by Anna Maria Ortese
translated by Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee
New Vessel Press, 192 pages
reviewed by Jeanne Bonner
Any book that has a ringing endorsement on its cover from Elena Ferrante these days will merit a second look.
But there is another, potentially more important endorsement of Neapolitan Chronicles—a silent endorsement on the part of the translators of this Italian story collection by Anna Maria Ortese, originally published in Italy in 1953.
The translator is often hidden in publishing’s shadows (indeed, the series of events for translators at Italy’s biggest book fair is actually called “The Invisible Author.”) But many readers of Ortese may actually find their way to this book through the two translators that have brought her work to English-speaking readers: Ann Goldstein, Elena Ferrante’s translator, and Jenny McPhee, an accomplished novelist whose new translation last year of Natalia Ginzburg’s seminal work of nonfiction, Family Lexicon, was widely lauded (see the Cleaver review here.)
When it came out more than 60 years ago (under the title Il mare non bagna Napoli, or Naples Is Not Bathed by the Sea), Neapolitan Chronicles signaled to the Italian literary world that a new talent had arrived from the south, and the book won the important Viareggio Prize. Ortese, who was born in 1914 and died in 1998, would go on to win Italy’s most prestigious literary award, the Premio Strega. This new translation of what’s considered Ortese’s most important book signals something similar in the Ferrante era: here’s another female Italian writer (from southern Italy, no less) for English language readers to feast on.
The book is divided between fictional short stories and nonfiction sketches (three of the former, two of the latter). From the first short fiction piece in the collection, “A Pair of Eyeglasses,” it becomes clear Ortese is a keen cataloger of precious details and a diviner of people’s characters. A young girl, Eugenia, lives with her extended family in Naples. She desperately needs glasses. Ortese quickly teases out the contradictions in her Aunt Nunziata, who graciously ponies up the money for the young girl’s glasses but never fails to note the amount she spent (“a grand total of a good 8,000 Lira”). When Eugenia, whom the doctor deems practically blind, thanks her aunt for this kindness, Nunziata, who never married and has no children of her own, replies, in a kind of inoculating mantra of perpetually disappointed southern Italy, “My child, it’s better not to see the world than to see it.”
With a few, fast strokes, Ortese has sketched out the world of her characters. To paraphrase the Italian novelist Rossella Milone, who wrote an appreciation of the story in 2015, Ortese quickly produces the first miracle necessary for a story’s success: evoke a world.
And what a world it is. Here, poverty and powerlessness can embitter, even to the point of robbing a young girl of the natural joy of seeing. Indeed, one can well imagine the people Ortese knew who inspired the character of Aunt Nunziata, a nagging, melancholic, nothing-is-ever-good-enough curmudgeon for whom life is more or less over even as death remains years off. Which is not to say the aunt in this story doesn’t have a point. In the poverty-stricken, post-war Naples milieu so skillfully evoked by Ortese anything of value is in scarce supply. The poor stay poor. To wit, Eugenia, Nunziata and the rest of the family live in a basement apartment lorded over by aristocrat landlords who expect the poor tenants to be at their beck and call.
It’s also a world in which bad luck and violence can seem so arbitrary and unavoidable. Eugenia—whose exquisite innocence is captured so expertly by Ortese and rendered equally as beatific in this fine translation—is at one point delayed while running an errand. As she returns, she daydreams about the new glasses, wondering if they will have gold frames and whether her mother will collect them that day for her from the eye doctor. But these beautifully girlish thoughts of hope are bluntly cut short by what Ortese describes as “a frenzy of blows.” Ortese writes, “It was Aunt Nunzia, of course, furious of her delay… ‘Bloodsucker! You ugly little blind girl!’” The words are as violent as the blows in Ortese’s prose. Such an abrupt turn should prepare the reader for the sad ending in which Eugenia is so overcome by the power of the glasses, she becomes sick to her stomach and doubles over, vomiting, while her aunt insists the money was a waste. That little bit of joy inherent in giving a young girl sight? Ortese stomps it out, as if to warn that there are no happy endings in her Naples.
“Family Interior,” another short work of fiction in the book, is likewise a gem. Here the momentum builds slowly but once Ortese reveals the central premise the reader turns the pages as if sprinting through a mystery. Much of the book doubles as insightful social commentary, with Ortese punctuating her prose with stunning, pointed asides about the interactions among Naples’ various social classes. And in the case of “Family Interior,” Ortese also slyly inserts gender politics (the phrase didn’t exist in 1953 but the condition of life did). She uses the story of a shopkeeper to zero in on the carefully proscribed roles a woman was allowed to inhabit in post-war Naples (and arguably many other places, until quite recently). With a successful dress shop, Anastasia Finizio is her family’s breadwinner. But she has never married, choosing instead to live the life of a shrewd, well-clad merchant, what she terms “a man’s life.” She’s satisfied, or so she thinks, until she learns from a chance comment from an acquaintance that a long-lost love is returning to Naples and has sent her a special greeting.
What’s stunning is the fiction Anastasia invents based on this thinnest of premises. Even before she can meet with the lost lover, Antonio Laurano, she imagines selling her shop and moving to a house him, where she would take care of him for the rest of her life “the way a true man serves a man.” Ortese turns a simple short story into a work of suspense as the reader, especially the female reader, desperately reads along to learn if anything comes of this fantasy.
