My Venice and Other Essays
For three decades, Donna Leon has lived in Venice, the setting for her popular Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries, a series distinguished by its engrossing plots, nuanced characterization, and multifaceted portraits of that shimmering, beleaguered city of canals.
My Venice and Other Essays includes 55 brief pieces Ms. Leon originally wrote for European publications. The bestselling mystery writer lightly touches on various aspects of the city, her nearby mountain home, and assorted likes and dislikes. While the collection has flecks of humor and quirky details, it often leaves the reader feeling like Oliver Twist with his empty bowl: “Please, sir, I want some more.”
Ranging from just two to 11 pages, with most on the short side, the essays fall into six sections, on Venice, music, mankind and animals, men, America, and books. The least satisfying of these sections, alas, is the first, devoted to Venice.
Ms. Leon’s vignettes offer sips of city life: an oblivious man tossing a garbage bag into the canal, a woman in fur who lets her dog defecate in front of a man’s house while he sits by his window drinking coffee, and the aged neighbor whose loud TVs (yes, plural) keep the author awake—and who turns up dead in one of Ms. Leon’s mysteries, Doctored Evidence. Such scenes amuse, but fail to permit readers to become immersed in La Serenissima. Their extreme brevity precludes any sustained introspection, historical context, or even hard-won wisdom from the author.
The collection becomes more absorbing, however, as it progresses and the discourses lengthen a bit. A highlight of My Venice is Ms. Leon’s luminous essay on the renowned mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. A self-described opera junkie, the author touchingly portrays the inner strength of Ms. von Otter as she aims at theatrical longevity in a world that demands eternal youthfulness:
“I’m at an age now when it is not natural for me to be singing, at least not certain roles,” she observed with disconcerting honesty. “There are many younger singers, good ones, and I’m often the oldest one in the cast, as is the case with Guilio Cesare.”
Ms. Leon goes on to admire how the singer “has chosen repertory sparingly and has chosen it well.”
The author also shows great affection for animals, a topic she explores in another charming essay, “The Woman from Dübendorf (Gastone).” Upon returning from a train trip, Ms. Leon opened the courtyard door, and the neighbor’s cat, Gastone, escaped. Through the city she followed, calling and cajoling to no avail. The feline approached the lovely Church of the Miracoli and “not pausing to explain that he was a resident and therefore exempt from payment,” ran past the people waiting in line to buy tickets and scampered up the steps to the high altar.
Ms. Leon, “cooing and whispering false promises of salmon,” lunged and grabbed Gastone by the scruff of his neck, and together they proceeded down the church’s main aisle. What, the author mused, would the German Protestant tourist make of such strange goings-on?
Other essays leave Venice and its environs behind, touching down in America, where Ms. Leon criticizes her native country for its self-deceptive militarism, its irrational, media-fueled paranoia; and its foul eating habits. Balancing those aversions, she evokes endearing memories of growing up in New Jersey (“My Family” and “My Mother’s Funeral”).
In “Tomato Empire,” she recalls being home for three weeks from teaching and studying at a university in Massachusetts. She discovers that if she arrived at a nearby farm at 7 and picked baskets of tomatoes, she could return home to sell them, earning more in a weekend than the university paid her in a month.
Her years of teaching in other countries apparently reach an abysmal low in Saudi Arabia, where she worked 25 years ago. Ms. Leon recalls being spat on, run at with a motor scooter, and struck with an open palm. She goes on to provide a nightmarish account of a common scene on public buses, where a man would masturbate as he gazed at the narrow slit of the barrier separating men and women.
In the final section, “On Books,” the author provides a humorous perspective on teaching a class on creative writing. After confessing she cannot teach anyone to be creative, she makes a number of astute observations on the process of writing crime fiction, a genre she does not consider “literature.”
Ms. Leon knows her readers expect that justice of some sort will triumph. Yet, she notes, for every rule that works in general, some writer manages to break it. Patricia Highsmith, with her Ripley series, featured “amoral narrators who, at the same time that they successfully committed their varied horrors, yet managed to retain the sympathy of the reader. But she was a genius; the rest of us are not.”
For the patient reader, My Venice and Other Essays will provide morsels of wit and sharp observations. Ironically, while Donna Leon writes deprecatingly about the value of crime fiction, it is there, with her humane, observant detective, that this author has whipped up her pièce de résistance.