Completed: Dressed for Death

Venice in February 2013

Dressed for Death
Donna Leon
1994, U.S.

Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza and Ally of Snow Feathers are hosting Venice in February again this year, and although I didn’t have any particular plans for Venetian-set reading this year, I thought it as good an excuse as any to pick up another Commissario Brunetti mystery. This is the third I’ve read, and the third in the series–I’m going in order, but I don’t know if it’s particularly necessary–although, I don’t think I would start with this one. Truthfully, when it comes to most mystery series, and this one is no exception, once you’ve read a few you don’t find much new to say about subsequent entries. However, that won’t keep me from reading more of Leon’s mysteries, for the real appeal of the series is the setting. I’ve only ever spent two days in Venice, but I am transported back every time I pick up a Brunetti story.

Leon’s mysteries don’t seem to tie up neatly the way so many other mystery novels tend to do. It was only reading this one, however, that it dawned on me that this makes them truer to real life than other detective novels. In real life, when a suspect is taken to trial we don’t always know for sure that they are guilty, or we may, but the evidence may not be sufficient. A good lawyer may dismantle the prosecution’s case (or defense’s), allowing the jury to reach a verdict that isn’t actually true, but only as true as they can find it to be based on what they’ve been presented. Most mysteries don’t let us see this, but in Brunetti’s Venice, it is made plain for the reader that real life isn’t clean and neat, that politics and connections may trump truth. It is tempting to think, oh, that’s just Italy, they have all sorts of corruption, but one look at the local news  makes it obvious that I would delude myself to think so. The past few years of local news have been full of political scandal and corruption–to such an extent that the local Democrats actually appointed a Republican to a position that had been made vacant due to an embezzling case (long story). So no, the corruption and messy ends are not unique to Italy.

Also refreshing about the Leon novels, the detective, Commissario Guido Brunetti, doesn’t have a tragic flawed past, isn’t an alcoholic, has a happy family life–in the third book his major personal conflict is whether he will solve the case in time to join his family on vacation. Nor are the cases solved quickly, with some miraculous piece of conclusive evidence or some spectacular deduction on the detective’s part. Grunt work, tedious slogs through piles of papers and computer files, and waiting, waiting, waiting–it somehow strikes me as more likely to be realistic than the TV crime procedurals I spend too much time watching, while not being too graphic or gritty. A series I can happily return to.

Odds ‘n Ends

  • I really should have posted earlier this week the results of the Classics Club Spin: number 14 was selected, which means I will be reading The Castle of Otranto. If I get it read (and it’s short, so yay), it will fill the Sensation! project slot for this year.
  • Speaking of yearly goals, the above post marks my successful completion of a reading challenge ON TIME! One goal down for the year and it’s only February.

Completed: The Name of the Rose

The Name of the Rose [Il nome della rosa]
Umberto Eco, 1980
William Weaver, translation, 1983
Everyman’s Library edition, 2006, with Introduction by David Lodge

The good of a book lies in its being read. A book is made up of signs that speak of other signs, which in their turn speak of things. Without an eye to read them, a book contains signs that produce no concepts; therefore it is dumb. (445)

Waaaaay back in April Caro of Reading Against the Clock hosted a readalong for The Name of the Rose, which prompted me to start the Italian mystery (in translation). I finally finished a few weeks ago, but I’ve had so much trouble writing a post for it. It seems that either my ability to string together a coherent series of thoughts has vamoosed, or perhaps I’ve just gotten lazy. Yeah, it’s probably that. It’s times like these I almost wish I had a standard format for my bookish posts. But that would bore me, so…

The Name of the Rose. A mystery, it is also a peak into the political and theological world of the early 14th century—specifically the action is in a Benedictine monastery in Italy, but the politics extend to the bounds of the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire. It is a world in turmoil: the papacy has moved to Avignon, supported by the French King and in opposition to the Holy Roman Emperor who in turn  supports the Franciscans who are in dispute with the pope over the issue of poverty. Into this turmoil is introduced murder and the specter of Revelation-inspired madness. Despite its length, its theological digressions, its obscure Catholic histories (not-so-obscure? my knowledge of Catholic history/theology is almost entirely limited to art history classes and the endnotes to my edition of Divine Comedy), The Name of the Rose is compulsively readable. Sure, sometimes I’d get bogged down by the pages of theological debate–not to mention the chapter describing the church portal actually put me to sleep*, but I attribute that to my own sleepiness: it’s an incredible description–but the instant it seemed too much, we had a dead body or a strange disappearance to liven things up.

