Thursday, May 9, 2013

Venice and Michelle Lovric

Wherever I travel, I always bring along works of fiction that either take place in the destination I'm going to or in some way relate to it -- I refer to these as companion reading.  I've never understood people who, usually at the last minute, look around for 'any old books' they say they need for the airplane or train or bus.  Part of immersing oneself in a destination is insuring that even when you're in transit you're enveloped in the place at which you'll soon be arriving (I suppose there may be some places on earth for which there is no companion reading, though I feel certain I could come up something that is somehow related).

However, even though I find and enjoy lots of fiction related to the places I'm going, it's rare to find an author who is as completely smitten with the place as I am, someone who has delved into a place's history and current affairs and makes it his or her business to really make readers feel they are right there.

 Michelle Lovric is one of these authors, and Venice is her specialty.  Not that finding companion reading for Venice is difficult, but if you have not yet read The Undrowned Child or its sequel The Mourning Emporium and you're en route to Venice soon make absolutely sure these are in your carry-on bag!  But even if you're not literally off to Venice, if you are a fan of page-turning historical fiction or adventure stories you will love these books.

If you've been to Venice in the fall or winter (and I hope you have, but more on this shortly) you will recognize well this description, which is the opening paragraph in The Undrowned Child:

"The fog that fell upon Venice that evening was like a bandage wrapped round the town.  First the spires of the churches disappeared.  Then the palaces on the Grand Canal were pulled into the soft web of white.  Soon it was impossible to see anything at all.  People held their hands out in front of them and fumbled their way over bridges like blind men.  Every sound was muffled, including the sighs of the steam ferries nosing through the black waters.  It would be an exceedingly bad night to fall in the water, for no one would hear a cry for help."   

Terrific, right?  Both of these novels are officially classified as young adult, but trust me, they make for very good reading for full-grown adults.  As A. N. Wilson, author of C. S. Lewis: A Biography noted of The Undrowned Child, "this is the sort of book that is labeled 'for children' but that will be passed round the eager family...Crammed with history, fantasy and beautiful comedy, this book gets a five-star rating." I put Lovric's fictional writing about Venice in the same category as Alan Furst's writing about Paris, Sarah Dunant's writing about Renaissance Florence, Lawrence Durrell's writing about Alexandria, and Laurie Albanese and Laura Morowitz writing about Fra Filippo Lippi in their book The Miracles of Prato.

Now, back to my comment about Venice in the fall or winter: a number of my friends and colleagues will only visit Venice in fall or winter, and I concur that Venice in these seasons is an absolutely, completely different city than it is in spring or summer.  In an essay in my book on Venice, the Veneto, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, author and all-around Italian authority Fred Plotkin notes in "Venice in Winter" that "Winter is the only time of year when La Serenissima is, indeed, serene... and it is only now that you will find restaurants, cafes, and wine bars filled with Venetians.  The rest of the year, they retreat into their homes, taking refuge from the tourist stampede, so the fair-weather visitor misses a crucial element of life in Venice.  To be in Venice without Venetians is to know the city's stones but not its soul."  I'm not sure I would never go to Venice in the spring -- though I always advise avoiding Venice like the plague in the summer -- and if you have plans to be in Venice sometime between now and early June I think you will have a wonderful time. 

I also think if you can find a copy of my book -- it's out of print, but I do see copies online, notably at -- you'll find it to be a valuable compendium.  And even better, I was able to meet Michelle Lovric via e-mail, and she's kindly shared lots and lots of wonderful stuff and personal recommendations about Venice in the Q and A interview below.  BUT BEFORE YOU GET THERE I must tell you about her newest project: saving the bookshops of Venice.  An alarming number of Venice's venerable bookstores are closed or are on the verge of closing, and over 100 Venetian writers and writers about Venice, as well as illustrators, are part of an unprecedented class action by Alessandro Marzo Magno, author of The Dawn of Books: When Venice Made the World Read.  Read Lovric's eloquent and passionate essay she contributed to The History Girls for the full story (click on Lovric's name under the list of labels on the right side); but as she notes in this piece, these bookstore losses have become untenable, and that "in Venice, the cradle of Italian printing, the loss of the bookshops is less bearable than elsewhere."  And did you know that Venice was the first city to print the Koran in Arabic, where the first books were produced in Armenian, and where the very first best-sellers appeared?  Lovric is perhaps uniquely qualified to be a part of this manifesto: her second novel, The Floating Book (which is fascinating, by the way) is about the dawn of printing in Venice, and she spent a lot of time doing research for the book in the Marciana library, which holds one of the greatest classical collections in the world -- including two manuscripts of The Iliad from the 5th and 6th centuries -- as well as the first book ever printed in Venice, and where Lovric held a first edition of Catullus.  Venice is, indeed, the last place that bookshops ought to die, and this campaign is urgent and important to mankind and it deserves our support. Spread the word!        

