Michelle Lovric, The Floating Book (HarperCollins Publishers, 2003)

On our most recent trip to the mall I was browsing in the literature section at Borders when I came across the U.S. hardcover edition of this book. The title immediately attracted me, as did the fat spine and the painting on the dust jacket. Gondolas and Moorish-looking architecture — where could this story be set but in the city of Venice?

Indeed, most of the action of The Floating Book takes place in Venice during the latter half of the fifteenth century. The von Speyer brothers arrive in town with a Gutenberg printing press, ready to set up shop and sell "fast books" to the literate and diversion-seeking Venetian aristocracy and borghese (middle class). Both brothers marry local women and hire local editors, typesetters and press operators. Beset with supply and marketing challenges, the business struggles for a long while, only becoming moderately successful after publishing a book that includes the erotic works of the Roman poet Catullus.

While this is her main story line, Lovric skillfully introduces several sub-plots to keep the reader fully engaged. One of these concerns the marriage of Wendelin von Speyer and Lussieta, a bookseller's daughter who is just fifteen when her father first brings her to the von Speyer print shop. Although this relationship undergoes grave difficulties within the period of the story, it is fundamentally sound and loving. Another sub-plot concerns the marriage of the Jewish doctor Rabino Simeon and Sosia, a Serbian Jewess he initially brought into his household as a servant. Sosia spends her days and nights engaged in erotic companionship with Venetian men from different social classes. Not surprisingly, their marriage is a complete sham. A third major sub-plot reveals the circumstances that led Catullus to write so many erotic poems in the first place — an unhealthy attachment to the promiscuous Roman noblewomen, Clodia Metelli.

While the people named in the previous paragraph are the principal actors in The Floating Book, Lovric has populated the pages of this novel with many other distinctive and memorable characters, including the handsome and decadent scribe Felice Feliciano, the lovely innkeeper Caterina di Colonna, the troubled young editor Bruno Uguccione and his equally troubled sister Gentilia, the mysterious French printer Nicolas Jenson, the fanatical priest Fra Filippo de Strata and his assistant Ianno the dwarf. Their lives crisscross like the wakes left by the gondolas traversing the Venetian canals.

Ah, yes, Venice! What a wonderful setting for a story! And how adroitly Lovric evokes the magical qualities of this city! Early Renaissance Venice is already a busy commercial port, with a diverse economy and a relatively large and affluent middle class. Surrounded and interpenetrated by the sea, the city literally floats. The sunlight reflecting off the surfaces of the water creates moving shapes of light and darkness on the walls and ceilings of the buildings' interiors while the pervasive moisture causes wood and fabric to rot away. Venice's floating, evanescent quality affects the personalities of her inhabitants. People socialize and gossip in the marketplace, where rumors easily get out of hand, causing occasional episodes of mass hysteria. In warm weather, people go out at night in their gondolas and nap in the afternoons. When the weather is cold and damp, they congregate in the taverns and complain to each other.

While Venice attracts a considerable diversity of residents and visitors, her dominant culture remains explicitly xenophobic. The German printers are required to conduct business in a guild hall (the Fondaco dei Tedeschi) dedicated to tradesmen of their ethnicity. With the exception of doctors like Rabino, Jews are only allowed to visit the city for short periods. All Jews are required to wear yellow emblems on their outer garments. One of the sources of tension in the marriage between Wendelin and Lussieta arises from the differences in their personalities related to their origins. Wendelin is earthy and practical, Lussieta moody and superstitious.

Although I think HarperCollins is marketing The Floating Book as historical fiction, the story contains more than enough elements of the supernatural to qualify as an urban fantasy with a few twists of horror. I will offer two examples, carefully selected to avoid revealing too much of the plot, which is quite suspenseful and VERY well crafted.

Early in the story, Wendelin and Lussieta make an arduous journey over the Alps to Speyer. Lussieta, who has lived in Venice most of her life, finds the cold dry air and the steep hillsides hateful and the rich, creamy food inedible. But her greatest fear is that they will encounter dragons while crossing the Alps. In Venice she learned that the Alpine dragons have "the head of a red hairy cat, with whiskers, sparking eyes, scaly legs, a tongue like a snake's and a tail which is spread in two forks." On their way back to Venice, they stop at Sirmione, the childhood home of the poet Catullus. Among some ruins, Lussieta finds a doll-sized wax figure of a woman with nails embedded in her major organs. She secrets the figure in her sleeve and carries it back to Venice. This disturbing relic becomes a major thread in the unfolding story.

Bruno's sister Gentilia is a nun living in the island convent of Sant' Angelo di Contorta. When Rabino makes a trip to the island to treat a young woman who has just delivered a child, he observes that the nuns have trained parrots to recite prayers from their cages set about the hallways. He knows that the sound is intended to mask other sounds emanating from the rooms where young nuns conduct very unholy couplings. Gentilia, who is both unattractive and somewhat deranged, uses several forms of folk magic in an effort to help her brother forget his obsession with Sosia. Like the rumors in the marketplace, Gentilia's spells have effects well beyond those she intended.

Lovric uses a variety of narrative styles to tell this tale. She has organized the book into six sections of six to ten chapters each. Many of the chapters open with translated lines from Catullus' poems. Each section begins with a letter from Catullus to his brother Lucius. These tell of the former's obsessive love for Clodia, of his efforts to turn those feelings into poetry, of his eventual success in publishing his poetry, and of his ultimate realization of the truth about Clodia. Within each section, some chapters are written in the third person by the invisible, omniscient narrator familiar to most readers of fiction. Often embedded in these chapters are letters from Wendelin to his mentor in Germany, Padre Pio. These allow us to experience the story from Wendelin's perspective. The rest of the chapters, amounting to roughly a third of the total narrative, are told in the first person by Lussieta, who is anything but invisible and omniscient. We experience much of the story's suspense and mystery through her eyes. Even at her most confused, she comes across as a very sympathetic character.

In The Floating Book, Lovric has created a complex and fascinating story out of a few bits of historical detail. In an Author's Note at the end of the book, she provides a brief overview of the source materials she used and explains the ways she embellished on the evidence. It's actually quite amazing how many of the fantastic elements in the story are simply her retellings of stories she discovered during her research.

Michelle Lovric herself has a complex and fascinating story. Australian by birth, she currently lives in London but spends a great deal of time in Venice. She is of Serbo-Croatian descent, but seems to have a good command of Italian, German and classical Latin (she translated the Catullus poems into English). She received a research grant from London Arts in support of her work on this novel, which is her first to be published in the United States. A Google search reveals that she has written or edited numerous other published works, the most noteworthy being another historical novel — Carnevale, set in eighteenth-century Venice. Virago published this work and was the U.K. publisher of The Floating Book. Here's hoping that Americans begin to see more of her historical fiction!


[Donna Bird]