspects of Venice, but most particularly its art.

Novels I’ve enjoyed that are set in the city are Miss Garnet’s Angel by Sally Vickers, with its wonderful pictures of Dorsoduro and the Guardi paintings in the church of Angelo Raffaele. Vikram Seth’s pages in An Equal Music are brilliant; there’s a wonderful range in them, from the magnificent descriptions of the Carpaccio paintings in S. Giorgio degli Schiavoni and the mosaics of Torcello to the homely depictions of life in S. Elena, my own part of town. So he manages to do both Childe Harold and Beppo.

And to turn to fiction in my own genre, Donna Leon is always reliable for pictures of Venice today (even if the city is, of course, rather less crime-ridden than one might expect from a reading of her novels). Rather more melodramatic, but enormous fun, is the crime novel Lucifer’s Shadow by David Hewson.

I have a guilty fondness for the novels of Simon Raven, and two in particular have well-drawn Venetian settings: Brother Cain and The Survivors.

Andrea Molesini, among Venetian writers, is extremely imaginative in his children’s novels set in the city, particularly Tutto il tempo del mondo.

Fruttero and Lucentini wrote a strange but very atmospheric novel set in Venice, L’amante senza fissa dimora, which I translated for Chatto and Windus; however, for some reason, after publishing two other books of theirs that I had translated they decided not to proceed with this one, which was a pity, since it was perhaps the best of the three.

For my own purposes—that is, to get the sense of 18th-century Venice—Andrea di Robilant’s books have proved invaluable, particularly A Venetian Affair. As, of course, have the works of Goldoni and Casanova.

And that brings me to your own novels, which I have greatly enjoyed. I particularly love the imaginative extravagance of your children’s books. I may even have got the idea of putting the story of Marino Faliero at the heart of my book from the use that you made (although very different) of the figure of Baiamonte Tiepolo.

Thank you so much, Gregory, for this tour around your literary Venice. You have almost swayed me about Byron. Almost.  I too love the Hecht and the Howells, different as they are.  And you have added to my books-to-buy-list, very expensively.

Michelle Lovric's website
Photographs of Venice by Gregory Dowling.
Portrait of Gregory Dowling, and photograph of the Guardi painting, by Barnaby Dowling.


Penny Dolan said...

This post was rather like overhearing a delightful conversation between friends. Thank you both - and for all the book recommendations.

Lydia Syson said...

Yes - the best kind of argument on which to eavesdrop.

snowy said...
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