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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 Gallery by John Horne Burns (1947)
  • A Walk in the Sun by Harry Brown (1944)
  • A Bell for Adano by John Hersey (1944)
  • All Thy Conquests by Alfred Hayes (1946)

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:

The stateliness of Tuscan Italian is missing in Neapolitan. But there is no false stateliness in Naples, either. Neapolitan dialect isn't ornamental. Its endings have been amputated just as Neapolitan living pares to heart and hardness of life.

The idea 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 is.

[Also this comment by Larry Ray on The Gallery.]

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 beachhead.

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:

...Though in the main all national decency and sense of duty might be dead, I saw much individual goodness and loveliness that reassured me in my agony. I saw it in some Neapolitans. I saw it in some Americans. And I wondered if perhaps the world must eventually be governed by individuality consecrated and unselfish, rather than by any collectivism of the propagandists, the students, and the politicians."


I see I have a lot of reading to do.


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