The story also provides a canvas for Ortese’s world-defining asides; she dresses down one character with “his air of a studious cockroach.” She describes Anastasia as resigned to a “servile and silent life in the house of the married sister.” But perhaps her sharpest observations come in the form of descriptions of Anastasia’s mother as someone “who in her meager existence drew obscure consolation from the misfortunes of others.” Indeed, Sra. Finizio doesn’t exactly feel sympathy for Anastasia as the question of the long-lost love hangs in the air. That’s because Anastasia chose a different path—or chance conspired to give her a different path in life. Ortese writes of the mother, “Her youth had quickly run its course and she didn’t forgive anyone who wished to avoid the law that she had been subjected to.” Woe to any women—including her daughter—who doesn’t quietly accept the strait-jacket that 1950s Naples society aims to slap on them.
The Ortese collection was first translated in 1955 in Britain in an abridged edition but according to the publisher of this new translation, New Vessel Press, it has been out of print in English for decades. This is the first time the whole work has been published in English by a U.S. publisher.
Such descriptions are not only exhilarating, as literature goes, but they also hint at the complexity of the characters in Ortese’s fiction: a mother who would resent her own daughter because she attempted to evade the arbitrary, punishing mores of her society.
Put another way, people in Ortese’s world, and especially women born to poor, lower class families, should be “unconsciously prepared for a life without joy,” as Ortese describes Eugenia in “A Pair of Eyeglasses.”
These small observations distinguish her fiction. Similarly, in a nonfiction piece midway through the book, “The Involuntary City,” Ortese describes southern Italy as “dead to the progress of time” (One faintly hears Don Fabrizio ruminating on Sicily of the nineteenth century.) And given the fantastical nature of Naples—even among Italians it has a reputation as a city where anything can happen—one often finds the people mentioned in the nonfiction accounts are as memorable as the characters in the short works of fiction. Later on in “The Involuntary City,” which concerns a temporary homeless shelter, Ortese describes a woman she meets there as “queen of the house of the dead.” Ortese goes on to say the woman is “a crushed figure, bloated, horrendous, the fruit, in her turn, of profoundly defective creatures, and yet something regal remained in her.” It paints a picture of Naples as a city that harbors a bit of heaven and a lot of hell.
In some ways, the plots in the fictional works are beside the point and the premises of some of the nonfiction pieces may appear dated and of passing interest to modern readers (the dynamics of the relationship among Italian writers living in the midcentury, for example, which is the backdrop of several of the chapters, will appeal only to a select group of readers). Indeed, some of the nonfiction reflects a return visit Ortese made to Naples after living for a time in other parts of Italy, and they include reminiscences and personal observations that sound almost as though they have sprung from her diary. At times, the observations and the exchanges with old friends are of such a personal nature, and also pertaining to a bygone era scarcely imaginable in some ways today, that they detract from the overall volume. Moreover, given the quality of stories like “A Pair of Eyeglasses,” the reader may sometimes wish there were more fiction in the collection. The chapter “Evening Descends Upon the Hills,” for example, is a piece about a piece: Ortese had been commissioned to write about up-and-coming writers living in Naples and in this essay, she relays a journey she took by tram to the house of a writer. It may be of interest to a literary scholar who specializes in Italian writers of that era, however, the significance is somewhat muted with the passage of time and the trip over the ocean.
But Ortese’s descriptions of people, places, and states of mind are masterful. It can also be said that some of the nonfiction reads like fiction (which is a credit to Ortese and Goldstein and McPhee, her translators). In one of the nonfiction pieces, in fact, she tells us she sat by “a woman without a nose, who had an enormous plant on her lap.” Such passages make the reader glad to be along for the ride.
The Ortese translation comes as book buyers in America and Britain continue to gobble up the works of Ferrante, which are set partly in Naples. And that’s an important milestone in the spread of Italian literature beyond Italy’s borders because Naples, as a travel destination or a fount of literature, even in the Ferrante era, remains scarcely known to Americans. Ortese’s stories remedy this gap in many ways.
Moreover, there is growing awareness of the scarcity of works translated into English specifically by Italian women. According to statistics gathered by Open Letter Press at the University of Rochester, the overwhelming majority of the Italian works translated into English in 2017 were written by men (and in 2016, and 2015, etc.). One could say there’s a backlog of works by female authors not translated, including some who won Italy’s most prestigious literary prizes. To wit: the Ortese collection was first translated in 1955 in Britain in an abridged edition but according to the publisher of this new translation, New Vessel Press, it has been out of print in English for decades. This is the first time the whole work has been published in English by a U.S. publisher.
Ortese is an important touchstone for contemporary Italian authors, particularly women authors such as Ferrante. There’s been much debate over Ferrante’s identity and also her literary value. (One Italian critic has even asserted that her prose is better in English thanks, of course, to Ann Goldstein). But if Ferrante’s only lasting legacy is to secure a place for Italian women writers in the English-speaking world, lovers of literary fiction should be feeling awfully optimistic.
Jeanne Bonner is a writer and journalist based in Connecticut. She is the 2018 winner of the PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian Literature, given by PEN America. Her essays have been published by The New York Times, CNN Travel, Literary Hub and Catapult. She studied Italian literature at Wesleyan University and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College.