The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt is plain and simple the most oddly compelling book I’ve read in ages. It’s cataloged as fiction, but it reads like a gossipy biography or memoir, and yowsa is it good.
You may remember Berendt as the author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which put Savannah, Georgia on the map for millions of readers. His treatment of the off-beat, eccentric elegance that is Savannah made for a good read, but his similar treatment of Venice, Italy makes for a great one. Berendt use the destruction by fire of the Fenice Opera House in Venice as the hub in the wheel of all these strange and lovely stories about the people who inhabit this most unlikely of cities. When I started the story, I wondered how Berendt was going to deliver on the promise written on the flyleaf and become a detective investigating the fire. As I read, it became clear that the fire was the vehicle Berendt used to insinuate himself into the daily life of Venetians. His reporting put him in contact with a colorful array of personalities, including
- Ludivico deLuigi, a renegade artist who is ultimately disappointed when the carabinieri don’t arrest him for defacing a public painting.
- Friends of the American Peggy Guggenheim, who describe to Berendt how she re-enacted the sinking of the Titanic, during which her father died, by walking naked into the Grand Canal along with a full orchestra.
- Archimedes Seguso and his dysfunctional family of glassmakers – Archimedes, a master glassblower who, in the days after the Fenice fire, spent all his waking time creating representations of the fire in glass; and his son, who split from the family business, started his own glassworks, and attempted to copyright his father’s name.
- Jane and Philip Rylands, who made their fortune and achieved their position in society by hornswoggling rich old ladies like Peggy Guggenheim and Olga Rudge, the longtime lover of American poet Ezra Pound.
- and so many others I can’t recount them all…
Reading this book was an oddly uplifting experience. I felt a little guilty reading all about the various sins and personal quirks attributed to all these people, but at the same time I began to feel as though I knew these people and I cared about what happened to them. I also learned a little bit of Italian, which is just a two-for-one kind of bonus. Definitely a book worth your time.