Untranslated, Translated: Il mare non bagna Napoli/Neapolitan Chronicles by Anna Maria Ortese — Daniela Cascella


I want to tell you of a painting by Jusepe de Ribera, a 17th-century Pietà kept in the Certosa di San Martino in Naples. If I could translate into paint the material of the book I’m about to review, I would want to borrow the textural coexistence of lights and shade from that Pietà. Most of all, I would borrow the pallor of the body of Christ, its light both muted and stark, warm and frozen, at the exact, elusive point of transition of life into death: a painting that holds the minutiae of time to transcend time, just like the words in this book, mediums and materials.

I want to tell you of the miracle of San Gennaro, patron saint of Naples, which to date, every 19 September, attracts crowds who gather to see if the saint’s blood, kept in a silver ampoule, will liquefy. According to tradition, if the miracle doesn’t occur, the following year is doomed with bad events. The blood continues to liquefy most years, and doom continues to happen in people’s lives, and people continue to attend the procession, continue to cheer the miracle. If I could reflect a sense of the insane and compelling circularity between beliefs of a crowd and disbeliefs of individuals, between vision and disillusionment in the book I’m about to review, I would want to borrow my tones and exaggerated inflections from that day.

I want to tell you of first hearing as a child the song Core ‘ngrato, sung by Roberto Murolo and played on a 78rpm record by my grandfather, in a town near Naples; of asking my parents why the sadness, even though I did not understand the sense of words or expressions such as ‘ungrateful heart’, ‘all is gone’, ‘torment’, but I could hear those rubatos sounding the sense of the song through anticipation and premonition into a meandering string of longing. There are two direct quotes from this song in the book I’m about to review and as I read, I still hear them through the filter of that memory.

None of the above could ever hold a complete sense of what Naples can be—a city where I never lived except in my dreams, where part of my family is from, and where I’d find any excuse to return to; a city where I did live, some time ago before me; a city which continues to appear in my books as a site of transformations of the psyche.

All of the above, and more, are unstable traces of Naples in my memory which—debatable or partial as they might be—anchor my words: they allow me to begin and contribute to the city’s shifting meaning, singular and collective. I want to tell you about them. And:

‘There’s a tenderness I perceive in the vernacular “meravigliata” as it infiltrates the prose, which I can’t even begin to explain to you. No: which I must begin to convey to you’: I found myself pronouncing these words to a non-Italian-speaking friend, trying to talk with her through a number of issues I perceived at stake in the book I’m about to review.

Why am I telling you all this?

I found a copy of this book while I was in Italy for Christmas, and I instantly knew I had to write about it for Untranslated. A few days later I searched for the book online, and realised it was going to be published in an English translation in March this year. More specifically, I found out that the book had been translated by no less than Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee; the publisher’s blurb names Elena Ferrante even before it mentions the book’s author, and Ferrante’s name is quoted in most of the endorsements. Suddenly it looked as if my Naples, my reading of the book through the materials I wrote about at the beginning of this text, was being swept away by more prominent voices: as if a faint voice was being silenced by a stentorian utterance. What to do?

What to do in front of the immediately recognisable and relatable Ferrante, who by referring to a specific section of this book in a 1995 unpublished letter and in a more recent interview, both featured in 2016 in La frantumaglia, might have unwittingly, and fortunately, opened a door for it to be seen at last in the English-speaking world? What to do in front of a number of endorsements which hang on to Ferrante as if it was the only possible reference in writing around a book set in Naples? I’m not saying any of this to dismiss Ferrante, whose fiction I continue to admire. My aim in this self-imposed exercise in constraint (‘write about a book set in Naples without referring to Ferrante’), is to begin to ask and reflect on how cultural lineage is established and how we can choose to take it as given, or question it, or reshape it; on hegemonies and canons; on visibility and systems of amplification; on what is legitimised, and how; on chance, supreme gatekeeper and supreme facilitator: because after all, a nod in passing by a renowned author is not a guarantee of visibility, and yet at one point in time, such incidental mention happens to be picked up, and magnified. My aim here is to step aside from the main point of comparison, consider other ways to see Naples and, by doing so, invite a glance more askew, invite a reading which does not exclusively rely on references easily found on our doorstep: there are other versions of Naples which can be told along with Ferrante’s, other channels for the city. It is a question of texture in critical understanding; the necessity to get away with laziness and dullness. What do we instantly, and easily compare books to? Which emotional and cultural scenarios do we read them against and with? What happens if we choose to omit the most immediate of these, and search elsewhere to articulate our reading? If we attempt to listen in more closely, what can be heard which is usually barely perceived because it has no means of amplification, or because certain sounds are best heard when quiet? What can be afforded by a glance from the periphery, a barely audible signal?

