1001 books, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Italy, New York, Patricia Highsmith, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ by Patricia Highsmith


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 256 pages; 2009.

I seem to be going through a minor, and completely unplanned, phase of reading suspense novels right now, so what better book to continue the theme than Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, a classic of the genre? This is where I also stick up my hand and confess that I’ve never seen the film, so I came to the book with no preconceptions whatsoever. I had no idea of the plot, nor the wickedness of the central character Mr Ripley either.

A suspense novel of the finest order

First published in 1955, the book is a suspense novel of the finest order — precisely plotted, written in concise but stylish prose, and filled with brilliant characters.

But unlike many suspense novels, where you fear for the good guys that have found themselves in a difficult situation, in this fast-paced story you actually cheer on the perpetrator. In this case it is Mr Ripley, a 23-year-old loner, who commits two atrocious murders.

From the outset, we learn that Tom, who lives in New York, isn’t the most honest of characters. He hates his circle of friends, lies about his job and commits tax fraud under a false name. Raised by an aunt, whom he detests, he continues to accept the cheques she sends him, because he’s desperate for the money.

But when he is offered the chance to go to Europe on an all expenses paid trip, Tom sees it as an opportunity to start his life afresh.

A trip to Italy

The trip, however, is not without its strings, for Tom has been “hired” by a wealthy industrialist, Herbert Greenleaf, to go to Italy in order to convince his wayward son, Dickie, to return home. It seems that Tom once met Dickie at a party, but for some reason Mr Greenleaf thinks they are close friends — Tom, knowing a good deal when he sees one, does nothing to disabuse him of the idea.

In the seaside Italian village of Mongibello, Tom befriends Dickie, an artist, and his American girlfriend, Marge, a writer. He is greeted with contempt at first, but soon worms his way into Dickie’s affections and the pair become inseparable. (There are hints of unrequited homosexual love, on Tom’s part, but they remain just that: hints.)

Of course, it’s difficult to say much more without ruining the plot, but let’s just say that Tom’s hunger for money gets the better of him and he decides to bump off Dickie. Later, when one of Dickie’s friends suspects that Tom is hiding something, he, too, is done away with.

Two murders down and with the police on his trail, the book’s suspense element goes into overdrive as Tom tries to keep two steps ahead in order not to be caught. The story moves from Mongibello to Rome, Sicily to Venice, and all the while he covers his tracks so superbly you begin to wonder if he will ever make a false move. Surely Marge can see through his lies? Doesn’t Mr Greenleaf suspect him of evil doing? Can’t the police tell he is making things up? And won’t the private investigator, brought in at the last minute, find him out?

Cheering on a killer

Funnily enough, even though Tom is a killer and a wicked, manipulative little man, you can’t help but cheer him on. Yes, he’s probably a psychopath — he certainly doesn’t show empathy for any of his so-called friends or victims — but it’s hard to dismiss him as evil. He is so lacking in self-confidence and self-esteem, and so desperate to be liked and accepted by his peers, that you end up empathising with his conniving ways and become enamoured of his quick wit and ability to think on his feet. Essentially, you appreciate his talent as a conman and killer.

And that, I think, is the real success of this novel, because Highsmith really gets inside the heads of her characters and so expertly depicts the complicated tangle of human relationships — people’s loyalties, their weaknesses, the things that make them tick — that the characters and their predicaments seem entirely plausible. You can appreciate why Tom is jealous of Marge, can see that Marge is foolish to pin all her hopes on a man who doesn’t truly love her, and that Dickie is self-centred and spoilt. And you understand completely their motivations, which probably explains why you can never truly condemn Tom for his actions. He wants money, freedom and success — don’t we all? — he’s just gone about achieving it the wrong way.

I read The Talented Mr Ripley in two longish sittings, because I just had to know whether Tom would get away with his crimes. If you want to know if he gets his just desserts, beg, borrow or buy a copy…

Antal Szerb, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Hungary, Italy, literary fiction, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Setting, Venice

‘Journey by Moonlight’ by Antal Szerb


Fiction – paperback; Pushkin Press; 240 pages; 2010. Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix.

Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight has been on my wishlist since November 2007 when I spotted it in my local Waterstone’s. At the time I was looking for novels set in Venice, and this one seemed to fit the bill perfectly. So I was delighted when it was chosen as the July read for the book group to which I belong.

