Category Archives: Naples

I wondered if you could ever rely on someone who makes their living selling fizzy drinks door to door.

I Stole the Rain, by Elisa Ruotolo and translated by Lisa McCreadle

Originally I was writing this up for an (overdue) August round-up post, but this was an unexpectedly good read and I think it deserves better than that. So, here’s a short post just on this.

I Stole the Rain is an ebook only short story collection published by Frisch & Co, who I think are now defunct but who specialised in translated European fiction.

Ruotolo is new to me and doesn’t seem to have much else in print in English. On the strength of the three stories here that’s rather a shame. Although short, I thought this one of the better short story collections I’ve read this year and the common setting – Campania in Southern Italy – adds to the interest.

The first, I am Super Legend, is about a young man who becomes a champion of the local village football league. He gets talent spotted for regional training, but can he adapt to the demands of the real game as opposed to the local variant he’s been used to?

The Black Eagles were a football team. Our team. Except it wasn’t signed up for any kind of tournament. It didn’t follow rules on transfers, first and second legs. As far as it was concerned there were no friendlies, half-times, or league tables. There was no nothing. Only a dirt pitch – nobody knew where it started and where it ended, it was all bumps and gravel, and if you fell on it, your knees would never be the same again – and two posts without a net that were put back up by a carpenter every time they fell down.

I have absolutely no interest in football. I never have had. Even so, I thought this just a blisteringly good story. Well written, evocative, and powerful. It leaves as many questions as it answers, as many of the best stories do.

The next, The Child Comes Home, is about an elderly woman forced by circumstance to take up her grandmother Candida’s old profession of buying gold under the counter in Naples and selling it illegally. In part it’s an exploration of the compromises forced on us by time, which makes it sound bleak save that it really isn’t.

The jewelers’ district had changed a bit, particularly the faces, and in the  shops now it was easy to find the grandchildren, the employees, the new owners where someone had left. Only one place had stayed exactly the same, down to the tiniest detail, and an old man in a wheelchair, when he heard the name Candida, had turned around and asked what had become of her. The truth, obvious to many, had made him cry.

To add to that potential bleakness there’s the fact that the woman’s only son went missing as a child, leaving her bereft and leading to her husband walking out unable to cope with the aftermath. In a marvellous line she reflects on that disappearance having split her life “in two like an old fruit which falls to the ground when the season is over”.

The years passed and she slowly built up a new life for herself – a small life, but her own. Then a young man turns up at her door…

All this could be quite desolate, but it’s balanced with a quiet late-life romance she finds with an equally elderly man with a pacemaker and his own losses and late-night worries. I thought it all rather lovely.

The third story, Look at Me, was my least favourite. I suspect in another collection it would have seemed stronger, but after Super and Child it had a fair bit to live up to. It may be worth noting that the review in Words without Borders in contrast thought this the strongest.

A man looks back on his childhood, and remembers his father’s only friend, Cesare. Cesare was a big man, clumsy, socially awkward and with a speech defect that left him mute. He was also desperately lonely and his few attempts at dates were inevitable disasters.

Then Cesare fell in love with the housekeeper, Silvia, and lacking spoken words he wrote to her. The narrator, then a boy, found the letter and replied on her behalf. And with that was born a romance which meant everything to Cesare, and which Silvia was quite unaware of. I won’t say more.

This is a small book from a small publisher and it has no physical release. I don’t think it’s had that much attention – it’s simply very easy to miss. So, I can’t promise that anyone reading this would like the collection as much as I did, but I do think it at least merits taking a look at just in case you do.

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Filed under Italian fiction, Naples, Ruotolo, Elisa, Short stories

Fantasy in a frock-coat

The Jinx, by Theophile Gautier

I love Naples. I studied there once, living in the middle of the Spaccanapoli for a month. I was back there recently for my wedding anniversary. It’s a filthy, chaotic and incredibly noisy place. There’s graffiti, piled-up garbage (partly due to yet another strike) and run down buildings and every other wall seems to have a small shrine to a local saint or to the Madonna.

When I stayed there I was in the crime-ridden heart of the city, but untouchable because the Camorra had put the word out not to harm tourists. They didn’t want the police being forced to investigate and so cramp the illegal lotteries and cigarette sales which generated real money.

I don’t believe in magic and I’m not religious, but I can still recognise that Naples is a city rife with faith and superstition. I’ve mentioned the ubiquituous shrines, but there are also churches filled with riches (while outside the poverty is inescapable) and shops selling all manner of religious paraphernalia. If you’ve ever wanted a lifesize Madonna for your home there’s more than one shop in Naples that can help you out.

