Reflektor 2: Venice

To the extent that a reflection can detach from what it reflects – from anything itself capable of reflection, especially – Eva and I sat at the back of a long black Mercedes Benz for the dark hour from Gatwick and took turns squeezing the other’s hand numb in – in my case, at least – a sort of neap tide of the mind, my thoughts neither shallow nor profound, waves of memory lapping against an embankment made of…of what? Of memory also. Memory is, after all, all there is. 

Venice: a city built on water by people hiding from Attila the Hun. In winter: nebbia, and the smell of frozen seaweed.

A journey that began on a fast train through the Veneto, reenacting the war between the gods and titans in voices of Sesame Street characters: “C is for the Cookiemachy, that’s good enough for me,” and didn’t so much end as attenuate, for hours, on a boat motoring lazily across the lagoon in a pink and blue light characteristic of the 18th century. “Tiepolo was a realist,” I concluded. 

By then, we had followed Wystan Auden’s ghost – a tear channelized by wrinkles, although he continued to laugh – into Caffè Florian, where I drank five quick whiskies and recited “The Fall of Rome” as the wine-addled Spaniard behind me, comically failing to comprehend his utensils, finally two-handed a whole dessert into his pie hole. The stolid bartender kept bringing small plates of nosh, for which I thanked him repeatedly; “You’ll need them,” he repeated back. 

I did.

Some islands we rubbed against; others, we disembarked upon; still others, we merely circled: San Michele, San Servolo, San Lazzaro degli Armeni, Giudecca, Murano, Torcello, Lido, Lazzaretto Vecchio, Lazzaretto Nuovo, the Sant’Andrea star fort, San Giacomo in Paludo, and all the rest. 

After a boatman pointed out that gold leaf once covered façades along the Grand Canal, I couldn’t stop thinking: what must that have looked like? 

The two basilicas – di San Marco and S. Maria Gloriosa dei Frari – are both worth lengthy disquisitions, but in the interest of brevity I’ll say only this much: they stopped my heart and restarted it, respectively.

Satyrs ate granola. Glass blackamoors bejeweled a chandelier. As Carnevale – the theme this year: “Remember the future!” – gained momentum all around us, the ratio among thronged bodies of those promenading in costume to those photographing them was tilting rapidly toward the masked. 

We heaved theatrical sighs whenever we passed by the Ponte de i Sospiri. I also passed through it, twice, between the vast, dark, sky-competing ceilings Tintoretto did for the Doge and the rude stone cells from which Casanova and Father Balbi daringly escaped to the roof of the palace in 1756. 

Some happinesses are irreducible. You try squeezing them, even for words, and they shatter into a confetti of disconnected images: 

A septuagenarian hip-bumping to Snoop Dogg, brandishing an orange spritz like she was on a yacht in a video. The quill Napoleon dissolved the Venetian Republic with. The Bridge of Tits. The jogger who, however often he passed us, kept reappearing from behind – as if to confirm we were trapped in a pocket dimension; or else, that following a thread means, necessarily, losing oneself in the knot.

In four days of superb meals, a navigational error led us serendipitously to the best of them. And just as termites produce tiny pyramids of dust, Eva and I accumulate our little piles of books wherever we travel; this time, from Libreria Alta Acqua, Studium, Damocle Edizioni. As she reclined at the foot of the monument to the doomed polar explorer Francesco Querini and his huskies, I read: “And, like the silk stocking of a burlesque half-nude / queen, it climbs up his thigh: gangrene.” 

Robert Harrison thinks the cries of gulls sound like eternity, I mentioned. And speculated that one of three water hearses lashed to a quay outside the Ospedale SS. Giovane e Paolo – the Eterna, Memoria, or Luna – might have been the one to carry off David Graeber. In the little museum of the island monastery San Lazzaro degli Armeni (to which Byron commuted for over two years to study Armenian while he lived on Lido), there was talk of the oldest sword ever discovered (ca. 3300 BC), which, through a quirk of history, happens to have been found in the archive there three years ago.

Eva placed an idol of Ganesha on the as-yet-unmarked grave of Roberto Calasso, and I squatted at the foot of Jospeh Brodsky’s – vegetable matter erupting from its dirt into an eerily humanoid shape, as if to demonstrate, eo ipso, that the resurrection of the body isn’t so much a question of final judgment as of perpetual reconsideration – and recited his “May 24th, 1980” back at him: “Yet until brown clay has been crammed down my larynx, / only gratitude will be gushing from it.”

The rest was fog and water, laughter, whisky, walking, and love. 

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