Личная библиотека и записная книжка

Joseph Brodsky. Watermark

Posted in библиотека by benescript on 04.07.2014

___
			Watermark

		   To Robert Morgan

	Many moons ago the dollar was 870 lire and I was thirty-two. The
globe, too, was lighter by two billion souls, and the bar at the
[stazione] where I'd arrived on that cold December night was empty. I
was standing there waiting for the only person I knew in that city to
meet me. She was quite late.
	Every traveler knows this fix: this mixture of fatigue and
apprehension. It's the time of staring down clock faces and timetables,
of scrutinizing varicose marble under your feet, of inhaling ammonia and
that dull smell elicited on cold winter nights by locomotives' cast
iron. I did all this.
	Save for the yawning bartender and immobile Buddha-like [matrona] at
the cash register, there was no one in sight. However, we were of no use
to each other: my sole currency in their language, the term "espresso,"
was already spent; I'd used it twice. I'd also bought from them my first
pack ever of what in years to come was to stand for "[Merde Statale],"
"[Movimento Sociale]," and "[Morte Sicura]": my first pack of MS. So I
lifted my bags and stepped outside.
	In the unlikely event that someone's eye followed my white London
Fog and dark brown Borsalino, they should have cut a familiar
silhouette. The night itself, to be sure, would have had no difficulty
absorbing it. Mimicry, I believe, is high on the list of every traveler,
and the Italy I had in mind at the moment was a fusion of
black-and-white movies of the fifties and the equally monochrome medium
of my métier. Winter thus was my season; the only thing I lacked,
I thought, to look like a local rake or [carbonaro] was a scarf. Other
than that, I felt inconspicuous and fit to merge into the background or
fill the frame of a low-budget whodunit or, more likely, melodrama.

	It was a windy night, and before my retina registered anything, I
was smitten by a feeling of utter happiness: my nostrils were hit by
what to me has always been its synonym, the smell of freezing seaweed.
For some people, it's freshly cut grass or hay; for others, Christmas
scents of conifer needles and tangerines. For me, it's freezing
seaweed---partly because of onomatopoeic aspects of the very conjunction
(in Russian, seaweed is a wonderful [vodorosli]), partly due to a slight
incongruity and a hidden underwater drama in this notion. One recognizes
oneself in certain elements; by the time I was taking this smell in on
the steps of the [stazione], hidden dramas and incongruities long since
had become my forte.
	No doubt the attraction toward that smell should have been
attributed to a childhood spent by the Baltic, the home of that
meandering siren from the Montale poem. And yet I had my doubts about
this attribution. For one thing, that childhood wasn't all that happy (a
childhood seldom is, being, rather, a school of self-disgust and
insecurity); and as for the Baltic, you had indeed to be an eel to
escape my part of it. At any rate, as a subject for nostalgia this
childhood hardly qualified. The source of that attraction, I'd always
felt, lay elsewhere, beyond the confines of biography, beyond one's
genetic makeup---somewhere in one's hypothalamus, which stores our
chordate ancestors' impressions of their native realm of---for
example---the very ichthus that caused this civilization. Whether that
ichthus was a happy one is another matter.

	A smell is, after all, a violation of oxygen balance, an invasion
into it of other elements---methane? carbon? sulphur? nitrogen?
Depending on that invasion's intensity, you get a scent, a smell, a
stench. It is a molecular affair, and happiness, I suppose, is the
moment of spotting the elements of your own composition being free.
There were quite a number of them out there, in a state of total
freedom, and I felt I'd stepped into my own self-portrait in the cold
air.
	The backdrop was all in dark silhouettes of church cupolas and
rooftops; a bridge arching over a body of water's black curve, both ends
of which were clipped off by infinity. At night, infinity in foreign
realms arrives with the last lamppost, and here it was twenty meters
away. It was very quiet. A few dimly lit boats now and then prowled
about, disturbing with their propellers the reflection of a large neon
CINZANO trying to settle on the black oilcloth of the water's surface.
Long before it succeeded, the silence would be restored.

	It all felt like arriving in the provinces, in some unknown,
insignificant spot---possibly one's own birthplace---after years of
absence. In no small degree did this sensation owe to my own anonymity,
to the incongruity of a lone figure on the steps of the [stazione]: an
easy target for oblivion. Also, it was a winter night. And I remembered
the opening line of one of Umberto Saba's poems that I'd translated long
before, in a previous incarnation, into Russian: "In the depths of the
wild Adriatic..." In the depths, I thought, in the boondocks, in a lost
corner of the wild Adriatic... Had I simply turned around, I'd have seen
the [stazione] in all its rectangular splendor of neon and urbanity,
seen block letters saying VENEZIA. Yet I didn't. The sky was full of
winter stars, the way it often is in the provinces. At any point, it
seemed, a dog could bark in the distance, or else you might hear a
rooster. With my eyes shut I beheld a tuft of freezing seaweed splayed
against a wet, perhaps ice-glazed rock somewhere in the universe,
oblivious to its location. I was that rock, and my left palm was that
splayed tuft of seaweed. Presently a large, flat boat, something of a
cross between a sardine can and a sandwich, emerged out of nowhere and
with a thud nudged the [stazione]'s landing. A handful of people pushed
ashore and raced past me up the stairs into the terminal. Then I saw the
only person I knew in that city; the sight was fabulous.

	I had seen it for the first time several years before, in that same
previous incarnation: in Russia. The sight had come there in the guise
of a Slavicist, a Mayakovsky scholar, to be precise. That nearly
disqualified the sight as a subject of interest in the eyes of the
coterie to which I belonged. That it didn't was the measure of her
visual properties. Five foot ten, fine-boned, long-legged, narrow-faced,
with chestnut hair and hazel, almond-shaped eyes, with passable Russian
on those wonderfully shaped lips and a blinding smile on the same,
superbly dressed in paper-light suede and matching silks, redolent of
mesmerizing, unknown to us, perfume, the sight was easily the most
elegant female ever to set a mind-boggling foot in our midst. She was
the kind that keeps married men's dreams wet. Besides, she was a
Veneziana.
	So we gave short shrift to her membership in the Italian CP and her
attendant sentiment toward our avant-garde simpletons of the thirties,
attributing both to Western frivolity. Had she been even an avowed
Fascist, I think we would have lusted after her no less. She was
positively stunning, and when subsequently she'd fallen for the worst
possible dimwit on the periphery of our circle, some highly paid dolt of
Armenian extraction, the common response was amazement and anger rather
than jealousy or manly regret. Of course, come to think of it, one
shouldn't get angry over a piece of fine lace soiled by some strong
ethnic juices. Yet we did. For it was more than a letdown: it was a
betrayal of the fabric.
	In those days we associated style with substance, beauty with
intelligence. After all, we were a bookish crowd, and at a certain age,
if you believe in literature, you think everyone shares or should share
your conviction and taste. So if one looks elegant, one is one of us.
Innocent of the world outside, of the West in particular, we didn't know
yet that style could be purchased wholesale, that beauty could be just a
commodity. So we regarded the sight as the physical extension and
embodiment of our ideals and principles, and what she wore, transparent
things included, belonged to civilization.
	So strong was that association, and so pretty was the sight, that
even now, years later, belonging to a different age and, as it were, to
a different country, I began to slip unwittingly into the old mode. The
first thing I asked her as I stood pressed to her nutria coat on the
deck of the overcrowded vaporetto was her opinion of Montale's [Motets],
recently published. The familiar flash of her pearls, thirty-two strong,
echoed by the sparkle on the rim of her hazel pupil and promoted to the
scattered silver of the Milky Way overhead, was all I got in response,
but that was a lot. To ask, in the heart of civilization, about its
latest was perhaps a tautology. Perhaps I was simply being impolite, as
the author wasn't a local.

	The boat's slow progress through the night was like the passage of a
coherent thought through the subconscious. On both sides, knee-deep in
pitch-black water, stood the enormous carved chests of dark palazzi
filled with unfathomable treasures---most likely gold, judging from the
low-intensity yellow electric glow emerging now and then from cracks in
the shutters. The overall feeling was mythological, cyclopic, to be
precise: I'd entered that infinity I beheld on the steps of the
[stazione] and now was moving among its inhabitants, along the bevy of
dormant cyclopses *(1) reclining in black water, now and then raising
and lowering an eyelid.
	The nutria-clad sight next to me began explaining in a somewhat
hushed voice that she was taking me to my hotel, where she had reserved
a room, that perhaps we'd meet tomorrow or the day after, that she'd
like to introduce me to her husband and her sister. I liked the hush in
her voice, though it fit the night more than the message, and replied in
the same conspiratorial tones that it's always a pleasure to meet
potential relatives. That was a bit strong for the moment, but she
laughed, in the same muffled way, putting a hand in a brown leather
glove to her lips. The passengers around us, mostly dark-haired, whose
number was responsible for our proximity, were immobile and equally
subdued in their occasional remarks to one another, as though the
content of their exchanges was also of an intimate nature. Then the sky
was momentarily obscured by the huge marble parenthesis of a bridge, and
suddenly everything was flooded with light. "Rialto," she said in her
normal voice.

	There is something primordial about traveling on water, even for
short distances. You are informed that you are not supposed to be there
not so much by your eyes, ears, nose, palate, or palm as by your feet,
which feel odd acting as an organ of sense. Water unsettles the
principle of horizontally, especially at night, when its surface
resembles pavement. No matter how solid its substitute---the
deck---under your feet, on water you are somewhat more alert than
ashore, your faculties are more poised. On water, for instance, you
never get absentminded the way you do in the street: your legs keep you
and your wits in constant check, as if you were some kind of compass.
Well, perhaps what sharpens your wits while traveling on water is indeed
a distant, roundabout echo of the good old chordates. At any rate, your
sense of the other on water gets keener, as though heightened by a
common as well as a mutual danger. The loss of direction is a
psychological category as much as it is a navigational one. Be that as
it may, for the next ten minutes, although we were moving in the same
direction, I saw the arrow of the only person I knew in that city and
mine diverge by at least 45 degrees. Most likely because this part of
the Canal Grande was better lit.
	We disembarked at the Accademia landing, prey to firm topography and
the corresponding moral code. After a short meander through narrow
lanes, I was deposited in the lobby of a somewhat cloistered [pensione],
kissed on the cheek---more in the capacity of the Minotaur, I felt, than
the valiant hero---and wished good night. Then my Ariadne vanished,
leaving behind a fragrant thread of her expensive (was it Shalimar?)
perfume, which quickly dissipated in the musty atmosphere of a
[pensione] otherwise suffused with the faint but ubiquitous odor of pee.
I stared for a while at the furniture. Then I hit the sack.

	That's how I found myself for the first time in this city. As it
turned out, there was nothing particularly auspicious or ominous about
this arrival of mine. If that night portended anything at all, it was
that I'd never possess this city; but then I never had any such
aspiration. As a beginning, I think this episode will do, although as
far as the-only-person-I-knew-in-this-city was concerned, it rather
marked the end of our acquaintance. I saw her two or three times
subsequently during that stay in Venice; and indeed I was introduced to
her sister and to her husband. The former turned out to be a lovely
woman: as tall and slender as my Ariadne and perhaps even brighter, but
more melancholy and, for all I could tell, even more married. The
latter, whose appearance completely escapes my memory for reasons of
redundancy, was a scumbag of an architect, of that ghastly postwar
persuasion that has done more harm to the European skyline than any
Luftwaffe. In Venice, he defiled a couple of wonderful [campi] with his
edifices, one of which was naturally a bank, since this sort of human
animal loves a bank with absolutely narcissistic fervor, with the
longing of an effect for its cause. For that "structure" (as they called
it in those days) alone, I thought, he should be cuckolded. But since,
like his wife, he, too, seemed to be a member of the CP, the job, I
concluded, was best left to a comrade.
	Fastidiousness was one part of it; the other part was that when,
somewhat later, I called the-only-person-I-knew-in-that-city from the
depths of my labyrinth one blue evening, the architect, perhaps sensing
in my broken Italian something untoward, cut the thread. So now it
really was up to our red Armenian brethren.

