On Friday evening, both Kathleen and I went over to the Upper West Side branch of Barnes & Noble to be on hand when Donna Leon appeared. Kathleen’s manifest interest ought to be all the recommendation that you need to start reading Ms Leon’s Commissario Brunetti novels. They were recommended by one of Kathleen’s clients well over ten years ago, but, having passed the tip on to me, Kathleen didn’t look into the books herself until quite recently, whereupon she became a big fan.
The place was packed. It was clear that Ms Leon’s readership had made the logarithmic jump between 82nd Street and Union Square. True, everyone was older than we were, or nearly. But if Ms Leon has younger fans, you can’t expect them to let themselves be caught dead on the Upper West Side on a Friday night. It was wonderfully idiotic of B & N to pipe an invitation to the reading through the store not once but twice after the event space became almost too crowded for safety. The events manageress did come up with an ingenious idea for getting rid of people: she warned us that a German television team would be filming the event. Anyone who didn’t want to be caught on German television ought, therefore, to leave. Once upon a time, a clutch of principled Upper West Siders would have marched out. But that was our parents’ generation.
For those of you who thirst for information about the Leon of Venice, I report the following items:
- Signorina Elettra is based on Roberta’s aunt. And she gets her name from the aunt’s mother. Something like that. The aunt was working for an executive of the Banco d’Italia’s Venice branch during the period of South African proscription. One day, when her boss asked her to take a letter to a banker in J’burg, the aunt “declined.” To the apoplectic banker she sliced the air with her hands. “I am going to leave now, and have a cup of coffee. You can organize your thoughts, and, when I return, we will do something else.” When Ms Leon heard this story, she knew she had the right secretary for Vice-Questore Patta.
- There will be a Paola Brunetti cookbook. It will appear in German later this year and in English in 2010. The recipes will be written by Ms Leon’s best friend, Roberta, who has served not only as Ms Leon’s reason for being in Venice (“I’d have settled wherever she and Franco” — Roberta’s husband — “lived”) but also as the inspiration for Paola’s quite fantastic lunchtime menus.
- Ms Leon recently took four meetings in London with prospective producers of Brunetti videos. She has a favorite — which means that she has no objection to adapting her novels for the screen (and why would she, since the whole Brunetti business supports her true love, Il complesso barocco, an opera company noted for its Handel recordings, which, if you are a Brunetti fan, you will buy).
- The Teatro la Fenice mounts operas about thirty nights in the year. The Spoleto Festival doesn’t pay its bills — claiming that everybody performs pro bono. For these reasons, Ms Leon’s opera company does not work in Italy.
- Translations of the Brunetti books into Italian remain unauthorized. Ms Leon is, quite rightly, I think, convinced that Italian-language readers (as distinct from Italian readers of German or English) would devote themselves to pointing out that she understands nothing of life in Venice — not really.
- Like Paola, Ms Leon is a smartass. At a Fourth of July party on the Grand Canal, given by a rich American woman, with the kind of guests that rich American women attract, someone who couldn’t remember Ezra Pound’s name asked, “Who was that crazy old guy who supported the fascists?” As if compelled by Tourette’s, Ms Leon replied, “Ronald Reagan.”