All these threads, these aspects of the novel provide so much fodder for discussion. Do we focus on the plot? The history? The theological debates? The insertion of a 20th century mindset in the character of William of Baskerville (my single biggest pet peeve in this novel–I don’t like the anachronism)? Eco anticipates this–he knows his novel (okay, so he should). In the first Italian edition, translation quoted in Lodge’s introduction, he offers three ways to read it:

  1. For the plot. Hey, it’s a mystery!
  2. For the debates. Real, major issues, even if this specific event is imagined.
  3. For the textual references. Is that Borges I see?

In his introduction, David Lodge posits that it is impossible to completely separate the three one from another. As evidenced, of course, by my squeeing during the initial readalong weekend, “Sherlock!” even while focusing on the action. (Numbers 1 and 3.) And this interweaving is ultimately what I really like about The Name of the Rose. It is more than just a mystery, more interesting than just a treatise, more vivid than a history textbook. What I ultimately dislike–besides the intrusion of 20th century thought in the 14th century, although some of this did work–is all the Latin…not because it exists, but because I felt this close to understanding it, and ultimately not quite getting it. And when that’s the biggest complaint….

Something that really interests me about the novel is the notion of conflict. Conflict is a given in a book that is one part murder mystery, one part rehashing of centuries-old theological/political debates, but what I’m really intrigued by is the idea that Asdo, the Benedictine novice narrator, and William of Baskerville, his Franciscan “master,” are in a subtle conflict with each other, that of stability vs. change. With his decidedly humanist viewpoints, the older William represents the coming  changes of the Renaissance, while the younger, orthodox Adso stands for the continuation of things as they are. Apparently Eco chose the early 14th century for the novel, as he needed his “detective” to have been influenced by fellow Franciscans Roger Bacon and William of Ockham, that the detective might apply rational analysis to the mystery at hand. But the early 14th century is also the dawning of the Italian Renaissance. If I remember my history correctly, Europe at this time began to move away from the mysticism that characterized the Middle Ages, with the dominance of the Church and towards rationalism and eventually the Enlightenment of the 17th century (a great over-simplification, of course). Thus, The Name of the Rose is fascinating to me as a picture, albeit one from the 20th century, of a world on the precipice of great change. Understanding Adso and William as representative of the two sides of the divide helps me to better understand their characters and their motivations.

Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. (322)

Many thanks to Caro for hosting the readalong back in April and inspiring me to finally pick this up! The Name of the Rose is my first title for Classics Club and also part of my I libiri italiani project list. It is also the book that pushed me over the edge to say, “I must read Borges,” as I am to understand that the works of Jorge Luis Borges were very influential on Eco’s novel. I seem to keep bumping into him this year; I have seen The Savage Detectives described as the novel Borges would have written.

* Eco’s description matches the portal at The Abbaye St-Pierre de Moissac. This site has many detailed pictures of the portal for those who are interested.

Readathon: The Name of the Rose

It is with great excitement that I finally embark on reading a book by a contemporary Italian author. (Prior to today, the most recent I’ve read, excepting non-fiction, was 13th century. So not very contemporary.) The Name of the Rose has been on my long-neglected I libri italiani project list, so when a readalong opportunity came up I decided to go for it. With the holiday weekend, I’m not sure how much I’ll actually get read, but I’ll post updates here and on Twitter. Watch how slowly I read!

Saturday Lunchbreak Update:

I’m not very far in just yet (page 35 of 560), but I’ve met William of Baskerville and I want to SQUEE–it’s Sherlock Holmes! And I must be a bigger fan of Holmes than I realized, as I recognized him in the very first description of Baskerville, even before we see him in action. I’m now officially hooked.

