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Venetian Masque (Review)

by Ruth Heredia

by Rafael Sabatini
Published 1934

Venetian Masque is set in Northern Italy between May 1796 and May 1797. Starting in Turin it moves very swiftly to Venice, where all the rest of the action takes place. The year is a critical one in the history of the Venetian Republic, but for most modern readers this tale traverses an even less frequented byway of the French Revolution than does The Marquis of Carabas.

The world of Venetian Masque is not simple. Not a world in which Napoleon and the Directory are of one mind, against England and Austria in like case, but instead, one in which all are striving to dispose of the Venetian Republic as best suits each one. What's more, the Venetian Republic at that time is of as many minds as the city has canals. Think what scope this affords for intricate plotting and scene after tense scene. Hardly a step away from Deighton and Le Carré. Indeed, on one level Sabatini has written a spy story in costume here—a veritable 'cloak-and-dagger' novel.

The kaleidoscopic shifts as the action develops require the hero to make finely tuned adjustments on which his very life depends, not to mention the lives of those whom he loves. For this is the aspect that a reader can warm to—however much impressed by Sabatini's skill in plot construction—this love story of the protagonist. If he is to win a partisan response it must be by evoking sympathy with the progress—or not—of his wooing and not of his spying.

Marc-Antoine Villiers de Melleville, Vicomte de Saulx, sets off willingly on his adventure, some sub rosa diplomacy, under cover of his real purpose, which is to propose to the young Venetian woman he has long loved. But Fate turns him unwillingly into a double-agent, required to play such a dizzying to-and-fro game of espionage and counter-espionage that I'm reminded of an ancient joke about Henry Kissinger meeting himself as he shuttled between Egypt and Israel! Quite early, Marc-Antoine has a unique experience. He meets his widow. But neither person has ever seen the other before...

It is an older Sabatini who writes Venetian Masque, one who eschews the elaborate ground-laying of earlier work in order to plunge his hero (and his readers) into the first of many mortally dangerous situations without preamble:

"The traveller in the grey riding-coat, who called himself Mr Melville, was contemplating the malice of which the gods are capable. They had conducted him unscathed through a hundred perils merely, it seemed, so that they might in their irony confront him with destruction in the very hour in which at last he accounted himself secure."

The action thereafter could not be more rapid nor the twists and turns more tightly wound. Yet there is scope enough for the softness of love and even for a heroine, Isotta Pizzamano, whose heroism needs must be one of patient suffering by reason of both her loves—love of her father and love of Marc-Antoine—being long in involuntary conflict. She cannot show spirit as an Aline (Scaramouche) or a Germaine (Marquis of Carabas) are free to do. She must perforce remain largely passive. Not so passive, however, that she does not, early in the story, act daringly out of her love for the hero, which move, alas, later brings both of them into jeopardy. Adding piquancy to the imbroglio is a beautiful female spy. Sometimes it is she who holds the hero's life in her hands, at others it is he that holds hers. But she is no more heartless than he is dishonourable, espionage or no.

Venice at that period is an admirable setting for a tale of desperate intrigue. 'Imbroglio' is a word originating in Venetian electoral practices, a whole year in Venice must include Carnival, and the mask is the very symbol of life in Venice. Sabatini sets the scene with all the colour and prodigality of a Zeffirelli producing grand opera. As always in a Sabatini novel there are plenty of occasions for verbal fencing, even verbal duelling, with the added advantage that there is no call for use of gadzookery, whose over-indulgence is one of Sabatini's weaknesses. And speaking of duels, there is one duel—pitting the French school against the Italian—the detailed account of which is best judged by a modern maître d'armes well versed in the art of classical fencing. It needs no expert, however, to appreciate the many reflective paragraphs on relevant subjects,—brief, pithy—scattered through the narrative, one being the relative validity of birth and of merit in the appointment of officials to positions of power and responsibility. (As an aristocrat pretending to be a Jacobin, Marc-Antoine has to do with both the English ambassador and the French.) It is a comparison which makes him uneasy about the cause of his class. As for the interweaving of actual historical fact into Sabatini's colourful, exciting and romantic fiction, it is nothing less than brilliant. The only other such impressive blending of fact and fiction I can readily call to mind is Georgette Heyer's An Infamous Army.

Nearing sixty, tired, and sad he might have been, but Sabatini shows none of that in writing Venetian Masque.

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Last updated 29 March 2008. Copyright 2006 Ruth Heredia. Any concerns or problems about this site, please contact Rimfire.