Rendezvous in Venice by Philippe Beaussant

I took a chance on Rendezvous in Venice – I’d heard very little about it, but all the signs were good. The wistful cover image caught my eye when one of my favourite bookish tweeters bought the novel and posted a photo on Twitter. I loved the title with its hint of a secret meeting between lovers and Venice setting (who can resist a novel set in Venice?). It’s published by Pushkin Press, a trusted and reliable source of literature. I seem to do well with their novels, so I snapped it up. Luckily it turned out to be an absolute gem – it’s a beautifully nuanced story and a delight from start to finish.

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First published in French in 2003, Beaussant’s novel is narrated by Pierre, a young man with a passionate interest in art. Pierre learnt everything he knows about paintings from his Uncle Charles, a quiet, gentle and solitary art historian who is no longer alive. During the fifteen years he spent working as Charles’ assistant, Pierre acted as faithful and attentive pupil. He was always willing to listen as his uncle recounted ‘the history of the world through the gaze of a painted woman.’

Following Charles’ death, Pierre makes a startling discovery in one of his uncle’s private notebooks. A line catches his eye: ‘I will never return to Venice…’ Moreover, there is mention of a woman waiting by a canal. At first, Pierre wonders if his uncle’s notes refer to a painting, a tableau by Canaletto, perhaps. But as he reads on, Pierre realises that his uncle’s notes say ‘I’ and ‘me’ – Charles was writing about himself. The woman is for real – her name is Judith, and she is waiting for Charles. Here’s a short extract from Charles’ notebook:

She is waiting for me. And I, from the bridge, I watch her waiting for me. I am still recovering from a bad night in the train. It is cold, that damp cold which is colder than cold. That woolly mist of Venice in the winter penetrates me. I stay up there. From the bridge I contemplate the most beautiful sight a man can imagine, especially if, like me, he is moving towards what one calls ‘maturity’: an attractive young woman, not only attractive but desirable, tender and sweet, who is waiting for him. She seems so absorbed in her waiting that she pays no attention to anything around her, not even to me, already there and looking at her. (pg. 21)

The notebook reveals details of a deep and passionate affair between Charles and Judith, a short-lived but intense romance that appears to have taken place some 25 years ago when Charles was in middle age. This revelation comes as a complete surprise to Pierre as he cannot imagine his uncle in a close relationship with a younger woman. Women were not absent from his uncle’s thoughts, Charles loved them, but they were always women in paintings – Bronzino’s Eleanor of Toledo, for instance.

Rendezvous is a short novel, and the story is so delicate that I’d like to allow readers to discover it for themselves. Save to say as the narrative unravels, Pierre is left wondering just how well he knew his uncle, this man who seemed so focused on technique, the brushstrokes and layering of colours on the canvas.

Is my uncle, the one I knew, the one I loved, the one who taught me everything I love, was he only a dried-up heart, a lonely soul who hid behind his smile? Was the ever-so-engaging smile of my dear old uncle only a mask? (pg. 106)

Instead, I’d like to mention a few other points about Rendezvous. Alongside the intriguing storyline, this novel also offers a wonderful meditation on art. It contains reflections on a number of Italian Renaissance artists and their paintings, including Botticelli’s Primavera and Piero di Cosimo’s portrait of Simonetta, which resides in Chantilly, France.

There are references to novels and the appearance of art in literature, too. In a beautiful scene from Rendezvous, Pierre recalls Charles discussing the passage in Anna Karenina when Konstantin Levin meets Anna for the first time. Levin has never seen Anna; he only knows what people say about her. While he is waiting for Anna to appear, Levin sees her portrait and is overcome by her image.

Suddenly he hears a voice behind him. He turns around and there she is: alike, different, alive. He doesn’t know what to look at any longer. He looks at what is between: between Anna and Anna’s portrait. If you read the long chapter carefully where Tolstoy narrates Anna and Vronski’s stay in Italy, you will understand that what is ‘between’ is him, Mikhailov, the painter. You are forced to think about him, there, alive, brush in hand, between Anna and her portrait. Levin knows nothing about him, he doesn’t know him, but he is forced to guess at that presence. (pg. 42)

It is Charles’ belief that Tolstoy offers his readers one of the deepest and most profound insights into the art of painting: the potential to see what is ‘between’ the artist and their subject.

