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A Novel of Love in Venice
By Erica Jong
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Erica Jong
All rights reserved.
Between Freak and Fairy Tale
The way we live now, jetting from palmy LaLa Land to gray and frenzied New York City, to azure Venice, the Serenissima of all Serenissime—the most serene republic of our dreams—we might as well be time traveling. And we are.
It is already midnight in Venice when my six P.M. 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 canals— for 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 well—one 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 riflesso, nor scintillio, nor gibigianna. 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, Serenissima. I had never been to the film festival before, though I had been to Venice often enough from adolescence on. The festival was pure madness—paparazzi 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 crowds ... the kids on the beach rushing for autographs.
"Chi è?" they chirp, coagulating on the sand.
They flutter down like hungry little birds with pieces of paper in their beaks. What do they do with these pieces of paper? Sell them? Lose them? Trade them? These overfed Italian bambini rush at you, proffering their bits of paper, brandishing their plastic pens. If you are being photographed, giving an interview, talking to someone who looks 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 gear—as 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 festival—the giuria—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 Venice—and 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 stepfather— though 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 worst—a 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 him—Gian-Luigi Mocenigo-Loredan, he was called—and doges, diarists, assassini, 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 period—a slender, titian-haired girl with huge, brown almond-shaped eyes—almost 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 Anjou—at the castle—or "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 first 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 chateau— though 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.
Why 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 did—in 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 ruin—or, 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 all—trust 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 LaLa—Hollywood—among people whose curse (or blessing) it is not to know that, is one of the tales I have to tell. I don't know if I'm adequate to that epic—but 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).
Some artists need to wallow in self in order to create. I, on the contrary, was always fleeing myself—the very opposite of the writer's craft. When the lights come up on the stage, when you are isolated in the little circle of heat and brightness that insulates you from the crowd, you are also insulated from past and future. There is only that moment and the character that consumes you.
You feel the audience also as a source of heat, and there is the heat within you—panic, ambition, dread—that propels you into the part, that makes you embrace it as if somehow, through it, you could find home, mother, completion, peace.
I had begun with Shakespeare—with Shakespearean roles, that is. Shakespeare was my home, my substitute mother, also my escape. In high school I discovered the sonnets. In college I acted Juliet, Portia, Cordelia, Rosalind, even Lady Macbeth (though I was much too young and green to understand her). But I had never acted my namesake, Jessica. It was ironic that I had been named for Shylock's daughter, named for her by a WASP mother who also loved Shakespeare. The name Jessica is all the rage nowadays with four-year-olds, but in the forties it was still an odd name—almost as odd as Nerissa or Cordelia. I always found it strange that I, who felt almost like an imaginary Jew (the very definition of the outsider), should be named for the young Jewess who renounces her faith and her father for a facile Christianity and a foppish young man.
Now, after all these years, I was going to get to play my namesake, for Serenissima was nothing less than a filmic fantasy based on The Merchant of Venice. My director, the nearly mythical Swede Björn Persson, had announced it as his last film—the climax of a career that had included a film about Tchaikovsky, a film about Byron, many films drawn from his own tortured Swedish life, and, just recently, a brilliant and controversial film about Mozart. It was rumored that in Serenissima Shakespeare himself was to appear as a character representing the director, as Prospero represented Shakespeare in his last play—but that remained to be seen.
Björn was legendary for never allowing even his most celebrated international stars to see the script before commencing to shoot. You worked with Björn because it was an honor to work with Björn, because he was an artist in a world in which artists were an endangered species, and because you knew that the script you would receive when you arrived on location would be a masterpiece—or at least an ambitious and beautiful failure, more interesting to be seen in than most "successes." You worked with Björn because there was no way to turn Björn down. He was hypnotic, a svengali, a genius. When he talked to you, when he looked into your eyes with his luminous blue-gray ones and explained your role to you, or anything in the world to you for that matter, you felt yourself to be the only person alive on earth, the only actress, the only woman, in all of time, in the entire galaxy.
