Tag Archives: Venice

Shelter In Place: David Leavitt

David Leavitt’s marvellous novel Shelter in Place opens in November 2016, right after the presidential election. Childless couple, 56-year-old Eva and her wealth management advisor husband Bruce, are hosting a motley assortment of houseguests at their Connecticut home. The people we meet that night: Min Marable, decorator Jake Lovett, married book editors Aaron and Rachel Weisenstein, neighbour Grady and his cousin, recently separated Sandra comprise almost all the book’s characters, although a few more appear as the plot fans out.

Although it’s a “benevolent autumn sunset,” Eva’s mood, extreme distress at the prospect of Trump as president, eradicates the sense of peace and relaxation. A debate ensues about free speech with Eva announcing that she’s “possessed by this mad urge” to ask Siri how to assassinate Trump. Interestingly, once Eva starts the fireworks, she doesn’t actually go through with it, but instead tells her husband to do it. From this point, everyone jumps in with their opinions on this “thought experiment.” Min, who says she’s Eva’s best friend, (translation: sycophant and object of belittlingly criticism) defends Eva (as always) noting her Jewish background and concern about fascism. One of the houseguests concludes that Eva’s preposterous and toothless statement that she would do anything to defend democracy makes her a “teensy bit fascist.” Another debate ensues about “majority rule.”

This evening becomes the leaping point for the rest of the story. Eva, feeling that she can’t stand to remain in America for the inauguration party, leaves for a holiday in Venice, taking along mooching, much put upon journalist Min. Once in Venice, Eva decides to buy a palazzo apartment, and it’s the beginning of a real estate transaction nightmare and also the beginning of a deep rift between Bruce and Eva.

Shelter in Place, a comedy of manners, takes a spiky look at the affluent New Yorkers in Eva’s orbit.  Eva is a spoilt, vastly uninteresting, hollow, self-focused woman, one of the 1% cushioned by vast wealth and therefore the least likely strata of society to feel any societal turbulence. She becomes so consumed with repugnance at the thought of a Trump driven America, she decides to leave. While neurotic Eva calls Trump a “demon,” this dreadful woman (think of Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives) terrorizes most of those in her circle. She loves to patronise people with the grandeur of her liberal, moral opinions–opinions that don’t hold up under scrutiny, so, for example, she’ll have an impoverished pet chef for a while until he “touched the third rail.” And then there’s Min: Eva will shove cookies and food at Min and then humiliate her for eating whenever the opportunity arises (and especially if there’s a third person as witness).

Quiet Bruce acknowledges that as a couple, he and Eva “have a system. She does the wanting and I do the paying.” As the deal for the Venice apartment becomes more complex and dodgy, Bruce, for the first time in his married life considers denying his wife’s whims, but at the slightest hint of Bruce’s resistance, Eva turns on the marital screws. She mouths platitudes about how politically she’s “refusing to do what everyone else is doing, which is either lapsing into this state of terrible ennui or putting all their energy into looking the other way.” So she garlands herself with noble status for bailing from the country while others don’t–and yet how many Americans can afford to go and buy an apartment in Venice just because they feel like it? (Or even a trailer in the Salton Sea?) And of course before long it becomes obvious that escape from Trump is just a narrative for Eva to get what she wants. Eva talks about political oppression and yet treats her servants and friends appallingly. Meanwhile, Bruce ponders the life and financial circumstances of his long-term secretary Kathy who is undergoing treatment for cancer. Kathy has been dumped by her husband (when he heard about the diagnosis), she’s drowning in debt and supports both of her impossibly selfish children. Kathy isn’t a martyr to duty; she’s a realist and in spite of her many troubles, she blames no one.

Shelter In Place, a very clever title, also refers to decorator Jake, who has emotionally ‘sheltered in place’ for decades following a tragedy. He finds it safer to engage in sexting with strangers than take a risk with real flesh and blood relationships. There’s are wonderful sections involving Jake and his partner Pablo, both decorators, each with a different aesthetic, attitudes, and motivations.

The point wasn’t to create a room that reflected their personalities. It was to create a room where they belonged.

