This week Gregory Dowling takes us to 18th century Venice with his novel Ascension! It sure makes me want to go for a little trip to Italy…

How or why is the setting important to who your character is?

Gregory DowlingIt is crucial to my character. He is an Anglo-Venetian; he was born in Venice but moved to England with his mother when he was very small and so grew up there. He has returned to the city of his birth and now works there as a tour-guide for wealthy English visitors, who are usually doing the Grand Tour. Although he grew up in England his mother brought him up speaking Venetian, so he is bilingual. The result is that he feels a close attachment to Venice, while at the same time maintaining an outsider’s perspective on it. As he is the narrator of the stories this is obviously helpful, since it means he doesn’t necessarily take all Venetian customs and ways for granted and can explain them to the reader (it also helps  that he is a guide, of course). Although he feels very Venetian he is not always accepted as such by Venetians, and so ends up feeling a little divided. But an awareness of the special nature of Venice is a fundamental aspect of his character.

Which location did you enjoy writing the most in your story? Why this one?

The obvious thing would be to name some very famous location like St Mark’s Square, and I certainly did enjoy imagining what it was like in the 18 th century. However, the scenes that work best in this novel, I think, are the ones that take place in a comparatively little-known palace on the Grand Canal, Ca’ Garzoni; the palace belongs to a Venetian nobleman who has lost most of his fortune but maintains all his fierce pride, and so the grandiosity but at the same time the dilapidated state of the building say something about the condition of Venice at the time. I chose this particular palace because for many years it hosted the university department where I worked, and so I got to know it pretty well. Mind you, I have never been on the roof of the building, as my hero does. And the condition of the palace in the 18 th century is essentially my own invention. I suppose it was one way of re-appropriating the palace after it had been sold by the university. At the time it was generally believed that it would become a hotel, because, of course, if there is one thing Venice needs, it’s another hotel (I should probably add an irony emoji here); however, now it transpires that it has been turned into a luxury condominium. If Ascension sells a few more million copies, maybe I’ll be able to buy one of the apartments there…

When you visited France, which location did you prefer?

This question comes really at a very opportune time because in a way I have just rediscovered France. When I was a child we used to go almost every year to France for family holidays, usually to the south-west, around Bordeaux, but visiting other parts as well. And so when I grew old enough to travel independently I felt I had, so to speak, “done”
France, and I wanted to see other places. This is one of the reasons why I ended up moving to Italy, never having been there until the age of 22. Over the years I have visited Paris a number of times, often for academic reasons, but very few other parts of the country. Just this summer, however, my wife and I were invited to go and stay with friends in a house in Brittany, and from there we took a trip to the Loire valley. It was a marvellous holiday. Probably the Loire valley was what struck me the most, partly because it reminded me of holidays spent there over 40 years earlier, when I was a teenager being dragged around large chateaux… I now saw the whole place with new eyes but had the memories of those earlier holidays to add a touch of sentimental nostalgia.

If I had to name just one place discovered during the holiday I would pinpoint the amazing church of Notre-Dame de Cunault on the Loire. Partly this is because we discovered this church quite by accident; while we had planned our visits to the various chateaux with some care, in the case of this church we were just driving along the bank of the Loire and saw this stunning Romanesque building towering over the river. And in contrast with so many of the chateaux, this church had almost no visitors. There was something very impressive about its position as well, with the broad tranquil river flowing past it.

What gave you the greatest cultural shock when in France?

I would have to go back to childhood memories to dredge up anything resembling a cultural shock; and it would probably have something to do with plumbing arrangements, which are perhaps not exactly cultural…

Which part of the French archetype did you discover to be wrong? Right?

They do eat long baguettes. They do eat snails. Haven’t come across any frogs’ legs yet.

What do you think would be the greatest cultural shock for a Frenchman who visited the location of your story?

Venice is so famous that very few people can have any doubts about what to expect. Perhaps the greatest surprise (shock is too strong a word) is to discover that it actually is the way it appears in paintings, films, ice-cream advertisements… It really is a city where “the streets are full of water”, as an American humourist once put it. I think that many people expect the popular image of any place to be somehow illusory – or, at least, only a part of the story. Yes, the Eiffel Tower does exist, the Tower of Pisa really does lean, there is a Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, but all these cities also contain dreary suburbs or traffic-jams or glue-factories…. Whereas in the case of Venice, with the exception of the car-park at Piazzale Roma, the whole city is what the tourist-images have led us to believe. It surprises us by its total lack of unexpectedness.

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