From novelist/essayist/editor Taylor (The Book of Getting Even, 2009, etc.), an idiosyncratic, atmospheric portrait of “the great open-air theater of Europe.”
Once considered Italy’s pleasantest city, second only to Rome in importance, Naples today is as noted for its dire poverty and malevolent Camorra crime syndicate. “Its residents know themselves by instinct to be different from other European citizenries,” writes Taylor: “more ancient, less well-off, more skeptical, less clean. But wiser, grander.” Those sentences resonate with the author’s attractive blend of romanticism and realism as he plumbs Naples’ Greek roots and the pagan sensibility that still underpins its Catholic surface. Taylor’s scope is as all-embracing as the stroll he takes around the Bay of Naples. He connects the magnificent wall paintings in the Villa of Poppaea with Italian art of the 15th century. He notes his “fear and dislike” of Christianity “because it sets the flesh against the mind and denies the brevity of our expectations; because, in a word, it is so un-Greek.” Taylor finds Neapolitans of every generation deeply Greek in their tragic sense of life, borne out by centuries of foreign domination, climaxing with the brutal Nazi occupation in the final years of World War II. The author wears his formidable erudition lightly as he cites classical authors and 20th-century travel writers such as Norman Douglas with equal zest and acuity. Yet some of his most enjoyable pages are present-day encounters with a fervently communist doctor, a chain-smoking student of Faulkner and novelist Shirley Hazzard, one of Naples’ many devoted longtime, part-time residents. Though this is a highly personal book, the Neapolitan spirit is palpable: “the being-visible-now, the quasi-divinity that flows from a fundamentally theatrical sense of life,” as Taylor puts it in a characteristically ecstatic, evocative assessment.
Packed with elegant aperçus and vibrant with the author’s rueful understanding that “Naples the glorious and Naples the ghastly have always been one place.”