John Horne Burns’ The Gallery was his first book, a chronicle of the chaos and beauty and horror of occupied Naples in 1943 and 1944. It’s an interesting hybrid: a novel, or perhaps it’s better described as a short story collection in which the stories, all touching in some way upon a bombed-out arcade called the Galleria Umberto, alternate with an elegant travelogue in the first person. The travelogue appears to be the author’s memoir: I remember that at Casablanca it dawned on me that maybe I’d come overseas to die.
Burns did die in Italy, although not during the war. He served in Italy and North Africa, mostly in military intelligence. He returned to the United States after the war ended, but his experiences overseas had changed him forever. The behavior he’d witnessed in the army, the mistreatment of the Neapolitans at American hands, the buffoonery of officers, soldiers robbing one another blind—all of these things engendered in him a distaste for the United States, and he returned to Italy for good shortly after the war.
The Gallery was published in 1947, to considerable acclaim. Burns followed it with two more novels—Lucifer with a Book and A Cry of Children—but reviews of the first were mixed, reviews of the second disastrous. His British and American publishers declined to publish the book that followed, The Stranger’s Guise. Not only was The Stranger’s Guise rejected, but Paul Fussell’s introduction to The Gallery suggests that it was rejected in the kind of terms that authors routinely have nightmares about: Burns’ publishers apparently called the new book “trash.”
Burns—deeply shaken, alcoholic, depressed following the break-up of an affair—suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in Livorno at the age of 36. There were suggestions that he’d drank himself to death. The New York Times obituary devoted considerable space to dicussion of The Gallery, and mentioned his final two novels only in passing. He was buried in Rome.
When the Allies arrived in Naples they found a bombed-out city, the harbor in ruins and rubble on the streets. Crime was epidemic. There was very little food. The Galleria Umberto was a collection of bars and black-market restaurants and shops that functioned as a sort of unofficial heart of the desperate city.
The stories that make up the book are called Portraits; the interludes of travelogue are called Promenades. Burns wrote a hard fine prose, although there were moments when he sank into sentimentality. Each Portrait is of an individual—usually American, occasionally Italian—in or around the Galleria Umberto, and Burns’s skills in character development were remarkable. The true nature of each one arises slowly, an image sharpening on a Polaroid; the staggering first Portrait is of a young soldier recovering from trenchfoot, a crass and alcoholic young man who’s nonetheless deeply sensitive, aware of his impending death, a man who’s never had a moment of transcendence in his life except in the presence of opera.
There’s Luella, a magnificently deluded Red Cross volunteer who dresses impeccably in her uniform in order to spend the day neglecting her duties and drinking; a suave and oddly blank second lieutenant who loses his mind after a conversation with a ghost; a virtuous Italian teenager driven to the brink of starvation when the inflation that followed the Allied invasion made food unaffordable. The prose is beautiful, the plotting expert, the moments of satire razor-sharp. It’s a command performance, but not without flaws.
The book’s largest problem concerns the author’s obvious prejudices. In the final Promenade, the thoughtful officer whose first-person travelogue we’ve been following arrives finally in Naples, whereupon the spell of the book begins to waver. “For in Naples,” he writes in the final Promenade, “I and other Americans learned by a simple application of synecdoche that no one, in himself and by himself, is much better or much worse than anybody else.” And yet one can’t help but notice that this sentiment seems not to extend to the novel’s Arabs, who are referred to as “Ayrabs” and given distasteful qualities throughout. There are moments when his disgust for the United States is palpable. He spends little time with the Allied forces of other nationalities, returning again and again to the American army. With only a few notable exceptions, his Americans tend to be morally and culturally bankrupt. They don’t know how to love. They don’t know how to live. They are limited people. His Italians, by contrast, are mostly saints; if they’re corrupt, it’s because the Americans ruined them.
He goes so far as to write, in reference to the disgraceful manner in which American soldiers treated the citizens of Naples, “I don’t think the Germans could have done any better in their concentration camps.” It’s hard to know what to say to this. Perhaps he was ignorant of the workings of the concentration camps. Perhaps he was so blinded by his anti-Americanism that he couldn’t perceive a difference between bullying a population and committing a systematic genocide.