Rendezvous also explores our tendency to build stories around the paintings we view, to imagine the lives we are glimpsing even if they are caught in a moment of time. In another wonderful passage, Pierre learns how his Uncle Charles constructed a life for the five-year-old girl featured in a small Flemish painting, Little Girl with the Dead Bird, a girl he named Margreet. He saw a corner of her heart closing down forever at the death of her beloved bird. He envisaged her life: conversations with her mother; her relationship with the bird before its death; her marriage at sixteen to the nephew of a burgomaster. All this he could read and project by studying the painting – the lack of sparkle in the young girl’s eyes, the lines on her forehead and turn of her mouth. Here’s Pierre at an early stage in the novel as he considers his uncle’s insight into art:

I understood his passion for the art of portraiture by watching him contemplate faces in the street and on buses. This man, who liked nothing better than faces frozen in a painting, could see there a thousand times more than in a face, living, moving and changing. “A minor painter paints what he sees,” he used to say. “One recognizes a great painter in that, in what he shows, he puts everything there is, and everything else. He paints a young princess and the whole woman is present, even what she doesn’t know about herself, even what she hasn’t yet lived, even what she perhaps won’t live but should have lived because her face said so. Because of a fault in destiny, it’s possible it will never happen. (pg. 42)

As you’ve probably guessed by now, I rather loved Rendezvous in Venice. It’s an elegant story, delightfully subtle and full of ravishing images. There is a timeless quality to the narrative as if Charles and Judith’s affair could have taken place thirty years ago or fifty years earlier. The writing is exquisite; it’s a joy to read. This is a must for any lover of Renaissance art and Venice.

As one might expect, this novel is also a wonderful evocation of Venice. At times, it feels as if the reader is roaming the streets of the city with these characters. I’ll finish with a favourite quote, one that captures the beauty of the writing as Pierre recalls walking with his uncle in the evening light.

We crossed the small tangled canals of the San Maurizio and Sant’Angelo neighbourhood, with their tiny bridges, and my uncle leaned on his elbows on the railings of one of them. This was the time of day, I knew, when he let himself go a little, when his imagination wandered freely. He drew on his pipe, and the reflection of the water’s undulations brought momentary flushes of light to his face, colouring the small puffs of smoke he spread around him with the pinkish gleam of night fall. (pg. 30)

Rendezvous in Venice (tr. by Paul Buck and Catherine Petit) is published in the UK by Pushkin Press. Source: personal copy.

49 thoughts on “Rendezvous in Venice by Philippe Beaussant

  1. roughghosts

    Sounds wonderful. My favourite indie store has a small press section and invariably all of the Pushkin books look and sound amazing. I will have to make a note of this one, sounds like an ideal for when I desire a change of mood/pace.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is such an exquisite little book in every sense. The story itself is absolutely charming. I would love to say a little more about it, but it’s such a brief novel and to reveal anything else might spoil the surprises to come!

      Your indie store sounds fab. Just as well I don’t live within travelling otherwise I would be bankrupt by now. :-)

      Reply
  2. Tredynas Days

    Enjoyed this piece, Jacqui, thanks. Sounds worth a look. I’m reading John Harvey’s new book ‘Poetics of Sight’ at the moment, which is largely about the relationships between painting (art) and literature, so this novel sounds highly appropriate. Don’t think he’s mentioned it so far. Will review it on my blog at some point, time permitting. Hadn’t heard of Beaussant: is it a contemporary novel?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Simon. I think it’s a delightful little novel. It was originally published in French in 2003, but it has the feel of a much older novel. There’s a beautiful, timeless quality to the story almost as if it could have taken place at any point in the second half of the 20th century.

      I’m not familiar the Harvey you’ve mentioned, but I am interested in the whole relationship between art and literature. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for your review. On a similar theme, have you read Ali Smith’s How to be both, another book that features art (frescoes in this case) as part of the narrative? It’s such a playful novel full of ideas and connections between the two intertwining threads. I liked it very much.

      Reply
      1. Tredynas Days

        No, though I loved Artless & her short stories. I’m interested in this notion of ekbasis- writing inspired by a work of art. Harvey’s book is concerned with ‘visual metaphor’. It’s on the TBB pile: To Be Blogged!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Glad to hear you enjoyed Artful as I’d like to read that one. I love the way she plays with form – it’s a blend of essays and fiction, as far as I can tell.

          Looking forward to hearing more about the Harvey as and when. (I have a few books on my TBB pile as well!)

          Reply
  3. poppypeacockpens

    What a truly evocative review Jacqui – you certainly sell this as being beautifully written … and how intriguing to contemplate ‘the potential to see what is ‘between’ the artist and their subject’

    Another one for wishlist – have to say you have really broadened up my reading horizons since joining Twitter… thank you!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Poppy. I really loved this one, and it would make a perfect gift for anyone interested in art and the stories captured by paintings. It came just at the right time for me, the perfect antidote to all those tales of tortured marriages I’ve been reading lately!

      Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    I enjoy it when literature involves and explores visuals art. I find that literature and other art forms compliment each other very well.

    Venice could not be a better setting for such themes.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, me too. There must be a genre of novels featuring the relationship between literature and art – I can think of quite a few off the top of my head.

      Venice is the perfect setting for this story; I’m almost tempted to book a weekend break in the Veneto region right now!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, how I envy your language skills! I would love to be able to read this novel in French. It’s a very subtle story, and the translators must have done a great job as the prose is so elegant.

