‘Ah you publishing scoundrel!’
— Henry James
It’s always a lift for the spirits to be back in Italy. Appropriately enough, given the shared interest in collecting authors’ papers, our excursion’s final stop was to be Venice. The visit had been planned as a treat following the ardours of patience required for an academic conference—however virtuous its aims—on issues for archives and special collections in variously challenged parts of the globe.
…..The few days in Padua for our symposium on “The Function of Archives at the Present Time” included time spent enjoying its cafes and strolling the streets of that pleasant university town. We found a moment for Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel, which had so pleased Proust, though what most distracted me was the shrine in his Basilica ornamented with lost objects and artefacts restored by the intercession of St Anthony himself. Then that very day we would be catching an evening express further east for the second leg of a genial five-night sojourn in la bella Italia.
…..Hosted by colleagues who worked in one of the great Venetian holdings, we were to enjoy lower-key discussion and be granted access to papers—having a professional concern with their preservation, digitalisation, and all round best practice. It was a part of that archives network programme which brought together, a good few years’ back now, stakeholders from across Europe, the States, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Caribbean. It was to be our raid on the articulate, if you will.
…..We were quite a heterogeneous set of characters to be placed on the stage set that is Venice, whether by a Gaudi or Marieschi, where another hand had painted in the staffage. Suitably cast for a bedroom farce, a melodrama or spoof whodunit, we would be playing our walk-on parts, come the following morning, taking in the narrow, crowded, winding, boutique-lined streets between Santa Lucia and Saint Mark’s Square. Doubtless too, there would be opportunities in the bedroom-farce line, but to be honest, such a thought barely crossed my mind, and in any case that’s not our story.
…..With us were the travelling Americans, the head of a rare books and manuscript library, an unusually handsome young fellow wearing the button-down uniform of his role and standing. A southern gentleman, it turned out, from the Carolinas, whose name I couldn’t quite catch or form, which is how he gained my private nickname Top Cat. Their Henry James holdings—as one of his colleagues would inform me—are over six linear feet in length.
…..Accompanying him was the institution’s chief scalp hunter, its very own grand acquisitor, whose name, from more cartooning, secretly turned into Sylvester. He was a lean man of middle-height, with thick pebble glasses, hirsute, ponytailed, a carpet-bagging relic-sleuth in search, on his latest trip to Europe, of crepuscular memorabilia. The very last of their heirs were dying off, he told me, which would provide his opportunities.
…..Our own sub-group represented the more modestly funded English version of such institutions. Peter Stein was there, for instance, our distinguished Professor of Italian History in his Milanese suits, and there were representatives from translation studies, an archivist from Special Collections, plus one or two other academics on their pathways to impact.
…..Gillian was with us, a still youthful power-dresser if ever there was one, who would return from long wanderings in off-hours, managing her designer-label bags through the hotel’s needle-like doorway. She too would be burnishing her curriculum vitae, though, to be fair, most of us were furnished with a higher-minded explanation for being present on that galivant to Venice.
…..Leading the party was our altruistic public figure, committee chair of charities, a name to conjure with in local politics and expert grant-bid writer. Alongside all the other achievements for which he justly remains widely known, he was a specialist in the protection of literary and cultural heritage. He would spent much of his time in the air between international gatherings devoted to such matters.
…..“Were you happy with the outcomes of the conference?” I had asking him on the train that evening, for we found the reservations had placed us next to one another, and I adopted my role of attentive paparazzo.
…..“That is what I intended by my summing up,” he answered, as if I’d insinuated there might be an inside story to hear. “The most important thing about these networks is their afterlife, their legacy,” he added, which would have to satisfy, for, safe to say, there was no inside story.
…..We were also accompanied to Venice by a contingent of Italian archivists and librarians, plus a few of their academic aristocrats. With these much-privileged persons were a number of favoured students, there to keep the professorial vanity in trim, among them, my young friend Gabriela, a funded post-doc student working on women artists, poets and painters of the Renaissance—the likes of Veronica Franco and Sofonisba Anguissola. But apart for the contrast effected, these native speakers barely figure in our story.