And if the book I read in Italian appears in English, which book am I going to review?

‘There’s a tenderness I perceive in the vernacular’, I said to my friend, and I want to begin to convey it to you: not to decry any loss in reading the English, but to see how the English can contribute to my conveying such tenderness—in the intermission of a dialect into the Italian—what sort of perceptual fabric all these inflections can weave beyond explaining, holding all my spurious threads together. I also want to focus on the expression ‘I want to begin’: on the necessity it holds, the will to hand something over, to begin saying something, even if incomplete, even if imperfect. Because of course I can’t explain, and you will not get those experiences entirely, ever. In fact, neither did I, quite: as memories, they exist in loss. I begin to convey, as they prompt me to write—exactly from within that imperfection, in the same way that I can imperfectly read Naples even though I’m not quite from there, in the same way that I can partially hear and understand the dialect even though I can’t speak it. This is not about belonging. I don’t want or need a certificate of legitimacy to permit me to write, be, think, read. I can’t and won’t dismiss the English in favour of the Italian and of the Neapolitan dialect for the sake of a presumed authenticity, which is not to be traced except through missing links, misunderstanding, forgetfulness, absence; neither will I ignore the Italian and the dialect in favour of the English for the sake of more transparency, because the way I hear them as I read the Italian with the dialect shapes my understanding of the book through a singular family history too ingrained in myself and in my words to be ignored. Certainly I’m not going to engage in a vis-à-vis reading, comparing the two texts, pointing at what is lacking. I will read both: the same book, and not the same.

A transmission from a book begins to unravel; it is sometimes enhanced and sometimes silenced, interrupted or amplified, through the possibilities opened by the Italian, the dialect, and the English. I have written elsewhere in relation to Untranslated, that in wanting to know about books not available in English I’m moved by a curiosity to hear broadcasts from elsewhere: sometimes the broadcast is from far away and the signal heavily distorted, sometimes it’s perceived as noise, sometimes it’s faint, or loud and clear, sometimes frequencies interfere, sometimes they beat.

The myth of unmediated access to a book is a fantasy, Deborah Smith has written recently. Books exist in time, and it happens that a translation breaks into the first language. I want to read this book before, with, through, and after translation.

It is impossible for me to choose one language or the other: I need both, and all that exceeds them. My reading (and writing) across two languages and a dialect belongs in a language larger than my own, in which sympathies and kinships are awoken through difference—into which the cultural fabric of a self can be transposed. You might not hear and perceive the vernacular as I do, but my saying it in English, circling around its impossible sense, will generate a tension which is not meant to voice a private understanding: a tension toward an ungraspable something which makes me write in order to tell you, to begin a conversation, away for any sheltered claims of integrity. As I write, this is already a different book. I hope you will sense that vernacular too, and will be drawn to reading its words impure with life.



The book in question is made of shadows, of leaden echoes, of visions in rat-infested rooms, dingy corridors, and unwholesome courtyards. It begins with a remark half sung in dialect about the sun shining as if it was a miracle, and ends with yet another descent into the city. The dialect is Neapolitan, the city is Naples after World War II, and the only possible terms to capture its state of decay, poverty and corruption are ‘sex instead of heart, syphilis instead of sentiment, obsession instead of inspiration’. It presents scenes and reports from an environment in a state of extreme debilitation, where characters at the end of hope move in different types of social, emotional, somatic, psychological darkness. It subverts any cliché around the warmth of the Neapolitan spirit, wipes away any sentimentality connected to the city folklore, and describes the urban landscape as if the veil of dust that covered Pompeii had taken over the city nearby centuries later, coating everyone and everything in terminal stillness.

