The City of Falling Angels
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Twelve years ago, John Berendit's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil exploded onto the literary scene and stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for a record-breaking four years. The City of Falling Angels, Berendt's first book since Midnight, is the same unique brand of literary nonfiction that made him a household name. Like Midnight, Falling Angels is a masterpiece of journalism, storytelling, and social insight, doing for Venice what Midnight did for Savannah, Georgia. It is a compelling look at an otherwise inaccessible community of people who inhabit one of the world's most beautiful cities, a city steeped in art, history, tradition, and ritual.
In particular, The City of Falling Angels is a portrait of the intriguing and colorful private Venicethe world that exists in the off-season, when the tourists have departed and Venetians have Venice all to themselves. The book opens with Berendt riding in a water taxi to his hotel three days after a colossal fire destroyed the Fenice Opera House, one of the most beloved cultural landmarks in Venice. Berendt decides to extend his stay to learn more about the fire and the city from the most beguiling source, though not necessarily the most reliablethe Venetians themselves.
Drawing on all his talents as an investigative reporter, Berendt goes behind the fašades of decaying buildings to reveal the city's intricate, hidden private life. Byzantine by nature, the Venetians reveal themselves in both open and secretive waysafter all, as Count Marcello tells him, "Venetians never tell the truth. We mean precisely the opposite of what we say." Berendt meets people whose families lived through a thousand years of Venetian history. He speaks with a variety of people who make their homes in grand palaces and in tiny cottages. There is the Plant Man, the wealthy rat-poison genius, the fearless and much feared Venetian prosecutor who unravels the mystery of the Fenice fire, the celebrated artist who schemes to get himself arrested, the well-known Venetian poet who commits suicide, the politicians struggling to point the finger of blame for the Fenice fire away from themselves, the former mistress of Ezra Pound, and the woman who may or may not have stolen her family legacy. Berendt spins a suspenseful tale out of the threads of many storiessome directly connected to the fire, others not. He finds chaos, corruption, and crime are as characteristic of Venice as its winding canals. With a compelling combination of curiosity and equanimity, Berendt presents an intimate look at a community of natives and expatriates as multifaceted as the colors reflected in the Fenice fire and in the artwork designed to commemorate it.
- Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and The City of Falling Angels are both multi-list bestsellers and widely acclaimed books. Have you been surprised by their success? What do you think attracts people to your work?
- Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil marked your style of nonfiction as unique and groundbreaking. Now, The City of Falling Angels brings Venice alive for readers the way Midnight did for Savannah, Georgia. What do you think the major hallmarks of your writing style are?
- The huge media buzz that Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil created turned you into a kind of celebrity. How do you think the attention from social and gossip columnists has affected your work as a journalist? Did you find that you were as easily recognized by face or name while in Italy?
- The incredible timing of your trip to Venice, which landed you in the city just days after the burning of the Fenice, gave you the perfect opportunity to create a central thread for The City of Falling Angels. How much of a role did coincidence play in the gathering of information for this book?
- Several prominent and not-so-prominent Venetians express their concern about the rising water levels in Venice. Have you formed an opinion about the issue after hearing so much about it? How do you think the problem can be solved?
- On page 218, you write, "when you attach yourself to famous people . . . you become part of their story." As a writer, how do you determine which people rotating in the orbit of famous personalities or powerful individuals are worth writing about, insofar as their stories are important to the "big picture?" How do you choose which stories to weave together when creating a book like The City of Falling Angels?
- In Italy, as in other European countries, it seems more common for families to be able to trace their ancestry back for many generations. From your experience with the people of Venice, what do you think it does to a person's perspective on family relationships, on politics, and on life in general when one is able to point at a family tree, like Francesco da Mosta's, and see so far back in time?
- There are so many wonderful aspects of Venice to love and enjoy. After spending so much time there, what attracts you the most to the city? How many years in all did you live there? What was it like returning to the United States afterward? Did you suffer from culture shock?
- The loss of the Fenice Opera House is important to the story of The City of Falling Angels and to the history of Venice. Have there been any new developments in the case surrounding its burning or its reconstruction?
- Of all the stories you tell in The City of Falling Angels, why did you choose to end by returning to the Seguso family and the Maestro's "Fenice" glass collection?
- Count Marcello tells the Save Venice board, "to work and operate in Venice means first of all to understand its differences and its delicate equilibrium." After completing this book, do you feel that you have achieved Marcello's standard?
My best guess is that what appeals to readers most in both books are the characters. Time magazine said I had become "a state-of-the-art weirdo magnet." What they meant was that the people I write about tend to be very strange. They are, in fact, eccentrics. I love eccentrics. I see them as artists. Their masterpieces are their own lives.
I write in the form of what has been called, the New Journalism, or Narrative Nonfiction, or even Literary Nonfiction. Simply put, I write true stories in the style of short stories and novels. I use the literary techniques of fiction writers: extended dialogue, detailed descriptions, the imposition of a narrative structure with action moving from scene to scene.
What notoriety I gained from all the publicity has proved to be a double-edged sword. It has made some people very eager to be interviewed by me and others afraid and standoffish. I was not as easily recognizable by face and name in Italy as in America, but Midnight was quite well known there, as both a book and a film (under the name Mezzanotte nel giardino del bene del male).
