The city has been so scrutinised it is difficult to find much more new to say about it. But an enthralling new book has succeeded in this task, says CHARLIE CONNELLY.
The early days of the coronavirus seem a long time ago now. Streets fell empty as we hunkered down, shops and businesses closed and our town and city centres were suddenly deserted. Joe Wicks led the country in daily morning workouts in an attempt to prevent a collective national atrophy, mountain goats wandered through the centre of a Welsh town and bewildered environmentalists hailed the sudden and significant drop in global emissions.
Everything seemed out of kilter. The disaster films on which we were raised told us that in the event of a global incident like this the streets would be full of downed power lines and abandoned cars with smashed windscreens. Ruthless, half-mad gangs would kill you for that solitary tin of evaporated milk you were saving for a special occasion and groups of people would hobble around the countryside searching for a rumoured ‘safe zone’.
Instead those of us fortunate enough not to be affected directly by the virus found ourselves queuing patiently
around the car parks of our local supermarkets where we’d weigh up our fellow shoppers as potential opponents in a determinedly fast yet outwardly nonchalant walk towards the last twin pack of Andrex.
Then I discovered something that brought home at least a hint of just how much the world had changed. Every morning before I started work I began opening a feed from a webcam placed in the corner of St Mark’s Square in Venice. It’s one of the most recognisable places in Europe and usually one of the busiest, always alive with people either passing through or just standing and staring. Even when it’s under several inches of acqua alta there are still hordes of pedestrians tottering along the network of raised walkways set up for the purpose.
In those early lockdown days, however, the square was entirely empty. Eerily so. Sometimes I’d sit watching long enough for the shadows made by the spring sunshine to creep a little way across the paving and still see nobody. For a place so associated with crowds and noise and wonder it was unsettling to see it completely abandoned. All the history underpinning that piazza, all that sheer time weighing upon the square, it gave the scene an extra stillness that served as a reminder of the bizarre times we were living through.
One morning I watched as a solitary person, all in black, appeared from the edge of the screen and started walking diagonally from one corner to another. They walked uncertainly, speeding up and slowing down, weaving a little as if giddy at all the unfamiliar space around them.
I wondered also if they might have been suddenly aware of the weight of all that history pressing upon them. When the square is teeming with life and chatter and flocks of cameraphones roost atop a forest of raised arms it’s possible to lose a sense of what makes St Mark’s Square special. It sits at the centre of one of the world’s great and most unusual cities. It’s the heart of somewhere that began as a refuge and grew to be the seat of its own empire, one that held the key to the fortunes of other empires. It was a fulcrum between east and west, it thrived on trade and fostered the highest of cultures, from Canaletto to Vivaldi, and all the people that made it happen, generations of merchants, artists, mariners, doges, composers, popes and kings, had crossed that square.
Finding yourself there on your own might have you feeling the gaze of centuries of ghosts, even if it is in reality just a bleary-eyed nobody watching a webcam stream from hundreds of miles away before having a scroll through Twitter.
I thought of that solitary Venetian as I read Venice: The Lion, The City and The Water, the new book by veteran Dutch writer and poet Cees Nooteboom. Having read quite a few books about or inspired by the city over the years I’d wondered whether we really needed another one. Venice has attracted travellers and writers for centuries, I thought. A library of books published on the subject would probably fill St Mark’s Square itself: surely everything has been said that could possibly be said?
If it hadn’t been for the name of the author on the cover I probably wouldn’t even have opened the book. I’m no Venice expert by any stretch: like many people I’ve spent time there and been awed by the city’s very existence, let alone the buildings and history and art and the particular way the light bounces off the water. I’ve been aghast at the way giant cruise ships have been allowed to loom over Venice, threatening its very existence, and a couple of weeks ago was delighted to hear that the first acqua alta of the season, a high tide four-and-a-half feet above normal, was defeated by the new barriers placed around the lagoon to prevent the city from flooding. As Venice enthusiasts go I’m probably about as median as it gets and even my shoulders sag when I hear of another book about the place.