Il mare non bagna Napoli is a collection by the Italian writer Anna Maria Ortese, first published in 1953 by Einaudi and rediscovered by Adelphi over forty years later, when Ortese had become a forgotten figure in Italian literature. A collection of what, it is hard to tell: the ‘chronicles’ in the English title seems restrictive, as the word doesn’t pay justice to the visionary element of the writing; and to assume that the adjective ‘Neapolitan’ carries such visionary element in itself, would be too high a demand. Part stories part reportage, this handful of short texts could be described as enquiries into vision, deception, imagination, the nature of truth, and Nature as Truth. It was harshly judged at the time of its publication, despite being part of such an illustrious series as the Gettoni Einaudi and having been awarded the Viareggio Prize, as a book ‘against Naples’, because of its implacable reversal of clichés attached to the city, and its scathing depictions of impoverishment after the war—the impoverishment of relationships, ideals, motives in people, even before the economic one. One thing is certain, Il mare non bagna Napoli is a collection in which Ortese’s admiration for writers of the uncanny such as Poe and Hoffmann, and for Leopardi at his philosophical bleakest, is channeled with unsurpassed intensity, in a language razor-sharp and haunted. ‘…Many may find it difficult to understand how writing can be the unique key to the reading of a text, and provide hints about its possible truth,’ Ortese states in her introduction to the 1994 Adelphi edition: the writing in these pages is always feverish, hallucinated—a sign of her neurosis, she maintains, which could only find its form and register after her ‘extraordinary’ encounter with the city: a city she was not from, but which she lived through. ‘I hated with all my might, almost without knowing it, so-called reality: that mechanism of things that arise in time and are destroyed by time’. She chooses to dissect the mechanism of the reality she detests, instead of escaping from it, and her attention doesn’t spare anyone, from the poorest to the privileged, from the enriched to the fallen. A term of comparison could be the other Neapolitan post-war book, Curzio Malaparte’s La pelle (The Skin): another dizzying depiction of the mob and of the city in their most squalid details. Where Malaparte comments caustically, Ortese reports accurately; where Malaparte smiles distantly, Ortese broods closely—only by doing so, can she write. Compassion, which touches Malaparte intermittently and shakes his prose with shocks of humanity, is vital in Ortese’s very fabric of seeing-being and for this, it is paradoxically less visible, constantly embedded as it is in an unrestrained language. And if Malaparte echoes Dante of the mob, Ortese’s Dante is that of the vision.

The texts in this book are kept together by a tension in the gaze, which wants to avert the eyes and cannot do it because compelled to watch, compelled to witness, and to write. And it is not her private world Ortese wants us to see: but to take part in the intensity of her scrutiny, to see with her.

Speaking of seeing. In the opening story Un paio di occhiali (A Pair Of Eyeglasses) we encounter Eugenia, a young girl who lives in one of the dilapidated cave-like dwellings in the city, on the day when she’s about to wear her first pair of glasses. Her short-sightedness at such an early age makes her vulnerable and yet endowed with a different way of seeing the world (‘sono quasi cecata’, ‘I am almost blind’ is her refrain, which she pronounces as if ventriloquizing what people say of her, rather than what she is: a child who can see, only differently—and the reoccurrence of the dialect term ‘cecata’ marks these pages with its different pace, I can nearly hear the child’s voice, the ‘c’ pronounced like a hardened ‘sh’, the lingering on the first ‘a’). The expectation built throughout the story, for Eugenia to see properly, is upturned in the final scene when, confronted with the horror of her surroundings on wearing the glasses, she falters and becomes sick, her boundaries dissolve. ‘E’ meravigliata,’ Eugenia’s mother says, using a vernacular that marks estrangement and wonder, ‘She’s dazed’. The progression in the terms that define Eugenia, from ‘quasi/mezza cecata’ to ‘mezza scema’ to ‘meravigliata’ (‘nearly/half blind’, ‘half-wit’, ‘dazed’) outlines a range of judgements made on the child by her relatives and neighbours; whether true seeing should truly happen to her on wearing the glasses, remains an open issue. Leopardi wrote in the Zibaldone about the double nature of the world, and how in the double, imagined aspects lie the pleasure and beauty of things. Eugenia’s story is a version of Leopardi’s statement: her sickness is not provoked by the glasses, she was not sick during her eye test in the wealthier part of the city, when she marvelled at the world around her, and she was not sick when she daydreamed of a trip to Posillipo, or when she saw her younger brothers in their sleep, in the dark, listening to their occluded breathing ‘as if they had wild animals within them’. Her somatic reaction to wearing the glasses makes the case for another type of vision from behind the thin veil of shortsightedness, the vision of wonderment and marvel through the imagination which Eugenia had developed all her short life: a vision which opens the space for doubt toward what is deemed legitimate.

