A masterful and gripping classic of European literature, this superb collection of short fiction and reportage is set in Italy’s perhaps most vibrant and turbulent metropolis—Naples—in the immediate aftermath of World War Two. These writings helped inspire Elena Ferrante’s best-selling novels and she has expressed deep admiration for the author of this volume. Ortese’s work was also championed by Italo Calvino, who was her Italian editor. The powerful portrait of Naples high and low and its documentation of often trying conditions comprises a stunning literary companion to some of the great neo-realist films of the era by directors such as Vittorio de Sica and Roberto Rossellini. This classic is exquisitely rendered in English by Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee, two of the leading translators working from Italian today. Included in the collection is “A Pair of Eyeglasses,” one of the most widely praised Italian short stories of the last century.
Excerpt from Neapolitan Chronicles
Opening paragraphs from the story “The Gold of Forcella”
The bus that was supposed to take me to the intersection of Via Duomo and Via San Biagio dei Librai was so crowded that it was impossible for me to get off at the right stop. When I finally did set my foot on the ground, I found myself staring at the Central Station’s dismal facade, along with the monument to Garibaldi, and a procession of faded green tramcars, rickety black taxis, and carriages drawn by small, sleepy horses. I turned and headed back the way I’d come until I reached Via Pietro Colletta, in the renowned Tribunali neighborhood. The sky was bright blue, as dazzling as on a postcard, and beneath that luminosity, amid buildings that rose here and there in no apparent order, like clouds, people came and went in a confused manner. At the beginning of Via Forcella, I stopped, somewhat perplexed. Farther up the street there was a great bustle, a wave of colors among which red and black stood out, and a buzz of mournful voices. A market, I thought, or a street fight. An old woman was sitting near a rock on a street corner and I stopped to ask her what all those people were doing. She raised her face, pitted by smallpox, and framed by a large black kerchief, and took a look for herself at that distant strip of sunlight at the heart of Forcella where the crowd was bulging like a snake, and the source of that intermittent mournful buzz. “No one’s doing nothing, signora,” she said calmly, in dialect, “you’re dreaming.”
It was years since I’d been down here, and I had forgotten that, along with Via San Biagio dei Librai, Via Forcella is one of the most densely populated streets in Naples, where the coming and going often gives one the sensation that something extraordinary must be happening. Through a veil of dust, the sun gave off a reddish glow that was no longer cheerful. From the thresholds of hundreds of small shops or from chairs set out along the sidewalks, women and children stared up at it with a strange, dazed air. Even the donkeys hitched to the vegetable carts seemed struck by the peculiar murkiness of the light, twitching their long ears in order to shoo the flies with a silent, apathetic patience. In a small pushcart, like those used by the sanitation authority, which seemed to have been momentarily abandoned in the middle of the street, a head could be seen; beneath it was the trunk of a man of about fifty, carefully dressed in a jacket buttoned to the neck and sewn at the sides and lower hemline like a sack. A small gilt plate tied to his chest with twine invited passers-by to give alms, but no one noticed him and, to tell the truth, not even he did much to attract the public’s pity. With his cheek, reddened by wine, resting against a sack, his ears also reddened, even glowing, from wine, his white hair cascading over his eyebrows, and a delicate smile on his parted lips, the citizen slept. All around him, meanwhile, dwarves of both sexes passed by, decorously dressed in black, with pale, distorted faces, large sorrowful eyes, and twig-like fingers held at their chests, careful to avoid colliding with children and dogs. Other beggars, cripples or simply professionals, were sprawled on the ground wearing images of this or that patron saint around their necks or holding signs listing their misfortunes and children—a sight that was replicated in the more fashionable streets of this city, in Chiaia or Piazza dei Martiri. They waited decorously, or dreamed. Several church bells rang out loudly, calling these souls to Mass.
As I came out of Forcella onto Via Duomo, the traffic seemed more orderly and almost silent, but soon became even louder again in the San Biago dei Librai district, which could be described as a continuation of Forcella.
Just like other ancient, impoverished streets in Naples, Via San Biagio dei Librai was packed with shops selling gold. Lackluster glass display cases, an excessively polished counter (so many ladies’ elbows and hands having leaned on it for probably more than a century), a bespectacled maggot of a man who cautiously balances a shiny object in his hand and silently observes it, while a woman, young or old, standing before him at the counter, eyes him anxiously. Another scene, even more intense: the trap now momentarily empty, the same maggot, coming out to the threshold of his shop as if taking a break, looks vaguely around him, eyeing, in turn, in the crowd, the approach of a pale, hungry face, the eyes full of shame. That carpet of flesh which, even as I entered San Biagio dei Librai, had appeared extremely dense to me, seemed to disappear the deeper in I went, or at least it wasn’t as extraordinary, much as a fresco when you move right up close to it. The fact remained that, as in Forcella, I had never before seen so many beings together, walking or hanging out, colliding and fleeing one another, greeting one another from their windows and calling out from the shops, bargaining over the price of goods, or yelling out a prayer, in the same sweet, broken, singers’ voices that had more of the tone of a lament than that of the vaunted Neapolitan cheer. It was truly something that both astonished and eclipsed all one’s thoughts. Most alarming was the number of children, a force sprung from the unconscious, who were not remotely supervised or fortunate, as could be observed from the black halo hanging over their heads. Every once in a while, like a rat, someone would emerge from a hole in the pavement, move a few steps out onto the sidewalk, and then scurry back in. The alleyways off this street, itself narrow and eroded, were even more narrow and eroded. I didn’t see the sheets for which Naples is well known, only the black hollows in which they were once hung: windows, doors, balconies where tin cans sprouted withered bits of lemon verbena. I felt compelled to search, behind the miserable window-panes, for walls, and furnishings and perhaps other little windows opening onto a flowering garden at the back of the house; but you saw nothing except a confused tangle of various items such as blankets or remains of baskets, vases, and chairs from on which, like a sacred image blackened by time, the yellow cheekbones of a woman stuck out, her eyes unmoving, thoughtful, her black hair pinned on top of her head, her stick-like arms folded in her lap. At the far end of the alley, like a Persian rug worn down to clumps and threads, lay fragments of a great variety of garbage, out of the middle of which issued forth the pale, swollen, or bizarrely thin figures of more children, with large shaved heads and soft eyes. Few were clothed, and those who were wore shirts that exposed their stomachs; almost all were barefoot or wore sandals from another era, held together with string. Some played with tin cans; others, lying on the ground, were intent on covering their faces with dust, still others seemed to be busy building a little altar with a stone and a saint, and there were those who, gracefully imitating a priest, turned to offer their blessing.