BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

A love letter to an abiding urbs ...

I've been having a string of fairly good luck with volumes from the dollar store of late … while not being “pig in a poke” buys exactly (I am able to look them over and get a sense if I want to read them or not), they typically come unanticipated, not recommended by anybody or any citation, and pretty much “by accident” of the book being on the shelf on a day that not only had I made it out to one of the dollar stores I have access to (all requiring at least a significant subway ride to get to), but additionally on a visit where I had time to dig into the book display. Needless to say, however, walking out with even one nice “like new” hardcover for a buck (instead of $26.95 in this case) feels like a substantial “win”!

Benjamin Taylor's Naples Declared: A Walk Around the Bay is a bit of an odd duck, however ... it's not really a travel book (I never quite got enough geographical bearings to make any sense of its sub-titular “walk around the Bay”, other than to note that the city is, indeed, on a bay), nor is it centrally a history of Naples, and it's only peripherally an autobiographical telling of the author's on-going relationship with the city, its people, its background, and its other visitors. While I'm not much given to quoting from the accessory sections of books, a bit from the “Acknowledgments” at the end of the text would put this in its creative context:
This is a book of memory and reflection, not reportage. Over the course of sixteen years, during eleven stays in Naples, I talked to hundreds of people; nobody, however, was “interviewed” for these pages. I took only sketchy notes, and none in line with good journalistic practice. What I did instead, year after year, was to let the interesting, sometime funny or poignant thing learned from near-strangers settle down in me, and only now have I made the inventory.
Frankly, the book has an “evergreen” feel to it, not being notably of a particular time, so it could have been written any time in those sixteen years. However, it just came out in 2012 in hardcover, with a paperback edition following a year later (which has its own web page). But the author's approach, being hardly linear, presents me with challenges on how to convey the general sense of the book to those reading my review here. Taylor throws history, art, food & wine, architecture, religion, crime, politics, autobiographical snippets, war, and even a smattering of sex into a basket and gives it a whirl, grabbing random handfuls of the mix to apply to the word picture he's painting for the subject at hand in each part. Also, while the book is illustrated, it is not extensively so, with 30-some-odd ≅ 2x2” b&w pictures throughout the text, and an 8-page insert of color photos, starting with a skeleton from Herculaneum, and a swastika-banner-festooned Piazza de Plebiscito, awaiting a visit from Adolf Hitler, to some snaps of buildings, etc. mentioned in the text, and a number of large renditions paintings discussed in a long-ish look at some art trends (which, personally, I didn't think needed to be included, as a link to an on-line version of these images would have easily sufficed were somebody really interested enough to see what he was referencing).

Naples, it would appear, is a very old place, with the author citing burials of pre-Greek neolithic indigenous peoples dating to 5,000 BCE … and its historical lineage goes back as far as 1,800 BCE when Mycenaean traders established an island outpost in the outskirts of the Bay, followed by other Greeks from various areas, with the city itself being founded around 600 BCE. The book starts with a long “highlights of history” Chronology taking a dozen pages to go from those early dates on up to political happenings as late as 2011. In these listings an amazing roster of conquerors, combatants, and ruling cultures appears … from Etruscans, to Samnites, to Lombards, to the Angevin empire and their competitors from Aragon. Of course, in the midst of that, Rome conquered the Italian peninsula, and absorbed a lot of the Greek culture via Naples. Oh, and there's the matter of Vesuvius … sitting square on the Bay, this volcano is notorious for wiping out its human neighbors every now and again, most recently erupting in 1944, and badly damaging the region with earthquakes in 1980.

I really do wish I could more successfully grab bits and pieces here to quote .. but, Taylor, in a matter of a scant few pages, riffs off of some historical factoid about some Roman ruin, and will suddenly be talking about opera, and then veering off to something from his youth, where a neighbor took the very young author under his wing and introduced him to a touring opera production in Dallas, of all places, only to have that move back to ancient history, and the art still visible in certain ruins in and around the city.

Much of the history of the city is quite bloody, from the well-known cruelties of assorted Roman emperors (some of which favored Naples as a vacation home, if not second capitol), to the back-and-forth of various dynasties from other places in Europe over the centuries, which frequently resulted in public beheadings and less-public poisonings. Plus there was plenty of famine, disease, and war sweeping over the region, including having much of the city leveled by Allied bombers during the Second World War. He also discusses the notorious sway that organized crime has had in the region … an issue that appears to be on-going.

There are additionally tales here of modern artists, musicians, and writers … many of them in the past century seeking a haven for their homosexuality when the cultural setting of the USA was less than welcoming. He discusses meeting with some over the years, and having been influenced by others.

Naples Declared is still in print (in the paperback edition, as well as a Kindle version), but used copies of the Hardcover (and paperback) are available in “very good” condition for as little as a penny (plus shipping) from the on-line big boys' new/used vendors … which if you can't get yourself to a Dollar Tree (I saw a couple of copies of this still at the one I usually go to this past week), is probably your best bet. I enjoyed reading this … it is chock-full of fascinating detail from a wide scope of disciplines … and the writing (while, as noted, somewhat chaotic in its focus), is quite engaging. I'd pretty much recommend this to all and sundry … being one of those books that one doesn't have to read in any particular genre, but is so broad-based that you will be glad to have gone through it, pretty much what your particular interests are.

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