Serenissima, a Novel of Venice by Erica Jong (Houghton Mifflin: $17.95; 225 pp.)
Some time after her first novel, "Fear of Flying," Erica Jong made it known that she considered herself to be some sort of literary kin to Henry Miller; under his aegis, she would reclaim a bawdy, "masculine," fearless sexuality for the timid womankind she represented. Here, in "Serenissima," she stakes out kinship with a far more august literary figure--Shakespeare himself.
A Southern California critic, however, who reads of Los Angeles (particularly the Pacific Palisades) referred to as "La La Land," or "the land of La La" at least 13 times in fewer than 200 pages, can't be expected to give a particularly objective interpretation of this narrative. Much of this review, then, will be in direct quotes. Jong should be judged primarily by her own prose.
Movie Star Goes to Venice
But before the quotes, the story. Jessica Pruitt, a famous American movie star, voyages to the Venice Film Festival. While in Europe, she looks forward to a chance to be in a film produced and directed by someone very much like Ingmar Bergman. At the festival, she has an unsatisfactory affair with a semi-Soviet poet very much like Yevtushenko. She gets sick with something very much like the plague, only it's actually strep throat. Back in the U.S., her brother and husband have stolen Jessica's inheritance, and she's lost custody of her daughter, because of her life style.
Also, her mother has killed herself. Things are so bad for Jessica, moguls are offering her miniseries parts in La La Land. Instead, Jessica stays in Venice, travels through time to the 16th Century, where she has an affair with William Shakespeare.
Jessica is into masks and costumes. She loves to tell us what she's wearing: "Ah, yes, I embarked on my travels . . . wearing a Thierry Mugler jump suit (a futuristic, silver one absolutely festooned with zippers), silver cowboy boots, a silver motorcycle helmet, and silver goggles with reflective lenses. Punk for a day! There was nowhere I couldn't go in Venice in that outfit." The party she goes to this time has ". . . warty duchesses, celebrities of stage and screen and soccer fields, anonymous millionaires, showy pseudo-millionaires, and well-dressed paupers masquerading as millionaires. There are hair-dressers and fashion designers, gossip columnists and fashion journalists, true believers and miscreants of every persuasion."
Knows She's Cute
Her fans send many flowers to Jessica, particularly one gent who signs himself W. S. and encloses Shakespearean sonnets along with his roses, leading Jessica to this pensive reflection: "Harry and Will. Will and Harry. Have I only imagined them? And who is the Dark Lady? Can she in fact be me?" Of course, Jessica isn't exactly dark, but she tells us about her hair; in fact, she's thought about it a lot: "When I was a child, people raved about its color (it was silky, long, and reddish gold like my daughter's is now). It got curlier and darker as I got older, so that by adolescence it was tarnished gold, forming a curly cuprous aureole around my head, and by the time I reached college it was positively Pre-Raphaelite. I see myself in pictures from that period (Sarah Lawrence, I mean) looking for all the world like a Burne-Jones angel." Later, Jessica will confide that she never had enough "self-esteem," but it's plain she knows she's cute enough for Shakespeare to fall in love with.
Soon, then, Jessica finds herself in a Venice with which she's not terribly familiar: "Not only were there no vaporetti , no motoscafi , but the misty Canalozzo seemed now to be filled with gondole, sandali, topi , little wherries of every description--many of which I had seen in the Regatta but many of which I had never seen at all."
That's because she's time-traveled to the 16th Century, and yes, Shakespeare is sojourning in Venice just as she has speculated but we can all be glad we never met him because poor Will comes off as some dim pudding you'd meet in a second-rate singles bar. When he meets Jessica he gets her name wrong and quips: "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." He even thinks in his own quotes.
Shakespeare follows Jessica around, remembering that the main activity of babies is "mewling and puking," and conversing thus: "Now cracks a noble heart . . . good night sweet princess (sic), and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest." During their romance and flight, which takes them from palazzo to convent to thunderstorm-on-cliffs to gondola-on-river and back again, Jessica cautions Will against his irritation with other writers (it could all come back to you vastly multiplied), so, taking her advice, I'm going to go easy. But time travel works two ways. What if someone had told Will Shakespeare that 390 years in the future he was going to be made to perform every possible egregious sexual act with an aging fictional "star" who had a "cuprous aureole" sticking onto her head? What would he have had to say about it? "He jests at scars, that never felt a wound"?