The very first book from my Fifty 'Unread' Books shelf, The Bay of Noon by Shirley Hazzard, started in early July, when I really was deep into Port Eliot preparations but in need of some space from this big pile of books that I seemed to have been tripping over for months, and some respite from looking at all those Martin Parr photographs...a quick armchair trip to sunny Naples, that's what I needed.
I knew very little about Shirley Hazzard and am grateful to this 2005 edition of The Art of Fiction in the Paris Review for filling in the details, all there for you to read if you want to, but I note born in Australia in 1931, much-travelled, met her now late husband Francis Steegmuller, the critic, biographer, translator, and novelist at a party given by Muriel Spark in New York.
With (at the time of that interview) homes in Capri and New York it is also clear from reading The Bay of Noon that another corner of Shirley Hazzard's heart may be reserved for Naples, because for all its war-torn and damaged infra-structure, as evident in this novel, the city's beauty radiates like a beacon through the lives and environs of the characters.
'...beauty that owed much to centuried endurance...'
Jenny, a secretary, arrives in a battered and bruised post-war Naples having escaped from a doomed and forbidden love, and the sense of place, described by Shirley Hazzard as the secret assets of Naples, is immediately evident as she perfectly describes the increasing familiarity of the new person as they transform themselves into a local. Much like the first time someone stops to ask the way, and the incomer directs them with confidence and that slightly superior air of the 'I live here...you are visiting,' a moment easily forgotten when anyone has lived somewhere for a long time. It all creates a sense of belonging and ease, of familiarity.
'It had never once been intended that we should like the place...'
But grow to love it Jenny does.
And it is those fleeting moments that Shirley Hazzard grasps and captures as the story unfolds, except not a lot will happen in the grand scheme of happenings. There will be relationships and partings, seeking and finding, love and loss, but all quite low key and all to the spectacular Neapolitan backdrop of a brooding and threatening Mount Vesuvius.
'The city itself was marked by volcanic extravagence. Its characteristics had not insinuated themselves but had arrived in inundations - in eruptions of taste and period, of churches and palaces, in a positive explosion of the baroque; in an outbreak of grotesque capitals, or double geometrical staircases; in a torrent of hanging gardens poured down over terraces, rooftops, spilt along ledges and doorsteps.'
The underlinings are mine but the laval analogies are not hard to miss are they.
I always think of Emma Hamilton when I think of Naples...besotted with a limbless and eyeless Horatio Nelson and a volcanic love affair about to erupt on the Neapolitan scene as the victor of the Battle of the Nile sails in. As they eventually embark for home Emma is with child and they must face Nelson's wife Fanny on their return...Nelson brings Fanny some black lace underwear as a souvenir...oh to have been a fly on the wall.
There is plenty of potential for doom and disaster in Shirley Hazzard's novel too, as Jenny becomes involved in the tangled lives of lovers Giaconda and Gianni, and an air of wistful melancholy descended occasionally as I saw myself as the spectator rather than participant. A stranger watching Jenny, the outsider trying to belong, and each time I out the book down I sensed a hankering to return.
This is one of those Not A Lot Happens sort of reads, a clue that you will have the time and space to concentrate on other things; often the unspoken, things there for the reader to notice rather than be told, and the plot frequently darts ahead offering reassurance about resolution, about settlement, about ultimate happiness, though there will be cause for quiet grief too.
Having read The Bay of Noon I certainly now understand Shirley Hazzards comment in that Paris Review interview about the book...
And there is also a care for language and a willingness to be what reviewers now call, in me, "stately" or "measured," or--lately--"haughty."
There is a deep care for language, moments when it stopped me in my tracks and required a second or even third reading, whilst measured The Bay of Noon certainly is. Books such as this feel like a rarity these days; a book that seems on the surface like a gentle stroll but one that belies the potential for a volcanic eruption underfoot at any minute.
I am not sure I have explained this at all well....and there has been a festival to do since I read it, but it is remarkable how that mood and essence of the book returns the minute I open it, and I hope enough to convince you that it is well worth reading if you haven't already.