And to be honest, I was never quite sure what prompted my invitation to join their party. After all, they were, to a person, professionals in their various fields, trained archivists and librarians, antiquarians and auction evaluators, academics and researchers. Perhaps it pleased them to have along an example—if an obscure one —of publishing scoundrels themselves: the damned if you do, damned if you don’t. After all, the private papers of these celebrity writers would be of no interest if they, and not only their editors and promoters, their acolytes and critics, had not perpetrated publications too.
…..Still, there I was, pleased to have the opportunity to revisit this most celebrated of cities. A writer of sorts, that sensitive type, whose sensitivity may so readily decline into touchiness and vanity, I was unsurprisingly suffering from one more bout of impostor syndrome—haplessly putting on airs. As often happens on such sojourns from routine, when the constraints of official roles and duties are momentarily removed, our excursion would be occasion for brief confidences at which, should they come, the obligation to reciprocate presses on the silence. Which perhaps helps explain why, when it came to confidences, well, I would keep mine to myself—until now, that is, for this would be our story, if you follow me.
After all, it’s true what they say about Venice, preserved, with its houses like cakes and a light that somehow manages to unify its byways and clutter. The place freely lends its precariousness to anyone who wants it, like a love without need of return. While the way you arrive or leave, if leave you can, this does indeed make all the difference. Our coming from Padua that late evening had been such a wearisome journey, the conversation faltering as our leader’s paparazzo ran out of queries for him to parry like a star with the press.
…..Hurrying through the fallen darkness, it did seem as we approached that city so resembling a work of art to the life, that each of these colleagues would drop at least one confidence. For night had well and truly descended when, finally, we crossed the lagoon on that four-kilometre-long railway bridge with its faint familiar glitter of lights along the barely perceptible line in darkness dividing sky from sea.
…..Beyond the flight of steps down to its end of the Grand Canal, there is nothing Venetian about the Santa Lucia railway terminus, a gloomy low-ceilinged modernistic structure with squared off pale grey marble-faced pillars. There among them, hurrying towards the vaporetto stop, that gaggle of us were threatening to be hopelessly dispersed in its still populous nondescript spaces.
…..In the hurry and bustle on the steps outside that evening, it was perfectly imaginable that some would go missing, and, as in a nightmare, don’t look now, not be able to find the hotel into which we were booked, a small place somewhere near the Accademia. But no need to worry, there at last was the busy canal, vaporetti coming and going, a great church façade immediately opposite, and with that faintly familiar odour from its waters.
…..Early spring was also exactly the time of year we had first come here, for our sort-of-honeymoon, staying in an Antica locanda on the Lista di Spagna, which stood somewhere down to the left, and may still stand there for all I know. Yes, the city is good for honeymoons, as the poet said, adding that it might also be tried for divorces.
…..Or both at the same time, I could add, thinking of those Japanese couples, with their silent courting lunches and dinners, their arranged marriages between genders using variant versions of their language, young people not trained to speak to each other, separating at Narita on returning from their ghastly, disastrous lune di miele. But that’s another story.
Taking the crowded vaporetto from Santa Lucia to the Accademia, we were heading slowly along its shadowy waters, waters glittering with palaces’ reflections, along the curves of the Grand Canal by what proved to be full moonlight, the silvery disc up above seeming to manoeuvre, to swim in deep sky, always remaining visible there between the rooftops with their bell-like chimney caps. There was no fog, just the slightest mist rising from the waters. It was as clear a night as you could wish for that March evening, the same time of year, as I said, when we had first come here.
…..Gerry, our Reader in Material Culture, whom I had happened to be sitting next to in the bow of the vaporetto, would ask me, as you do, what I was working on now. With a foolish pride I had happened to mention the proofs for a new volume half-corrected in my luggage. Yet it wasn’t the answer he had seemed to require, suggesting as it did that here I was swanking again about papers of my own.
…..Beyond the Rialto bridge its palazzi had taken on a deserted, a posthumous air with incrustations of low-relief sculptures, niched saints, putti, and skyline stalwarts poised on their pediments. I tried to look out for the most familiar façades, the Ca’ d’Oro, for instance, but must have missed it, what with that oddly ominous allure of the ill-lit frontages rising out of the waters, their immobility, their yet to be disturbed reflections as we approached them, compounding the delicious tranquillity of Venice by night.