It’s hard to relate to the privilege some of these characters enjoy–the millions they fling around and yet at the novel’s core we see humans struggling with their lives, finding excuses to bail. Ultimately Eva is a case study in a horrible human being: not ‘bad’ in a criminal sense, but a woman who’s been so indulged that she’s become a tyrant, holding everyone in her orbit in thrall, never called on her bullshit accounts of her past and present. Some of the funniest scenes involve her 3 Bedlington terriers–all named after characters from the novels of Henry James. It’s through these three dogs, we see Eva at her most intolerant worst, bitching at Bruce for walking the dogs with a neighbour who voted for Trump and then coming unglued from her perfect world when her dogs start peeing on the furniture.

One of my favourite characters is the perennially angry Aaron; fired from his job, he now simmers in the stew of failure. While he’s a liberal, he wants to take PC-ness and tear it out of society; so far he’s doing a pretty good job of it as a one-man wrecking ball. He attends a Lydia Davis book signing, although he can’t stand her work, claiming, as he holds up one of her books that the problem isn’t that young people don’t read but “what they read. Shit like this.” When told he doesn’t ‘get it’ because he’s “a man,” Aaron cuts loose:

Fine, then, Jeffrey Eugenides. He’s a Jerk-off. As is Jonathan Fucking Franzen, and Jonathan Fucking Lethem, and Jonathan Asshole Safran Foer. All of these fucking Jonathans, they’re total jerkoffs.

Then he launches into Barbara Kingsolver:

She is the embodiment of liberal piety at its most middlebrow and tendentious. Her novels are the beef ribs of fiction.

And:

Ninety percent of what gets published is worthless. With any luck, that’ll be the silver lining of this fucking election, that when writers start to feel oppressed again they’ll start to write books worth reading instead of all that idiotic upper-middle-class self-absorbed liberal navel-gazing crap we got when Obama was president.

If you can’t tell. I loved this book.

Review copy

 

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Filed under Fiction, Leavitt, David

The History of My Life by Casanova Vol. I

“I was all my life the victim of my senses”

Casanova’s memoirs have sat on my shelf for an indecent number of years. I bought the complete set (6 books total–each containing 2 volumes of memoirs) after a strong recommendation, and it didn’t take much arm-twisting as I have a weakness for memoirs. So 2011 was the year I finally picked up the first volume after whetting my appetite with some literary foreplay about The Great Lover.

Casanova (1725-1798) wrote the memoirs  beginning in 1789 while serving as the librarian for Count Waldstein at his castle at Dux in Bohemia. I’ll be honest and say that it’s not really clear how much is true and how much is fabricated. This is a concern with any memoir, of course, but in Casanova’s memoirs the issue of truth raises its head at almost every turn.

Volume I begins aptly with Casanova’s ancestry, his birth in 1725, his claim to nobility, his unremarkable childhood and ends in 1744. The first pages introduce the influence of women on Casanova’s life and also his strange health problems. He suffered from hemorrhages–a matter of no small concern especially since Casanova’s father died quite young from an abscess of the brain. Casanova’s parents were actors, and Casanova spends some time detailing his ancestry.

After his father’s death, the theatre-owning Grimani brothers became the family’s “protectors” or patrons. The plan was that Casanova would have a career in the church and he was sent to the University of Padua with that goal in mind. After three years at the University of Padua, Casanova received “minor orders” and became a “young ecclesiastic.” A further taste of the ecclesiastical life buried any illusions of a career in the church, and by the time the first volume ends, Casanova has literary aspirations.

This first volume shows Casanova in embryo. He still has a lot to learn about women, and for this reader, the most interesting aspects of this volume of the memoirs are to be found in the lessons Casanova learns. He’s a quick study when it comes to women, and a single incident is very easily converted into a lasting attitude towards the female sex.

One important lesson comes in the shape of Angela, a young woman Casanova becomes obsessed with. She plays a game of fast and loose and drives Casanova wild. In the meantime, her two friends, Nanetta and Marta make it perfectly clear that they are willing to comply even if their fickle friend isn’t. The lesson here for Casanova (and it takes him some time to stop panting after Angela) : enjoy the delights of the women who offer themselves and don’t waste time on the ones who tease beyond a reasonable amount of time.

