Monday, January 16, 2017

From The Life Sentence: On Donna Leon

Another re-post of an article of mine from Lisa Levy's late lamented site The Life Sentence:

Obsession and Betrayal in Venice (Donna Leon 101)
In a 2003 interview at, Donna Leon said that she doesn’t allow her very popular Commissario Guido Brunetti series, set in Venice, to be published in Italian translation because, “I don’t want to be famous where I live … the people in my neighborhood know that I am the American who lives opposite Nando and above Angelo. It would just change the tenor of my life.” The 24th book in the series, Falling in Love, deals directly with the consequences of the kind of fame Leon wants to avoid in her adopted country, in particular the phenomenon of the obsessed fan. Leon uses one of the ongoing themes in her series, the opera, as the setting for her examination of fandom, and as the central character she has chosen one of her few non-police recurring characters, the singer Flavia Petrelli, who appeared in the first Brunetti novel, Death at La Fenice (1992), as well as one of the best books in the series, Acqua Alta (1996, book five).
Leon’s reflection on fame and her return to Flavia provide a good opportunity to look back at the Brunetti series itself. It is one of the most popular crime series worldwide, with a particularly fervent fan base in Germany (where there is a German-language TV series based on the books) as well as the United States, Leon’s home country. Leon’s vivid evocation of the city of Venice is, of course, part of the appeal of the series. She doesn’t dwell on the tourists or tourist attractions (which are a constant background to the series and the city itself), dealing instead mostly with the city’s real life: its shopkeepers, aristocrats — among them Brunetti’s in-laws, Conte Orazio and Contessa Donatella Falier — as well as immigrant workers, bureaucrats, criminals, and police. Also in evidence is the shadowy and sinister face of this unique city, as seen in Brunetti’s pursuit of a fleeing figure in the new novel:
He saw a figure, really half a figure, standing at the point where a calle opened on to the riva. He saw a coat, perhaps a raincoat, perhaps a scarf. Brunetti’s step faltered and he came down heavily on his left foot … When he looked again, the figure was no longer there, the only trace of it the sound of diminishing footsteps.
The passage suggests the maze-like pathways as well as the unique quality of noise in this city built on water: sound travels quickly and echoes off water and walls, making faraway noises seem immediate and even threatening.
The running cast of characters also has a lot of appeal, among them a feckless boss, Vice-Questore Patta, a nemesis who remains mostly (ominously) offstage; Lieutenant Scarpa; Brunetti’s assistant, Vianello; Patta’s omnicompetent (and somewhat subversive) secretary, Signorina Elettra; and, of course, Brunetti’s wife, Paola, a professor of English literature, and their children, Chiara and Raffi (who age very slowly through the series, remaining in the spectrum of childhood to late adolescence).
While the Brunetti books, with their abundance of local color and gastronomic treats, appeal to the fans of the traditional mystery, Leon has something darker and deeper in mind. Brunetti’s investigations frequently do not result in clear answers or resolutions. Falling, for example, concludes with an unexpected abduction, leaving Brunetti and Vianello rushing to catch up. The book ends with a sudden resolution that the two policemen can only witness helplessly. The scene also includes a passage typical of Leon’s use of language and imagery: in her moment of greatest threat, the victim muses that the “things that made her herself, had ceased to function. She looked down and saw her shoelace and though of how beautiful it was, how perfect, what a wonderful way to tie a shoe, and how efficient shoes were, to keep your feet safe. Safe.” Leon pauses the rapid pace of the final events for a moment that captures the abductee’s adrenalin-heightened mental state and emphasizes the emotional reality of the threat, not just the physical aspects.
Frequently both justice and Brunetti’s intentions are derailed by corruption and the powerful political, aristocratic, and bureaucratic forces of the seemingly all-powerful but nearly invisible organized crime networks. The ongoing theme of the series is a confrontation between ordinary humanity and powerful forces that are at best indifferent and sometimes malevolent. In negotiating this territory, Brunetti and his closest associates (in particular Vianello and Elettra) often work within the cracks of both the legal system and the social order, while the interests of Patta, Scarpa, and sometimes even Paola’s parents, the aristocratic Falier family, do not always cohere with Brunetti’s. (Falier is indeed the name of a historic family in Venice, though the palazzo that bears their name in the novels does not exist).
In one passage, Brunetti’s thoughts to himself give a sense of the whole series, as well as the particularities of Falling in Love:
[He] had rarely had to deal with the mad. The behavior of the bad made sense: they wanted money or power or revenge or someone else’s wife, and they wanted them for reasons that another person could understand. Further, there was usually a connection between them and their victims: rivals, partners, enemies, relatives, husband and wife. Find a person. Find a person who stood to gain—and not only in the financial sense from the death or injury of the victim and put some pressure on that connection or start to wind in the connecting line, and very often the returning tug would lead to the person responsible. There had always been a line: the secret was to find it. Here, however, the reason might have been nothing more than a casual conversation, a bit of praise, a bit of encouragement.
The lack of any reasonable motive makes the detective’s usual methods, focused as they are on personal and social links among those affected by a crime, ineffective.
Falling in Love begins with a performance of Tosca that highlights a series of events in Flavia Petrelli’s recent life that to anyone else would not seem to invite any kind of danger. After performances on her current tour — at the opening of the novel, she’s reached Venice’s La Fenice Theater — the stage and her dressing room are filled with a cascade of yellow roses that go beyond the usual adoration of her fans. She asks Brunetti, when he greets her after attending a performance, to look into the threat that she perceives in the overabundance of flowers. Not entirely convinced at first, the detective gradually enters the world of opera fans who demand access to the star and even a reciprocation from the singer of the obsessive love they feel toward the object of their obsession. Along the way, we get a backstage tour of the world of opera, with all its artifice, jealousy, and artistic achievement. Since the opera is Tosca, we also get some ironic parallels to the Brunetti novels themselves: the story deals with murder, suicide, and a corrupt policeman named Scarpia. (Leon’s wry reference to her own maleficent Lieutenant Scarpa is reinforced by a sly joke about shoes — the Italian word for “shoe” being “scarpa.”)
Though some readers may be startled or unsatisfied by her frequently ambiguous endings, Leon has accomplished the not inconsiderable task of joining the atmosphere and social realism of noir with the charm and appeal of the traditional mystery. Her portrait of Venice (and Italy in general) is clear eyed about the attractions as well as the sometimes very dark realities of Venetian and Italian life: in Falling in Love she refers to the “crowds, the corruption, the cruise ships, the general cheapening of everything.” Her plots, which often have a natural quality, as if the author didn’t plan them so much as let them happen, also defy sub-genre classification. There are sometimes puzzle-like qualities, but always based on the actions of people caught in the contradictions of the city and its diverse cultural elements. More frequently, Brunetti, doggedly and with considerable frustration, fights his way through a fog of shadowy motives and erratic actions until there is a clearing of sorts that gives the reader (if not the detective) some kind of resolution, as well as an investigation of the facts of contemporary life in (and beyond) Venice. In the new novel, Leon also, with some astringency and perhaps a bit of vengefulness, demonstrates the sometimes unpleasant burden of fame, through her depiction of an extreme example of the fans and devotees from whom the author seeks some solace in her Italian anonymity.
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