Thursday, 27 January 2011

And So To Venice

It was in the Spring of 1981 that I spent my first week in Venice, in the company of my wife, our children and my wife's parents. Since then we have made several more visits and I have progressively fallen ever deeper under the spell of this most beautiful and mysterious of cities.

Many have written on Venice, its lagoon, its art and, perhaps most of all, its architecture. Many are the stories woven around its canals and calles. It is therefore an impossible task to acquire anything approaching a representative Venetian library; however over the period since our first visit, as if by a process of osmosis, significant books on Venice have filtered onto our shelves.

Following our initial visit, the first title I sought out was John Ruskin's monumental "Stones of Venice" and it was in the excellent Bay Bookshop at Colwyn Bay that I found a 3 volume set in the distinctive original boards, for the, then, very reasonable price of £15. It was when I had taken the set back to the car that I found this was actually the autographed edition, with each Volume 1 signed by Ruskin. "Stones of Venice" is an essential first step on the way towards a Venice collection, for surely no other writer of such brilliance has ever subjected the art and architecture of a single city to such forensic examination (or subjected his wife, the lonely Effie, to such strange continental holidays). Armed with Ruskin, the great gothic buildings acquire new significance, as survivals from an age of wonderful craftsmanship married to religious faith. Though I must confess that, unlike Ruskin, I think Venice enhanced by the magnificent Renaissance architecture, that Ruskin saw as evidence of its decline. If all you read in this wonderful work is the chapter on the Nature of Gothic, then you have read the defining statement that became the well-spring for much of William Morris's philosophy and the Gothic Revival.

Since Ruskin, many have summarised, criticised and augmented his great work; to mention a few - Jan Morris, Sarah Quill and Robert Hewison. The latter's recent "Ruskin on Venice" is perhaps the final statement needed. I must, however, also mention the beautifully produced "Bricks of Venice" by Peter Harris, published by the Old School Press, Bath in 2005 in a limited edition of 150 copies. This book studies the brick work of Venice in the gothic period and contains a text volume and a set of separate sheets of coloured illustrations, all housed in a slipcase.

Of guides to Venice there are many; on our first visit we followed the Blue Guide and this remains the only book I consider essential to have to hand. This now has a recently published companion - a Blue GuideLiterary Companion to Venice. J G Links's "Venice for Pleasure" is also excellent and the illustrations in the Eyewitness and Everyman Guides make these worth adding to the collection.

There are many companions to Venice, summarising its history and topography; perhaps most notably James Morris's "Venice", the introductory paragraphs of which are justly praised for their evocation of the first sight of Venice as you approach from the lagoon.

As to history, I will name only three books I find on our shelves; the earliest is Mrs Oliphant's "Makers of Venice", which contains much detail of the lives of the doges and other historical and artistic information. It appears in various editions and is well illustrated with portraits and topographical scenes. Next is F Marion Crawford's "Gleanings from Venetian History", beautifully illustrated by Joseph Pennell, one of the many artists associated with Venice. Both of these are lovely books in which to browse, but the key history to read is John Julius Norwich's "History of Venice", a captivating work, which is unlikely to be surpassed.

Of art and literature, there are riches abundant. Venice's churches and galleries are enriched by works by Titian, Tintoretto, Carpaccio and Tiepolo and many are the glossy art books that reproduce their masterpieces, for example the massive two volume set "Venice Art and Architecture", published by Koneman in a slip case.

Ruskin fell under the spell of the Carpaccio cycles - that of St George in the Scuola Grande di San Giorgio Degli Schiavoni and that of St Ursula in the Accademia and there are separate studies of these works and of Ruskin's infatuation with St Ursula, who he identified with his lost love Rose La Touche. Two books tell the story of how on Christmas Day, 1876, Ruskin wandered the streets of Venice, observing signs left by Ursula/Rose. The definitive study is Van Akin Burd's "Christmas Story", while "Ruskin's Rose: a Venetian Love Story", by Mima Balia and Michelle Lovric is a beautifully produced re-telling of the story of Ruskin's obsession.

