Literary Venice


Robert and Elizabeth Browning made sense out of parenting. Their son Pen starred in just one area of life, but that was the great one of marrying wealth. Surely it's far better to have one's children provide for you than compete. Pen owned much of the hill town of Asolo (which we climbed in a thunderstorm, a visit partly in tribute to Freya Stark who lived and is buried there, the town now too prettified but excited by a thunderstorm as we waded through it). Back in Venice we sat and had lunch in the portico of the Ca' Rezzonico, the Grand Canal lapping our feet. This was the Browning palace, courtesy of their son and a far cry from Wimpole Street. Cole Porter and Noel Coward stayed there too.

Such literary and showbiz trivia, I realized, was what stirred me in Venice. One hotel I admired because Ruskin had written Stones of Venice there. We strolled through the rooms of the Grand Hotel des Bains out on the Lido because that was where Thomas Mann stayed and wrote much of Death in Venice. Spare me the tales of doges, proncesses and merchant families for they bore me. Tell me about the artists!

So we were charmed by finding Monteverdi's tomb. Sought out Vivaldi's church. Admired Tintoretto's house and drank in the bar where Titian formerly stored his paints and canvases. Worked out which top floor of which palazzo Henry James was given on long term free rent every year.

Envy stroked its way into my consciousness at that point. How come Henry James got such free accommodation? Why don't people view James and me and our writing in that light? Then the very fatuousness of envy struck me full in the face. History can be so seductive, especially in a place like Venice, that one becomes blind to the present - for here, indeed, we had been given exclusive and free use for a couple of weeks of a friend's apartment just back from the Grand Canal.

Walking, drinking, eating, reading, and sleeping was the prescription for our time there. I do wonder how much those literary lions ever actually wrote in Venice - there's really so much else to do. That hill town of Asolo has bequeathed a new word to the Italian vocabulary, asolare. It means to pleasantly idle away one's time in pleasing surroundings. Perhaps that is the very nicest part of the writing life.

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