Just a delicious collection of essays on 'Siren Land': Naples and its environs.
Inevitably, I've found recently, should you mention your plans to travel to Italy to anyone, that
book comes up. The one with the movie, the book that launched a thousand journeys of self-discovery to Italy and India and Malaysia, I think. [A favorite story: Somewhere, in Malaysia (or Indonesia?) there is a cafe with a sign behind the counter that reads: Eat. Pay. Leave.] I've scoffed. I'll admit. I never read the book, only watched part of the movie with Handsome Husband one Saturday afternoon in the middle of a torrential downpour. I will save you from my critique. No - I won't. 1) Rome has NEVER been that empty. Ever. Romulus and Remus brushed their way through crowds. 2) The Italian people are not Sesame Street characters. 3) The pasta was your only take home? In a 2500 year old city, seat of one of the greatest empires the world has ever known, home to Michaelangelo and Bernini and Cicero and St. Peter's and the Colosseum- the pasta was the centerpiece?
But, I've calmed, since reading The Ancient Shore
. Here, Hazzard writes:
I was warned - as are all who pursue their dreams - by those who define reality as a sequence of salutary disappointments that 'reality' would soot set in. I was reminded that immemorial outsiders had followed that same cisalpine path. Yet we trusted to the private revelation. Of her time in Rome, Elizabeth Bowen wrote: 'If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it - for me they retain a momentous freshness.' And so, for most of us, it was and is.
So I can't really get that mad with the fetishization of pasta, nor the deceptively empty streets. It's a masked jealousy of a place that I feel, falsely, is more MINE by right than theirs that drives that knee-jerk scoff. I know of no better explanation for my (and Elizabeth Gilbert's, and Elizabeth Bowen's and Shirley Hazzard's and the clerk at the bookstore where I bought this book and the stylist at Banana Republic who sold me a beautiful orange red and black scarf for my last trip to Italy and who eloped with her husband on a whim in a tiny chapel in Florence) infatuation with The Peninsula than the explanation that Hazzard provides:
[We were] living more completely among the scenes and sentiments of a humanism the New World could not provide. The Italian admixture of immediacy and continuity, of the long perspective and the intensely personal . . . Italy again offered to travelers her antique genius for human relations - a tact, an expansiveness never quite with out form. One was drawn, too, but beauty that owed as much to centuried endurance as to the luminosity of art and that seemed, then , to create an equilibrium as lasting as nature's. Like the historian Jakob Burckhardt, we felt all this was ours 'by right of admiration.'
So, I'm head over heels - or boot, as it were. I can't get enough of Italy, nor of Hazzard's prose. This book is so full of such rich and succulent description, I'd eat it like a bowl of over-hyped pasta at a tourist joint near the train station if I didn't want so badly to read it again. Four stars, because I needed more than 140 pages.