…..“Oh, how lovely,” as one of our party gasped beside me, and I too was haunted by those sights and sounds, by the overlaid echoes of previous presences, thoughts infiltrated by the contrary roving of a Byron or Ruskin, condemning the place like clouds in the sunset, or Wagner, who died here, and his father-in-law conducted through these very canals in their sorrowful black gondola with treble-clef prow.
…..Nor will it surprise anyone, given what has been thrown at Venice by way of story and projection, that the place is crumbling under the weight it has borne. Still, somehow it continues to rise from the waters like the architectural miracle it endlessly appears—which is exactly what I couldn’t help liking about the place in its moonlit shadowiness, the way that despite everything, everything we’ve thrown at it, the storied charm of Venice still rises to our words.
Next morning, on the Accademia Bridge, you could imagine the murmurs of ecstasy from tourists arriving, their astonishment at the limpid turquoise of the sky that morning above the Grand Canal with its cupola skyline, another far shore, the barber’s-pole-like mooring posts, the Canaletto water, its toing and froing of choppy wake and turbulent wash rocking the speedboats moored alongside the great palazzi on down towards the splendour of Santa Maria della Salute and, beyond, the Dogana’s steps.
…..We were crossing the wooden curve of the bridge, on our way from the small hotel where our party had descended the night before. After taking our cappuccino and brioche in a nearby bar, we were heading towards the first session of the day at the University Ca’ Foscari, where they would treat us to papers on the lascito of a local semi-dialect poet whose archive they had recently acquired.
…..Beside me stood Gabriela taking it all in and smiling broadly, her lovely olive complexion and raven hair, my colleague and acquaintance from the desert-like waiting room of Italian academia, tied to the coat-tails—as post-doc research assistant—of an immoveable professor in his chair, waiting in line for a vanishingly distant concorso that could provide her commitment to the arts with some life-enabling tenure. Well able to parry the advances of those in cattedra who might be offering advancement, firm-minded Gabriela, she perfectly knew the score, and seemed as cheerful as could be that morning with the breeze blowing ropes of hair about her face, at the highest point on the wooden curve of the Accademia Bridge, a further instance—if I needed one—of the joie de vivre that, somehow, I seem to have envied all my life.
…..The vistas were so ravishing and blithe. It was as if I’d not been here before—the nineteen seventies never coming back. I had long since realised that wanting to relive them in some eternal recurrence was not to be wished for. After all, if you were to eternally return, the others would have to relive their lives too, those other lives intertwined with yours—such a freedom from remorse or regret placing too much burden on the ones who endured those times with you. Love’s limits in place as ever, Gabriela and I paused on the bridge a moment more in the soft spring breeze from those sky-reflected waters.
…..“Would you have time to look over my draft?” Gabriela was asking me.
…..“Of course,” I said. “What’s it about?”
…..“Artemisia Gentileschi’s rape-trial,” she said. “I take issue with some of Anna Banti’s assumptions ….”
…..To which I was able to reply, not untruthfully, that I was really looking forward to reading her paper.
….. “Grazie, grazie, Riccardo,” she replied.
Being in Venice again couldn’t but bring back times I had walked its rivas and fondamentas, had footslogged beside the murky waters of its side canals, and explored its campi enjoying the contemplation of such dishes as “Liver in Venetian art”—as a menu turistico had haplessly called it.
…..That was the year, as it happens, when Harry met Sally, when my Mary was still working at the local mental institution, from which she would return home on more than one occasion with bruises or black eyes inflicted by the patients during group therapy sessions. As I say that first visit had been a sort-of-honeymoon, funded out of a need to complete some research, taking our two unspeakably damaged souls back to the country just two years after … but neither does that story need repeating. It’s been told enough already.
…..Yet where better than Venice to be haunted by the past? Especially as dusk fell outside my tiny room in that small hotel near the Accademia with a window above the thoroughfare leading on towards the lights of monstrous cruise ships and the Giudecca glinting across its deep green waters.