      Reply
  5. audreyschoeman

    I love reading reviews on books I’ve read – you have pulled out such different aspects of it to me but they’re great ones. Wasn’t that passage about Little Girl with Dead Bird wonderful? The whole book made me want to know so much more about art. And go to Venice. I’ll be reading this again.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Audrey. It’s so interesting to compare notes, isn’t it! I’ve just read your review, and you’ve captured the novel very well. The story behind the Little Girl with the Dead Girl was one of the highlights for me, almost like a mini-narrative within the novel. Isn’t it funny how we can imagine a person’s life — their backstory and situation — just from studying a painting? I’d like to revisit this one too, and it’s certainly brief enough to warrant a second reading.

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    What a lovely review, Jacqui, and the book sounds glorious – as are most Pushkin books I find. Straight onto the wishlist…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I’m going to stick my neck out here and say I’m fairly confident you will enjoy this one! It might leave you with a few questions and a desire to know more about one or two of the characters, but there’s so much to enjoy. It’s almost getting to the stage where I’ll buy these Pushkin Collections novels without a second thought…they’re just so reliable.

      Reply
      1. kaggsysbookishramblings

        I’m pretty much the same – I don’t think I’ve had a Pushkin that let me down yet!

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I loved it, Caroline. It’s on the wistful/nostalgic side of melancholy, and it suits the setting perfectly. I think you’d enjoy Beaussant’s prose style too.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Pushkin Press are pretty reliable, aren’t they? I’ve yet to be disappointed by one of their books, especially those in the Pushkin Collection. There’s something rather wistful about this one.

      I’d never heard of this author before. I’m hoping Emma might drop by as I wonder whether she might be familiar with his work.

      Reply
  7. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    I visited Venice once, quite some time ago, and it would be wonderful to “roam the streets of the city” again. This sounds like a perfect book for when I am looking for something quiet and introspective.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s been a while since I visited too, but I’d love to go back – Verona is another favourite. And I love the wines of the Veneto region, so it’s the perfect setting for me.

      Introspective is a good way of describing this one; it’s rather lovely and thoughtful. A timely chance of pace for me after some of the women-on-the-edge stories I’ve been reading lately!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, me too. It’s one of the things I loved about this book. I can spend ages gazing at paintings imagining the lives and backstories of the figures they capture. Rendezvous is a lovely little novel if you’re looking for a change of tone, something charming and wistful.

      Reply
  8. 1streading

    This sounds like another wonderful find from Pushkin. I hadn’t realised it was a contemporary book – perhaps it was the mention of Venice that made it seem older.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is. (How do they manage to unearth these gems?!) At first I thought it was an older book too, partly because several of the Pushkin Collection novels I’ve read were written in the first half of the 20th century. And there’s something very nostalgic about the story in Rendezvous – it’s timeless in a way.

      Reply
  9. litlove

    This sounds charming. I love the Pushkin Press editions, they are so toothsome. I don’t dare add any more books to my toppling TBR at the moment, but I’ll have to bear this in mind for another time. I can imagine how the spare, exquisite writing must read in French – brings Maupassant to mind for me, a writer whose style in short stories I love.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I know that feeling about the TBR, and I suspect you have so many books crying out for attention especially with your SNB commitments! Rendezvous is rather lovely, ideal if you fancy a vicarious trip to Venice one day. It’s funny you should mention Maupassant as he’s on my list of writers to try. Delighted to hear you are a fan of his short stories – I’m sure I’d enjoy them too!

      Reply
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  11. Max Cairnduff

    Pushkin, reliable as ever.

    I love Venice, though our (me and my wife) last trip there was so good we probably won’t go again for a while. When I do I may try and take this. It sounds a good companion to actually being there. It is a most melancholic city in some ways, which makes it sound here like the mood of the book reflects the subject.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a nice idea. I think you’d enjoy this one, Max, and it would make an ideal companion on a trip to Venice, especially if you were going again with your wife. You’re right, there is something very wistful and melancholy about the city – it’s just the perfect setting for this affair. I loved the character of Uncle Charles, such a charming chap…

      Reply
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  13. Emma

    Sounds terrific.

    The description of uncle Charles and Pierre’s relationship reminded me of In Search of Lost Time, first volume, Swann’s Way. Indeed, in this volume, Charles Swann loves art, paintings in particular. He falls for Odette because she reminds him of a painting from the Renaissance era. There are also a lot of descriptions of Venice, as the Narrator wishes to visit the city.
    I wonder if there’s a hidden reference to Proust in this novella.
    I’ll have to read it to make up my mind.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ve never read Proust (yes, I know), but it wouldn’t surprise me. Rendezvous contain references to various others works (artistic and literary) – several paintings are mentioned, plus Anna Karenina, so there may well be a nod to Proust, too.

      I think you’d enjoy this one, Emma. In fact, I was wondering whether you might have read it already. I hadn’t come across Beaussant before, but his prose is exquisite.

      Reply
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