Thursday, September 19, 2013

La Donna Partigiana Memorial Gets Scrubbed Up

They've been cleaning the memorial to the women partisans of Venice located off the Viale dei Giardini Pubblici the last couple of afternoons. Sculpted by Augusto Murer in 1961 and set upon what was intended by its designer Carlo Scarpa to be a floating base beside a grouping of istrian stone viewing platforms fixed at varying heights, the joint venture has never quite worked, nor been seen, as intended. Or at least not for very long, as corrosion caused by the lagoon's salt water essentially sunk the floating base and the city council opted to make it as stationary as the istrian cubes alongside it rather than sink funds into repairing and maintaining the base in lagoon-worthy ship-shape. The council also decided, probably wisely, that allowing tourists to clamber upon the istrian stone cubes-- many of them slippery with algae--along the edge of the lagoon presented the prospect of unending lawsuits, in addition to whatever views Scarpa may have envisioned. To this day visitors are kept at a good distance from the work by barriers and warnings.

Not having seen anyone clean the work before, I asked the project supervisor how often they did this: "Ogni anno?" I ventured.

The smile he responded with conveyed both a certain embarrassment and a certain fatalism; he leaned toward me a bit, confidentially, tilting one hand back and forth in a gesture of very loose (and futile) estimate, and said, "Eh, no, due--o tre..."

Or maybe even longer, I understood.

"There's no money," he said simply in Italian. "We use only water in the pressure sprayer," he added, "no chemicals, nothing else, but..." He trailed off into a tilt of the head with which most discussions of the way public funds are managed in Venice conclude: a slight disgusted nod toward how things stand--or lie--and the suspicion that those responsible for running the city aren't exactly partial to its actual residents, nor their monuments.  

And you think you've had some rough pedicures!


  1. Offtopic: Have you read the Brodsky's Watermark?

    Care to share your impressions?

    Most of all I'm interested in learning how you, a native speaker of English, see the language he uses.

    Whenever you'll find a couple minutes...

    1. It's funny that I started reading Watermark a couple of weeks ago & immediately thought of asking you what you thought of it, and of his work in general, as you can read Russian.

      I have a hard time getting through Watermark, in spite of the fact it's so short. I've started it before and put it aside, and I've done the same thing this time. I just don't take to it, it really doesn't interest me. I don't think it's his use of the English language so much as I simply don't find his sensibility interesting, nor his take on Venice.

      He makes a point of being rather plain-spoken and "unpretentious" even as he also makes a point of being soaked in literary history. I have no problem with either of these traits in other writers but Brodsky for some reason just doesn't excite me. His literariness seems so plodding to me; and most of his proclamations, such as connecting water and time, are completely in a certain literary tradition and completely, to me, banal.

      I imagine he may have been fun at a certain kind of cocktail party at a certain period of history; I can imagine him making the scene w/ his pal Susan Sontag (who was a regular at a bookstore I used to run), but I find his writing wearying. And the one English language poem of his I recall seeing many years ago in the New Yorker about the Washington Monument was so uninspired and expressed such a common outlook as to be embarrassing.

      He must be better in Russian, right? Or perhaps I just haven't read his best things. I don't find Watermark to have all that much to offer about Venice, and suspect it may be a better record of Brodsky himself--whom, however, I've found so far of little interest. I'd rather read mad old Baron Corvo on Venice, or any of the many other things available. What is your take on him?

    2. Thank you! I’m preparing a one-star review for my Amazon page.

      Somehow it’s OK to smirk when Tiziano Scarpa gets carried away by his enthusiasm for his native city, to have a sober view of Jan Morris’ “purple prose” or even call Peter Ackroyd’s book on Venice a rather unnecessary addition to the shelf. But I’ve seen even the polite and timid critics of Brodsky’s “Watermark” getting the retorts like “Brodsky is a Nobel Prize–certified genius and who you are (to dare to dislike his work)?” The only publicly approved reaction to the book should contain phrases like “ a work of lucidity and talent”, “beautifully evocative prose from a literary genius”, “a tribute to La Serenissima from one of her worthiest visitors”.