All of which is rather a long winded way of saying that when I heard about Theophile Gautier’s 1857 novella The Jinx at Kevinfromcanada’s blog I knew I had to read it. A story about a North European falling into trouble among the superstitions of Naples? Gautier could have written it with me in mind.

Gautier isn’t well known now, but he was once much better regarded. He wrote the ballet Giselle, and advocated “art for art’s sake”. He was seen as a forerunner to Oscar Wilde (Wilde even quotes Gautier in Dorian Grey) and was a major literary figure of his time. Extraordinary how a man can achieve so much fame, and yet in the UK at least be so forgotten.

The Jinx is the story of a young Frenchman, M. Paul d’Aspremont who comes to Naples to see his fiancée Alicia who is recuperating there from an illness. She is English, pale and beautiful. Her uncle, who has accompanied her, is good natured but red faced and gouty. All of them are types instantly recognisable to any reader.

The novella opens with a ship bearing Paul and other well born travellers into the Bay of Naples. Each of them is perfectly dressed, unruffled and uncreased. Paul is in most regards a man typical of his class. He is civilised, rational, the flower of North European civilisation.

His clothes were elegant without drawing attention to themselves by any showiness of detail: a dark blue frock-coat, a black polka-dot cravat whose know was tied in a manner neither affected nor negligent, a waistcoat of the same design as the cravat, light grey trousers, beneath which was a fine pair of boots; the chain holding his watch was all of gold, and his pince-nez dangled from a cord of flat silk; his hand, elegantly gloved, was tapping a small slender cane in twisted vine stock, tipped with ornamental silver.

In one regard however Paul is atypical. Although each part of his face is on its own handsome, in combination his features do not blend well and the overall result is quite ugly. Most troubling are his eyes, which seem closer set together than they should be and the irises of which seem to change colour so that when he focuses them upon a target they change “from grey to green, [becoming] speckled with black spots and streaked with yellow fibrils”.

Paul’s gaze is a fierce one, particularly when he concentrates, and it does not take long for the superstitious locals to conclude that he possesses the jettatura, the evil eye. To them his gaze is like that of the cockatrice, and what he looks upon he destroys.

As the story progresses, Paul becomes slowly aware of the locals’ peculiar hostility. To them he is like a man carrying a plague – it’s not his fault that he carries the curse of the jettatura, but that doesn’t make it any the less serious. To be in his view is to invite misfortune, perhaps even death and soon whereever Paul goes he is faced with outstretched charms, hands held in peculiar gestures, horns and coral stems and other measures thought effective against his unwitting powers.

Paul is a man of reason. Alicia is if anything even more rational and level headed. She is a robust English protestant and there is no place in her worldview for magic. Any misfortunes or odd incidents that may occur near Paul are to her clearly just coincidence and nothing more. To the servants each such event is proof positive that he is what they think he is.

The Jinx then is a story of Northern Europe and Southern, and of reason and superstition. It’s original readers would have been men much like M. Paul d’Aspremont, Northern Europeans, rationalists and if religious at all most likely protestants. Gautier roots his characters in a recognisable world and a recognisable philosophy; but Naples is not Northern Europe, and things which seem impossible in the cool light of the North start to seem more credible in the more permissive South.

I’m going to say very little more about the story, but I will add one more detail. So far I’ve described this as a conflict of North and South and of credulity and doubt, but it’s also seems to be at first a conflict of class too with the educated middle classes coming face to face with the fears of the urban poor. Paul though is not the only man with designs upon Alicia’s heart. He has a rival.

The Count Altavilla is Neapolitan, but far from the servant class. He is a nobleman, rich and a feared duellist. He too accuses Paul of being a jettatore – a carrier of the evil eye. When he does so things become more serious because it’s no longer just a question of gossiping servants and market traders. With Altavilla present the supernatural is in the drawing room and unavoidable.

Here’s a description of the Count, as you’ll see he’s a potentially formidable opponent for any lover.

The Count was, indeed, one of those men whom one doesn’t like to see too close to a woman one loves. He was tall and perfectly proportioned; his hair was jet black, swept up into abundant tufts over his smooth and finely-sculptured forehead; a gleam of Naples’ sunshine sparkled in his eyes, and his teeth, broad and strong yet as pure as pearls, seemed to be even more dazzling because of the bright red of his lips and the olive hue of his complexion. The only criticism a meticulous taste might have found to make against the Count was that he was just too handsome.

What’s wonderfully clever in all this is that Gautier slowly (and in a precisely controlled way) led me into suspecting that Altavilla and the other Neapolitans were right. I started suspecting that Paul was a jettatore. As I suspected it, so within the narrative did Paul, so that as his worldview unravelled so did my certainties as to what was really happening.