…..On our first train journey across the lagoon, back in those leaden seventies, on our approach to Venice, an old man sitting opposite had engaged us in a little rudimentary conversation, asking had we visited his city before, and letting us know, since you could tell by our student attire, that there was a modest albergo on the left outside the station into which we were then slowly drawing.
…..We thanked him as we stood up to gather our light luggage but had unfortunately already booked a hotel on the waterfront somewhere down towards the Arsenale. But even its decor had made us feel uneasy that first night. Yet it was the noises reaching up to our room from the lobby in the small hours which did it—though what sounded like a drunken brawl going on in the bar had perhaps only been the boisterousness of Italian being spoken. We didn’t stay to find out. After hours of sleeplessness, back we went to that Antica locanda of the old man’s recommendation—which turned out to be a truly modest place, a crucifix over its lumpy double bed, and an inescapably musty smell, far too poor for any self-respecting ghost to haunt. We slept well there, aided no doubt by the miles we would traipse on our passionate pilgrimages to the various shrines of its picture-galleries and churches.
…..Needing to report on the use made of my grant, I dutifully took notes on the jewel box of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, the church of the Madonna del Orto, the hospital of San Giovanni e Paolo, San Zaccaria, the Tintorettos at the Scuola San Rocco, the Titian at the Frari, all the Bellinis, and Giorgione’s Tempesta of course. Yes, I had to do my homework and, despite Mary’s suffering those ten days from a persistent head cold, she would lead us through the cramped backways of that tentacular city. We never did stand on the Bridge of Sighs, though, not in Venice at least. True, Mary did the map-reading, taking us through the Pescheria’s fishy-smelling pastoral—when still it was a seafood market, and not a covered outdoor venue. We even managed to find Peggy Guggenheim’s villa in the Dorsoduro, the district where a custodian told us the famous foreigners used to live.
…..Mary nudged me out across the lagoon to Murano where she bought some green glass plates, and Torcello to confirm the gold thread in the pattern, finding the church there locked in its somnolent lostness. Still, however much I pondered and brooded, accumulated notes and studied those findings, it was on the surface we remained, so much so that its charm and fascination, I can’t tell a lie, appeared a false dawn in that long retrospect, a dawn which never brightened into day.
In Venice once again, after a leisurely lunch with fellow tourists, I’d been shown a way to the cool hotel for an afternoon pause from remorseless sightseeing, where, exchanging pleasantries, I couldn’t help brooding on those other alberghi, Wilkie Collins’s, the Antica locanda or, to be sure, that nameless one near the Arsenale—although, admit it, our falling had happened some time before descending to any of those small hotels.
…..In Venice yet another time wooden walkways had been put out to keep the tourists dry. We had paddled through the alta acqua with trousers rolled and shoes in hand, searching for an out-of-the-way restaurant with a pergola and garden out back. And that was when we penetrated, for the one and only time, into an old palazzo where, as if on cue, summed up before its rose façade or the marble of a stair, they would be filming some harlequined and domino scenes of eighteenth-century decadence—a life of Casanova perhaps.
…..Years later, in Venice yet once more, a still obscurer door was opened. From the streets of carnival masks, gondolas moving in idleness, accordions squeezing out something Paganini might have played down its back canals, past palazzi resolutely wrapped in restorers’ gear, St Mark’s pigeons fouling the place with guano and its people with their litter, the Japanese-language souvenirs on the Riva degli Schiavoni, daubed oil-on-canvas views of perspectives where everything seemed for sale, we had escaped its epitome of wide-screen technicolour death, and been shown into a tranquil backwater of the place.
…..Beyond that nondescript street door, a passageway had opened on a silent play area surrounded by plane trees, classroom windows, and a hollow bell tower. There, we met the school’s custodian, a survivor of the city’s fame, who fed us pasta, peas, and wine up on her rooftop terrace. This too was an island of neglect, an inner sanctum, as it were, and thanks to my native-speaking guide, I was made to feel welcome enough. The lady of the house, our host’s grandmother, didn’t say much, it’s true, and there were only dialect conversations to be had, so I took myself off to the walled school playground and read from a book by Antonio Tabucchi, Piccoli equivoci senza importanza it was, to fill up that slow siesta hour.
