Evening Descends Upon the Hills by Anna Maria Ortese

Review published on June 14, 2018.

This is a poetic and wholly original collection of stories from Naples, some fiction, some reportage, first published in 1953. As vivid and piercing an insight into a city and its people, it’s poverty and corruption as you will ever read. These are short stories with real power, with the ability to pull you up short, to tug at the heart. Reportage that mirrors the themes in the fiction. Ortese felt forced out of Naples shortly after this collection was published and lauded around the world. She felt that she was seen locally as a kind of traitor to Naples for describing life as it really was, pointing out hypocrisy and cruelty. Its a pity because there is real love for the city and the people here, a firm belief in the human spirit, but no rose tinted spectacles. Naples was a pitiful place after the war, sadly some of that is still evident now.

The journalistic essays in this book are very personal. They convey the same sense of moral outrage and social responsibility as the short stories when it comes to the plight of the ordinary people of the city. Its a warts and all portrait that reveals the day to day life of living in the city. So why do I say poetic? I admit darkly poetic but I haven’t read a collection of short stories this good for a long time. They are beautifully structured and word perfect. They are a reflection of the raw human condition and insightful. So loaded with painful truth that it hurts. In the spirit of Chekhov and Joyce (I’m not making a value comparison), there is not a word wasted. It has been meticulously and beautifully translated to retain the spirit of Ortese’s style by Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee. In the light of the Elena Ferrante’s justified popularity, I hope this book received the attention it deserves. Ortese was a big influence on Ferrante, who said: “As for Naples, today I feel drawn above all by Anna Maria Ortese.”

Remember this comes in the wake of the utter devastation of the Second World War. Ortese, not uncommonly, had decided she had enough of the horror. That is until the post war return to the city of her mother’s birth:

“….my personal experience of the war (terror everywhere and four years of flight) had brought my irritation with the real to the limit… that is required and extraordinary occasion in order to reveal itself.
That occasion was my encounter with post-war Naples.”

Ortese spent most of her life as a struggling writer, not until Roberto Calasso republished her work in the 1980s and she received small state pension did her fortunes revive. To give you a flavour of the work:

The first story, A Pair of Eyeglasses, is a portrait of the family of Don Peppino Quaglia. His wife, Donna Rosa, is exhausted and ill and confined to bed. The oldest two girls are at a convent, the next two share their mother’s bed; Pasqualino and Teresella “were always dirty and snot nosed and covered with boils.” The youngest one in her cot, you might imagine a babe, given her size and her thin voice, is actually old enough to read and dream of a better world. But, Eugenia has bad eyes, her aunt Nunziata will buy the child eyeglasses. No one will be allowed to forget that they will cost 8,000 lira. Nunzia is a bitter woman because of the failure of her own life. She is angry, like a lot of people the pain she is suffering is often taken out on the people she loves.

“She made everyone suffer for the disappointments of her life, first among them that she wasn’t married and had to be subject, as she told it to the charity of her sister-in-law….”

The Marchesa runs Don Peppino around and charges a cruel rent for a basement flat that is damp and smelly (for which he is grateful), “A good Christian, that one is,…” he says. She tells the child that a family could buy ten days bread for the price of her glasses. The child only wants to see the beauty she is convinced exists in the wider world. The story leaves the reader in no doubt about poverty and it’s effect on people (their frustrations, their hopes, the crushing weight of life). It’s a perfect encapsulation of the human condition.

The title essay, Evening Descends Upon the Hills, is a reflective piece. The kind of journalism that just doesn’t exist in the modern world, a writer musing on her city and the people; from the grey workmen, distressed and destitute to the woman on the tram with no nose (holding a plant on her lap – ironic). Ortese takes the tram route along the Riviera di Chiaira to Mergellina, to visit the author Luigi Compagnone. She wants to pick his brains about a few young authors for a piece commissioned by an illustrated weekly entitled, ‘What the Young Writers of Naples Are Up To’. Ortese is a keen observer, the tour of the city takes in the dangerous areas of the city, the working class districts and the grand palaces that replaced the fishing huts centuries ago, still magnificent despite the bullet holes and bomb damage.

“The children of the working class, from the age of five to fifteen, happily occupy, instead, the shadiest spots; they go there to pee or to torture animals or to sit around dreaming of love, seduction, and songs.”

And:

“Not even at that moment when the last rays of the Sun touch the highest branches of the live oaks, the palms, and the monkey puzzle trees…did the place feel safe.”

It’s honest, but clearly she loves this city. The piece is accompanied by notes explaining events and names mentioned. The journalism echoes the fiction, gives it context, rounds it out.

Naples’ dark heart, the blight of corruption and the mafia, the damage of the war are all exposed in this collection. Yet there is love here and love of life too. It may seem bleak but this is a strangely uplifting read. Truly original, evocative and though provoking. Reading Ortese is quite an experience.

Paul Burke 5/5

Evening Descends Upon the Hills by Anna Maria Ortese
Pushkin Press 9781782273356 pbk May 2018

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