What though is happening? By the time Paul and I both suspected him of being what he was accused of being, there still wasn’t really anything that couldn’t be explained away. That’s not a spoiler. That’s the point. Our experience of reality is based in large part on what we believe, and it can be hard to hold onto our beliefs when everyone around us believes something else, even if what they believe is extraordinary.

The Jinx then is disquieting because it’s in part about the subversion of a reality – Paul’s reality and that of the reader. In a way that’s much more frightening than a mere vampire or serial killer could ever be.

Everything I’ve written so far makes this sound like a dark and disturbing tale. Well, it is, but it’s not just that. It’s also delightfully and wittily written. It’s full of jokes, most of them at the expense of the English…

The letter, enclosed in a thick envelope of azure cream-laid paper, sealed with aventurine wax, was written in that hand – angular down-strokes and cursive up-strokes – which denotes a high level of aristocratic education, and which young English ladies of good family all possess, a little too uniformly, perhaps.

The Jinx is a beautiful example of a novella. It’s clever, skilfully crafted and extremely well written. Andrew Brown’s translation is as good as it can be (I’ve read a few of his translations it turns out, I need to add him to my categories) and the physical production is up to Hesperus’s usual high standards. To add to it all, there’s also a rather good introduction by Gilbert Adair that’s well worth reading after you finish the story.

The Jinx is a novella which works as art for art’s sake. It’s in turns amusing, subversive, disturbing and even tragic. It’s a delightful little work and one which I can easily imagine influencing Wilde. I’m grateful to Kevin for introducing me to it and my only complaint would be one that he made too. The original title (of this work written in French) was in Italian, Jettatura, and I think it would have been better left untranslated. That said, when that’s all I have to complain about I’m pretty happy.

The Jinx. Kevin’s review is here. Kevin discusses a bit more of Gautier’s background, has some excellent quotes from the book and discusses Gautier’s style in a way that I certainly found very useful.

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Filed under 19th Century, Brown, Andrew (translator), French, Gautier, Theophile, Naples, Novellas

toasting the Chinese at the Florian

Against Venice, by Regis Debray

I mentioned in my recent post on Paul Morand’s Venices that I was reading Regis Debray’s 2002 book Against Venice (published by Pushkin Press, with an afterword by the author and translated by John Howe). In fact, I only bought Venices because I was already planning to buy the Debray and knew it referenced the Morand.

Well, I enjoyed the Morand, even though I hadn’t really expected to and was seeing it almost as homework before the Debray. Naturally then, I didn’t enjoy the Debray as much as I hoped. That’s not because it’s bad, it’s not – it’s very well written – perhaps it’s just because I agreed more with Debray than I did with Morand.

So what is it exactly? Well, it’s about 70 pages of argument against Venice, or more to the point against the idea of Venice and the way it’s held up as a cultural touchstone. It’s a mixture of insight, exaggeration, wit, sly dig, rant and cri de couer. It’s also (and this is part of its charm) exasperating, unreasonable, unfair, sometimes quite irritating, and by the end unexpectedly serious. If you can, it’s best read in one sitting, it’s just more enjoyable when Debray is given space to get up a decent head of steam. There’s a definite feeling at times that he knows he’s being absurd, but he’s not going to let that stop him.

Debray knows his territory, he knows the city but more importantly he knows its tourists, he understands the lure of the place. At times, he’s very funny and cruelly accurate. If you’ve ever been to Venice you’ll probably recognise this:

“You’ll see,” murmurs the tourist in his trattoria, furtively lowering his voice, “on this route, you won’t see a single other tourist.”

Like most people who love Venice, I want to see the city, I just don’t especially want to see other people seeing the city. There’s an allure to the idea of finding the real Venice, but of course the tourist Venice is the real Venice.

Debray contrasts Venice with Naples, one of my favourite cities on Earth. I studied Italian in Naples, staying in the Spaccanapoli, and I love the place. I love its noise, its chaos, its grandeur so differently faded to that of Venice. Debray loves it too, and he uses it as an effective counterexample, the living versus the preserved, the populist versus the elite:

THE ISLAND CITY with its little finger genteelly stuck out, used as a drawing room by the whole planet, is a place where “people of quality” display common behaviour. While in the volcano town, shrieking with vulgarity, the common people portray an air of distinction.
This does not prevent the lagoon from being ten times more frequented by tourists than Posilippo. The ones who do cross Naples scuttle through with lowered eyes, petrified of scippo, of pickpockets and bag-snatchers, heading as quickly as possible for that direst of school impositions, Pompeii. The popular town repels the populace, the snobbish one attracts it. An overwhelming majority for the adulterated and dressed-up. As usual.

Every section opens with a few words in block capitals by the way, there’s no significance to it (no obvious one, anyway).

