Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 19, 2017

Le Rendez-vous de Venise (2003, Rendezvous in Venice), by Philippe Beaussant

rendezvous-in-veniceLe Rendez-vous de Venise

I haven’t #named the translator for this delightful French novella, because I read it in French.  Le Rendez-vous de Venise by Philippe Beaussant was first published in 2003 and when I read Emma’s billet at Book Around the Corner last year I decided with her encouragement to order the French edition, completely forgetting that I already owned the English Pushkin Press English edition (Rendezvous in Venice, 2014, translated by Paul Buck and Catherine Petit) through my 12-month subscription to Pushkin Press.  As it turned out, I was very glad to have both.  (And for the ease of readers I have referenced the page numbers of the English translation.)

The novella will appeal to anyone who likes art.  Pierre Voisin, the narrator, introduces his Uncle Charles as an erudite art historian whose affectionate patronage and skilful mentoring has guided Pierre’s own career as an art historian too.  They had a very close relationship, but it was not until after his uncle’s death that Pierre discovers in some old notebooks that Uncle Charles had once been passionately in love with a woman called Judith.  Pierre, who has modelled his own austere life on his uncle’s, is astonished, because he thinks that Uncle Charles thinks of women only as portraits.  Poor Pierre, he can’t imagine his uncle kissing a young woman in the streets of Venice.

How can I imagine my austere old uncle with a woman?  I only ever saw him with old Mariette dressed in black, with her blue apron and her hair in a bun, herself resolutely old-fashioned, smiling sometimes, yes, smiling, looking up from her work or into the glass of a window she was busy wiping, and who, I knew, reminded my uncle of Françoise in Swann’s Way? How can I imagine Uncle Charles close to a woman?

Yet, of course, women were not absent from his thoughts.  He loved them.  I know, I’ve seen it.  When he started to talk about them, he just couldn’t stop.  But they were always painted women.  He talked about them like a lover but, unlike a jealous lover, he gave the impression, while talking about his beloved (the beautiful Eleanor of Toledo, painted by Bronzino, or Giovanna Tornabuoni in the fresco of Sante Maria Novella) that he would have wished you to share his passion and that his dearest wish was for you to fall in love with her too. (p. 26-7)

Giovanna Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio (Source: Wikipedia

Giovanna Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio (Source: Wikipedia)

Now I have seen the portrait of Eleanor of Toledo by Bronzino at the Uffizi in Florence, so, like many other readers, I knew the portrait being referenced in this passge.  But one of the pleasures of reading this book in the 21st century, however, is that I could Google to find paintings that I did not know.  At left is a portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio  (which I may have seen at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid but I don’t remember it if I did.  There are #understatement a lot of paintings there, and I wasn’t allowed to take any photos there anyway).  However that is not the one that Uncle Charles is so fond of: that one is in Florence in the Church of Santa Maria Novella next to the railway station and it’s a religious painting called ‘The Visitation’ in which the virgin is in the presence of a very regal Giovanna Tornabuoni.  (Scroll down the page I’ve linked to, to see it).   IMO It’s harder to see why he was so taken with her image in the fresco, but then, I haven’t seen the real thing.  Although I rested my weary feet in the little park outside the church, our day in Florence was at an end and we had a train to catch.

Portrait of Simonetta by Piero di Cosimo (Wikimedia Commons)

Portrait of Simonetta by Piero di Cosimo. (Source: Wikipedia, Google Art Project)

At right is a portrait of Simonetta Vespuccio by Piero di Cosimo, which Uncle Charles later declares as Genoese because of the shape of Simonetta’s lips. (p 29-30).   (The painting is held at the Musée Condé in Chantilly, France).  But there’s more to it than that.  Yes, there is significance to this attention to her lips because it turns out that Judith has a sibilant ‘s‘ i.e. a bit of a lisp…

Le Rendez-vous de Venise is a book that draws on familiarity with painting in a very special way, because paintings are the subject of extended meditations.  When Pierre finally meets Judith and contests his memories of Uncle Charles with hers, it is their differing memories of Uncle Charles’ disquisitions that make Pierre feel uncharacteristically angry.  And, in particular, it is the exquisite painting of Young Girl with a Dead Bird that is the focus of their disputed memory of Uncle Charles.  (I saw this painting in 2015 in the Musées royaux des Beaux Arts in Brussels, just before I had to abort my holiday because my father was gravely ill).  In Le Rendez-vous de Venise there are more than a dozen pages about this painting alone,  and reading the French edition, I found myself turning again and again to the cover image (above) to confirm the text, so it’s a pity that the Pushkin Press edition with a different cover image doesn’t offer the same opportunity.  IMO knowing this portrait is integral to the story.

Uncle Charles, who analysed the painting in detail with Pierre, has for Judith invented une histoire (a story) about the child, in his imagination a five-year-old child who has discovered the truth about mortality when she found her pet bird dead.  The anonymous artist, Uncle Charles says in Judith’s version:

has refused to lay down, with the tip of his brush, the little touch of light, the little sparkle one sees on every eye of every portrait of every painter of all times.  Nothing to read.’  He added: ‘She is absent.  She is not there.  She has gone….’ (Rendezvous in Venice, Pushkin Press edition, p.98)

It is such a beautiful painting.  For me, it represents that moment when a child realises for the first time that a parent can’t make everything right again.  A child on the verge of tears.  In the novel, it’s the moment when Pierre realises that maturity means being open to a different view of the world.  It takes him a while to adjust to the idea that his beloved Uncle Charles might have been a different person when he was with Judith.  It is this realisation that makes it possible for Pierre to transform his life.

