An excerpt from
The Ancient Shore
Dispatches from Naples
Shirley Hazzard and Francis Steegmuller
Of the millions who visit Italy each year, some thousands will return there “to live”—to spend a season or a year or two. Of these, a few will remain all their lives. If they are painters, writers, or musicians, they will carry on their trade in an ambiance that still esteems the individual effort of art. If they are scholars, they must take their chances in the gladiatorial arena of Italian erudition. Others may develop a career or, more usually, eke out a living with expatriate odd jobs. And there are some who can afford idleness in that peninsula where the cult of leisure flourishes still and where variety and pleasure can fill up many, though not all, days. No longer visitors, never to be natives, these people have arrived without the grim compulsions of migrants or refugees, and they move for the most part easily through the Italian dance, with excursions to their homeland. For a measure of affluence takes, these days, the edge off finality’s blade, and mobility suggests—delusively—that every journey is potentially a round trip.
Those of us who, when young, chose “to live” in the Italy of the postwar decades felt we were doing just that: living more completely among the scenes and sentiments of a humanism the New World could not provide. The Italian admixture of immediacy and continuity, of the long perspective and the intensely personal, was then reasserting itself after years of eclipse. It was a time not of affluence but of renewal, and Italy again offered to travelers her antique genius for human relations—a tact, an expansiveness never quite without form. One was drawn, too, by beauty that owed as much to centuried endurance as to the luminosity of art and which seemed, then, to create an equilibrium as lasting as nature’s. Like the historian Jakob Burckhardt, we felt all this was ours “by right of admiration.”
I was warned—as all are who pursue their dream—by those who define reality as a sequence of salutary disappointments that “reality” would soon set in. I was reminded that immemorial outsiders had followed that same cisalpine path. Yet we trusted to the private revelation. Of her time in Rome, Elizabeth Bowen wrote: “If my discoveries are other people’s commonplaces I cannot help it—for me they retain a momentous freshness.” And so, for most of us, it was and is.
I was fortunate when I first lived in Italy in being obliged to work for a year in Naples, a city that in its postwar dereliction had been virtually erased from the modern travel itinerary as arcane and insalubrious (and which for the same reasons remains little touched by tourism today—the last great Italian city whose monuments retain their animate, authentic context). In an old seaside house, nineteenth century, Pompeian red, I had high, humid rooms and a view that swept the bay—city and volcano, the long Sorrentine cape, and the island of Capri, which floated far or near according to the light. No expatriate English-speaking network existed to modify my ardor or palliate hard lessons. Then in my early twenties, I had lived around the world but had never previously seen Italy, never been there as a footloose tourist, and thus had no adjustment to make. To visit a beautiful country on holiday is a freedom, a suspension. To reside and work there is a commitment for which one must not only forfeit much of the indulgence that Italy extends to visitors but subdue, also, the visitor in oneself.
From other loved Italian places, the bay of Naples drew me back—to white rooms on Capri long ago and also, of recent years, to another seabound house on the Neapolitan shore. My worktable faced a blank wall, for the sights of Siren Land are no aid to concentration. Even so, throughout the day my husband and I would call one another—to see the light on Vesuvius, the red ship, the colored sails, the fishermen hauling nets, and the wave breaking over Roman walls.
The “reality” prefigured to me, like a spread of wet cement, never did “set in.” But by definition a leap through the looking glass disturbs one’s self-image, and I had to learn something of my own ignorance. Intimacy with another country is ripened by pleasures but also by loneliness and error. It is nurtured through long wet winters as well as radiant days and through the fluctuations of mood inevitable to any strong attachment. The colorful scene will not compensate indefinitely for a sense of exclusion from the exchange of thought and wit. The early hospitality of the Italian tongue in daily matters is little preparation for its exigency in the expression of ideas, and the outsider genially praised for his declarative sentences cannot suspect that years may pass before this elusive language becomes as flexible and spontaneous as his own. The many resident foreigners who remain visitors forever, hovering eternally at a rim, have recoiled from these rigors and may applaud Italian joys or deplore Italian ills, themselves being responsible for neither. Yet a life without responsibility can pall, and most such people will go home at last, having exhausted not Italy but their own capacity for aimlessness.
In Italy we learn, as W. H. Auden noted, “That surfaces need not be superficial/Nor gestures vulgar” and that, since Italian life is to some extent a performance—an idea of the self played out with style—responsiveness and good manners do not guarantee depth and consistency. We learn, too, that the ability to rise to the moment, to the human occasion, is linked to a sense of mortality intrinsic, in Italy, to all that pleases us.
Life in Italy is seldom simple. One does not go there for simplicity but for interest: to make the adventure of existence more vivid, more poignant. I have known that country through dire as well as golden times and have dwelt in town and country, north and south. Whether I wake these mornings in Naples to the Mediterranean lapping the seawall or on Capri to the sight of a nobly indifferent mountain, it is never without realizing, in surprise and gratitude, that it all came to pass and that I—like Goethe, like Byron—am living in Italy.
