ANCIENT SHORE: Dispatches from Naples

Shirley Hazzard and Francis Steegmuller
University of Chicago Press ($13)

by Douglas Messerli

In her beautifully written apologia for Naples and the Campania region, author Shirley Hazzard begins her “dispatches” with a differentiation between traveling to a country, merely living in another country, and a stay of pilgrimage. The first, no matter how rich the experience may be for the traveler, is usually defined by a brief stay in a place, with little deep knowledge of, or appreciation for, its history or culture; tourists generally travel through a country without having the time or ability to take in its rich heritage. Certainly Hazzard and her husband Frances Steegmuller (a well known editor, translator, critic, and literary biographer) could be described as a couple living in another country—Hazzard’s father’s career as a diplomat forced the family to move several times in her early life, from Australia to Japan, Hong Kong, England, and New Zealand, before she ended up in New York City and, some time later, worked for the United Nations in Italy—but their experience is quite different from those individuals living in another place who continue to define their lives by their ultimate return to their homeland. For Hazzard, her journeys, particularly her move to Naples and Campania, are of another kind, what she calls “pilgrimage,” resulting in experiences that appear as “an elixir, a talisman: a spell cast by what has long and greatly been, over what briefly and simply is.” The difference, she argues, is that the pilgrim traveler becomes temporarily one with the place, “learning to match its moods with one’s own,” combining “human expectation” with “an exquisite blend of receptivity and detachment.”

Hazzard, accordingly, takes the reader through her Italy—the headland of Posillipo, Vesuvius and Pompeii, Capri, the Sorrentine penisula, and through the streets of Naples itself. She shows us its museums and treasures—the ancient villas of the Romans, the churches, the fisherman returning with their catches, and the Spaccanapoli, the sequence of streets (Via Benedetto Croce, Via San Biagio dei Librai and Via Vicaria Vecchia) that cut through the heart of the Naples’ historical center.

In a particularly riveting chapter, “In the Shadow of Vesuvius,” Hazzard describes not only the great volcano that buried Pompei and Herculaneum, but other eruptions and earthquakes since—detecting, in the continual destruction and rebuilding right up to the lip of the volcano, the Neapolitan sense of time and the inevitable. As the author repeats, “Naples requires time,” like the city itself with its ancient layers of reality; the experience of the city must be something encountered over long stretches if it is to reveal itself. In dazzlingly beautiful sentences, Hazzard indeed allows the reader to intellectually wander the city along with her, characterizing it as a “city of secrets and surprises”:

Persisting, you will soon discover the opera house, the spacious galleria, and the huge Castel Nuovo that dominates the port. Even so, the city eludes the search for its center. The truth is that there are many centers at Naples, each vital to its own city quarter. And Naples is rifest perhaps at its oldest point, the district of Spaccanapoli, where the city splits along its Greco-Roman decumanus.

Hazzard’s writing, accordingly, is an often brilliant travelogue in which the reader is made to recognize what he or she may have missed in the elusive city. But there is occasionally a sense in her homage to Neapolitan wonders that seems almost forced, as if she were somehow in league with the city’s tourist industry. Indeed, so in love with Naples is Hazzard that she only once mentions the notorious Camorra mob—an obvious danger for those living in the entire region—and she appears never to have experienced the heaps of garbage I encountered there in 2007, a perfect invitation to a blight of rats and disease. Although she and her husband describe riding through the city in taxis, neither seem to have witnessed the complete abandonment by the Neapolitan drivers of the rules of the road. While admitting that “Unlike Florence or Venice, Naples long allowed her great monuments to languish in disorder, “ she argues that they remain in their authentic context, and that “Private acts of faith and rescue have not been lacking in recent years.” Although she advises several times that visitors should never carry a purse or bag, she hardly hints at the violence that might occur if one were to ignore her suggestions.

The longest chapter in this book, however—a piece titled “The Incident at Naples,” penned by Steegmuller—describes just such an event. Carrying an empty bag, and forgetting for an instant to roll it up or put it in his pocket, Steegmuller, dangling it by the handles, is suddenly attacked by two young men on a motorcycle, and, in the usual pattern, is dragged along the street until it becomes loosened from his arm. In this case, the victim is quite seriously hurt, with severe lacerations to his nose, hands, and legs. But even in this one instance of described violence, Steegmuller finds the decaying hospitals to be filled with kindly doctors who, because of the nationalized health system, do not even bill him. Returning to the U.S., he misses the kindnesses of the Neapolitan doctors and the immediate actions of close Italian friends. The clean white clinics of New York seem less interested in him as a human being than did the decaying facilities of Naples, and he returns to Italy, after healing, to thank the several individuals who helped him get through the affair—one of whom tells the author that the robbers might have killed his son had he not removed the baby from its stroller at the moment of attack.

I have no doubt, given my own personal experiences with Neapolitans, that he received such a genuinely personal response, and one applauds both Hazzard’s and Steegmuller’s praise of these interpersonal relationships that continue to exist throughout the region. Nonetheless, it often appears that the Naples and Campania of The Ancient Shore is a world more of the past and shadow than of the piercing glare of contemporary Southern Italian daylight.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009