There are all kinds of  resonances to enjoy in this short novella.  If you have read the book, Part II of Emma’s billet unpacks the many references to Proust in some detail, but here is just one: Uncle Charles in his dotage gets a bee in his bonnet about a book he wants his servant Mariette to retrieve from his shelf.  He remembers exactly where it is, but names it as Albertine Disparu (translated rather clumsily as Albertine Gone, I would have chosen Albertine Lost).  But from the text readers soon realise that Uncle Charles has misremembered the title: as Mariette  grumbles (channelling Francoise, the grumpy old servant in Combray) the book is not Albertine Disparu, it’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time/ Remembrance of Things Past):

Yes, it is what I was thinking about, while night fell in my work room. Proust in Venice.  Me in Venice.  Proust is in love and he leaves his mother. his affectionate mother, whom he couldn’t bear in Combray, when she did not come to say good night to him in bed, he cruelly abandons her, leaving alone for the station, because he is in love.  (p.63).

Uncle Charles’s false memory makes him question what he remembers, as Pierre must learn to do:

Are the memories we have something true, real, present, or are they a construction out of something which isn’t any longer but which was, or a construction out of nothing? (p. 64)

As Emma had predicted I had to brush up on le subjonctif passé, but it was not that the caused me the most difficulty.  My strategy, since I had both books, was to read as far as I could as long as I thought I had the gist of the text, and then to check with the English edition to check that I was on the right track.  I was quite pleased to find that I could make my way through 8-10 pages at a time before some unfamiliar construction or idiom flummoxed me, and it became easier as I went along.  That is, until the narrator Pierre has his unanticipated meeting with his uncle’s lover Judith at an art conference, where there’s a long-winded pompous ass called Jean Pellerin who tries to impress by talking about how nowadays one can still remain an epigone of that purely historicising moment interpretation of artistic phenomena, and goes on to say that Uncle Charles’s perspective on art is an interdependent form of a kind of … a kind of epistemological constellation.  (p. 77) Well.  I don’t know what that means in English.  I also had trouble with some of the slang that Sarah uses.  So yes, the Pushkin Press edition was indispensable.

The Man with the Glove by Titian, held at The Louvre (Wikipedia Commons)

The Man with the Glove by Titian, held at The Louvre (Wikipedia Commons)

PS This is Titian’s ‘The Man with the Glove’ (L’homme au gant) that is referenced as well.  #JustBecause.

PPS I’d been reading this novella slowly for a while, and it was Stu’s Pushkin Press Fortnight at Winston’s Dad that made me hurry up and finish it!


French edition:

Author: Philippe Beaussant
Title: Le Rendez-vous de Venise
Publisher: Le Livre de Poche (Pocket Books), 2005 (out of print)
ISBN: 9782253108962
Source: personal copy, purchased from Abe Books

English edition:

Author: Philippe Beaussant
Title: Rendezvous in Venice
Publisher: Pushkin Press, 2014
ISBN: 9781782270980
Source: personal copy, Pushkin Press subscription

Available from Fishpond: Rendezvous in Venice






  1. Good for you, Lisa.
    I tried this and couldn’t get into it. Just too romantic for my tastes.


    • Actually, I didn’t really find the romance convincing. It was the art that seduced me!


  2. Well done on reading it in French and what a comprehensive and interesting review! I have too much in my everyday life, reading in English my gift to myself, one day maybe I’ll be more open to reading in French, I do love that they prefer the novella.


    • Thank you! It’s been a long-held ambition of mine to read in another language, but it’s one that I really only have time to indulge now that I’ve retired.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved this little novella too, especially the stories behind the people in the paintings. A beautiful marriage of love and art.


    • I was very tempted to do a whole slide show of all the paintings that are mentioned!


  4. I’m glad you liked it and congratulations on reading it in French!

    I like the combination of art and love. I was grateful for Google too, to check out all the paintings he mentions. I’m good at remembering book titles and authors but this ability doesn’t extend to paintings, unfortunately.

    It makes you want to go to Venice. And I also enjoyed tracking down Proust references.

    PS : About Proust: have you seen that they discovered him on film? It was the first images of him beside pictures.


    • Proust on film! Quelle surprise!!! I’m afraid Australian news media hasn’t caught up with this. I’ll Google to see if I can find it.
      I’m starting to think it’s time for a re-read of Proust…


      • Well it made the headlines here, so, hard to miss. :-)


    • PS, I found it, there’s an article in the New Yorker that has the clip. Isn’t it amazing that it has surfaced after all this time…


      • Yes it’s amazing. Thank God for academics who write thesis and do research…


        • Being able to join the dots, the NY article said that there was a biographer who saw the film earlier but hadn’t thought anything of it.


  5. […] decisions… I think I’ll brag about my second attempt to read a book in French.  La Rendez-vous de Venise by Philippe Beaussant.  It’s one of those stories of a departed relative who turns out to be […]


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