Reading over my last letter from Venice, I spot the word “improbable,” which has somehow slipped in through the barbed wire fence of watchful Russianness I have been building in order to keep all manner of tripe out of these monthly communications. I am sorry, and promise that nothing of the kind will ever happen again. Never again, in the fortified, hermetic space that is this column, will anybody come across anything that will so much as suggest, for example, that

Everything that happens in Venice has this inherent improbability, of which the gondola, floating, insubstantial, at once romantic and haunting, charming and absurd, is the symbol.

Come to think of it, what I am in a position to offer here is a whole list of specific promises, which may at first sound difficult to fulfill but are perfectly realistic. I promise not to exploit the simile of trompe-l’oeil when speaking of “this painted deception,” meaning Venice. I undertake never to allude to the “friend of Byron’s, the Countess Querini-Benzoni, la biondina in gondoleta.” And, of course, I will make no reference whatever to the story of the city’s founding, apocryphal or not, by refugees from Attila the Hun:

Refugees, fleeing from him on the mainland, sought safety on the fishing islets and began to build their improbable city, houses of wattles and twigs set on piles driven into the mud, “like sea-birds’ nests,” wrote Cassiodorus.

Equallv off-limits will be the city’s “eternal present,” together with its alleged function as “part museum, part amusement park,” and the contention that “the tourist Venice is Venice: the gondolas, the sunsets, the changing light, Florian’s, Quadri’s, Torcello, Harry’s Bar, Murano, Burano, the pigeons, the glass beads, the vaporetto. Venice is a folding picture post-card of itself.” More uncompromising still will be the pitiless curtaining off of all mirrors, and possibly of all other reflective surfaces, rather in the manner of the childbirth scene in War and Peace. Without such apparently superstitious precautions, the unwary reader might be led to believe that

It is all for the ear and the eye, this city, but primarily for the eye. Built on water, it is an endless succession of reflections and echoes, a mirroring.

And, final and most important, in the months to come, the hoariest platitude of all will be laid bare and obliterated, in this space as in civilized modern minds, this being the view that “nothing can he said here (including this statement) that has not been said before.”

This view, with its parenthetical nod to Henry James, as well as every single one of the astonishingly banal quotations above, is drawn from Mary McCarthy’s slim and influential volume of cultural reportage, which the New Yorker first serialized some 40 years ago, Venice Observed. When Count V—, a kind neighbor possessed of an inquiring mind and a wholly admirable cook, asked my opinion of the little paperback edition he had lent me, I answered that, despite the recent Hiss revelations, there were some forms of McCarthyism I still found deplorable. Stupid Russian joke, I know, but at least the celebrated authoress would have been offended.

Anyway, here is how the celebrated authoress elaborates that last point, about the utter futility’ of gazing into Venice’s “mirror held up to its own shimmering image”:

One gives up the struggle and submits to a classic experience. One accepts the fact that what one is about to feel or say has not only been said before by Goethe or Musset but is on the tip of the tongue of the tourist from Iowa who is alighting in the Piazzetta with his wife in her fur-piece and jeweled pin. Those Others, the existential enemy, are here identical with oneself After a time in Venice, one comes to look with pity on the efforts of the newcomer to disassociate himself from the crowd.

Note the unmistakably McCarthyist touch, so instinctively felt by us Russians. From the cowardly safety of the grave, she is now trying to smear me with the same tar brush she has used on that honest and probably not at all loquacious Iowan. She goes on:

He has found a “little” church—has he?—quite off the beaten track, a real gem, with inlaid colored marbles on a soft dove gray, like a jewel box. He means Santa Maria dei Miracoli. As you name it, his face falls. It is so well known, then? Not to me, baby. We’re all rednecks here, for once.

Quite apart from the colossal snootiness—and of the cheapest, bath-and-racquet-kind, of course—inherent in this approach to a place of whose very language, after all, this American observer is largely ignorant, what is culturally catastrophic about her argument is the inevitable companion of country-club snobbery, guidebook materialism. Indeed, much of the book consists of a thinly veiled register of the pictures and architectural monuments she has visited, so that, by implication, the reader can draw the conclusion that once he, too, has seen all there is to see, there will be, logically, no need to stay. To want to stay is to want to disassociate oneself from the crowd, which is at once futile and pitiful. To want to stay is to want to leave New York.

Last week, as it happens, I had to attend the wedding of an American couple held at great expense at the old Rothschild stronghold of Ferrieres, near Paris. There were 320 guests, for the most part young, rich New Yorkers. One exception was a 20-year-old Italian, whom I overheard asking the mother of the bride if the chateau had belonged to her family. Why no, she said, I thought a little too dreamily. Then to the bridegroom’s family, he guessed again, helpfully. No, she said, this time a little more firmly. The boy from Treviso thought about her answer for a while, as if wondering whether saying anything else on the subject might not seem impertinent, but curiosity got the better of him. Then why are you having the wedding here, he asked.

You see, it’s the material infrastructure that counts, I wanted to shout to him. It’s a kind of all-the-madeleine-you-can-eat restaurant they’re running over there, don’t you understand? An all-the-literary-allusions-you-can-find library. Rent the chateau, check out the church, recognize the painting—these are the associations. Anything else is an endless succession of reflections and echoes, a shimmering mirroring and all that rot.

During cocktails on a famous lawn bounded by a famous lake, I spoke with no fewer than a third of the New York contingent, mostly—like the Italian—out of plain conversational curiosity, as well as the customary order to mingle. Everyone I spoke to was expensively dressed, even beautiful, perfectly behaved, and worked for an American investment bank. But by the end of the second minute of conversation, which, I eventually realized, was the moment they found out that I live (live?) in Venice (Venice, Italy?), each of these bright young things in succession turned on his or her heels and walked away without so much as a pitying glance.

Now fairly desperate, I tried London as a plausible residence, and this got me to the third minute, but no more. I then tried saying that my parents live in New York, that my wife has an American passport, that I am practically related to the bride, that I promise to name my next child Washington, “D.C. for short,” and so on. Useless, pathetic, immature! A salesman of insubstantial, shimmering associations! We’ve heard it all before! Venice, Italy! He says he lives there!

No stones are so trite as those of Venice, that is, precisely, so well worn. It has been part museum, part amusement park, living off the entrance fees of tourists, ever since the eighteenth century, when its former sources of revenue ran dry.

This I could read in their unamused eyes. Mind you, I had been drinking like a born Venetian, and was hustled off to dinner before one of these conversational engagements could turn into a drunken brawl, so perhaps I was just imagining things.

But anyway, I think this letter is a pretty good folding picture postcard of itself, as a letter from Venice should be. Are you happy, Mary McCarthy?