The Manchester Review
John Banville
The Sinking City (a novel in progress)
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Venice. Forty years ago, more. It is wintertime and La Serenissima’s vaunted charms are all crazed over by the cold. There are caps of snow on the bronze horses outside St Mark’s and a freezing mist is suspended over the canals, under the quaint toy bridges. Adam is sitting in a restaurant, at a corner table upstairs, with a view across the lagoon to where the wedding-cake façade of a white church which he should know the name of gleams eerily through the midday murk. In some corner of the low-slung sky a weak sun is shining and each wavelet of the leaden canal waters is tipped with a spur of sullen silver-yellow light. He eats lamb chops and drinks a melony tokai from Friuli — today he recalls that wine as if he were tasting it again, the tawny flash and oily sway of it in the glass, the sour-sweet tang of the fat late grape. He is grieving for his wife, recently dead. Grief is an enormous globe that has been thrust unceremoniously into his arms, he totters under the unmanageable greasy weight of it. Thus burdened he has fled to the sinking city where there is no one who knows him and he knows no one.
      And promptly a stranger approaches his table and introduces himself. He is a long-limbed fair smooth-faced personage with a narrow head and high cheekbones and a somehow inappropriate ginger moustache which he keeps fingering as if he knows it is not quite right. He wears English tweeds though he is no Englishman, and an unlikely canary-yellow waistcoat and a matching yellow silk foulard that droops negligently from the breast pocket of his houndstooth jacket. His name, outlandishly to Adam’s ears, is Zeno, and he claims to be a count. Presently the two of them are crossing the canal in a gondola. The winter afternoon is all salt and smoke and the harsh cries of seagulls. Adam sits in a huddle on the damp wooden seat with his thin raincoat pulled tight around him. He seems to himself a hollowed-out vessel with something rattling around inside it, the dried pea that his formerly robust self has shrunk to. At his back the gondolier, a gnarled old-timer wearing a short pea-coat over his regulation striped jersey, plies a long yellow oar and croons snatches of a barcarole. The boat wallows in the wash of a passing launch. Vague rain drifts out of the air.
      The house is in a narrow alley behind the Salute. It is apparent from the dank air and the silence hanging over everything like dust sheets that no one is living here. On a low table there is set an enormous marble head of Zeus, neckless, with a tight crown of curls and a pubic beard, seeming sunk to its chin in the wood and wearing an expression of puzzlement and slow-gathering indignation. In an armchair facing this irate godhead Adam sits, hapless and distracted, his hands resting limply in his lap with palms upturned. The Count, who has not taken off his overcoat, produces a bottle of red wine and two goblets of purple Murano glass. He has the blandly unimpedable manner of a circus ringmaster. The wine is as cold as stone and so thick it makes Adam’s gorge rise. Outside, the air has turned to the colour of watered ink. The parchment-brown dome of the Salute looms in a window. He feels spongy and raw all over, he has felt like this for weeks, sodden with grief, flayed by guilt. He had thought bereavement would be entirely an inward process, a malady of the soul, and is dismayed by its brute physical manifestations. His eyes scald, his lips are cracked, even the follicles of his hair seem to simmer and twitch. He is convinced he has developed a smell, too, a rank hot meaty stink, and there is a salt taste in his mouth that nothing will shift.