3 Pinch, punch: first of the month

by Malcolm Redfellow

Into July

This one was published back in  the autumn of 2005, but Malcolm, like Eartha Kitt’s Englishman, takes time.

Malcolmian aside:

A sultry, smoky cabaret song, and understandably so. One with a bit of history: 

Virginia [McKenna]’s mother was a half-French cabaret pianist and songwriter whose composition An Englishman Takes Time was recorded by the late Eartha Kitt. Her father, a sometime auctioneer at Christie’s, was related to the theatrical/literary dynasty that included Fay Compton, Compton Mackenzie and, in our own day, Alan Howard. And through her marriage to Bill Travers, McKenna acquired as one of her nieces, the luminous Penelope Wilton. 

Back at first publication, Berendt’s book didn’t escape unscathed from the reviewers. Let’s start with Jan Morris, for the Guardian:

The City of Falling Angels, is not, to my mind, very likable. It is the record, often presented conversationally in direct reported speech, of a long stay during which Berendt evolved his own specialised responses to Venetian life. He is not much concerned with the architecture or history of the city. He rarely mentions the inside of a church or a street scene, let alone a lagoon sunset. His business is to dig out the dirt – to expose the myriad corruptions, feuds, deceits, ambitions and dynastic resentments which, now as always, fester behind the facades of the Serenissima.

Peter Conrad, for the Observer, gave the book a thorough going-over. Famously James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man evoked the comment: Mr. Joyce would be at his best in a treatise on drains. Conrad goes beyond that:

Berendt, in town to compile an anthology of scandal, skulduggery and malfeasance, pretty soon enlists the odour as a metaphor, like the titular angels that tumble from the roof of a foundering church. His Venice is a place of putrescence. Maggots breed in the glue on the back of surrealist canvases in Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery, and pigeon shit accumulates like a coral reef in sunless alleys. Polychrome churches disappear behind a crust of oily grime, and paintings are stealthily blackened by soot. Scavenging birds brawl in the squares: Berendt watches as a seagull dive-bombs a pigeon and conducts surgery with its beak, extracting the beast’s frightened heart and gulping it down.

Then works himself into a sneer of distaste:

Berendt lacks the art to analyse the deceptive fictionality of the place. With plodding literalism, he even provides a glossary which – for the benefit, I suppose, of befuddled American trippers – defines such knotty Italian terms as ‘buongiorno’, ‘ciao’ and ‘palazzo’. If you can translate those words without Berendt’s help, you needn’t bother with his book.

There are, in fact, just 29 “knotty Italian terms” in an end-note. Malcolm freely admits his Italian didn’t stretch unaided to altana (“an open rooftop deck, usually wooden”), cassazione (“Appeals court”)and a couple of others

Malcolm, who thoroughly took to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, went through this one in a couple of sittings. The characters are essentially binary, without many shades between. The goodies tend to be the workers: the baddies the drones. Princess Michael of Kent doesn’t come out very well: Jane Rylands (daughter-in-law of Dadie) far, far worse.

This is not a “history” of Venice, merely a series of snapshots at a moment in time. The linking theme is the fire that destroyed La Fenice opera house, and the various battles in restoring it. There still remain too many unknowns about what caused the fire: berendt shows how opinions shifted from “accident” to “enemy action” — though whether it was a sub-contractor covering up defaults or the MAfia is undetermined. That all does give us almost a hero: Felice Casson, an unusually courageous and relentless prosecutor:

Casson had established himself as a hard-driving investigating prosecutor early in his career when, in 1982, he reopened an unresolved 1972 bombing case in which three policemen had been murdered near Trieste. The policemen, responding to a telephone tip about a suspicious car, had opened the bonnet of the car and set off a bomb that killed them instantly. The deaths were blamed on the militant Red Brigades, and hundreds of leftists were brought in for questioning, but no one was ever charged. Ten years later, Casson, then a twenty-eight-year-old prosecutor, was given the task of reviewing the case in the expectation that he would tie up a few loose ends and close the file for good.

Instead, despite receiving intentionally misleading information from the police and the secret service, Casson managed to turn the case on its head. He discovered, first of all, that the police had never investigated the incident. When he traced the explosives, he found the trail led to a right-wing group. He quickly arrested the culprit and obtained a confession that included the startling revelation that within three weeks of the bombing, the true story had been known to the police, the Ministry of the Interior, the Customs and Excise Police, and the civilian and military secret services. All these agencies had conspired to cover it up for political reasons. Casson put the guilty party behind bars but did not stop there.

He demanded and was granted permission to search the archives of the Italian secret service. There he found documents revealing the existence of a covert, high-level paramilitary army, code-named Gladio, that had been set up and financed by the American CIA in 1956 …

As a result of Casson’s revelations, information came pouring out about the existence of similar Gladio-type secret armies set up by the CIA in France, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Turkey.

And we should be offended by Berendt’s sordid details and sewage smells? By the way, spot the missing fifteenth nation in that list of western European “democracies”.

Berendt  is a muck-raker; but there is plenty of muck to rake. Muck-raking is not the most elegant and refined of literary activities.

