I am reading Naples '44* and it is one of those delightful moments when history and my fascination for Italy collide.
It’s 1944 and Norman Lewis is a British intelligence officer with the allied armies in Italy.
He landed at Salerno in September 1943 with the American 5th Army and the book chronicles a year of his life in the city of Naples.
It is a closely observed description of life after the war has moved on leaving an aftermath of broken buildings, a desperate lack of food and a breakdown of the usual conventions of morality.
So on a journey to Afragola he saw “hundreds if not thousands of Italians mostly women and children in the fields all along the roadside driven by their hunger to search for edible plants ... they had left their homes in Naples at daybreak, and had to walk for between two and three hours to reach the spot where I found them.”
But there are those vivid little pictures of Neapolitan life which I suspect had been lived out before and after his visit including the family who lived opposite his office and who “carried out a table and stood it in the street close to their doorway. This was briskly covered with a green cloth with tassels. Chairs were placed round it in an exact distance and on it were placed photographs, a vase of artificial flowers, a small cage containing a gold finch, several ornate little glasses, which were polished from time to time as the day passed by to remove the dust.”
And around that table they carried on the daily routines of life, from domestic chores to grooming the children, washing and eating. There were other tables out further along the street and people called out to each other, while a man with “tiny twisted legs was carried out by his friends and propped up in a comfortable position against the wall.”
It is a scene of street life which my parents in law knew well. Simone and Rosa were born in Naples just before Italy entered the war in 1940 and grew up in the harsh years of that war and the equally hard years afterwards.
Not that this is any rosy nostalgic account of a simple but good way of life. For many in Naples life was a struggle lived out against a backdrop of poverty which the war made that bit more difficult and led many down darker and more brutal ways of survival.
All of this along with the horror and confusion of the fighting falls out of this book.
But so often it is the carefully observed little scenes that that draw you in, like the “two lean, hip swinging American soldiers, sharing a bottle of wine [who] passed down the street, and the two girls at the table [who] looked up and followed them with their eyes until they turned the corner and disappeared from sight.”
Location; Naples, Italy
*Naples '44, An Intelligence Officer in the Italian Labyrinth, Norman Lewis, 2002, Eland Publishing Ltd, http://www.travelbooks.co.uk/
Picture; from the front cover, designed by Robert Dalrymple and cover image Neapolitan Girls – A Brothel 1945 © Archivio Carbone