Q: By your own admission you have “always lived a waterbound life,” in Australia, in Devon, England, and in Venice.  It’s clear you have a passion for watery locales, but it could have been the reverse for you – what is it exactly that you love about living by bodies of water? 

A: Water creates a particular dancing light that I find irresistible. In Venice, it plays under bridges. In London, the Thames washes a rheumy light into my home, making it easier to concentrate than in playful Venice. Where there is water, there is always human transit too, and every journey is a story of sorts. All writers are voyeurs. Waterborne people are more interesting to spy on than those in cars. Their voyages always seem more exciting and romantic.

Q: When did you first visit Venice, and what made you decide to move there? 

A: I first saw Venice when I was eighteen. I was traveling on my own. I stood on the vaporetto going up the Grand Canal and something clicked inside me that said ‘contract’. I had contracted a kind of marriage to Venice. I knew that I would have business with her, be part of her. That night I was walking around Venice pursued by a random Italian who had unilaterally decided that I needed a guide. He was standing on a bridge beside me when a man in a gondola threw me a red rose (yes, these things happen in Venice). My self-appointed guide was so infuriated that he sank his teeth into my shoulder. I can’t remember how I got rid of him, but I do remember that the rose seemed to consecrate what I was already feeling, about Venice reaching out to me, extending a tangible invitation.

The feeling of ‘contract’ meant that after that I spent part of every year in Venice, sometimes a short holiday, sometimes for a month, or two months or three. I started to learn Italian. Then one of my anthologies became a New York Times bestseller, and I suddenly knew that my life could change as I wished it to change. So the first thing I did was book a month in an apartment in Venice and that’s when I wrote my first novel, Carnevale.

It may sound frightfully grand but I do feel now a part of Venice’s cultural history. I have written nine novels set there, and taken a leading part in the campaign to restore the Column of Infamy of Baiamonte Tiepolo, giving lectures in Italian to explain the importance of this monument to the Venetians themselves. I have tried to bring Italian history to life for young people, and in my books I try to express my feeling that the city is more than a place. She is a character in all my books: in truth, the leading character.

Q: Did you speak Italian before you arrived in Venice, and did it take long to understand the Venetian dialect?

A: I started learning Italian about fifteen years ago, I guess. I made an appointment with Ornella Tarantola, of the Italian bookshop in London. But after six weeks I had enough Italian that we began to talk about clothes and men and food, and became close, close friends, a friendship that brings me joy still. She introduced me to members of the huge Italian community in London, and I began to socialise in Italian. I did a couple of short courses on my long stays in Venice, but most of my Italian comes from being an inveterate chatterer and not being shy about making mistakes so long as I can communicate. Italian friends are amazed by my vocabulary – I love words and collect them like stamps. Italian grammar is really quite simple, and the pronunciation is mostly logical. It is a language that loves the tongue, and the memory, and cleaves to them both.

I don’t speak Venetian dialect, though I understand a bit and I use some of the words because they are more appropriate. For example, the Venetian word for ‘rat’ is ‘pantegana’. Given that there have been a lot of rats in my Venetian life, I use the local word with the town rat catcher, my neighbours and the palazzo cat, who is doing her mighty best against them.

Otherwise, I feel strongly that the Venetian dialect is not for outsiders. Venetians have no privacy: the 59,000 inhabitants are besieged by 21 million tourists a year. Their language is their only refuge, a place where they can be themselves, so I want them to have it.

