I admit that the main reason I was eager to get my hands on this book was to see if the author revealed anything of significance about her personal life, past and present. I’ve known for some time that Donna Leon has led an unconventional life, having lived in a variety of countries all over the world before at last settling in Venice. I’ve always been curious about what prompted her to lead this peripatetic existence, so alien to and remote from her native land.
So, what did I learn from this collection about this gifted, mercurial person?
1. Living in Venice is hard work, especially as you get older. There are no cars to convey you and your parcels from place to place.
2. Italians can be irreverent slobs:
….no building, regardless of its beauty, age, or condition, is safe from spray paint and mindless graffiti; the rocks of the Alberoni, the only swimmable beach here, are awash with plastic bottles and bags; rivers teem with the same detritus; and both sides of state highways would provide a fortune in bottle deposits, had Italy a policy of placing deposits on glass bottles.
(Never mind all this: she’s had a “thirty-year love affair” with the Italians and has no wish to live anywhere else.)
3. The bureaucracy will drive you crazy.
4. Italians can be very strange on the subject of food. For instance, all foodstuffs seem to be either pesante (heavy) or leggero (light). The determination as to which is which may depend on whether your mother cooked it for you.
5. Tourists are the scourge of the Earth in general and of Venice in particular:
They have, these countless millions, effectively destroyed the fabric of life known to the inhabitants of the city for a thousand years, have made life intolerable for residents for vast periods of the year, have led to the proliferation of shops that sell masks, plastic gondolas, tinted paper, sliced pizza, vulgar jester’s hats, and ice cream, all but the last of which the residents do not want and no one on the planet needs. They consume enormous amounts of drinking water and produce an endless supply of waste.
6. Visits to America only serve to reinforce her sense that it is, for her, an alien place. She returns mainly for family reasons. There’s a short, poignant piece on her mother’s funeral in New Jersey; Leon’s talons, mercifully, are retracted. In another essay, she profiles several of the more eccentric members of her clan. They all seem to have gotten along with one another reasonably well.
7. Lately, on these infrequent sojourns to her native land, she’s been astounded at the size and slovenliness of the people she sees. From a chapter entitled “Fatties:”
Americans are fat, but in a way that is peculiar to them,as though a race of hermaphrodites had been squeezed out of pastry bag and badly smoothed into shape with a giant spatula, then stuffed into low-crotched jeans and tent-sized T-shirts before being given bad haircuts and sent on their way.
Talons back out, and how!
8. She taught in China for a year. She lived in Iran for four years and liked the country very much. She lived and taught in Saudi Arabia for a year and loathed the place, loathes it still. Why was she doing this? She needed the money, she says. But surely there are less stressful ways to get it….
9. A section “On Men” got my antennae waving, especially in one essay where she confesses to perusing the “Personals” in the New York Review of Books. But alas, she is not doing this for herself, but on behalf of a widowed friend.
10. In a section on music, Leon pours out her love of baroque opera in general and the works of George Frideric Handel in particular. In an essay on Maria Callas, she refers to Tosca as “a vulgar potboiler I wouldn’t today cross the street to hear.” I admit I laughed out loud when I read this. Tosca, by Giacomo Puccini, is my absolute favorite opera. It’s got passion, jealousy, lust, the highest of high drama, and music that is almost too gorgeous to believe. It invariably reduces me to tears. Ah well – chacun à son goût, as I’m sure Donna Leon would agree – or perhaps not. She is, after all, nothing if not a woman of strong opinions.
When all is said and done, I encountered no startling revelations of a romantic or familial nature. Donna Leon remains something of a mystery to me. She’s keeping her secrets, as she has every right to do. I’m deeply grateful to her for the Guido Brunetti novels; they’re among the most thoughtful, well written, wryly humorous, and ultimately humane works of crime fiction that I know of.
The penultimate essay in My Venice is called “Suggestions on Writing a Crime Novel.” It is, for my money, the best piece in the book, full of useful insights, clearly articulated, concerning the craft of writing crime fiction. (The term ‘craft’ neatly sums up all that I think is not quite right about much contemporary fiction. I refer to the lack of structure, indifferent writing, inconsistent characterization, and a host of other problems.) Here’s Donna Leon on the subject of narrative point of view; specifically, the issues raised by an author’s choice to write in the first person.
The practical danger resulting from the decision to use the first person should be immediately obvious: the acquisition of information. There are only o many ways a character can obtain information: he can hear it or see it or read it. (Okay, smell and taste, but let’s be serious here.) Does he hear or does he overhear?If he’s going to hear it, then he has to be a character who is sufficiently sympathetic to be trusted by many different people and thus trusted with their confidences. If he’s going to overhear, then he’s got to be lucky to be in the right place at the right time. when the wrong things are said.
I recommend this essay not only to writers, but also to readers in search of criteria to use when evaluating their reading matter. After I read it, I thought to myself, so that’s why Leon’s Guido Brunetti novels are so excellent.