What happens when absolute beauty encounters absolute beauty in the most beautiful city man has ever created?
“The Gondolier” is the stunning debut book of D.C. Marriott. A wild globe-trotting novella, it is a Candide for our times. Three sections,three towns, 100 hilarious and poignant pages which will forever alter the way you define the world you see in front of your eyes.
A third of the novella is available as a free download from here
However we are delighted to be able to present an extract on the blog. Happy reading, one and all.
by D.C. Marriott
PART 1 :: VENICE
Mary Lou and William Pasternik, a supremely content American couple stand either side of Giovanni, the gondolier. He too looks content, almost radiant in his happiness. There is good cause for this. Giovanni is making a lot of money. At the moment his friend Luca pressed the shutter (subsequently charging the couple four dollars for doing so) Giovanni felt the pleasure of knowing that these couple of highly lucrative days work would easily finance a couple of weeks of highly enjoyable sloth.
The gondolier, his hands resting on dopey Yankee shoulders after days spent inside dopey Yankee wallets, was at the moment of his hypocritical grin completely unaware that within sixty minutes he will suffer an emotional turmoil which he and most people of his acquaintance had always believed he would be immune to. Giovanni, the gondolier, was about to fall in love.
Young, handsome and hard of heart, it was not a predictable occurrence. Lust was the only genuine feeling which, until that day, had touched him much. Giovanni was a little pleased with the reputation as a Casanova his womanising had brought to him. In the six years he had worked on the canals he had charmed his way into many a bed, upset a fair number of husbands, brought tears to countless tourist girls and seduced several of his former schoolfriends’ sisters. When his own sister described his gondolier life as that of a “priapic swan” his brain assumed the insult had been meant as a compliment. “Don’t you think you might hurt some of the women you play with?” she further asked. The question was strange to him. The only honest answer Giovanni could give was to shrug his shoulders. He did not know. He did not think like that. He struggled to understand the enquiry.
In the world’s most romantic of cities the sickness of love abruptly and with some fabulous depth struck into Giovanni’s soul. Later he blamed the light, the craft and play of the sun on the woman’s fine fair hair. Yet the victim should have known better. After all, he was not some new arrival, some silly sucker who sought grandeur, wonder and tender illusions. Giovanni was not in Venice for a weekend with his wife, attempting to atone for years of neglect with two romantic days, nor was he there to lose himself in the beguiling backstreets, the lightless labyrinths which disconcerted the visitor but which Giovanni knew stone by stone. He was not there to get lost in a darkness which would enhance the magician’s weave of this most beautiful of towns. Giovanni was no visitor. He lived there. He was a Venetian, pure, a man of the canals by both birth and descent and an official gondolier ever since the moment the muscles on his Venetian arms had allowed him to propel and steer his father’s gondola from Palozzo Grassi to Spirito Sante in less than five hundred seconds. He was no tourist, no outsider and love, love at first sight, frightening, romantic, soft wet love, could not possibly alight on him.
Which was perhaps why when love did indeed arrive and kiss him with such force he looked not at its object, but up to the sky, gazing in confused disbelief.
A gentle yet persistent sun trickled heat into the middle of the early spring day. Two streets away from where Giovanni stood with his arms around the American couple, about to have his photograph taken and the moment immortalised, Helena and Krystal, two young tourists from Sweden, sat down on the grass of the Giardinetti Reali. If they had been looking they would soon have seen Giovanni row past, turning his gondola around the curve of Canale della Giudecca, sunlight bouncing graceful across the arc of his oar as he pulled it through the dirty blue water. Giovanni was returning the Americans to his cousin’s hotel. There he would arrange their taxi to the airport, (a slow slow drive with his old schoolfriend Marco) share a beer and a pizza with the receptionist, before leaving the hotel to go face his lovestruck fate.
The two young women meanwhile suffered a giddy excitement; not an unusual first morning emotion for the pilgrim to Venice. As a twenty first birthday gift Helena’s father had bought her a ticket to his favorite Italian city. When his daughter pleaded with him to allow her to share the experience with her best friend, the wise old history teacher had been willing to add another ticket instead of the excessive amount of spending money he had set aside for her. So, unable to afford a hotel in Venice itself, on arrival the two young women had stayed overnight in the rather miserable town of Mestre, a bus ride away. They had risen early that morning, dressed hurriedly and jumped onto the bus to Venice, hungry to feast their eyes on sights they had seen in movies, on television, hanging reproduced on living room walls, in books, in paintings. Now they were to really see it, actually in front of their eyes and their excitement was immense.
