But let us go back to the cheerful incipit. A glimmer of light welcomes us in the alley where “A Pair of Eyeglasses,” the first of the book’s episodes, is set: “As long there’s the sun … the sun!, the voice of Don Peppino Quaglia crooned softly.” Contrary to what it suggests, “Eyeglasses” tells the story of a lack of sight (and vision): the protagonist is Don Peppino’s young daughter, Eugenia, who’s affected by severe myopia and lives with her family in a cobwebbed basement in one of Naples's poorer neighborhood. She and her aunt Nunziata visit the optician’s shop, where the first episode of her “misadventure of the look” (as Italianist Monica Farnetti put it) takes place: “Eugenia stood up, her legs trembling with emotion, and was unable to suppress a little cry of joy.”
Initially, putting glasses on is a way for Eugenia to witness the world revealing itself in all its beauty. Colors invade the page to describe the splendor — golden lights, curtains, girls walking on the streets — of Chiaia, one of the richest areas of Naples. It is an illusion. Soon the spectacles — a “very shiny insect with two giant eyes and two curving antennae” — can no longer hide the reality, which erupts at the end of the story:
With her white lips she wished to smile, but that smile became a moronic grimace. Suddenly the balconies began to multiply, two thousand, a hundred thousand. […] The courtyard was like a sticky funnel, with the narrow end toward the sky, its leprous walls crowded with derelict balconies; the arches of the basement dwellings black, with the lights bright in a circle around Our Lady of Sorrows; the pavement white with soapy water; the cabbage leaves, the scrap of paper, the garbage and, in the middle of the courtyard, that group of ragged, deformed souls, faces pocked by poverty and resignation, who looked at her lovingly. They began to writhe, to become mixed up, to grow larger. They all came toward her, in the two bewitched circles of the eyeglasses.
The awareness of the gaze coincides with the shock of society’s power dynamics — all of a sudden Eugenia (derived from the Latin for “well born”) becomes conscious of class distinction — and her acceptance of reality’s intolerability. Aunt Nunziata reminds her, “My child, it’s better not to see the world than to see it.”
Eugenia may have lost her innocence and, with it, the voice she could have used to resist, but the author, who drew inspiration for the story from her childhood, had no trouble finding hers. Born in 1914 to a family of modest means, the self-taught Ortese debuted at a young age with the short story collection Angelici dolori (The Sorrow of Angels, 1937), which immediately introduced her as an original voice in Italian fiction. Six novels, 21 short story and essay collections, and collaborations with major Italian newspapers followed.
Despite her initial success, Ortese did not have an easy career. Her precarious financial condition led her to move continually (she lived in Venice, Milan, and Rome), until she finally chose to settle in Liguria with her sister Maria, who sustained them by means of her modest stipend as a postal worker. This instability often made the relationship with her publishers turbulent, and Ortese lived in semi-poverty until the end of the 1980s. It was her encounter with Adelphi editorial director Roberto Calasso that finally freed her to spend her later years working under more stable conditions.
The relationship with her native Naples, or at least with its intelligentsia, was also problematic: the publication of Chronicles sparked a literary controversy that forced Ortese into self-imposed exile from her beloved city. Particularly resentful were the Neapolitan writers Domenico Rea, Luigi Compagnone, and Michele Prisco, collaborators of the left-wing literary magazine Sud who are portrayed in the book’s final section, “Il silenzio della ragione” (“The Silence of Reason”). About Compagnone, Ortese writes, “I knew that his indifference was a form of control. Everyone was indifferent here, everyone who wished to survive. To become emotional would be as falling asleep in the snow.”
In these unforgiving pages, Ortese accuses them of betraying the ideals of their youth to embrace a bourgeois life. Meanwhile, they claimed that she had written a book that was anti-Naples. Personal resentments aside, Ortese was punished for having departed from the charming, picture-perfect image of the city that many of them had helped to create. Forty years later, in a foreword to the Adelphi edition of the book, she would explain the origin of Chronicles as follows:
I now wonder if Chronicles really was “anti-Naples,” and what, if anything, I did wrong in the writing of it, and how the book should be read today. […]
Well, the writing in Chronicles has something of the exalted and the feverish; it tends toward 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. Evident in it are all the signs of an authentic neurosis.
What seems a justification is instead a profession of poetics. Ortese never settled for merely describing reality, which is why she makes use of the word “metaphysics.” For her, writing means putting ostranenie into practice — that is, going beyond factual reality and its habitual representation to bring the familiar to life in the reader’s perception via unfamiliar means. This explains the tender, lucid, estranged eye through which Ortese depicts Naples. Far from the colorful, oleographic local chronicles, she shows the city’s true soul in apparitions that bring to mind Goya’s paintings:
At the far end of the street, like a Persian rug worn down to clumps and threads, lay bits of the most varied kind of garbage, from amid which issued forth the pale, swollen, or bizarrely thin figures of more children, with large shaved heads and soft eyes. […] Some played with tin cans, others, lying on the ground, were intent in covering their faces with dust, still others seemed to be busy building a little altar with a stone and a saint, and there were those who, gracefully imitating a priest, turned to offer their blessing.