Q: You have written about love, poetry, literature, cats, language, humor, food, marriage, museums, travel, and architecture, among a number of other subjects.  But all of this was aimed at an adult audience.  Where did your interest in writing for young adults come from, and when did you start working on The Undrowned Child?  

A: It was a lovely German editor friend of mine who said that I should write for young adults. I said, ‘No, I write about sex, and drugs and minuets (by which I mean, love, the history of medicine and cultural history). How would I write for children? No, don’t make me!’  She said, ‘I am going out for two hours. Just give it two hours and write.’  So I did, and I was hooked. I loved the demands of pace, clarity and morality that children’s writing creates. I love writing humorous characters, like Turtledove the Faginesque dog in The Mourning Emporium or Sofonisba the sardonic cat in the same book.

My adult non-fiction research has definitely nourished my children’s writing. The scatologically-inclined mermaids in The Undrowned Child and The Mourning Emporium were created from research I had done into sailor and pirate language for an earlier non-fiction book.  And the women’s quack cures that weaken the London mermaids came from a book I’d written on the subject ten years before.  I have been lucky to have superb editors, who have taught me so much as I went along. I would say in fact that writing for children has improved my writing for adults, which is becoming more disciplined.  I am now thinking about my fifth novel for children, interested in freshwater mermaids and even more bad language.  

Q: I love great opening lines in novels, and surely the opener to The Mourning Emporium is a good one: “The fog that fell upon Venice that evening was like a bandage wrapped round the town.”  Where do the words ‘mourning emporium’ in the title come from?

A: There was a famous shop in Victorian London’s Regent Street called Jay’s, which traded in all the paraphernalia for mourning: clothes, stationery, hats, muffs, handkerchiefs, camisoles. Jay’s styled itself a mourning warehouse. Part of the novel is set in an establishment very much based on Jay’s. But I liked the sonorous quality of ‘Emporium’ better than ‘Warehouse’, and especially the internal rhyme with ‘Mourning’.
Q: To take nothing away from the stories in both books, which are highly engrossing and entertaining and well written, I admit I am so impressed that you included ‘Places and Things in The Undrowned Child That You Can Still See in Venice’ and ‘What is True, and What’s Made up?’ in The Mourning Emporium – these are my favorite parts! (They are very similar to the section in my Venice book called ‘A to Z Informazioni Pratiche,’ which has become an A to Z Miscellany in my more recent books.)  Clearly you have a desire to share some of the wonderful and historic treasures of Venice with visitors to the city.  What are 10 sites you would recommend for both first-time visitors and those who’ve been before?     

A:  My publishers were very supportive about the idea of including the Places and Things – and I am so glad. People very often comment on how useful it has been for them and I receive lovely fan letters from people who have used the book to do Undrowned Child tours of Venice. One of my fans came to Venice last year and I gave her the tour myself, from Signor Rioba to the Butcher Biasio. It was just as much fun for me as it was for her.

