Authors: Erica Jong
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Romance, #Time Travel
My Mother and Father
who loved Italy and Shakespeare
Molly and Margaret
Liselotte and Manfred
who gave me the glittering keys
to their watery city
All the strolling players who
travel through time
For more than a thousand years Venice was something unique among the nations, half eastern, half western, half land, half sea, poised between Rome and Byzantium, between Christianity and Islam, one foot in Europe, the other paddling in the pearls of Asia. She called herself the Serenissima, she decked herself in cloth of gold, and she even had her own calendar, in which the years began on March 1
, and the days began in the evening. This lonely hauteur, exerted from the fastnesses of the lagoon, gave to the old Venetians a queer sense of isolation. As their Republic grew in grandeur and prosperity, and their political arteries hardened, and a flow of dazzling booty enriched their palaces and churches, so Venice became entrammelled in mystery and wonder. She stood, in the imagination of the world, somewhere between a freak and a fairy tale.
James (Jan) Morris
THE WORLD OF VENICE
But Time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom with amazing punctuality has no such simple effect upon the mind of man.
HE WAY WE LIVE
now, jetting from palmy LaLa Land to gray and frenzied New York City, to azure Venice, the Serenissima of all Serenissimeâthe most serene republic of our dreamsâwe might as well be time traveling. And we are.
It is already midnight in Venice when my six
Alitalia flight takes off from JFK. Gondole are slithering through the narrow canals. Somewhere in Cannaregio, a violinist from the Fenice Theater sits upon the painted prow of a leaky Torcello fishing boat, playing Mozart on a Guarnieri, while a beautiful young man rows along the back canalsâfor he has studied rowing in a school for gondoliers, and he is proud of his biceps. The water is black, aubergine, bluish, slate gray. History drowns in it. There are two women in the boat as wellâone a slender dark-haired actress, one a honey-curled painter who is older and wiser (though not about her own affairs).
The fishing boat shimmers along the back canals. From time to time a window opens and a shadowed figure steps out on it to shout “Brava!”
“Brava!” we also shout, for Venice is ever the fragile labyrinth at the edge of the sea and it reminds us how brief and perilous the journeys of our lives are; perhaps that is why we love it so. City of plagues and brief liaisons, city of lingering deaths and incendiary loves, city of chimeras, nightmares, pigeons, bells. You are the only city in the world whose dialect has a word for the shimmer of canal water reflected on the ceiling of a room. But, alas, I forget that word. It is not
. No matter. It will come back, for I am flying back to Venice.
I had come to the Venice Film Festival for the presentation of my last film,
Women in Hell
, and was staying on to begin filming the next,
. I had never been to the film festival before, though I had been to Venice often enough from adolescence on. The festival was pure madnessâ
everywhere, my director booed in the Sala Grande, journalists, hangers-on, and all the skinny little actresses in sequins, trotted out, poor lambs, to be sacrificed to the crowdsâ¦the kids on the beach rushing for autographs.
they chirp, coagulating on the sand.
They flutter down like hungry little birds with pieces of paper in their beaks. What do they
with these pieces of paper? Sell them? Lose them? Trade them? These overfed Italian
rush at you, proffering their bits of paper, brandishing their plastic pens. If you are being photographed, giving an interview, talking to someone who
important, they descend, terrifying in their efficiency, but utterly oblivious of your identity.
The whole festival is an exercise in the madness of crowds. The way a crowd accretes around a would-be celebrity, attempting to find a focus for its crowding, gathering centripedal force, then endeavoring to crush or dismember the personage at its center. Finding the scene at the Excelsior somewhat daunting, I took to navigating a peripheral route through the lobby by walking crabwise behind the elegant glass cases displaying perfumes, Italian fashions, expensive smoker's gearâas if I were an ancient Venetian galleon hovering along the Dalmatian shore on my way to Greece.
They had invited me to be on the jury of the film festivalâthe
the only woman, the only American, the only actress. I was decorative. I spoke Italian. I represented America, women, the postwar generation.
It was known that I was staying on to begin a film about Veniceâand that gave my presence added piquancy, for Venice, by definition, loves everything Venetian. It is not surprising that Venice is known above all for mirrors and glass since Venice is the most narcissistic city in the world, the city that celebrates self-mirroring.
When had I first come to Venice? I wondered, as I unpacked my own sequins (and blue jeans) in a huge spun-sugar-chandeliered suite at the Excelsior, the Adriatic gently lapping outside my fourth floor window. It was probably around the time that my mother married stepfather number three, the Italian. In fact, I seem to remember my childhood summers in conjunction with my motley assortment of stepfathers. Their nationalities and eccentricities determined where we stayed, and their solicitude, or lack of it, determined the state of Mother's mental health.