	Subsequently, I was told, she divorced the man and married a U.S.
Air Force pilot, who turned out to be the nephew of the mayor of a small
town in the great state of Michigan, where I once dwelt. Small world,
and the longer you live, no man or woman makes it larger. So were I
looking for consolation, I could derive it from the thought that we now
are both treading the same ground---of a different continent. This
sounds, of course, like Statius talking to Virgil, but then it's only
proper for the likes of me to regard America as a kind of
Purgatorio---not to mention Dante himself suggesting as much. The only
difference is that her heaven is far better settled than mine. Hence my
forays into my version of Paradise, which she inaugurated so graciously.
At any rate, for the last seventeen years I've been returning to this
city, or recurring in it, with the frequency of a bad dream.
	With two or three exceptions, due to heart attacks and related
emergencies, mine or someone else's, every Christmas or shortly before
I'd emerge from a train/plane/boat/bus and drag my bags heavy with books
and typewriters to the threshold of this or that hotel, of this or that
apartment. The latter would normally be courtesy of the one or two
friends I'd managed to develop here in the wake of the sight's dimming.
Later, I'll try to account for my timing (though such a project is
tautological to the point of reversal). For the moment, I'd like to
assert that, Northerner though I am, my notion of Eden hinges on neither
weather nor temperature. For that matter, I'd just as soon discard its
dwellers, and eternity as well. At the risk of being charged with
depravity, I confess that this notion is purely visual, has more to do
with Claude than the creed, and exists only in approximations. As these
go, this city is the closest. Since I'm not entitled to make a true
comparison, I can permit myself to be restrictive.
	I say this here and now to save the reader disillusionment. I am not
a moral man (though I try to keep my conscience in balance) or a sage; I
am neither an aesthete nor a philosopher. I am but a nervous man, by
circumstance and by my own deeds; but I am observant. As my beloved
Akutagawa Ryunosuke once said, I have no principles; all I've got is
nerves. What follows, therefore, has to do with the eye rather than with
convictions, including those as to how to run a narrative. One's eye
precedes one's pen, and I resolve not to let my pen lie about its
position. Having risked the charge of depravity, I won't wince at that
of superficiality either. Surfaces---which is what the eye registers
first---are often more telling than their contents, which are
provisional by definition, except, of course, in the afterlife. Scanning
this city's face for seventeen winters, I should by now be capable of
pulling a credible Poussin-like job: of painting this place's likeness,
if not at four seasons, then at four times of day.
	That's my ambition. If I get sidetracked, it is because being
sidetracked is literally a matter of course here and echoes water. What
lies ahead, in other words, may amount not to a story but to the flow of
muddy water "at the wrong time of year." At times it looks blue, at
times gray or brown; invariably it is cold and not potable. The reason I
am engaged in straining it is that it contains reflections, among them
my own.

	Inanimate by nature, hotel room mirrors are even further dulled by
having seen so many. What they return to you is not your identity but
your anonymity, especially in this city. For here yourself is the last
thing you care to see. On my first sojourns I often felt surprised,
catching my own frame, dressed or naked, in the open wardrobe; after a
while I began to wonder about this place's edenic or afterlife-like
effects upon one's self-awareness. Somewhere along the line, I even
developed a theory of excessive redundancy, of the mirror absorbing the
body absorbing the city. The net result is, obviously, mutual negation.
A reflection cannot possibly care for a reflection. The city is
narcissistic enough to turn your mind into an amalgam, unburdening it of
its depths. With their similar effect on your purse, hotels and
[pensiones] therefore feel very congenial. After a two-week stay---even
at off-season rates---you become both broke and selfless, like a
Buddhist monk. At a certain age and in a certain line of work,
selflessness is welcome, not to say imperative.
	Nowadays all of this is, of course, out of the question, since the
clever devils shut down two-thirds of the small places in winter; the
remaining third keep year round those summer rates that make you wince.
If you're lucky, you may find an apartment, which, naturally, comes with
the owner's personal taste in paintings, chairs, curtains, with a vague
sense of illegality to your face in his bathroom mirror---in short, with
precisely what you wanted to shed: yourself. Still, winter is an
abstract season: it is low on colors, even in Italy, and big on the
imperatives of cold and brief daylight. These things train your eye on
the outside with an intensity greater than that of the electric bulb
availing you of your own features in the evening. If this season doesn't
necessarily quell your nerves, it still subordinates them to your
instincts; beauty at low temperatures [is] beauty.

	Anyhow, I would never come here in summer, not even at gunpoint. I
take heat very poorly; the unmitigated emissions of hydrocarbons and
armpits still worse. The shorts-clad herds, especially those neighing in
German, also get on my nerves, because of the inferiority of
their---anyone's---anatomy against that of the columns, pilasters, and
statues; because of what their mobility---and all that fuels
it---projects versus marble stasis. I guess I am one of those who prefer
choice to flux, and stone is always a choice. No matter how well
endowed, in this city one's body, in my view, should be obscured by
cloth, if only because it moves. Clothes are perhaps our only
approximation of the choice made by marble.
	This is, I suppose, an extreme view, but I am a Northerner. In the
abstract season life seems more real than at any other, even in the
Adriatic, because in winter everything is harder, more stark. Or else
take this as propaganda for Venetian boutiques, which do extremely brisk
business in low temperatures. In part, of course, this is so because in
winter one needs more clothes just to stay warm, not to mention the
atavistic urge to shed one's pelt. Yet no traveler comes here without a
spare sweater, jacket, skirt, shirt, slacks, or blouse, since Venice is
the sort of city where both the stranger and the native know in advance
that one will be on display.
	No, bipeds go ape about shopping and dressing up in Venice for
reasons not exactly practical; they do so because the city, as it were,
challenges them. We all harbor all sorts of misgivings about the flaws
in our appearance, anatomy, about the imperfection of our very features.
What one sees in this city at every step, turn, perspective, and dead
end worsens one's complexes and insecurities. That's why one---a woman
especially, but a man also---hits the stores as soon as one arrives
here, and with a vengeance. The surrounding beauty is such that one
instantly conceives of an incoherent animal desire to match it, to be on
a par. This has nothing to do with vanity or with the natural surplus of
mirrors here, the main one being the very water. It is simply that the
city offers bipeds a notion of visual superiority absent in their
natural lairs, in their habitual surroundings. That's why furs fly here,
as do suede, silk, linen, wool, and every other kind of fabric. Upon
returning home, folks stare in wonderment at what they've acquired,
knowing full well that there is no place in their native realm to flaunt
these acquisitions without scandalizing the natives. You must keep those
things fading and withering in your wardrobe, or else give them to your
younger relations. Or else, there are friends. I, for one, remember
buying several items here---on credit, obviously---that I had no stomach
or nerve to utilize later. Among them were two raincoats, one mustard
green and the other a gentle shade of khaki. Later they were to grace
the shoulders of the world's best ballet dancer and the best poet of the
language I write this in---distinct though both these gentlemen are from
me in size and age. It's the local vistas and perspectives that do it,
for in this city a man is more a silhouette than his unique features,
and a silhouette can be improved. It's also the marble lace, inlays,
capitals, cornices, reliefs, and moldings, inhabited and uninhabited
niches, saints, ain'ts, maidens, angels, cherubs, caryatids, pediments,
balconies with their ample kicked-up calves, and windows themselves,
Gothic or Moorish, that turn you vain. For this is the city of the eye;
your other faculties play a faint second fiddle. The way the hues and
rhythms of the local façades try to smooth the waves'
ever-changing colors and patterns alone may send you to grab a fancy
scarf, tie, or whatnot; it glues even an inveterate bachelor to a window
flooded with its motley flaunted dresses, not to mention patent-leather
shoes and suede boots scattered like all sorts of boats upon the
[laguna]. Somehow your eye suspects that all these things are cut from
the same cloth as the vistas outside and ignores the evidence of labels.
And in the final analysis, the eye is not so wrong, if only because the
common purpose of everything here is to be [seen]. In an analysis even
more final, this city is a real triumph of the chordate, because the
eye, our only raw, fishlike internal organ, indeed swims here: it darts,
flaps, oscillates, dives, rolls up. Its exposed jelly dwells with
atavistic joy on reflected palazzi, spiky heels, gondolas, etc.,
recognizing in the agency that brought them to the existential surface
none other than itself.

	In winter you wake up in this city, especially on Sundays, to the
chiming of its innumerable bells, as though behind your gauze curtains a
gigantic china teaset were vibrating on a silver tray in the pearl-gray
sky. You fling the window open and the room is instantly flooded with
this outer, peal-laden haze, which is part damp oxygen, part coffee and
prayers. No matter what sort of pills, and how many, you've got to
swallow this morning, you feel it's not over for you yet. No matter, by
the same token, how autonomous you are, how much you've been betrayed,
how thorough and dispiriting is your self-knowledge, you assume there is
still hope for you, or at least a future. (Hope, said Francis Bacon, is
a good breakfast but a bad supper.) This optimism derives from the haze,
from the prayer part of it, especially if it is time for breakfast. On
days like this, the city indeed acquires a porcelain aspect, what with
all its zinc-covered cupolas resembling teapots or upturned cups, and
the tilted profile of campaniles clinking like abandoned spoons and
melting in the sky. Not to mention the seagulls and pigeons, now
sharpening into focus, now melting into air. I should say that, good
though this place is for honeymoons, I've often thought it should be
tried for divorces also---both in progress and already accomplished.
There is no better backdrop for rapture to fade into; whether right or
wrong, no egoist can star for long in this porcelain setting by crystal
water, for it steals the show. I am aware, of course, of the disastrous
consequence the above suggestions may have for hotel rates here, even in
winter. Still, people love their melodrama more than architecture, and I
don't feel threatened. It is surprising that beauty is valued less than
psychology, but so long as such is the case, I'll be able to afford this
city---which means till the end of my days, and which ushers in the
generous notion of the future.

	One is what one looks at---well, at least partially. The medieval
belief that a pregnant woman wishing her child to be beautiful must look
at beautiful objects is not so naïve given the quality of dreams
one dreams in this city. Nights here are low on nightmares---judging of
course by literary sources (especially since nightmares are such
sources' main fare). Wherever he goes, a sick man, for example---a
cardiac cripple particularly---is bound to wake up now and then at three
o'clock in the morning in a state of sheer terror, thinking he's going.
Yet nothing of the sort, I must report, ever happened to me here; though
as I write this, I keep my fingers and toes crossed.
	There are better ways, no doubt, to manipulate dreams, and no doubt
a good case can be made for it being best done gastronomically. Yet by
Italian standards, the local diet is not exceptional enough to account
for this city's concentration of indeed dreamlike beauty in its
façades alone. For in dreams, as the poet said, begin
responsibilities. In any case, some of the blueprints---an apt term in
this city!---certainly sprang from that source, as there is nothing else
one can trace them to in reality.
	Should a poet mean to say simply, "In bed," that would hold, too.
Architecture is surely the least carnal of Muses, since the rectangular
principle of a building, of its façade in particular,
militates---and often sharply so---against your analyst's interpretation
of its cloud- or wave-like---rather than feminine!---cornices, loggias,
and whatnot. A blueprint, in short, is always more lucid than its
analysis. Yet many a [frontone] here reminds you precisely of a
headboard looming above its habitually unmade bed, be it morning or
evening. They are far more absorbing, these headboards, than those beds'
possible contents, than the anatomy of your beloved, whose only
advantage here could be agility or warmth.
	If there is anything erotic to those blueprints' marble
consequences, it is the sensation caused by the eye trained on any of
them---the sensation similar to that of the fingertips touching for the
first time your beloved's breast or, better yet, shoulder. It is the
telescopic sensation of coming in contact with the cellular infinity of
another body's existence---a sensation known as tenderness and
proportionate perhaps only to the number of cells that body contains.
(Everyone would understand this, save Freudians, or Muslims believing in
the veil. But then again, that may explain why among Muslims there are
so many astronomers. Besides, the veil is a great social planning
device, since it ensures every female a man regardless of her
appearance. Worst come to worst, it guarantees that the first-night
shock is at least mutual. Still, for all the Oriental motifs in Venetian
architecture, Muslims in this city are the most infrequent visitors.) In
any case, whichever comes first---reality or dream---one's notion of
afterlife in this city appears to be well taken care of by its clearly
paradisaical visual texture. Sickness alone, no matter how grave it may
be, won't avail you here of an infernal vision. You'd need an
extraordinary neurosis, or a comparable accumulation of sins, or both,
to fall prey to nightmares on these premises.
	That's possible, of course, but not too frequent. For the mild cases
of either, a sojourn here is the best therapy, and that's what tourism,
locally, is all about. One sleeps tight in this city, since one's feet
get too tired quelling a worked-up psyche or guilty conscience alike.

	Perhaps the best proof of the Almighty's existence is that we never
know when we are to die. In other words, had life been a solely human
affair, one would be issued at birth with a term, or a sentence, stating
precisely the duration of one's presence here: the way it is done in
prison camps. That this doesn't happen suggests that the affair is not
entirely human; that something we've got no idea or control of
interferes. That there is an agency which is not subject to our
chronology or, for that matter, our sense of virtue. Hence all these
attempts to foretell or figure out one's future, hence one's reliance on
physicians and gypsies, which intensifies once we are ill or in trouble,
and which is but an attempt at domesticating---or demonizing---the
divine. The same applies to our sentiment for beauty, natural and
man-made alike, since the infinite can be appreciated only by the
finite. Except for grace, the reasons for reciprocity would be
unfathomable---unless one truly seeks a benevolent explanation of why
they charge you so much for everything in this city.