A sharper blade of doubt cuts through Interno familiare (Family Interior), set in the dismal realm of Anastasia, a spinster on the edge of forty whose features are expressionless ‘like those of a fork’, who ‘had adapted fairly easily to a man’s life—all responsibility, accounts, work’ supporting her expanded family by managing a clothes shop: condemned to live, unable to wish for and to have a life of her own. On Christmas day a spark of life suddenly awakens her, having heard that a lost infatuation from her youth has come back to town. She begins to daydream, makes plans in her head for a new life—I dare anyone’s heart not to skip a beat at the merciless precision in which such impossible future is depicted: in which the vividness of the daydream, and its utter impossibility, are stitched together in Ortese’s words. The interno of the title could be easily misread as inferno: Anastasia’s hell is her interior dwelling, the interior site of unspoken family exploitation and jealousies. Her passivity is gradually revealed as the result of herself being cunningly manipulated by her mother, whose gaze (evil eye?) came to possess her to the point that she can only see herself through those pitiless selfish eyes. The final paragraphs are skilfully built toward an anti-climax which transforms daydreaming into disillusionment, concealment in congealment, as Anastasia switches back to her detached self. It’s as if the Veiled Christ in Naples’ Cappella Sansevero had become alive for a fraction of a second, only to return beneath the marble shroud that binds it to eternal stillness.

Motherly deception is also a key theme in Oro a Forcella (The Gold of Forcella), another ghastly depiction of an overpopulated part of Naples swarming with sick people and mendicants. For the first time Ortese writes in the first person, but never on the foreground: she’s not concerned with the statement of self, but with the writing of a consciousness beyond self, which can only be reached through an opening in the singular. She does not see any of the stereotypical bedsheets hanging in the alleys (another blow at easy Neorealist sentimentality and visual clichés: in the Italian title of the collection, even the city’s famous sea does not bathe Naples), ‘only the black hollows in which they were once hung’, and poverty all over. Yet Ortese is warmed by the crowd’s compassion, at the pawnshop, for the young mother holding two children, who will be later unmasked as a liar. Never nihilistic or complacent, she allows herself to be touched by the crowd, in the same way as she allows certain vernacular inflections to seep into her prose, not only as direct speech or quotes. And yet this is not a stylistic writing exercise: she wants, through writing, to probe life, only to find its sense beyond human perception, beyond the human gaze. She asks an old woman what the people in the crowd are doing and is told, in dialect: ‘Niente stanno facenno, signo’, vuie sunnate’, ‘Noone’s doing nothing, signora, you are dreaming’. She wants to look closer and is told she’s dreaming: ‘nothing’, in other words Nature, is the blind force moving everyone and everything. ‘In this dark pit only the fire of sexuality burned bright under an eerie black sky.’

