The City That Never Sweeps

The Ancient Shore: Dispatches from Naples BY Shirley Hazzard, Francis Steegmuller. University Of Chicago Press. Hardcover, 144 pages. $18.

The cover of The Ancient Shore: Dispatches from Naples

The picture “dissolves to life—and I enter a passageway of a street,” cobbled with lava, and the lunchtime air full of a “savage drum-roll of descending grilles” over one storefront after another. So in the opening pages of her 1970 novel, The Bay of Noon, Shirley Hazzard sends her young narrator on a walk through the historic center of Naples. Jenny Unsworth has come to Italy to work as a translator for nato, but she has no particular interest in the place; she wants merely to be out of England. The war stands a decade in the past, yet the region is still battered, and indeed, the book’s first sentence suggests an ongoing disaster: “A military plane crashed that winter on Mount Vesuvius.” Jenny doesn’t know anyone outside her work and finally uses her single letter of introduction, to a woman named Gioconda, only because she finds a reference to the woman’s street in a guidebook: “The traveler who would know Naples . . . must take himself to Spaccanápoli, the split of Naples, the street that traversed the city’s nucleus in classical times, and is now called San Biagio dei Librai.” So she sets off through that alley, whose shops sell everything from coffee beans to “plastic Bambis,” penetrating to the heart of the old, a street of litter and life, where litter is life. And when she finally arrives, all she can say is “Your street is marvelous.” Gioconda herself knows better—it has an “important squalor,” but it’s squalor nonetheless.

One day, a biographer will tell us whether Hazzard’s situation matched Jenny’s: whether that tight-lipped and impassioned novel has its roots in any part of her own life, beyond her youthful tenure in Naples as an employee of an international organization—in her case, the UN. Jenny soon finds herself ensnared in a net of overlapping relationships, but the knots come loose, and things end without concluding, among them her relation with the city itself. Hazzard’s own affair with Naples has, in contrast, endured. The Ancient Shore gathers five of her brief essays about the city, along with an introduction and a coda that define Italy’s attraction for her in Jamesian terms. The peninsula offers “the scenes and sentiments of a humanism” that the New World cannot match, and though the particular grip it has on her may be peculiar to her generation, she also knows that Italy’s hold on younger visitors can be just as strong. Its promise of happiness may seem “at odds with our skeptical world, and yet [it is], in that place, often requited.” Naples was the first place in Italy that she knew, a city whose monuments “retain their animate, authentic context” precisely because its “postwar dereliction . . . erased [it] from the modern travel itinerary.” She has always gone back, and with long periods of residence in the decades since that first encounter.

And Spaccanápoli remains central to her understanding of it. The longest and most interesting piece in The Ancient Shore isn’t in fact by Hazzard, but by her late husband, the biographer and translator Francis Steegmuller. “The Incident at Naples” begins with a walk along that marvelous street, San Biagio dei Librai, Saint Biagio of the Booksellers. It is 1983, a dozen-odd years after The Bay of Noon, perhaps thirty after young Jenny’s own walk, and as Steegmuller and Hazzard move down that street, they are indeed on a bookish errand, carrying a few old volumes in a canvas shopping bag to a binder’s shop. They make their choice of leather and endpapers and step out into the street once more, Steegmuller carrying the bag. Then a motorcycle comes along, an arm snakes out to snatch, and Steegmuller forgets the “much-rehearsed lesson.” He forgets to let go and is dragged along the pavement: much blood, broken bones, hospitals. The nearest is a place called Loreto Mare, and at first its “dilapidation and decay” make the couple think of a quick transfer to a private clinic. But the medical staff is “deft and humane,” gentle, skilled, and warm. Other patients gather around, full of sympathy, and though at a second hospital one of the doctors speaks with longing of New York, they quickly realize that better treatment cannot be imagined. When they leave, Hazzard asks for the bill, but this is a “national” hospital and there isn’t one.

What follows is in some ways the usual comparison of Italy and America, as it plays out through Steegmuller’s follow-up treatment in the coldly antiseptic New York of their permanent residence. The tropes are familiar here—but the detail is utterly gripping and alive. In Naples, Steegmuller, in his late seventies, was called Professore; in the New York medical world, he becomes simply Francis. In Naples, the doctors’ speech was straight and clear and often pungent; in New York, even the kindest of attendants speaks “across an artificial barrier of polysyllabic indirection.” After ten weeks, the couple return to Naples and feel as if they have come home. And only then, in a moment that reveals the understated mastery with which Steegmuller has paced this story, only then do they realize just how much worse this incident might have been.

None of Hazzard’s own essays prove quite so rich in particulars. Some of them betray their origins as journalistic commissions, pieces of mood and landscape but sparse in personal anecdote, pieces with titles like “In the Shadow of Vesuvius” and “City of Secrets and Surprises.” A more suggestive essay describes the city’s refurbishment for the G7 summit in 1994, when “innumerable scaffoldings went up and—more improbably—came down” as the city tried to scrub itself clean. Hazzard is a master of the dash—the ironic interjection, the deflating second thought—and however minor the occasions of these essays, the prose seems to me never less than enthralling. Her sentences dip and curve, like roads that don’t ever quite go where one expects. The best of these sketches is called “A Scene of Ancient Fame,” in which the writer simply stands on a parapet and gazes out to sea, watching the boats and the water and remembering two millennia of the bay’s history; looking at the Posillipo headland with its “expensive and unlovely new buildings of doubtful legality” and recalling how in youth that vision gave her a sense of “tranquility without tedium.”

The Ancient Shore made me think of the last lines of Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli,” that late poem in which he summons up a world of figures, rebuilding among the ruins, whose “ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.” That is the sense Hazzard offers of Naples, a city that provides a series of “long private lessons in living and dying,” and it is one that applies to the whole body of her work as well. She is the most cultivated of writers, her books a long-steeped brew of the past. Born in 1931, in Australia, she is a contemporary of Toni Morrison and Philip Roth but seems in her literary manners to belong to an earlier generation. As Steegmuller lies in a hospital bed after his mugging, Hazzard recalls some lines from Petrarch “on the unpredictability of existence.” Her 2000 memoir, Greene on Capri, describes a friendship that began when she proved able to supply a bit of Browning that the English writer had forgotten. These essays make one think of older writers like Sybille Bedford and Eleanor Clark, whose Rome and a Villa remains the great American travel book of the postwar generation; at times of Elizabeth Bowen and even Rebecca West. Hazzard writes of passion but is never personal, and her prose has an austere sensuality, a quality of voluptuous reserve. In Greene on Capri, she presents her own achievement in modest terms. But her major books—The Transit of Venus (1980), The Great Fire (2003)—are as powerful and as carefully wrought as Graham Greene’s own, and they have a quality of majesty that his do not. Only they don’t quite seem books of their moment, as his always do, and not only because each of hers is set a few decades back. It is too soon to know how, or whether, that will affect their permanence.

The Ancient Shore comes richly illustrated with photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Herbert List, among others. It stands as a love letter both to Naples and to the much older Steegmuller, who died in 1994, and if this valediction does not quite forbid mourning, it nevertheless insists on life. Much larger than all its parts, this book does full justice to a place, and a time, where “nothing was pristine, except the light.”

Michael Gorra’s books include The Bells in Their Silence: Travels Through Germany (Princeton University Press, 2004) and, as editor, The Portable Conrad (Penguin, 2007).