I have always enjoyed the novels and nonfiction works of Shirley Hazzard. And I have a bit of familiarity with her experiences in Italy, mostly around Naples and on the island of Capri. It was a pleasure, for example, to read her recent work Greene on Capri where she reminiscences about the good times she and her husband Frances Steegmuller had with Graham Greene when he was there. How often do we find ourselves in such a lovely place with a charming and knowledgeable person who we seem to get along with so well?
In their latest book, Ancient Shore, Hazzard and Steegmuller wax
wistfully about the city of Naples and what has happened to it over
the centuries and the far from pleasant encounter they had while there
during a recent visit. The book reminded me, of course, of the many
summers I have spent in Italy--no less memorable than theirs, although
they are far more eloquent than I in conveying the remarkable beauty
and spirit of that country and its people. Here are my favorite
passages from Ancient Shore.
Life in Italy is seldom simple. One does not go there for simplicity
but for interest: to make the adventures of existence more vivid, more
poignant. I have known that country through dire as well as golden
times and have dwelt in town and country, north and south.
Whether I wake these mornings in Naples to the Mediterranean lapping
the seawall or on Capri to the sight of a nobly indifferent mountain,
it is never without realizing, in surprise and gratitude, that I—like
Goethe, like Byron—am living in Italy.
It was in reading that one could truly live: in one's mind, in books,
in the world. A form of pilgrimage.
The variety and interest of existence had struck us, through
literature, as being more real than our factual origins.
"We change our skies, not our souls." Horace
Literature has prepared us to expect the release of new aspects of ourselves in the presence of the fabled and unfamiliar.
Continuity, the charm and genius of Italy, has taken some nasty
knocks, at Naples, as elsewhere.
Time is long here, but a town with a volcano is no place to forget
The puritan view that a sense of pleasure cannot be justified amid
visable affliction is meaningless to Neapolitan—who knows that
pleasure cannot be deferred for ideal circumstances.
I wonder at the stroke of fortune that first brought me here to live
in intimacy with this civilized spirit and to share its long adventure.
Italy, which harbors mysteries and arouses imagination, does not
…we are encouraged to stop defining life, and to live it. The element
of chance regains importance; we recover the capacity for
astonishment, and the gift of taking some things for granted.