Thursday, February 22, 2018

Anna Maria Ortese: Neapolitan Chronicles

Seraillon has often featured out of print, difficult to find or untranslated works, so I was thrilled to learn of New Vessel Press’ plan to publish one of these: a new English translation of Anna Maria Ortese’s Il Mare non bagna Napoli (The Sea Doesn’t Bathe Naples), to appear as Neapolitan Chronicles. Ortese herself came up with the new title; the one under which the book originally appeared came from her publishers, Italo Calvino and Elio Vittorini.

The new edition of Neapolitan Chronicles, by Elena Ferrante’s English translator Ann Goldstein and co-translator Jenny McPhee, presents more reason for celebration than simply the re-emergence of this seminal work. For one thing, until now, Ortese’s book has never appeared in English in its entirety; Frances Frenaye’s 1955 translation lopped off part of the longest of the five pieces that make up the volume and added three not present in the original. For another thing, Goldstein and McPhee have included a preface and afterword Ortese wrote for Roberto Calasso’s 1994 Italian re-issue, and these commentaries by Ortese help to illuminate her aims in writing the book as well as her feelings about its rocky reception by Neapolitans. The translators’ own introduction provides additional context. Finally, I should add that the New Vessel edition is quite nicely designed, as you may discern from the image above.

I have written about Ortese’s book before, partly in an effort to give attention to works of Neapolitan literature that could provide some framing around Elena Ferrante’s monumental and monumentally popular Neapolitan Quartet. Ferrante’s series owes a tremendous debt to Neapolitan Chronicles, the first piece of which, “A Pair of Eyeglasses,” could well have been the crucible in which Ferrante formed her own project concerning the lives of two girls from the same impoverished Neapolitan apartment building. Ortese has also bequeathed to Ferrante a refusal to accept the state of things in this city wracked by poverty, corruption and violence. When Neapolitan Chronicles first appeared, its unsparing, unblinking treatment of Naples met with indignation from many of its citizens. The response was such that, despite the book winning a prestigious national literary prize, Ortese quit the city of her youth.

In light of my earlier post on the book, I’ll just briefly note some observations after reading the new version. I won’t speak to the quality of translation or compare it to Frenaye’s, tasks quite beyond my competence, but I will say that the prism facet of a new translation brought out many details that had previously escaped my attention. For instance, in “The Involuntary City,” a casually dispensed line cements the dark, Piranesian confinement of Naples’ Granli VIII-IV apartment block, a partly bombed-out 18th century grain storage facility that at the time of Ortese’s writing housed some 3,000 people with up to five families sharing a single room. While touring the building, the narrator is shown a crib made of a Coca-Cola crate that contains “what seemed to be a newborn…perfectly skeletal,” and is told by her guide that during a recent trip to the doctor, the child “saw the sun, the air…she was stupefied.” It is clear that this tiny being - fully two years old - had never before seen daylight.

In the book’s long final piece, “The Silence of Reason,” I had not previously noticed the fictional construct of what Ortese presents as journalism: a quick trip to Naples as a reporter sent to check out the local literary scene by visiting a number of her literary contemporaries, including Luigi Compangone, Raffaelle La Capria and Dominico Rea. The tenor of Ortese’s abrupt and even scathing assessments of her colleagues, whom she charges with practicing “an art rooted in arid desperation” regarding their approach to Naples, offers insights into her targets as well as herself. However, the vehicle of these criticisms - visits to the writers’ homes and meetings in the street - also positions her subjects in their human dimension while at the same time revealing their gendered privilege and underscoring the particular attention Ortese pays to women. For instance, in the section on Rea, Ortese seems to divide her attention between interviewing the author and observing his young wife, who wanders in and out to serve the men while her husband verbally berates her.

Among the more rewarding features of the new edition is Ortese’s 1994 preface. She here announces her intention to write about her writing (implying that others have looked completely beyond it, largely for political reasons), and turns upon herself the same degree of criticism she had leveled at others. She describes her writing in Neapolitan Chronicles as having

…something of the exalted and the feverish; it tends towards the high-pitched, encroaches on the hallucinatory, and at almost every point on the page displays, even in its precision, something of the too much.

Ortese goes on to refer to it as symptomatic of “authentic neurosis,” of a “disorientation” that is hers personally, not that of the city, reflective more of her “own weakness” than of anything else. Ortese’s expression of regret makes sense, given some of her dramatic characterizations as in “The Gold of Forcella,” where she refers to the neighborhood’s citizens as “a race devoid of all logic and reason…weak, neurotic, resigned to fear and impudent joy.” Viewed from another angle, however, this distancing strikes me as odd in light of the similarly “feverish” and “hallucinatory” style that seems nearly a hallmark of much Neapolitan writing, including in works by Curzio Malaparte, Roberto Saviano and Nicola Pugliese (not to mention the even more surreal works Ortese would later produce). Ortese’s mea culpa also comes across as an attempt to soften the blows she inflicted while retaining another quality she has passed along to a new generation of Neapolitan writers: a courageous intolerance of the intolerable.

Sixty-five years after these pieces first appeared, Ortese’s book still seems remarkably timely. it’s easy to appreciate that such an unflinching gaze into a city so manifestly complex, contradictory and fantastical may be key not only to Naples’ efforts to emerge from its terrible burden of troubles, but also for the city to represent what another Neapolitan writer – also in a rather “feverish” mode - mused might well be “the last remaining hope for the human race.”[1] Whether such a grand promise may ever be fulfilled, Ortese has certainly paved the way for it. At the very least Neapolitan Chronicles makes for a terrific introduction to this singular and increasingly influential Italian writer.

Neapolitan Chronicles will be published on March 13, 2018. I am grateful to New Vessel Press for alerting me to the forthcoming publication, for offering me an unsolicited review copy and for including an also unsolicited but entirely welcome blurb from seraillon inside the book.

[1] Luciano de Crescenzo, La Napoli di Bellavista (Thus Spake Bellavista), 1979


  1. Fascinating stuff. I'm interested in this as a consequence of the connections to Ferrante's Neapolitan novels. How wonderful to hear about this new edition - all credit to NVP for bringing it to a wider audience. And I'm so pleased to read that they've quoted you in the book. How brilliant is that? You must be absolutely chuffed!

    1. Thanks, Jacqui. It's a thrill to see the Ortese book in print again, especially as readers of the Ferrante books pretty much owe it to themselves to read this. All credit to New Vessel Press - and here's hoping some more of the many as yet untranslated but deserving works of Italian fiction make it into English!

  2. Lovely to revisit this post now that I'm more familiar with the book! You're right about the story 'A Pair of Eyeglasses', how closely connected to Ferrante's Neapolitan novels it feels, particularly in the world it evokes. I thought the short stories in this book were terrific - very vivid and 'visual' in style.