The Bay of Noon: A Novelby Shirley Hazzard
Long out of print, Shirley Hazzard's classic novel of love and memory
A young Englishwoman working in Naples, Jenny comes to Italy fleeing a history that threatened to undo her. Alone in the fabulously ruined city, she idly follows up a letter of introduction from an acquaintance and thus changes her life forever. Through the letter, she meets Giocanda/p>/b>… See more details below
Long out of print, Shirley Hazzard's classic novel of love and memory
A young Englishwoman working in Naples, Jenny comes to Italy fleeing a history that threatened to undo her. Alone in the fabulously ruined city, she idly follows up a letter of introduction from an acquaintance and thus changes her life forever. Through the letter, she meets Giocanda, a beautiful and gifted writer, and Gianni, a famous Roman film director and Giocanda's lover. At work she encounters Justin, a Scotsman whose inscrutability Jenny finds mysteriously attractive. As she becomes increasingly involved in the lives of these three, she discovers that the past--and the patterns of a lifetime--are not easily discarded.
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The Bay of Noon
By Shirley Hazzard
PicadorCopyright © 1970 Shirley Hazzard
All rights reserved.
A military plane crashed that winter on Mount Vesuvius. The plane had taken off from Naples in fog; some hours afterwards it was reported missing. The search went on for hundreds of miles around – over the Ionian Sea, and at Catania, at Catanzaro. Two days later, when the fog lifted, we could see the wreck quite clearly, crumbled against the snow-streaked cone of the volcano, overlooking the airfield from which it had set out. No one had thought of looking close to home.
Since that time, so they say, we have developed better methods of keeping in touch. For it is twelve or fifteen years, now, since the accident took place.
When I was a child I used to be filled with envy when adults recalled events of twelve or fifteen years before. I would think it must be marvellous, to issue those proclamations of experience – 'It was at least ten years ago', or 'I hadn't seen him for twenty years'. But chronological prestige is tenacious: once attained, it can't be shed; it increases moment by moment, day by day, pressing its honours on you until you are lavishly, overly endowed with them. Until you literally sink under them.
A centenarian has told me that memory protects one from this burden of experience. Whole segments of time dropped out, she said: 'Of five or six years, say, around the turn of the century, all I can remember is the dress that someone wore, or the colour of a curtain.' And I would be pleased, rather than otherwise, at the prospect of remembering Naples in similar terms – a lilac dress Gioconda wore one morning driving to Caserta, or the Siena-coloured curtains of the apartment in San Biagio dei Librai. But memory, at an interval of only fifteen years, is less economical and less poetic, still clouded with effects and what seemed to be their causes. The search is still under way in unlikely places – too assiduous, too attenuated; too far from home.
There was then, there is still, a big NATO establishment at Naples organized around the United States Sixth Fleet, with token components from other countries. When I was brought there from London to translate documents from Italian into English and to do some clerical sifting and sorting of coloured papers, there were already a number of English girls at the base doing similar things – Angelas and Hilarys and Rosemarys who had wanted to get away from Reading or Ruislip or Holland Park. For the most part those fugitive girls were in their twenties; and over them hung an immanence, a pale expectancy, as if their youth were yet to come to them. What passion they possessed for change had, in getting them to Naples, expended itself; once there, they relapsed into their natural obligingness. Breathlessly polite, they made among the drab or primary colours of military life their tender, uncherished strokes of pastel.
My work, though much like theirs, took place in a different building; my life, while no more nourishing, had been lived on a different continent. I had spent the war out of England. Although I was a child when that took place, there was always an implication to it, if not of defection at least of something regrettable. Even my brother used to say, 'Jenny spent the war in Africa,' in a way that at once apologized for and excluded me.
I arrived at Naples in autumn, a belatedly inserted item on the budget of a joint mission to study docking and airport facilities with a view to extending them. With a view to extending them, for no such mission ever pronounced the existing state of affairs to be adequate. The airfield – the same airfield that lay to the south, at the foot of the volcano, far from our offices – was to be, for example, enlarged to receive jet planes, which were coming into military use then. In addition, there were rockets, there were higher and higher explosives, there was the prospect of the nuclear submarine. Even in London where over translations of preliminary papers I learnt the terms I had never in either language known, it seemed implausible that such responsibilities should have devolved on Naples. Ignorant of the Mediterranean, hesitantly speaking an Italian sporadically acquired in Somaliland, I prepared to take the city's part with the loyalty of the native-born.
Our offices were part of a modern complex at Bagnoli, on the northern outskirts of Naples. Modern, I say, but the buildings now have dated in a remarkable way: it is their characterlessness that identifies them, and their resolute unawareness of place. In and around those buildings thousands of NATO personnel and their families lived out their term of exile, requiring nothing of Italy or its language, passing among themselves stale, trumpery talismans of home, recreating a former existence from the shelves of the PX until such time as they should – on other, equally alien shores – speak with nostalgia and authority of the Bay of Naples.
