"Venice" is one of those very, very rare books that forces you to slow down your reading so as not to miss a word. This is not a travel guide... Morris lived in Venice for years, and writes as only one with intimate knowledge of every alleyway of a city's body and soul can. The writing is astonishing in its consistency: every paragraph holds a richness of language and of imagery that is at times breathtaking, and the writer's imagination routinely transforms the mundane into glorious metaphor. Here are (quite literally) random paragraphs, these on Venice and tourism in summer:
"Confronted by these multitudes, in summer the character of Venice abruptly coarsens. The cost of a coffee leaps, if you are anywhere near St. Mark's, and is gradually reduced, in topographical gradations, as you take your custom farther from that avaricious fulcrum. The waiters of the Piazza brush up their brusquest manners, in preparation for the several hundred people each day who understandably believe that there must be some mistake in the bill. Souvenir stalls spring up like garish fungi, and the market is suddenly flooded with straw hats, gondoliers shirts, maps printed on head-scarves, lead gondolas, spurious antiques, a million water-colours and a thousand paper-weights in the shape of St. Mark's Campanile.
The unsuspecting visitor, stepping from the steamboat, is accosted by a pair of ferocious porters, who carry his bags the fifteen-odd feet into his hotel lobby and demand, as their compulsory payment for this service, the price of a substantial meal, with wine. The withered sacristans of the famous churches, brushing the dust from their cassocks, emerge eagerly from the shadows to drag you to the very last dismal pseudo-Titian of the vestry. Pampered young men pester you to visit their showrooms. The cry of Gondola! Gondola! follows you like an improper suggestion down the quays. There is a queue for the lift to the top of the bell-tower. Enough people peer into the horrors of the dungeons each morning to make Casanova s head reel. There is a shop near St. Mark's so well adapted to every possible shift in the balance of power that the homesick tourist may buy himself the flag of Yemen, the Ukraine, Bolivia, or even the United Nations.
And chanting a sing-song melody of triumph, the guides of Venice come into their own again. "Guides", wrote Augustus Hare in the 1890's, "are usually ignorant, vulgar and stupid in Venice, and all but the most hopelessly imbecile visitors will find them an intolerable nuisance" (though in later editions of his book he dropped the bit about the imbeciles). Nevertheless the guides of Venice flourish, the directors of itineraries boom, and many a poor holiday-maker staggers home at the end of a day's pleasure as though she has been grinding corn on a tread mill, or attending some crucial and excruciating viva voce. There are 107 churches in Venice, and nearly every tourist feels he has seen at least 200 of them: for the guides and guide books presuppose an unflagging whip-lash energy in their victims, an utter disregard for regular meals, and an insatiable appetite for art of all periods, standards and purposes."
Or this, about Venetian cats:
"Venice is... a metropolis of cats. Now and again the sanitary authorities have conducted a cat-hunt, to sweep away vagrants and scavengers: but so fond are the Venetians of their cats, even the mangiest and scabbiest of them, that these drives have always ended in ignominious failure, and the animals, spitting and scratching, have been hidden away in back yards and boxes until the hygiene men have gone. The population of cats thus increases each year. Some lead an eerily sheltered existence, and are rarely allowed out of doors, only appearing occasionally, like nuns, upon confined and inaccessible balconies. Many more are only half-domesticated, and live on charity, in old drain-pipes from which sympathetic citizens have removed the grilles, under the seats of laid-up gondolas, or in the tangled recesses of overgrown gardens. You may see them any morning wolfing the indigestible entrails, fish-tails and heads, wrapped in newspapers, which householders have laid down for them: and on most winter afternoons an old lady arrives to feed the cats of the Royal Gardens, near St. Mark's, while a man in a sweeping overcoat so manipulates the flow of a nearby drinking fountain that a jet of water is projected into a declivity among the paving-stones, forming a cat's basin, or a cat-bath."
Sigh. Morris packs more imagery and life into each paragraph than most writers manage in a chapter - or an entire book. This is the type of book that makes those of us with delusions about our own writing want to give up and go home. Confronted by such richness, the would-be writer stalls. The one or two clever and (he feels) well-constructed phrases which he has turned over in his mind to describe some event, thought or feeling, and polished to what he has seen with a quietly sheltered pride as a burnished luster, suddenly seem, in comparison to just about anything Morris has written in this wonderful book, dull and sadly wanting. Rather like a teenaged girl who privately primps and fusses over her appearance in front of her bedroom mirror for hours until, finally satisfying herself that she must be irresistible to men, steps out of her front door to rudely discover that the street is full of supermodels.
"Venice" is one of the best books I have ever read, and I have never found a book that so completely captures the life and character of a great city as this does. For those who love language - and Venice - it is pure pleasure from start to finish.
Quick biographical note: Jan Morris was formerly James Morris - s/he underwent a sex change in 1964 (which explained the perplexing fact that I couldn't find any first editions under the author's female name).