When I was fifteen, we went to live in the Far East. Was that a pilgrimage—or merely a stroke of great good fortune? It was a destination that I had not sought, and in that way it was more like destiny. Still, there had been, always, the yearning to cross the seas, to know the world: the accessibility to pilgrimage. My childhood had been spent in Australia—a remote, philistine country in those years, and very much a male country, dominated by a defiant masculinity that repudiated the arts. Even in a large, busy city like Sydney, there was little music, there were few museums There was natural beauty, but almost no visual culture, and even a wide antipathy to painting and painters. What we did have was literature, which came through our British forebears. It was in reading that one could truly live: in one’s mind, in books, in the world. A form of pilgrimage.
I traveled to Asia because my father was appointed there. We went first to Japan, and then to live in Hong Kong for two years. Thus I went by chance to live in one of the most interesting and romantic places in the world, before its city center became a money market and a thicket of skyscrapers. Hong Kong at that time was a last authentic glimpse of empire as it had been—a last glimmering of the Conradian ports, the Conradian islands. The convulsion of the Second World War was just subsiding, there was civil war in China. All Asia was in a state of seething change. When one is young, one accepts that backdrop, engrossed in one’s own impressions and events, in one’s own destiny. Those years and experiences have haunted me, with their accidental revelations. The contemporary Western world, grappled to its explanations, sets itself to ignore the accidental quality of our existence. For the expression of chance mysteries, we must turn to literature, to art.
Life, for me, has been a succession of such destined accidents, when what was latent in the reading mind and in the aroused imagination acquired reality in daily life. Thus one wasn’t completely unprepared for extraordinary places, unpredictable events. The variety and interest of existence had struck us, through literature, as being more real than our factual origins. It was thus that pilgrimage had been set in motion.
My sister contracted tuberculosis in China, and we couldn’t remain in that climate. Leaving there was a terrible parting for me. The next destination was New Zealand, again for my father’s work. Since then, Australia, New Zealand—the Antipodes—have greatly changed. Distance itself has diminished with jet travel and with the relative prosperity that allows many of us to move around the world. In those postwar years, however, New Zealand seemed, at least to me, the opposite of a pilgrimage; it seemed as far as possible from where I intended to be. Those islands appeared, then, to exist within an immemorial silence as far as the world was concerned. It was, again, in books that one discovered affinity, event, extension. The city of Wellington had a handful of good small bookshops. I used to buy volumes of poets in the Faber series: new poems from Auden, MacNeice, and their contemporaries; anthologies of young British poets who had died in or survived the Second World War; and Penguins with orange covers. I found a slim volume of new translations by John Heath-Stubbs of the Italian Romantic poet Leopardi, and felt that I had to read these in the original. Far—far as could be—from Italy, I took Italian lessons.
I went to England with my parents. That was an outright pilgrimage, it had long been a dream. In London, as it was then, I could willingly have stayed forever. Destiny intervened, and we came to New York. I applied to the United Nations, and was put in the dungeons there, where I remained some years.
In 1956, because of events in the Middle East, the United Nations opened a temporary staging area at Naples. Due to my Italian lessons in the Antipodes, I was sent for a year to the city that would become part of my life ever after. Destiny, but also pilgrimage: some part of me had been working towards transformation.
I think of a beautiful poem from the 1940s by Henry Reed, called “A Map of Verona.” Prevented by war from traveling to an Italian city that filled his thoughts, the poet visits it on a map, without reality—
. . . Yet you are there, and one day I shall go.
In those lines there is still the ancient nature of pilgrimage: the difficulty, the long yearning; the constancy, the consummation. Arrival as an achievement that cannot be denied—arrival, with all its consequences of transformations, encounters, self-knowledge, exposures, disappointments. The destination is not in this case a sacred shrine, yet it has magnetic quality and is both a completion and a beginning. In my Australian childhood, the dream was England: six weeks by ship to reach the goal, six weeks to return. A consecration of many months, perhaps a year. People did this once in their lives, but felt that they could die happier having accomplished it. We would see friends off on those departing ships, with such food hampers, such flowers and streamers; such envy.
So many versions of pilgrimage in the world. The holy pilgrimages, to Rome, to Mecca, to the sacred sites of ancient Greece. Novelists and poets are full of pilgrimage. In War and Peace, Prince Andrei’s pious young sister secretly dreams of making a devout journey to holy shrines, imagining her pure bliss, even if she dies on the way. There is the pilgrimage to lost love, lost youth, such as Thomas Hardy made to the west of England after his first wife’s death: a resurrection of emotions that produced, in him, some of the great poems in our language. There can be the journey to reconciliation, the need to revisit the past or to exorcise it.
In all such journeys, Italy looms large. For northerners, for Asians, for Antipodeans, for Americans, Italy, with all its changes, remains a goal: a realization and a reprieve. “God owed me Italy,” said the classical archaeologist Wincklemann in the eighteenth century, “for I had suffered so much in my youth.” Goethe enters Rome with relief and joy: “All the dreams of my youth have come to life . . . Everything is as I imagined it, yet everything is new.” Dr. Johnson, never able to make the pilgrimage, remained aware of the lack. For the historian Burckhardt, the vitality of rich civilization was, even for foreigners, a homecoming: “It was ours by right of admiration.” Those past travelers knew much solitude, silence, inconvenience. Even for the most ribald of them—Byron, Flaubert—the experience was in some measure spiritual, touching inmost things, precipitating humility, knowledge, and change. Modern visitors come in haste, in crowds. Jaunts are not pilgrimage. Destiny has no time to set her wheels in motion. Even so, since there has been a goal, there can be revelation.