“‘Do you ever get tired of all this beauty?’” “‘Never.’” – The Golden Egg, by Donna Leon

May 17, 2013 at 8:28 pm (Book review, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

16115714   Corine 2003: Donna LeonRegarding The Golden Egg: the truth is that for me, Donna Leon can pretty much do no wrong. She’s right up there with Ruth Rendell, in that respect. I was reasonably certain that The Golden Egg would not disappoint, and I was  right. The story centers on the somewhat mysterious death of a man who has led an extremely constrained existence. He appears to have been deaf, possibly even developmentally disabled. He certainly had no language with which to express himself.  Commissario Guido Brunetti and his wife Paola, a professor of English literature, had frequently seen this person at their neighborhood dry cleaner’s shop. They did not know his name.

I always learn things of value from these novels. At one point, Brunetti is observing the activity of a colony of cats that live in what he terms a cat condominium, a structure expressly set up for their use in front of the church across the street from the police station. ‘Unruly creatures, cats,’ he think to himself, ‘and profoundly, incorrigibly disobedient.’ Turns out that the Commissario likes cats and would be happy to have one or two in his home, were it not for  the fact of Paola’s allergies. He then recalls this line of poetry:

‘For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.’

This quotation is from a poem entitled “Jubilate Agno,” written by Christopher Smart. This is a lengthy work, consisting of  four fragments and running to some twelve hundred lines. In the poem’s best known section, Smart praises his cat Jeoffrey and speaks lovingly of what he perceives as the feline’s relationship with God. From 1757 to1763, Smart was confined to two different asylums for the mentally ill. It was while he was resident in the first, St .Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics, that he composed Jubilate Agno.  During this period, it is believed that Jeoffrey was his sole companion.

I very much like the use Leon makes in these novels of the   third person limited point of view. It has allowed her readers over the years to attain a kind of intellectual and emotional intimacy with Guido Brunetti. The pace of her narratives is not necessarily swift. Sometimes, in fact, it seems downright leisurely. There’s a reason for this. Time must be allowed for pithy observations of Venice, in all its uniqueness and peculiarity. (Leon, a native of New Jersey, has dwelt in La Serenissima for some thirty years.) Likewise, the reader gets to spend time en famille with  Brunetti, Paola, and their two children, Chiara and Raffi. This last is one of the chief pleasures of this series. This is a close and devoted family. Meals are taken together, including lunch – on weekdays – very civilized. The meals are invariably delicious; Paola is a terrific cook. The conversation at table is often both bracing and raucous. Here, Brunetti has just a told a joke they’ve all heard many times before: “Chiara slapped her hands over her erars, knowing what was coming. Paola sighed; Raffi ate.”  They all chime in at different parts of the story.

The cacophony gradually ebbs. This is how Brunetti experiences the rest of the meal:

He ate the rest of the dinner, though he didn’t know what it was he was eating. He drank a glass of wine, left the second one unfinished, drunk with the words that crossed the table, their different meanings, the fact that they indicate time: future and past; that they indicated whether something had been done or was still to do; that they expressed people’s feelings: anger was not a blow, regret was not tears. Atone point, Paola expressed a wish and used the subjunctive, and Brunetti felt himself close to tears at the beauty of the intellectual complexity of it: she could speak about what  was not, could invent an alternative reality.

In all my years of ardent crime fiction consumption, this was a first for me: a policeman – or any fictional character, for that matter -  ready to cry over the use of the subjunctive! (As a great fan of the subjunctive mood, or rather, the correct deployment of same, I really appreciated this odd but illuminating  interval.)

Guido Brunetti is a born and bred Venetian. Its culture, its folkways, are deeply embedded in his make-up. He no longer attends church, but one thing he does firmly believe in is the unique and special status of his native city. This brief exchange with a member of his team, herself newly arrived from Naples, pretty well sums it up:

As they passed San Giorgio, she turned to Brunetti and asked, in an entirely normal voice, “Do you ever get tired of all this beauty?”
His gaze passed beyond her to the clouds scuttling behind the dome. “Never.” The answer was automatic, unconsidered, true.

I haven’t said much about the plot of this novel. As you’ve probably guessed, I don’t read Leon’s novels primarily for their plots, but because they give me the chance to hang out with an exceptionally appealing group of people in a wonderful place.. But in fact, The Golden Egg relates  a particularly gripping and ultimately bleak story. When he learns the truth about the actions of certain individuals, especially a certain woman, Brunetti is gutted. It takes all of his natural resilience to lift his spirits in the face of this egregious example of just how far some people will go in the pursuit of easy money. A walk alone on the Beach at the Lido is his chosen restorative.

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Blogger Lizzie Hayes recently had a chance to interview Donna Leon. Here’s her delightful write-up of the experience.

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Here’s my favorite video of Venice. For me, it captures the allure and the mystery of the place. The music is The Four Seasons (Le Quattro Stagioni) by Antonio Vivaldi; the violinist, Federico Agostini:

Click here to read the story of  the dramatic ‘rediscovery’ of Vivaldi’s music.

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5 Comments

  1. Angie Boyter said,

    Sounds much better than the standalone I read!

  2. kathy d. said,

    I have read all of Guido Brunetti’s stories, and I must say: This one is stellar. Much of it is reflection and ruminating about life in Venice, and life, in general. But there is so much philosophizing going on and so much about human relationships that I hated to part with it at the end.

    I hope that Donna Leon keeps on writing. This is one series that doesn’t get stale. It is a fascinating book.

    The music in this video is gorgeous.

  3. kathy d. said,

    Please let us know what the name is of the beautiful musical piece played in this video and who is the composer.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Kathy,

      It’s the “Winter” segment of The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi. If you look at the donna Leon post again, you’ll see that I’ve added some information about the video segmment and this glorious music – all due to your prompting – Thanks!

  4. Marina Bonomi said,

    Beautiful video and beautiful interpretation of Vivaldi’s ‘Winter’.

    I must confess that I read ‘Death at la Fenice’ and I haven’t touched another Brunetti novel since, I found many little things in it quite irritating (from what I read about the series, not so rare a reaction among native Northern Italians).

    While I appreciate Brunetti’s intellectual bent many other things seem stereotyped to me. For instance in ‘Death at La Fenice’ he asks to the victim’s widow (who is ambivalent about finding the culprit):” But you don’t want vengeance?”, and I went ‘If he thinks a trial is vengeance, why is he still a policeman?’ (and of course every Italian goes around ready to start a vendetta, you know…). Then, of course there is a Nazi connection (if an elderly German is involved you cannot do without a Nazi connection, can you?), and while she says that Paola reads a different newspaper every day, the only one getting a mention is ‘L’Unità’ (the newspaper of the former Communist Party, reading of choice of most intelligentsia), while , of course, Brunetti’s incompetent boss reads ‘L’Osservatore Romano’ (the Vatican newspaper, I wonder whether Leon bothered to read L’Osservatore even once, she might be surprised), and so on and so forth…

    Of course Death at la Fenice was the first, the following novels might be better, but I’m not sure I want to find out.

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