April 12, 2009

Norman Lewis: Naples ’44 / J.R. Ackerley: Hindoo Holiday

Posted in Ackerley J.R., Lewis Norman, Penguin Modern Classics at 8:00 am by John Self

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”.

Norman Lewis, Naples '44

Norman Lewis, Naples '44

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.

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13 Comments »

  1. I’d always assumed Will Self was your brother or step-brother. I had not realized that you adopted Mrs. Self’s name when you married. A wise decision, I must say.

    I am not a fan of the journal fomat, but I must say the Lewis looks interesting — particularly when considered against some of the novels set in Italy, pre-war, wartime and just post-war. Off the top of my head, though, I can’t think of any set around Naples, which does have a character all its own in the Italian quiltwork.

  2. kimbofo said,

    Slightly off topic here, John, but you mentioned those “themed” tables and I have to say there is one in my local Waterstone’s which is mainly translated fiction and stuff from small presses, and I now refer to it as the “John Self” table because I swear everything on there has been reviewed on your site! LOL!

  3. John Self said,

    Funny you should mention that k. – I don’t think of myself as a particular devotee of translated literature, but I am aware of reading more of it recently. About a third of the books I’ve read this year have been in translation, which is pretty high by my standards. If you take a photo of the table then I can decide which title to review next! ;-)

    Kevin, I might have known you would spot the paradox of Will Self being my brother-in-law! The Lewis is interesting, and he has a few other books in the handsome Eland series, including a study of the Sicilian Mafia (The Honoured Society) which I intend to read.

  4. Steerforth said,

    Well that’s the tragedy of Waterstone’s. The company is run by grocers who know nothing about books, but the head office buying team are a decent bunch of people who deserve better. They run imaginative promotions and do their best to make the shops attractive to readers.

    I would imagine that they don’t give a toss about the greater glory of HMV Media, but regard Waterstone’s as the lesser of two evils (i.e. Borders).

  5. JRSM said,

    ‘Hindoo Holiday’ is probably Ackerley’s weakest book (I think it was also his first): on the other hand, ‘My Father and Myself’, ‘My Dog Tulip’ and ‘We Think the World of You’ kick seventeen colours of arse (though ‘Tulip’ and ‘We Think…’ do share some observations, being non-fictional and fictional takes on (among other things) owning a big female Alsatian).

    ‘Naples ’44′ sounds fascinating. MUST GET!

    Your reviewing rate, by the way, seems to have accelerated if anything, despite the pressures of fatherhood. Well done!

  6. John Self said,

    Yes, the reviews are piling up behind the scenes, JRSM; I have my next three ready and just waiting for a decent interval to post them. I think it’s because I have most evenings free at the minute. Once baby starts sleeping through (and my wife stops having early nights to facilitate night feeds), I’ll be ordering some tumbleweed.

    Yes, Hindoo Holiday was Ackerley’s first book. I do want to read My Father and Myself particularly; as you’ve mentioned, I understand that My Dog Tulip has ‘certain similarities’ (as the police say of serial killings) with We Think the World of You. And as I mentioned above, the latter is just wonderful.

    ‘My Father and Myself’, ‘My Dog Tulip’ and ‘We Think the World of You’ kick seventeen colours of arse

    Really? I thought I detected twenty-two. [/fry&laurie]

  7. Seoman said,

    Hello John,

    I have Naples ’44 at home waiting to be read. I’ll have to get cracking at it now. I read The Tomb in Seville also by Lewis and was enchanted by it. Lewis really captures the atmosphere of Spain just as the civil war has broken out.

  8. John Self said,

    Thanks for dropping by, Seoman. I will certainly be reading more Lewis – someone told me (not just Will Self) that Naples ’44 was his best but also recommended his memoir I Came, I Saw (also published as Jackdaw Cake) and A Dragon Apparent (a tour of Indochina in the 1950s). I’ll keep an eye out for The Tomb in Seville also. I seem to recall – from seeing them in bookshops before I knew who he was – that most of his stuff, other than the titles in the Eland Books series, are published by Picador.

  9. James said,

    I was just thinking about Ackerley this weekend, and planning to read him – he crops up in Penguin India’s “Same-Sex Love in India” when Forster writes of his adventures with Ackerley’s employer, the Maharajah of Chhatarpur (whose passions were “philosophy, friendship and beautiful boys”). ‘Chhokrapur’ is a little joke on Ackerley’s part: it means “city of boys”.

    I’ll probably avoid Hindoo Holiday for the moment then, but have ordered the NYRB ‘We Think The World…’. Looking forward to it…

    (P.S. Can’t believe I haven’t read your blog before. Excellent stuff. Will be returning, thank you…)

  10. John Self said,

    Thanks for your kind comments James! That’s an interesting little titbit about Chhokrapur – Ackerley does say in the preface that he invented the name but doesn’t explain what it means.

    I hope you like We Think the World of You as much as I did, and that you share your thoughts either here or on your own blog.

    Also, if you don’t know it, I recommend Adam Mars-Jones’s The Waters of Thirst, which I think quite similar to We Think the World of You in some ways.

    PS – Nice hat. I see you must be one of the good guys.

  11. Paul Raymont said,

    I just finished Lewis’s book on Naples and loved it. It’s very compelling, causing me to throw aside a couple of other books and read nothing but the Lewis book ’til I’d finished it. It gives a startling portrayal of Allied WWII troops, not the usual ‘band of brothers’ line. E.g., American officers in the 5th Army gave orders to kill any surrendering Germans, the US Army’s administration behind the lines was infiltrated by American mafia operatives, and the 4 or 5 Canadian guys with whom Lewis worked come across as unpredictable Calibans. Also, the indignities suffered by women in the Neapolitan environs of that time are really shocking.

  12. John Self said,

    Thanks Paul; you’ve reminded me that I want to seek out more of Lewis’s books, particularly his study of the Sicilian Mafia, The Honoured Society. Incidentally a biography of Lewis was recently published – Semi-Invisible Man, which I discovered when the publishers sent me a paperback copy, though at 800 pages it’ll be a while before I get to it.

    Let me go off topic and mention that I love the Kafka aphorism you have on your blog, Paul:

    IN THE FIGHT BETWEEN YOU AND THE WORLD, BACK THE WORLD

    In fact reading it made me buy the new edition of Kafka’s aphorisms, The Zürau Aphorisms, introduced by Roberto Calasso and translated by Michael Hofmann. This was to replace my old Penguin Syrens edition which I seem to have misplaced. I was surprised to see the aphorism in question – number 52 – translated as

    In the struggle between yourself and the world, hold the world’s coat

    Presumably this is more faithfully translated, but it seems awfully weak in comparison, and if I hadn’t seen your version first, I would probably even have struggled to understand it.

    EDIT: I’ve just looked up the original aphorism, which is Im Kampf zwischen Dir und der Welt, sekundiere der Welt. This literally translates as “second the world”, in the context of a duel, hence Hofmann’s translation as “hold the world’s coat”. But for heaven’s sake, “back the world” seems so much more pithy and, well, aphoristic, that I’m amazed he went with the translation he did.

  13. Paul Raymont said,

    Thanks for the info on Kafka. Translation is a delicate art.


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