By the Grand Canalby William Riviere
An exquisite novel redolent of Venice and the haze of World War I by the author of the award-winning Kate Caterina
An exquisite novel redolent of Venice and the haze of World War I by the author of the award-winning Kate Caterina
From the author of Kate Caterina, named Book of the Year by the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, comes a seductive novel set in Venice between the wars.
In the immediate aftermath of World War I, Hugh Thurne, a British diplomat involved in the peace negotiations, decides to flee to his second home in Venice rather than return to his wife and the charade of his marriage in London. Although profoundly disturbed about the long-term prospects for peace, he has faith in the city’s power to raise his spirits. Hugh eagerly looks forward to visits with his old friends Giacomo and Valentina Venier in their dilapidated palazzo on the Grand Canal; to dallying with a young opera singer, Emanuela; and to the arrival of Violet Mancroft, the widow of his best friend lost in the war. What he does not anticipate is the shadow lying over the Venier family’s future. Nor has he reckoned with the vagaries of his own heart.
Evoking the beauty of Venice, this is a novel about premonition for the future and the war it portends, about death and memory, and also about an unexpected love between two old friends.
“Quiet, richly atmospheric . . . Rivi’re’s flair for transposing the finest nuamnces of gesture and mood to the page lends his novels an extra layer of texture, and here he successfully captures the now-vanished habits of a decaying city. Played in a decidedly minor key, this is a lovely rhapsody of Venice and a stirring philosophical examination of war and its aftermath.” –Publishers Weekly
“The romances are subtle, the setting is delicately painted, and the period is carefully and effectively presented.” –Ann H. Fisher, Library Journal
Praise for Kate Caterina:
“Like a Verdi opera . . . A fascinating period of Italian history.” –Marina Harss, The New York Times Book Review
” A masterpiece of a tour through Mussolini’s Italy . . . If the mark of a great novel is that readers will miss the characters and mourn the book’s ending, then Rivi’re’s latest work definitely qualifies.” –Scott Bernard Nelson, The Boston Globe
“Kate Caterina belongs in the great tradition of the European novel. . . . It reminded me of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard–and there can be no higher comparison.” –David Robson, Sunday Telegraph
The diplomat Hugh Thurne arrived back in Venice two days after the Armistice. It was already dusk, but as he followed the porter who was trundling a barrow with his suitcases down to the quay, he glanced around delightedly at the grey houses, dull water, brown light.
Far off, a scrawl of lightning flickered, and after several seconds faint thunder growled. A few heavy drops of rain fell, and then nothing.
Thurne was so tall, and when no action was required of him would stand so upright and so still for so long, that when he’d been at Cambridge in the nineties one young lady whom he had often taken out on the river had called him the heron, or her darling heron. Among his friends, the name had stuck. And now, immediately feeling reinvigorated to be back on the Grand Canal after the train journey from Rome, in his tweed ulster and his trilby he stood straight and immobile for a minute in the gondola, his eyes rejoicing in the vessels at the wharf.
Then he sat down, crossed his long legs comfortably, and at once took pleasure in a damp gust that swept the fresh-water smell of coming rain across the briny smell of the lagoon; in a stevedore who hunkered down tiredly on a bollard and squinted at the sky; in the lilting motion of the boat as the oarsman pushed off and began to row.
Practically the entire length of the Grand Canal lay before him (his house, Ca” Zante, was beyond the Accademia), and now in the chill gloom of the November nightfall the tideway winding ahead down its enfilade of facades seemed to offer all the beguilements his spirit longed for. Yes, here his disconsolate moods would hold off as they had in the past, he let himself believe, snugging his scarf more warmly around his neck, and gazing ahead down to the palaces where a few lights were beginning to shine.
Away from England, which these days was redolent of friends who’d been killed. Above all away from London, and his charade of a marriage, his charade of a family life . . .
When, a few years before the war, Hugh Thurne had first been beguiled by Venice, he’d been in a state of depression caused by his realisation that not only was he not in love with his wife Elizabeth but he could hardly endure to be in the same room and hear her talk. He had started to make friends in the city on the lagoon: Venetians, Americans, people from half the countries of Europe. He had made his London friends smile at the amount of time he contrived to while away at Ca” Zante, enjoying himself, they never doubted, with one enchantress after another, and generally living it up, and probably drinking rather too much. And slowly, as Hugh had hoped, he’d begun to cheer up.
