"there are actually two Venices, the one of stone and the one formed by its reflection in the water, and who is to say which one is really the illusion?" Judith Martin
Nicholas Lezard The Guardian, Saturday 17 May, 2008
Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and I take on trust this his review
No Vulgar Hotel: The Desire and Pursuit of Venice, by Judith Martin (WW Norton, £9.99)
Are you a Venetophile? It's a bit of an ugly word, especially when you consider the beauty of what is being adored. But let us just accept it. It means: one who loves Venice.
I'm one, despite having had my honeymoon there (as Judith Martin points out, if you have your honeymoon in Venice, there is always going to be a third party in the marriage: Venice); and, one day, I'll go back, but until then I shall both sate and whet my appetite with books like this.
There are, admittedly, a lot of them. "Venetophiles who can't draw are unable to resist writing about Venice, as the existence of this book attests," says Martin disarmingly. She is, in her arch way, very good at winning us over: "Many authors admit up front that there is nothing new to be said about Venice, including the statement that there is nothing new to be said about Venice."
Judith Martin is better known, but not by me, as "Miss Manners", the author of a much-syndicated advice column on etiquette. This means she may well be familiar to you, particularly if you're American, as a dispenser of tart and often witty put-downs and stratagems to the behaviourally bewildered. She always refers to herself in the third person; indeed, more than that, she always refers to herself as "Miss Manners". This might be too much for some people, but it's actually quite hilarious once you get used to it.
The same might be said for this book. She doesn't go around calling herself "Miss Manners" or anything like that, but there is a strong whiff of de haut en bas which is, when you think about it, entirely appropriate. But what she's doing is reaching down a helping hand, inviting you up to the gilded balcony, not sneering down at you from it. For a start, she knows that every Venetophile who is not a Venetian begins as a tourist. It is no good railing against tourism, or tourists. "Venice has been in the tourist business almost throughout its history, and exclusively in that business for the last 200 years. Her entire economy is based on tourism. And for all her complaints, she is good at it." (Incidentally, do you notice that style? It's delightful.) Snobbery is a problem in Venice: the very title of the book comes from Milly Theale's instructions on where she is to live. It is honest that Martin acknowledges this.
The book is also, in some respects, useful. Martin rambles mazily through history and practicalities. You will learn, without being burdened with unnecessary detail, how to shop at the market, how to deal with a plumber ("if . . . he asks you how long you have had your problem with water seepage and you say, 'About nine hundred years,' he will tell you that there are lots of people ahead of you"), and why you must always walk around, rather than between, the columns bearing the lion and Saint Theodore when entering from the lagoon side. You will also learn that it is important to suppress such notions as "there are actually two Venices, the one of stone and the one formed by its reflection in the water, and who is to say which one is really the illusion?" (I remember thinking this myself once upon a time, and considering myself awfully clever.)
She has a delightfully strabismic way of looking at the world: "Without Venice, we would not have had mirrors and possibly not the inventions mirrors made possible, such as fad diets and tweezers." This sideways look at things fits neatly with the way Venetians themselves, throughout history, have been good at sidling out of sticky situations. The best way to deal with an irksome papal edict was simply to pretend it had never arrived. ("That it required the cooperation of the target in order to be effective was an astounding revelation." Or, to put it another way, "'Venetians, and then Christians,' goes a Venetian saying that did nothing to endear them to the Mother Church.")
OK, so it's corny to love Venice. Doing so does not, how shall we say, put one at the vanguard of sophisticated opinion. And this is not a book that really covers new ground. But it covers the old ground impeccably.