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.
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.