My top ten (in fact 15) things to do in Venice:
1. walk from the beginning of the Zattere near San Basilio to the Punta della Dogana and look at the view of the bacino, preferably eating a huge gelato. Try to make it last till the church of Salute.
2.  The Basilica of San Marco but don’t queue up to go right inside. Instead, take a steep little flight of steps to the right of the entrance. This takes you up to a gallery where you have the most gorgeous view of the interior. Also, cover up. No shorts, bare arms or decolletée.
3. Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni (Carpaccio paintings) the most beautiful chapel in Venice. A little jewel box. Never crowded and well worth finding. Take some kind of reference material with you, preferably Ruskin (St Mark’s Rest), so you can ‘read’ the paintings.
4. San Giorgio Maggiore, the island facing the Piazzetta, has a tall bell-tower from which you get a stupendous view of the city and not the queues for the Campanile in San Marco. Sitting on the stones outside this church, on the edge of the water, is one of the nicest views of Venice. Turner and Canaletto thought so too. Take a picnic. The Fondazione Cini owns this island and has an institute here that sometimes hosts exhibitions. The wonderful cloisters are sometimes open to the public for guided tours.
5. Doge’s Palace this is a must. If you can, book to see the Secret Itinerary which also includes entrance to the rest of the palace. The itinerary will take you to Casanova’s cell in the leads and other places inaccessible with a normal ticket. A bit of climbing is involved. After the itinerario (which you can book in English, with an English-speaking guide) you are free to wander around the palace’s public parts. VERY nice cafe down by the water gate on the ground floor, though the coffee is heart-stopping. You need a whole day at the Doge’s Palace really. You need to book the secret itinerary a few days in advance, in general. Better still, book before you come to Venice, to make sure.
6. Caffè Florian for the beautiful art on the walls or to sit on the benches in the covered passageway. Try Florian’s famous hot chocolate piled with whipped cream. It’s thick, dark and amazing. In the past, Venetians loved chocolate so much that they would sell a slave for ten cocoa beans.  The nobility had hot chocolate in the mornings, in bed, instead of tea or coffee. There’s a funny poem by Antonio Sforza (eighteenth century) about his obsession with hot chocolate, in which he declares that when he dies he wishes to have his bones ground up and made into bone-china cups for more hot chocolate.
7. Biennale art festival takes place June onwards, every second year, 2007, 2009, at the Giardini. Each country has a pavilion. It takes a day and is alternately disgusting, exhilarating, amusing. There is a separate part at the Arsenale, the old naval shipyards. If that is open, go at all costs because the architecture inside is stupendous, gives you a full sense of Venice’s former might. You really need a day each at the sites. Sadly, pretentious and stretched-out repetitive video installations are overtaking painting and sculpture, but there is always something interesting to see. The Biennale also spreads into town: some private palazzi are used as temporary exhibition sites, and it is always worth getting inside even if the art is terrible. Your ticket to the main exhibition should get you into the ‘in town’ exhibits too. Some of those are free entrance, anyway.
8. You really should take a gondola ride, if possible. By far the best time to do this is at night. The water is calmer; the city retreats into her past. And you should ask the gondolier to take you into the quiet smaller canals. A night-ride in one of the beautiful black boats is not ‘just for the tourists’. I do it as often as possible, even though I live in Venice.  If the gondola is a bit expensive, there is a way you can have a short ride in one for 50 cents: take the traghetto. These are real gondolas that work as ferries, taking up to fourteen people at a time across the Grand Canal. Two gondoliers pole them, one at each end. There are various places to take them, including Rialto, Santa Maria del Giglio and San Tomà. In The Undrowned Child, Teo meets the ghost of Pedro-the-Crimp on the traghetto between San Samuele and Ca’ Rezzonico – because that is the one I usually get to do my shopping. But it is currently under threat of being axed because of lack of funds.  It is traditional to stand up in the traghetto. But if some people sit down on the ledges at the sides of the boat, then it is OK – but you must watch out and make sure that the weight is balanced.
9. Church of Miracoli, the prettiest back end of a church in Venice and nice square where you can enjoy the church and good cappuccino under big white parasols. Service can be surly, and the prices are blatant brigandage, but just look at that church. In this area, every few months, is a good flea market. It is always worth asking your hotel if it is the weekend for the Miracoli flea market. Most of it is junk, but it’s VENETIAN junk, so worth a look.
10. Ca’ d’Oro is the oldest gothic palazzo and still the most beautiful on the Grand Canal. Now it’s an art gallery. Remember to go into the courtyard – it’s the best part.
11. Grand Canal at night. One of the best things to do is to take a vaporetto late in the evening. Go to the open bit at the back or the front (if on an old-style vap – the new technovaps don’t have seats at the front). From there you can see all the palazzi with their lamps lit, illuminating painted ceilings and other treasures. Take a round trip from Zattere back to Academia or San Marco.
12. The Natural History Museum in Venice is surprisingly fantastic. Housed in the old Turkish Foundation building, it has a stunning modern collection and also a charming, frightening, old collection of hunting trophies including a gorilla whose belly is now bare from being stroked by too many Venetian schoolchildren. The animals in this museum feature in my forthcoming novel, The Fate-in-the-Box. Santa Croce 1730 - 30135 Venezia - 041/2750206.
13. Say hello to the statue of Signor Rioba, one of the heroes of The Undrowned Child, may be
found, with those of his brothers, in the Campo dei Mori, near the church of Madonna
del Orto. When you see his strong, cross face, you will understand why I made him
speak so coarsely in the book! Also nearby is the Palazzo Mastelli, which has a relief
of a camel.
14. Visit the old lady who stopped a revolution. Just behind the clock tower in San Marco, look up and left. You will see a sculpture of an old lady throwing a mortar and pestle out of her window. This is a tribute to the lady who killed the standard-bearer of Baiamonte Tiepolo just before his
revolutionary forces arrived in San Marco, on their way to kill the Doge and take over
the city. When the standard-bearer died, everyone lost heart for fighting and the
revolution was soon put down. And the anger of Baiamonte Tiepolo’s ghost is the evil that fuels
the dangerous storylines of both The Mourning Emporium and The Undrowned Child.
15. Contarini del Bovolo. This building was created for a man who had grown rich by selling sausages. I don’t want to spoil the surprise for you, but I will tell you this much: you will immediately see why the name Bovolo or Snail-shell  is very appropriate. Corte dei Risi o del Bovolo, San Marco 4299