  • Jed Rubenfeld: Death Instinct

Anyone who has ploughed this far might be noticing that Malcolm has a tendency to alternate fiction and non-fiction.

Malcolm had a few false starts before getting into Rubenfeld’s first effort, The Interpretation of Murder, and was prepared for a similar difficulty here. Interpretation was a seller: the million sales is a justified claim, and in the UK alone — but there was considerable discounting in the chain bookstores. Imitation being the insincerest form of publishing flattery, several other publishers have imitated its cover for copy-cat efforts.

The Death Instinct “solves” the atrocious Wall Street bombing of 16th September, 1920 — the most destructive act of terrorism in the United States until the Oklahoma bombing of 1995. Rubenfeld then mixes his fiction with real personages: Sigmund Freud, Senator Albert Bacon Fall, Treasury Secretay William McAdoo, Thomas W. Lamont of the J.P.Morgan band. The very title picks on the Freudian Eros/Thanatos theory.

The admixture of fact and fiction works like this:

Less than an hour later, in a small but comfortably middle-class apartment house on Berggasse – a narrow, cobbled lane gently sloping down to the Danube canal – a maid let Younger and Colette into Sigmund Freud’s empty consultation room. ‘I’m so nervous,’ Colette whispered.

Younger nodded. Well she might be, he thought: Colette would be both worried and excited about the prospect that Dr Freud might actually be able to help her brother; and she would be eager to make a good impression on the world-famous Viennese physician. But she, Younger reflected, was not the one who had disappointed him.

Freud’s consulting room was like a bath into which civilization itself had been poured. Leather-bound volumes lined the walls, and every inch not occupied by books was filled with antiquities and miniature statuary: Greek vases intermixed with Chinese terracottas, Roman intagli with South American figurines and Egyptian bronzes. The room pulsed with a rich fume of cigar and the deep crimson of Oriental carpets, which not only lay thick on the parquet floor, but also draped the end tables and even covered a long couch.

A door opened. A dog, a miniature chow, trotted through it, yapping. The animal was followed by Freud himself, who paused in the doorway ordering the dog away from Younger’s and Colette’s shoes. The chow obeyed.

‘So my boy,’ said Sigmund Freud to Younger without introduction, ‘you are no longer a psychoanalyst?’

Freud wore a suit and necktie and vest. In his left hand, half-raised, was a cigar between two fingers. He had grown older since Younger last saw him. His gray hair had thinned and receded; his short, pointed beard was now starkly white. Nevertheless, for a man of sixty-three, he remained handsome, fit and robust, with eyes exactly as Younger remembered them – both piercing and sympathetic, scowling and amused.

‘Miss Rousseau,’ said Younger, ‘may I present to you Dr Sigmund Freud? 

The devilry is in the detail, and successfully so. Rubenfeld is unforgiving in his colour and detail, but also with his harsh truthful asides. This is Armistice Day, 1918:

By nine that morning, the cease-fire order had been formally transmitted to Allied commanders and communicated to the men in the trenches. Paradoxically, the soldiers with the most to gain from the news were the ones made most anxious by it. Men who had learned to throw themselves month after month headlong into machine-gun fire, numb to personal risk, suddenly feared they might die in the last two hours of the war.

    At 10.30, the regiment with which Younger was serving began ferociously shelling German positions across no-man’s-land. In an officer’s dugout, Younger shouted to a second lieutenant he knew, asking what on earth was happening.

    ‘We’re attacking,’ said the second lieutenant.

    ‘What?’ yelled Younger, refusing to believe he had heard correctly. Then he saw infantrymen filing through the network of intersecting trenches, faces taut, armed and packed for assault. From the direction of the front, he heard commands shouted and machine guns firing – from the German side, meaning that Allied soldiers were already scrambling out over the top.

    ‘This is madness,’ said Younger.

    The lieutenant shrugged: ‘Orders,’ he replied.

    At 10.56, the command went out to halt the Allied attack. It took approximately two minutes for that order to disseminate from field headquarters to radio command posts to captains in the field. At 10.58, the last Allied guns fell silent. At 10.59, the rain of German artillery let up. An ethereal, fragile silence hung in the air.

    Twelve seconds later, Younger heard the whistle of one last incoming shell – by the sound of it, a volley from a long-range 75-millimeter gun. The shot hit close by; the ground shook beneath him, and plugs of dirt fell from the walls. Possibly the shell had found a dugout, perhaps even an inhabited one. All waited with suspended breath. Then they heard the eruption of three Allied howitzers, presumably aimed.it the German gun that had launched the last shell.

    ‘No,’ whispered Younger.

    Naturally the Germans reciprocated. Soon the air was screaming and shaking again with a full-scale bombardment. The onslaught went on uninhibited for hours. It even featured the explosion of signal flares in the sky, pointless in daytime and harmless in effect. Neither side appeared to have an objective, unless it was to expend every last piece of ammunition in its arsenal.

    Eleven thousand men were killed or wounded on November 11, 1918, in fighting that took place after all their commanding officers knew the war was over.

And that is verifiable.

So, Malcolm’s summary: more than a thriller, fiction with bite. Worthy of a lasting place on the shelves, and a revisit.

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