      Well…the book is a drivel. The author comes across as a distinctly unpleasant person but the geniuses are not required to have a pleasant character – as long as they compensate for their lack of social graces with an output of extraordinary level.
      Sadly, that’s not the case here – the “inspired and poetic’ parts are embarrassingly banal and clichéd, when Brodsky starts some kind of freestyling with metaphors it sounds like a lame and pretentious blubbering, one can read his “gems of insight” one by one and just shrug at their obvious lack of saving grace.

      Writing in English was Brodsky’s folly disapproved of even by his friends and remarked upon acidly by these who were less fond of him. About his friends Susan Sontag says – They were surprised and embarrassed by his constantly claiming that he had mastered English as a poet. – Less sympathetic critics (like Craig Raine and Christopher Reid) were more vocal in their contempt for his second language forays.

      You can get an idea of Brodsky’s command and feeling of English reading quips like “they don’t so much help you as kelp you.” And he was proud of such idiotic wordplay, Brodsky saw it as a proof of his linguistic virtuosity.

      I know a lot of his bon mots in Russian that are even worse. Obviously Brodsky saw coming up with these as his trademark skill and wanted to transfer it into his second language as well.

      As a good human being he is even less convincing. The essay starts with his waiting for a woman to come and meet him at the railway station, at night, he leads a reader to suppose that’s his love interest, kind of embodiment of Venice’s femininity ready to greet and accept him. But no – Brodsky then slips into showing what a sore loser he is: the lady preferred another man years ago, and the poet feels we should know that the person was a very well-off Armenian. Well, of course – all women are after money, it’s paramount, and these Armenians are so devious and cunning. Why else she declined to adore Josef with his virtuoso rhyming of help with kelp and blubbering about the Time being a Mirror of Air – or something like this?

    3. He then meets her equally pretty sister, and she is also not falling into his arms. Brodsky remarks – Well, let Armenians have them…-

      Later he gets a woman to share his apartment – and tells us how he makes her despite all her protests to lie in bed close to the freezing cold wall giving her lover a warmer spot. I’m really at loss trying to figure out what reaction is desired from a reader of these lines? Gloating? Applause? Feeling Brodsky becoming even dearer to us?

      If the best way to conquer a woman is to not care about her Brodsky uses this trick on Venice with astonishing success. Even after coming here for 17 years he didn’t bother to get acquainted even with the most basic facts of her history and culture. He calls several churches “a cathedral” (there can only be one per city), he thinks St.Marks body was brought here at the 12th century (around 828 A.D. actually), his discussion of the city’s glories and problems is always shallow and disinterested.

      The only subject Brodsky is interested in is himself, memoirs of the people who knew him confirm this uniformly. But is he equally interesting to the public? Brodsky wasn’t sure of this and preferred to pose having something at the background – history, Russia, St.Petersburg.

      And Venice.

      Venice is sung by a lot of authors who feel that choosing La Serenissima as a subject will suffice, will get their work some attention no matter how it’s executed. Venice attracts so many kitschy tributes, the sheer volume of these is overwhelming and it increases year after year. If Venice sinks after all it won’t be literally, she won’t be covered with the waters of Adriatic – heavy layers of literary and cinematic schlock will prevent a really interested viewer from seeing the city with clarity and calm appreciation.

      P.S. Here you can see Susan Sontag giving her opinion of Brodsky:

      I can’t evaluate his verse in Russian because I’m neither an expert in poetry nor a reader of verse. So maybe Brodsky’s genius as a Russian poet outweighs everything else that is definitely inferior and unpleasant. But somehow I doubt it.

      About Baron Corvo…Got A. J. A. Symons’ The Quest For Corvo a month ago and was only able to sample it – I’m flooded with books about Venice, just 6 weekss remain before my trip in November – but it seems to be very well written, and the subject is really interesting. I’ve read a chapter in Norwich’s Paradise Of Cities about Corvo and decided to expand my knowledge of that figure.