Q:  I have to ask you about the Syrian cats (I am a big cat person, and I am proud to say that my cat Seymour, who was a very fat Siamese, lived to be 23) – you mention the charity DINGO in The Undrowned Child and that this organization has cleared the streets of Venice of its once numerous wild cats.  Why did this happen?  And, since you offered, what are some Venice shops that still have their own resident cats

A:  I am a huge cat person two. In London, I now have two tabbies called Mu and Caramella, who has caramel-coloured eyes.  It is quite true about the Syrian cats (apart from the wings with which I endow them in my books).  Venice has always needed cats. Other cities faced invading armies, and built defensive walls. But Venice only had walls of water, and hence invasions of water rats and of mice. The navy and merchant ships from the east brought an involuntary passenger... the black rat, who brought the plague that  exterminated a third of Venetians in the 17th century. So Venetians imported some particularly ferocious Syrian, or tabby cats, and crossed them with the native lagoon cats, to make hunters.  Cats were soon ‘serving’ on Venetian ships, to keep the mice out of the food stores. It is noted that sometimes three or four cats were recruited for the ships. They were also thought to bring good fortune to the sailors.  The word for tabby in Italian is ‘Soriano’, obviously relating to the Syrian background of these beasts.

In 1964 there came to Venice an Englishwoman named Helena Sanders (1911–97) who set up a charity eventually known as DINGO. Claiming that there were 50,000 starving and sick cats, she

initiated a cull, to the astonishment and horror of many Venetians. These days the charity DINGO does not kill cats except in extremis but houses them in a gattile at Malamocco. They also provide little houses and food for colonies of wild cats in various parts of Venice. You do not see as many cats as you used to in Venice, sadly. But if you want to have some sightings, there are about a dozen who hang out near the deconsecrated church of Cosma e Damiano on the Giudecca. A few can be seen in the Campo dei Mori quite often. And quite a few shops have resident cats. I did a series of interviews with these cats for my website. There’s the lovely grey Perla at Rigattieri in Santo Stefano, Matilde at Can e Gato (Venetian for ‘Cat and Dog’), on the Fondamenta del Soccorso, marmalade Van Gogh at Shanti Daan near San Barnaba, emerald-eyed Minou at Martin Pescatore near Santi Giovanni e Paolo.

Q: What are some of the places you regularly frequent in your sestiere and beyond?