	By profession, or rather by the cumulative effect of what I've been
doing over the years, I am a writer; by trade, however, I am an
academic, a teacher. The winter break at my school is five weeks long,
and that's what in part explains the timing of my pilgrimages here---but
only in part. What Paradise and vacation have in common is that you have
to pay for both, and the coin is your previous life. Fittingly then, my
romance with this city---with this city in this particular
season---started long ago: long before I developed marketable skills,
long before I could afford my passion.
	Sometime in 1966---I was twenty-six then---a friend lent me three
short novels by a French writer, Henri de Régnier, translated
into Russian by the wonderful Russian poet Mikhail Kuzmin. All I knew
about Régnier at that time was that he was one of the last
Parnassians, a good poet but no great shakes. All I knew by heart of
Kuzmin was a handful of his [Alexandrian Songs] and [Clay
Pigeons]---plus his reputation as a great aesthete, devout Orthodox, and
avowed homosexual---I think, in that order.
	By the time I'd got those novels, both their author and their
translator were long dead. The books, too, were quite moribund:
paperbacks, published in the late thirties, with no bindings to speak
of, disintegrating in your palm. I remember neither their titles nor
their publisher; in fact, I am quite vague on their respective plots
also. Somehow I am under the impression that one of them was called
[Provincial Entertainments], but I am not sure. I could double-check, of
course, but then the friend who lent them to me died a year ago; and I
won't.
	They were a cross between picaresque and detective novels, and at
least one of them, the one I call in my mind [Provincial
Entertainments], was set in Venice in winter. Its atmosphere was twilit
and dangerous, its topography aggravated with mirrors; the main events
were taking place on the other side of the amalgam, within some
abandoned palazzo. Like many books of the twenties, it was fairly
short---some two hundred pages, no more---and its pace was brisk. The
subject was the usual: love and betrayal. The main thing: the book was
written in short, page or page-and-a-half chapters. From their pace came
the sense of damp, cold, narrow streets through which one hurries in the
evening in a state of growing apprehension, turning left, turning right.
For somebody with my birthplace, the city emerging from these pages was
easily recognizable and felt like Petersburg's extension into a better
history, not to mention latitude. However, what mattered for me most at
the impressionable stage at which I came across this novel was that it
taught me the most crucial lesson in composition; namely, that what
makes a narrative good is not the story itself but what follows what.
Unwittingly, I came to associate this principle with Venice. If the
reader now suffers, that's why.

	Then one day another friend, who is still alive, brought me a
disheveled issue of [Life] magazine with a stunning color photo of San
Marco covered with snow. Then a bit later a girl whom I was courting at
the time made me a birthday present of an accordion set of sepia
postcards her grandmother had brought from a pre-revolutionary honeymoon
in Venice, and I pored over it with my magnifying glass. Then my mother
produced from God knows where a small square piece of cheap tapestry, a
rag really, depicting the Palazzo Ducale, and it covered the bolster on
my Turkish sofa---thus contracting the history of the republic under my
frame. And throw into the bargain a little copper gondola brought by my
father from his tour of duty in China, which my parents kept on their
dressing table, filling it with loose buttons, needles, postage stamps,
and---increasingly---pills and ampoules. Then the friend who gave me
Régnier's novels and who died a year ago took me to a
semiofficial screening of the smuggled, and for that reason
black-and-white, copy of Visconti's [Death in Venice] with Dirk Bogarde.
Alas, the movie wasn't much to speak of; besides, I never liked the
novel much either. Still, the long opening sequence with Mr. Bogarde in
a deck chair aboard a steamer made me forget about the interfering
credits and regret that I was not mortally ill; even today I am still
capable of feeling that regret.
	Then came the Veneziana. I began to feel that this city somehow was
barging into focus, tottering on the verge of the three-dimensional. It
was black-and-white, as befits something emerging from literature, or
winter; aristocratic, darkish, cold, dimly lit, with twangs of Vivaldi
and Cherubini in the background, with Bellini/Tiepolo/Titian-draped
female bodies for clouds. And I vowed to myself that should I ever get
out of my empire, should this eel ever escape the Baltic, the first
thing I would do would be to come to Venice, rent a room on the ground
floor of some palazzo so that the waves raised by passing boats would
splash against my window, write a couple of elegies while extinguishing
my cigarettes on the damp stony floor, cough and drink, and, when the
money got short, instead of boarding a train, buy myself a little
Browning and blow my brains out on the spot, unable to die in Venice of
natural causes.

	A perfectly decadent dream, of course; but at the age of
twenty-eight everyone who's got some brains is a touch decadent.
Besides, neither part of that project was feasible. So when at the age
of thirty-two I all of a sudden found myself in the bowels of a
different continent, in the middle of America, I used my first
university salary to enact the better part of that dream and bought a
round-trip ticket, Detroit-Milano-Detroit. The plane was jammed with
Italians employed by Ford and Chrysler and going home for Christmas.
When the duty-free opened mid-flight, all of them rushed to the plane's
rear, and for a moment I had a vision of a good old 707 flying over the
Atlantic crucifix-like: wings outstretched, tail down. Then there was
the train ride with the only person I knew in the city at its end. The
end was cold, damp, black-and-white. The city came into focus. "And the
earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the
deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters," to quote
an author who visited here before. Then there was that next morning. It
was Sunday, and all the bells were chiming.

	I always adhered to the idea that God is time, or at least that His
spirit is. Perhaps this idea was even of my own manufacture, but now I
don't remember. In any case, I always thought that if the Spirit of God
moved upon the face of the water, the water was bound to reflect it.
Hence my sentiment for water, for its folds, wrinkles, and ripples,
and---as I am a Northerner---for its grayness. I simply think that water
is the image of time, and every New Year's Eve, in somewhat pagan
fashion, I try to find myself near water, preferably near a sea or an
ocean, to watch the emergence of a new helping, a new cupful of time
from it. I am not looking for a naked maiden riding on a shell; I am
looking for either a cloud or the crest of a wave hitting the shore at
midnight. That, to me, is time coming out of water, and I stare at the
lace-like pattern it puts on the shore, not with a gypsy-like knowing,
but with tenderness and with gratitude.
	This is the way, and in my case the why, I set my eyes on this city.
There is nothing Freudian to this fantasy, or specifically chordate,
although some evolutionary---if not plainly atavistic---or
autobiographical connection could no doubt be established between the
pattern a wave leaves upon the sand and its scrutiny by a descendant of
the ichthyosaur, and a monster himself. The upright lace of Venetian
façades is the best line time-alias-water has left on terra firma
anywhere. Plus, there is no doubt a correspondence between---if not an
outright dependence on---the rectangular nature of that lace's
displays---i.e., local buildings---and the anarchy of water that spurns
the notion of shape. It is as though space, cognizant here more than
anyplace else of its inferiority to time, answers it with the only
property time doesn't possess: with beauty. And that's why water takes
this answer, twists it, wallops and shreds it, but ultimately carries it
by and large intact off into the Adriatic.

	The eye in this city acquires an autonomy similar to that of a tear.
The only difference is that it doesn't sever itself from the body but
subordinates it totally. After a while---on the third or fourth day
here---the body starts to regard itself as merely the eye's carrier, as
a kind of submarine to its now dilating, now squinting periscope. Of
course, for all its targets, its explosions are invariably
self-inflicted: it's your own heart, or else your mind, that sinks; the
eye pops up to the surface. This of course owes to the local topography,
to the streets---narrow, meandering like eels---that finally bring you
to a flounder of a [campo] with a cathedral in the middle of it,
barnacled with saints and flaunting its Medusa-like cupolas. No matter
what you set out for as you leave the house here, you are bound to get
lost in these long, coiling lanes and passageways that beguile you to
see them through, to follow them to their elusive end, which usually
hits water, so that you can't even call it a cul-de-sac. On the map this
city looks like two grilled fish sharing a plate, or perhaps like two
nearly overlapping lobster claws (Pasternak compared it to a swollen
croissant); but it has no north, south, east, or west; the only
direction it has is sideways. It surrounds you like frozen seaweed, and
the more you dart and dash about trying to get your bearings, the more
you get lost. The yellow arrow signs at intersections are not much help
either, for they, too, curve. In fact, they don't so much help you as
kelp you. And in the fluently flapping hand of the native whom you stop
to ask for directions, the eye, oblivious to his sputtering [A destra, a
sinistra, dritto, dritto], readily discerns a fish.

	A mesh caught in frozen seaweed might be a better metaphor. Because
of the scarcity of space, people exist here in cellular proximity to one
another, and life evolves with the immanent logic of gossip. One's
territorial imperative in this city is circumscribed by water; the
window shutters bar not so much daylight or noise (which is minimal
here) as what may emanate from inside. When they are opened, shutters
resemble the wings of angels prying into someone's sordid affairs, and
like the spacing of the statues on cornices, human interplay here takes
on the aspects of jewelry or, better yet, filigree. In these parts one
is both more secretive and better informed than the police in tyrannies.
No sooner do you cross the threshold of your apartment, especially in
winter, than you fall prey to every conceivable surmise, fantasy, rumor.
If you've got company, the next day at the grocery or newsagent you may
meet a stare of biblical probing unfathomable, you would think, in a
Catholic country. If you sue someone here, or vice versa, you must hire
a lawyer on the outside. A traveler, of course, enjoys this sort of
thing; the native doesn't. What a painter sketches, or an amateur
photographs, is no fun for the citizen. Yet insinuation as a principle
of city planning (which notion locally emerges only with the benefit of
hindsight) is better than any modern grid and in tune with the local
canals, taking their cue from water, which, like the chatter behind you,
never ends. In that sense, brick is undoubtedly more potent than marble,
although both are unassailable for a stranger. However, once or twice
over these seventeen years, I've managed to insinuate myself into a
Venetian inner sanctum, into that beyond-the-amalgam labyrinth
Régnier described in [Provincial Entertainments]. It happened in
such a roundabout way that I can't even recall the details now, for I
could not keep tabs on all those twists and turns that led to my passage
into this labyrinth at the time. Somebody said something to somebody
else, while the other person who wasn't even supposed to be there
listened in and telephoned the fourth, as a result of which I'd been
invited one night to a party given by the umpteenth at his palazzo.