It is a gaze that has no equal in Italian literature: It differs from the praise of the popular Southern spirit found in Pasolini’s Lettere luterane (Lutheran Letters, 1976); it does not evoke the joyous insolence of Domenico Rea’s Gesú, fate luce (Jesus, Shed Some Light, 1950); and it forgoes the cynical touches that animate Curzio Malaparte’s La pelle (The Skin, 1949). Most of all, Chronicles is really distant from Raffaele La Capria’s terse vision in Ferito a morte (The Mortal Wound, 1961). Inasmuch as La Capria’s voice is lucent, Ortese’s is umbratile: frightened by too much light, she instead perfectly renders veiled, spectral environments without losing the ability to touch the reader.
The second piece in the collection, “Interno familiare” (“Family Interior”), tells the moving, disillusioning story of Anastasia Finizio. A 40-year-old shop owner absorbed in the sad daily life of an unaffectionate family, Anastasia feels a sudden nostalgia at Christmas for an old love who has just returned to the city after 20 years. Everything, even a wedding, seems possible, but despite the “apparition” (Ortese defined epiphanies in this unique way) this modern version of Joyce’s Eveline cannot save herself: “She was amazed, remembering the festive atmosphere of the morning, that budding of hopes, of voices. A dream, it had been: there was nothing left.”
The two initial short stories are followed by journalistic pieces and reportage on Neapolitan life, from the poor to the bourgeois neighborhoods of fellow writers. “Oro a Forcella” (“The Gold of Forcella”) transports us into the Banco dei Pegni, the pawnshop where women sell gold for a few pennies. If these narrative scenes appear to emerge from a distorted chiaroscuro, in “La città involontaria” (“The Involuntary City”) Ortese is merciless in describing the infernal reality of Granili III and IV. Originally an 18th-century fortress, Granili in the postwar age turned into a dark slum:
Granili III and IV is not only what could be called a temporary settlement of homeless people but, rather, the demonstration, in clinical and legal terms, of the fall of a race. […] To seek in Naples the nadir of Naples no longer occurs to anyone after a visit to the Bourbon barracks. Here the barometers no longer display any measure; compasses go crazy. The men you meet can’t do you any harm: ghosts from a life in which wind and sun existed — these good things they no longer remember.
Impressed by Ortese’s portrait, Italian president Luigi Einaudi immediately had the Granili shut down in 1953.
But to a contemporary reader, what is most striking in Chronicles is not its facts but its style. It is evident throughout that the writer overpowers the chronicler: through the positioning of an adjective or adverb Ortese constantly derails objective description in favor of her peculiar vision. Her narration is dominated by long, convoluted sentences followed by epigrammatic syntagmas. Its slow, insinuating pace transforms into English well in Goldstein and McPhee’s translation:
I had never before seen so many beings together, walking or hanging out, colliding and fleeing one another, greeting one another from their windows and calling out from the shops, bargaining over the price of goods, or yelling out a prayer, in the same sweet aching singers’ voices that had more the tone of a lament than of the vaunted Neapolitan cheer. It was truly something that both shocked and eclipsed all one’s thoughts.
This visionary dimension of narrating everyday life generated a wide range of literary parallels: critics mentioned Italian authors Elsa Morante and Cristina Campo but also Katherine Mansfield, Anton Chekhov, and the James Joyce of Dubliners. What’s especially surprising is the attempt by writer Elio Vittorini — curator of the “I gettoni” series that first published Chronicles — to ascribe the book to neorealism, though the book’s original title, Il mare non bagna Napoli (Naples Is Not Bathed by the Sea), which superimposes the absence of the sea on the lack of a purifying impulse, pointed precisely in this direction.
In this sense, the alternate title (perhaps an homage to Stendhal’s Chroniques italiennes) seems more objective in describing the complex, manifold nature of a book that Italo Calvino welcomed this way: “Dear Anna Maria,” he began and, though usually sparing with compliments, wrote, “You wrote a beautiful book; you should sing and laugh all day long.” Those of us who agree certainly hope that Neapolitan Chronicles is only the first step of Ortese’s dance with English-language audiences.
Eloisa Morra is assistant professor of Italian and Visual Studies at the University of Toronto and the author of Un allegro fischiettare nelle tenebre. Ritratto di Toti Scialoja (Quodlibet Studio, 2014), which received special mention for the 2015 Edinburgh Gadda Prize.