…..For during her meal of rice and peas, a single yellowed, plane-tree leaf had touched down like a hovering waiter by my plate, and I couldn’t not recall again those would-be therapeutic days in the Antica locanda, days of seeing if this place’s marble splendour might yet make amends for violence. But in Venice once when a door was opened, though together we tried, God knows, it would be other people who would give us back our selves.
Gabriela, bless her, occasionally drew my attention to a document held in the collections we were visiting, the miraculously preserved manuscript of an unfinished melodrama by “Mrs James,” for instance, one she had boasted to be only an exercise of her invention. She had scorned to borrow from actual events. Placed for our perusal on the library tables, those papers would one way or another touch on or at least graze past the back pages of my career.
…..Extraordinarily enough, here in these archivi there were letters to writers I had contacted, drafts of translations sent with requests for commentary and clarification, even an inscribed publication or two sent in exchange for something mailed from here by those now dead authors studied in my youth.
…..Turning over their faded leaves in the boxes of archived correspondence brought it all back, that sense of a world to understand, a history to honour and sustain. It couldn’t help but bring home those exhausting years of dedicated labour, almost all of it unpaid or in any way rewarded, excepting the pleasure and dedication, the mysterious self-esteem it brought.
…..What’s more, now, there was my archive to consider. I had even received two or three expressions of interest from various university libraries, or their deposit representatives, but no one had broached the question of payment, except for a firm of evaluators and middlepersons, who, it hardly needed adding, were largely concerned with what percentage would be theirs should they find themselves called upon to dispose of it to the highest bidder.
…..There was its value-by-association to consider too, for as these bits of correspondence fished from the local archives implied, without ever intending to, I had ended up scattering archived documents all across the world and, in return, found myself in possession of reciprocated correspondence and composition from a very large number of others.
…..As it happened, there in our midst, invited for her expertise, was a famously tough-minded example of that side of the trade: a professional evaluator of celebrity papers, those of historical novelists, Nobel prize-winners, and other such literary figures. After many years working for one of the major disposers, she had set up a consultancy of her own, furnishing advice to the great international auction houses.
…..Inevitably I tried to find out a little of what was involved in locating an archive, what the tax implications might be, for instance. With an indulgent smile, she explained that an author’s papers contain two kinds of objects, that’s to say as far as the Inland Revenue is concerned: there are your manuscripts and typescripts, any material instances of your work, which, being work, can be taxed as such, and then there are the papers whose copyright remains with others, such as letters from the famous or notorious you have received, and which, being property that you are profiting by through its sale, can also be taxed.
…..“But I don’t think you need worry about those kinds of complication,” she explained. “Collecting institutions are being very cautious nowadays about what they spend their money on. Aside from the most well-founded in America, academic archives have grown exponentially, and they’re asking themselves about value for money, because no one seems to know how to make use of them. And it’s only set to get worse as the big data of writers’ digital remains become available for collecting. These days you need to have a major reputation if anyone’s going to offer you the kind of sums that might excite the interest of the taxman.”
Being neither hunter nor prey, as this expert had not too delicately underlined, left me at a loss among our mystic companionship, our moral fraternity of seekers after truths preserved in authorial remains, the esoteric knowledge secreted in their buff-coloured boxes—as if they might even be Jeffrey Aspern’s, heaven help us, perfectly worked out, the occasion favouring, by Henry James himself.
…..But, actually, no, here and in my white-gloved hand was a letter from one whose name I’ll reserve to save his ghost the shame, complaining to a poetry editor—it’s just an instance— about the scant distribution of his books to the trade in this very city, with which the former is inescapably associated, though actually spending a life as a teacher of school on the mainland, where I had happened to visit him one evening many, many years before.
…..It had come about a decade after that sort-of-honeymoon visit, when one summer I was making ends meet by teaching English to someone who knew the great poet and offered to arrange a meeting, since I’d said I was planning to be in the country again that September, as tended to be my habit, the weather cooler, the students all gone home.
…..At the end of a very pleasant meal and fisarmonica recital, after he’d inscribed an earlier collection purchased for the purpose, the poet suggested I translate some of his work, and I found myself apologising, saying that his writings were so difficult and that my faulty understanding of the language wouldn’t make it easier—to which he immediately came back that the difficulty was all on the surface. But unfortunately, on the surface was where, though I didn’t pursue the point, I, and any translator for that matter, would be finding and having the difficulty.