	The palazzo had become the umpteenth's only recently, after nearly
three centuries of legal battles fought by several branches of a family
that had given the world a couple of Venetian admirals. Accordingly, two
huge, splendidly carved aft-lanterns loomed in the two-story-high cave
of the palazzo's courtyard, which was filled with all sorts of naval
paraphernalia, dating from Renaissance days onward. The umpteenth
himself, the last in the line, after decades and decades of waiting, had
finally got it, to the great consternation of the other---apparently
numerous---members of the family. He was no navy man; he was a bit of a
playwright and a bit of a painter. For the moment, though, the most
obvious thing about this forty-year-old---a slim, short creature in a
gray double-breasted suit of very good cut---was that he was quite sick.
His skin looked post-hepatitis, parchment yellow---or perhaps it was
just an ulcer. He ate nothing but consommé and boiled vegetables
while his guests were gorging themselves on what would qualify as a
separate chapter, if not a book.
	So the party was celebrating the umpteenth's having come into his
own, as well as his launching a press to produce books about Venetian
art. It was already in full swing when the three of us---a fellow
writer, her son, and I---arrived. There were a lot of people: local and
faintly international luminaries, politicos, nobles, the theater crowd,
beards and ascots, mistresses of varying degrees of flamboyance, a
bicycle star, American academics. Also, a bunch of giggling, agile,
homosexual youths inevitable these days whenever something mildly
spectacular takes place. They were presided over by a rather distraught
and spiteful middle-aged queen---very blond, very blue-eyed, very drunk:
the premises' major domo, whose days here were over and who therefore
loathed everyone. Rightly so, I would add, given his prospects.
	As they were making quite a ruckus, the umpteenth politely offered
to show the three of us the rest of the house. We readily agreed and
went up by a small elevator. When we left its cabin, we left the
twentieth, the nineteenth, and a large portion of the eighteenth century
behind, or, more accurately, below: like sediment at the bottom of a
narrow shaft.
	We found ourselves in a long, poorly lit gallery with a convex
ceiling swarming with putti. No light would have helped anyway, as the
walls were covered with large, floor-to-ceiling, dark-brownish oil
paintings, definitely tailored to this space and separated by barely
discernible marble busts and pilasters. The pictures depicted, as far as
one could make out, sea and land battles, ceremonies, scenes from
mythology; the lightest hue was wine-red. It was a mine of heavy
porphyry in a state of abandonment, in a state of perpetual evening,
with oils obscuring its ores; the silence here was truly geological. You
couldn't ask, What is this? Who is this by? because of the incongruity
of your voice, belonging to a later and obviously irrelevent *(2)
organism. Or else it felt like an underwater journey---we were like a
school offish passing through a sunken galleon loaded with treasure, but
not opening our mouths, since water would rush in.
	At the far end of the gallery our host flitted to the right, and we
followed him into a room which appeared to be a cross between the
library and the study of a seventeenth-century gentleman. Judging by the
books behind the criss-crossed wire in the red, wardrobe-size wooden
cabinet, the gentleman's century could even have been the sixteenth.
There were about sixty fat, white, vellum-bound volumes, from Aesop to
Zeno; just enough for a gentleman; more would turn him into a penseur,
with disastrous consequences either for his manners or for his estate.
Other than that, the room was quite bare. The light in it wasn't much
better than in the gallery; I'd made out a desk and a large faded globe.
Then our host turned a knob and I saw his silhouette framed by a door
leading into an enfilade. I glanced at that enfilade and I shuddered: it
looked like a vicious, viscous infinity. I swallowed air and stepped
into it.
	It was a long succession of empty rooms. Rationally I knew that it
couldn't be longer than the gallery parallel to which it ran. Yet it
was. I had the sense of walking not so much in standard perspective as
in a horizontal spiral where the laws of optics were suspended. Each
room meant your further disappearance, the next degree of your
nonexistence. This had to do with three things: drapery, mirrors, and
dust. Although in some cases you could tell a room's
designation---dining room, salon, possibly a nursery---most were similar
in their lack of apparent function. They were about the same in size, or
at any rate, they didn't seem to differ much in that way from one
another. And in each one of them windows were draped and two or three
mirrors adorned the walls.
	Whatever the original color and pattern of the drapes had been, they
now looked pale yellow and very brittle. A touch of your finger, let
alone a breeze, would mean sheer destruction to them, as the shards of
fabric scattered nearby on the parquet suggested. They were shedding,
those curtains, and some of their folds exposed broad, bald, threadbare
patches, as though the fabric felt it had come full circle and was now
reverting to its pre-loom state. Our breath was perhaps too great an
intimacy also; still, it was better than fresh oxygen, which, like
history, the drapes didn't need. This was neither decay nor
decomposition; this was dissipation back into time, where color and
texture don't matter, where perhaps having learned what may happen to
them, they will regroup and return, here or elsewhere, in a different
guise. "Sorry," they seemed to say, "next time around we'll be more
durable."
	Then there were those mirrors, two or three in each room, of various
sizes, but mostly rectangular. They all had delicate golden frames, with
well-wrought floral garlands or idyllic scenes which called more
attention to themselves than to their surface, since the amalgam was
invariably in poor shape. In a sense, the frames were more coherent than
their contents, straining, as it were, to keep them from spreading over
the wall. Having grown unaccustomed over the centuries to reflecting
anything but the wall opposite, the mirrors were quite reluctant to
return one's visage, out of either greed or impotence, and when they
tried, one's features would come back incomplete. I thought, I begin to
understand Régnier. From room to room, as we proceeded through
the enfilade, I saw myself in those frames less and less, getting back
more and more darkness. Gradual subtraction, I thought to myself; how is
this going to end? And it ended in the tenth or eleventh room. I stood
by the door leading into the next chamber, staring at a largish,
three-by-four-foot gilded rectangle, and instead of myself I saw
pitch-black nothing. Deep and inviting, it seemed to contain a
perspective of its own---perhaps another enfilade. For a moment I felt
dizzy; but as I was no novelist, I skipped the option and took a
doorway.
	All along it had been reasonably ghostly; now it became unreasonably
so. The host and my companions lagged somewhere behind; I was on my own.
There was a great deal of dust everywhere; the hues and shapes of
everything in sight were mitigated by its gray. Marble inlaid tables,
porcelain figurines, sofas, chairs, the very parquet. Everything was
powdered with it, and sometimes, as with figurines and busts, the effect
was oddly beneficial, accentuating their features, their folds, the
vivacity of a group. But usually its layer was thick and solid; what's
more, it had an air of finality, as though no new dust could be added to
it. Every surface craves dust, for dust is the flesh of time, as a poet
said, time's very flesh and blood; but here the craving seemed to be
over. Now it will seep into the objects themselves, I thought, fuse with
them, and in the end replace them. It depends of course on the material;
some of it quite durable. They may not even disintegrate; they'll simply
become grayer, as time would have nothing against assuming their shapes,
the way it already had in this succession of vacuum chambers in which it
was overtaking matter.
	The last of them was the master bedroom. A gigantic yet uncovered
four-poster bed dominated its space: the admiral's revenge for the
narrow cot aboard his ship, or perhaps his homage to the sea itself. The
latter was more probable, given the monstrous stucco cloud of putti
descending on the bed and playing the role of baldachin. In fact, it was
more sculpture than putti. The cherubs' faces were terribly grotesque:
they all had these corrupt, lecherous grins as they stared---very
keenly---downward upon the bed. They reminded me of that stable of
giggling youths downstairs; and then I noticed a portable TV set in the
corner of this otherwise absolutely bare room. I pictured the major domo
entertaining his choice in this chamber: a writhing island of naked
flesh amid a sea of linen, under the scrutiny of the dust-covered gypsum
masterpiece. Oddly enough, I felt no repulsion. On the contrary, I felt
that from time's point of view such entertainment here could only seem
appropriate, as it generated nothing. After all, for three centuries,
nothing here reigned supreme. Wars, revolutions, great discoveries,
geniuses, plagues never entered here due to a legal problem. Causality
was canceled, since its human carriers strolled in this perspective only
in a caretaker capacity, once in a few years, if that. So the little
wriggling shoal in the linen sea was, in fact, in tune with the
premises, since it couldn't in nature give birth to anything. At best,
the major domo's island---or should I say volcano?---existed only in the
eyes of the putti. On the mirror's map it didn't. Neither did I.

	That happened only once, although I've been told there are scores of
places like this in Venice. But once is enough, especially in winter,
when the local fog, the famous [nebbia], renders this place more
extemporal than any palace's inner sanctum, by obliterating not only
reflections but everything that has a shape: buildings, people,
colonnades, bridges, statues. Boat services are canceled, airplanes
neither arrive nor take off for weeks, stores are closed, and mail
ceases to litter one's threshold. The effect is as though some raw hand
had turned all those enfilades inside out and wrapped the lining around
the city. Left, right, up, and down swap places, and you can find your
way around only if you are a native or were given a cicerone. The fog is
thick, blinding, and immobile. The latter aspect, however, is of
advantage to you if you go out on a short errand, say, to get a pack of
cigarettes, for you can find your way back via the tunnel your body has
burrowed in the fog; the tunnel is likely to stay open for half an hour.
This is a time for reading, for burning electricity all day long, for
going easy on self-deprecating thoughts or coffee, for listening to the
BBC World Service, for going to bed early. In short, a time for
self-oblivion, induced by a city that has ceased to be seen.
Unwittingly, you take your cue from it, especially if, like it, you've
got no company. Having failed to be born here, you at least can take
some pride in sharing its invisibility.

	On the whole, however, I've always been as keen on the contents of
this city's average brick affairs as on those of the marbled and unique.
There is nothing populist, let alone anti-aristocratic, to this
preference; nor is there anything of the novelist. It's just the echo of
the sort of houses I've lived or worked in for most of my life. Failing
to have been born here, I've failed, I suppose, a bit further by picking
up a line of work which normally doesn't land one on a [piano nobile].
On the other hand, there is perhaps some perverse snobbery in the
sentiment for brick here, for its rank red akin to inflamed muscle bared
by the scabs of peeled-off stucco. Like eggs, which often---especially
while I'm fixing myself breakfast---make me imagine the unknown
civilization that came up with the idea of producing canned food in an
organic fashion, brick and bricklaying somehow ring of an alternative
order of flesh, not raw of course, but scarlet enough, and made up of
small, identical cells. Yet another of the species' self-portraits at
the elemental level, be it a wall or a chimney. In the end, like the
Almighty Himself, we make everything in our image, for want of a more
reliable model; our artifacts tell more about ourselves than our
confessions.

	At any rate, I seldom got myself across the thresholds of ordinary
dwellings in this city. No tribe likes strangers, and Venetians are very
tribal, in addition to being islanders. My Italian, wildly oscillating
around its firm zero, also remained a deterrent. It always got better
after a month or so, but then I'd be boarding the plane that would
remove me from the opportunity to use it for another year. Therefore,
the company I kept was that of English-speaking natives and expatriate
Americans whose houses shared a familiar version---if not degree---of
affluence. As for those who spoke Russian, the characters from the local
U, their sentiments toward the country of my birth and their politics
used to bring me to the brink of nausea. The result would be nearly the
same with the two or three local authors and academics: too many
abstract lithographs on the walls, too many tidy bookshelves and African
trinkets, silent wives, sallow daughters, conversations running their
moribund course through current events, someone else's fame,
psychotherapy, surrealism, down to the description of a shortcut to my
hotel. Disparity of pursuits compromised by tautology of net results, if
one needs a formula, that is. I aspired to wasting my afternoons in the
empty office of some local solicitor or pharmacist, eyeing his secretary
as she brought in coffee from a bar nearby, chatting idly away about the
prices of motorboats or the redeeming features of Diocletian's
character, since practically everyone here has a reasonably sound
education as well as a yen for things streamlined. I'd be unable to lift
myself from the chair, his clients would be few; in the end, he'd lock
up the premises and we'd stroll to the Gritti or Danieli, where I'd buy
him drinks; if I was lucky, his secretary would join us. We'd sink in
deep armchairs, exchanging malicious remarks about the new German
battalions or the ubiquitous Japanese peeping through their cameras,
like new elders, at the pallid naked marble thighs of this Susannah-like
city wading cold, sunset-tinged, lapping waters. Later he might invite
me over to his place for supper, and his pregnant wife, rising above the
steaming pasta, would berate me volubly for my protracted
bachelorhood... Too many neorealist movies, I suppose, too much
Svevo-reading. For this sort of fantasy to come true, the requirements
are the same as for inhabiting a [piano nobile]. I don't meet them, nor
have I ever stayed here long enough to abandon this pipe dream entirely.
To have another life, one ought to be able to wrap up the first one, and
the job should be done neatly. No one pulls this sort of thing off
convincingly, though, at times, good services are rendered to one either
by absconding spouses or by political systems... It's the other houses,
strange staircases, odd smells, unfamiliar furniture and topography that
the proverbial old dogs dream about in their senility and decrepitude,
not new masters. And the trick is not to disturb them.
	So I never slept, let alone sinned, in a cast-iron family bed with
pristine, crisp linen, embroidered and richly fringed bedspread,
cloudlike pillows, and small pearl-encrusted crucifix above the
headboard. I never trained my vacant stare on an oleograph of the
Madonna, or faded pictures of a father/ brother/uncle/son in a
[bersagliere] helmet, with its black feathers, or chintz curtains on the
window, or porcelain or majolica jug atop a dark wood chest of drawers
filled with local lace, sheets, towels, pillowcases, and underclothes
washed and ironed on the kitchen table by a young, strong, tanned,
almost swarthy arm, as a shoulder strap slips off it and silver beads of
sweat sparkle on the forehead. (Speaking of silver, it would in all
likelihood be tucked away under a pile of sheets in one of those
drawers.) All this, of course, is from a movie in which I was neither a
star nor even an extra, from a movie which for all I know they are not
ever going to shoot again, or, if they do, the props will look
different. In my mind, it is called [Nozze di Seppia], and it's got no
plot to it, save a scene with me walking along the Fondamente Nuove with
the greatest watercolor in the world on the left and a red-brick
infinity on the right. I should be wearing a cloth cap, dark serge
jacket, and a white shirt with an open collar, washed and ironed by the
same strong, tanned hand. Approaching the Arsenale, I'd turn right,
cross twelve bridges, and take via Garibaldi to the Giardini, where, on
an iron chair in the Gaffe Paradiso, would be sitting she who washed and
ironed this shirt six years ago. She'd have before her a glass of
[chinotto] and a [panino], a frayed little volume of Propertius'
[Monobiblos] or Pushkin's [Captain's Daughter], she'd be wearing a
knee-length taffeta dress bought once in Rome on the eve of our trip to
Ischia. She would lift her eyes, the color of mustard and honey, fix
them on the figure in the heavy serge jacket, and say, "What a belly!"
If anything is to save this picture from being a flop, it will be the
winter light.

	A while ago I saw somewhere a photograph of a wartime execution.
Three pale, skinny men of medium height and no specific facial features
(they were seen by the camera in profile) stood on the edge of a freshly
dug ditch. They had a Northern appearance---in fact, I think the
photograph was taken in Lithuania. Close behind each one of them stood a
German soldier holding a pistol. In the distance you could make out a
bunch of other soldiers: the onlookers. It looked like early winter or
late autumn, as the soldiers were in their winter overcoats. The
condemned men, all three of them, were also dressed identically. They
wore cloth caps, heavy black jackets over white undershirts without
collars: victims' uniform. On top of everything, they were cold. Partly
because of that they drew their heads into their shoulders. In a second
they will die: the photographer pushed his button an instant before the
soldiers pulled their triggers. The three village lads drew their heads
into their shoulders and were squinting the way a child does
anticipating pain. They expected to be hurt, perhaps badly hurt; they
expected the deafening---so close to their ears!---sound of a shot. And
they squinted. Because the human repertoire of responses is so limited!
What was coming to them was death, not pain; yet their bodies couldn't
distinguish one from the other.

