Berendt has a knack for colorful characters

By DONNA LIQUORI, Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, October 22, 2006

In John Berendt's latest book, "The City of Falling Angels" (Penguin; 2005), the author describes how he accompanied an artist vandalizing a mural on a plywood enclosure along the Grand Canal in Venice.

The artist Ludovico De Luigi was one of the many colorful characters to grace the book that deals with the 1996 fire at the great Fenice (feh-NEE-cheh), Venice's opera house. De Luigi had painted flames on the mural of the Fenice and was interrupted by police, who did not arrest him because it was during Carnival, Venice's famous festival when mischief-making is common. They were being patient with pranksters like De Luigi. (De Luigi had nothing to do with the actual fire.)

Berendt had arrived in Venice three days after the opera house fire, the smell still in the air. Originally intending to visit for a few weeks, he decided to stay and make Venice and the Fenice fire his next book project.

"I figured I wasn't going to do anything illegal, and if he was, he was going to have to pay the consequences," Berendt said in a phone interview, recalling the night of De Luigi's mischief. "I was just amused by all that. If I had been arrested, so much the better. It would have been quite an experience."

Berendt spent nine years either living in or traveling to Venice to research the book and along the way spent a good deal of time befriending a number of characters, just as he did while researching his first book, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" (Random House; 1994). When working on "Midnight," he lived in Savannah from 1985 to 1990.

"I try to be off to the side a little bit, but I sometimes get roped into the action," he said.

Berendt, a Syracuse native, is scheduled to be in Albany to speak at the New York State Writers Institute at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Page Hall on the University at Albany downtown campus.

"Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" boosted tourism in Savannah, Ga., with tour buses stopping at various locales made famous by the book and the subsequent movie featuring Kevin Spacey and John Cusack. The now famous cover of the book featuring a picture of the Bird Girl statue from Bonaventure Cemetery has created an iconic image. Reproductions of the statue can be found in gardening catalogs and even Target. The statue became so popular it was removed from the cemetery and now is at a Savannah museum.

"It was all research," Berendt said of his interactions with characters in both books. "The crazier it got, the better the material. So I enjoyed the research in both cases."

Splendid isolation

Both cities offered many similarities in their isolation and beauty, but posed different challenges.

"When you're writing a book in either such places, where it's a self-enclosed universe, with the world in microcosm, everything that happens there is much more vivid. There's an atmosphere that suffuses the story. So it's wonderful if you're writing a book that is so well-defined and is inward-looking. Of course, reading a book in any of those two towns, you have the feeling of escaping, which is always a lovely thing," he said.

"They're both very isolated communities: geographically, historically, culturally -- every way -- emotionally. Savannah's surrounded by piney woods and marshes, and it's on the ocean. And Venice is in the middle of a lagoon. Savannahians never leave Savannah. I know people there who are in their middle age and have not been to Charleston, which is less than two hours by car," he said.
When comparing the two experiences of writing in Savannah and in Venice, Berendt felt more at home in Georgia: "Savannah was more relaxed for me. For one thing, the language was my first language and it was simply a more relaxed atmosphere. In Venice, I really had to familiarize myself with a city that had been a republic for a thousand years. There was everything that comes with that: the history, architecture, art, culture and literature."

Then there was the language barrier. Although Berendt had studied Italian as an exchange student in Italy when he was 16, and later continued to study the language on his own, he found that "the Italian one was a little harder. The challenge was to translate and capture the character of the conversation," he said. "You do lose some subtlety, inevitably. And it was a challenge."

Colorful characters

Even so, both places also seem to embrace eccentric people, who seem to be drawn to Berendt.

"Midnight," for instance, opens with Jim Williams, a colorful antiques dealer, who is later accused of shooting Danny Hansford to death. Williams' commentary about Savannah sets the tone of the book, introducing readers to Savannah's wild side and some of its eccentrics.

"He was very forthcoming and very darkly funny. He was a charming and hilariously funny, ironic kind of guy. He had a little bit of evil in him," Berendt said. (Williams died before "Midnight" came out, but Berendt had read him the first chapter.)

Despite spending years working on single projects in which he immersed himself in the cultures of two very different cities and the lives of their citizens, Berendt said he never tired of the subject matter in Savannah or Venice.

"Neither one became boring. Otherwise, it would have shown in the writing, I think."

As to what's next, Berendt hasn't decided. "I can tell you it will be in English."

Donna Liquori is freelance writer from Delmar and a frequent contributor to the Times Union.

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John Berendt