Having arrived with the advance segment of the mission, I was installed along with them – by one of those errors that are the mark of the highly organized – into a hotel in Naples itself, one of the good hotels on the seafront. It was error, then, that set me apart from the first. In the early weeks, when a car fetched us from the hotel before it was light and brought us home each evening after dark, when orders obliged us to idle week-ends away in our empty office, we did not live in Naples so much as merely sleep in it. Yet I waited for the city, and its intervention, much in the way that those pale companions of mine awaited life itself.
In the fourth week I was lent – was detailed, as they said, for military precision runs to many syllables – for the day to a British civilian. A marine biologist having letters from Whitehall, he too needed pages translated while he waited for the Naples Aquarium to take him under what my Colonel repeatedly and delightedly called its wing. In the office next to ours a telephone was put down, a name was called. The name was out, sick with a virus; for it, mine was substituted. The following morning I did not take the car – the Vehicle, as the Colonel called it – in the dark to Bagnoli, but walked in winter sunshine the few steps from the Hotel Vesuvio to the Hotel Royal, and sent up my name through the concierge.
Of the morning I remember little: sitting with a pad and pencil in a glassed-in, blue-rugged hotel room – a room that was not, with its aquatic reflections, unlike an aquarium in itself – turning my eyes time and again to the bay; seeing it, because of what I was writing about, not as a blue surface filling a curve of land but as a dense and teeming jungle in which weeds and rocks and wrecks and a million creatures reproduced in strange counter-part the city of Naples itself. Echinoderms, I wrote of, and the Mysidae and the Squillidae, and compiled a list of publications on the Mollusca – these unknowns appearing more familiar in kind than did the accustomed daily litanies of troops and matériel; just as my companion, civil and aloof, seemed more compatible than the sullen hearties of the base. The work went quickly; it was not yet noon when my scientist gave up his silent assembling of the papers that were divided into rows across his bed, and said, 'You have caught me up.'
With a wad of completed pages in my hand, I rose – to show willing, a sort of coming to attention. He took the finished sheets and put them in a folder without checking them – a courtesy, I thought, like not seeming to count one's change. 'Can you go and play for a while? I have to put the next lot together, and something is missing. Could you be back here, say, at three?'
In this way I was set at liberty, and left the hotel as full of joyful purpose as if I had been going to an assignation. Until then I had not been once in the city in the middle of the day. But after weeks of surveillance the sense of freedom came as much from the fact that no one knew where I was, as from walking the seafront of Naples before noon on a fine December morning. The three hours at my disposal – a space of time that now, when all days are my own, often passes unnoticed – seemed then a gift, a luxury beyond which one need not forecast. I did not doubt that I would turn up again at the Hotel Royal at three. The only thing to be thought of was how to spend these hours of one's own.
I possessed a single introduction to Naples – one letter provided by a London acquaintance who had encouraged me to present myself at the address on the envelope. 'Somewhere in the thick of Naples,' said this wellwisher, who had never himself been there. The address was that of a woman whose name had become known – and was by then becoming forgotten – in connection with one of the post-war films from Italy. There was Bicycle Thieves, you remember; there wasShoeshine, there was Open City. And then there was a film called Del Tempo Felice that was made from an obscure little book, a sort of prose poem; and it was the author of this book whose name was on my envelope.
I had never read it, her book. I had seen her film, but I was then very young and had remembered its darkly photographed interiors and flickering close – ups for two reasons – because it was the first time I had been to a film that used sub – titles; and the first time that I saw the lines of Dante from which the title was taken and which appeared, off-centre, on the screen along with the other credits, duly translated in sub-title but carrying, as sometimes happens, in their own, then unfamiliar, language the physical aspect of poetry that sends a shiver across the sight and skin.
And now that there was time to call myself to her attention, I could only think: a woman of this kind, with work, friends, admirers – a public, even – would hardly welcome a stranger with no better credentials than a note (a note which I had seen for myself began 'Dear Signorina') from a remote acquaintance at Ealing Studios.
The name – her Christian name, that is – had struck me; also the address, for there was a street number, then simply 'San Biagio dei Librai': Saint Biagio of the Booksellers. I had remarked on this address when the letter was handed to me. And the friend at Ealing – who had known the lady, it now came out, only outside Italy – said, 'Let's hope I got it right. I rather gather this is the good old family palazzo. I hope she'll do you proud.' All had, in fact, been in the realm of aspiration or surmise.