He digresses into sweeping generalizations about American artists—unsurprisingly, he finds them spiritually inferior to their Italian counterparts—and about American culture. Here he manages to completely miss the same point that certain of my non-American friends and acquaintances seem to miss sometimes, at unguarded moments when I’m outside the United States, when they’re perhaps thinking of me as a Canadian—I hold dual citizenship between the U.S. and Canada—and the United States comes up in conversation, which is that the cultural life of the United States contains such multitudes, such variations of experience, that attempts at summarizing its national culture are largely meaningless.
And yet, for all this, I found The Gallery compelling. It’s beautifully written, and it’s a portrait of a time and a city that fascinates me. I have no particular connection to the city, except in the same way that I have a connection to every city bombed in that particular war: I’ve visited Naples twice and wondered, both times, if my grandfather trained the pilots who bombed this place.
My grandfather was a flight instructor for the Royal Canadian Air Force, and his students flew above the theatres of the Second World War. Black-and-white photographs of a young man in a pilot’s uniform on the tarmac, smiling. My impression was always that he loved his work, but I did come across a notebook of his once wherein he’d recorded a list: names of his students, with killed or missing noted beside them, and I’ve thought ever since of the terrible burden of training combat pilots. He taught them how to fly the machines they disappeared in.
Impossible not to think of him when visiting an Axis country, when reading World War II narratives set in cities that were bombed. I first visited Naples ten years ago and fell in love with the city. I returned a few years later, at a vastly different point in my life, and was much less inclined to drop everything and move there, but there was a moment when I was in love with the city’s chaos. It’s a city charged with a dangerous electricity, a vivid kind of place. The drivers make New York cabbies seem sedate. The whole place functions on a razor’s edge, at moments seemingly just shy of anarchy, sordid and beautiful and terribly fast. There are buildings near the harbor that still show damage from the Second World War.
The first time, ten years ago, I descended with a guide into the underground city. It’s an immense system of ancient cisterns and waterways, began in Grecian times and expanded over the centuries, carved from the porous rock forty metres below the surface. Sections were converted into a bomb shelter during the Second World War. The steps down to the bottom are uneven, carved from stone. The air grows damper and colder as you leave the city above.
It’s hard to get a sense of the precise size of this place. There have been a couple of small internal avalanches over the centuries, and large sections are blocked off. The guide leads us through the narrowest imaginable passageways, rock pressing against my body on every side. It’s difficult to catch my breath. Passageways open into wide corridors, small rooms, and then into caverns that could house a hundred families, and once did. There is a rudimentary electrical system. Benches are carved into the walls of some rooms. A scrawled notation identifies a tiny dripping alcove as a wedding chamber.
Four thousand Neapolitans took refuge here during the bombing. Graffiti adorns the walls, a dark moment in history scratched into rock: caricatures of Hitler, Mussolini and Churchill, pin-up girls smoking cigarettes in miniskirts, fighter planes and submarines, scraps of hopeful poetic sentiment: “A life without love is a desert.” There is longing pornography. I look at sketches of airplanes and think of my grandfather. I imagine 4,000 people down here in the shadows, scared and alive, hiding and scratching hopeful graffiti, holding hands and fighting and raising children and dying in half-darkness, bombs falling above.
The tour guide stops us in a particular cavern. Poetry and caricatures are scratched into the walls. It’s hard to say where we are; there is no sense of direction in this place, no feeling of a beginning or end. If the guide were to leave, we would be utterly lost. He motions for us to sit on a stone bench, and then, unexpectedly, he turns off his flashlight.
The silence is immense. The darkness is absolute. There is a distant sound of dripping water, but there is no light. I am aware of my traveling companion sitting beside me on the bench, of the tour guide standing nearby. There are only the smallest possible sounds. Our breathing, the distant dripping of water, the sound of a shoe scuffed lightly in the dust. The silence fascinates me. I don’t want it to end. I can see absolutely nothing. There has never been any moment but this.
Some time passes before the tour guide speaks, and I hear his love for this place in his voice. He is reverent. My traveling companion, whose Italian is better than mine, whispers a translation through the darkness between us: “Absolute silence. Absolute darkness. Like death…”
And forty metres above us, the seething city, still beautifully and dangerously and chaotically alive.