Sadly, Venice only plays a minor role in the story, much of which is set in other parts of Italy, including Perugia, Florence and Rome.

It deals with a Hungarian couple, Mihály and Erzsi, who get married following a one-year affair in which Erzsi leaves her husband. By all accounts they should be madly in love, yet the cracks are beginning to show when they go on their honeymoon to Venice. For a start, Mihály, keen to explore the city’s secret alleyways, stays out all night, without telling his new wife. Then, when he meets an old school friend, who is appallingly rude about Erzsi to her face, he gets lost in a world of nostalgia that only serves to strain their relationship further.

Things go from bad to worse when he gets on the wrong train, having disembarked for coffee en route from Florence to Rome, leaving Erzsi behind. I don’t think it is a plot spoiler to say the marriage is effectively over, but it is how both parties deal with the outfall that makes up the bulk of the novel. While most of the narrative follows Mihály’s quest to come to terms with his past, we do get fleeting glimpses of Erzsi’s new life.

Yet the book is frustrating, because the narrative is so uneven, and the (meagre) plot is littered with far too many coincidences to be believable.

But the novel’s strength lies in its intellectual ruminations on death, not just the physical ending of life, but on the loss of youth and how we grieve for past lives and experiences which can never be recaptured. For Mihály, a man from a privileged background, it is almost as if has never learnt to do anything or decide anything for himself; he’s been swept along by other people, including a dominant father, and he has never figured out where he truly belongs, other than in the past, where he felt “alive” amongst his childhood friends, a set of intriguing siblings, Éva and Tamás.

In fact, Mihály might be in his mid-30s but he seems alarmingly adolescent in his inability to grow up and get on with his life. And there are elements of his passivity, his ennui, which suggest to me that he might be suffering from undiagnosed depression.

But lest you think Journey by Moonlight suffers under the weight of its own pretensions, the novel has some comic, often absurd moments. And Szerb, who wrote this book in 1937, isn’t afraid to poke fun at his characters. Indeed, he seems to relish making some of them, such as János, who is accused of being a pick-pocket, a little bit dastardly.

While I cannot pretend to love this book as much as others — the reviews on the blurb from The Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement make it sound like a masterpiece — it’s an interesting story about a lost soul trying to find his way in life.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Robert Dessaix, Setting, Venice

‘Night Letters’ by Robert Dessaix


Fiction – paperback; Picador; 276 pages; 1999.

Night Letters was published in Australia to critical acclaim in 1996.

Picking it up, it’s hard to work out if it is a fictional story or a real-life travel memoir. This confusion is aided by its subtitle — A Journey Through Switzerland and Italy — and the note which claims it is “edited and annotated by Igor Miazmov”. But for those who aren’t quite sure, this is a novel and Miazmov is none other than Dessaix under another name. (Quite hilarious, then, to see that Amazon.co.uk lists Miazmov as if he is a real editor.)

The book comprises a series of 20 letters written on consecutive nights by an Australian man staying in a Venice hotel. The man, who is named Robert, has been diagnosed with an incurable illness and while the disease is never named one gets the impression that it is HIV.

These letters, which are not addressed to anyone in particular (but are effectively you, the reader), are filled with Robert’s wide-ranging thoughts on travel, love, religion and mortality. But the common theme, which threads in and out of the often meandering narrative, is man’s search for paradise and whether, in fact, it exists. This is underpinned by references to Dante’s The Divine Comedy, which Robert is reading out of sequence, so that when he finishes Paradise he feels “oddly becalmed […] if that didn’t bring you to a point of absolute stillness, nothing would”.

As Robert narrates his often mundane, sometimes frustrating and occasionally menacing travels through Locarno, Vicenza and Padua, he offers fascinating glimpses of the people and places he encounters along the way.

In Locarno he befriends an English woman wearing a mysterious amulet — “a hugely endowed male copulating with a large-limbed female, all in exquisitely fine detail, every bead in the bracelets, every toe picked out” — who spends days telling him about the history of the tiny gold brooch she wears. And in Venice he meets another hotel resident, a German professor, with whom he shares many discourses on history and philosophy, mainly on how the famous Venetian residents Cassanova and Marco Polo represented “completely different ways of travelling — and therefore of living out your life”.