	One afternoon in November 1977, in the Londra, where I was staying
courtesy of the Biennale on Dissent, I received a phone call from Susan
Sontag, who was staying in the Gritti under the same dispensation.
"Joseph," she said, "what are you doing this evening?" "Nothing," I
said. "Why?" "Well, I bumped into Olga Rudge today in the piazza. Do you
know her?" "No. You mean the Pound woman?" "Yes," said Susan, "and she
invited me over tonight. I dread going there alone. Would you go with
me, if you haven't got other plans?" I had none, and I said, Sure, I
will, having understood her apprehension only too well. Mine, I thought,
could be even greater. Well, to begin with, in my line of work Ezra
Pound is a big deal, practically an industry. Many an American
graphomaniac has found in Ezra Pound both a master and a martyr. As a
young man, I had translated quite a bit of him into Russian. The
translations were trash, but came very close to being published,
courtesy of some crypto-Nazi on the board of a solid literary magazine
(now, of course, the man is an avid nationalist). I liked the original
for its sophomoric freshness and taut verse, for its thematic and
stylistic diversity, for its voluminous cultural references, then out of
my reach. I also liked his "make it new" dictum---liked it, that is,
until I grasped that the true reason for making it new was that "it" was
fairly old; that we were, after all, in a body shop. As for his plight
in St. Elizabeths, in Russian eyes, that was nothing to rave about and,
anyhow, better than the nine grams of lead that his wartime radio spiels
might have earned him elsewhere. [The Cantos], too, left me cold; the
main error was an old one: questing after beauty. For someone with such
a long record of residence in Italy, it was odd that he hadn't realized
that beauty can't be targeted, that it is always a by-product of other,
often very ordinary pursuits. A fair thing to do, I thought, would be to
publish both his poems and his speeches in one volume, without any
learned introduction, and see what happens. Of all people, a poet should
have known that time knows no distance between Rapallo and Lithuania. I
also thought that admitting that you've screwed up your life is more
manly than persevering in the posture of a persecuted genius, with all
the throwing up of the arm in a Fascist salute upon his return to Italy,
subsequent disclaimers of the gesture's significance, reticent
interviews, and cape and staff cultivating the appearance of a sage with
the net result of resembling Haile Selassie. He was still big with some
of my friends, and now I was to see his old woman.
	The address given was in the Salute sestiere, the part of town with
the greatest, to my knowledge, percentage of foreigners in it, Anglos
especially. After some meandering, we found the place---not too far, in
fact, from the house in which Régnier dwelt in the teens of the
century. We rang the bell, and the first thing I saw after the little
woman with the beady eyes took shape on the threshold was the poet's
bust by Gaudier-Brzeska sitting on the floor of the drawing room. The
grip of boredom was sudden but sure.
	Tea was served, but no sooner had we taken the first sip than the
hostess---a gray-haired, diminutive, shipshape lady with many years in
her to go---lifted her sharp finger, which slid into an invisible mental
groove, and out of her pursed lips came an aria the score of which has
been in the public domain at least since 1945. That Ezra wasn't a
Fascist; that they were afraid the Americans (which sounded pretty
strange coming from an American) would put him in the chair; that he
knew nothing about what was going on; that there were no Germans in
Rapallo; that he'd travel from Rapallo to Rome only twice a month for
the broadcast; that the Americans, again, were wrong to think that Ezra
meant it to... At some point I stopped registering what she was
saying---which is easy for me, as English is not my mother tongue---and
just nodded in the pauses, or whenever she'd punctuate her monologue
with a tic-like "[Capito]?" A record, I thought; her master's voice. Be
polite and don't interrupt the lady; it's garbage, but she believes it.
There is something in me, I suppose, that always respects the physical
side of human utterance, regardless of the content; the very movement of
someone's lips is more essential than what moves them. I sank deeper
into my armchair and tried to concentrate on the cookies, as there was
no dinner.
	What woke me from my reverie was the sound of Susan's voice, which
meant that the record had come to a stop. There was something odd in her
timbre and I cocked my ear. Susan was saying, "But surely, Olga, you
don't think that the Americans got cross with Ezra over his broadcasts.
Because if it were only his broadcasts, then Ezra would be just another
Tokyo Rose." Now, that was one of the greatest returns I had ever heard.
I looked at Olga. It must be said that she took it like a mensch. Or,
better yet, a pro. Or else she didn't grasp what Susan had said, though
I doubt it. "What was it, then?" she inquired. "It was Ezra's
anti-Semitism," replied Susan, and I saw the corundum needle of the old
lady's finger once again hitting the groove. On this side of the record
was: "One should realize that Ezra was not an anti-Semite; that after
all his name was [Ezra]; that some of his friends were Jewish, including
one Venetian admiral; that..." The tune was equally familiar and equally
long---about three-quarters of an hour; but this time we had to go. We
thanked the old lady for the evening and bade her farewell. I, for one,
did not feel the sadness one usually feels leaving the house of a
widow---or for that matter anybody alone in an empty place. The old lady
was in good shape, reasonably well off; on top of that, she had the
comfort of her convictions---a comfort, I felt, she'd go to any length
to defend. I think I'd never met a Fascist---young or old; however, I'd
dealt with a considerable number of old CP members, and that's why tea
at Olga Rudge's place, with that bust of Ezra sitting on the floor,
rang, so to speak, a bell. We turned to the left of the house and two
minutes later found ourselves on the Fondamenta degli Incurabili.

	Ah, the good old suggestive power of language! Ah, this legendary
ability of words to imply more than reality can provide! Ah, the lock,
stock, and barrel of the métier. Of course, the "Embankment of
the Incurables" harks back to the plague, to the epidemics that used to
sweep this city half clean century after century with a census taker's
regularity. The name conjures the hopeless cases, not so much strolling
along as scattered about on the flagstones, literally expiring,
shrouded, waiting to be carted---or, rather, shipped away. Torches,
fumes, gauze masks preventing inhalation, rustling of monks' frocks and
habits, soaring black capes, candles. Gradually the funereal procession
turns into a carnival, or indeed a promenade, where a mask would have to
be worn, since in this city everybody knows everybody. Add to this,
tubercular poets and composers; add to this, men of moronic convictions
or aesthetes hopelessly enamored of this place---and the Embankment
might earn its name, reality might catch up with language. And add to
this that the interplay between plague and literature (poetry in
particular, and Italian poetry especially) was quite intricate from the
threshold. That Dante's descent into the netherworld owes as much to
Homer's and Virgil's---episodic scenes, after all, in the [Iliad] and
the [Aeneid]---as to Byzantine medieval literature about cholera, with
its traditional conceit of premature burial and subsequent peregrination
of the soul. Overzealous agents of the netherworld bustling around the
cholera-stricken city would often zero in on a badly dehydrated body,
put their lips to his nostrils, and suck away his life spirit, thereby
proclaiming him dead and fit to be buried. Once underneath, the
individual would pass through infinite halls and chambers, pleading that
he has been consigned to the realm of the dead unjustly and seeking
redress. Upon obtaining it---usually by facing a tribunal presided over
by Hippocrates---he would return full of stories about those he had
bumped into in the halls and chambers below: kings, queens, heroes,
famous or infamous mortals of his time, repentant, resigned, defiant.
Sounds familiar? Well, so much for the suggestive powers of the
métier. One never knows what engenders what: an experience a
language, or a language an experience. Both are capable of generating
quite a lot. When one is badly sick, one imagines all sorts of
consequences and developments which, for all we know, won't ever take
place. Is this metaphoric thinking? The answer, I believe, is yes.
Except that when one is sick, one hopes, even against hope, to get
cured, the illness to stop. The end of an illness thus is the end of its
metaphors. A metaphor---or, to put it more broadly, language itself---is
by and large open-ended, it craves continuum: an afterlife, if you will.
In other words (no pun intended), metaphor is incurable. Add then to all
of this yourself, a carrier of this métier, or of this virus---in
fact, of a couple of them, sharpening your teeth for a third---shuffling
on a windy night along the Fondamenta, whose name proclaims your
diagnosis regardless of the nature of your malady.

	The winter light in this city! It has the extraordinary property of
enhancing your eye's power of resolution to the point of microscopic
precision---the pupil, especially when it is of the gray or
mustard-and-honey variety, humbles any Hasselblad lens and develops your
subsequent memories to a [National Geographic] sharpness. The sky is
brisk blue; the sun, escaping its golden likeness beneath the foot of
San Giorgio, sashays over the countless fish scales of the [laguna]'s
lapping ripples; behind you, under the colonnades of the Palazzo Ducale,
a bunch of stocky fellows in fur coats are revving up [Eine Kleine
Nachtmusik], just for you, slumped in your white chair and squinting at
the pigeons' maddening gambits on the chessboard of a vast [campo]. The
espresso at your cup's bottom is the one black dot in, you feel, a
miles-long radius. Such are the noons here. In the morning this light
breasts your windowpane and, having pried your eye open like a shell,
runs ahead of you, strumming its lengthy rays---like a hot-footed
schoolboy running his stick along the iron grate of a park or
garden---along arcades, colonnades, redbrick chimneys, saints, and
lions. "Depict! Depict!" it cries to you, either mistaking you for some
Canaletto or Carpaccio or Guardi, or because it doesn't trust your
retina's ability to retain what it makes available, not to mention your
brain's capacity to absorb it. Perhaps the latter explains the former.
Perhaps they are synonymous. Perhaps art is simply an organism's
reaction against its retentive limitations. At any rate, you obey the
command and grab your camera, supplementing both your brain cells and
your pupil. Should this city ever be short of cash, it can go straight
to Kodak for assistance---or else tax its products savagely. By the same
token, as long as this place exists, as long as winter light shines upon
it, Kodak shares are the best investment.

	At sunset all cities look wonderful, but some more so than others.
Reliefs become suppler, columns more rotund, capitals curlier, cornices
more resolute, spires starker, niches deeper, disciples more draped,
angels airborne. In the streets it gets dark, but it is still daytime
for the Fondamenta and that gigantic liquid mirror where motorboats,
vaporetti, gondolas, dinghies, and barges "like scattered old shoes"
zealously trample Baroque and Gothic façades, not sparing your
own or a passing cloud's reflection either. "Depict it," whispers the
winter light, stopped flat by the brick wall of a hospital or arriving
home at the paradise of San Zaccaria's [frontone] after its long passage
through the cosmos. And you sense this light's fatigue as it rests in
Zaccaria's marble shells for another hour or so, while the earth is
turning its other cheek to the luminary. This is the winter light at its
purest. It carries no warmth or energy, having shed them and left them
behind somewhere in the universe, or in the nearby cumulus. Its
particles' only ambition is to reach an object and make it, big or
small, visible. It's a private light, the light of Giorgione or Bellini,
not the light of Tiepolo or Tintoretto. And the city lingers in it,
savoring its touch, the caress of the infinity whence it came. An
object, after all, is what makes infinity private.

	And the object can be a little monster, with the head of a lion and
the body of a dolphin. The latter would coil, the former gnash its
fangs. It could adorn an entrance or simply burst out of a wall without
any apparent purpose, the absence of which would make it oddly
recognizable. In a certain line of work, and at a certain age, nothing
is more recognizable than a lack of purpose. The same goes for a fusion
of two or more traits or properties, not to mention genders. On the
whole, all these nightmarish creatures---dragons, gargoyles, basilisks,
female-breasted sphinxes, winged lions, Cerberuses, Minotaurs, centaurs,
chimeras---that come to us from mythology (which, by rights, should have
the status of classical surrealism) are our self-portraits, in the sense
that they denote the species' genetic memory of evolution. Small wonder
that here, in this city sprung from water, they abound. Again, there is
nothing Freudian to them, nothing sub- or unconscious. Given the nature
of human reality, the interpretation of dreams is a tautology and at
best could be justified only by daylight's ratio to darkness. It's
doubtful, though, that this democratic principle is operational in
nature, where nothing enjoys a majority. Not even water, though it
reflects and refracts everything, including itself, alternating forms
and substances, sometimes gently, sometimes monstrously. That's what
accounts for the quality of winter light here; that's what explains its
fondness for little monsters, as well as for cherubs. Presumably
cherubs, too, are part of the species' evolution. Or else it is the
other way around, for if one was to take their census in this city, they
might outnumber the natives.

	Monsters, however, command more of one's attention. If only because
this term has been hurled at one more frequently than the other; if only
because in our parts one gains wings only in the air force. One's guilty
conscience would be enough to identify oneself with any of these marble,
bronze, or plaster concoctions---with the dragon, to say the least,
rather than with San Giorgio. In a line of work involving the dipping of
a pen into an inkpot, one can identify with both. After all, there is no
saint without a monster---not to mention the ink's octopal affinity. But
even without reflecting upon or refracting this idea, it is clear that
this is a city of fish, caught and swimming around alike. And seen by a
fish---endowed, let's say, with a human eye, in order to avoid its own
famous distortion---man would appear a monster indeed; not an octopus,
perhaps, but surely a quadropus. Something, to say the least, far more
complex than the fish itself. Small wonder, then, that sharks are after
us so much. Should one ask a simple [orata]---not even a caught one, in
a free state---what it thinks one looks like, it will reply, You are a
monster. And the conviction in its voice will be oddly familiar, as
though its eye is of the mustard-and-honey variety.

