Review: Cees Nooteboom’s “Venice: The Lion, the City, and the Water”

by J.R. Patterson
Cees Nooteboom Venice

Cees Nooteboom – Venice: The Lion, the City, and the Water (Maclehose Press 2020). Translated by Laura Watkinson. Hardback, pp 302.

What more can be said about Venice, a city so well-known and over-trod that its popularity is the single largest threat to its continued physical existence? Thousands of books have been written about the city, some of them by the most eminent writers of their time, all of them drawing more visitors to the inconceivable floating city on a lagoon. A travel writer as seasoned as Cees Nooteboom knows this well, and perhaps began to feel in the winter of life a certain protectionism that, over sixty years of visits, have left him feeling a pseudo-citizen of the city on the water. In Venice: The Lion, the City, and the Water, his love and knowledge are lain bare in a work that is neither travelogue nor memoir, nor guidebook, nor historical account. It is something inimitable, something uncategorizable. A strange amalgamation of art, architecture, history, water, music, and ethos. It is, simply, a Nooteboom book. 

Nooteboom (b. 1933) began his career as a writer in his native Netherlands writing for newspapers through the 1950s and 60s. Although he has since published several books of poetry, story collections, and novels (including, in 1980, the Pegasus Prize winning Rituals), Nooteboom’s fame was made out of his travel writing. In 1969 he began writing for the Dutch magazine Avenue, and, with carte blanche to travel and write as he pleased, his travelogues began to shift away from the standard observational format into what the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee described as a “matrix within which to reflect on the deeper currents of life of a foreign culture.” Nooteboom drew on techniques from poetry and fiction to carve out a style that was both distinctive and refined, with his style at times erring on the labyrinthine side on avant garde. Under his gaze, the ordinary seem to bend under the touch of the macabre. Arrives in Venice, for instance, he peruses the fish market, admiring “the living stones of mussels, oysters, cockles,” while in the canal, gondolas like “black, sailing bats,” glide over water “polished like a marble gravestone.” When the high water alarm sounds, the silence which follows is the kind “in which you hear all kinds of things that are not there…a sound that always reminds me of the war, you never shake it off.”

It’s clear his writing belongs in the annals alongside other great, intricate writers such as Borges, Calvino, and Saramago. His sentences tend towards undulation, often wrapping around themselves in a muddle. Reading such a one, I was sure I had somehow doubled back and was re-reading a passage, only to happen upon the light at the paragraph’s end. 

All this talk of style isn’t simply writer being effusive over another. In Venice, Nooteboom’s sinuous writing serves another purpose, providing the perfect parallel to the winding alleys of Venice, imparting a genuine feeling of place. Nooteboom thrives in the car-free atmosphere, and spends his days freely wandering in the quiet of the empty streets, listening to the echo of his footsteps, “the forgotten noise…which has sounded here without interruption for all these centuries…an orchestra with instruments made of leather, rubber, wood, sandals, high heels, boots.” Following him as he travels from street to street is to move with a walking museum. 

This is not that a cultural compass wouldn’t be handy at times. There can be few writers today – certainly few travel writers – with the deep cultural knowledge of Nooteboom. In Venice, it would certainly help to know about Renaissance art, Baroque music, and veduta painting, and it borders on writing that might send readers to an illustrated history of Italy. Despite a certain curmudgeonly, hands-clasped-behind-the-back urbanity, he is far from an oppressive guide; he would rather poeticize a fact than hit anyone over the head with it. He writes interestingly on composers and artists, including very readable chapters on Cassanova and Vivaldi. There is no question that Nooteboom knows what he is talking about, but there are few others who would or could bother with the differences between “a woman who prefers to listen to Gesualdo and Bach” and “a man who loves not only opera but also the most banal repertoire.”  

Included in the first edition are photographs by Nooteboom’s partner Simone Sassen. The two have collaborated in the past, with her photos accompanying Nooteboom’s accounts of Berlin and Spain, but she is a photographer in her own right, and the photos included in Venice are not mere visuals of whatever Nooteboom is going on about. They are often oblique; a view from a bridge, or of a rooftop, or of cubic marble floor tiles. Looking at them upholds the illusion that you are there beside Nooteboom as he strolls on, looking here and there across a canal as he pulls another anecdote from his bottomless supply. 

Despite having sunken a personal root down into the mud beneath the city, he is never taken for a local. “How swiftly does the gaze of a Venetian register that I am a foreigner?” he agonizes. He lives for that “mini-second before the inevitable unmasking takes place,” and he is outed as a foreigner. As an Amsterdammer, a fellow European whose city has been “overrun by hordes of tourists,” he can sympathize that Venetians who must be tired of having their preferred seats taken in their local cafés. But when he does, one can’t help assuming that the same seat-stealing had just befallen him, and after scribbling down his thought, that he stared a hole into the bemused tourist in his favored chair.

The magic Venice lies in the miasma of nostalgia. Accordingly, Nooteboom glazes over present day specifics which obstruct his views of memories both personal and communal. There are few dates in the book – often we go along reading as though we are in the now, only to learn we were actually in the then of now all along (it’s like that). But, Venice is “a book that turns its own pages.” All one need do is walk and read.

Nooteboom’s vision of Venice is almost whimsical, a nostalgic sigh for the past. To the present, he can muster a dismayed shrug, or, if a gaggle of tourists is within sight, an irritable glower. Nooteboom, writing admiringly, says that “the city may be trapped in its own past,” and suggests the reasoning is as novelist C.P. Snow suggests, because the past is “pattern into which [the Venetians] had crystalized.”

What modern-day Venetians themselves have to say, is up to us. The Venetians Nootebom shows us are forced to flee the island at night, turned out from their historic homes by high rents brought on by tourism. When they do appear, it’s as waiters, buskers, chefs, and concierges. That brings about a more likely reason for the city’s crystallization in time: “Tourists,” Nooteboom writes with aplomb, are “a plague that must be endured.” He abhors tourists, and castigates the idea of travel as a self-indulgence. “Everyone takes a photograph of everyone else…you buy the holiday in Japan including your gondola ride.” When he takes a gondola ride for the first time, he complains about needing to cramp into the narrow boat with “soaked Chinese people” and “Americans with a bottle of Prosecco.” Japanese or Chinese tour groups draw a special ire, although he curiously neglects to mention the irony that it was Venetian Marco Polo who created that connection. Near the end of the book, he venerates Henry James, who, although he had to contend with tourists himself, had the luck that there were “people more like himself.” 

“[James] lived in a different era, not disturbed by disobedient school classes and inconceivable Chinese people with inconceivable selfies….a past that is gone for good, in which he did not have to doubt anything.” At 87, Nooteboom is also from a different era, a past which is gone for good. His traveling career only began when travel was becoming available to the masses, and watching his beloved locations – from Venice, to Madrid, to Berlin – fall under the commercial grip of tourism has left its indelible mark.

While the book can stand as a kind of warning against the hive-mind of mass tourist, it’s better read as counsel from a man who has made his career out of travel, a symposium on art, beauty, and the joys of being in a place where “the bronze voices of time” no longer heard in other cities “assail you in alleyways and on bridges.” Although Nooteboom pays an abundance of homage to the other writers and artists who got to see Venice in their own time, future writers will undoubtedly draw on him, and his luck to be there when the city seemed to him “a jewel casually discarded and lost.” 

Cees Nooteboom – Venice: The Lion, the City, and the Water (Maclehose Press UK and Yale UP USA 2020). Translated by Laura Watkinson

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