…..Yet to have been provided with access to the poet’s moment of professional resentment expressed between two such figures from the dead poets’ society, poets whom I had myself so long ago encountered, could only of course feel like prying, though doubtless these letters had been donated, their legacy content assumed. Still, I didn’t know what to make of the revelation, if that’s what it was, for what else could an experimental poet looking at a royalty statement think except to cite Lenin’s remark about what is to be done?
…..Nor was this our story, and I let the manuscript drop from a white-gloved hand, allowing it to fall directly back into the archive box from which it had been gingerly drawn by the slender archivist.
…..“Grazie molto,” I said, returning it to her care.
On the second day, though, I must confess to feeling in our parading through those streets and squares a faint disillusion, resembling the hollowness that comes at the end of a festival or when a circus is leaving town. Doubtless it was only lack of privacy, being cooped up with these particular kinds of merchants in Venice, not to mention the anxieties generated by our various institutions’ wanting not only their pound of flesh.…..
…..Equally, like a quotidian déjà vu, that jammed-together place can easily stale, its main thoroughfares grow familiar and monotonous, the tourist crush a perpetual thronging, and the longing can only too quickly return to be away from this equivocal place, to be anywhere, anywhere else with a more nondescript decor, somewhere more liveable, minimal, reduced.
…..After lunch that day, we had wandered in desultory fashion eventually gathering around some café tables in a campo not far from the old ghetto quarter. We were surveying the ordinary doings of the day, the passers-by, whether hurrying locals or lingering tourists, some of us noting what benefits the visit had brought, how impactful our meetings might prove to be, and who would be writing up the results for our managers and grant-awarding-bodies who had made the visit possible.
…..While that professional conversation was taking place, Gillian, sitting at our table, leant over confidingly in my direction.
…..“I thought I should perhaps let you know,” she whispered.
…..“About what’s happening between your post-docs, Robert and Sarah,” she said.
…..“You mean their sentimental attachment?”
…..“Oh, so you know,” she said, and I told her that it had looked on the cards ever since I introduced them after an evening’s papers at the Graduate School, when the survivors had retired to the pub.
…..“Well,” she said, “the thing is there’s this post being advertised in Publishing Studies, and they’ve both applied for it. You’ll be on the panel, of course, and will doubtless be asked to write references for each of them. I just thought you ought to be forewarned. There could be a bit of heartache, one way or another.”
…..Yes, the quality of mercy would not be strained once more, and the art of reference writing, those words at once true and kind, or not untrue and not unkind, would find the music in myself, if there was music still to find.
…..“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll do my best.”
…..“I know you will,” she said. “I know you’ll try your damnedest to soften the blow, whichever way it falls.”
Now as any celebrity chef can tell you, so long as you don’t suffer a mysterious loss of appetite, Venice is the place for restaurants and dishes more mouth-watering than liver in Venetian art—which, as I’m sure you already know, had meant to translate fegato alla veneziana, a fry-up of liver and onions with a dash of red wine in the sauce. Then there’s the risi e bisi, rice and peas with unsmoked bacon, or bigoli in salsa, a thick spaghetti-like pasta served with an anchovy condiment … and there would be occasions when our party could gather for such festive celebrations.
…..But it had been the very thought of a sauce made from bits of chopped-up Titian and Giorgione canvases that made me giggle back in those days of post-prandial risibility. Yet perhaps liver in Venetian art was not so wide of the mark. After all, right now we could order a peach Bellini cocktail before the meal, and sip at it while enjoying a Carpaccio of meat or fish for antipasto.
…..One of those few evenings over dinner, I took the opportunity to ask TC about the chances his then President had of shaming their country into reforming its gun laws in light of yet another mass shooting in a school.
…..“Our Second Amendment will not be repealed,” the chief librarian declared in that lilting Carolina accent of his. “Mr President can parade as many weeping parents in the White House as he likes. It isn’t going to happen.”
