Wednesday 30 October 2019

Three days in Naples

View from Castel Sant'Elmo

Naples has a reputation for being dangerous and dirty, although people that live there or have visited generally reject these assumptions. It is busy, chaotic, and very polluted, but you don’t feel unsafe walking around (although the traffic takes some getting used to!). Take care of your personal possessions, as you should anywhere you visit, but don’t let its reputation put you off visiting. It’s worth factoring in some time to just wander around the maze of streets and experience the bustling city first hand.

There’s plenty to see in Naples including three castles. Castel Sant’Elmo sits proudly above the city, an imposing fortress that has often been used as a military outpost. It now hosts art exhibitions and offers beautiful views over Naples. If you don’t want to climb the hill to get to it, there’s a funiculare that will take you nearby.
Inside Castel dell'Ovo

Head toward the harbour and you can’t miss Castel dell’Ovo guarding the bay. It is the oldest standing fortification in Naples and the peninsula on which it sits used to be the island Megaride. It is free to enter and there are information boards explaining its varied history including being used as the seat of the Royal Chamber and State Treasury, as a prison, and as a defense structure during many periods of unrest.

Follow the harbour round and you will soon find yourself at Castel Nuovo which has been used frequently as a royal residence over the years. Today it hosts a museum, chapel, and library. A short walk from here will bring you to the Piazza del Plebiscito, on one side a royal palace, on the other an impressive church. 

If you’re tired of tourist attractions by this point and want a bite to eat or to do some shopping, the Galleria Umberto I is just around the corner. An impressive nineteenth century shopping gallery with domed ceilings and mosaics lining the floors. It’s worth popping in to see it but pass through it and head into the narrow side streets and you’ll find a wide variety of pizzerias and trattorias where you can eat a delicious meal and have change from €10.
Galleria Umberto I

Approximately half an hour walk from here takes you to Napoli Sotterranea where you can go on a guided tour of the underground sections of the city. Here you’ll learn about the devastation that Naples suffered during the Second World War and how they converted tunnels they’d been using for rubbish for decades into bomb shelters, walk along ancient aqueducts, and even see some flowers growing 40 metres underground. Opposite the entrance to the tour you’ll find Christmas Alley, where you can pick up handmade Christmas decorations all year round.

A ruined temple at Pompeii
Few travellers will stop in Naples without visiting Pompeii or Herculaneum. Easily accessible by the Circumvesuviana which departs from Garibaldi, allow a full day to walk the Pompeii excavations. Herculaneum is a smaller site as the new city was built over the remains and so it’s unlikely the whole city will ever be fully uncovered. Although Pompeii is the far more popular site, Herculaneum is worth a visit. Its proximity to Vesuvius means that it was destroyed and therefore preserved, in a slightly different way. The hot ash carbonised wood, preserving features that were destroyed at Pompeii, and more of the buildings have upper floors and wall paintings still intact.
Remains of a building in the excavations of Herculaneum

As it’s a smaller site it’s possible to combine a day trip with going up Vesuvius. There is a tour company that operates from Ercolano Scavi station. They’ll drive you the majority of the way up the volcano and you then have an hour and a half to climb to the summit yourself, just enough time to get there and back with a few photo stops.

If you’ve not reached archaeological saturation point, the National Archaeological Museum in Naples is a popular tourist spot as it houses the majority of treasures unearthed in the excavations, moved to the museum to aid in their conservation.

Wednesday 23 October 2019

Victober 2019

To my great delight, I discovered Victober this year – a month of reading Victorian novels run by some lovely bloggers. Check out the Goodreads page for more details and to get involved. I found out about this quite late and alas already had a full reading schedule for most of the month so haven’t been able to take part as much as I’d like but will be ready for it next year and have loved all the discussions going on around it. As regular readers will know, I’m a big fan of Victorian literature so this month is my idea of bookish heaven. Not wanting to be left out, I thought I’d do a summary of books I’ve read that fit in with the themes and a few that I’m still hoping to get to.

