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The Gothic Elegance of Venice in Winter


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You should go back to Venice.

I was in Dubai, when my friend, a fellow academic at the university where I was teaching, leaned over and offered this piece of advice. We were sitting outside, in between our classes, sipping hot Earl Grey tea under the even hotter Middle Eastern sun, the humidity quickly creeping upwards so that my clothes had already begun to stick to my back, my glasses still frosted as a result of the move from the air-conditioned indoors to the outside. My friend wore a sweater, unfazed by the heat. She continued: You should go in the winter, when it’s cold and dark and rainy. And Gothic.

I had been to Venice once before—at the height of summer, along with a hoard of other tourists. My partner and I had driven over from Slovenia, parked the car and took a train into the city, forced into a day excursion as we couldn’t afford to spend a night in the oft-pricey City of Bridges. We spent the day walking around, taking in the sights, and at one point we sat and had a beer, at the end of which we were handed a gasp-inducing $30 bill, a price that apparently included the privilege of listening to the various street musicians. At the approach of evening, I departed the city with a hazy impression of a hot summer sun, a whirl of colors and the feeling of having spent the day at an amusement park. It was enjoyable, but not anything I planned to do again.

At my friend’s suggestion, however, I started to wonder.

Setting has always played a large role in the stories that I’m drawn to—whether it’s Thornfield or Manderley or the lesser known Wolfenbach, the common thread between all of my favorite novels seems to be a distinct sense of place, where just the mere mention of the name is enough to evoke a vivid, almost tangible image. The Brontë sisters often found inspiration in the Yorkshire moors where they grew up, while Du Maurier’s novels frequently drew upon the rugged coastline of her home in Cornwall. For myself, having spent the last decade in and out of various places (Dublin, Dubai, New York and traveling, where all the stuff that had once made up my ‘home’ sat in a storage facility for the better part of a year and a half), my inspiration has come from the places I’ve passed through, spaces I’ve claimed as temporary homes of a sort, whether for months at a time, or even just the span of a few days.

My first novel, Tangerine, was largely inspired by once such trip to Tangier—I had just finished my PhD and my partner and I had been traveling around Europe before our visas expired, trying to see as much as possible. We wound up staying for several weeks in Spain, during which time we decided to take the ferry over to Tangier, drawn there by the guidebooks in the house we were staying, and by a chance encounter with our host at a local bar and where he told us all about his own experiences there: people-watching at the cafés in the medina, drinking gin and tonics while listening to jazz, late into the night. I was instantly entranced, and so we purchased tickets and headed over to discover the city for ourselves. From the moment we stepped off the ferry, I was overwhelmed by what greeted us—the heat, the sights, the people, the very place itself was so different from anything I had ever before encountered in my travels. Everything in Tangerine was born from that trip, drawing upon the experiences I had as a visitor to this city that seemed to pull me in and push me away, all in one breadth.

My second novel, Palace of the Drowned, was a bit different. The second time around, the characters came first, and while I knew my main character, Frankie, would call London home, I soon found myself stumbling over the place where she would journey while on her temporary exodus from the city. I wanted somewhere that would feel isolated and remote. Somewhere that would be put her—and readers—on edge, and that was when I remembered my friend’s words, and the promise of a place that was cold and dark and rainy and, perhaps most importantly of all, Gothic.

And so, I went to Venice, armed with my very own version of a Blue Guide (a printed email from my friend, with all her instructions to the city), and such suggestions as: Wander through the sestieri. Sit at The Edge. Gaze out at the Island of the Dead. Find your local sfuso. Bring prosecco and tumblers to a park bench. Enjoy the weird emptiness.

I have never traveled well in Italy. That’s something I freely admit. It’s one of those places that I feel never really lets you forget you are a tourist. And I felt that same sense of otherness as I roamed the campi of Venice—in the grotesque graffiti depicting overweight tourists, multiple cameras hanging off their necks, shopping bags in each hand, to the ever-fluctuating prices, which I experienced most often experienced at a bar I would frequent after a long day of writing. If I got a certain waiter, if I spoke all the right words in Venetian, oftentimes I was rewarded with the local price, but any stumble, any mis-step, and I was liable to pay two or three euro more for my drink. It is, apparently, the way of Venice and once embraced, makes for a less maddening experience.

[T]here is something inherently ominous in simply being a foreigner in a foreign country…I embraced these feelings of uneasiness and followed the words written in my guide book as I explored the city.

Of course, there’s a thrill in such discrepancy as well, in experiencing trivial difficulties in other places, in reading other people’s experience about them. And, I think, perhaps that is down to the simple fact that there is something inherently ominous in simply being a foreigner in a foreign country—a stranger, an outsider—an experience which has ultimately shaped a decent amount of my adult life, and continues to influence my fiction as well. And so, I embraced these feelings of uneasiness and followed the words written in my guide book as I explored the city. I went to the churches, although as my friend notes “they aren’t really my bag,” I went to Rialto market, avoided the crowds and bought some produce, I saw an opera at La Fenice, I went to Cicchetti bars and ate sarde in saor, drank a macchiato each morning standing al banco, raged whenever it was a certain day, a certain time and the streets became swarmed with tourists from the cruise ships, who flooded and clogged the streets—and, yes, all while aware of the irony—I jolted awake at the sound of the acqua alta siren, and I walked. I walked and I walked and I walked, averaging about eight miles a day. And I started to understand, what it was about Italy, what it was about Venice, that got under people’s skin, that made them go back time and again, that prompted my friend to urge me to revisit this city that I had once so casually dismissed.

And I also started to glimpse what it was that had captured—and continues to capture—the imagination of writers throughout the decades. Why everyone, from Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde to Henry James to Muriel Spark, have attempted to capture the city in words, to immortalize her—as she once was, as she was then, as she is now. For there is something about Venice, something that pulls and pushes, just like that other city which once inspired me. And similar to that same place, there are critics who write that the heyday of Venice is over, its golden age long past, and yet, despite these assertions, both cities continue to defy—to inspire, not only artists, but travelers, those who are curious to seek out other places and explore the world beyond the patch of what they know.

In this cold, rainy off-season I started to see, not only the appeal of a city I had never planned to visit again, but also, the shape of the story I had already started. A place for my character, Frankie, to find a strange sort of solace after the failure of her most recent novel, among the quiet, among the hushed reverie, despite being an outsider, a stranger on an island far away from home—or, perhaps, in spite of it.

I spent my last day in Venice doing all the things that I came to take pleasure in during my time in the city, and which I now, particularly in the time of corona, miss with an even greater sense of appreciation: I walked through the sestieri, no destination in mind, and later, I visited a local sfuso, after which, bottle and tumbler in hand, I went to the Edge and watched the people, the water, allowing the quietness of Venice to unfold before me.

And I enjoyed the weird emptiness.

***

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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