I already sounded the alarm in last month’s letter. This really is an impossible city to get out of And so, having bid my farewells, I’m still here, despite the fact that the rent has been paid in advance on a perfectly adequate little aerie over the Grand Canal in Venice. The place even has a spacious terrace, overlooking the charred remains of the Fenice, where, once I grow tired of looking at those perennially idle, cheerfully chrome-yellow construction cranes paid for by the friends of opera everywhere, my future correspondence will originate. If ever I get myself onto this spacious terrace of mine, that is.
The hereditary proprietor of the Venetian palazzo. Baron F-, turned out to be a cousin of a friend of mine from Cambridge, which was discovered quite by chance while the estate agent was showing me around the vacant apartment. So we immediately sat down to some suitably amazing crystalline white from the Veneto, and by and by the conversation turned to Florence and her ways. When I told him where I was staying, an ominous shadow crossed his brow. You will not be here before spring, my friend,” he said. “I can take your money now if you like, but you will not be here in time for the carnival. I know Florence, and I know these people. They will not let you go when you want to leave. They want to decide everything.”
I murmured something by way of polite disbelief. What exactly was he talking about? Voodoo? Brainwashing? Hypnotic influence? “More like telepathy,” he replied, unsmiling. “You’ll see. When the crunch comes, you’ll find out that they can read your mind.” Gradually the subject petered out, and by the time we sat down to lunch at the smallest and coziest of the five small cozy tables at Ernesto Ballarin’s “Da Arturo,” where my compatriot Nureyev had left a lasting cultural imprint by teaching the owner to fry potatoes and mushrooms together in the Russian manner, the conversation was about food, tax evasion, and the Venetian way of doing things.
This Venetian way of doing things I like very much, by the way, because basically it involves not doing them. Every man here is a careful dresser, a dapper and exceedingly complex arrangement of tasteful checks, stripes, and dots that cannot but make the onlooker whistle, thinking something like boy oh boy, if this fellow has so much energy to spare before he leaves the house in the morning, think of how much he has left over for the rest of the day! In fact, this is almost entirely deceptive, because all of the fellow’s energy, all his life force as it were, has in fact gone into achieving that sartorially perfect equilibrium between corporeality and imagination, and what little is left is the strength to raise an ombra to the mouth without spilling some grappa on the tablecloth in a feeble and indecorous gesture. I know I’m going to do well in Venice. Being gloriously one-eyed in a land of the blind is my idea of belonging. And if they denounce me for being a grasping overachiever, so be it.
The other day, in a book about Voltaire, I found some references to a Venetian named Algarotti who came to stay at Cirey, the Champagne estate where the great controversialist spent half his life shacking up with Mme. du Chatelet. Carlyle once described him as “not supremely beautiful, though much the gentleman in manners as in ruffles and ingeniously logical; rather yellow in mind as in skin and with a taint of obsolete Venetian macassar,” which, after a day spent in male company in Venice, sounded just about right to me. Still, I was curious about Signor Algarotti’s contribution to the world of ideas, which must have served as his passkey to Cirey. It turned out that this was a book entitled Newtonianismo per le dame, “a simplification of Newton’s theories intended for Italian women.”
Anyway, when I got back to Florence that evening, I had every intention of telling Princess C- that, wonderful as life had been in her famous city, in her historic house, and under her illustrious family’s protection, I could no longer afford to pay what it cost. And what it cost, incidentally, I no longer have any fear of revealing, for the simple reason that whenever a pretentious foreigner rents something fancy in Italy, it always costs the same number of millions. I need not convert this number into dollars, or explain what it includes, or even mention whether it is due weekly, monthly, or annually. The figure, predictable as a Henry James formula for romantic disillusionment, is a symbolic compact which represents the New World tenant’s naiveté on the one hand and, on the other, the Old World landlord’s legitimate desire to protect ancient relics from being overrun by hordes of visitors who are no less tightfisted for being so very naive. Hence, whether you rent a seaside villa in a fashionable resort, or the most architecturally important house in a provincial town, or a floor of a notable palazzo in a large city, the price will always be the same, and you will always have to pay it in cash.
The landlady was waiting up for me. If I were telling the story of a poor student lodging in a cheap boarding house, this would be the way to crank up the melodrama, but since mine is more the story of a rake’s progress, I will say instead that the Princess asked me to tea. “I think you are thinking of moving,” she said, doing absolutely nothing to obscure the emphasis of the remark, which fell rather more heavily on her own thinking than on mine. I gulped some tea, recalling Baron F-‘s warning about psychic Florentines of just a few hours earlier. “I know we’ve agreed on a certain figure, which you’ve been paying,” she went on, knowing only too well that I was already three weeks late with the month’s rent, “but now that I realize you’re thinking of leaving Florence, how would it strike you if I told you that I only wanted half?”
Spooky, that’s how, is what I remember actually thinking, though at this juncture the Princess chose not to read my mind, and anyway the thought did not linger. “After all, when we first met I did not know you.” Convincing, perfectly convincing, I suddenly said to myself, as if waking from some ugly confrontational dream and now beginning to imagine all the good uses to which I could put the rubber-banded wad, called “cutlet” in New Russian parlance, when next one found its way into my pocket. These Florentines are nothing if not perfectly convincing. The Princess does have a charming smile. Now that she knows me 50 percent better than before, the rent is halved. Convincing! And the tea is quite good, incidentally. Assam?
“Ceylon. So that’s settled, then,” she summed up brightly. You’re staying.” It remains for me to add that during the two months that followed our conversation certain changes came into the tenant’s life at the Palazzo C-. The wood for the fireplaces was not as dry and no longer brought up with the same enthusiasm as before. The other chambermaid, not wonderfully obedient Lucia, came more often and inaugurated the noxious practice of presenting household bills for such trifling items as candles and cayenne pepper. The choir practice in the other wing became less tuneful, and seemed louder and more intrusive. Finally and most significantly, I was being charged for heating, electricity, gas, and the rest of life’s prose, with the result that now, after the sums have been done, I can only wince and tell myself the terrible truth, which is that as a matter of practical reality my rent never changed. The same symbolic number of millions as always was actually withdrawn from my pocket, this time by means of an accounting procedure that I can only describe as telekinetic.
But as Baron F- had foretold, the important thing as far as Princess C- was concerned was that she got us to change our plans. (“Plans?! What plans can a lazy Venetian make with a drunk Muscovite?! Per piacere, sii serio!” is what I would probably hear if I could read her mind.) I am now leaving Florence not on my schedule, and less on his, but on the whim of a descendant of those shrewd merchant bankers who dealt in the absurd gullibility of mankind for so long that the manipulative cynicism in their blood can pass, in the sleepy, sleepier eyes of the rest of us frivolous and indolent Venetians, for a bit of spooky hypnosis.