From a lecture on Marcel Proust

Turning to Venice, I would like to begin with a divertissement, a little-known story that would very likely have entertained Proust, had he been aware of it. It says much about the antics of the expatriate colony here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and brings to light an unusual act of vandalism inflicted on the first edition of À la recherche. It should be noted that there are two palaces in Venice that bear or bore the name Contarini del Zaffo, Winnaretta’s here in Dorsoduro, and another in Cannaregio, with a large and beautiful garden overlooking San Michele. If one had been invited to stay or dine at Winnaretta’s, it would have been a grave mistake to have shown up at the other palace by accident, since it was by no means the haven of stimulating and creative laissezfaire one would encounter then or now here in Dorsoduro. The other Contarini del Zaffo was owned by an eccentric and extremely strait-laced American couple, Annie and John Humphreys Johnstone.

John Humphreys Johnstone was a painter of decidedly post-Biedermeier inclinations: gemütlich street scenes with decorative Venetian urchins, heavy interiors with silk-upholstered maiden aunts, the occasional tulip or kitten. Though a native New Yorker, he was a great Anglophile and a scion of what used to be called in England an old “court family”, with a lineage tracing back to the Plantagenets and further. Annie, in startling contrast, was born Annie Lazarus, in Rhode Island. She was the younger sister of the poet Emma Lazarus, a notable forerunner of the Zionist movement and a hardworking champion of the rights and welfare of Jewish immigrants in America. Annie, to her family’s surprise and dismay, converted from Judaism to Anglo-Catholicism, a rarefied sect that emphasizes the Catholic rather than the Protestant heritage of the Church of England. Like the more conservative branches of Judaism, Anglo-Catholicism places great emphasis on ritual, observance and outward moral propriety. Unluckily for some, the combination of these two intense strains of piety turned Annie into the scourge of the expatriate colony. Following the death of Arianna Curtis, Annie had rapidly established herself as the queen bee of Venice. Expatriate social life soon became centred on the Contarini del Zaffo rather than the Palazzo Barbaro, where the Curtises had held court since the mid-1880s. None but the pure in heart were invited to Annie’s or allowed to see the garden, with the occasional exception of visiting royalty. Homosexuals – Charlistes, as Proust amusingly called them, after Charlus – and unmarried couples were absolutely verboten. Moreover, Annie did not restrict moral censorship to her guests. Before sending her copy of À la recherche to her bookbinder, she tore out and tore up every page bearing the name of the baron de Charlus. The few who passed regularly through the eye of Annie’s home-forged needle at Contarini del Zaffo included Canon Knollys, the benign but grave English Chaplain of Florence, and Sir Hubert Miller, an English baronet who outwardly seemed a fairly typical example of his kind – Eton, the Coldstream, the City. However he, like Annie, was a devout Anglo-Catholic. He had accumulated over a hundred gilded baroque carvings of angels, that he kept in his dining-room in Venice along with a collection of chasubles, dalmatics, copes and other edifying church objects. Eventually he brought all this paraphernalia back to England, where he presented it to his parish church in Froyle, Hampshire.

In 1900 Marcel Proust travelled to Venice with his mother, an interlude that forms the basis of the Venetian episode in the third chapter of Albertine disparue: ‘My mother had brought me for a few weeks to Venice and — as there may be beauty in the most precious as well as in the humblest things — I was receiving there impressions analogous to those which I had felt so often in the past at Combray, but transposed into a wholly different and far richer key.’ The passage that shortly follows, a series of impressionistic comparisons of Combray and Venice, constitutes a masterclass in writing that anyone who feels the urge to write about Venice would do well to consider. Venice is a tremendously overwritten city, and for centuries there have been ever-oncoming tidal waves of largely unreadable prose that trot out all the deadeningly familiar themes: the labyrinthine alleys, the constantly-changing light, the sense of mystery and menace, the antics of courtesans and lechers, decadence and decay, torrid romance, love requited or unrequited, and so on ad nauseam. The Combray-Venice interlude is a gift to anyone who teaches creative writing, since it hammers home the important rule that if you’re challenged with writing about a totally overdone topic, such as Venice, always try to come at it from a slightly improbable angle. Proust does just this, beginning with a deceptively simple meditation on shadows: “Like at Combray, the worthy folk of the Rue de l’Oiseau, so in this strange town also, the inhabitants did indeed emerge from houses drawn up in line, side by side, along the principal street, but the part played there by houses that cast a patch of shade before them was in Venice entrusted to palaces of porphyry and jasper, over the arched door of which the head of a bearded God (projecting from its alignment, like the knocker on a door at Combray) had the effect of darkening with its shadow, not the brownness of the soil but the splendid blue of the water. On the piazza, the shadow that would have been cast at Combray by the linen-draper’s awning and the barber’s pole, turned into the tiny blue flowers scattered at its feet upon the desert of sunscorched tiles by the silhouette of a Renaissance façade, which is not to say that, when the sun was hot, we were not obliged, in Venice as at Combray, to pull down the blinds between ourselves and the Canal, but they hung behind the quatrefoils and foliage of Gothic windows.” Those “tiny blue flowers”. One can never forget them.