	So you never know as you move through these labyrinths whether you
are pursuing a goal or running from yourself, whether you are the hunter
or his prey. Surely not a saint, but perhaps not yet a full-scale
dragon; hardly a Theseus, but not a maiden-starved Minotaur either. The
Greek version rings, though, a better bell, since the winner gets
nothing, because the slayer and the slain are related. The monster,
after all, was the prize's half brother; in any case, he was half
brother to the hero's eventual wife. Ariadne and Phaedra were sisters,
and for all we know, the brave Athenian had them both. In fact, with an
eye on marrying into the Cretan king's family, he might have accepted
the murderous commission to make the family more respectable. As
granddaughters of Helios, the girls were supposed to be pure and
shining; their names suggested as much. Why, even their mother,
Pasiphaë, was, for all her dark urges, Blindingly Bright. And
perhaps she yielded to those dark urges and did it with the bull
precisely to prove that nature neglects the majority principle, since
the bull's horns suggest the moon. Perhaps she was interested in
chiaroscuro rather than in bestiality and eclipsed the bull for purely
optical reasons. And the fact that the bull, whose symbolism-laden
pedigree ran all the way back to cave paintings, was blind enough to
mistake the artificial cow Daedalus built for Pasiphaë on this
occasion is her proof that her ancestry still holds the upper hand in
the system of causality, that Helios' light, refracted in her,
Pasiphaë, is still---after four children (two fine daughters and
two good-for-nothing boys)---blindingly bright. As far as the principle
of causality is concerned, it should be added that the main hero in this
story is precisely Daedalus, who, apart from a very convincing cow,
built---this time on the king's request---the very labyrinth in which
the bull-headed offspring and his slayer got to face each other one day,
with disastrous consequences for the former. In a manner of speaking,
the whole business is Daedalus' brain child, the labyrinth especially,
as it resembles a brain. In a manner of speaking, everybody is related
to everybody, the pursuer to the pursued, at least. Small wonder, then,
that one's meanderings through the streets of this city, whose biggest
colony for nearly three centuries was the island of Crete, feels
somewhat tautological, especially as light fades---that is, especially
as its pasiphaian, ariadnan, and phaedran properties fail. In other
words, especially in the evening, when one loses oneself to
self-deprecation.

	On the brighter side there are, of course, lots of lions: winged
ones, with their books opened on "Peace upon you, St. Mark the
Evangelist," or lions of regular feline appearance. The winged ones,
strictly speaking, belong in the category of monsters, too. Given my
occupation, however, I've always regarded them as a more agile and
literate form of Pegasus, who can surely fly, but whose ability to read
is somewhat more doubtful. A paw, at any rate, is a better instrument
for turning pages than a hoof. In this city the lions are ubiquitous,
and over the years I've unwittingly come to share this totem to the
point of placing one of them on the cover of one of my books: the
closest a man gets in my line of work to having his own façade.
Yet monsters they are, if only because they are products of the city's
fantasy, since even at the zenith of this republic's maritime might it
controlled no territory where this animal could be found even in its
wingless state. (The Greeks were more on the dot with their bull, its
neolithic pedigree notwithstanding.) As for the Evangelist himself, he
of course died in Alexandria, Egypt---but of natural causes---and he
never went on a safari. In general, Christendom's truck with lions is
negligible, as they could not be found in its domain, dwelling solely in
Africa, and in deserts at that. This of course helped toward their
subsequent association with desert fathers; other than that, the
Christians could have encountered the animal only as its diet in Roman
circuses, where lions were imported from African shores for
entertainment. Their unfamiliarity---better to say, their
nonexistence---was what would unleash the ancients' fantasy, enabling
them to attribute to the animals various aspects of otherworldliness,
including those of divine commerce. So it's not entirely wild to have
this animal sitting on Venetian façades in the unlikely role of
the guardian of St. Mark's eternal repose; if not the Church, then the
city itself could be seen as a lioness protecting its cub. Besides, in
this city, the Church and the state have merged, in a perfectly
Byzantine fashion. The only case, I must add, where such a merger turned
out---quite early on---to be to the subjects' advantage. No wonder,
then, that the place was literally lionized, that the lion itself got
lionized, which is to say humanized. On every cornice, over nearly every
entrance, you see either its muzzle, with a human look, or a human head
with leonine features. Both, in the final analysis, qualify as monsters
(albeit of the benevolent sort), since neither ever existed. Also,
because of their numerical superiority over any other carved or sculpted
image, including that of the Madonna or the Redeemer Himself. On the
other hand, it's easier to carve a beast than a human figure. Basically,
the animal kingdom fared poorly in Christian art---not to mention the
doctrine. So the local pride of [Felidae] may regard itself as their
kingdom's way of getting even. In winter, they brighten one's dusk.

	Once, in a dusk that darkened gray pupils but brought gold to those
of the mustard-cum-honey variety, the owner of the latter and I
encountered an Egyptian warship---a light cruiser, to be
precise---moored at the Fondamenta dell'Arsenale, near the Giardini. I
can't recall its name now, but its home port was definitely Alexandria.
It was a highly modern piece of naval hardware, bristling with all sorts
of antennae, radar, satellite dishes, rocket launchers, antiaircraft
turrets, etc., apart from the usual large-caliber guns. From a distance
you couldn't tell its nationality. Even close up you could be confused,
because the uniforms and general deportment of the crew aboard looked
vaguely British. The flag was already lowered, and the sky over the
[laguna] was changing from Bordeaux to dark porphyry. As we marveled at
the nature of the errand that brought this man-of-war here---a need for
repairs? a new courtship between Venice and Alexandria? to reclaim the
holy relic stolen from the latter in the twelfth century?---its
loudspeakers suddenly came to life and we heard, "Allah! Akbar Allah!
Akbar!" The muezzin was calling the crew to evening prayer, the ship's
two masts momentarily turning to minarets. All at once the cruiser was
Istanbul in profile. I felt that the map had suddenly folded or the book
of history had shut before my eyes. At least that it had become six
centuries shorter: Christianity was no longer Islam's senior. The
Bosporus was overlapping the Adriatic, and you couldn't tell which wave
was which. A far cry from architecture.

	On winter evenings the sea, welled by a contrary easterly, fills
every canal to the brim like a bathtub, and at times overflows them.
Nobody runs up from downstairs crying, "The pipes!" as there is no
downstairs. The city stands ankle-deep in water, and boats, "hitched
like animals to the walls," to quote Cassiodorus, prance. The pilgrim's
shoe, having tested the water, is drying atop his hotel room's radiator;
the native dives into his closet to fish out his pair of rubber boots.
"[Acqua alta]," says a voice over the radio, and human traffic subsides.
Streets empty; stores, bars, restaurants and trattorias close. Only
their signs continue burning, finally getting a piece of the
narcissistic action as the pavement briefly, superficially, catches up
with the canals. Churches, however, remain open, but then treading upon
water is no news to either clergy or parishioners; neither to music,
water's twin.
	Seventeen years ago, wading aimlessly through one [campo] after
another, a pair of green rubber boots brought me to the threshold of a
smallish pink edifice. On its wall I saw a plaque saying that Antonio
Vivaldi, prematurely born, was baptized in this church. In those days I
was still reasonably red-haired; I felt sentimental about bumping into
the place of baptism of that "red cleric" who has given me so much joy
on so many occasions and in so many godforsaken parts of the world. And
I seemed to recall that it was Olga Rudge who had organized the
first-ever Vivaldi [settimana] in this city---as it happened, just a few
days before World War II broke out. It took place, somebody told me, in
the palazzo of the Countess Polignac, and Miss Rudge was playing the
violin. As she proceeded with the piece, she noticed out of the corner
of her eye that a gentleman had entered the [salone] and stood by the
door, since all the seats were taken. The piece was long, and now she
felt somewhat worried, because she was approaching a passage where she
had to turn the page without interrupting her play. The man in the
corner of her eye started to move and soon disappeared from her field of
vision. The passage grew closer, and her nervousness grew, too. Then, at
exactly the point where she had to turn the page, a hand emerged from
the left, stretched to the music stand, and slowly turned the sheet. She
kept playing and, when the difficult passage was over, lifted her eyes
to the left to acknowledge her gratitude. "And that," Olga Rudge told a
friend of mine, "is how I first met Stravinsky."

	So you may enter and stand through the service. The singing will be
a bit subdued, presumably on account of the weather. If you can excuse
it in this way, so, no doubt, will its Addressee. Besides, you can't
follow it that well, whether it's in Italian or Latin. So you just stand
or take a pew in the rear and listen. "The best way to hear Mass,"
Wystan Auden used to say, "is when you don't know the language." True,
ignorance helps concentration on such occasions no less than the poor
lighting from which the pilgrim suffers in every Italian church,
especially in winter. Dropping coins into an illumination box while the
service is in progress is not nice. What's more, you often don't have
enough of them in your pocket to appreciate the picture fully. In days
of yore I carried with me a powerful,
New-York-City-Police-Department-issue flashlight. One way to get rich, I
thought, would be to start manufacturing miniature flashbulbs like those
they mount on cameras, but of great duration. I'd call it "Lasting
Flash," or, better yet, "[Fiat Lux]," and in a couple of years I'd buy
an apartment somewhere in San Lio or Salute. I'd even marry my partner's
secretary, which he doesn't have since he doesn't exist... The music
subsides; its twin, however, has risen, you discover upon stepping
outside---not significantly, but enough for you to feel reimbursed for
the faded chorale. For water, too, is choral, in more ways than one. It
is the same water that carried the Crusaders, the merchants, St. Mark's
relics, Turks, every kind of cargo, military, or pleasure vessel; above
all, it reflected everybody who ever lived, not to mention stayed, in
this city, everybody who ever strolled or waded its streets in the way
you do now. Small wonder that it looks muddy green in the daytime and
pitch black at night, rivaling the firmament. A miracle that, rubbed the
right and the wrong way for over a millennium, it doesn't have holes in
it, that it is still H2O, though you would never drink it; that it still
rises. It really does look like musical sheets, frayed at the edges,
constantly played, coming to you in tidal scores, in bars of canals with
innumerable obbligati of bridges, mullioned windows, or curved crownings
of Coducci cathedrals, not to mention the violin necks of gondolas. In
fact, the whole city, especially at night, resembles a gigantic
orchestra, with dimly lit music stands of palazzi, with a restless
chorus of waves, with the falsetto of a star in the winter sky. The
music is, of course, greater than the band, and no hand can turn the
page.

	That's what worries the band, or more exactly, its conductors, the
city fathers. According to their calculations, this city, during this
century alone, has sagged twenty-three centimeters. So what appears
spectacular to the tourist is a full-scale headache for the native. And
if it were only a headache, that would be fine. But the headache is
crowned with an increasing apprehension, not to say fear, that what lies
in store for the city is the fate of Atlantis. The fear is not without
foundation, and not only because the city's uniqueness does amount to a
civilization of its own. The main danger is perceived to be high winter
tides; the rest is done by the mainland's industry and agriculture
silting the [laguna] with their chemical wastes, and by the
deterioration of the city's own clogged canals. In my line of work,
though, ever since the Romantics, human fault has appeared to be a
likelier culprit when it comes to disaster than any [forza del destino].
(That an insurance man can tell these two apart is indeed a feat of
imagination.) So, prey to tyrannical impulses, I would install some sort
of flap gate to stem the sea of humanity, which has swelled in the last
two decades by two billion and whose crest is its refuse. I'd freeze the
industry and the residence in the twenty-mile zone along the northern
shore of the [laguna], drag and dredge the city's canals (I'd either use
the military to carry out this operation or pay local companies double
time) and seed them with fish and the right kind of bacteria to keep
them clean.
	I have no idea what kind of fish or bacteria these are, but I'm
pretty sure they exist: tyranny is seldom synonymous with expertise. At
any rate, I'd call Sweden and ask the Stockholm municipality for advice:
in that city, with all its industry and population, the moment you step
out of your hotel, the salmon leap out of the water to greet you. If it
is the difference in temperature that does it, then one could try
dumping blocks of ice into the canals or, failing that, routinely void
the natives' freezers of ice cubes, since whiskey is not very much in
vogue here, not even in winter.
	"Why, then, do you go there at such a season?" my editor asked me
once, sitting in a Chinese restaurant in New York with his gay English
charges. "Yes, why do you?" they echoed their prospective benefactor.
"What is it like there in winter?" I thought of telling them about
[acqua alta]; about the various shades of gray in the window as one sits
at breakfast in one's hotel, enveloped by silence and the mealy morning
pall of newlyweds' faces; about pigeons accentuating every curve and
cornice of the local Baroque in their dormant affinity for architecture;
about a lonely monument to Francesco Querini and his two huskies carved
out of Istrian stone similar, I think, in its hue, to what he saw last,
dying, on his ill-fated journey to the North Pole, now listening to the
Giardini's rustle of evergreens in the company of Wagner and Carducci;
about a brave sparrow perching on the bobbing blade of a gondola against
the backdrop of a sirocco-roiled damp infinity. No, I thought, looking
at their effete but eager faces; no, that won't do. "Well," I said,
"it's like Greta Garbo swimming."

