Jan Morris

The Golden Years of the Big Apple

Illustration for Manhattan 45

I probably should have bundled this review together with my post about the Venetian Empire because today’s book was also written by the indomitable Jan Morris.  The reason I didn’t is twofold: first off, I want to keep the posts about Italy separate from other things because the whole Italian-reading period in my life coincided with the writing of a novel.  The second reason is that I forgot that today’s book was next in the queue.

 

Manhattan '45 by Jan Morris

The book in question is Manhattan ’45, and, like the Venetian book, the one I read was a Folio Society edition, one that, with the day-glo pink highlights and evocative period photographs was ver inviting to read from a visual standpoint.  The prose, as seems to be the norm when it comes to Morris is also welcoming and colloquial – Morris is clearly a popular writer as opposed to a stuffy historian.

Equally clear is the affection that Morris has for this particular subject.  WWII was ending, the world could move on to other things… and it was a time of joy and expectation in the densely packed metropolis.  One could quite easily have thought that New York was the center of the world immediately after the war, and one would quite likely have been right.  It’s a great subject to write about, if a slightly obvious one.  Still, Morris got there first, so everyone else will always be the imitators.

It’s a great book to learn about the city as it was precisely at that time… and perhaps therein lies its weakness.  Though charming, the snapshot of a city, no matter how quirky, isn’t memorable in the way the hundreds-of-years-long exploits of an empire and its charismatic leaders can be.  This one is a book to dip into when you want to be transported elsewhere, but not one that you’ll remember details of later.  It’s like looking at pictures of the British countryside.  You can’t relive the sensation unless you’re actually interacting with it right now.

The true downside?  It’s nearly impossible to share.  You can’t sit at a party and tell a pretty girl (or boy) something you gleaned here.  “There used to be a Clarke’s on Third Avenue in the shadow of the El Train” just doesn’t evoke the same feeling that reading about the underworld beneath the tracks does.

Either way, I enjoyed reading it, and dipping back into it to write this review, so I’m happy I purchased it.  But if I had to choose a Morris, I’d go with Venice every day.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose latest book is a comic fantasy set in ancient Greece entitled The Malakiad.  Check it out!  Paperback and Ebook.

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Greater Venice – Or How a Swampy City Dominated the Eastern Mediterranean

Venetian Fortress in Crete

Many people can name the great Empires: the Roman Empire, the British Empire and even the Mongols roll quickly from the tongues of people with even rudimentary educations.

But there existed a powerful empire that many people don’t recall offhand, and that empire was the Venetian Empire.  Yes, the tiny city of Venice, mired in a swampy lagoon once possessed the largest trade empire in the Mediterranean with colonies stretching to Greece, Cyprus and Turkey, many of which they held on to for centuries.

The Arsenal Of Venice

This empire was a major actor in the crusades and in the subsequent wars between Christianity and Islam.  The Venetian Arsenal (map above) was the engine that produced most of the ships that sent crusaders on their way as well as the ships that fought–and won–the battle of Lepanto, possibly the most important naval engagement between the two warring monotheisms.

In light of its importance, it does come as a bit of a surprise that so few people know about this particular empire.  I’m a bit of a history enthusiast, but though I knew it had existed, I only recently learned the details about it.

Why is that, I asked myself.

I think there are three major reasons for its lack of fame.

The first is geographic.  This empire wasn’t a contiguous land empire in the tradition of Rome or the Mongols.  People seem to have an easier time imagining this type of structure.  For a far-flung sea empire to live in the imagination, it needs to have good marketing (the sun never sets on the British Empire).

The second and third reasons are psychological and, to the medieval / renaissance mind, possibly moral.  For one thing, the Venetian Empire’s big break came because they betrayed one (possibly two) supposed allies.  Having contracted to take a group of crusaders to the Holy Land, the Doge decided to have them sack Constantinople, an allied Christian city, instead.  The riches from that expedition were the cornerstone of the empire.

For another thing, the “crusades” fought by the Venetians were more about trade routes and money than about religion, despite claims to the contrary on both sides.  The Venetians had no problem with muslims.  They traded with them when it suited them and went to war when it suited them.  Everyone knew this, and for that reason, they never admired the Venetians in the same way as they admired the crusaders who spent time in the Holy Land (even though their own motives were also often suspect).

The Venetian Empire - A Sea Voyaye - Jan Morris

Anyhow, it’s a fascinating tale and, as you can probably imagine given my track record of buying Folio Society books, it’s one that I absorbed through reading one of their volumes.  This particular tome, The Venetian Empire: A Sea Voyage by Jan Morris is up to their usual standards and was a great read, mainly because of the colloquial way in which Morris (whose own story is quite interesting in itself) treats the subject: an island-hopping tour of the empire, with the history thrown in in such a way that it hardly intrudes.

This book landed squarely in our Italian period, which also helped make it interesting… even though Venice was only recently grafted on to Italy, and then by force majeure (it took Napoleon himself to do it, in fact).

I would strongly recommend this one to anyone who wants to learn about this somewhat forgotten historical period…  Or to any general reader looking for something a little bit different.  A great read, and one that will teach you a bunch of stuff you didn’t know.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer active in several genres whose most recent science fiction novel is Incursion.  You can buy it here.