That long-ago glorious capital of a trading empire, now reduced to a cosmopolitan, decaying village, became for him a place where he might outlive his failure as a husband. After years of spiritual stagnancy, it became a place of promise, of possible renewal. It was where, occasionally when he was with others, occasionally when he was on his own, from the deep source of his consciousness welled up moments of freedom and delight, so that – in anxious hope, but also already in dismay that this might be nothing but an ignis fatuus of his mind – he knew he was coming to life again.
Then the war came. For three years Thurne never set foot in Italy. But late in “17 he was on Lloyd George’s staff at the Allies’ conference at Rapallo, when every day brought news of the revolution in Russia and when the Italians, defeated on the Isonzo and at Caporetto, were falling back. He travelled on to Venice (where his house, which he had taken for pleasure, abruptly became a useful headquarters) ahead of the eight French and British divisions sent to the Venetian hinterland to help shore up the new defensive line along the river Piave, when one more defeat would have knocked Italy out of the war for good.
Here on his left hand loomed the church of San Marcuola, massy and lightless – no, he saw, someone was opening the door, a chink of lamplight showed and was gone. Children skirmishing on the water-steps in the gloaming, a gnarled and now leafless wisteria pergola over a jetty, a boatman’s shout – wonderful! Soon he’d be drawing abreast of the Venier family house, so beautiful, so in need of repairs, so well loved by all that family – and it was dear to him too, on account of happy evenings over the years, and particularly on account of evenings last winter when, with the front line only a few miles north of the lagoon, you heard the bombardments when they started up. That time when a Hungarian division had crossed the Piave delta, which was a good deal less than twenty miles away, he’d been at dinner with Giacomo and Valentina Venier. They’d promised him, over the fish soup, that if their city fell to the Emperor of Austria’s armies again, as it had in 1848, he wasn’t to worry; for them to have one of His Britannic Majesty’s envoys to hide in their attic till the war was over would be nothing but a pleasure.
Well, praise God they’d held the line at the river, he thought buoyantly, revelling in the soft slap and lap of the water against his black hull, in the creak of the long oar, and even finding in the gulls’ desolate cries a note in harmony with his contentment to be back. That night when four German battalions had fought their way across at Ponte di Piave, but the Italian counter-attack had driven them back, and then for a change it was the defenders of their native land who were rounding up prisoners . . . What was more, if the line had been broken again, and if for some reason he hadn’t been able to get away southward, it would have been delightful to roost in Giacomo and Valentina’s attic and be cosseted by them.
Yes, but was he the only man who suspected that this war might turn out to have been a Pyrrhic victory? (As he always did when he was cheerful, Thurne started wondering vigorously.) Had the war been a successful exercise in standing your ground but an unsustainable injury too? What were the consequences of this long Armegeddon going to be, for Italy, for France, and above all for those British Isles where he’d happened to be bred and which therefore he happened to love? Was anybody except him afraid that the last and greatest of the maritime empires, run from an off-lying island with all the demographic and industrial weakness that entailed, might not be going to hold her own indefinitely against continental powers like America and Russia and Germany, even if the ruin of the last two of these gave the British a respite now? – and it would only be a respite. (These were exactly the sort of speculations which, emerging in recent conversations at the embassy in Rome, had caused the ambassador to grin, and to tell him that, honestly, he was far too melancholy a fellow to be let loose to represent the country overseas.) For that matter, this winter when the fighting men started to come home and be met by hollering crowds, when the job was left to special envoys such as himself, were he and his like going to be Machiavellian enough to devise peace treaties that would be effective? Were they going to be resolute enough to enforce them for years and for decades? Was the war over, or was this just a lull? How long would it be before the victorious alliance showed a few fissures?