	Over these years, during my long stays and brief sojourns here, I
have been, I think, both happy and unhappy in nearly equal measure. It
didn't matter which, if only because I came here not for romantic
purposes but to work, to finish a piece, to translate, to write a couple
of poems, provided I could be that lucky; simply to be. That is, neither
for a honeymoon (the closest I ever came to that was many years ago, on
the island of Ischia, or else in Siena) nor for a divorce. And so I
worked. Happiness or unhappiness would simply come in attendance,
although sometimes they'd stay longer than I did, as if waiting on me.
It is a virtue, I came to believe long ago, not to make a meal out of
one's emotional life. There's always enough work to do, not to mention
that there's world enough outside. In the end, there's always this city.
As long as it exists, I don't believe that I, or, for that matter,
anyone, can be mesmerized or blinded by romantic tragedy. I remember one
day---the day I had to leave after a month here alone. I had just had
lunch in some small trattoria on the remotest part of the Fondamente
Nuove, grilled fish and half a bottle of wine. With that inside, I set
out for the place I was staying, to collect my bags and catch a
vaporetto. I walked a quarter of a mile along the Fondamente Nuove, a
small moving dot in that gigantic watercolor, and then turned right by
the hospital of Giovanni e Paolo. The day was warm, sunny, the sky blue,
all lovely. And with my back to the Fondamente and San Michele, hugging
the wall of the hospital, almost rubbing it with my left shoulder and
squinting at the sun, I suddenly felt: I am a cat. A cat that has just
had fish. Had anyone addressed me at that moment, I would have meowed. I
was absolutely, animally happy. Twelve hours later, of course, having
landed in New York, I hit the worst possible mess in my life---or the
one that appeared that way at the time. Yet the cat in me lingered; had
it not been for that cat, I'd be climbing the walls now in some
expensive institution.

	At night, there is not much to do here. Opera and church recitals
are options, of course, but they require some initiative and
arrangement: tickets and schedules and so forth. I am not good at that;
it's rather like fixing a three-course meal all for yourself---perhaps
even lonelier. Besides, my luck is such that whenever I considered an
evening at La Fenice, they would be having a week-long run of
Tchaikovsky or Wagner---equals, as far as my allergy is concerned. Never
once Donizetti or Mozart! That leaves reading and strolling dully along,
which is about the same, since at night these narrow stony gennels are
like passages between the bookshelves of some immense, forgotten
library, and equally quiet. All the "books" are shut tight, and you
guess what they are about only by the names on their spines, under the
doorbell. Oh, there you can find your Donizettis and Rossinis, your
Lullys and Frescobaldis! Maybe even a Mozart, maybe even a Haydn. Or
else these streets are like wardrobe racks: all the clothes are of dark,
peeling fabric, but the lining is ruby and shimmering gold. Goethe
called this place the "republic of beavers," but perhaps Montesquieu
with his resolute "[un endroit ou il devrait n'avoir que des poissons]"
was more on the mark. For, now and then, across the canal, two or three
well-lit, tall, rounded windows, half shaded with gauze or tulle, reveal
an octopal chandelier, the lacquered fin of a grand piano, opulent
bronze framing auburn or rubescent oils, the gilded rib cage of a
ceiling's beams---and you feel as though you are looking into a fish
through its scales, and inside of it there's a party.
	At a distance---across a canal---you can hardly tell the guests from
their hostess. With all due respect to the best available creed, I must
say I don't think this place has evolved from the famous chordate only,
triumphant or not. I suspect and submit that, in the first place, it
evolved from the very element that gave that chordate life and shelter
and which, for me at least, is synonymous with time. The element comes
in many shapes and hues, with many different properties apart from those
of Aphrodite and the Redeemer: lull, storm, crest, wave, froth, ripple,
etc., not to mention the marine organisms. In my mind, this city limns
all discernible patterns of the element and its contents. Splashing,
glittering, glowing, glinting, the element has been casting itself
upward for so long that it is not surprising that some of these aspects
eventually acquired mass, flesh, and grew solid. Why it should have
happened here, I have no idea. Presumably because the element here had
heard Italian.

	The eye is the most autonomous of our organs. It is so because the
objects of its attention are inevitably situated on the outside. Except
in a mirror, the eye never sees itself. It is the last to shut down when
the body is falling asleep. It stays open when the body is stricken with
paralysis or dead. The eye keeps registering reality even when there is
no apparent reason for doing this, and under all circumstances. The
question is: Why? And the answer is: Because the environment is hostile.
Eyesight is the instrument of adjustment to an environment which remains
hostile no matter how well you have adjusted to it. The hostility of the
environment grows proportionately to the length of your presence in it,
and I am speaking not of old age only. In short, the eye is looking for
safety. That explains the eye's predilection for art in general and
Venetian art in particular. That explains the eye's appetite for beauty,
as well as beauty's own existence. For beauty is solace, since beauty is
safe. It doesn't threaten you with murder or make you sick. A statue of
Apollo doesn't bite, nor will Carpaccio's poodle. When the eye fails to
find beauty---alias solace---it commands the body to create it, or,
failing that, adjusts itself to perceive virtue in ugliness. In the
first instance, it relies on human genius; in the second, it draws on
one's reservoir of humility. The latter is in greater supply, and like
every majority tends to make laws. Let's have an illustration; let's
take a young maiden. At a certain age one eyes passing maidens without
applied interest, without aspiring to mount them. Like a TV set left
switched on in an abandoned apartment, the eye keeps sending in images
of all these 5'8'' miracles, complete with light chestnut hair, Perugino
ovals, gazelle eyes, nurse-like bosoms, wasp waists, dark-green velvet
dresses, and razor-sharp tendons. An eye may zero in on them in a church
at someone's wedding or, worse still, in a bookstore's poetry section.
Reasonably farsighted or resorting to the counsel of the ear, the eye
may learn their identities (which come with names as breathtaking as,
say, Arabella Ferri) and, alas, their dishearteningly firm romantic
affiliations. Regardless of such data's uselessness, the eye keeps
collecting it. In fact, the more useless the data, the sharper the
focus. The question is why, and the answer is that beauty is always
external; also, that it is the exception to the rule. That's what---its
location and its singularity---sends the eye oscillating wildly or---in
militant humility's parlance---roving. For beauty is where the eye
rests. Aesthetic sense is the twin of one's instinct for
self-preservation and is more reliable than ethics. Aesthetics' main
tool, the eye, is absolutely autonomous. In its autonomy, it is inferior
only to a tear.

	A tear can be shed in this place on several occasions. Assuming that
beauty is the distribution of light in the fashion most congenial to
one's retina, a tear is an acknowledgment of the retina's, as well as
the tear's, failure to retain beauty. On the whole, love comes with the
speed of light; separation, with that of sound. It is the deterioration
of the greater speed to the lesser that moistens one's eye. Because one
is finite, a departure from this place always feels final; leaving it
behind is leaving it forever. For leaving is a banishment of the eye to
the provinces of the other senses; at best, to the crevices and
crevasses of the brain. For the eye identifies itself not with the body
it belongs to but with the object of its attention. And to the eye, for
purely optical reasons, departure is not the body leaving the city but
the city abandoning the pupil. Likewise, disappearance of the beloved,
especially a gradual one, causes grief no matter who, and for what
peripatetic reason, is actually in motion. As the world goes, this city
is the eye's beloved. After it, everything is a letdown. A tear is the
anticipation of the eye's future.

	To be sure, everybody has designs on her, on this city. Politicians
and big businesses especially, for nothing has a greater future than
money. It is so much so that money feels synonymous with the future and
tries to order it. Hence the wealth of frothy outpourings about
revamping the city, about turning the entire province of Veneto into a
gateway to Central Europe, about boosting the region's industry,
expanding the harbor complex at Marghera, increasing the oil-tanker
traffic in the [laguna] and deepening the [laguna] for the same
purposes, about converting the Venetian Arsenale, immortalized by Dante,
into the Beaubourg's spitting---literally---image for storing the most
recently discharged phlegm, about housing an Expo here in the year 2000,
etc. All this drivel normally gushes out of the same mouth, and often on
the same breath, that blabbers about ecology, protection, restoration,
cultural patrimony, and whatnot. The goal of all that is one: rape. No
rapist, though, wants to regard himself as such, let alone get caught.
Hence the mixture of objectives and metaphors, high rhetoric and lyrical
fervor swelling the barrel chests of parliamentary deputies and
[commendatore] alike.
	Yet while these characters are far more dangerous---indeed more
harmful---than the Turks, the Austrians, and Napoleon all lumped
together, since money has more battalions than generals, in the
seventeen years that I've frequented this city very little has changed
here. What saves Venice, like Penelope, from her suitors is their
rivalry, the competitive nature of capitalism boiled down to fat cats'
blood relations to different political parties. Lobbing spanners into
each other's machinery is something democracy is awfully good at, and
the leapfrogging of Italian cabinets has proved to be the city's best
insurance. So has the mosaic of the city's own political jigsaw. There
are no doges anymore, and the 80,000 dwellers of these 118 islands are
guided not by the grandeur of some particular vision but by their
immediate, often nearsighted concerns, by their desire to make ends
meet.
	Farsightedness here, however, would be counterproductive. In a place
this size, twenty or thirty people out of work are the city council's
instant headache, which, apart from islands' innate mistrust of the
mainland, makes for a poor reception of the latter's blueprints, however
breathtaking. Appealing as they may be elsewhere, promises of universal
employment and growth make little sense in a city barely eight miles in
circumference, which even at the apogee of its maritime fortunes never
exceeded 200,000 souls. Such prospects may thrill a shopkeeper or
perhaps a doctor; a mortician, though, would object, since the local
cemeteries are jammed as it is and the dead now should be buried on the
mainland. In the final analysis, that's what the mainland is good for.
	Still, had the mortician and the doctor belonged to different
political parties, that would be fine, some progress could be made. In
this city, they often belong to the same, and things get stalled rather
early, even if the party is the PCI. In short, underneath all these
squabbles, unwitting ones or otherwise, lies the simple truth that
islands don't grow. That's what money, a.k.a. the future, a.k.a. voluble
politicos and fat cats, can't take, fails to grasp. What's worse, it
feels defied by this place, since beauty, a [fait accompli] by
definition, always defies the future, regarding it as nothing so much as
an overblown, impotent present, or as its fading ground. If this place
is reality (or, as some claim, the past), then the future with all its
aliases is excluded from it. At best, it amounts to the present. And
perhaps nothing proves this better than modern art, whose poverty alone
makes it prophetic. A poor man always speaks for the present, and
perhaps the sole function of collections like Peggy Guggenheim's and the
similar accretions of this century's stuff habitually mounted here is to
show what a cheap, self-assertive, ungenerous, one-dimensional lot we
have become, to instill humility in us: there is no other outcome
thinkable against the background of this Penelope of a city, weaving her
patterns by day and undoing them by night, with no Ulysses in sight.
Only the sea.

	I think it was Hazlitt who said that the only thing that could beat
this city of water would be a city built in the air. That was a
Calvinoesque idea, and who knows, as an upshot of space travel, that may
yet come to pass. As it is, apart from the moon landing, this century
may be best remembered by leaving this place intact, by just letting it
be. I, for one, would advise even against gentle interference. Of
course, film festivals and book fairs are in tune with the flickering of
the canals' surface, with their curlicue, sirocco-perused scribblings.
And of course, turning this place into a capital of scientific research
would be a palatable option, especially taking into account the likely
advantages of the local phosphorus-rich diet for any mental endeavor.
The same bait could be used for moving the EEC headquarters here from
Brussels and the European parliament from Strasbourg. And of course, a
better solution would be to give this city and some of its environs the
status of a national park. Yet I would argue that the idea of turning
Venice into a museum is as absurd as the urge to revitalize it with new
blood. For one thing, what passes for new blood is always in the end
plain old urine. And secondly, this city doesn't qualify to be a museum,
being itself a work of art, the greatest masterpiece our species
produced. You don't revive a painting, let alone a statue. You leave
them alone, you guard them against vandals---whose hordes may include
yourself.

	Seasons are metaphors for available continents, and winter is always
somewhat antarctic, even here. The city doesn't rely on coal as much as
it used to; now it's gas. The magnificent, trumpetlike chimneys
resembling medieval turrets in the backdrop of every Madonna and
Crucifixion idle and gradually crumble away from the local skyline. As a
result you shiver and go to bed with your woolen socks on, because
radiators keep their erratic cycles here even in hotels. Only alcohol
can absorb the polar lightning shooting through your body as you set
your foot on the marble floor, slippers or no slippers, shoes or no
shoes. If you work in the evening you burn parthenons of candles---not
for ambience or better light, but for their illusory warmth; or else you
move to the kitchen, light the gas stove, and shut the door. Everything
emanates cold, the walls especially. Windows you don't mind because you
know what to expect from them. In fact, they only pass the cold through,
whereas walls store it. I remember once spending the month of January in
an apartment on the fifth floor of a house near the church of Fava. The
place belonged to a descendant of none other than Ugo Foscolo. The owner
was a forest engineer or some such thing, and was, naturally, away on
business. The apartment wasn't that big: two rooms, sparsely furnished.
The ceiling, though, was extraordinarily high and the windows were
correspondingly tall. There were six or seven of them, as the apartment
was a corner one. In the middle of the second week the heating went off.
This time I was not alone, and my comrade-in-arms and I drew lots as to
who would have to sleep by the wall. "Why should I always go to the
wall?" she'd ask beforehand. "Because I'm a victim?" And her
mustard-and-honey eyes would darken with incredulity upon losing. She
would bundle up for the night---pink woolen jersey, scarf, stockings,
long socks---and, having counted [uno, due, tre!] jump into the bed as
though it were a dark river. To her, an Italian, a Roman, with a dash of
Greek blood in her veins, it probably was. "The only thing I disagree
with in Dante," she used to remark, "is the way he describes Hell. To
me, Hell is cold, very cold. I'd keep the circles but make them of ice,
with the temperature dropping with every spiral. Hell is the Arctic."
She meant it, too. With the scarf around her neck and head she looked
like Francesco Querini on that statue in the Giardini, or like the
famous bust of Petrarch (who, in turn, to me is the very image of
Montale---or, rather, vice versa). There was no telephone in that place;
a jumble of tuba-like chimneys loomed in the dark sky. The whole thing
felt like the Flight to Egypt, with her playing both the woman and the
child, and me my namesake and the donkey; after all, it was January.
"Between Herod of the past and Pharaoh of the future," I kept telling
myself. "Between Herod and Pharaoh, that's where we are." In the end I
fell ill. Cold and dampness got me---or rather my chest muscles and
nerves, messed up by surgeries. The cardiac cripple in me panicked and
she somehow shoved me onto the train for Paris, as we both were unsure
of the local hospitals, much though I adore the façade of
Giovanni e Paolo. The carriage was warm, my head was splitting from
nitro pills, a bunch of [bersaglieri] in the compartment were
celebrating their home leave with Chianti and a ghetto blaster. I wasn't
sure whether I would make it to Paris; but what was interfering with my
fear was the clear sense that, should I manage, in no time at
all---well, in a year---I'd be back to the cold place between Herod and
Pharaoh. Even then, huddling on the wooden bench of my compartment, I
was fully aware of this feeling's absurdity; yet as long as it could
help me to see through my fear, absurdity was welcome. The trundling of
the carriage and the effect of its constant vibration on one's frame
did, I suppose, the rest, rearranging or messing up my muscles, etc.,
even further. Or maybe it was just that the heating in the carriage
worked. At any rate, I made Paris, had a passable EKG, and boarded my
plane for the States. In other words, lived to tell the story, and the
story itself to repeat.

