In 1974, driving a red Fiat rented in Brussels, our family of four paid a lightning visit to Naples because – how else could you see Pompei. We stayed at the Mediteranno Hotel, so the tiny brown leather ‘Travel Record’ tells me. (Nothing like the Rennaisance Mediteranno the Google shows me now.) On arrival from Rome, we ate. The lunch rush was over. The waiter had time to mess with my husband by pouring the wine from a height of two feet over Rick’s pant leg. Rick looked Italian, but spoke Canadian. He did not flinch at the macho showdown. We had Neopolitan pizza, the first thin crust pizza we had ever had, complete with a history lesson on the city’s invention of the dish. Stuffed to the gills, we then faced roast veal. Another macho contest. Later we wondered around and had the ice cream of Naples. The French starve you deliciously. The Italians over-feed you deliciously.
It was a time of unrest in the country. The economy had had a meltdown. Bombs were going off and we were in Cammora country. But how else could you see Pompei?
I had had a ‘classical’ education or at least the best one still available in Canadian high schools and universities in the 50’s. Greek had been cancelled the year before, but I studied Latin and Ancient History. We had already spent several days ‘seeing’ Rome and the Etruscan tombs of Cervetari and our next port of call would be Brindisi where we would take the ferry to Patras and spend several weeks in Greece, which had its own political upheaval but also Delphi.
I knew nothing about Naples when I started to read My Brilliant Friend, the first of the four Neopolitan novels. (The others are The Story of A New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child. The first two books are set in a poor neighborhood in Naples. Somewhere in Italy, there is a movie set of the stradalone, complete with the 5 four-storey apartment buildings, the stores, the church and the garden. The first book was made into a series, which was not shown in North America, so far as I can tell.
It was a violent place. Fathers were violent to their wives and children. On his wedding night a previously pacific groom gives his wife her first beating. My home was violent, full of shrieking and yelling and whacks and thuds. But never to the face. How would that look? The men in the Naples neighborhood not only didn’t care, they took pride in dishing it out. However no child ever flew out of a second storey window in our house as they did from the shoemaker’s house in Naples. Nor did corpses pile up in front of the church or get discovered in the garden. That was a Cammora war. We had them in Hamilton, Ontario but lower-keyed. Bodies, usually singular, turned up in out of the way places if at all. Our town was in the hands of Papalia, whom I met whenever my father had to do an errand for him and needed the company of one or more of his charming girls to distract nosy cops.
The narrator of the books is Elenu Greco, the daughter of a porter at the city hall. The story that she tells seems so authentic that the reader wants to believe it is autobiographical. Her best friend is Lino Cerullo, whom Elenu called Lila, daughter of the shoemaker – see second-floor window above.
As it turned out my grandson named his first daughter Lila, never knowing that had been my mother’s name.
Elenu and Lila decide that they will write a great novel like their beloved Little Women, become rich and so escape their poverty. Their are a few weaknesses to this plan as anyone who has published a book knows. One of the greatest is that girls don’t need to be educated, so Lila’s father takes her out of the school after grade 5 and puts her to work in the shoe repair shop.
I worked at part-time jobs from the age of 15. (Lila was not yet 12.) My father was too busy working two jobs and freelance to take an interest in my choice of courses. I refused to study typing so that I couldn’t quit high school early to work in an office. He tried to make me take special commercial after grade 12. Too late. Like Elenu, I had teachers on my side and a certain amount of small town newspaper fame. He would have lost face if he had kept objecting and besides, one way or another, he wouldn’t be paying.
Who is the brilliant friend? Elenu means Lila, although, later, Lila describes Elenu that way. On her breaks from the shoe shop, Lila borrows Elenu’s Latin text and learns so fast that she is able to tutor Elenu. She makes a similar head start with Greek. She borrows 5 books a week from the library. She is entitled to only 1, so she takes books out in the names of her family members. She designs a remarkable shoe, which makes a fortune, just not for her.
Do I believe in such brilliance? I do. My younger grandson – the one without the Harvard degree, failed high school. He went to an L.A. arts school where he mastered sound engineering, but he couldn’t learn in class. We spent a hundreds on tutoring. After he flunked out, he got his high school diploma on-line. He took my Christmas money and bought a calculus text. Having barely passed middle school math – see tutoring – he went on to study advanced mathematics and now tutors college students on-line at 4 p.m. daily. He has a chess rating of 2100, last I heard, and just won first prize at a San Diego tournament.
The brilliant genes either skipped my generation or came from the other side – his paternal grandfather who had several PhDs. Like Elenu I had an intelligence founded on memory, grit and perseverance. Psychology 101 was an 8:30 a.m. hike across an icy campus, in the library theatre, the only place large enough for 170 of us. I observed from my extremely complete lecture notes that the prof was reading the text to us. Fair play, he had written it. So 3 times a week, I sat down at my dorm desk at 8:30 and memorized a new chapter. My roommate filled me in on quiz and essay dates. It was somewhat embarrassing when I won the award for top marks in Psychology 101.
But it wasn’t brilliant.
Elenu becomes a writer, even a noted writer. I became a teacher, thus the 6 week European vacations. And of course I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. I even published. joycehowe.com But I was not noted.
God willing and the creek dont rise, I will continue these reflections
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