Talking Location With author Charlotte Rixon – Newcastle
The New European spotlights author Donna Leon
19th August 2017
The New European featured the following wonderful article (10-16 August 2017) about the remarkable author Donna Leon, who evokes Venice like no other. This article is not available on-line.
In the SPOTLIGHT section of the paper: Viv Groskop – culture correspondent for The New European – on an Italian-based American writer beloved by the Germans, but whose work is not translated into Italian.
Unless you’re a fan of crime fiction, you might be forgiven for having missed out on the works of Donna Leon. But if you’re a German speaker or you knew anything about Venice, she would be top of your list.
An American writer who lives between Venice and a small village in the Swiss Alps, Leon is one of the best-selling authors in the world and counts Theresa May amongst her millions of readers in 35 countries. But Donna Leon owes her success at least in part to two things. One, the fondness the Germans have for her work. (German readers “saved” her at a time when she couldn’t get published in English.) And, two, her connection with Venice, where she has lived for almost four decades.
Leon has just published Earthly Remains, the 26th novel about police commissioner Guido Brunetti. Novel number 27, The Temptation of Forgiveness is out next year. As a review of the latest says: “No-one knows Venice and its environs like Donna Leon and Guido Brunetti.” In Earthly Remains, the enterprising police commissioner finds himself on a two-week break “to relieve stress” on the island of Sant’Erasmo, a place which – guess what? – turns out to be a hotbed of crime just as much as Venice itself.
Any investigations of the work of Leon, who celebrated the 25th anniversary of her first crime novel earlier this year, yields millions of search results in German. She recently told the Guardian that she owes her career to the family-owned Swiss publisher Diogenes Verlag. They took up her work and published it in German at a time when, after having had four novels out, she wasn’t being published in English. “They made a publicity fuss about them,” she said. And off they went. Thus it was Switzerland that created the success of the books in the German language. She now features on the hardcover bestseller lists of the New York Times whenever a new book comes out. Success in Europe eventually underpinned global success.
The Germans’ fascination for her adopted home city of Venice also helps, she said. “It seems to be the city of their dreams, the way Florence has been for the British.” She added that her European readers seem to be less afraid of political, social and ecological issues than American readers: “I think Europeans read less crap…Europeans, especially Germans, read serious fiction, read it in great numbers.”
Raised in New Jersey, Leon worked as an academic and English literature teacher in China, Iran and Saudi Arabia (Her doctoral dissertation was entitled: The Changing Moral Order in the Universe of Jane Austen’s Novels.) Later she worked as a copywriter before an acquaintance asked her if she fancied a visit to Rome. Italy was love at first sight. She settled there and began life as a fiction writer.
Famously her novels are not translated into Italian as she greatly values her anonymity: “I want to live in an invisible life.” She has said that democracy and equality are extremely important to her and she can’t think of anything worse than being treated as “special” because you are a “famous writer”.
Nonetheless her name has become synonymous with the city she lives in. The Brunetti novels have been adapted into a popular, long-running television series in Germany and have been optioned by the BBC. (The TV series, says Leon, are “not bad. They’re very, very, German.” It amuses her that the actors do not touch each other because they are German. “In Italy, Italians are always touching.”)
When Leon first moved to Venice in the 1980s, she went on a night out with friends to the Venice opera house, La Fenice, and talk turned to a conductor no-one liked. “Somehow there was an escalation and we started talking about how to kill him.” she once said in an interview, “this struck me as a good idea for a book.” Leon was inspired by the story but it took her a year to get started. She eventually turned it into a murder mystery “as a kind of a joke” and randomly sent in Death at La Fenice to a writing contest in Japan. Obviously, it won. She was offered a two-book contract and there has been a novel a year since.
Now that she is in her seventies, she is often asked if she will retire from writing. She always replies that she will keep on going as long as it’s fun. She is legendarily protective of her time, disappearing to her place in Switzerland – with no telephone – to write for weeks at a time.
Her lead character Commissario Brunetti is hugely loved by her fans. As the Irish Times puts it, “He is not your typical shambolic, hard-drinking, over-worked policeman.” Instead he is charming and intelligent. He has a stable home life. Leon has said that it was an accident that he turned out to be such a nice guy, but a happy accident: “I had the good sense, even then, to make him someone that I liked. A nice guy and an intellectually and ethically interesting man.” He must be a nice man: he is married to a professor of English literature who cooks him things like sea bass with fresh artichokes, lemon and rosemary.
Her own passions are opera (especially Handel), Henry James, Charles Dickens and the ecology of Venice. She has been described as “a eco-detective writer” because her novels deal with the impact of global warming, an unavoidable subject when you are setting your work in Venice. Although she spends increasingly more time in Switzerland, now, partly because, she has said, of the influx of tourists to Venice, she speaks incredibly passionately about the generosity of the city. “I’m always struck by the warmth and humanity of the people,” she says. And she has never lost her initial love for Venice: “Where else in the world is everything you look at beautiful?”
Leon’s work is pleasingly clever because she combines the outsider’s fascination for a city with the insider’s frustration. When she talks about Brunetti’s feelings for Venice, she could be talking about herself: “He has a kind of love-irritation relationship with the city… He has it imprinted in his head. He knows who to ask to find out about anyone in the city. He leads a Venetian life. He leads a civilised, beautiful life.” She loves to be greeted in the local dialect. “This is real Venice,’ she told America’s National Public Radio, “Venetian is music to me. I always feel very strongly at home when I come back after a trip and hear Veneziano [spoken] on the boats.”
You can buy her books through TripFiction