Challenge one – read a book by a female author (bonus if you haven’t read it before):
There are a lot of great female Victorian writers, many of whom I still need to get to. I’m always an advocate for Mary Elizabeth Braddon who doesn’t get nearly as much love as she deserves, but my book by a female author that I haven’t read before will be Shirley by Charlotte Brontë.

Challenge two – Re-read a Victorian book: 
Wuthering Heights is my most re-read Victorian novel, with Frankenstein a close second. With Christmas fast approaching though, I think I might give Charles Dickens’ Christmas books another go.

Challenge three – read a book under 250 pages or over 500 pages:
My favourite short story from the period (although not from a British author so not sure if it entirely counts) is The Yellow Wallpaper. For the 500+ pages I’m going to suggest Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin, a generally under read book that may have had a boost with Sarah Perry’s re-imagining Melmoth last year.

Challenge four – read an underrated book from the same year as your favourite:
I’m going to go for The Professor by Charlotte Brontë which I know wasn’t technically released in the same year as Wuthering Heights but Charlotte was trying to get it published at the same time and it would have been written around the same period. I read it last year and wasn’t sure what to expect as it’s famously her first rejected novel, but it was brilliant, and I’d recommend picking up a copy.

I’d love to hear from you if you’re taking part or for a general chat about all things Victorian. 

Wednesday 16 October 2019

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

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In the first of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels we are introduced to Elena and Lila in their childhood and adolescence. They live in a poor area of Naples and struggle to balance their desires and the reality of their lives. Both impressively intelligent, they find themselves misplaced and misunderstood in a world where women are not expected to be highly educated. Their family lives drag them in separate directions but they are essential to each other’s existence and manage to maintain their complex relationship through a number of major changes.

From the short prologue we see an older Elena setting out to write their story, almost to spite Lila, giving us an instant sense of how fraught their relationship has been. Throughout the book Elena sees herself as lesser than Lila who she believes to be more intelligent, more beautiful, and yet less likable in their youth. There is a constant sense of competition, of almost wishing Lila ill so that she can shine for a change. There are suggestions too that Lila feels jealousy on occasion and sets Elena up to fail, yet it is only ever Elena’s voice that we hear, we see Lila only through her eyes. Lila is outwardly the less devoted friend – not responding to letters and showing little interest in Elena’s achievements, yet we also see glimmers of how much she relies on Elena when she’s feeling at her most vulnerable.

Ferrante does not shy away from the transformative period of puberty and how challenging it was in the 1950s when it was not openly discussed. Elena feels unattractive as her body changes but is pleased that she reaches certain milestones before her friend. When Lila catches up however, she transforms into a beauty that captures the heart of almost all of their male acquaintances and Elena is left feeling once again that she has been left behind. Marriage and the starting of families happens at a much younger age than the average today and although in itself it is not unusual, Elena struggles with the thought of a man violating her friend, responding by wishing to have the same happen to her simultaneously. The mysteries of sexual maturity help place the action in past generations as the girls are shocked and confused by the arrival of menstruation, completely ignorant in a time when it came with no warning.

Another main theme that runs throughout is the violence of their upbringing. It is woven throughout the story, parents and siblings regularly attacking them, and ongoing feuds and violence between families in their neighbourhood provides a dramatic backdrop. They accept it as part of their lives but Elena does not feel able to hold her own whereas Lila has a more determined, violent streak, thinking nothing of threatening even the most feared men.

A wonderfully well-written novel with characters you won’t want to say goodbye to.

Pick up a copy here.

