There are books I keep in the bathroom, not for the purpose you are all thinking of, but to read while I brush my teeth. Since electric toothbrushes became the norm, with their mandated two minutes of brushing, multi-taskers like me needed to fill that empty space. Two minutes are a very long time to stand by the sink, contemplating one’s wrinkles, or to sit on the toilet at one with one’s toothbrush
The books of choice for this task are small volumes, mostly poetry, that can be opened at random, or short essays that can be digested in a few dental sessions. The current one, that prompted me to sit down and share my thoughts with you, was bought years ago but, strangely, never opened. It’s Joseph Brodsky’s “Watermark” and I say “strangely” because his meditation on Venice and its effects on humankind and himself in particular travelled with me at least twice, during my pilgrimages to Venice.
My love affair with Venice, the city on water and not its Californian counterpart, started a long time ago and it is by no means over. That I opened this book only now, when Venice’s weather is turning cooler and the city is preparing for another grey, humid and foggy winter while I am still enjoying balmy days in Los Angeles, has turned out to be a gift in disguise.
Short on physical descriptions and depictions and long on literary meditations, personal adventures in the city and metaphysical thoughts on Venice and its place in the collective imagination, every time a particular shade of light, a fondamenta or a feeling are mentioned, images of this wondrous place come alive.
Check out his description of the water:
“[..] For water, too, is choral, in more ways than one. It is the same water that carried the Crusaders, the merchants, St. Mark’s relics, Turks, every kind of cargo, military, or pleasure vessel; above all, it reflected everybody who ever lived, everybody who ever strolled or waded its streets in the way you do now. Small wonder that it looks muddy green in the daytime and pitch black at night, rivaling the firmament. A miracle that, rubbed the right and the wrong way for over a millennium, it doesn’t have holes in it, that is still H2O, though you would never drink it; that it still rises. It really does look like musical sheets, frayed at the edges, constantly played, coming to you in tidal scores, in bars of canals with innumerable obbligati of bridges, mullioned windows, or curved crownings of Coducci cathedrals, not to mention the violin necks of gondolas. In fact, the whole city, especially at night, resembles a gigantic orchestra, with dimly lit music stands of palazzi, with a restless chorus of waves, with the falsetto of a star in the winter sky. The music is, of course, greater than the band, and no hand can turn the pages.”
It is such clarity and poetry that make me run into a hole and never want to write another word and, conversely, push me to express things as my truth makes me see them.
If you have never travelled to Venice in winter, Brodsky will make you pine for a void in your life you didn’t even know was there. If, like me, you are thinking of Venice as a future place of residence, the book will remind you of all the reasons, good and bad, why such a move would be difficult and transforming. It takes a tortured soul and a literary genius to set aside clichés when it comes to describe a city that has become a cliché in itself.
And, as I unwittingly discovered, there are books that are better read two minutes at a time.