Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig. There’s no end to the faces we could give to Alvise Marangon, a simple tour-guide who gets co-opted as a secret agent of the Serenissima. But perhaps we should be looking in a less contemporary direction: I would suggest a postcard of any one of many pictures by Guardi, to use as a bookmark while you’re reading “Ascension”; that should do it. Gregory Dowling, the novel’s author, guides us on every page through a fully-realised 18th-century Venice, with vivid descriptions of what was there then – and today has disappeared – but also what’s still around, so that we can set off if we like to check it out, see it with our own eyes and relive the story on the spot.
Without giving anything away, we can say that the main protagonist, Alvise Marangon, from being a would-be painter, finds himself mixed up in a dangerous mystery which he has to adopt the guise of a mid-18th-century 007 to solve. Dowling’s invention sees to it that this works both on the level of a well-calibrated spy story and on that of a historical novel, garnished with the unique usages of the city, a deadpan humour and picaresque escapades, the whole dusted with a pinch of romanticism.
All in all, “Ascension” will be enjoyed by an audience spanning young and old, those that pick it up to while away a train journey, and those that prefer to read closely at home. One thing’s for sure: it’s one of those sleep-denying novels you won’t set down on the bedside table before reaching the end. Just one complaint: it’s only available in English …for now?
From university professor to novelist: how did that come about? Did something set you off? I’m interested in how you made up your mind to sit down and write a novel.
Actually, there was nothing sudden or unexpected about this – at least not for me. I have always wanted to be a writer; or, at least, I have always wanted to tell stories, ever since I was a child. And although “Ascension” may have come as a surprise to some people who know me just as a teacher, I did publish four novels back in the 1980s and 1990s, all available through Amazon and other second-hand-book websites, often at embarrassingly low prices. One of them is available as an e-book (“Every Picture Tells a Story”, also set in Venice) and I’m hoping the others can be brought back into print as well.
The reason I stopped writing novels was that I wasn’t making enough money to justify the amount of time I put into them; as father of a family with two children and a not very well-paying job (I was a lettore at the university at the time), I decided, with some regret, that I would do better to consolidate my academic career. This decision was also helped by the fact that I had written a fifth novel that was rejected. I had tried to do something a little different and had written a book for children; it was a fantasy story and it found no takers; my agent and the publishers all came back with the same response: “Gregory, this is the 1990s, children today aren’t interested in things like wizards.” Which tells you how much publishers know…
But I always imagined my break from fiction to be something temporary. I didn’t think it would be 20 years before I returned to writing.
Your historical research is very thorough and exact (leaving aside a few temporal and theatrical liberties which you explain in an endnote): was this exhausting as well as exhaustive, and how did you go about it? Were there any particular episodes or chance encounters worth recording?
It wasn’t exhausting because I enjoyed it. I chose the 18th century because I wanted a first-person narrator and I didn’t think I would be able to enter convincingly into the mind and thoughts of anyone from an earlier century. The age of the Enlightenment is sufficiently close to us, I think, for us to identify with the thought-processes of the age. I read as much history as I could; for background knowledge of daily life in 18th-century Venice, Pompeo Molmenti’s great classic La storia di Venezia nella vita privata is still indispensable. And, of course, the 18th century is the age of great memoirists; Rousseau is famous as the first great confessional writer, but Casanova comes close behind him. And you can pick up all sorts of useful details of daily life from him. I’m now reading him in the original French for the first time, and it gives you a much greater sense of being directly in touch with him. Goldoni’s plays are also very good for getting a sense of Venetian society, although of course he was always very careful never to introduce any members of the Venetian nobility into his plays. And there is a massive book by a French historian, Jean Georgelin, Venise au siècle des lumières, which is full of all sorts of fascinating details, even if it is not very invitingly written.
Was there any particular novel or writer that acted as an inspiration, as far as the idea of approaching history in this narrative fashion was concerned, writing a detective story in a vividly evoked historical setting?
