Venice: Paragraphs from a Diary

September 14. Venice. The Piazza at night is an opera set, with enough soldiers, beggars, ragazzi, lovers, lovers-for-money, to form a chorus of each. All that is missing, in fact, is a quality of music, for, whereas the gondoliers of the cinquecento improvised giustiniani to verses by Ariosto, today they imitate pop crooners, and with even wider tremolos.

June 4. The Hague. Hotel des Indes. We attend the opening of the Holland Festival. Queen Juliana, ministers, ambassadors, generals: I have never seen so much pomp and so many medals, swords, epaulettes; the Stravs and I are the only guests not at least in evening clothes. At intermission, following Mozart’s K. 361—about half of it, rather, and that in wrong tempi—the Queen sends for I.S. to sit next to her, declares her admiration for his “works,” and is not only taken aback but speechless at his response: “And which of my works do you admire, Your Majesty?” The program ends with the Basler Concerto, in which nearly everything, including the relationships of tempi in the first movement, is wrong. Yet the conductor, Willem Van Otterloo, presented to I.S. afterward, asks how he liked the performance. I.S.: “Do you want a conventional answer or the truth?” (Van O. manfully opts for the latter, which is that it was “Horrible.”)

August 28. Arriving at Venice shortly before noon we go directly to the outdoor restaurant at the Bauer. Thomas Beecham is there but does not see I.S. Nor does I.S. make himself known, for Sir Thomas is in mid-tantrum, apparently owing to an unsuccessful attempt to escape crème caramel. “I told you they have no tinned peaches in Italy,” he reminds his wife (and everyone else). “The maître d’hôtel is a nincompoop.” Our waiter complains, too—about the sirocco. “Tempo brutto,” he says, but, touching his parabolic commedia dell’arte nose, reports that this infallible barometer forecasts rain. I.S. orders a trout, which he flenses and disembowels as an ichthyologist might dissect a rare specimen.

It is Venetian washday Clotheslines cross the waterways and gondolas glide beneath sheets, shirts, dresses, tablecloths, trousers—except on the Grand Canal, which a police boat patrols against any unsightly display of laundry. In fact no sooner does a pink undergarment appear in a window opposite ours than the water cops speed to the scene and excoriate the offender with that lowest of all local imprecations, “Napolitana.”

August 17. Venice. San Lazzaro degli Armeni. A French-speaking monk escorts us from the dock as bells peal and bearded brethren emerge from every direction and converge on the church. The service, that of the third day of The Assumption, includes the ritual eating of grapes. But if the sense of taste is satisfied, the others are not, for the incense chokes, the chanting is out of tune, the floor punishes the knees, and the pyrotechnical effect of a crescendo of candlelighting is spoiled at the climax by the addition of …

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