The Grand Canal met with their expectations. Truly sumptuous views greeted them at each and every turn. The mix of monuments and water seemed to the young women to be nothing less than perfection, exquisite poetry brought alive. From the people crammed Ponte Rialto all the way to Piazzo Marco it was impossible for the women to turn their heads in any direction without being struck by how sublime the setting truly was. For five hours they walked or they rode river buses or they crossed bridges, switching from bank to bank, marvel to marvel, in an almost sensual sweep and dance along the architectural miracles of the Grand Canal. It proved quite overwhelming; far too much to take in and appreciate all at once and so, when they flopped happily on the grass of the Giardinetti Reali, the women decided that after a short rest they would start the sightseeing all over again, back by the route they had just taken, but at a much slower pace.
Tired out by their adventure and by a hoodwinking sun which preferred to trickle its heat discreetly into the day so the souls below would not notice its presence until their blood was weighed down by it, the women fell asleep in the peace of the Giardinetti. Crystal dreamt of picnics and of a boy back home. Helena, whose sleep was not so deep and who had no boy back home, dreamt only of Venice.
When Helena opened her eyes she saw the city’s most revered and renowned of churches, probably its most recognised buildings, the Santa Maria della Salute, an ornate mountain of white Istrian stones topped off with elegant baroque domes. Its distorted facade reflected onto the canal and, as she closed her eyes and drifted away once more into light slumber, Helena thought how much like the Canaletto painting (a print of which hung in her father’s study) it resembled. For a minute or two she dreamt of her father and of Crystal on the Rialto Bridge. She opened her eyes, seeing Canaletto’s paintings again, magnified so that it took up the whole of the land and the sky.
The sun closed her eyes once more. She slept for a further thirty minutes, a lick deeper than before. When she woke, suddenly, Helena thought how similar to Venice this place looked. She had to remind herself that, “of course it does. It is Venice,” although for a few moments she was slightly confused. She had seen Venice so many times and the city did indeed look so much like its various reproductions that, emerging from dreams, the reality needed moments to be able to catch up with the library at play in her head. Without moving an inch Helena closed her eyes a final time, asking herself if it was possible that someone had erected a gigantic screen across from her and was at that very moment projecting an image of Venice onto it. “Not possible,” she decided, laughing. “This is it. This really is Venice”. Helena quickly opened her eyes again and looked straight across the canal to the Salute, prompting an immediate change of mind. “No, it’s really a projection,” she thought, laughing at the wildness and the weirdness of her waking thoughts.
She stared across at the Salute, mentally solidifying stones which had taken fifty years to put into place and have since stood protecting the city for more than four hundred years. After several minutes Helena accepted that it was real, indeed the whole city was real and she really was there, really really was there in Venice. She turned to see if Crystal had awoken and upon seeing her sitting up staring into the distance, decided, despite their latent insanity, to share her thoughts. “This view seems too magnificent to be true,” she declared. “The whole town seems like that.”
Crystal spun her head around to face Helena. She smiled but it was a weak effort. Something was distracting her and Crystal turned her head back in its direction. Helena followed her friend’s gaze. There was someone standing close to the trees, about ten metres from where they lay; a man. He did not seem able to make up his mind whether he was watching them or watching the birds flying overhead. When Helena turned her head he actually buried his face in his palms. “What an odd boy,” she said, a little alarmed.
“Odd?” asked Crystal, a touch of distaste in her tone. “He’s been staring at you for the last twenty minutes. What’s so odd about that? You always get the good looking men chasing you. It’s not fair.”
Helena stood up and began to put her shoes on. “Come on,” she said to Crystal, “let’s go. He’s giving me the creeps.”
Giovanni, sensing that if he did not lose his fear and move immediately he could suffer a loss which would cripple him as a man, rushed from the trees.
Giovanni’s mother had been a noted beauty. On her eighteenth birthday a spurned suitor threatened to hang himself from the Bridge of Sighs if she did not reconsider his marriage proposal. The hanging proved impractical as the bridge was then closed for repair work but, a resourceful fellow, he make do with jumping from the third storey of the tenement building his grandmother owned. Maria, preparing for a party, had declined to take his last telephone call. The suitor was still holding the receiver in his hand as he made the leap into the void and the birthday party was not to be the success Maria had fervently hoped it would be. She kept a photograph of the dead man inside her purse for the next sixty years.
