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Im Licht der Lagune.

Hanns-Josef Ortheil. Im Licht der Lagune. Munich. Luchterhand. 1999. 330 pages. DM 42. isbn 3-630-86999-8.

In 1786 Count Paolo di Barbaro, while hunting ducks in the lagoon near Venice, notices a boat stuck in a swamp. In it lies a nude young man, apparently dead. Thus begins a fascinating tale involving two ancient Venetian families and a mysterious young stranger. The first few chapters of the novel set the stage for the eventual interaction of the two families with each other and with Andrea, the young stranger who was actually alive in the boat and who recovers in the monastery to which Count di Barbaro takes him during the first evening of the action.

Count Paolo di Barbaro, age forty-six, the older of two brothers, lives alone in a large palace in Venice. His life consists primarily of collecting paintings, contemplating them in his own gallery, and sending some of them to his brother Antonio, who has a position at the Venetian embassy in London. Next door to the palace of the di Barbaro family is the one owned by Giovanni Nardi, a senile, infirm widower and father of three daughters. Nardi has recently commanded his eldest daughter Caterina (age twenty) to return from the convent where she has been educated.

The bulk of the novel relates how these people use arcane inheritance laws and outmoded social conventions to make one another miserable. Paolo di Barbaro falls in love with Caterina and decides that he wants to marry her. But Giovanni Nardi wants Caterina to marry Antonio di Barbaro, who, being the younger of the two brothers, will not inherit the di Barbaro palace and fortune. Thus, according to Nardi's plans, Antonio will live with Caterina in the Nardi palace, and the couple will, so Nardi hopes, produce a male grandson for him. During the decisive meeting between Nardi and Paolo di Barbaro, the latter completely acquiesces in Nardi's plans.

The wedding between Caterina and Antonio takes place, but the marriage is not consummated, and Antonio returns to London a week later. Meanwhile, Andrea has been accepted in Paolo di Barbaro's household. At first he works as a sort of handyman, but when the Count discovers that Andrea has an extraordinary gift for drawing, he fosters this talent and employs him as a resident artist. After Antonio's departure for London, Andrea is employed as Caterina's cicisbeo - i.e., as a companion who is to escort and protect her when she appears in public.

In Hanns-Josef Ortheil's novel the requirements of chivalry and chastity for the office of cicisbeo are made abundantly clear. Nevertheless, Caterina and Andrea soon become lovers. At first Caterina acts as a model for Andrea, and this situation soon evolves into lovemaking. The ten to fifteen pages describing their first coitus and their subsequent prolonged honeymoon constitute truly inspired erotic writing. Count Paolo eventually finds a whole stack of erotic drawings depicting Caterina and Andrea. This discovery so infuriates him that he writes an anonymous letter to the Office of the Inquisition, denouncing Andrea and enclosing some of the drawings as proof. Soon afterward, Andrea is incarcerated. He is never charged with a crime, is never tried, yet spends a prolonged period in jail, where he eventually goes insane. After a period of grieving, Caterina finally confesses her "sins" to Count Paolo, who keeps the matter confidential, thus saving his brother's "honor." Count Paolo and Caterina become platonic companions. Antonio visits Venice from time to time, and Caterina bears him two daughters.

Above and beyond the action which I have described there looms the larger conflict between contemplative fatigue and hollow, senseless conventions, as personified by the di Barbaro brothers and old Nardi, and strength and youthful vitality, as personified by Caterina and Andrea. Caterina's old nurse serves as an eloquent choral character when she rails against the iniquity of marrying off a young woman to a much older man, against "false habits" and "old used-up ideas." In addition, throughout much of the book the contrast between the old school of painting as exemplified by Canaletto and the new school as exemplified by Andrea and later on by J. M. W. Turner is presented.

Given the abundance of topics woven into the fabric of the novel, it is perhaps not surprising that the author left a few loose ends: Caterina's sisters are mentioned only once or twice. Are they still languishing in a convent while Caterina establishes her brilliant salon? Is it credible that Antonio left his young and beautiful wife after one week of marriage without ever touching her? Could the Office of the Inquisition in eighteenth-century Venice really be induced by one anonymous letter to jail a person indefinitely without a trial?

These quibbles apart, Ortheil's new novel is a welcome addition to contemporary fiction.

Franz P. Haberl

Cardigan, P.E.I., Canada
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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