Well, he wouldn’t sit brooding at home this evening, he’d go and find out what old Giacomo Venier thought about the victory or thought about the mess the continent was in. He’d go to his own house now, he’d dump his kit, he’d have a wash and a drink. Then he’d find out if Valentina and Giacomo felt like inviting him to dinner or whether they’d rather he invited them.
Looking up at the Venier house as he passed it, he saw a high window suddenly bloom with light, and a girl – it must be Gloria, the daughter – stand to gaze out at the dusk and the palaces and the boats. He waved, but she hadn’t seen him, or it was so nearly dark that she hadn’t recognised him.
Naturally those immensely respectable Veniers would never know anything of the other delights this city held for him, Hugh mused, and smiled as his boat bore him on. No hint that, after the day-long expeditions with them on the lagoon and the merry family dinners, he might have himself rowed on elsewhere before going home. No stories of courtesans for the Veniers, heavens no. What was it that procuring wretch Tiziana Zuccarelli had murmured to him the last time they’d seen each other? “I want you to meet my sister Emanuela, who’s just starting to sing some small parts at the Fenice. She’s a real Tiepolo beauty, just your type.” Something like that.
As he swayed slowly on down the darkening waterway towards Rialto, his voluptuous mind filled with a chamber (a composite of a number he had known) where brocades shrouded a bed, the air was scented with pot-pourri, and before a gilt looking-glass a young woman with Tiepolo skin and hair and eyes was beginning to take off her clothes.
The sky over the Grand Canal cracked with brilliance, thunder crashed.
The schoolgirl at her bedroom window, Gloria Venier, caught her breath. “Come and look!” she cried to her mother, who was behind her in the room, tidying away the ironed clothes that she herself ought to have been putting into the chest-of-drawers. “I’ve never seen such lightning, Mamma! Look, there it is again! It’s silver-pink, and it’s silver-violet, and . . .”
“Oh, the terms of the Armistice on the Western Front are all right.”
Speaking in Italian because, for years of peace and then of war, that had been the language of his friendship with this family, Thurne frowned cheerfully down the length of the sala of the Venier house, where the Murano chandelier shimmered inadequately above marquetry cabinets and carved ebony page-boys, and half the paintings were so far from the nearest lamp that only eyes familiar with them by daylight could make out what the compositions were. At the dining table Giacomo and he had begun to tease out one another’s thoughts about the victory and the peace, and now the cold, tenebrous drawing-room was suffused with how delighted they were to see each other and to have time to talk.
The storm that had battened on Venice all evening still showed no inclination to move away across the lagoon. Standing beside his host at the tall windows over the Grand Canal, which were trembling in their infirm frames as if they had St Vitus’s dance, Hugh broke off for a peal of thunder directly overhead.
“Heavens, I hope your chimneys are all right! Yes, if anyone thinks we’re being too harsh, they ought to remember the terms the Germans imposed on the French forty-whatever years ago after their last war. For that matter, they could try to explain how we can stop Germany being her old self again in a few years except by putting her army and navy out of action, or how in France they can feel half-way safe unless their troops and ours move forward to the Rhine and hold bridgeheads over it. No, that’s not the problem. Oh I say, Giacomo, thank you. What wonderful firewater is this?” He raised his glass to his nose. “Calvados!”
Giacomo Venier gave the decanter a gloomy, critical stare, and said gruffly, “Well, it ought not to taste too bad. But what is the real problem, in your view? The Austro-Hungarian empire is finished!” His voice suddenly grating with pride, he straightened his back till he was nearly standing to attention.
Hugh chuckled at this dour rejoicing in the destruction of Venice’s ancestral enemy. “The potential problem is that damned Kaiser Bill’s forces are surrendering to us in Belgium and in France, when possibly we should have taken the trouble to hound them out of there and finish them off, don’t you think? Another fortnight, perhaps as little as another week, would have been enough to turn a defeat into a rout. All that’s happened back in Germany so far is that they’ve heard they’ve lost some battles on the Western Front, the scale of this naturally being played down by their newspapers, and now they’ve heard that their lousy cabinet ministers and field marshals have rather rapidly acknowledged themselves beaten, by this expedient inducing us to agree to negotiate, or rather, because we’ve had no need to negotiate, inducing us to state our terms.”