Such was her beauty that no man, whether alone or out with his wife, could pass her in the streets without distorting his neck to follow her subsequent steps. When propositioned (which was often) Maria was naturally coy and would not say a single word. She would smile and shake her head as if terribly embarrassed. This, of course, simply enhanced her beauty. Yet, by time Maria had reached the age of twenty five her beauty had dissipated enough for her to be able to enjoy the luxury of walking the streets without even a hint of molestation. A cool observer would see right away that awesome beauty had once graced her face, for much of it still remained. But the simple hideous truth is that physical beauty is momentary, is with some for a brief passage of their lives when they are best advised not to make too much of it for it will decline as certainly as an untended garden.
Ninety seven days after his twenty seventh birthday Antonio, Giovanni’s father and also a gondolier, was as handsome as he was to ever be. Before that day his fine looks were merely heading towards their peak and from that day on they were running away. His son would be luckier for it was not until his thirty third year that Giovanni’s wickedly handsome face reached its own mountain top.
And the moment he first lay eyes on Helena, the good gulp of seconds when he could think of nothing yet still held a vague knowledge of something being completely wrong, the twenty one year old woman lying half asleep in the grass with a serene smile on her face and the sun playing loose with her Scandinavian hair, was reaching the precise second when her beauty would touch its pinnacle. She was astounding and no prince or pauper would feel unhappy to lie at her feet. With long flowing hair and perfect form, with eyes to tempt the devil to goodness and angels to sin, Helena looked as if she had walked straight from one of Titian’s finest canvases, got dressed and joined an inferior yet vastly wider world which became infinitely richer by her presence.
Like his father, like many an inhabitant of an old city which desperately tried to cling on to its handsome looks even though the glory had long ago passed, Giovanni was beguiled by absolute beauty. Helena, who he saw from the bank of the canal, crushed him. “Something dreadful is happening,” he thought, without thinking what it may be as he tethered the gondola and ran to the trees at the back of the Giardinetti. He stared at her, eaten with perplexity and close to a fear which he unwillingly remembered from his first day at school. He looked at the sky, hoping she would be gone when he looked back. Days passed. Giovanni covered his eyes, a rushed movement, brutal, his little finger squashing his nose as he pointed his head in the direction of the birds. This was unfathomable. A queen lay ten feet away as Giovanni studied pigeons. He was a man, Giovanni told himself, a strong man and not only that but a man of the city of the Doges, of Casanova and Titian. Giovanni compelled himself to look back at her and as he did she suddenly stood up, as if about to leave. Sensing the approach of panic Giovanni’s last clip of courage permitted a profound risk. He looked at the woman, wanting her to be someone else, someone younger or older. But, when he saw it was her, still her, his soul held a quick, cool enquiry and filtered blood back to the banks of his head. Not sufficient amounts to allow him to return to the state of grace he had been in just thirty minutes previously but enough to allow him to make the decision to step forward, to do so with haste and to talk to the divine creature who had fallen from heaven to land just feet from his gondola.
For more of this stunning debut novella visit The Gondolier Website
The art critic Robert Hughes described Chartres cathedral as a great call from man to God. The call, made from the summit of a hill, insists, “We are here. See Us.” Now in Marseille we have a new call, a boldly spoken, exquisitely beautiful psalm: The Mucem.
It is not Christian. But it is. But it is not. The outer concrete surface manages to simultaneously echo the stained glass windows of traditional churches and the calligraphic contours of a mosque. Allah and his prophet are resolutely within the building. We must bear in mind that throughout its long recorded history, which begins with Greeks sailing from Turkey, Marseille has always given home to the entire panoply of peoples who inhabit the Mediterranean. Even the French state, so belligerently insistent on a policy of integration rather than multi-culturalism, have here surrendered to the reality of Marseille, a fluid manifold reality which Mucem reverently embraces. Ancient and modern civilisations are always at play around the sea and the Mucem bows its head in acknowledgment.
But this psalm, this poem of love, of respect, of fear also, is not directed at Jesus or Mohammed or any other more ancient deity. Here, there is one supreme God and it is Mare Nostrum. Looking down from the muscular suspended bridge which separates MuCEM from the fort opposite, we cannot differentiate the base of the building from the ripples of the water around it. They are same. We gaze across the roof of the MuCEM to watch its attempts to merge with the horizon, to enfold itself in a shoreline symbiosis.
The MuCem possess a power of its own making, a power it insists upon with its flexed, muscular connecting arms. But to the Mediterranean MuCEM offers humility. The building is an act of worship, a request for the impossible paradise The Architect is always condemned to try to conjure, the Paradise he knows cannot exist without the blessing of a God. It is a psalm of supplication; acknowledging the cruel and beautiful power of the Mediterranean which grants it life, it bows down, it offers itself as a gift. From Marseille to the sea: a humbly offered gift. “We are yours,” it calls, “Protect us. Be kind to us.”
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