Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Venice: A Love Letter

There is, no doubt, a lot of news being bandied about, but it is less clear that anything is really happening.

So the scribe has silenced his guns for the time being, a little bored with the goings-on in government and haunted by a vague sentiment some new calamity is about to befall us.

That said, one can't just lay about, so we will tell you about a rock and roll tour through the New York tri-state area between May 15 and May 21 with guitarist Omar Torrez. We will perform the readings from “Vedette” to works from Omar’s “La Danza” that were tested at the end of last year (“Vedette Does La Danza,” Dec. 19, 2005).

The first date is May 18, at The Wine Room of Forest Hills, 96-09 69th Ave. Forest Hills, NY 11375, (718)820-1777, let's say 7:30 p.m.

Today we’re going to run some of Truman Capote’s “Local Color.” A pure kind of example of what we mean by highwayscribery. We posted from the book before, running Capote’s piece on New Orleans following that city's tragedy (“New Orleans: A Love Letter,” Sept. 1, 2005).

This entry is a modern picaresque about a very interesting denizen of Venice named Lucia:

“A rather mad bus ride that day had brought us from Venice to Sirmione, an enchanted, infinitesimal village on the tip of a peninsula jutting into Lago di Garda, bluest, saddest, most silent, most beautiful of Italian lakes. Had it not been for the gruesome circumstance of Lucia I doubt that we should have left Venice. I was perfectly happy there, except of course that it is incredibly noisy; not ordinary city noise, but ceaseless argument of human voices, scudding oars, running feet. It was once suggested that Oscar Wilde retire there from the world. “And become a monument for tourists?” he asked.

It was an excellent advice, however, and others than Oscar have taken it: in the palazzos along the Grand Canal there are colonies of persons who haven’t shown themselves publicly in a number of decades. Most intriguing of these was a Swedish countess whose servants fetched fruit for her in a black gondola trimmed with silver bells; their tinkling made a music atmospheric but eerie. Still Lucia so persecuted us we were forced to flee. A muscular girl, exceptionally tall for an Italian and smelling always of wretched condiment oils, she was the leader of a band of juvenile gangsters, displaced roaming youths who had flocked north for the Venetian season. They could be delightful, some of them, even though they sold cigarettes that contained more hay than tobacco, even though they would short-circuit you on a currency exchange. The business with Lucia began one day in the Piazza San Marco.

She came up and asked us for a cigarette; whereupon D., whose heart doesn’t know that we are off the gold standard, gave her a whole package of Chesterfields. Never were two people more completely adopted. Which at first was quite pleasant; Lucia shadowed wherever we went, abundantly giving us the benefits of her wisdom and protection. But there were frequent embarrassments; for one thing, we were always being turned out of the more elegant shops because of her overwrought haggling with the proprietors; then, too, she was so excessively jealous that it was impossible for us to have any contact with anyone else whatever: we chanced once to meet in the piazza a harmless and respectable young woman who had been with us in the carriage from Milan. “Attention!” said Lucia in that hoarse voice of hers, “Attention!” and proceeded almost to persuade us that this was a lady of infamous past and shameless future. On another occasion D. gave one of her cohorts a dollar watch which he had much admired. Lucia was furious; the next time we saw her she had the watch suspended on a cord around her neck, and it was said the young man had left overnight for Trieste.

Lucia had a habit of appearing in our hotel at any hour that pleased her (she lived no place that we could divine); scarcely sixteen, she would sit herself down, drain a whole bottle of Strega, smoke all the cigarettes she could lay hold of, then fall into an exhausted sleep: only when she slept did her face resemble a child’s. But then one dreadful day the hotel manager stopped her in the lobby and told her that she could no longer visit our rooms. It was, he said, an insupportable scandal. So Lucia, rounding up a dozen of her more brutish companions, laid such siege to the hotel that it was necessary to bring down iron shutters over the doors and call the carabinieri. After that we did our best to avoid her.

But to avoid anyone in Venice is much the same as playing hide-and-seek in a one-room apartment, for there was never a city more compactly composed. It is like a museum with carnivalesque overtones, a vast palace that seems to have no doors, all things connected, one leading into another. Over and over in a day the same faces repeat like prepositions in a long sentence: turn a corner, and there was Lucia, the dollar watch dangling between her breasts. She was so in love with D. But presently she turned on us with that intensity of the wounded; perhaps we deserved it, but it was unendurable: like clouds of gnats her gang would trail us across the piazza spitting invective; if we sat down for a drink they would gather in the dark beyond the table and shout outrageous jokes. Half the time we didn’t know what they were saying, though it was apparent that everyone else did. Lucia herself did not overtly contribute to his persecution; she remained aloof, directing her operations at a distance. So at last we decided to leave Venice. Lucia knew this. Her spies were everywhere. The morning we left it was raining; just as our gondola slipped into the water, a little crazy-eyed boy appeared and threw at us a bundle wrapped in newspaper. D. pulled the paper apart. Inside there was a dead yellow cat; and around its throat there was tied the dollar watch. It gave you a feeling of endless falling. And then suddenly we saw her, Lucia; she was standing alone on one of the little canal bridges, and she was so far hunched over the railing it looked as if she were going to fall. “Perdonami,” she cried, “ma t’amo” (forgive me, but I love you).


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