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The Ancient Shore: Dispatches from Naplesby Shirley Hazzard
Synopses & Reviews
Born in Australia, Shirley Hazzard first moved to Naples as a young woman in the 1950s to take up a job with the United Nations. It was the beginning of a long love affair with the city. The Ancient Shore collects the best of Hazzards writings on Naples, along with a classic New Yorker essay by her late husband, Francis Steegmuller. For the pair, both insatiable readers, the Naples of Pliny, Gibbon, and Auden is constantly alive to them in the present.
With Hazzard as our guide, we encounter Henry James, Oscar Wilde, and of course Goethe, but Hazzards concern is primarily with the Naples of our own time—often violently unforgiving to innocent tourists, but able to transport the visitor who attends patiently to its rhythms and history. A town shadowed by both the symbol and the reality of Vesuvius can never fail to acknowledge the essential precariousness of life—nor, as the lover of Naples discovers, the human compassion, generosity, and friendship that are necessary to sustain it.
Beautifully illustrated by photographs from such masters as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Herbert List, The Ancient Shore is a lyrical letter to a lifelong love: honest and clear-eyed, yet still fervently, endlessly enchanted.
“Much larger than all its parts, this book does full justice to a place, and a time, where ‘nothing was pristine, except the light.”—Bookforum
“Deep in the spell of Italy, Hazzard parses the difference between visiting and living and working in a foreign country. She writes with enormous eloquence and passion of the beauty of getting lost in a place.”—Susan Slater Reynolds, Los Angeles Times
“The two voices join in exquisite harmony. . . . A lovely book.”—Booklist, starred review
These little volumes, mirror images in several ways, make exquisite companions for the armchair traveler who dreams in the languages of literature and art. Each book is a love letter to an ancient Italian city by the sea: Venice, on Italy's upper thigh, and Naples, about two thirds of the way down its shin. Both are also billets doux to the marriages of their authors, each couple containing one biographer... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) (Anka Muhlstein, Francis Steegmuller) and one novelist who worked for years in a nonliterary profession (Louis Begley, a lawyer, and Shirley Hazzard, a staffer for a decade at the United Nations). In both books, the authors write about a place they know well from having lived there intermittently over decades, with, in each case, New York as their other home. Finally, each book is a compilation of previously published and newly minted writing. "Venice for Lovers" is built around a lecture about the way the city figures in the fiction of Henry James, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann and Begley himself. Begley delivered this piece in 2002 at a benefit for Save Venice, an organization dedicated to the preservation of the city's architectural treasures. Muhlstein contributed a personal essay that focuses on the couple's friends among the city's restaurateurs, which permits her a discussion of the devastating flood in 1966. Begley added a new short story, set in Venice, about the romance of frustrated lust, and the couple collaborated on a preface that explains the circumstances in which the book came to be. Both writers are exemplars of the windowpane school of prose: We are able to visualize their subjects as soon as we take in their sentences. "The Ancient Shore" — less gregarious and yet more comforting, oddly, in its long-range views and aristocratic reserve — collects several impeccably constructed essays (first published in U.S. magazines and newspapers) about the history, architecture, geography and volcanoes of Naples. Hazzard's elegant and ruminative prose is offset by Steegmuller's muscular account of being brutally mugged in the Piazza San Francesco and of the humane medical treatment he received in two rather impoverished Neapolitan hospitals. The page-turning tension of his storytelling serves as a reminder that Steegmuller, who died in 1994, was a devotee of Flaubert and also published several detective novels under the pseudonym David Keith. One or two small, new essays and a handful of magisterial photographs of Naples — by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Herbert List, Bruno Barbey and David Alan Harvey — complete the volume. These books enlarge the imagination while they satisfy the hunger to learn about a place: how it feels to walk its streets and encounter its people, how its buildings from different eras look in the light at various hours, how memories and book learning can affect the way one perceives a tower or alleyway. By temperament, I incline toward the understated appreciations of art and people I find in "The Ancient Shore," although many readers will take delight in the life and energy, as well as the connoisseurship and — here and there — disdain that pepper "Venice for Lovers." And I'm probably alone in questioning a point that Begley makes about Proust: that the first lesson to be learned when one character obsessively torments and manipulates another out of jealousy, resulting in the severance of the pair, is that "the extinction of love is tragically simple: we change as time passes." Sometimes, it can be salutary to distance oneself from the dark sides of the great masters and seek lightheartedness in the living, as when Muhlstein describes two exhausted men after the '66 flood roasting bass the tide had washed up and proclaiming it the best they had ever tasted. Or when Hazzard writes that "those of us who first came to Italy in the 1950s were more than lucky: we were blessed. ... We were surprised by pleasure. ... The impressions that poured over us in those years and our own readiness to be pleased can never be mocked or repudiated." Such passages, simple as they are, constitute the unalloyed traces of love. Mindy Aloff is the author of "Dance Anecdotes" and the forthcoming "Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation." Reviewed by Mindy Aloff, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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About the Author
Shirley Hazzard is the acclaimed author of four books of nonfiction and six novels, including the National Book Award-winning The Great Fire. Francis Steegmuller (1906-94) was an editor, translator, critic, and literary biographer.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Italian Hours
Part I. Shirley Hazzard
A Scene of Ancient Fame
In the Shadow of Vesuvius
City of Secrets and Surprises
Naples Redux: An Ancient City Arrayed for the G-7
Part II. Francis Steegmuller
The Incident at Naples
Coda. Shirley Hazzard
What Our Readers Are Saying
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