April 12, 2009
Norman Lewis: Naples ’44 / J.R. Ackerley: Hindoo Holiday
Chain bookstores come in for a lot of stick, often justified, but one initiative I applaud wholeheartedly is the Writer’s Table series by Waterstone’s. Here, authors select favourite books which are then promoted across the chain. Philip Pullman’s selection from last year included some very interesting choices: and in a world where prize shortlists and sofa chatshows deal in new titles only, where else would old books get nationwide promotion? The latest Writer’s Table was chosen by Nick Hornby, a writer often looked down upon but whose novel How to Be Good I thought surprisingly worthwhile. One of his choices is by Norman Lewis, whom my brother-in-law Will Self calls “one of the greatest of twentieth century British writers,” adding, for the avoidance of doubt, that “Naples ’44 is his masterpiece”.
Naples ’44 (1978) is subtitled An Intelligence Officer in the Italian Labyrinth: say what you see, Norm. It’s presented in diary form, covering September 1943 to October 1944. Lewis arrived shortly after the armistice with Italy was signed, and was involved in the considerable task of trying to maintain order after the collapse of the fascist structures. Part of this is the busy invigilation of mail and telephone calls by misguided busybodies:
The prize example so far is one solemnly headed ‘Illegal use of telescope’. This referred to a passage in an overheard conversation between two lovers in which the girl had said, ‘I can’t see you today because my husband will be here, but I’ll admire you, as ever, through love’s telescope.’ … In one case we had to make an entry for a suspect about whom nothing is known but his possession of three teats on the left breast, while another was described as ‘having the face of a hypocrite’.
A recurring theme is the grinding poverty under which the Italians are living, where limpets are prised from rocks and boiled “to add some faint, fishy flavour to a broth produced from any edible odds and ends.” The odds and ends include chickens’ heads and calves’ windpipes. Also “there is a persistent rumour of a decline in the cat population of the city”. We meet characters such as Vincente Lattarullo:
one of the four-thousand lawyers of Naples, ninety per cent of whom had never practised, and who for the most part lived in extreme penury. There are estimated to be at least as many medical doctors in a similar situation; these famished professionals being the end-product of the determination of every middle-class Neapolitan family to have a uselessly qualified son. The parents are prepared to go hungry so long as the son is entitled to be addressed with respect as avvocato, or dottore.
The adjective here is ‘colourful’, as Lewis details the intricacies and eccentricities of Neapolitan life, from the near-riot situations which develop as townspeople await the propitious liquefaction of a saint’s blood, to the legendary criminal defence lawyer, who once “delivered a speech lasting two and a half days, in which Browning and Shakespeare were quoted, and the proceedings at one point were held up to allow the judge and jury to regain emotional control.” Throughout, however, Lewis comes across – he would, wouldn’t he? – as sympathetic and gentlemanly, expressing disgust for abuses by British troops and general love for the people and the place he is battling to restore.
The book ends somewhat suddenly – Lewis discovers with a day’s notice that he is to leave Naples – which supports the veracity of the journal format (though no doubt there was a deal of polishing and editing before publication) but does leave the reader lacking a sense of closure of the story arc. Naples ’44 is nonetheless a fascinating and addictive read, and I’m delighted to see that several other titles by Lewis are available from the same publisher, Eland Books. I can see them become a new favourite of mine, with their qualities of elegant type, smooth creamy paper, and pages properly stitched like granny used to make.
Another favourite imprint of mine, needing no introduction on this blog, is Penguin Modern Classics. Recently they reissued J.R. Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday (1932), which, like Naples ’44, is a travel memoir in diary form. The book is already available as an NYRB Classic, and I thought Ackerley’s novel We Think the World of You a little gem, so for all these reliable reasons my expectations were high. Inevitably, I was disappointed.
Ackerley writes beautifully about himself – his other two books are also memoirs, and the novel is considered strongly autobiographical – but for the most part here he is writing about others. He opens well with an elegant and effective introduction (“An Explanation”) detailing what led him to become Private Secretary to the Maharajah of Chhokrapur (“He wanted someone to love him – His Highness, I mean; that was his real need, I think” – the punctuation alone had me drumming my heels in delight). However, we quickly become bogged down in a repetitive tale featuring indistinguishable characters (a problem perhaps foreseen by the publishers, who provide a dramatis personae at the start by way of a key), some temperamental Indians, some ridiculous British. The latter do provide amusing dialogue for Ackerley to recount.
‘What nice hands you’ve got; too nice for a man. I hate effeminacy in a man.’
‘Yes, they are nice hands,’ I said, looking at them. They were quite clean and I had given up biting their nails. I was genuinely pleased with them.
‘Of course you’re frightfully conceited,’ she observed. ‘That’s such a pity. I hate conceit in a man.’
‘Do you mean about my hands?’
‘Oh no, lots of things. I’ve been watching you. I rather hate you.’
I did not say anything; there seemed nothing to say, and it was perhaps lucky that I didn’t, for shortly afterwards she said:
‘I love you now. You don’t mind me saying so, do you? I always make a point of telling people if I change my opinion of them. I think it’s only fair.’
‘But why have you changed your opinion?’ I asked.
‘I’ve been observing you. Yes, I love you now. You’re a dear. So you must like me too – do you?’
‘Yes, rather!’ I said enthusiastically. But perhaps I overdid it.
‘Well, anyway, you’ve done me good – not making love to me. Every other man I’ve met has. But I’m not conceited. I’m not, am I? I’m nice really, as you’d find out if you knew me better. You don’t know me very well, do you?’
‘Very well enough,’ I couldn’t help saying.
‘You’re the rudest man I ever met!’ she exclaimed. ‘Bar none!’
Otherwise, however, great swathes of conversation and activity passed without catching on my brain, and I’m afraid that by halfway through its 280 pages I felt that I was skimming the book. For that reason I append my comments on it here, shamefaced and secondary, rather than attempt to dignify them with a post of their own. But it is worth bringing to attention, because Ackerley is an interesting writer – I still intend to read his other books, My Father and Myself, and My Dog Tulip – and I expect others will get more out of Hindoo Holiday if they give it a better reading than I did.