I must write something about the man from Los Angeles who has come to stay, which is awkward for two reasons. One problem is that bashing the Ugly American is a cliché of European journalism, only slightly less ugly than the idea that Europe—the United States of Europe, ideally—ought to emulate the United States in every particular. Here I hasten to assure the reader that what follows is not an attempt at generalization: I’m sure Pat Buchanan, for instance, isn’t in the least like my guest, nor were Emerson, Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot . . . Who else is there? The other problem is that I am about to vent my spleen, which, inevitably, will sound monstrously inhospitable. All I can say, by way of apology, is that I have been pushed to the limit.
Let me start at the beginning. There was a time when the very landscape of the United States—Manhattan’s skyscrapers, enormous cars with tail fins, writers drunk on bourbon, aircraft carriers that ruled the waves—intimidated the European visitor, forcing him into a spasm of revaluation: What was he, for all his descent from some Norman swordsman, who was this tweedy, balding, hesitant insect in the path of the Chrysler Building? But the world moved on, Moscow began making its submarines of seamless titanium. Hong Kong built its share of skyscrapers. Obviously, the stock prices of internet companies are no substitute for a landscape, nor is Kosovo for Korea.
The tables have turned. Hugh Grant is a matinee idol. Intellectually and spiritually, it is Europe—its surviving beauty, its superior serenity, its continued existence—which is now deeply insulting to my American guest. And, if I had recognized this beforehand as his Achilles’ heel, and set out to offend him deliberately, I could not have picked a better place than Venice, and our apartment over the Grand Canal, in the palazzo where Byron lived.
The American is rich, you see. He owns a house in Beverly Hills from whose windows you can see the scene of the Manson murders. Tour buses pass by, touting celebrity: “There’s Barbra’s house over there!” Naturally, he has a keen sense of his place in the upper tier of the American social pyramid. And here he is, with his monogrammed luggage from T. Anthony in New York, delivered by motorboat into our palazzo’s cavernous androne with a wellhead of white marble in the middle. He has no idea who Byron is (“Byron who?” he asks, and I cannot answer him because I presume he has never heard of anybody called Lord, nobody who is white I mean). He does not suspect that his matching set of luggage is actually made in Vicenza. He has never learned to eat spaghetti without a knife. But he has eyes and by his own admission he knows a thing or two about real estate, and this is his downfall.
He is insulted from the start, from his first glimpse of that other life, my life, a life I have every right to characterize, on the basis of income-tax returns and sworn affidavits from intimate friends, as the life of a poor struggling writer. He does not say, “But how can you afford this?” because it isn’t me, and my success or failure, which are on his mind just then, but his own power, and his own exalted position in the American social pyramid. He takes the private lift up to the galleried hall of the piano attico. Marble, marble, marble. Ornate ceilings. Oak parquet. All awash with autumnal light. Yes, Lord Byron slept here, and not always alone, while there, from that mullioned window overlooking the Grand Canal at San Toma, he would lean out in his shirtsleeves, waving to the gondoliers below, but that is not the point. The point is, he knows a thing or hvo about real estate, and now his worldview is tottering, and the ever-triumphant voice of the Hollywood tour guide that has sustained his prestige, and injected his family with the sweet, heady sense of earthly achievement, is so much faint patter.
Tottering, but not crumbling. Not a single fissure, not even the smallest chink. I marvel at its earthquake-proof elasticity, which brings to mind the purges in Stalin’s Russia, when a faithful old Bolshevik, with a lifetime of ardent service to socialism behind him, would open the door to his ostensible brethren of the NKVD who had come to arrest his ailing bedridden wife as a Bolivian spy and a trafficker in gold bullion. And guess what? More often than not, that poor sod’s worldview—rendered elastic by a thousand similar exercises in years past—managed to absorb the shock of the absurd, recover, and go on functioning until the last circle was squared in the back of his own head with the aid of a few grams of lead.
The European, his intellectual shell crushed like that of an egg by the architecture of New York and the power of America, used to fall silent, more often than not for the rest of his natural life. The American, flattened like a ball of Wrigley’s spearmint gum by the beauty of Venice and the luxury of Europe, talks even more than usual. He talks to waiters in restaurants. He shows wallet snaps of his children to shop girls selling masks. He talks to the gondoliers by the Rialto, and the remarkable thing is that all the while he does not seem to know whether he, Haroon al Rashid in the disguise of Joe Blow, wants to be treated by these strangers as a prince or a pauper. This is a classic of infantile psychology, a mental maneuver, incidentally, beloved of Dostoyevsky: If someone snubs him as an ordinary American tourist who thinks involtini are a kind offish, he turns capricious (“But I told him I don’t want any fish! Or veal!”) and vindictive (“Right, there goes his tip!”), but if you indulge him, he becomes suspicious (“They’re trying to rip me off!”) and defensive (“What does she want? I bet you anything she knows exactly who I am!”).
He is what they call a piece of work. With me he thinks he can be “open,” meaning talk frankly, and all he wants to talk about frankly is money: why I make so little of it, why I spend so much of it, why he makes so much of it, why he spends so much of it, why he doesn’t make more of it, why I should make more of it, how I should make more of it, how everybody should make more of it . . . Mark Twain, in one of his European travelogues, makes up a conversation between two peasants, Swiss I think, who discuss cow dung ad infinitum, and until now I used to think this was just a flight of fancy, a lighthearted, inconsequential squib. No, it turns out that it is perfectly possible to watch, breathe, and adore money 24 hours a day, as if bank notes were an agricultural fertilizer and man were a stalk of seakale beet in an inaccessible Alpine village.
I now understand that, for him, reality—American reality first and foremost, of course, and colonial reality to the extent it can be translated into imperial terms, real estate and other—is form, while money (which translates itself according to the current rate of exchange, not counting commission) is the content that fills the form the way a colored liquid may be observed following the contours of a glass vessel, or the way bronze is cast. But this image is much too concrete and tangible, too phenomenal I would say, to do any profound justice to his worldview. Money, for him, operates on the submolecular level. It is atomic. The nape of a woman’s neck, the feather of a seabird, the oar of a boat, all of this real estate is run through the spectrograph of his mind and analyzed for carbon content. And this palazzo in Venice is so rich in carbon!
When, after three days, he finally leaves on the first morning flight to Paris, I feel I have aged beyond words. That evening I meet for the first time the Roman coloratura Cecilia Bartoli, in Venice to sing Vivaldi, whom a mutual friend brings to the house:
Dite, oimè, ditelo al fine:
Deggio vivere o morir?
Sta mia vita in sul confine,
Pronta è già l’alma ad uscir!
She is a great beauty, dark, with huge, dramatic eyes like moist horse chestnuts and the proverbial alabaster skin, and as I listen to the mezzo-soprano to end all mezzo-sopranos, to the woman lamenting in the Venetian idiom of Scipione Maffei that her life is on the brink and her soul about to depart, I cannot stop looking at her neck and her shoulders, in silhouette against the carved balusters of the upper gallery where my son is hiding with a bouquet of wild flowers.
Looking, and thinking: What does that cost? And who can afford it?