Venice, An Interior, by Javier Marías

Venice, An Interior is not, it must be said, a very useful guide to Venice. It will not help you find the best cicchetti, nor warn you to avoid Harry’s Bar when the band is playing like the plague, lest you are liable for a fifty percent surcharge. It does not contain handy information on hotels, nor museum passes. Rather, Marías writes a stylish evocation of a Venice that is as much a state of being as it is a city. Across his lengthy and illustrious writing career, Javier Marías has proved himself a great worker of sentences—look at, for instance, the opening to his last novel, Thus Bad Begins:

This story didn’t happen so very long ago—less time than the average life, and how brief a life once it’s over and can be summed up on a few sentences, leaving only ashes in the memory, ashes that crumble at the slightest touch and fly up with the slightest gust of wind—and yet what happened then would be impossible now.

Marías employs a similar clausal gymnastics in Venice, An Interior, constructing great, soaring, vaulted Gothic edifices out of semicolons and understatement. The title of Marías’ essay comes from a remark that “Venice is an interior”—precisely because the city is somehow “complete in itself,” that it “has no need of anything outside itself.” Marías’ Venice is not a city in the conventional sense—rather, it is a construct willed out of pure imagination, rather like one of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (which, in a curious twist, are revealed as being aspects of Venice).

Venice, An Interior, by Javier Marías, along with one of Whistler's most singular paintings
Venice, An Interior, by Javier Marías, along with one of Whistler’s most singular paintings

The Venice of Venice, An Interior might be a miracle of stone and word, but it’s also tinged with subtle nightmare. “Looking at Venice now,” Marías writes, “not only do you see it as it was one hundred, two hundred and even five hundred years ago, you see it as it will be in one hundred, two hundred, probably even five hundred years time.” It’s a tour-guide cliche that Venice is timeless, but Marías cuts through to the curious mode of being of living in a city that seems to exist outside of the march of time—National Trust property as ontology, perhaps. He says that this mode of being “means that Venetians see life from ‘the viewpoint of eternity’.”

To see life sub specie aeternitatis—under the aspect, or from the viewpoint, of eternity—is to see life through a frame first explicitly theorised by Spinoza in the 1670s. To see things from the aspect of eternity is to see universal truths unfolding with an almost mathematical certainty. “Can there be a more frightening, unbearable, less human point of view?”, Marías asks. The corollary to this is to point out that Venice’s future is far from eternal. Marías’ essay, though published recently, was written in 1988. Since then, it has become clear that a combination of rising sea levels, and subsidence on the Venetian lagoon’s islands are placing the city at the risk of, slowly, slowly sinking under the waves.

Javier Marias, Margaret Jull Costa (trans.), Venice, An Interior, Hamish Hamilton (London: 2016)

A review copy of Venice, An Interior was generously provided to me by Hamish Hamilton.

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