I have to admit that Night Letters initially failed to win me over. I actually considered abandoning it. But I’m glad I persevered, because once I understood this was a novel about storytelling — there are references to famous novelists throughout, including Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell and Salman Rushdie — I truly enjoyed it. There are stories within stories, and once you realise that these all combine weight to Robert’s search for meaning, you wonder why you didn’t “get” this much earlier.

What I loved most about this book — aside from the gorgeously authentic descriptions of modern Venice and the very funny footnotes by “Igor Miazmov” — are the insights into human nature and what it is to truly live. There are little gems dotted on every page — for example, Robert realises that the journey of life is not about getting to the destination, which is effectively death, but in experiencing each moment as fully as one can, and I love this passage, which seems so eloquent and true to me:

Journeying is, after all, so fundamental to the way we humans think of ourselves and assign our lives a meaning. Every second book you read is about some kind of journey, really, isn’t it? And we constantly talk about paths in life — ways, roads, progress, stages and so on — all travel metaphors, when you think about it.

In fact, I had to do everything within my power not to underline about 90 per cent of the sentences in this book, because so many of them resonated with me.

Night Letters is an incredibly subtle novel, but it’s a wise one too. It won’t appeal to everyone, but I loved its intelligence, its humanity and its big-picture look at life, so much so that when I got to the last page I immediately wanted to turn to the front to read it all over again — and that doesn’t happen very often. And do read it if, like me, you have a penchant for anything set in Venice — Dessaix captures the city so perfectly you’ll be rushing to book your air flights!

Author, Book review, Fiction, Jane Turner Rylands, Setting, short stories, Venice

‘Venetian Stories’ by Jane Turner Rylands


Fiction – paperback; Anchor Books; 304 pages; 2004.

I am not a great fan of the short story, but I made an exception for this collection, because of its setting. It’s no secret that I have a soft spot for Venice, so, when I found Jane Turner Rylands’ Venetian Stories in a local charity shop I snapped it up, took it home and then spent the next six months reading it very, very slowly.

All the stories — there are 12 in total and each is about 20 pages long — are set in the watery city. They are told from the perspective of the residents, whether new or old, Italian or foreign, rich or poor. Some are even interlinked, but this is done in such a subtle manner that it’s not immediately obvious and, to be honest, I wouldn’t have even picked this up if it wasn’t for the blurb telling me this was the case.

In fact, subtle is the key word here, as the entire collection seems to lack any great impact. There’s no “wow” factor in these stories, but they are pleasing and effortless to read, if slightly fey in places. They supposedly provide an insight into real Venetian lives, but I have my doubts because many of the people portrayed here are downright snobs, corrupt or stupid.

There’s also a decidedly American feel to everything, which is no great surprise given the author is an expat American. But what concerned me most was the condescending prose style adopted by Turner Rylands; there’s no greater turn off than being talked down to, as if I could not possibly be as well travelled or as well connected  as the author.

In my humble opinion, Venetian Stories is not a great collection and has done nothing to make me reassess my usual distaste for the short story, but if you love Venice and consider yourself an armchair traveller you just might enjoy it.

Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Little, Brown, Michelle Lovric, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel, Venice

‘Venice: Tales of the City’ edited by Michelle Lovric


Fiction & non-fiction – hardcover; Little, Brown; 448 pages; 2003.

Venice is one of those wonderfully intriguing cities that has inspired artists and writers alike for centuries. London-based author Michelle Lovric is no exception. She has penned several novels set in the watery Italian city, including Carnevale and The Floating Book, but this time around she leaves the writing to others and selects some of her favourite poetry, fiction pieces and non-fiction extracts and brings them together in this varied collection.

“In this anthology,” she writes, “the voices of today’s Venetians mingle with those of their ancestors, just as they still do on the streets of the city”. And she is right: some of the writings included here date back centuries (several have been translated in English here for the first time) and others were written as recently as the late Twentieth Century.

Divided into 14 neat sections (under very specific themes), including “The Watery City” (which
looks at how the mythical town was built), “City of Venetians” (which looks at the character of the Venetians) and “City of Flavours” (which looks at Venetian cuisine), Lovric does a brilliant job of bringing together a diverse collection of voices each of whom has something interesting to say about Venice whether fictionalised or rooted in reality. Everyone from Hans Christian Andersen to Ezra Pound is featured — and they are all introduced in Lovric’s charming and easy-to-read style. In fact, I found her biographies of each writer more interesting than their respective writings, which is a shame given that wasn’t the purpose of reading this book.

