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main index © Jeff Matthews entry Jan 2008
(books about Naples 2)
The Gallery and other books
The Beach of Heaven
In the September 1950
issue (vol. 27. no.3) of Italica
(a journal published by the American Association of
Teachers of Italian), Anthony M. Gisolfi published a
review entitled "The Beach of Heaven, Italy 1943-1945
in American Fiction." It was a review of some recent
novels about the experiences of American soldiers in
southern Italy as the Allies advanced up the peninsula
from Sicily to Rome. You should read the original
review, if possible.
Gisolfi deals primarily with
The title phrase "The Beach of Heaven" is from The Gallery, a passage that reads, "To this day I am convinced of Italy's greatness in the world of the spirit. In love and sunlight and music and humanity she has something that humanity sorely needs. It's still there. I don' t think I'm romanticizing or kidding myself. In the middle of the war, in August 1944, with my heart broken for an ideal, I touched the beach of heaven in Naples. At moments."
I remember stopping about halfway through my reading of The Gallery some years ago. The book, as the name implies, is a series of sketches of Naples, centering on the hustle of life in the Galleria Umberto (photo, above). The reviewer, Girolfi, compares the descriptions favorably to those written by Neapolitan journalist, Matilde Serao. I felt compelled to read The Gallery since I had walked through it so many times, taken so many photos of it, and written about it so much. I forget why I stopped halfway through, although my recollection is that for some reason I decided that I just didn't like it. The book has recently been republished and I may give it another shot just on the basis of this review. In spite of the review, I find some of Burns, indeed, a bit "romanticizing" and find that he is "kidding" himself, at least in some respects:
that a language is somehow the incarnation of the
spirit and character of a people was the position
espoused by German philosopher Humboldt and goes, in
one form or another, by the name of linguistic
determinism, which is somewhat circular since it
is not clear whether Germans are militant and orderly
because they have four grammatical cases or whether
they have four cases because they are militant and
orderly. (In either case, watch out for an invasion
from the Finns; the partitive object case, alone, is
enough to fuel an entire division.) There really is no
such thing as a "stately language." Such perceptions
come from our preconceived notions of the people.
Tuscany equals Renaissance equals stately (or
something like that); thus, Tuscan dialect=stately.
Also, there is, indeed, a lot of "false stateliness"
in Naples. I am reminded of Mark
Twain's reference to Neapolitan princes who live
up seven flights of stairs and own no principalities.
To Burns (and the reviewer, apparently), truncated
Neapolitan verbs (the dialect lops off the infinitive
endings) represent the truncated, "amputated" lives of
the people. It's a clever metaphor, but that's all it
[Also this comment by Larry Ray on
Of the other
three books mentioned in the review, I knew A Bell for Adano. It takes place in
wartime Sicily and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945.
There was also a film made from the novel in 1945. I
had heard of All Thy Conquests, about
wartime Rome, but had not read it. I had not even
heard of A Walk in the Sun, entirely
about the six-mile advance of one American platoon in
establishing the Salerno
In the course of the review, Gisolfi refers to other chroniclers of the war such as reporter Ernie Pyle and cartoonist Bill Mauldin, who described, each in his medium, "the horror, the heartache, the death, the travail in body and spirit which the slow advance up the mountain-ribbed peninsula was to the American infantryman." In one heart-wrenching reference to a non-English work, Kaputt, by Curzio Malaparte (who spent much of the war on the Russian front), Gisolfi consoles the conscience of the American authors who are troubled by the fact that they are, for example, bribing Italian women for favors in exchange for goodies from the PX. Disturbing? Yes, but a chapter of Malaparte's book deals with the girls of Bessarabia recruited for a German brothel. Every twenty days the personnel was removed from the premises and put to death and new personnel provided by order of the Department of Sanitation of the Eleventh German Army.
But, says the reviewer, "Burns needs no reassurance" and cites:
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