Surely there’s only so much to say about Venice and surely it’s all been written down in just about every language in the world already.
Cees Nooteboom is one of the great contemporary European writers, the author of a host of novels, travelogues, essay collections and volumes of poetry over six decades. He’s hugely popular in his native Netherlands – in 1991 his novel Het volgende verhaal (‘The Following Story’) had an initial print run so large it ran to one copy for every 30 people in the country – but only a selection of his books have so far been translated into English, sometimes years after they first appeared. As one critic put it, while Nooteboom is a famous figure in the rest of Europe, over here “his reputation takes the form of a distant rumour”.
In Venice, Nooteboom looks back over half a century of his relationship with La Serenissima. His first visit was in 1964 and the last chapter in this book is dated September 2018, when he was still seeking out new corners of the city, scuttling over bridges into narrow alleyways in search of something more, something new, something to enhance his understanding even after more than half a century of perambulations. The best travel writers are insatiably curious and Nooteboom’s curiosity remains undimmed even in that final chapter, written at the age of 86.
The book is constructed almost like the city itself. It meanders, it leads you into dark nooks from which you emerge into patches of blinding daylight and intense beauty. This is a book to lose yourself in, in every sense of the word, just as it’s easy to lose yourself in Venice, to convince yourself you’ve been here before until realising this is somewhere new to you.
“You were looking for something,” he writes of that peculiar Venetian serendipity,
“a palazzo, the house of a poet, but you have lost your way, you turn down an alleyway that ends in a wall, or onto a canal without a bridge, and suddenly you realise that this is what it’s all about, that now you are seeing things you wouldn’t otherwise see.”
In one passage he spies a statue he’s never noticed before, peers at the plaque, writes down the name which is unfamiliar to him and later unearths a remarkable story of state versus papacy, excommunication and grisly murder, the kind of tale only Venice can produce and even then its commemoration is tucked away in a seldom-visited corner of the city.
While even the most fleeting of visitor will often sneer at the prospect of travelling in a gondola, Nooteboom’s lack of snobbery sees him climbing awkwardly into one and experiencing something close to an epiphany where “suddenly you discover all kinds of things you have never paid attention to before; a gentle swell holds sway over the city, you see the walls as living skin, injuries, wounds, scars, healing, old age, history, black seaweed, green seaweed, the mysterious underside of bridges, marble and masonry, the other boats, life afloat in a city of stone and water”.
As well as guiding us through the churches and their breathtaking artworks, Nooteboom also leads us through the backstreets, to the tiny communities of residents based around a single small square or between canals, the people who don’t leave at the end of the working day for mainland residential districts like Mestre. Here we get a sense of what some might call the ‘real’ Venice and Venetians, the ones “who go to Mass when the tourists are still asleep”, who sit “in a semi-dark dusty café somewhere in Cannaregio, reading the Venetian pages of the Gazzettino”.
He concedes that despite all the time he’s spent in the city, sometimes taking up residence for months at a time, he will never be one of them, will never actually belong. It’s not something he laments and perhaps paradoxically this is partly what gives his writing on Venice such authority: he’s not pretending, he’s pulling you through the city in the hope you’ll share his curiosity and enthusiasm rather than marvel at his expertise. Add to that the panache with which he writes – and a word of praise here for Laura Watkinson’s translation from the Dutch – and Nooteboom is a worthy guide to any city, let alone one that means so much to him.
“I will drift through her history like a speck of dust,” he writes, “she will eat me up just as she has always devoured her lovers and admirers.”
I’ve just looked at St Mark’s Square through that webcam again. It’s not packed but there are probably a couple of hundred people there, some passing through, others just standing around. Tables and chairs have appeared outside a café and there’s a solitary stall selling souvenirs. I’ll never know who that solitary wanderer was that I saw back in the spring but I like to think it might have been an 87-year-old Cees Nooteboom, still curious, still searching, ever conscious of the ghosts of Venice who walk with him.
- Venice: The Lion, The City and The Water, by Cees Nooteboom, translated by Laura Watkinson, is published by MacLehose Press, price £20