    4. Well, Sasha, it seems we are in agreement about Watermark. The only book purportedly about Venice that's interested me less is, well, actually not a book at all but a novella entitled Nate in Venice by Richard Russo available as a "single" on a book--and-everything-else-under-the-sun-selling website I won't mention and generally do my best to avoid giving any business to. Nate in Venice is quite simply execrable, and reads as if written by the very dimmest of those 60% of cruise-ship passengers who float into Venice & never bother to disembark. And, alas, his ignorance of the city is not made up for by either interesting characterization or plotting: it's pretty much all poorly done.

      In any case, I, like you, find Brodsky's very way of looking at things so uninteresting that I can't imagine how it could be any better in Russian. Nabokov's astonishing mind is evident in both English and translated-Russian; Conrad's insight and gifts come across unimpeded in a language that was not his first. I have a feeling that, for me at least, Brodsky is unfortunately Brodsky in either Russian or English, poetry or prose.

    5. There are so many parasites covering Venice with their...product. Now I'm watching Peter Ackroyd's 4 films about Venice, and if his book is only mildly disgusting these films are unbelievably bad.

      I haven't heard about "Nate in Venice" before, but I've read "Jeff in Venice" (the novel's first part, I didn't follow the protagonist to Varanasi) - and as a middle age love fantasy it - kind of -works.

    6. I'm surprised the video w/ Ackroyd is so bad, Sasha, after all the visuals could carry so much of the load and the BBC I thought was usually pretty good with visuals. Though it hasn't been all that long since Francesco da Mosto's 1st 4 part series--did they really need to make another?

      I liked Jeff in Venice for how it played off of Death in Venice: using the Biennale as a means to touch upon certain themes of art in Mann's work and suggesting that what would appear to be the complete unbounded gratification of desire can turn out to be just as unsatisfying (and "dead") as poor old Von Aschenbach's unrequited yearning.

    7. Even without commenting on the obvious weirdness of Ackroyd’s self-presentation I can say there are so many things that are wrong with these films.

      The text is out of sync with the picture. Sarah Quill is speaking about some palazzo and then says about the adjoining one that she doubts that Ruskin would have approved of it’s present look – and instead of showing the Palazzo Barbarigo’s garishly mosaic’d façade so we could see what she is telling us about an editor just cuts the footage, very abruptly and inexplicably. Or at the Isola San Michele Ackroyd mentions Cadussi’s splendid white church but it’s never shown, we just see him blubbering about “Soviet Diaghilev” (why Soviet?!) And something like that happens all the time through the series.

      Da Mosto’s films are better, but his resolve to dramatize makes it all a bit repetitive. “All seemed to be lost, but then just one man, an artist, SAVED THE REPUBLIC! It was Genteeele Belllini. He went to the Sultan’s court, etc” And then: - “The route to the America was discovered. The trade shifted westward. The Republic seemed to be on a verge of perishing, many thought everything is lost…But then the decision to admit the Jews to Venice SAVED the Serenissima!” –

      Exagerrated, dramatic presentation works up to the moment but then it’s…kicking a dead horse.

      It was very much evident in the other BBC series – Sicily Unpacked and Italy Unpacked. In Sicily two travelling hosts were giving the series so much energy and life that the reviews afterwards were speaking about the reinvention and the rebirth of the travel documentary genre. But in their tour of Lombardy and Piemonte it just stopped to work. The presenters were doing the same things as before but with the very diminished returns. And they were aware of that change, there was the footage when one tells another: - Ok, you can get out of this character now, we are finished with this statue. – The felt they have to address the obvious somehow.

      I think they are all (lady with a plastic clapper included but Ackroyd is a breed apart) fighting a losing battle with the public's attention spans reaching zero, I don't know what is a noble - and effective - way out of this slump.

    8. Well, I won't hurry to see the Ackroyd, Sasha, but I will lookout for the Sicily Unpacked one now.

      I don't know how to deal with shrinking attention spans generally, but I'd suggest that tourists only take tours if they know they enjoy being led around and lectured to. Some people do, some don't, and there's no inherent virtue to being one of the former. It might be better for some people to simply go their own way, intimidating as that may sometimes seem, and simply see what they see.