This movie of The Merchant of Venice was critical to me in a way other actresses my age will immediately understand. It was my last chance to play the lover before I entered that desperate no woman's land between innamorata and grandma, that terrifying no woman's land from forty to sixty that all actresses wander into sooner or later. It was true that I had staved off the inevitable longer than most because I looked young—but it was only a matter of minutes, I felt, before the best roles would vanish, and with them my career. So I was looking forward to working with Björn again, though his very presence gave me pain.
I had had my obligatory fling with him—if an affair with Björn could be called anything so frivolous as a fling—several years ago, when we were both between marriages (his sixth and seventh, my third and fourth), and it had left me raw and amputated for a year. But there was no way I wasn't going to work with him again. He was undoubtedly the greatest director of our time, and saying no to him would have been like saying no to Shakespeare if you were an Elizabethan actor. He was brilliant, maddening, mercurial—alternately gregarious and reclusive. He required a woman to care for him like the giant baby he was, to keep the world at bay when he was working, to nurse him through breakdowns, depressions, fits of writing or blockage, starts at films that never got off the ground.
Though he was the most loving and maternal of directors on the set, in life he used up all the air in a room; his genius permitted no one else's to exist. He fell in love with creative women and then tried to strangle them or make them into nurses, killing in them the thing he first had loved. It was an impossible dilemma which he had not been able to resolve until the age of sixty. Nowadays he was married to a wife who understood, possibly even enjoyed, all of this—wife number seven—a beautiful, green-eyed, gray-haired matron who sailed through the world like a great galleon of the sixteenth century, accepting Björn's awards in foreign countries, nursing him through bouts of writing in their hideaway in the south of France (Villa Persson, it was called), understanding his need to be a genius who transformed women into nannies.
She was a brilliant woman—this Lilli Persson—as brilliant in her way as he was in his, and she understood the fine (all but lost) art of cosseting genius. Without her, nothing would get done in Björn's life these days—not Serenissima, not his plays, not the operas he sometimes mounted at Stockholm's Royal Opera House.
I was both terrified and elated at the prospect of seeing Björn again. Björn had turned my life inside out and then departed with Lilli. It was not, God knows, that I wanted to marry him. I was not masochist enough for that. It was just that he had stirred me to the bottom of my being and then fled. It also struck me as a sort of karmic joke that we should meet again in Venice, that chimera, that city of illusions where reality becomes fantasy and fantasy becomes reality. Perhaps it is because Venice is both liquid and solid, both air and stone, that it somehow combines all the elements crucial to make our imaginations ignite and turn fantasies into realities.
Each time one comes to Venice, it reflects back another self, another dream, as if it were partly your own mirror. The air is full of the spirits of all those who have lived here, worked here, loved here. The stones themselves are thick with history. They whisper to you as you walk the deserted streets at night. Cats leap out as if they were the embodied spirits of all the dead ones who created here or died here: Byron, Browning, Ruskin, Turner, Tintoretto, Mahler, Stravinsky ... Shakespeare. Was Shakespeare ever here?
I had read and re-read The Merchant of Venice on the Alitalia flight from New York (a studio jet had carried me from Burbank to Teterboro, a helicopter from Teterboro to JFK), searching for some clue that he was.
Excerpted from Shylock's Daughter by Erica Jong. Copyright © 1987 Erica Jong. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Contents1: Between Freak and Fairy Tale,
2: Festival del Cinema,
3: White Rose, Red Cross,
4: Publicitas Vincit Omnia,
5: Harry and Will,
6: In War with Time,
7: Jessica ... Jessica,
8: A Mirror of Monsters,
9: The Baptized Babies,
10: Shylock's Daughter,
11: Fancy's Knell,
12: Beauty's Doom,
13: Hairbreadth 'Scapes and Most Disastrous Chances,
14: A Hell of Time,
Epilogue: The Horns of Unicorns or Tender Heir,
A Biography of Erica Jong,
What People are Saying About This
Fresh, innovative, ingenious...moving. The imagination of the poet she essentially is strikes deep. I recommend it with all my heart.