Saturday After Dinner Update:

So the afternoon went: read–unplanned nap–spend too much time “researching”–read–dinner. I’m at page 83, so still on Day One but at the very least I WILL finish Day One tonight. The “research” started because I couldn’t picture the portal mentioned in the Sext section of Day One and one thing led to another. However, I now know that entrance to the Abbaye St-Pierre de Moissac is essentially what Eco is describing. For lots of detailed pictures see here. If I can refrain from any more “research,” I might make it further than Day One tonight…

Last Saturday Update:

Partway into Day Two and really hooked now, but also at a good spot to end for tonight. I’m sure I won’t finish this weekend, but it seems more likely that I will finish this soon (perhaps this week?) than I had expected before starting. Turns out, all I need is a good  mystery to make a chunky book seem shorter!

Sunday Update:

Busy day, so I didn’t have much time…and I was more easily distracted to day when I did finally sit down to read! I’m almost finished with Day Two and still enjoying  it. Hopefully, I can finish up yet this week. Thanks, Caro for hosting the readalong!

Completed: Death at La Fenice

Death at La Fenice
Donna Leon

Venezia. Serenissima. City of Masks. Queen of the Adriatic. City of Water. So many names for such a small place, the splendor of its heyday now faded, battered by l’acqua alta, inundated by tourists—of which I once formed a guilty part—but its beauty still alive.

During my semester in Italy a friend and I spent two days in this tiny town, exploring the nooks and crannies—and as every “good tourist” must, visiting every museum and Piazza San Marco, of course.  However, unlike many good tourists, much of our time was spent without a map, the best way (short of living there) to discover any city and to stumble upon the unexpected. It is a city without motorized transport, save that which is in the water, where children may play in the streets without fear of a speeding driver, a city with many bridges, many canals, a city with a certain faded grandeur, its glory long past. In short, it seems the perfect setting for all sort of fantasy or intrigue.

As if in the grip of a demon, or a deity, Wellauer’s body had swept back and forth above the podium, left hand clenched half open, as if he wanted to rip the sound from the violins. In his right hand, the baton was a weapon, flashing now here, now there, a thunderbolt that summoned up waves of sound. But now, in death, all sign of the deity had fled, and there remained only the leering demon’s mask.

In a city known for its musical heritage—home of such composers as Antonio Vivaldi and Claudio Monteverdi and of the Teatro La Fenice opera house—it seems appropriate to set the mystery inside the musical world. In Donna Leon’s first Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery, Death at La Fenice, the victim is a world-famous conductor; the setting for the crime is within the backrooms of the famous opera house. As a mystery, Death at La Fenice  is solid, enjoyable, full of intriguing characters. I found the solution satisfying without being overly convoluted or predictable, and Brunetti is a detective I can root for, without any dark secrets or bad habits that almost seem requisite for literary crime solvers.

But I did not read Death at La Fenice because it is a mystery (although I was seeking a mystery), I read it because it is Venetian. Leon, although American, has lived in Venice for many years, and the feel of the novel is one I recognize from my time spent in Italy. It is the little details that I recognize: the locales, the daily activities, the worries over choosing tu or lei when addressing a new acquaintance. My only complaint is that perhaps she carries this too far, “telling” too much rather than letting us experience. For example, referring to a wall of books: “He easily recognized the Italian ones by the way their titles ran from bottom to top, the English by their titles running top to bottom.” I don’t know if I’m bothered because I already knew that Italian titles are different than English titles and so it feels redundant or if this is indeed an example of over-describing. On the other hand, I loved all the passing references to little details that set the scene, the casual use of words or phrases that don’t have an easy English translation (antipatico the prime example). This is a series I shall return to, for the nostalgia for my time spent in Italy, if nothing else.

As my first selection for R.I.P, Death at La Fenice does falter, not for any inherent fault in the story itself, but for a lack of a suitably spooky, melancholy, or dark atmosphere appropriate to the season. However, as a story evoking the flavor of Italy, of Venetian life, it is exactly what I had hoped for.