Dreaming in Italian

Reviewed by Mindy Aloff
Sunday, November 16, 2008


By Louis Begley and Anka Muhlstein | Grove. 216 pp. $19.95


Dispatches from Naples

By Shirley Hazzard and Francis Steegmuller | Univ. of Chicago. 129 pp. $18

These little volumes, mirror images in several ways, make exquisite companions for the armchair traveler who dreams in the languages of literature and art. Each book is a love letter to an ancient Italian city by the sea: Venice, on Italy's upper thigh, and Naples, about two thirds of the way down its shin. Both are also billets doux to the marriages of their authors, each couple containing one biographer (Anka Muhlstein, Francis Steegmuller) and one novelist who worked for years in a nonliterary profession (Louis Begley, a lawyer, and Shirley Hazzard, a staffer for a decade at the United Nations). In both books, the authors write about a place they know well from having lived there intermittently over decades, with, in each case, New York as their other home.

Finally, each book is a compilation of previously published and newly minted writing. Venice for Lovers is built around a lecture about the way the city figures in the fiction of Henry James, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann and Begley himself. Begley delivered this piece in 2002 at a benefit for Save Venice, an organization dedicated to the preservation of the city's architectural treasures. Muhlstein contributed a personal essay that focuses on the couple's friends among the city's restaurateurs, which permits her a discussion of the devastating flood in 1966. Begley added a new short story, set in Venice, about the romance of frustrated lust, and the couple collaborated on a preface that explains the circumstances in which the book came to be. Both writers are exemplars of the windowpane school of prose: We are able to visualize their subjects as soon as we take in their sentences.

The Ancient Shore -- less gregarious and yet more comforting, oddly, in its long-range views and aristocratic reserve -- collects several impeccably constructed essays (first published in U.S. magazines and newspapers) about the history, architecture, geography and volcanoes of Naples. Hazzard's elegant and ruminative prose is offset by Steegmuller's muscular account of being brutally mugged in the Piazza San Francesco and of the humane medical treatment he received in two rather impoverished Neapolitan hospitals. The page-turning tension of his storytelling serves as a reminder that Steegmuller, who died in 1994, was a devotee of Flaubert and also published several detective novels under the pseudonym David Keith. One or two small, new essays and a handful of magisterial photographs of Naples -- by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Herbert List, Bruno Barbey and David Alan Harvey -- complete the volume.

These books enlarge the imagination while they satisfy the hunger to learn about a place: how it feels to walk its streets and encounter its people, how its buildings from different eras look in the light at various hours, how memories and book learning can affect the way one perceives a tower or alleyway. By temperament, I incline toward the understated appreciations of art and people I find in The Ancient Shore, although many readers will take delight in the life and energy, as well as the connoisseurship and -- here and there -- disdain that pepper Venice for Lovers. And I'm probably alone in questioning a point that Begley makes about Proust: that the first lesson to be learned when one character obsessively torments and manipulates another out of jealousy, resulting in the severance of the pair, is that "the extinction of love is tragically simple: we change as time passes."

Sometimes, it can be salutary to distance oneself from the dark sides of the great masters and seek lightheartedness in the living, as when Muhlstein describes two exhausted men after the '66 flood roasting bass the tide had washed up and proclaiming it the best they had ever tasted. Or when Hazzard writes that "those of us who first came to Italy in the 1950s were more than lucky: we were blessed. . . . We were surprised by pleasure. . . . The impressions that poured over us in those years and our own readiness to be pleased can never be mocked or repudiated." Such passages, simple as they are, constitute the unalloyed traces of love. ยท

Mindy Aloff is the author of "Dance Anecdotes" and the forthcoming "Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation."

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