Venier had been born only a few years before Thurne, but since his heart-attack he’d been an old, dying man; his moustache, his whiskers and the bristle on his bony head were white. Listening attentively, and giving a boisterous scowl when a clap of thunder made him miss a few words, he lumbered half-way back down the sala to the fireplace and lowered himself into an armchair.
“Of course, Giacomo, we know that the Kaiser’s top brass have only caved in because they’ve been admirably frightened by the insurrections and the mutinies that, with any luck, are bringing their regime down.” Sauntering after his host down the long room, Hugh Thurne spoke in the confident, quiet voice of a man accustomed to having mastered his brief, to having thought out what he wanted to say, and to knowing how to say it; but he kept glancing at Giacomo Venier with affectionate, quizzical eyes to find out what response his ideas were getting. “But in German towns and villages what impressions will they have received? I reckon it might have been better if they’d actually seen their divisions reduced to a rabble that we and our allies were herding up. We don’t want our sons who are schoolboys now, or the sons that any of us may have in the next few years, to have to fight this war all over again as soon as they’re men. Oh Lord, how unconvinced I can get! And just when everyone else has been hurling their hats in the air, and letting off fireworks, and getting drunk. Certainly most people’s straightforward longing for the shooting to stop as soon as possible is a lot more attractive than my apprehensions. But you’ve heard what the French High Command are already muttering? – that this peace is only a ceasefire for twenty years.”
Hugh stooped and put another log on the fire. Away in the shadows at the Grand Canal end of the room, the long curtains trembled in the draught.
Giacomo Venier did not reply at once. In his old-fashioned coat and trousers, which he’d inherited from his father, who also in his fifties had grown flabby and contemplative, with a heave he tried to get more comfortable in his chair.
God damn it, he was thinking, Hugh’s hair was thinning a bit but not much, and grizzling a bit but not much – was the fellow never going to deteriorate? The same interminable legs as ever, particularly noticeable when he stood up straight by the chimneypiece and brushed the wood dust off his hands and lit a cheroot. The same blue eyes musing behind his gold-rimmed spectacles; the same gold watch-chain looped between his waistcoat pockets, presumably only in order to draw attention to how his stomach was still concave not convex . . . Yes, and no doubt he was still the same wandering, international consolation for young ladies languishing in stagnant marriages.
What the master of the house said after a minute’s brooding was: “You’ve been down in Rome. What’s it like in our ministries right now? Pretty disgusting, eh?”
“Well . . .” Hugh had been enjoying the cheerful lamps dotted about the sala, and the purely symbolic illumination offered by the chandelier. Allowing himself to exclaim irrelevantly, ‘dear God, it’s good to be here again!”, he brought his attention back.
“I mean,” Giacomo pursued, “I remember you talking last winter about how after Caporetto the consternation in our government was pretty unedifying. I imagine that this month those self-same political grandees and military grandees can’t open their mouths without being revoltingly triumphant.”
Hugh shrugged. “I’ve been going out to tramp the streets on my own for an hour or two before dinner. It clears all the deviousness and the pomposity out of my head, and I get some exercise, and I think of other things. I’ve always liked Rome in winter.”
“That’s not difficult!” His brown eyes twinkling, Giacomo harrumphed with satisfaction as he decided that this was the moment for his attack. “And you’re here now because . . .” He took a sip of his Calvados, to prolong for a few more delicious seconds the pleasure of anticipation. “Well, I’ll tell you why we have the honour of your company this evening, my dear fellow. It’s because after you’ve had your walk along the Tiber in the twilight, and after you’ve poked your head into a favourite church maybe, you return to your embassy, do you not? – where over dinner you talk about what to do next. Because England and France aren’t going to let this wretched Italy enforce her own future frontiers with what’s left of Austria-Hungary, are they? What gets fixed upon for my country at the Peace Conference some time next year, whether or not I’m still alive to grumble about it, will be what the Americans and the two remaining Great Powers on this side of the Atlantic decide. And this new balance of the European states – some of them brand-new states, it already looks like, invented states that may turn out splendidly but may not . . . Well, it’ll be what on paper looks commendably liberal and advanced, and what in fact will be simplicity itself for you to dominate.”