…..At which I dropped my head, seeing as there was nowhere else that line of thought might go. For what had I expected where Ruskin numbered thy kingdom and found it wanting, went weighing the walls and reading the writing printed there? Had I expected the senior administrator to share my hopes? But it wasn’t that he exactly opposed them or sided with the gun-lobby. He was simply stating, though by no means lamenting, an incontrovertible fact.
…..“But tell me, then, who pays the bill of rights?” I didn’t ask, masticating another mouthful of spaghetti al nero di seppia, marvelling at the pity of it all.
On our jaunt to Venice my slumbers were nothing like as dreamless, or without a waking memory of dreaming, as they had been in our Antica locanda. Mine were bad on both nights in that small hotel.
…..And, sad to say, they were the recurrent ones with their relentlessly persecutory ambiences. In them I’m hurrying through streets of a foreign city, sometimes Chicago, sometimes New York, or Paris, Milan, Berlin, Rome, and Venice more often than not—desperately trying to reach an airport out of sight across the water, with no idea where, or how to arrive there, or it might be the railway station where we’d arrived at the far end of this labyrinthine city.
…..The chances of reaching it before my train or flight had left would be diminishing as the crowds and possible streets increased. There were inevitably too many people, me being pursued by a myriad of faces in their carnival or pandemic masks, with quack hoods and salacious looks, and none of them in the least inclined to tell me, tell me truthfully, what the best route to take would be.
…..In those recurrent dreams, it’s always evening, and the lights are coming on in the shops that crowd the narrow passages down which I hurry, all the luxury and necessity of the place’s commerce between stone and water. And as if I was to blame for all the trade consuming it, my mere presence adding to the tiredness the place exhales, it would all turn into that succession of frightful dreams.
…..Which I would wake from into my tiny room, and be left there with a distinctly guilty feeling, the persecutory atmosphere remaining to upset me, even as the sun rose upon our final morning there in Venice.
But, as I realised on waking, Gillian had already pre-empted my nightmare of not being able to get to the airport. She had made a proposition over dinner the night before. What with all of us together it wouldn’t be an outrageous cost, and in any case, you only live once, which is how it came about that we were being handed down the water-steps at the Accademia landing stage and balancing into the richly brown varnished shell of the water taxi that would take us to our flights.
…..Peter Stein, last to descend into the motorboat, had found a place beside me, in the stern with its spick-and-span tricolour flapping over our heads. Now, whether it was the sense of loss that leaving always brings, or the feeling that something had to be made of these dissipating days, but it was in those few minutes of our journey to the airport that he let his confidence fall into my ears.
…..Along those staked-out waterways of the lagoon, as full of traffic as any motorway it seemed, we were skirting San Michele, the cemetery island. Passing that Toteninsel as if with some Totenlied echoing over the soundtrack, reminiscent of libretti and scores for the Due Foscari or La Forza del destino, Peter was remembering back to the country a few years before Mary and I first visited, when he was working in the research libraries of Milan. His dissertation topic was the risorgimento and its discontents—for, as he put it, despite the Concordat with the Vatican, the unification of Italy was still a work in progress.
…..But as if a little too much viridian had been mixed with flake white and Venetian red, reflections from the churning waters were giving a curious greenish tinge to Peter’s features. I had suffered those co-morbidities myself, and, come to think of it, mine must have been similarly tinted by the light, as if we were secret sharers both, buffeted by the bucking of the water taxi as it hit the sunlit waters in its rainbow spray and wake.
…..“I was collecting material for my research,” he said, “and, back then, would regularly accept publications handed out in the street, or available on the tables of radical student groups, filing them away up in the little attic room I was renting.”
…..I could barely hear him over the sound of the wash and the water taxi’s engine, so leaned towards Peter’s head putting a cupped hand to my ear in explanation.
…..“Remember,” he continued, raising his voice for my benefit, “those were the anni di piombo, the years of lead, when the Red Brigade kidnapped and murdered Aldo Moro, when they managed to rescue the American General Dozier from Padua, the massacre in Piazza Fontana, and the bomb at Bologna Railway Station. Anyway, all those highly charged writings, some of them published by Lotta continua, were found one morning by my landlady when she was doing some dusting, and what did she do but report me directly to the police.”