Coincidence has been a major factor in the researching of both my books. While I was living in Venice, I always carried a small notepad in my back pocket; I figured I was on duty as a journalist day and night. I would see people in the street who interested me, and I'd engage them in conversation. I'd hear a remark that would send me off in an unexpected direction. My approach in the research phase was to be flexible, to follow my hunches without always knowing where they would lead.
Yes, I do think it can be solved. The technology is there. The only uncertainty is exactly how fast the water is rising and whether the proposed plan of moveable dikes is the best solution or only a short-term fix. Other than that, there is always the problem that Italians are congenitally unable to make up their minds. Sometimes that's a good thing, however.
It's always a question of whether the ancillary character makes a good story. In the chapter referred to here, the character rotating in an orbit around a famous person appealed to me because her story embodied a theme that runs throughout the book: the uses of the past, or as one character puts it, "the shameless exploitation of the corpse." There was also the literary link between her story and Henry James's The Aspern Papers, a relationship I found irresistible.
Venetians who can trace their lineage back hundreds of years feel almost a physical connection to Venice, to its history and culture. And the longer the family line the greater feeling of pride.
I lived in Venice on and off for a period of nine yearsstarting a few days after the Fenice fire in 1996, and ending when I was finished with the book and the opera house was rebuilt, in 2005. The city's magical beauty and its air of unreality are the aspects of Venice I love most.
The only news about the Fenice is that Enrico Carella, one of the two young men who were convicted of arson in the fire, is still a fugitive; his whereabouts are unknown. The other man, his cousin Massimiliano Marchetti, has been in jail three years (as of September 2006) and is expected to be released within a year.
The Seguso story was one of my favorites, and since I opened the book with it, I felt I should close the circle by ending with it as well.
The Venetians are a very Byzantine people. They thrive on mystery, intrigue, and ambiguity. I understand all that, but it doesn't mean I always understand the hidden meaning of thingsor that they do either.
- Count Marcello says to Berendt, "What is true? What is not true? The answer is not so simple, because the truth can change. I can change. You can change. That is the Venice effect" (p. 2). How do you see the "Venice effect" at work in this book?
- Discuss the symbolism of Ludovico De Luigi's painting of the Fenice on fire, placed incorrectly (but on purpose) in the middle of the Venetian Lagoon
- Berendt writes, "Venetians seemed to be asking themselves the very questions that I, too, had been wondering aboutnamely, what it meant to live in so rarefied and unnatural a setting" (p. 42). What answers, if any, do you think the author and his subjects come to in the pages of The City of Falling Angels?
- Rose Lauritzen calls Venice a "village with an edge." In your opinion, what about Venice makes it like a village, and what gives it an "edge"?
- Mario Moro collects and parades around in uniforms of all typeshe has everything from firefighter to naval captain. A local tells Berendt that Mario is just like the Venetian families living in grand palaces and obsessed with nobility, or artists who dream of being the next great Maestro. Identify some of the people in this book who exhibit this type of fantasy and self-delusion. Do you think it is a benign or harmful trait?
- The families that Berendt encounters in Venice are often fighting vicious internal wars, or recovering from battles past. What are some of the family dramas he relays in The City of Falling Angels? Be sure to present both sides of the story!
- Like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Carnival is an annual celebration that has, in a sense, defined Venice for generations of locals and millions of tourists. Discuss the meaning and execution of Carnival and how it has changed over the centuries. What is the difference between the way the Venetians and the tourists celebrate Carnival?
- Guerrino Lovato explains on page 101 that "Apollonian restraint and Dionysian abandon" are very important to Italian theater, and also to Venice itself. After reading his explanation about the two ancient cults, describe how this dichotomy is still at work in Venice today with regard to politics, social customs, relationships, architecture, and art.
- Much of The City of Falling Angels is devoted to people intricately bound to or exceptionally wrapped up in the past. Discuss the significance of Patricia Curtis's portrait by Charles Merrill Mount and her habit of dressing all in white, as well as Daniel Curtis's collection of architectural fragments.
- Several of the "central" figures in this bookthe Lauritzens, the Curtis family, Olga Rudge, the Rylandsare not native Venetians. How do you view these people in light of Mario Stefani's opinion that "anyone who loves Venice is a true Venetian" (p. 331)? Do you think any of them are "true Venetians"? Why or why not?
- With his repeated mentions of both Wings of the Dove and The Aspern Papers, Berendt returns throughout The City of Falling Angels to a theme of "the feigning of love as a means to gain something of value" (p. 184). Identify the various situations in the book that illustrate this theme.
- After seeing a seagull tear out and eat the heart of a pigeon, Ludovico De Luigi tells Berendt, "An allegory: the strong versus the weak. It's always the same. The powerful always win, and the weak always come back to be victims all over again" (p. 233). In what ways does this allegory reflect the events of The City of Falling Angels? Do you think De Luigi's observation is true?
- What is it that finally makes Count Volpi participate in Venetian society, if only for one night at the Save Venice ball?
- Tourism in Savannah, Georgia, skyrocketed after the publication of Berendt's last book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Does reading The City of Falling Angels make you want to visit Venice? What specific aspect of the city most intrigues or repels you? If you have read both books, compare and contrast them.