Falling Palace

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 March, 2006, 12:00am

Falling Palace

by Dan Hofstaedter

Knopf, $187

The saying, 'See Naples and die', was inspired by the city's beauty, but in recent years the phrase has taken on a sinister connotation because of the lawlessness in Naples and the number of violent deaths - at least on its outskirts.

Dan Hofstaedter's memoir refurbishes the city's image. It's an affectionate, perceptive, intimate portrait of the Naples and Neapolitans Hofstaedter has known for two decades. He lived as a freelance writer in the city and had an affair with a Neapolitan student of the history of art, the lively but somewhat unhappy Benedetta. When he ran out of funds, he returned to New York, but, three years later, received a letter from Naples which took him back there in search of Benedetta.

Hofstaedter is well suited to Naples. He's intrigued by dreams and, because of his Neapolitan experience, comes to believe that our waking life is an attempt to live up to what we glimpse in them. He loves the rowdiness and crowdedness of Neapolitan streets, which 'flatten' his powers of discrimination: 'Overhead the clotheslines, billowing like the sails of a clipper ship, seemed sacred somehow, a declaration of thrift and progenitive power; and in the pork butchers' shops the displays of tripe and offal, neatly sliced open so that the insides of the insides might be rendered manifest, formed tall, dripping altars.'

He lodged in a poor, old central city district where the noise floated him off to dreams each night. He was empathetic with a city convinced that the living have a continuing communion with the dead, who even supply tips for gambling. He's attuned to the Neapolitan desire to go beyond boundaries, whether those of the law or those between this life and the next. In other words he loves Neapolitan life, but there's a nice counterpoint with Benedetta, who alerts him to its shortcomings and points out his misunderstandings.

There's little about history or politics. Fallen Palace is all about the odd, extroverted characters that the intense street life spawns, but Hofstaedter goes deeper than mere stereotypes. The character sketches are valid in themselves, but also have a cumulative effect as most of them point to the half-glimpsed, mysterious sub-strata of Naples. Among them is Gigi, an actor whose gestures are particularly flamboyant. Hofstaedter studies him during their conversations and finally asks if he'll teach the gestures. 'What gestures?' asks Gigi in amazement.

There's a photographer who lives by immortalising weddings, which Hofstaedter sometimes attends; a clairvoyant who exercises his skill on a radio station and whom Hofstaedter briefly replaces; twins who are mechanics but also explore the labyrinthine caverns under the city; a ticket scalper who is jack of numerous other trades; a landlady architect-widow who communes with the dead; the cultured but abrasive owner of a second-hand shop, where Hofstaedter, on his return to Naples, finds Benedetta working.

The book comes back eventually to Benedetta and her younger sister, Tina, with revelations that only a spoil-sport would reveal. It's not a happy ending, but it's convincing. Benedetta symbolises the elusiveness of the city. Her affair with Hofstaedter may be an illustration of the title of his previous book The Love Affair as a Work of Art.

In a final reflection, Hofstaedter admits: 'An amalgam of equivocal beauty, vestigial beliefs, betrayed resolves and half-concealed secrets, Naples still largely eludes my understanding.' He lists what he likes about the city, including that 'nowhere else have I seen such elegant poverty ... I think I mean to say that a deeper elegance can come from a capacity for fellow feeling.' That is a shrewd, handsome tribute from an excellent writer.