Wednesday 9 October 2019

Murmur, Will Eaves

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Alec Pryor's story uses Alan Turing's life as inspiration in Eaves’ latest novel. The character worked at Bletchley Park and is undergoing chemical castration for engaging in homosexual activity. We know that Alec is a doppelganger for Turing but Eaves is clear that there was a purpose for this slight separation of historic figure and fictional character. He did not want to attribute words and thoughts to Turing that he would likely have rejected. The characters in the novel have a life of their own while shining a light on history.
The structure jumps around in time and style. At times we are taken back to his school days and first love – Christopher Molyneaux who died tragically young. We see him in dreams and flashbacks, the memory of him haunting Alec still. There are also letters between Alec and his ex-fiancée June. Intimate, honest letters that show the depth of their friendship and mutual respect for each other’s intelligence. We see in flashbacks his proposal and the transparency of their relationship – he was honest with her about his sexuality and expectations, not wanting to trap her in an unfulfilling marriage.
There are musings on his change of appearance caused by the injections. He seems barely recognisable but knows, deep down, that it doesn’t change who he is, and acknowledges the strangeness in seeing our own reflection, that there’s also something between it and reality. He approaches his treatment intellectually, almost as though he sees it as a research opportunity, he doesn’t rail against the injustice of it.
Another theme that recurs is that of personal responsibility. He comments that the nurse who injects him is able to separate her actions from the result as someone else has ordered it, she is just doing her job. Later Eaves writes ‘pain is memory without witness or corroboration. It isn’t real to anyone else, and that is what allows torturers, including governments, to be torturers. They can pretend it isn’t happening because it isn’t happening to them.’ In interviews Eaves has spoken of the importance of including Turing’s interest in psychology and philosophy in the novel, areas of his intellectual life that are not commonly known. They are carefully woven into the narrative, making the reader think more broadly about human behaviour.
An interesting read whose prose is almost poetic at times. One to read if you like your fiction to leave you with lots to mull over.

Pick up a copy here.

Wednesday 2 October 2019

The Woman of Rome, Alberto Moravia translated by Lydia Holland and Tami Calliope

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Moravia’s 1949 novel tells the story of Adriana, a young woman who lives in a poor area of Rome with her mother. At sixteen she has grown to be beautiful and her mother believes this will be their way out of poverty. She takes her to an artist to pose nude and encourages her to become a prostitute, a more lucrative trade but one that runs counter to Adriana’s dreams of marriage and raising a family. It is not long before she falls in love, and although we know it won’t work out (the narrator is an older Adriana who drops in snippets of information she has gained through the years), she is completely wrapped up in the idea, much to her mother’s distress. Her model friend Gisella tricks her into spending time with Astarita, a man completely obsessed with her. The events of this meeting are the catalyst for a change of direction for Adriana and she comes to crave the freedom of not being beholden to any man. Her new life brings her into contact with hardened criminals, a new love, and Astarita, although she has learned to use his insatiable lust to her advantage.

She speaks of how the denial of things she wanted as a child while living in close proximity to Luna Park, a fairground that she desperately wanted to visit, led her to feel as though she is locked out of a world of happiness. It’s also hard for her to feel her self-worth, settling for men she knows don’t love her. This is rooted in her relationship with her mother who has told her repeatedly that she was the ruin of her. She had not wanted to become a mother and when she fell  pregnant it was the end of her prosperity and happiness. Adriana is sympathetic, believing that her behaviour is an attempt to protect her from the same fate.

Adriana’s life lacks positive relationships. Gisella facilitates her rape in what is an incredibly uncomfortable scene, blaming her afterward by claiming it wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t wanted it. Astarita believes himself in love with her but degrades her, showing little respect for her as a person. Her first love, Gino, lies to her. Giacomo, her second love, does not pretend to love her but continues their relationship. Other men she encounters use her one way or another. There are many times that it’s easy to feel sorry for Adriana but there’s much to dislike in her personality. She becomes fickle and enjoys the suffering of others. There’s something about the way she is written that feels false, as though the author hasn’t successfully encapsulated the reality of life as a woman.

An interesting read, at times gripping, but the style of writing does not flow all that easily. This could be a result of translation, or a deliberate device to show that it is Adriana who is telling us the story.

Pick up a copy here.