On a recent trip to Venice, we followed the route Ruskin took on that grey Christmas Day, from the Piazza, up the Merceria to the lonely area of the Abbazia della Misericorda and along the Fondamente Nuove, looking across to the cemetery island of San Michele, and back to the Carpaccios in Scuola Degli Schiavoni.

Many books contain studies of great artists who have worked in Venice, for example Ian Warrell's "Turner and Venice" and Alastair Grieve's "Whistler's Venice".

The great views of the 18th century by artists such as Canaletto and Guardi are well represented in Filippo Pedrocco's "Visions of Venice". For an account of the development of Venetian architecture, I would turn to Deborah Howard's "Architectural History of Venice".

Of all cities, few have so inspired writers as Venice. A very good survey, "Venice Desired" by Tony Tanner provides a summary of how Venice has affected the writings of, amongst others, Byron, Henry James, Marcel Proust and Ezra Pound. To this list we could add Thomas Mann, whose "Death in Venice" captures something of the melancholy that pervades Venice at certain times and seasons, when mists roll across the lagoon and the layers of history weigh heavy on this fragile city by the sea.

On the lighter side we have Henry James' "The Aspern Papers", concerning attempts to inveigle a collection of literary letters out of the ladies living in a crumbling palazzo, and Sally Vickers' "Miss Garnet's Angel", set around the church of Angelo Raffaele. I like the quote from Ruskin that prefaces this story - 'If some people really see angels, where others see empty space, let them paint the angels ....' We should be eternally grateful that so many have indeed seen the angels in Venice and have shared their visions with us.

Speaking of angels, mention must be made of John Berendt's "City of Falling Angels", which follows the investigations into the fire that badly damaged La Fenice in 1996. The Opera House is now once more restored.

Our last visit to Venice coincided with the Architecture Exhibition at the 2010 Biennale. Here in the British Pavilion on the first day of the exhibition, we could see Ruskin's Venetian Notebooks, on loan from Lancaster University. In these notebooks Ruskin used to write the word 'Done' on pages, from which the drawings or records he had made had been transcribed to the next level. Facsimiles of these pages, together with more recent photographs, are provided in Wolfgang Scheppe's "Done Book". I have, however, the feeling that we can never 'do' Venice. There will always be unvisited campos, uncrossed bridges and calles less travelled that lead us deeper into the secret places of the city.

Finally, tribute must be paid to Aldus Manutius, the greatest of Venetian printers, who arrived in Venice in 1490 and established the Aldine Press. At this press he produced the first small format editions of the classics, inventing also italic type. These Aldine Press octavo volumes became the world's first mass-distributed books and hence are the earliest precursors of today's best sellers.

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Monday, 17 January 2011

Macabre Readings

From the Grammar School, across the River Dee in Chester, to the bus station on Delamere Street was a walk of about a mile - across the Old Dee Bridge, up the hill of Bridge Street, over the cross and up Northgate Street to the bus station. I had exactly 30 minutes to complete this journey after school finished, just allowing time for at least one book-stop along the way. I had at this time developed a liking for short stories of the more macabre kind, having grown up on a diet of the more traditional ghost stories.

There were two choices. A passage to the left of the imposing front of Chester Town Hall led past the bar once run by the legendary Everton Centre-Forward, Dixie Dean, into Chester's indoor market. Here was located a 4-sided stall run by one Mark Bloom, who had the enviable knack of knowing exactly what comics and cheap paperbacks would appeal to an 11-year old, with a penchant for horror. The second option was a short diversion down Watergate Street to Thompson's, a newsagent with a surprisingly good stock of cheap paperbacks with sensational covers, more or less opposite the impressive God's Providence House. It was from these two non-traditional sources of books that during the early 1960's I built up a small, but valuable (to me, at least) collection of paperbacks containing ghost and horror stories, in the days when W H Smith and established booksellers did not stock such material.