There’s a subtlety to Debray’s argument at times, an underlying thread which only really becomes apparent as you go on. It’s the issue of whether it’s a good thing to be a monument, a cultural treasure, whether perhaps it might not be better to be less refined but more alive:

It is possible to weep hot and bitter tears in Naples, city of extravagance, for the same reasons that hearty laughter is normal there; people do not sob in Venice, city of autumn, city of evening, for the same reason that Venetian gaiety must content itself with a thin smile. It is a polite place, where people get depressed but stop short of suicide.

Another element of Debray’s argument (there are several) is the way Venice affects artists. Debray isn’t at all hostile to Morand it turns out, he tweaks his nose a bit but of the four or so references to him most are pretty positive. What he hates is Morand-lite, people who write of the city in the most romantic terms, but who lack Morand’s sheer skill and so just become banal:

For one quicksilver Morand, for one mandolin pizzicato from Fauré, how many boating songs are there, how many serenades and other pieces of gondolier kitsch (a word, incidentally, that seems to come from the wrong country?).

Debray also mocks the heirarchies of tourism. The cultured wander about clutching their abridged copies of Ruskin’s Stones of Venice, looking down on backpackers, people on cruises and those doing eight cities in eight days (or whatever):

The sight of two broke, bare chested trippers with “structuralist beards”, gulping grappa out of the bottle, was enough to send Paul Morand into a deep depression described in the closing passage of his post-1968 work Venises.

Actually, it didn’t. What Morand objected to was someone drinking his grappa and not saying thanks, it was the lack of gratitude that depressed him, not the appearance or the gulping.

For Debray, it’s almost impossible now to engage with Venice. The whole place has been so written about, there are so many novels and guidebooks and histories, so many films too and photographs and received stories, that we struggle to see it at all. We see it through a prism of others’ experiences, we know so much before we arrive we risk inhabiting what others said about it, not what we see ourselves.

We ourselves are afloat on a raft of references, every glimpse of the landscape releasing, like a conditioned reflex, this or that association with some paragraph, picture or sequence.

Still, he understands its charm, the pleasure of walking through its streets devoid of cars, its history and architecture, its theatricality. He loves the place, he despairs of convincing anyone, even himself, of his argument. After all, it’s Venice isn’t it? It’s an easy place to love.

For Debray though, ulimately, there is a tragedy to Venice and it is that it is no longer a living city. He contrasts religion in Naples, fervent, impassioned, almost pagan, with its absence in Venice where the churches are places for mass tourism and the paintings and statues objects of cultural appreciation rather than devotion. He is particularly scathing about the practice of having coin-activated lights which briefly illuminate some particularly highly regarded artwork for the paying public:

In the mini-Babylon of the cultured, a glance at the angels may no longer bring salvation, but that does not prevent it from being lucrative.

As Against Venice draws to its close, the real issue emerges. Could Venice be a mirror that shows us Europe’s future? As he says

I seem to remember that in the period of its greatness – the iron-willed “triumphant city” was not loved. When it still had military strength and rights of veto, in the Lepanto era, nobody praised its mysterious grace or its cats slumbering between embroidered cushions. Its power – nuclear, industrious, restless and confrontational – was feared, not contemplated. “Sweet and magical clarity” is a thin recompense for inventing a world.

If Venice can become a theme park, why not Paris? Why not London? Madrid? Arguably, much of Britain has already gone down that route, a service economy serving more vigorous civilisations elsewhere. Venice once ruled, it was a power, now other powers send their tourists to visit it and praise its charms and there are hardly any Venetians left.

Debray is not Morand, I felt here no racism, no resentment of other cultures rising to their own day in the sun. That said, he’s not ready for Europe’s day to be over just yet, and for him Venice is essentially a museum while Naples is anything but. Venice is beautiful, yes, but Naples is the better place to live.

Against Venice makes a perfect companion with Venices. It’s definitely enjoyable to read them in order as I did, Venices then Against Venice. Debray is serious and joking at the same time, no small trick, and there’s a brio to it all which is hard not to admire. There’s a scene in the Patrice Leconte film Ridicule, the Abbé de Vilecourt is making a speech proving the existence of God before the court of Versailles, entertaining the King with the fluency of his logic and rhetoric (before boasting that he could prove the opposite just as easily). Debray reminds me of the Abbé in that part of that scene, at the height of his powers and in full enjoyment of them.

Before I go, it’s worth noting that Nicholas Lezard at the Guardian did a combined review of Venices and Against Venice here. It was his review that partly helped put me on to these works, and it’s well worth reading.

Against Venice

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Filed under Debray, Regis, French, Italy, Morand, Paul, Naples, Venice