The Combray-Venice comparisons are brief, but nonetheless very powerful. They fix in our minds how our first reactions to this city are not solely driven by the city itself, but by the very different surroundings in which most of us have grown up. Simple but effective. After this, Proust permits himself to plunge into the good old labyrinth along with the rest of us: “My gondola followed the course of the small canals. Like the mysterious hand of a Genie leading me through the maze of this oriental city, they seemed, as I advanced, to be carving a road for me through the heart of a crowded quarter which they clove asunder…” I should say at this point that if anyone here has not yet been in a gondola, they really should, since the experience will bring to life the wonderful observation that Proust makes as he expands further on the gondola ride: “We returned up the Grand Canal in our gondola, we watched the double line of palaces between which we passed reflect the light and angle of the sun upon their rosy surfaces, and alter with them, seeming not so much private habitations and historic buildings as a chain of marble cliffs at the foot of which people go out in the evening in a boat to watch the sunset. In this way, the mansions arranged along either bank of the canal made one think of objects of nature, but of a nature which seemed to have created its works with a human imagination.”: “…a chain of marble cliffs…” – I suggest that with the exception of some passages in Thomas Mann, there are few better descriptions hinting at the hidden, elemental qualities that energise this city. And when you are low in the water, defenceless in an engineless gondola, the buildings do indeed take on the immense, sometimes rather frightening, characteristics of a natural rock formation. One ceases to think of them as Gothic, Renaissance, Byzantine, Palladian. They become gigantic dominant forms, put here by some scarcely imaginable and wholly miraculous process.

Of course I do not for a moment wish to suggest that the Combray-Venice comparisons are a mere trick, a clever writer’s sleight of hand. There is more to it than that. What I very inadequately described as the necessity of coming at the familiar from an improbable or unexpected angle, was immaculately elaborated by Proust in the closing passages of À la recherche: “By art alone we are able to get outside ourselves, to know what another sees of this universe which for him is not ours, the landscapes of which would remain as unknown to us as those of the moon. Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world, our own, we see it multiplied and as many original artists as there are, so many worlds are at our disposal, differing more widely from each other than those which roll round the infinite and which, whether their name be Rembrandt or Vermeer, send us their unique rays many centuries after the hearth from which they emanate is extinguished. This labour of the artist to discover a means of apprehending beneath matter and experience, beneath words, something different from their appearance, is of an exactly contrary nature to the operation in which pride, passion, intelligence and habit are constantly engaged within us when we spend our lives without self-communion, accumulating as though to hide our true impressions, the terminology for practical ends which we falsely call life.” “Spend our lives without self-communion…”: that, I suggest, is the phrase worth retaining above all others from this passage, a signal warning to be heeded.

As they travelled to Venice in 1900, in an endearing fit of motherly zeal Mme Proust spent a large part of their train journey through Lombardy reading to her son: she read him the preface to Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice, a work he was later to translate, with her encouragement and the help of Reynaldo Hahn’s British cousin, Marie Nordlinger. When challenged on his qualifications for such a task, he said, “I do not claim to know English; I claim to know Ruskin.” It was a bold claim, and it is interesting to observe how closely-attuned Proust demonstrably was to Ruskin’s way of looking at the world. The common ground, I suggest, lay in a love of books. Proust wrote an introduction to his translation of Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies, to which he also supplied footnotes which read as a reaction to Ruskin’s discourse. At a certain point Ruskin touches on the idea of friendship, saying that too often our choice of friends is restricted by circumstances. Proust remarks, in a footnote, that “the idea seems very beautiful in truth because we can feel the spiritual use to which Ruskin is about to put it…” – and sure enough, Ruskin then advances the idea that books might be seen as friends, a notion Proust then amplifies in his introduction: “In reading, friendship is restored immediately to its original purity. With books there is no forced sociability. If we pass the evening with those friends—books—it’s because we really want to. When we leave them, we do so with regret and, when we have left them, there are none of those thoughts that spoil friendship: “What did they think of us?”—”Did we make a mistake and say something tactless?”—”Did they like us?”—nor is there the anxiety of being forgotten because of displacement by someone else. All such agitating thoughts expire as we enter the pure and calm friendship of reading.” Ruskin finally unfolds his own credo, which fully harmonises with that of Proust: “A book is essentially not a talking thing, but a written thing; and written, not with a view of mere communication, but of permanence … The author has something to say which he perceives to be true and useful, or helpfully beautiful … this, the piece of true knowledge, or sight, which his share of sunshine and earth has permitted him to seize. He would fain set it down for ever; engrave it on rock, if he could; saying ‘This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved, and hated, like another; my life was as the vapour, and is not; but this I saw and knew: this if anything of mine, is worth your memory.'” “…helpfully beautiful….”; what a wonderful phrase.