Saturday, March 25, 2017

What I know about Naples

Last autumn I read five novels set in or around Naples, Italy, or with characters from the Naples region who move to cities northward in the period of the 1960s and 70s. After reading these five novels, here's what I now know about Naples: a little bit more than what I knew before. Before, I knew very little indeed other than that Naples is a city near Mount Vesuvius and the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum. In fact, I admit that my ignorance about Italy overall, especially its modern history, was vast.

I now know at least a little about Naples in the post-World-War-II period, about the class struggle, about the fascists and the mafia, about the student movement, about women's roles. I now know that Naples was and remains Italy's poorest city, that Naples is a downtrodden place of oppression and exploitation and misery. I've learned that this city and its people, even though they're in Europe, are generally considered part of the Global South.

I'm still a Naples ignoramus, but maybe a teensy bit less so, having read the four novels of the Neapolitan series by Elena Ferrante, and another book not long after. I liked the Ferrante novels. I loved the other book, got much more out of it, and in my opinion it is much more important.

As to Ferrante novels: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child. I'd resisted the endless waves of huzzahs, the stream of recommendations from friends, everyone asking if I'd read them. For some reason I thought I'd tried the first one and not liked it. Finally I thought what the hell, let me see what all the fuss is about, let me give it another chance, and I began the first novel. It turned out that I had not ever started it--guess I mixed it up with some other book--and I did like it and kept reading. Liked it enough that I went right on to the next one, and then the next and the last. Not one after the other. I read some other books in between. I wasn't so consumed with the story of Lenu and Lila that I had to plunge through the whole thing one two three four. But I was interested enough, and liked the books enough, to keep coming back until ultimately I finished the series.

I liked these novels. I did not love them, not even close.

The depiction of women's roles and of the changing society in the decades as they pass are most compelling. The portrayal of the two women's friendship pulled me along. The writing is not, as many have noted, anything dazzling, but it works. Overall, then, I enjoyed the read, well enough to keep going, and that is saying something as these days I never push myself through a book if I'm not liking it. So yeah, I liked Ferrante's books. Why didn't I love them? Well, one thing of note is that from my vantage point now, three months on, I remember very little of the story beyond its broad framework. I never find myself thinking about the characters and their lives. No scenes pop up in my mind. Looking back, I realize that the books didn't make me feel very much. I never shed a tear. And now, three months on, thinking about them evokes no emotion.

I was not, in other words, consumed. I was not swept up. I was not moved. I was not changed. There's just something about these books that falls short. If pressed, I'd say it's that they are ultimately a petit-bourgeois project. Sure, Ferrante shows the existence of classes, she includes material about the effects of poverty and exploitation, but there's an as-if quality, a distance, to it all. You can say these are class-conscious books--and for readers used to the way U.S. literature is dominated by an upper- and middle-class sensibility, there is I suppose something refreshing in this, in the mere recognition and depiction of working-class lives--but they are nevertheless imbued with bourgeois consciousness. Perhaps that's why I did not come away from these novels deeply affected by the visceral narrative of female friendship that all the critical acclaim proclaims them to be.

On the other hand. Speaking of Naples and environs. Moved, thrilled, swept away, envigorated, revived--and yes, thinking about the book still calls up these feelings three months later--this is how I felt about a magnificent book only recently available in English translation many years after its original Italian publication, and even this English version only available at some effort on order from Australia. The book is Vogliamo Tutto-The Novel of Italy's Hot Autumn by Nanni Balestrini.
The title translates as "We Want It All" or "We Want Everything" and it comes from a workers' chant during the great strike against Fiat in Torino in 1969. The novel pulls you deep into that struggle, but not before acquainting you with the conditions that drove so many young workers out of Naples to the north to seek factory work. The desperation, the hunger, the nothing that they had (and in Naples still have). The reader feels it, and is pulled along, fast and angry, into the maelstrom that surges into the streets.

That visceral gut slap missing in Ferrante's work? Well, hot damn, here it is in Balestrini's. Now here's a funny thing. Both Balestrini's and much of Ferrante's books are set in the period of the 60s and 70s, when all hell was breaking loose in Italy, both student and worker struggle. Ferrante doesn't ignore it, it's there in a way, but it's not integral, it isn't fundamental to the characters or story. With Balestrini, however, the struggle is the story. Is it any wonder Vogliamo Tutto is the book that speaks to me?

Especially in these hard times. In the U.S. today we face what can seem a deeply daunting challenge, to build the resistance movement, to organize and fight back and smash the racist, anti-worker, pro-war regime now in power. This is a book to read to revive your spirits and rev your energy back up for this vital fight.