Winters, it was Chapin School for me, and Buckley for my brother, Pip, and the huge dark apartment on Park and Seventy-third where Mother slept until four every day, waking up just in time to dispatch us to do our homework. (For her, breakfast, brunch, and cocktails merged into one meal.)
Sometimes we'd be trotted out at cocktails to entertain the next prospective stepfatherâthough less and less as the years went on, and Mother seemed, after three divorces, to give up on the myth of conjugal bliss.
Stepfather number one was French, number two English, number three Italian, as if somehow, by never duplicating nationalities, Mummy could sidestep her cursed marital horoscope. (Daddy, of course, had been a seductive Southern gentleman, the archetypal charmer who marries for money and is the last one on earth to know that about himself. After my mother, he went on to wed five more heiresses, while she took on a whole NATO alliance of husbands.) The Italian proved the worstâa blond, blue-eyed Venetian with a taste for black-eyed wives. He was not rich, though his tastes were, and he had inherited a crumbling palazzo on the Grand Canal that devoured money like an ocean-going yacht. I first came to know Venice because of himâGian-Luigi Mocenigo-Loredan, he was calledâand doges, diarists,
, soldiers of fortune, and world-class heiress hunters ran in his family.
Mother must have married him somewhere in my preteen years because I remember being fifteen that Venetian summer she walked out on him. Pip, my “baby” brother, was twelve. I see myself in pictures from that periodâa slender, titian-haired girl with huge, brown almond-shaped eyesâalmost as if I had become Venetian to please my stepfather. (What the pictures do not show are the daydreams, the longings, the reveries to which I was prone, then as now. I lived in a world of costumed courtiers, magic rings, and fairy godmothers; my face always hidden in some book, my diary full of cryptosexual longings.)
Before our Venetian period we'd spent summers in Anjouâat the castleâor “kaa-sel” as my second stepfather used to say. He was English, stiff-upper-lippish, and had not married my mother only for her money.
The castle had actually belonged to my
stepfather, who was French, loony, and had the same mad eyes as all his ancestors (whose portraits, costumed appropriately for all periods from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century, filled the ninety-seven-odd chambers of the chateau). When he shot himself with his hunting rifle, Mother got the chateauâthough not, as you might imagine, without a struggle, since his relatives tried to prove she had shot him. But that is another long story best left for another time.
The chateau at Anjou was a peaceable-looking place, considering that it had been built on so much bloodshed. It had sloping gray slate eaves, a clock tower whose clock had stopped working in the eighteenth century, and a moat Pip and I could paddle around in a rubber canoe. In July the moat was choked with water lilies at one end, and you had to paddle deftly through a watery labyrinth. My brother would vie with me to see who could get through the weeds faster. I remember the golden water lilies that grew in the lily pads and their extraordinary aroma. For years that aroma gave me back my childhood.
Mother broke up with the Englishman I do not know (perhaps he was gay, or perhaps he really loved her and she was too wounded within to be able to tolerate such love), but break up with him she didâin favor of Gian-Luigi, the world-class wife beater. It was then that Venice came to replace Anjou as our summer place, and not so long after that the whole world fell apart for me.
That last summer in Venice, I was fifteen and my mother fifty, and all those marriages and divorces had taken their toll. At fifty a woman can either be in her prime or a ruinâor, still worse, she can be a hidden ruin with eyes so hurt they go back in her head like the eyes of a hunted animal. My mother turned that kind of fifty. A month later she was dead, and at fifteen I was set to inherit half of it allâtrust funds, tax problems, half a crumbling chateau, half a rotting palazzo, half a dark Park Avenue apartment, and the deep and abiding melancholy that comes from knowing all your life what money cannot buy.
How I lost most of it, and wound up in the Land of LaLaâHollywoodâamong people whose curse (or blessing) it is
to know that, is one of the tales I have to tell. I don't know if I'm adequate to that epicâbut what storyteller is adequate to her story? The story carries us along, bottles on the tide, each with our secret message and the fervent hope that it does not turn out to be blank.
As I unpacked my sequins in Venice, with the Adriatic making its mysterious presence heard outside the window, it was inevitable that I be flooded with those memories of Mother. Her suicide had left me with a ghostly companion from the age of fifteen on, an insufferable burden for a child. If parents die in their own good time, we learn to shed them and go on; if they take their own lives untimely, they cling to us forever, whispering their good-bys. My mother had clung that way, obliterating all other presences: defeating suitors, lovers, even a husband and the daughter he stole from me. In vain I tried to shake her off; she clung the harder. Sometimes I thought I had accepted this prolonged gig in Venice in part because I hoped that somehow I could find her here (and perhaps also lose her for the last time).