Gregory Dowling: ‘Ascension’
Gregory Dowling: ‘Ascension’, 2015, Edinburgh, Polygon Books, 298 pages, ISBN 9781849673130
‘Ascension’ is a crime story, an historical novel and, above all, a pageant of Venice, the city everyone adores but can’t quite understand. The novel, complete in itself, is followed by a second, ‘The Four Horsemen’, 2017, another freestanding read, about the same characters on their implausible island in the Venetian lagoon. (See Anne Schiller’s review.)
Venice was born in magic, created by human sleight-of-hand not by nature. ‘Ascension’ is about secret rites meant to keep the magic going. The title itself comes from the Feast of the Ascension, ‘la Sensa’, the city’s holiday par excellence, which celebrates a Christian miracle that set nature aside. “In this city everything is connected with everything else”, says the bookseller Fabrizio, “But the knots that tie them are usually so intricate that you can rarely follow the threads from one end to the other”. (p.53) And therein is mystery.
Venice is also about playacting, the theatricality needed to keep life flowing when nature has been excluded. Everyone is an actor, some professional, some instinctive, others because their role demands it. The wielders of absolute power have to dress up in spectacular garb and put on a grand public show to make their authority felt. Life for ordinary citizens swirling in this airless swarm calls for hypocrisy. It’s a social necessity. They must feign blindness so that everyday living can go on—for hypocrisy is pretence, theatre. “[T]he infinite reticulations of the city’s network of gossip” make secrecy impossible. (p.156) The island’s population is an eager theatre-going public ready to leap onto the stage. It likes to amend facts with melodramatic twists. Wise young Lucia is right: “Everyone’s a performer in this city. Even the visitors. Either the city infects them or it invites visitors of a certain kind”. (p.280)
Alvise, the young man who tells the story was born to a Venetian mother, an actress. She took him with her to England where they traveled the country with an itinerant troupe. He was brought up in grease paint and the English language. It was perfect preparation for his work as a guide to Venice. With his gondolier sidekick, he offers transport over the canals, details of artistic treasures, and practical advice on getting through the Venetian day. Alvise is not only bilingual but a master of Venetian dialect, able to sort out the versions spoken in each of the city’s quarters.
That signals the author’s intentions, which far exceed what we expect from crime fiction or casual travel writing. Alvise’s background and profession (like Gregory Dowling’s) make him an able purveyor of the city’s history, institutions and way of life. To combine this heavy load in a multifaceted novel in the guise of a suspense story and mystery puzzle has called for no little ingenuity and authorial flair.
The fine distinctions of mentality, the historical facts and the action unfolding demand a lot of explaining. That makes the narrator, Alvise, a very talkative young man. Dowling weaves Alvise’s continuous reflections into a texture of action and incident, high-colour description, self-doubt and brilliant invention. Far from wishing Alvise would shut up, the reader would take a yawn of silence from him as abandonment.
We are never sitting still beneath a relentless lecture. Alvise’s episode of employment by the Higgins’ family shows him and the author at work. Mrs Higgins is an exigent middle-class Briton, determined to get her money’s worth and not to be cheated by a foreign lackey. She insists on attending a grand procession in Saint Mark’s Square on the Feast of Saint Isidore. While taking up a position in the Square, Alvise, chatting, fills the Protestant family of four in on Roman Catholic ways and Venetian civic ritual. Then, as the novel’s articulate narrator, he describes the elaborate ceremony itself. When a terrorist incident disrupts the proceedings, Alvise’s imparting of information continues amidst the hubbub and the search for a twelve-year-old Higgins who has got himself lost. ( p.46)
Mrs Higgins confusion about what is happening points to something special in Dowling’s approach to cultural differences. Like Alvise, he is acutely aware of national mentalities and their limits. He maps them out for us like facts of nature without milking them for humour or favouring some over others. Thus Lucia, Alvise’s love interest, is closely monitored by her Venetian father. He keeps her language chaste and her dealings with young men closely observed. In contrast, Miss Boscombe,“a young fair-haired lady in a frothy confection of pink and yellow silk”, can combine respectability with coquetry. She isn’t above uttering racy remarks with a titter. Her English clergyman father lets her roam the canals unchaperoned. (p.116) There’s a running joke about how it disappoints tourists that the locals don’t wear masks 24/7. They can’t know that for their own reasons nothing would please the Venetians more:
“...[F]or many Venetians being unmasked is an unnatural state of being and they cannot wait for the opportunity to return to the freedom bestowed by stiff pieces of pasteboard tied to their faces”. (p.227)
This awareness that different national cultures see things differently avoids the abiding vice of travel writing in English. The genre has the bad habit of seeing foreigners as preposterous and outrageously funny. That they are not like ‘us’ makes them grotesque, a barrel of fun. It’s self- indulgence that creeps in to the best of writers, for example, Evelyn Waugh, or, on a lower rung, the traveller, Bill Bryson.
Dowling is good on the feel of the city. Here is Alvise blindfolded trying to guess his whereabouts:
“Sounds. At the moment there were very few. From outside there was just the faintest sloshing of canal water and the occasional cry of a seagull [...]. Smells. Venice always offers an abundance of these, ranging from the delightful to the disgusting. Here I could smell nothing from the canal, neither the seaweed tang of summer days at sunset nor the shitty stink of certain backwaters at low tide. And we were clearly a long way from any fish market or coffee shop or spice counter or fresh bakery; there was no hint of food or drink, just a musty but not unpleasant tickle in my nostrils that came from ...Wood”. (p.76-7)
Again, Alvise on the environs of San Nicolò Dei Mendicoli Church:
“[T]his area of the city has its own definite character, which can be summed up in one word: fishiness. Everything in the area is permeated with the tang of fresh and not-so-fresh fish. The alleys that slope down to the lagoon are lined with glistening tangles of fish-nets; everywhere you look are barrels and chests either crammed with squirming heaps or coated with the silvery gleaming evidence of their passing. The streets themselves are slippery with sloughed scales and oily innards.”
“The inhabitants, whether bearded fishermen, busy traders or sharp-tongued fishwives, mostly appear to wear clothes of squamous consistency, and the children, who weave in and out of the crowds like darting minnows, all seem to be playing elaborate games with oyster shells and crab claws. The accent is different, with a rising intonation and truncated syllables, Almost as if one were hearing the voices through water”. (p.150)
As he stands back from the big bang that concludes ‘Ascension’, one reader can’t help but muse. He knows that James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ is honoured each June 16 in Dublin. A visit is made to the various city sites the novel’s hero immortalised in his wanderings. Dowling is just as exact in his evocation of real urban places as Joyce. Why not, in the fullness of time, an ‘Alvise’s guided tour’, on Venice’s ‘la Sensa’ feast day to the vividly pictured stops of his adventure?