Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Venice Inscribed (iv): Henry James

If you happen to be caught in an autumn storm in Venice, you know all about it. Late September is, however, in many ways an ideal time to visit the city: the high-summer crowds have dwindled; the frenzy of the Film Festival is over; there are no longer any queues at the Biennale. Even locals dislike excitements such as the recent wedding of a human rights lawyer to a coffee-machine salesman: the Clooney cortège and its accompanying charivari* aroused the wrath of gondoliers and everyone else. Venice doesn’t care to be treated as if it were Sunset Boulevard.

Our arrival in Venice, earlier that same week, had been rather different. We’d installed ourselves in a quiet apartment behind the Arsenale, before heading back to Marco Polo airport to meet friends coming to share our holiday. We had brought them to Piazzale Roma, and were now sitting on the open seats at the back of a Number 1 vaporetto, heading down the Grand Canal. It was nearly 7pm, and the sun was setting. We’d been lucky with the weather all day: the forecast had threatened rain.

By the time we reached Ca’ d’Oro, the last of the sun had gone, and the sky was getting rapidly darker. When we emerged from under the Rialto Bridge, it was clear a storm was approaching. First, though, we were treated to a remarkable son et lumière: spectacular lightning and thunder far away over the Alps. Wherever the storm was, it didn’t seem to be overhead. We thought we’d get away with it: if rain was coming, we told our friends, they’d be safely in our apartment before it started. We were wrong. We should have noticed the gondolas and water-taxis scurrying for cover, for as we left Santa Maria della Salute, the tempest began, the vaporetto bucked, and we were soaked in an instant.

How we got home, I hardly know. The boat battled against the wind but eventually made it to Arsenale; we got off and found the water on the Riva degli Schiavoni already ankle-deep. There was nowhere to shelter, so we ran against nearly horizontal rain towards the nearest passageway, stumbled left into the Calle della Pegola, then splashed our way towards Campo San Martino, staggering with our friends’ sodden suitcases across the little iron bridge over the canal to reach, at last, our front door. What I had planned as a gentle early-evening stroll though one of the quaintest, quietest corners of Venice had turned into a nightmare worthy of the film Don’t Look Now.

Henry James describes a storm like this in The Wings of the Dove, his novel about Milly Theale, a beautiful young American in Venice pursued by two predatory suitors: the aristocratic Lord Mark and the penniless Merton Densher. ‘It was,’ says James’s narrator, ‘a Venice all of evil that had broken out.’ This storm fits the mood of Densher who, to his dismay and after weeks of being an intimate guest, has been turned away from Milly’s palazzo by a common gondolier.  Failing to discover why Milly won’t see him, he heads into

… a Venice of cold lashing rain from a low black sky, of wicked wind raging through narrow passes, of general arrest and interruption …. He had to walk in spite of weather, and he took his course, through crooked ways, to the Piazza, where he should have the shelter of the galleries. Here, in the high arcade, half Venice was crowded close, while, on the Molo, at the limit of the expanse, the old columns of St Theodore and of the Lion were the frame of a door wide open to the storm. (pp.403-4)

Henry James is not my favourite writer, but when he allows himself to observe and record without wrestling lexis and syntax into submission, I warm to him at once. Having reached St Mark’s Square, Densher surveys the chaotic scene; and, in a fine example of free indirect style, James famously writes that

The whole place, in its huge elegance, the grace of its conception and the beauty of its detail, was more than ever like a great drawing-room, the drawing-room of Europe, profaned and bewildered by some reverse of fortune. (p.404)

I enjoy the touch that James adds next: the café tables have been moved out of the rain and crammed under the arcade, ‘and here and there a spectacled German, with his coat-collar up, partook publicly of food and philosophy’. Mocking the manners of Germans abroad is evidently an old sport.

But the philosophical German is a distraction, and this whole description of the crowd sheltering from the storm a deft piece of indirection on James’s part. We, reading, are busy establishing the confused scene in our mind’s eye, and we are even told that ‘These were impressions for Densher too’, who needed to walk three times round the ‘whole circuit’ of the piazza  to recover himself – a walk that in reality would take at least twenty five minutes but which James describes in seven words. Yet before we have caught up with him, he has already stopped dead, having spotted a man he recognizes, sitting (as an English gentleman evidently should) inside, not outside, the café Florian.   Densher is appalled: his rival, Lord Mark, has returned to Venice. For a moment, the two men face each each other through the window; and in that instant Densher realizes, ‘as if he had caught his answer to the riddle of the day’, why he has been turned away by Milly Theale’s servant.

This is what Mikhail Bakhtin called a chronotope**: an unexpected conjunction of time and place, a chance meeting in a crowded place that creates a crisis in the plot, leading the reader forward towards the resolution of the story. I’m pleased to say that, after our storm, we woke to clear skies and bright sun. Venice doesn’t disappoint. Merton Densher was less lucky: for him the storm signalled the beginning of the end.

*Charivari: a raucous procession accompanying an ill-matched couple to their wedding.

**Chronotope: “The chronotope is the place where the knots of narrative are tied and untied. It can be said without qualification that to them belong the meaning that shapes narrative.” MM Bakhtin, in The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, 1981, p.250

All quotations from The Wings of the Dove, Oxford World’s Classics paperback, 1984, pp.403-405

[illustration: Santa Maria della Salute, seconds before the storm, 22 September 2014

Here are links to my earlier posts about Venice:

Text and illustration © Adrian Barlow

1 comment:

  1. '...Henry James is not my favourite writer, but when he allows himself to observe and record without wrestling lexis and syntax into submission, I warm to him at once....'

    That's something I might want to steal. I like that bit from The Aspern Papers that Eliot altered and used as part of the epigraph to his unpleasant Venetian poem:

    '...The gondola stopped, the old palace was there; it was a house of the class which in Venice carries even in extreme dilapidation the dignified name. "How charming! It's gray and pink!" my companion exclaimed; and that is the most comprehensive description of it. It was not particularly old, only two or three centuries; and it had an air not so much of decay as of quiet discouragement, as if it had rather missed its career....'

    I enjoyed reading this, Adrian, as ever, and will be reading it again.