In another significant episode, he’s driven to distraction by Lucia, a young servant girl who visits his room and sprawls on his bed. While they engage in a many a round of foreplay, the relationship is not consummated. This is something that Casanova rues much later when he learns that the girl ran off with a scoundrel, so he reasons that he ‘saved’ her for nothing. This is an important lesson for Casanova: why scruple against having sex with someone as who knows if they will still be there on the morrow? Here’s Casanova after receiving the news that Lucia has run off with another man:

As downcast as these decent people, I buried myself in the woods to ruminate my grief. I spent two hours in the most various reflections, some of them sound, others unsound, but all beginning with if. If I had arrived, as I might easily have done, a week earlier, my loving Lucia would have confided everything to me and I should have prevented this murder. If I had proceeded with her as I did with Nanetta and Marta, I should not have left her in the aroused state which must have been the chief cause of her yielding to the scoundrel’s desires. If she had not known me before she met the courier, her still innocent soul would not have listened to him. I was in despair at being forced to admit that I was the agent of the infamous seducer, that I had worked on his behalf.

While Casanova appears to blame himself for warming up Lucia, he comes to an interesting conclusion:

It is certain that if I had known where to look for her with any likelihood of finding her, I should have set off immediately. Before I knew of the disaster which had overtaken Lucia, I was proud, in my vanity, that I had been virtuous enough to leave her a virgin; and now I repented in shame of my stupid restraint. I promised myself that in future I would behave more wisely as far as restraint was concerned.

It’s impossible to read this volume without being struck that everything in Casanova’s world operates on favours. It’s the original ‘who-you-know’ scenario, and this is a system first seen in Casanova’s childhood and carried through to his old age. In this first volume, we see him passing from patron to patron as he begins to shape into the bon vivant, practiced seducer & the great storyteller.

I’ll admit that I initially found the beginning slow going but the pace picked up after Casanova left his childhood behind. This is not a fast read as the text is so dense with many quotable nuggets I wanted to reread. Some of the sex episodes were tedious–especially the one in which Casanova recounts a certain amount of coercion in a rather distasteful episode with the bride of a tenant-farmer. He recounts seizing the bride in a chaise during a thunderstorm and “clasp[ing] her by the buttocks” he carries  “off the most complete victory that ever a skillful swordsman won.” While Casanova has sneakily rearranged his breeches in order to achieve this, there is no mention of the woman’s undergarments, so it seems that there is some exaggeration here in order to create the illusion of a smoothly seamless and rapid seduction.

There are many wonderful quotes here, and it is difficult to select just a few to give a taste of the memoirs. Here’s one I particularly liked:

 You will laugh when you discover that I often had no scruples about deceiving nitwits and scoundrels and fools when I found it necessary. As for women, this sort of reciprocal deceit cancels itself out, for when love enters in, both parties are usually dupes.

And another quote that captured my imagination:

A quarter of an hour after my arrival, the murmur of water struck by the oars of a gondola coming in to the landing announced the prodigal Marchese.

It’s impossible to read this volume and not comment on the fantastic notion of Casanova serving the Church of Rome. Of course, he would have had plenty of earlier examples set for him–the Medicis and the Borgias leap to mind. He is such unsuitable raw material. Apart from his love of the sensual, he lacks humility and is insulted by the notion that he must humble himself before ‘superiors.’ Casanova seems to slip easily into a life of nimble wit and entertain his patrons, but he balks at the notion of obedience and subjugation. He is horrified at the idea of penury and obscurity, and it’s clear that when he thinks of a career in the church, he imagines an ambitious, meteoric rise to power. He probably would have been very happy if he could have become a cardinal and skip all the necessary steps to get to that point. He notes:

I had only six more months to spend in Venice awaiting the prelate, who was perhaps to set me on the road to the Papacy. Such were my castles in Spain.

Also in this volume, it’s quite clear that Casanova’s weakness for women is for women in general (at one point he waxes on about the beauty of women’s feet), but he does discriminate against ugly women at least at this stage in his life. We also see his ruinous gambling habit and his nose for intrigue. I’m including here a wonderful quote that rings of sincerity:

Having observed that I have all my life acted more from the force of feeling than from my reflections, I have concluded that my conduct has depended more on my character than on my mind, after a long struggle between them in which I have alternately found myself with too little intelligence for my character and too little character for my intelligence.

 Translated by Willard R. Trask

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Filed under Casanova, Non Fiction