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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Murder Most Serene

Gabrielle Wittkop

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To purchase Murder Most Serene

Title: Murder Most Serene
Author: Gabrielle Wittkop
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 105 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Murder Most Serene - US
Murder Most Serene - UK
Murder Most Serene - Canada
Sérénissime assassinat - Canada
Sérénissime assassinat - France
Der Witwer von Venedig - Deutschland
Serenísimo asesinato - España
  • French title: Sérénissime assassinat
  • Translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie

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Our Assessment:

B+ : dark, lush, twisted portrait of a different fin de siècle

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 28/12/2002 Felicitas von Lovenberg
Harper's . 10/2015 Joshua Cohen

  From the Reviews:
  • "(E)in furios geschriebenes Porträt des untergehenden Venedig in den Jahren vor dem Einmarsch des "Gnomen" Napoleon 1797. (...) Mit einer Sprache, die an modernen Stilmitteln, Erzählstrategien und Adjektiven so reich ist wie die Rokoko-Palette jener Maler an Farben, beschwört sie die Atmosphäre der Lagunenstadt in dem gedehnten Augenblick, da Reichtum umschlägt in Dekadenz." - Felicitas von Lovenberg, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "The book confronts, and confounds, traditionally female forms -- the epistolary novel, the pillow book -- not to mention the female body itself: cosseted, cozened, engirdled. (...) To all who suffer under imposed political systems, Wittkop offers a prescription that’s difficult to swallow: the more violent your liberation, the more obscene and criminal you’ll have to become to feel free." - Joshua Cohen, Harper's

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Murder Most Serene is a portrait of late eighteenth-century Venice, the action presented: "in two tempos, passing from 1766 to 1797, as I see fit", following the great city's decline, all the way to its fall to Napoleon. The author sets the stage -- and tension -- from the beginning (and soon enough: "the narrative runs on under its own momentum, like a bobbin of thread unraveling down a slope"):

There is a progression, nonetheless, in the crescendo to catastrophe, the gradual fraying of the rope predestined to break.
       In the years leading up to Venice's fall catastrophe has already been in the air, punctuated by signs -- real and imagined -- that would seem to portend ever-greater horrors, from warnings of an earthquake that will be greater than that of Lisbon -- a joke of Casanova's that the locals take seriously -- to the more tangible, such as the births of severely deformed children ("Never have so many monsters been brought forth"); "We might almost be in ancient Rome", someone observes.
       This Venice is beautful, but decadently so. Brutal, too: "People kill a great deal in this city" -- and violent, ugly deaths are also at the heart of this novel, as the narrative returns again and again to Alvise Lanzi and the successive horrible deaths of his four wives.
       Alvise -- "more unfathomable even than some of the characters in these English novels which are so greatly in fashion nowadays" -- is neither a Bluebeard not a tragic figure, and Murder Most Serene does not in any way follow the demands or expectations of genre-fiction: this isn't a murder-mystery. Indeed, the author eventually sums up: "there is no motive nor opportunity that may be applied equally to these various deaths" -- and in a book whose epigraph comes from the divine Marquis Wittkop turns to her master in reminding readers:
And was it not Sade who told us that an effect may not necessarily require a cause ?
       So: no whodunnit tension or thrills here. That's not the point, or method, of Wittkop's fiction. Yet if lacking cause and effect -- or, rather, a connection between the two -- her narrative still has an undeniable power -- at times almost deafening, as when she writes and comes to: "Crescendo. Crescendo. Crescendo."
       Yes, Wittkop has a style quite all her own. So also, as she reminds us:
Even when it seems nothing is happening, we should not conclude that nothing happens.
       Wittkop lingers over and draws out each horrible death, and among the most dreadful-powerful scenes is one of an autopsy (concluding coldly, simply: "Again, the doctors are thoroughly disconcerted"). Few authors can bring death -- the state of death -- to life as Wittkop can. That these scenes are unsettling is hardly surprising, but Wittkop manages to be thoroughly unsettling throughout, even in scenes that could otherwise pass for placid.
       Wittkop compares herself and her role as writer to that of the bunraku master in the shadows, manipulating her characters like those puppets. Like bunraku, her fiction is stylized -- and certainly theatrical. With its short, varied scenes here -- ranging from letter-excerpts to descriptions, shifting in time, place, and perspective -- Murder Most Serene is a compact yet surprisingly rich portrait of a time of decline and decadence, and of the human condition.
       Several times there are descriptions of how suffocating a house or room is -- "One cannot breathe in this house. The house is suffocation itself" -- and it is only books that are, or might offer a breath of air. Indeed, for Alvise: "his passion for books is his anchor and salvation". Wittkop, too, turns to the literary as anchor and salvation -- but the hold she offers is anything but reassuring or, in the traditional sense, secure; instead, she embraces and accepts death itself, and treats it on equal terms.
       This is dark, rich, deeply disturbing writing, conscious of its artifice and expertly manipulating that.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 November 2015

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Murder Most Serene: Reviews: Gabrielle Wittkop: Other books by Gabrielle Wittkop under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Gabrielle Wittkop was born in 1920 and died in 2002.

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© 2015-2021 the complete review

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