Book Review: “Im Licht der Lagune” by Hanns-Josef Ortheil

OrtheilIn a few weeks time, the German readers’ group I occasionally join, will read Hanns-Josef Ortheil‘s latest novel. I had tried to find it unsuccessfully. So to get an idea of the author’s writing, I settled on a translation of his “Im Licht der Lagune”.

With it, I also carried home “The Luminaries” by Eleanor Catton. You may be aware it won her the Man Booker Prize 2013. She recently made headlines not with one of her novels, but by speaking out. (See Guardian “Eleanor Catton”.)

My idea of carting off these two books was, that if one disappointed – surely the other one might please. It may have been naif, but I presumed that despite its size, the Man Booker Prize novel would win hands down.

Not so: after about 50 pages, I put “The Luminaries” down. The chance I’ll ever pick it up again hovers between unlikely and not ever. Compared to “Im Licht der Lagune”, language, pace, style, are like concrete about to set. Reading “The Luminaries” is like wading through thick molasses.

Reviewers mention: “… a classic example of 19th century narrative, … set in the 19th century, with all the right-sounding syntax, clothing and props, the project twists into another shape altogether as we read, and continue to read. The book is massive – weighing in at a mighty 832 pages. …”

Believe me: “The Luminaries” is anything but a classic example of 19th century narrative and anybody with a decent experience of reading classics from that period will be able to affirm this. It doesn’t have the “right-sounding” syntax, phrases, speech etc. Any author doing a decent research, will be able to pop in “clothing and props” in his story. An above average author will be able to write a story with pace, interesting and engaging characters, intricate plot, twists, turns, surprises which keep a reader breathless, without needing over 800 pages. So: do you want to spend hours reading over 800 pages of 20th century 19th century spoof?

The contrast with “Im Licht der Lagune” simply was too great. Ortheil’s style of writing was like reading a Turner painting being created in front of you. There are scenes which recreate shimmering Venice in your imagination. One of these is right at the start of this historical novel.

Count Paolo Barbaro, scion of an old Venetian family, is hunting in the Lagoon. He and his companion find a boat containing a body. They carry it to a monastery for burial. There the mysterious man who might well be an aristocrat, turns out to be alive but can’t remember a thing.

The count is an art lover. With his younger brother, who lives in England, he has set up a secret trade in Venetian art. He takes in the mystery man, Andrea, as a servant. The count also falls in love with his neighbour’s eldest daughter. She ends up married not to the count, but to his younger brother and starts an affair with Andrea.

The intricate relationships and machinations mirror the Venetian Republic’s state of affairs. Venice and its old aristocratic families are in decline. Old customs and families die out. The republic will soon lose its freedom.

The story also focusses on art. The count contemplates paintings and loves to watch artists paint. Andrea has a natural talent for drawing and painting. The count’s brother is also a collector and sells art his elder brother has secretly bought. Andrea, whom the count treats like a son, breaks Venetian codes of conduct. Bridge of SighsUltimately, he will be replaced by the English painter William Turner.

Of course, Turner visited Venice and captured its splendour and decay. Anybody who has seen Turner’s Venice paintings knows, many of these are “shams”. They do not capture the real Venice, but an imaginary one.

“Im Licht der Lagune”, Hanns-Josef Ortheil, published by Luchterhand, München, 1999. This novel has been translated in other languages.
“The Luminaries”, Eleanor Catton, 2013. Man Booker Prize winner 2013. Available as hardcover, pocket, kindle.


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