…..“My goodness,” I exclaimed, surprised that this seeming pillar of the establishment had once been taken for a sympathizer with the likes of the Red Army Faction, Baader-Meinhof group, or the Brigate rosse.
…..“I dressed rather differently then,” he continued, as if responding to an implicit incredulity on my part, “and wore my hair long like the students of those days.”
…..I tried to picture it, but couldn’t, the present panorama of Venice’s wake-flurried lagoon practically taking my breath away.
Peter might have almost been apologising for the well-cut grey wool suit he was wearing, set off by a white linen shirt and black calf-skin shoes. He was explaining how it had taken quite a time to persuade the anti-terrorist investigators that he was not planning to incite violence by circulating such inflammatory publications, but only possessed them because he was studying for a doctorate at a distinguished British university.
…..“There ought to be a health warning on studying history,” I put in, eager to show fellow feeling in such a trying situation. The British Consul had been required to intervene on his behalf, and his research supervisor back in England was called upon to vouch for him. Since then, Peter Stein had won a sheaf of prizes for his door-stopping books, many of which have been prominently published in translation in Italy too.
…..“No, you’re right, my research hasn’t always gone down well with the Italians,” he said. “You see, I keep discovering things that they would prefer not to acknowledge about their past—and their present for that matter …”
…..Indeed, there ought to be a health warning on the study of history, because, as with the dyer’s hand, Peter Stein had been obliged to immerse himself in accounts of the most dreadful events, the sorts of calculated brutalities that could make a Machiavelli blush. It was all just one damned thing after another, bloodshed piled upon bloodbath. Historians needed nerves of steel to survive it, and yet there was nothing for it but to face the truth honestly, not succumb to those convenient diktats to bury the dead in silence. We would have to trust to memory.
…..Only years later did it dawn on me he probably wasn’t unburdening that story by chance. Peter will have thought I had heard the rumours circulating about his involvement in some management shenanigans or other and telling me about his arrest was a way to say that they weren’t true. He had been maligned by those vexatious claims. The testament Peter Stein must have been conveying was that his professional life had been book-ended by accusations of things he simply could never have done.
…..Not that I was able to relieve him of those feelings in that water taxi, except insofar as lending an ear over the sound of its motor and the rushing of the waters might have helped. After all, though I couldn’t say the gossip hadn’t reached me, I had assumed that—as in the Franceschini case—there was more than one side to the story and a truth behind them all. So, in that momentary silence, as the water taxi ferried us out across the waters, leaving Venice behind on this occasion, the very last for him, I could do no more than sigh at the loss, innocent still of the others that were to come.
…..Then, while the Isola di San Michele diminished in our wake, its red brick walls with entrance gateways letting onto the lagoon, its mortuary chapel and black cypress spears pointing up above them, towards another Tiepolo sky, Venice in all is splendour had proved such a fillip to the memory, for the poetry of things outlived, things lost and gone forever, like a first love or marriage, so that back came a moment from the only time I’d been to the cemetery island, on that first honeymoon, that honeymoon of sorts.
…..We had gone there in a weak moment, as if from the Zattere degli infermi or the Fondamenta degli incurabili, as if on a hunt, or other harmless hocus-pocus, along its shaded avenues beside those famous resting places for the likes of Von Aschenbach, Stravinsky, Diaghilev and Pound, on a hunt for the tomb of the unknown poet, as Mary’s joking phrase would have it, only to stumble upon that plain and simple memorial to Juliana Bordereau.
…..Back then my first wife-to-be would always carry a little Kodak when on holiday, which I borrowed to take a snap of Aspen’s muse’s late nineteenth-century tombstone. Understandably, given the ladies’ straits, it bore nothing but her name and dates, not a line from the lyrics she was said to have inspired. Sadly, though, when we got home and had the roll developed, it proved the only one of the few I took that unfortunately didn’t come out—most likely because, if I’m honest, no kind of photographer, I had left the aperture set to infinity.
Peter Robinson’s Collected Poems 1976-2016 appeared in 2017. His fiction includes Foreigners, Drunks and Babies: Eleven Stories (2013), September in the Rain (2016) and The Constitutionals (2019). He is Professor of English and American Literature at the University of Reading (UK) and poetry editor for Two Rivers Press.
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