“Let’s hope we remember to keep dominating. But that’s not the immediate point.”
Hugh Thurne was still feeling inspirited to be back in this household where he’d found affection and robust spirits when his own life had lacked both those. But he knew that his old friend enjoyed being pugnacious on occasion just as much as at other times he liked being apparently inconsequential, so he smiled and took up the tussle.
“For a start, Giacomo, Rome’s position is nothing like as strong as we might wish it to be. This nation’s capacity to go on making war effectively is very near indeed to being as finished as Austria’s, and civil society here has been brought almost as close to collapse as it has there. Secondly, if you bring up that irresponsible secret treaty between your country and mine . . . For pity’s sake, you know as well as I do that when there’s a war on our political lords and masters will sign anything. But at the Peace Conference you’ll get the Alto Adige, and the Trentino, and a border right up at the Brenner Pass, if you negotiate with any astuteness at all. Whether these gratifying acquisitions are worth upward of six hundred thousand men killed is a question that luckily it’s not my job to pontificate about. What’s going to happen to Trieste I’m not sure. As for Istria, and the Dalmatian coast, I wouldn’t–”
‘so you’re one of the first extraneous souls to pitch up in these parts to help us start fiddling around with our frontiers,” Giacomo butted in, growling contentedly. “Good – I’ve understood! That’s all right! Look, the decanter is by your elbow. You could help me to another drop too. And, of course, you can’t actually get to poor defeated Vienna right now. And if you did get there, you’d be more likely to be stabbed by a starving boy stealing your watch than to have some beribboned imperial courtier invite you to dinner in the manner that you found so agreeable whenever there were discussions to be initiated back in that lost life we had before the war. So you’ll be cluttering up the dinner parties here in this lagoon of ours for a while. Excellent!” Then he demanded abruptly: “Have you been getting depressed?”
“Of course I have!” Hugh Thurne gave a breath of laughter, and set down his glass on the mantelpiece by his shoulder. “What do you expect? I get worse and worse! I went down with bronchitis, which didn’t help, and afterward I escaped to our place near the sea to convalesce, and because, well, to have stayed cooped up in London with Elizabeth would have made me suicidal, but fortunately she hates the country. She’s having an affair with a brigadier from Massachusetts, did you know? A fellow called Bill Knox. He’s been seconded to their embassy in London, as a military attach” or something of that sort. I’ve met him a couple of times, he seems all right.”
Hugh shook his head in bewilderment, and this time he laughed aloud.
“Honestly, what a marriage! I mean – the odd life one will die having led! At any rate, as you’ve guessed . . . All autumn, while our army in France was winning some of the greatest victories in its history, this contemptible specimen of manhood was . . . Dear God, days came when I could scarcely walk down the lane to post a letter, for the misery piled up in my head. Every morning I’d set to work to coax my mind or my spirit or what-have-you into action, or at least into a sensible indifference. By evening I’d be thanking my defective lungs that I didn’t need to face the Foreign Office again quite yet, at the same time as I’d be longing for some work to lose myself in. And then, after a couple of months . . . Heavens, if only one understood these things!”
Hugh flopped down onto a chaise-longue, joined his hands as if in prayer, rested his chin on his finger-tips, and turned to his host as if he truly expected that if, for a few instants, he contemplated those smiling, caustic eyes, those creased jowls, and that pale lump of skull with its well-brushed white tussocks, the miasma in his own head would be dispelled.
“You know, it’s really very strange, how one is invariably rescued, or how I’ve hitherto been rescued – though one can’t but be aware that the year may come when one’s melancholy doesn’t lift. But thanks to Lord knows what physiological or psychological rhythms . . . At all events, the merciful time comes when I can feel my wits becoming more ironical, more amused.”
“And what was it that you were thinking about gloomily then and you’re thinking about more sanguinely now? Oh hello, darling.” Slower than Hugh, who had seen Valentina first, Giacomo hauled himself to his feet. “Come and sit by the fire. We’ve been commandeering the only few square metres in the house that are even remotely warm.”
Copyright ” 2004 by William Rivi’re. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.