Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Books, printing, letters, love and Venice

I finished a satisfyingly long and good read on my last evening in Venice - after all what is a holiday without a book?
Michelle Lovric lives in Venice and her book The Floating Book is set at a time when the first printing presses arrive in the city of scribes. Her characteristion of people from diverse backgrounds in the Venice of that time and the great way that she weaves the story of Catullus' poems, the delight in type-face, the shape of letters, feel of paper, love stories and different religious themes make it a really good read. I also enjoyed the fact that I immediately recognised her translation of the only poem by Catullus that I could remember in Latin and had quoted to Dr B the previous day - he knew it too of course, ah the joys of the Cambridge Latin course! (Still going strong it would seem.)

The Floating Book is one product of Lovric's love affair with Venice, she's also written an anthology about the city. On her website she has written more about Venice and also some interesting things about the process for her of writing in poetry and then in prose. Anyway whether you are travelling to Venice or not it's well worth a read.

People who read The Floating Book may be surprised to learn one other thing about it. Large sections of the book were originally written as poems and only later deconstructed into prose. For me it is important that the words have an auditory flavour, but more to the point, the discipline of poetry forces the writer to ask more of each phrase. Being a book about poetry, this exercise was all the more purposeful. In London I belong to several writers’ workshops, where I ‘expose’ my fledgling novels in their poetic forms. Now I have helped to set up a poetry school in Venice for English-speaking writers. Venice can block and obfuscate some writers, just as she goads others into torrents of words. They don’t even have to be about Venice …
Once a writer-friend came to Venice to stay with me, and we wrote in industrious, companionable silence in the same room overlooking the Grand Canal for two weeks. I drafted chapters of The Floating Book and she worked on her own novel. We did not discuss or read each other’s work. But back in London she did show me what she had written. I was astonished, not to say vaguely offended, to see that Venice featured not at all, except in the form of a postcard propped up on her heroine’s mantelpiece. It was brilliant, subtle.
I could never be so abstemious.