Stories and essays from post–WWII Naples describe the poor and the wealthy alike.
In 1953, Ortese, an Italian writer, published a book that so infuriated her hometown of Naples that she left and only returned once over the next five decades. She was apparently a great influence on Elena Ferrante, and in this capable new translation into English, it’s not hard to see why. In stories and essays, Ortese describes both the Neapolitan poor and the bourgeois in granular detail. In “A Pair of Eyeglasses,” she writes of Eugenia, a young girl whose family has scraped together the cost of a pair of eyeglasses, which Eugenia desperately needs. While Eugenia waits, ecstatic, for the glasses to arrive, the narrator describes the unappealing sights she will soon be able to see: “Her mother slept with her mouth open, her broken yellow teeth visible; her brother and sister…were always dirty and snot-nosed and covered with boils.” Ortese can be sentimental at times, even heavy-handed with her topics. Both those habits are in display in “Eyeglasses.” But in “Family Interior,” she is more restrained. In that story, Anastasia Finizio, the nearly-40-year-old “daughter of Angelina Finizio and the late Ernesto,” supports her entire family, including a mother, aunt, sister, two brothers, as well as her soon-to-be sister-in-law. Meanwhile, a man from Anastasia’s past turns up, and she begins to doubt her choices. Ortese’s restraint gives way in the two essays that end the book. In “The Silence of Reason,” she provides a vivid portrait of a group of young Neapolitan writers despite some rather bloated pontificating (“The miserable conditions of this land are due to the incompatibility of two equally great forces—nature and reason—which are irreconcilable, no matter what the optimists say”). But the true pleasure of this book is Ortese’s penchant for strange, extended, entirely counterintuitive similes, as in this one, which appears in the essay mentioned above: “He felt the same terror as one who has flung himself at a puppet swinging from a tree and suddenly discovers that it is not a puppet but the corpse of a hanged man, and he feels something around his own neck and realizes that he himself is hanging from the branch of a tree.”
Required reading for Ferrante fans and scholars of Neapolitan literature.