The story definitely comes first. And although I would like my historical background to be accurate, I wouldn’t want anyone to have the feeling that I’m giving them a history lesson. As for books that inspired me, the list would be a long one. One model would be the Roman detective stories of Lindsey Davis, set during the age of Vespasian; I particularly admire her lightness of touch and humour. There are two writers I’ve always enjoyed who are almost forgotten now, and they are Stanley Weyman and Rafael Sabatini; Weyman wrote at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries and was very much in the tradition of Dumas; many of his novels are set in France.
Sabatini, whose parents were opera-singers (his mother English, his father Italian), wrote a number of best-sellers in the first half of the last century; the film-versions are perhaps more famous now, like “Captain Blood”, with Errol Flynn. As I say, they are not much read today but both had a great sense of adventure and romance and knew how to pace a novel. When I was young the only way to find their books was trawling through second-hand bookshops; now, of course, the web makes it much easier to find them – and there are e-book editions of their novels. Convenient, but it takes away some of the thrill of discovery, which was one of the pleasures of visiting second-hand bookshops, something I now hardly ever do, I’m afraid.
However, perhaps the author who had the biggest influence on me is another name probably little known in Italy, and that is the children’s author Geoffrey Trease. He wrote historical novels for children and I grew up on these; what little history I learned at that age probably came from his novels rather than from school-lessons. And I have found that his novels are still worth reading even now as an adult. In fact, after re-reading one of his books a little over twenty years ago I wrote him a fan-letter and I’m very happy to say that we exchanged a number of letters before his death in 1997. He even invited me to come and visit him in Bath, which I was a great thrill. Books you read in childhood probably have an effect that can’t be matched in later years, even if you do read more important works.
I would also mention the historical novels of Arthur Conan Doyle. I don’t think anyone makes one understand the Napoleonic period as well as he did; his stories about Brigadier Gerard are possibly even better than his Sherlock Holmes stories.
I admire the novels of Hilary Mantel today, but they are so different in their aim and scope that it would be presumptuous to talk of them as an influence on me.
I’ve recently discovered the novels of Jean-François Parot, who wrote a series of detective stories set in 18th-century France; as I have only just started reading them, it would be absurd to talk of them as an influence; however, they are very good and I’m sure I will learn useful things from them.
Donna Leon’s is a name I can’t really avoid bringing up. Do you feel there’s a lot of distance between your approaches?
I wouldn’t want to emphasise the distance, even though we are obviously writing very different kinds of novel. She aims to give a picture of contemporary Venice, with the focus particularly on the many aspects of the city that the ordinary tourist misses. She is a compelling writer. When you start one of her novels you don’t want to put it down and I would hope that the same were true of mine.
One of the things I particularly enjoyed was finding, in almost every chapter, some curious fact about the city of Venice and its day-to-day life: details that make the reader look up in surprise or even decide to set off and check it out in person. Was this a deliberate tactic, to add some serious ballast to the thriller element – or something else entirely?
I like the idea that a reader will want to go and see. While I want the novels to be enjoyable even to people who have never been to Venice, I’m happy to think that they provide an extra source of curiosity or excitement to people who do know the city already. For that reason I started a short series of blogs on my website [gregorydowling.com] on the locations of “Ascension”, providing photos and snippets of information; Tassini’s “Curiosità veneziane” is an indispensable source in this sense. Unfortunately, I didn’t do as many places as I would have liked but I will try to do better with “The Four Horsemen”.
However, I haven’t included such details in any systematic way and so I can’t really think of it as a technique. But I certainly do want the reader to be made curious about the history of Venice. I don’t know whether that makes the novel more serious or not…
Let’s go back to the beginning: where did the original idea come from?
Not easy to answer that one. It’s really a question of a number of different ideas that came together gradually. Partly it was through reading the wonderful collection of documents in Giovanni Comisso’s book “Agenti segreti di Venezia, 1705-1797”, taken from the state archives. The idea of a hero who was bilingual perhaps came about through simply observing my own sons and how they cope with having two languages (three if you include Venetian) and two nationalities. And then I read a fair amount of crime-fiction…
Any differences between sitting down to write a novel twenty years ago, and doing it today?