Pre-eminent amongst these was my first collection of H P Lovecraft, the World Distributor's Library edition "Cry Horror". I don't know why Lovecraft's complex and sometimes tedious writing style appealed so much but there was something about the stories, the language and the descriptions that captivated me and stories such as 'The Colour out of Space', 'Pickman's Model', 'Arthur Jermyn' and 'The Nameless City' remain favourites after more than 50 years. This was followed up by an excellent Panther collection "The Haunter of the Dark and Other Tales of Terror".

These stories introduced me to the towns of Lovecraft's imagination: legend-haunted Arkham (actually witch-ridden Salem, with it's historic sites and many-gabled houses) and Innsmouth (Lovecraft's beloved Marblehead). It was at Arkham's Miskatonic University Library that seekers after dark secrets could find a copy of the "Necronomicon" by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, whose enigmatic couplet "That is not dead which can eternal lie and in strange aeons e'en death may die" is much quoted in Lovecraft's stories.

Since then, my family and I have wandered in Lovecraft's footsteps through the streets of Salem, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island, and have sought out early Arkham House titles in the latter's bookshops. Lovecraft is one of the few writers of what might be called pulp fiction (he first published in "Weird Tales" magazine) to make the transition to being recognised as a serious writer, as evidenced by the inclusion of a volume of his best works in the Writers of America series. It was not however in Lovecraft's New England, but in up-market Santa Monica on the Californian coast, that I finally found my copy of the "The Outsider and Others", the first Arkham House title and the first book publication of Lovecraft's best work. Having a very understanding family, it was perhaps not surprising that on my 60th birthday, my elder daughter presented me with another Lovecraft Arkham House title, "Dreams and Fancies", almost 50 years after my initiation into Lovecraft's strange world.

Also published by World Distributor's Library was the excellent collection "The Midnight Reader", with a very good introduction by Philip van Doren Stern. In here were to be found such masterpieces as 'The Yellow Wall Paper', by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in which a woman becomes obsessed with the patterns in the wallpaper of her bedroom and ends up crawling round the room over the body of her horrified husband (who has fainted in shock at her state), and Algernon Blackwood's 'The Willows'.

Excellent stories were also to be found in the Digit collection "The Macabre Reader", edited by Donald A Wollheim and the early volumes of Herbert van Thal's series of Pan Books of Horror Stories. I particularly liked John Martin Leahy's 'In Amundsen's Tent' in "The Macabre Reader". This collection also contained Lovecraft's 'The Thing on the Doorstep'.

Panther published several volumes of Arthur Machen (of whom more will be said in a later blog) including "Tales of Horror and the Supernatural". These were rapidly added to the bedside table as also were the Arrow editions of Bram Stoker's tales of the supernatural.

I also recall the thrill of finding on the Market stall the World Distributor's Library edition of Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw", in which edition, with its lurid cover, I first read this ghostly masterpiece. I still find the never-ending debates on this story fascinating, but as would be expected for a dedicated reader of ghost stories, I am inclined to think the Governess entirely sane and the phantoms of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel not of her imagination, but real projections of malevolent forces through the tenuous veil that separates our comfortable world from the dark forces lurking at the threshold.

Following this initiation into such stories, there followed a long period in which university studies and career building limited opportunities for seeking out new authors and those I did seek out were of a more serious literary nature. However in 1981, I bought, on an impulse, the excellent compilation "Dark Forces", edited by Kirby McCauley. This introduced me to a new generation of writers of supernatural stories such as Ramsey Campbell, T E D Klein, Poppy Z Brite and Karl Edward Wagner, who took many of the themes of the earlier masters, but transposed them into modern, often urban, settings. The loneliness of old empty houses is replaced by the alienation and isolation found in crowded streets, where more modern terrors await the unwary.

I have noted the current popularity of all forms of supernatural fiction, from out and out horror to the romance of the 'dark fantasy' paperbacks (now a separate genre in Waterstone's). However, you can, perhaps, have too much of a good thing and I would not have wanted to forego the thrill of discovering those classic tales by digging around in out of the way places when such finds were rare.

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