A:  Best coffee – da Gino in San Vio, also for the amazing smile of the barista Emilio, and the way he says ‘Ciao Michelle!’
Best food shopping – Rialto market, not just for the food but for the ‘cries’ of the traders touting their vegetables and the sheer beauty of the setting, on the edge of the Grand Canal.  
Best garden – Sant’Elena, where the tall trees make for shade and you almost never see a tourist. The park was recently devastated by a tornado, and some trees lost, but it is still beautiful and peaceful.
Best shops – for clothes I love the exotic Federica’s boutique near San Toma’. It’s called Zazu (San Polo 2750) and also, though it is pricey, Hibiscus, near Rialto.
Best library – the Marciana, once you get past the arcane ordering system and know at which archway to present yourself for books of different centuries.
Best restaurants – Beccafico – Sicilian cuisine in Venice, rich and powerful flavours - Campo Santo Stefano, San Marco 2801, 041 527 4879. For lovely meat dishes and interesting pastas, Pan e Vino San Daniele, Campo dell’Angelo Raffaele - Dorsoduro 1722, 30123 Venezia, 041 5237456. Also Osteria alla Zucca for its buttery pumpkin mousse topped by pumpkin seeds and chalky taleggio in a slick of dark green olive oil. San Stae, Ramo del Megio 1762 - 041 5241570. Nearby is one of the nicest local squares, San Giacomo dell’ Orio, where quite often you will often find interesting things happening in the evenings, such as moonlit ballroom dancing competitions, tango classes, Mexican festivals and dog shows. And not far away is All’Anfora, very good for children or people on a budget. I don’t like pizza but I would eat pizza every day if I could have it here. This is a little pizzeria-trattoria near the San Biasio vaporetto stop. (The Butcher Biasio, who made stew out of children, is one of the villains in The Undrowned Child). But he’s long gone so it’s perfectly safe for kids now.  The pizzas at the Anfora have a lovely light slender crust and good toppings. Calle dei Bari, Santa Croce 1223 - 041 524 0325

Q: What books about Venice– for both children and adults – are among your favorites?

A:  My all-time favourite book about Venice has never been translated into English, which is a serious shame. It is called Curiosita’ Veneziane and it is by Giuseppe Tassini, who is actually a character in my novel, Talina in the Tower. Curiosita’ is a kind of historical gazetteer of the whole city, explain the names and happenings in each street. I have a pocket edition that lives in my handbag. Who knows when you might pass down ‘The Little Street of the Big Eye’ and need to know why it has that name?

In terms of novels about Venice, I love (for young readers) Mary Hoffman’s Stravaganza: City of Masks.  For adult readers, I admire very much Juan Manuel de Prada's The Tempest,
Tiziano Scarpa's Venice is a Fish and Stabat Mater, and Jeanette Winterson's The Passion.  And of course I enjoy Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series as well.

Q:  What do you read when you’re not reading about Venice?  

A:  I read a lot of YA and adult fiction, always absorbent, interested, learning from other writers. Books that have made me very happy and stimulated recently are State of Wonder by Anne Patchett and The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen.

Q:  What is your favorite time of year that you recommend people visit Venice?

A:  The quietest time is early December and January before the tourists come for Carnevale. The weather is very cold, and there is frequently aqua alta, which makes the city both tricky and fascinating to negotiate. There are also beautiful mists and even snow. This year the lagoon even froze over for a few days, a glorious sight. I would recommend those times, for their atmosphere, and for the pleasure of getting in out of the cold to drink hot chocolate.  If you are there on January 6th you can watch gondoliers dressed in drag racing down to Rialto as part of the Befana celebrations. You’ll be given free hot chocolate and galani biscuits too.

Q:  Where else do you travel in Italy?

A:  I have plans to visit Matera in Southern Italy as soon as I can. I love Rome. But nothing can quite compare with Venice. The one time I took a driving holiday in Italy, I came home early to Venice because I was homesick.

Q:  What projects are you working on now?

A: I have just finished my fourth book for young readers, The Fate-in-the-Box, a story about an 18th-century Venice full of ticking, jumping, walking automata and haunted by a Primaeval Crocodile. And I am working on my fifth novel for adults. The fourth one, The Book of Human Skin, dealt with all aspects of the largest organ of our body, with the story spread from Venice to Peru in the early nineteenth century. This new one is about hair, which turns out to be of enormous cultural significance. Harnessing the research into a readable novel is quite a challenge but I’m loving it. 
Even more about Venice can be found on Lovric's website, -- I especially love the selection of Venetian proverbs that Lovric originally featured at the beginning of each chapter in her first novel, Carnevale (Virago PRess, 2002) -- as well in her excellent anthology, Venice: Tales of the City (Little, Brown, 2005).  Lovric can also be found online at the Scattered Authors' Society website (An Awfully Big Blog Adventure) and at English Writers in Italy.

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