Well, I can really only point to the obvious things, like the fact I now write on a computer permanently connected with the Internet. That has obvious advantages, when I want to check a date or a spelling or use a thesaurus, but also has the disadvantages of perpetual distraction (Has Trump said, or more unusual not said, anything especially outrageous in the last five minutes? What will the weather be like tomorrow? Has anyone retweeted my tweet or posted on my FB wall…?). Of course, it’s a question of discipline, and I confess that’s not my strong point.
Do you have any fixed rules and rituals for your writing?
This sort of follows on from my last answer. I keep telling myself I must establish some rules. At the very least some fixed hours. But I never get round to it. However, on the plus side I have no particular requirements: I don’t demand absolute silence or any special soothing background music or any refined perfumes in the atmosphere or a particular chair or desk… Just a computer with a decent-sized keyboard (I can’t write at length on touchscreen tablet or a phone).
The title of the book, “Ascension”: was that your choice or the publisher’s? Can you say something about it, without giving away the finale?
My choice. The climax of the novel takes place during the Feast of the Ascension, la Sensa, which was one of the most important festivities in the Venetian calendar. I can reveal that much (it’s in the blurb anyway). I’m happy with a single-word title. And then whoever wants can read their own philosophical or metaphysical message into the word.
And the title of the second book you mentioned earlier?
The second novel is entitled “The Four Horsemen”. The publishers could have insisted that I continue with single-word titles with portentous religious connotations: Assumption; Resurrection; Communion… Fortunately they didn’t and were quite happy with the horsemen. Here I won’t give anything away, except to point out the fact that there are four very famous horses on the front of the Basilica of St Mark.
How about Alvise himself: did you have a real-life model in mind? And the other characters, for that matter? Are there any Venetians we might recognise?
No specific real model. Certainly I am influenced by some of the fiction I read. See Philip Marlowe in the Raymond Chandler novels. Or Didius Falco in Lindsey Davis’s series set during the age of Vespasian. And perhaps a little bit of me… As for the other characters, people are free to recognise whoever they want; I’m not going to point any fingers.
The “Four Horsemen” is a sort of ‘Alvise Marangon rides again’ isn’t it? Does it just carry on from the first one, or is there a time lapse?
It starts a few months after the events of “Ascension”. It is a fairly autumnal novel, while “Ascension”, of course, is set in the spring. There’s a lot of fog in “The Four Horsemen”. Caigo is a recurring word…
Are you planning – or hoping – that this will become a long-running series?
I would be very happy if it turns out that that is what people want. I have plans for Alvise – and for those around him.
It seems to me that all the elements are there for a full-blooded action film: did you have an eye on the possibility while you were writing? Is there anything in the pipeline?
I won’t say that I wrote it specifically with that in mind, but when I write the more sensational episodes I do see them – and plan them – very much as scenes. I want the reader to see them clearly. And of course whenever we visualise things nowadays we tend to do it cinematically. So yes, I think, it could work well as a film. Of course, the problem is that it would be a very expensive film to make. There would have to be a Bucintoro – unless it can be created with CGI…
As yet I haven’t heard from Ben Affleck or James Cameron.
Just supposing – do you see any actor in particular playing Alvise Marangon? And Lucia…?
Well, I feel that Alvise must be played by a bilingual actor. So either of my sons would do… But if they’re not available, I’m afraid I’m not very clued-up on contemporary cinema and don’t really know the younger actors. If we could play tricks with time I’d like Alvise to be played by a young Hugh Laurie (who can do both straight and funny) and Lucia by Claudia Cardinale. Failing that, Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle – again with the use of a time-machine. I’d be interested to know if you have any suggestions…
I feel I should ask, on behalf of Italian readers, whether there are Italian translations on the way? Or other languages, for that matter?
Here I have to answer with a simple magari – or “I wish…”. Interest has been shown but nothing as definite as a contract as yet.
“Ascension” e “The Four Horsemen”, Polygon Books, Edinburgh, UK, e St Martin’s Press, USA