In a very dark pit does the darkest of Ortese’s prose unravel in full: La città involontaria (The Involuntary city) or, a visit to hell—namely III and IV Granili, a mastodontic 560-metre long building on the coast, designed by the architect Ferdinando Fuga in the 18th century. Originally meant to be a granary it later became an artillery, then a barracks, and more until it was taken over, although heavily damaged, by those people whose houses had been bombarded during the war. It is presented here as an extreme example of the failure of Enlightenment architecture: among these walls Nature has taken over Reason. It is a most terrifying echo of Leopardi’s late long poem La Ginestra (The Broom), in which the sight of a broom plant on the Vesuvius leads the poet to a series of ruminations around Nature as destroyer, and against anthropocentrism and the rhetoric of progress. To enhance the impact of her vision, Ortese fills the opening two pages with a tidy and meticulous description of the architecture, listing the numbers of rooms, windows, corridors; she then remarks that other data are necessary, those ‘of an almost astral depth’ which ‘refer to the life and nature of ancient peoples’. The basement level of the building is an underworld, such as Southern Italy, ‘dead to the progress of time’. Here people ‘creep or climb or stagger’. Boys play throwing stones at each other. A hoarse dirge pervades the corridors. The acrid smell of latrine is mixed to the smell of damp, and burnt coffee. And blood. Hard to continue walking and not faint. Dark, feeble lamps cannot overcome the darkness. Antonia Lo Savio, ‘only an enormous flea, but what grace and kindness animated her tiny eyes’, queen of the house of the dead and Ortese’s guide, declares: ‘This is not a home, signora, you see. This is a place of afflictions. Wherever you pass, the walls groan’. It is in fact the wind, but it feels as if the big house shakes with the misery of its inhabitants. Rats, in the same rooms as people. A funeral indoors. Another room, eight, ten, fifteen people out of the shadows. ‘What work do you do?’ ‘Mentally ill’. A small skeleton-baby lies in a makeshift cradle in a Coca Cola crate. Her weeping is so faint that ‘it seemed to come from inside a cabinet’. Ortese’s ‘monstrous prose’, like Eugenia’s glasses, is the device that allows her to see the horror. Unlike Eugenia she does not get sick, she keeps watching, writing, trying to make some sense of this: a terrifying sense, of a non-human scale, dictated by Nature which destroys reason. ‘It is here, where the nature of antiquity… has taken refuge, that man’s reason, in so far as it’s a threat to her reign, must die’. Il silenzio della ragione (The Silence Of Reason) portrays a group of writers and intellectuals who had gravitated after the war around the literary journal Sud, to whom Ortese had also contributed. ‘What Young Neapolitan Writers Do’, asks the title of the article she’s commissioned to write: they are dead, is the laconic answer deduced on reading these fifty-odd pages as she encounters her former colleagues defunct, just like the journal, because of greed, ambition, competition, mutual exploitation, failure, with ‘that sense of a death taking place, of life on a plane different from life, arising from corruption alone’. Before meeting her friends she sees them in a vision, as a procession of lost souls: a thoughtful child mixed to an automaton, someone in a malignant grace, someone a cross ‘between the serenity of Phidias and Sartre’s depression’. They are retired, recluse, career-bound, moving to other cities, opting for easy money, having ‘dismantled the myth of happiness and recognized in those existences … an abject despair, the lament of men lost under the spell and indifference of nature, dominated and incessantly drained by a jealous mother’.

A vision of the intolerable is not a measure of things: it points at what exceeds them. It is not meant to unburden a self, but to present a consciousness that reaches far beyond itself, far beyond words, through the only means available: words, and self. In the closeness of her gaze, in the certainty of loss always nested inside intimacy, Ortese—who in her life sought immense silence and exiles, fugues and escapes, vagabond from what she was—writes the facts of vision assembled in the fictions of life, so that her words, and her characters, can be seen as they are: impure with being.

Neapolitan Chronicles, translated in English by Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee, is published by New Vessel Press. Translator bios courtesy of the same. http://newvesselpress.com/books/neapolitan-chronicles/

Il mare non bagna Napoli is published by Adelphi. https://www.adelphi.it/libro/9788845910548

Anna Maria Ortese (Rome, 1914 – Rapallo, 1998) was an Italian writer and journalist. Her first book, Angelici dolori, appeared in 1937. Among her other books (all in Italian and published by Adelphi): L’infanta sepolta (1950), L’Iguana (1965), Il porto di Toledo (1975), La lente scura (1991), Il cardillo addolorato (1993), Da Moby Dick all’Orsa Bianca (2001).

Daniela Cascella @enabime is the author of Singed (Equus Press, 2017), FMRL (Zero Books, 2015), En Abime (Zero Books, 2012). She edits Untranslated at Minor Literature[s].

Ann Goldstein (trans. New Vessel edition) has translated The Neapolitan Novels and other works by Elena Ferrante, as well as writings by Primo Levi, Giacomo Leopardi and Pier Paolo Pasolini. She is the former head of the copy department at The New Yorker.

Jenny McPhee (trans. New Vessel edition) has translated works by Giacomo Leopardi, Primo Levi, Natalia Ginzburg, Paolo Maurensig and Pope John Paul II.

Image: Certosa di San Martino, Napoli, Vincenzo di Carmine, Creative Commons