Few cities live up to their literary reputations as much as Venice does. The shimmering mirage that illuminated Thomas Mann's seminal novella Death in Venice is the same today as it was when he wrote it in 1912. So too, it seems, are the characters consumed by the city's seething Dionysian urges. Nearly a century later, British author Geoff Dyer, in his latest pair of novellas, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, has returned to Venice an updated version of Mann's aging dilettante. Jeff Atman is an art critic sent from London to cover the 2003 Venice Biennale. His four-day stay a condensed version of Mann's summer is a heady dose of drink, sex and drugs daubed with pithy observations about the world of modern art at its most commercial.
For my own trip to the 2009 Biennale (open through October 2009), I eschewed my Fodor's guide in favor of Dyer's, but it quickly emerged that Dyer is primarily a guide to the psyche. Self-loathing and angst are the destinations he trawls, Venice merely the conveyance that takes his characters to those dark domains. The persuasive immediacy of the prose is such that it becomes all too easy to see Venice through Atman's self-consciously hip sunglasses. Pleasure dissipated from my first vaporetto ride the moment I opened the book. "You came to Venice," muses Atman, "you saw a ton of art, you went to parties, you drank up a storm, you talked bollocks for hours on end and went back to London with a cumulative hangover, liver damage, a notebook almost devoid of notes and the first tingle of a cold sore."
The Biennale of Atman's visit was marinated in Bellinis, a cocktail of peach juice and sparkling wine invented at Harry's Bar, tel: (39-41) 528 5777. There was none to be seen at this year's parties, but prosecco flowed freely. One of the best selections of Venice's native drink prosecco grapes are mainly grown in Veneto minus the art-world pretension or tourist-trap prices, can be found at Timon, tel: (39-41) 524 6066, a decidedly laid-back bar where patrons can dangle their feet over the canal out front.
The opening week of the Biennale 2009 seemed little changed from 2003's. The names were the same British artists Gilbert & George, the American Bruce Nauman and the discussions almost identical. Ambition, both on the part of the artists and the collectors who hoped to gain prestige from their purchases, dominated every event. "The hunger to succeed ... was ravenous," Atman says. "In different historical circumstances any number of these artists could have seized control of the Reichstag or ruled Cambodia with unprecedented ruthlessness."
But then the Biennale is seldom about substance. Atman measures his worth by the invitations he receives to the best parties, forever suffering from "the fear that there were better parties you'd not been invited to, a higher tier of pleasure that was forbidden to you." I countered my own lack of invites by fleeing to such sanctuaries as Osteria alla Bifora, tel: (39-41) 523 6119, where Franco, the irascible and rotund proprietor, buffs and polishes a gleaming red 70-year-old meat slicer with the care most men would pay a Ferrari. Or there's Osteria ai 4 Feri, tel: (39-41) 520 6978, where the favorite is spaghetti alle vongole, and you can slurp up the ambrosial sauce of wine, lemon and garlic with a discarded clam shell. Solace can also be found in the convivial embrace of Enoteca Ai Artisti, tel: (39-41) 523 8499. There, a selection of four dozen or more local wines by the glass provides the perfect oenological tour of the region and the proprietor soothes art-related insecurities with his tales of Biennales past.
Dyer's second novella is an equally intimate exploration of the psyche of an unnamed first-person narrator whose willful plunge into worldly renunciation is as terrifying as Atman's embrace of hedonism. But after a week exploring Venice with Jeff, I don't feel ready to visit Varanasi with his alter ego. In fact, I'll definitely pack the Fodor's.