The Ancient Shore
Dispatches From Naples
Shirley Hazzard and Francis Steegmuller
University of Chicago Press: 144 pp., $18
If you haven’t already discovered Shirley Hazzard (especially her novel “The Transit of Venus”), then you really owe me big time. Here are some of her best pieces, including a New Yorker essay by her late husband, literary critic Francis Steegmuller. Hazzard grew up in Australia. At age 15, she traveled to the Far East with her parents and lived there for several years. As a young woman working for the United Nations, she went to Naples in the 1950s. Hazzard was fascinated by the beauty, the postwar decay and the precariousness of life in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius.
Deep in the spell of Italy, she 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:
"[T]hose who have never experienced solitude in a strange and complex place -- never arrived in the unknown without credentials, without introductions to the right people, or the wrong ones -- have missed an exigent luxury. Never to have made the lonely walk along the Seine or Lungarno, or passed those austere evenings on which all the world but oneself has destination and companion, is perhaps never to have felt the full presence of the unfamiliar.”
Steegmuller’s essay on being knocked down by muggers on motorcycles and of the warm, human care he received in an Italian hospital (in contrast to the care he received back home in New York) adds another easily surmountable obstacle to strengthen the couple’s love for Naples and Italy, a place where a writer, any artist can flourish, a place “that still esteems the individual effort of art.”
Penguin: 122 pp., $13 paper
Enter the dreamscape; a place outside of time in a book with the barest outline of a plot. More moment than story; characters misshapen like formations in a desert, worn and warped by the things that have happened to them. They find themselves in a castle in rural France: their mother’s castle, home of their childhood. Olivia comes with her two children, her arm in a sling, beaten up for the last time by a brutal husband (her mother, in her infinite if chilly wisdom, warned her). Her brother, Marcus, is also visiting with his wife, Sophie. Here’s where it gets bizarre: Sophie clutches her recently stillborn baby to her breast. Ida, the old servant, throws a fit when the baby is lodged in the freezer.
The castle gardens. The lake. The old woman, still dignified, in her boucle skirt and jacket. Her pearls. The people in the village, same as ever. The children, a brother and sister, try to swim up against this strong current of dysfunction and fail.
It is disquieting to inhabit this week with this family. Like children, we readers look in vain for a true adult, a whole role model. But the author, for all her talented, prizewinning youth (Julia Leigh was on the London Observer’s list of 21 writers to watch in the 21st century and has earned accolades from writers around the world) is unyielding. Excruciating meals, Sophie’s refusal to bury the baby, the boy’s efforts to call his father in Australia -- not a trickle of warmth finds its way through this thicket of human disaster. This is a writer with terrifying control of the dreamscape. And, yes, those are the ones you have to watch out for.
And Other Stories
Rubem Fonseca, translated from the Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers
Open Letter: 166 pp., $15.95
Rubem Fonseca’s stories -- like Leigh’s novella, and Hazzard’s preferred way of traveling -- are unmoored. “Experience (or history itself),” writes an old-age home inmate in the “The Eleventh of May,” “teaches that people and governments never learn anything from history. The same way, we old people never learn anything from our experience.” Here, we have snapshots: The old man who cannot write his own biography; the moment of death, as lived by a man who refuses to make it easy; a man who brags about his love of sex with absolutely no human feeling; the perils of extreme altruism.
In each of these unsettling stories, any effort at routine, any star you might hitch your wagon to, any effort to be truly good, is routinely dismissed. “The gravediggers tossed the bones into a white plastic box that was next to the grave. Three cockroaches and a red centipede climbed up the walls; the centipede appeared faster than the roaches, but the roaches vanished first.”