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Luciano De Crescenzo

Without calling up a lot of publishers to make sure, I'm guessing, but I'd say that the most popular living Neapolitan author is Luciano De Crescenzo. He was born in 1928 in Naples, got a degree in engineering and went to work for IBM in Rome. Just shy of his 50th birthday, he decided to write a book about Naples, Così Parlò Bellavista—accurately rendered in the English translation ten years later (since it is a pun on Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra) as Thus Spake Bellavista. The introduction contains a one-sentence summary of De Crescenzo's philosophy: "Naples isn't simply a city; it is a part of the human spirit that I know I can find in everyone, whether or not they are Neapolitan". On the dust-jacket of one of his books—where the editor tells you about the author—De Crescenzo sneaks in a few lines in the third person: "He didn't do well at IBM because he was always late...Those who don't like him call him a 'humorist'." 

When that first book came out in 1977, he appeared as a guest on a popular Italian talk-show. He was (and is) eminently likable and unassuming, and his new career took off. Since then he has written about 20 more books. He has sold almost 20 million books in 25 different countries and 19 languages. Almost all of them are light-hearted looks at the human condition, including "histories" or "stories" (the Italian word is the same) of Greek philosophy, in the course of which he tells us that the famous "Seven Sages" consisted of 22 different people. He tacks on his friend, Peppino Russo, at the end of the list. De Crecenzo's style is readable in a way that most Italian writing—even modern popular Italian literature—is not. It is entirely conversational in the same way that, say, Mark Twain is. In other words, you get the impression that you are listening to a very intelligent person talking about some serious matters that would have interested you all along if they hadn't been styled in concrete all these years by other writers. "Who are we?" he asks. "Where do we come from? Where are we going?" and then, "And what have we gained or lost by being born one sex and not the other?" (This from his book, Women Are Different.) 

De Crescenzo, besides writing books, has now collaborated on screenplays and appeared in films, himself—where he is a total natural. I saw him the other night in Lina Wertmueller's brilliant 1990 film version of Eduardo De Filippo's 1959 play, Sabato, Domenica, Lunedì. The film stars Sophia Loren as Rosa Priore, the family matriarch who sets out on Saturday to buy the makings for the ritual ragù—her magic ragout known in all Pozzuoli—the big Sunday stew for the entire family. That opening scene is hilarious. Loren orders her usual ingredients in a machine-gun monologue that attracts first the attention of the other 10 women in the butcher shop, then their friendly advice on how to make a real ragù, and then, through a Laurel-and-Hardy-type escalation, come the know-it-all suggestions, more suggestions to "mind your own business," general verbal abuse, and, finally, physical violence. This is all watched by two cops on the sidewalk, one of whom sums up the situation: "They're making ragù.

The rest of the play centers on the misplaced jealousy on the part of husband, Peppino, played by Eduardo's son, Luca. This jealousy is directed at the supposed alienator of his wife's affections, professor Ianniello, played by De Crescenzo. Peppino vents his false accusations at the Sunday dinner table, devastating eveyone, especially his wife. Monday is taken up with resolution and reconciliation. 

It is Eduardo's fusing of Checkov and Strindberg: the failure to communicate plus the battle of the sexes. Since the film is an adaptation of the play, there is liberty with the dialogue, including the professor's (De Crescenzo's) good-hearted shrugging off of the accusation, explaining to the husband how we all get caught sometimes at either the "Apollonian or Dionysian extreme"—the realm of calm intelligence or that of raging emotion. Peppino just got caught at the Dionysian end, that's all. That's the way Neapolitans are. That's the way everyone is. That sentiment is 100% De Crescenzo: "Naples isn't simply a city; it is a part of the human spirit that I know I can find in everyone, whether or not they are Neapolitan."

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