It occurred to me, as I walked back to the Hotel Vesuvio, that I might telephone this Signorina at once and see if she would have me. But the prospect of picking up the telephone and shattering her unsuspecting morning was more than I could face for her; and when I got up to my room I took out, instead of her address, a guidebook that had lain one month in the bureau drawer.
'The traveller who would know Naples,' – so the guidebook dictated, open on the hotel counterpane – 'must take himself to Spaccanápoli, the split of Naples, the street that traversed the city's nucleus in classical times, and is now called San Biagio dei Librai.'
Nevertheless it took some time to make the call. First I got cut off, and in the wire a low voice asked, though not of me, 'Tu, come giudichi?' Then I heard the telephone ringing, ringing, and was about to hang up at the instant when the ringing exchanged itself for a voice. Tracing the hotel's stitched monogram with a nervous finger, I made myself known; and in English the voice cried, 'Good. Good that you called. Yes, come, come. Come now. Come for lunch. Are you coming in a taxi? – my street is up, you can't enter, it's the drains. Tell him to let you out at the Gesù Nuovo, the church. Then ask the way, it's only a few minutes on foot from there.'
Below the Gesù Nuovo there is a ramp of a street that rises to a corner where Degas once lived with his Neapolitan relatives. The ascent, oblique, suggests the piazza above by giving, as if through a door ajar on a high landing, a glimpse of the exorbitant, gem – cut façade of a church, with to the left a flash of red stucco, to the right an ornate obelisk, before it catapults you on to a scene that appears, from this method of approaching it, more bizarre than ever.
Had I been accompanied, I might have laughed out loud at the profligacy of imagination expended there; but solitude, which is held to be a cause of eccentricity, in fact imposes excessive normality, at least in public, and I crossed the piazza with no outward sign of interest and placed myself against the faceted stones of the church. From there one looked, then, across at the bombed shell of Santa Chiara, half-reconstructed, and at a derelict campanile on the one hand and a massive palace on the other; and this I did for some moments, only showing it was new to me by inquiring, of the priest who came to close the church, the way to San Biagio dei Librai.
The day had deteriorated, it was winter again, and the piazza was abandoned for the siesta. One pre-war Fiat, as lonely, as historic as the single car on an antiquated postcard, had beenparked in the middle of the square. And I, perhaps, walking away from the church door, would have something now of the same anonymous arrested look – captured, as the saying goes, in the picture; serving to show, merely, by human contrast, the dimensions of buildings, to date the photograph unwittingly with my clothes and hair; somebody purloined from a crowd to act as an example. The light itself had dwindled to the joyless sepia of an old photograph.
The picture is re-animated – rather, it dissolves to life – and I enter a passageway of a street, the narrow channel that flows out from the farther side of the square. Past a hundred shops and stalls that sold, as they are selling still, song records, coloured nylon sponges, the gauze and sugar paraphernalia of christenings and first communions, plastic Bambis, bolts of print material, gold jewellery and silver representations of arms and legs to be offered up to departmental saints; past open sacks of coffee beans, stacks of books new and seventh-hand, and barrows piled with handtools – through this I came, that afternoon, into San Biagio dei Librai. What could be closed was closing in a savage drum – roll of descending grilles; what could be wheeled was being trundled away. Over cobbled blocks – that were posted here and there with stone bollards intended to keep out the cars that expertly slid between them and rushed on to straddle a long trench of drainage repairs – I walked by palaces of stone and stucco, rusticated or red, white with grey facings, brown, orange, rose or ochre, no two alike, facing each other across the street's corridor as monumentally as if they had been rising, isolated, in some open place that did their proportions justice.
On the flanks of those palaces, smaller buildings had been grafted in every age except our own – in any unlikely opening, or any precarious ledge, apparently with the sole provision that they bear no resemblance to one another. Forgotten or overlaid, antiquity had been buried in the walls, making its laconic signal – a sunken column, Greek, dark, smooth as silk, with acanthus capital; a Roman inscription, traces of a fortification, or crenellations that, centuries since, had been surmounted by a rooftop. In one vast courtyard was planted a colossal sculpture, Roman or Renaissance, of a horse's head; another ended in galleries of disintegrating frescoes.
It was a deep square of a building, hers; pale stucco divided into a dozen apartments, or a hundred. The portiere, coming out from his lunch with his fork, spooled with pasta, in his hand, directed me to the pian' nobile, taking me into the courtyard to point out, in a fold of that flaking parchment, the inner staircase I should take. There were several flights of deep stone steps, unlit, uncarpeted. Only on the last landing, in the spot where one paused to draw breath before ringing the bell, an oblong of shredding crimson had been placed before a pair of dark doors and carried dusty, tapering impressions of several days' shoes.
Excerpted from The Bay of Noon by Shirley Hazzard. Copyright © 1970 Shirley Hazzard. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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