As much as I love Venice, I found this collection a little too broad and lacking depth. I think it might have been a more enjoyable book if there were fewer writers and if the featured extracts were longer — some here were little longer than a page so I never really got a chance to get a “handle” on the writing. Still, if you’re a Venice buff and want something you can dip in and out of (instead of reading it cover to cover as I did) this book will be a worthy one to add to your collection. And it will act as a useful “taster”, either for many of the featured writers or Venice herself.

Author, Ballentine, Book review, Marlena de Blasi, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel, Venice

‘A Thousand Days in Venice: An Unexpected Romance’ by Marlena de Blasi


Nonfiction – paperback; Ballentine Books; 272 pages; 2002.

I have just discovered that the medication I am currently taking for a chest infection is the same medication given to people with Anthrax, so this might partly explain the snarky review which is to follow. Then again it might not.

A Thousand Days in Venice is one of those lovely-looking personal travel memoirs that promises everything and delivers not very much at all.

There’s no doubt that it is well written: the prose is clear, lucid and free from too much ‘waffle’ and de Blasi definitely knows how to write about food in a wonderfully evocative way. But the story — how can I say this without sounding too mean? — is woefully sappy and overly sentimental, which is fine if you like those things, but terrible if you don’t.

Essentially it’s about de Blasi’s whirlwind ‘romance’ with an Italian whom she met on a work-related trip to Venice. This man had spied her before on a previous trip, had fallen in love with her profile, and when he spotted her again on her second trip he kept following her around like a lovelorn puppy. Apparantly de Blasi has never heard of the term ‘stalker’ before.

Strangely enough, when alarm bells should have been ringing, de Blasi, a middle-aged American with a successful career and two grown-up children of her own, decides to give up her entire life for this man — a banker — she barely knows. The two of them don’t even share a common language and de Blasi hasn’t even seen Fernando’s house before she’s already sold hers and is winging her way to Venice to be with him.

Of course, things don’t pan out as de Blasi had hoped (probably because the woman doesn’t seem to have a realistic bone in her body) and there are ructions in the relationship from woe to go. But somehow the marriage survives even when Fernando throws in his job because he wants to leave Venice to live elsewhere!

All in all, a fairly cloying memoir that I really only persevered with because I enjoyed the references to particular places in Venice that I’ve seen or visited. It’s a pretty safe bet that I won’t be tracking down her second volume — A Thousand Days in Tuscany: A Bittersweet Adventure — unless my Anthrax medication turns me decidedly loopy!

Arrow Books, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Donna Leon, Fiction, Publisher, Setting, Venice

‘Death at La Fenice’ by Donna Leon


Fiction – paperback; Arrow Books; 338  pages; 2004.

Until very recently I was not aware that Donna Leon’s books were set in Venice. I had seen her books cluttering shelves in every book store I’ve ever haunted but for some weird reason I had never been inclined to pick one up, much less read one. Silly me.

Death at La Fenice, first published in 1992, introduces us to Leon’s creation, the quiet family man and police detective Guido Brunetti. It also introduces us to the mysterious, romantic beauty of Venice’s canals and alleyways, her bridges, beautiful buildings and sense of history.

In this crime tale, Brunetti investigates the murder of a German conductor, Maestro Helmut Wellauer, who is poisoned during a break in the performance of the opera La Traviata at the world famous opera house La Fenice*.

Wellauer, much admired in classical music and opera circles, has clocked up many enemies because of his right-wing views, homophobia and extra-marital affairs. But who was motivated enough to kill him? This is what Brunetti must find out.

I quite enjoyed this book, although I feel it suffered somewhat because I was reading Arnaldur Indriðason’s Tainted Blood at the same time, and the two books, while crime novels, really shouldn’t be compared.

Leon’s novel was more pedestrian and written in a slightly old-fashioned way, in the sense that the story moved forward chapter by chapter with little back story and no parallel narrative. Her main character, Brunetti, was far less flawed and troubled than Tainted Blood’s Inspector Erlendur and hence seemed less developed (although I’m sure with nine other books in the series, there’s plenty of time for him to evolve).

All in all, Death at La Fenice was an enjoyable romp through Venice, even if I did guess the ending long before it was revealed. I’ll be intrigued to read more books in Leon’s series.

* The same opera house that burned down in 1996 and was the focus of John Berendt’s recent non-fiction book City of Falling Angels, also reviewed on this site.