	"Italy," Anna Akhmatova used to say, "is a dream that keeps
returning for the rest of your life." It must be noted, though, that the
arrival of dreams is irregular and their interpretation is
yawn-inspiring. Furthermore, should dreams ever be designated a genre,
their main stylistic device would doubtless be the non sequitur. That at
least could be a justification for what has transpired thus far in these
pages. Also, that could explain my attempts over all these years to
secure that dream's recurrence, manhandling my superego in the process
no less savagely than my unconscious. To put it bluntly, I kept
returning myself to the dream, rather than the other way around. Sure
enough, somewhere along the line I had to pay for this sort of violence,
either by eroding what constituted my reality or by forcing the dream to
acquire mortal features, the way the soul does in the course of one's
lifetime. I guess I paid in both ways; and I didn't mind it either,
especially the latter, which would take the form of a [Cartavenezia]
(exp. date, Jan. 1988) in my wallet, anger in those eyes of a particular
variety (trained, and as of the same date, on better sights), or
something equally finite. The reality suffered more, and often I would
be crossing the Atlantic on my way home with a distinct feeling of
traveling from history into anthropology. For all the time, blood, ink,
money, and the rest that I shed or shelled out here, I never could
convincingly claim, even to myself, that I'd acquired any local traits,
that I'd become, in however minuscule a manner, a Venetian. A vague
smile of recognition on the face of a hotelier or a trattoria proprietor
didn't count; nor could anyone be deceived by the clothes I'd purchased
locally. Gradually, I've become a transient in either realm, with the
failure of convincing the dream of my presence in it being somewhat more
disheartening. That, of course, was familiar. Yet I suppose a case could
be made for fidelity when one returns to the place of one's love, year
after year, in the wrong season, with no guarantee of being loved back.
For, like every virtue, fidelity is of value only so long as it is
instinctive or idiosyncratic, rather than rational. Besides, at a
certain age, and in a certain line of work at that, to be loved back is
not exactly imperative. Love is a selfless sentiment, a one-way street.
That's why it is possible to love cities, architecture per se, music,
dead poets, or, given a particular temperament, a deity. For love is an
affair between a reflection and its object. This is in the end what
brings one back to this city---the way the tide brings the Adriatic and,
by extension, the Atlantic and the Baltic. At any rate, objects don't
ask questions: as long as the element exists, their reflection is
guaranteed---in the form of a returning traveler or in the form of a
dream, for a dream is the fidelity of the shut eye. That's the sort of
confidence our own kind is lacking, although we are part water.

	Should the world be designated a genre, its main stylistic device
would no doubt be water. If that doesn't happen, it is either because
the Almighty, too, doesn't seem to have much in the way of alternatives,
or because a thought itself possesses a water pattern. So does one's
handwriting; so do one's emotions; so does blood. Reflection is the
property of liquid substances, and even on a rainy day one can always
prove the superiority of one's fidelity to that of glass by positioning
oneself behind it. This city takes one's breath away in every weather,
the variety of which, at any rate, is somewhat limited. And if we are
indeed partly synonymous with water, which is fully synonymous with
time, then one's sentiment toward this place improves the future,
contributes to that Adriatic or Atlantic of time which stores our
reflections for when we are long gone. Out of them, as out of frayed
sepia pictures, time will perhaps be able to fashion, in a collage-like
manner, a version of the future better than it would be without them.
This way one is a Venetian by definition, because out there, in its
equivalent of the Adriatic or Atlantic or Baltic, time-alias-water
crochets or weaves our reflections---alias love for this place---into
unrepeatable patterns, much like the withered old women dressed in black
all over this littoral's islands, forever absorbed in their eye-wrecking
lacework. Admittedly, they go blind or mad before they reach the age of
fifty, but then they get replaced by their daughters and nieces. Among
fishermen's wives, the Parcae never have to advertise for an opening.

	The one thing the locals never do is ride gondolas. To begin with, a
gondola ride is pricey. Only foreign tourists, and well-off ones at
that, can afford it. That's what explains the median age of gondola
passengers: a septuagenarian can shell out one-tenth of a
schoolteacher's salary without wincing. The sight of these decrepit
Romeos and their rickety Juliets is invariably sad and embarrassing, not
to say ghastly. For the young, i.e., for those for whom this sort of
thing would be appropriate, a gondola is as far out of reach as a
five-star hotel. Economy, of course, reflects demography; yet that is
doubly sad, because beauty, instead of promising the world, gets reduced
to being its reward. That, in parenthesis, is what drives the young to
nature, whose free, or, more exactly, cheap delights are free---i.e.,
devoid---of the meaning and invention present in art or in artifice. A
landscape can be thrilling, but a façade by Lombardini tells you
what you can do. And one way---the original way---of looking at such
façades is from a gondola: this way you can see what the water
sees. Of course, nothing could be further from the locals' agendas as
they scurry and bustle about on their daily rounds, properly oblivious
or even allergic to the surrounding splendor. The closest they come to
using a gondola is when they're ferried across the Grand Canal or
carrying home some unwieldy purchase---a washing machine, say, or a
sofa. But neither a ferryman nor a boat owner would on such occasions
break into "[O sole mio]." Perhaps the indifference of a native takes
its cue from artifice's own indifference to its own reflection. That
could be the locals' final argument against the gondola, except that it
could be countered by the offer of a ride at nighttime, to which I once
succumbed.
	The night was cold, moonlit, and quiet. There were five of us in the
gondola, including its owner, a local engineer who, together with his
girlfriend, did all the paddling. We moseyed and zigzagged like an eel
through the silent town hanging over our heads, cavernous and empty,
resembling at this late hour a vast, largely rectangular coral reef or a
succession of uninhabited grottoes. It was a peculiar sensation: to find
yourself moving within what you're used to glancing across---canals; it
felt like acquiring an extra dimension. Presently we glided into the
[laguna] and headed toward the island of the dead, toward San Michele.
The moon, pitched extraordinarily high, like some mind-bogglingly sharp
ti crossed by a cloud's ledger sign, was barely available to the sheet
of water, and the gondola's gliding too was absolutely noiseless. In
fact, there was something distinctly erotic in the noiseless and
traceless passage of its lithe body upon the water---much like sliding
your palm down the smooth skin of your beloved. Erotic, because there
were no consequences, because the skin was infinite and almost immobile,
because the caress was abstract. With us inside, the gondola was perhaps
slightly heavy, and the water momentarily yielded underneath, only to
close the gap the very next second. Also, powered by a man and a woman,
the gondola wasn't even masculine. In fact, it was an eroticism not of
genders but of elements, a perfect match of their equally lacquered
surfaces. The sensation was neutral, almost incestuous, as though you
were present as a brother caressed his sister, or vice versa. In this
manner we circled the island of the dead and headed back to
Canareggio... Churches, I always thought, should stay open all night; at
least the Madonna dell' Orto should---not so much because of the likely
timing of the soul's agony as because of the wonderful Bellini [Madonna
with Child] in it. I wanted to disembark there and steal a glance at the
painting, at the inch-wide interval that separates her left palm from
the Child's sole. That inch---ah, much less!---is what separates love
from eroticism. Or perhaps that's the ultimate in eroticism. But the
cathedral was closed and we proceeded through the tunnel of grottoes,
through this abandoned, flat, moonlit Piranesian mine with its few
sparkles of electric ore, to the heart of the city. Still, now I knew
what water feels like being caressed by water.

	We disembarked near the concrete crate of the Bauer Grünwald
Hotel, rebuilt after the war, toward the end of which it was blown up by
the local partisans because it housed the German command. As an eyesore,
it keeps good company with the church of San Moisè---the busiest
façade in town. Together, they look like Albert Speer having a
pizza [capricciosa]. I've never been inside either, but I knew a German
gentleman who stayed in this crate-like structure and found it very
comfortable. His mother was dying while he was on vacation here and he
spoke to her daily over the telephone. When she expired he convinced the
management to sell him the telephone's receiver. The management
understood, and the receiver was included in the bill. But then he was
most likely a Protestant, while San Moisè is a Catholic church,
not to mention its being closed at night.

	Equidistant from our respective abodes, this was as good a place to
disembark as any. It takes about an hour to cross this city by foot in
any direction. Provided, of course, that you know your way, which by the
time I stepped out of that gondola I did. We bade each other farewell
and dispersed. I walked toward my hotel, tired, not even trying to look
around, mumbling to myself some odd, God-knows-from-where-dredged-up
lines, like "Pillage this village," or "This city deserves no pity."
That sounded like early Auden, but it wasn't. Suddenly I wanted a drink.
I swerved into San Marco in the hope that Florian's was still open. It
was closing; they were removing the chairs from the arcade and mounting
wooden boards on the windows. A short negotiation with the waiter, who
had already changed to go home but whom I knew slightly, had the desired
result; and with that result in hand I stepped out from under the arcade
and scanned the piazza. It was absolutely empty, not a soul. Its four
hundred rounded windows were running in their usual maddening order,
like idealized waves. This sight always reminded me of the Roman
Colosseum, where, in the words of a friend of mine, somebody invented
the arch and couldn't stop. "Pillage this village," I was still
muttering to myself. "This city deserves..." Fog began to engulf the
piazza. It was a quiet invasion, but an invasion nonetheless. I saw its
spears and lances moving silently but very fast, from the direction of
the [laguna], like foot soldiers preceding their heavy cavalry.
"Silently, and very fast," I said to myself. Any time now you could
anticipate their king, King Fog, appearing from around the corner in all
his cumulus glory. "Silently, and very fast," I repeated to myself. Now,
that was Auden's last line from his "Fall of Rome," and it was this
place that was "altogether elsewhere." All of a sudden I felt he was
behind me, and I turned as fast as I could. A tall, smooth window of
Florian's that was reasonably well lit and not covered with a board
gleamed through the patches of fog. I walked toward it and looked
inside. Inside, it was 195? On the red plush divans, around a small
marbled table with a kremlin of drinks and teapots on it, sat Wystan
Auden, with his great love, Chester Kallman, Cecil Day Lewis and his
wife, Stephen Spender and his. Wystan was telling some funny story and
everybody was laughing. In the middle of the story, a well-built sailor
passed by the window; Chester got up and, without so much as a "See you
later," went in hot pursuit. "I looked at Wystan," Stephen told me years
later. "He kept laughing, but a tear ran down his cheek." At this point,
for me, the window had gone dark. King Fog rode into the piazza, reined
in his stallion, and started to unfurl his white turban. His buskins
were wet, so was his charivari; his cloak was studded with the dim,
myopic jewels of burning lamps. He was dressed that way because he
hadn't any idea what century it was, let alone which year. But then,
being fog, how could he?

	Let me reiterate: Water equals time and provides beauty with its
double. Part water, we serve beauty in the same fashion. By rubbing
water, this city improves time's looks, beautifies the future. That's
what the role of this city in the universe is. Because the city is
static while we are moving. The tear is proof of that. Because we go and
beauty stays. Because we are headed for the future, while beauty is the
eternal present. The tear is an attempt to remain, to stay behind, to
merge with the city. But that's against the rules. The tear is a
throwback, a tribute of the future to the past. Or else it is the result
of subtracting the greater from the lesser: beauty from man. The same
goes for love, because one's love, too, is greater than oneself.

				November 1989

*	Possible typos: (S. W.)

*	1. "cyclopes"?
*	2. "irrelevant"?
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