Thursday, 22 May 2014

The Bay of Noon: a Love Letter to Naples*

I recently went deep down south, down Italy's long and stupendous peninsula away from the windy, unpredictable spring of the north. A break from family, the screen, the current short story collection. As the trip involved a long train travel from the north I left equipped with what I thought was an appropriate novel for the journey. I’ve had Shirley Hazzard's *The Bay of Noon on my bookshelf for a good while now, having enjoyed The Transit of Venus (which I must reread) and People in Glass Houses (dealing with the raw truths of diplomatic life - right up my old alley).

But The Bay of Noon was almost too beautiful to savour while I was rocking on a night train and trying to dodge an unwanted hand (yes dammit!), or my blistery-eyed shunting out of Rome and further south. Then the scenery itself was absorbing with its great social drama, the volcano (!) and the hustle of history. Today's Naples is a world away from the post-war city Hazzard experienced, but so many  images remain resolutely the same. Let me find a few: 

On to the flanks of those palaces, smaller buildings had been grafted in every age except our own – in any unlikely opening, on any precarious ledge, apparently with the sole provision that they bear no resemblance to one another. Forgotten or overlaid, antiquity had been buried in the walls, making its laconic signal – sunken column, Greek, dark, smooth as silk, with acanthus capital; a Roman inscription, traces of a fortification, or crenellations that, centuries since, had been surmounted by a rooftop. In one vast courtyard was planted a colossal sculpture, Roman or Renaissance, of a horse’s head; another ended in galleries of disintegrating frescoes..

Hazzard’s narrator Jenny lands in post-war Naples traumatised by her past, particularly her too-close rapport with her brother. Her emotions are ‘cauterized’. As Hazzard did, Jenny works with NATO, installed in the ‘volcanic’ city liberated by the Americans.

The city itself was marked by a volcanic extravagance. Its characteristics had not insinuated themselves but had arrived in inundations – in eruptions of taste and period, of churches and palaces, in a positive explosion of the baroque; in an outbreak of grotesque capitals, or double geometrical staircases; in a torrent of hanging gardens poured down over terraces and rooftops, spilt along ledges and doorsteps.

Jenny befriends local Gioconda and her Roman lover Gianni and we are invited to savour scenes of Italy's Fellini-esque film world. She also goes out with Justin, a Scotsman working in Naples, who reveals Jenny's stiff character from another angle. Through her friendship with Gioconda she is absorbed into the rich and tragic arc of local history, which by comparison makes her own life feel pale.

Whereas excavations of Gioconda’s past brought to light temples, palaces and tombs, with ornate interiors worthy of grand gestures and heroic renunciations, my own archaeology seemed by comparison like a mere scouring of some minor site – a hilltop encampment of the Hittites, say, or some beehive village of the Picts – yielding nothing more than a heap of domestic utensils and handful of weapons, few intact and none beautiful..

Hazzard’s language is mesmerising as she probes our absorption by place and the instincts that foster love. There are moments where love is hidden, where love collapses, where love bursts to unexpected and thwarted life. Through Jenny’s eyes she dissects Gioconda and Gianni’s rapport which she sees falter and twist and revive. Jenny's own growth and recovery accompany this close connection, as does the lush presence of Naples, a city that Hazzard, too, also began to call home. Through every page the voice of Naples is loud and melodious: 

Let me dream that you love me again
And let me die in my dream.

Capri! Capri! Not for me!
It wasn’t until I was home and back in the doldrums that I reread Hazzard’s Paris Review interview after finishing The Bay of Noon. I am addicted to these interviews and wanted to read more about Hazzard’s attachment to the grand city of the south. To my dismay I read that Shirley Hazzard has a house in Capri and is an honorary citizen there. Capri lay just off the coast from where I was staying! To think that perhaps the great writer – who lives between New York and Capri – might have been sipping a coffee at the local bar there! I might have wandered over and sat in her glow, foolishly asked the now eighty-year-old lady for an autograph. 

But alas, Capri remained on her platter of endless sea and I did not leave the mainland. This lazy author feared being crammed on a ferry with tourists and preferred a day on a secret pebbly beach.

Hazzard herself speaks of the delightful break that initiated her career as a writer
In 1960, I wrote a story--a simple story of a young poet, derived from an evening in that Italian garden. I sent it to The New Yorker, without keeping a copy. It was accepted by William Maxwell, and I received his letter standing in the big old kitchen of my friends' villa. Moments like that don't come twice..