Naples is the birthplace of the writer Erri De Luca and also the locus for his novels. “My life and my writing often become one in this birthplace,” he says. Insolent and generous, mineral and sanguine, mafioso and fervent, seismic and oceanic – rarely has a city had such an impact on a man and his work. There is something ethereal about his long, thin figure as he raises his blue eyes to Montedidio – Naples’ highest hill – where he was born in 1950 and which forms the setting for his eponymous novel, possibly the finest of his works.
■ The city that never sleeps
“Naples forged my nervous system in a feverish body that was attune to the tensions of the city from an early age. Until I was eleven, I lived in the working-class neighborhood of Montedidio, and this area shaped my world of sound as the air was filled with shouting, insults, shop noises, songs, and arguments. It was the cacophony of an excited crowd that never slept: adults talking in the Neapolitan dialect about aerial bombardments, earthquakes, the eruptions of Vesuvius—from the most tragic in 79 CE, which buried Pompéi and Herculanum, to the most recent in 1944. And they told stories about the ghosts that stalked Naples in voices that have left an indelible impression on me.”
■ A voice that matches archaic rhythms
Erri De Luca enjoys going for long, slow walks through the city. A distinguished mountaineer, he also likes to walk along the ridges of mountains where the air is thinner, and where talk shrinks to the bare essentials. Whether spoken or written, his sentences match the archaic rhythms of breathing. “I learnt to breathe in time with the city’s sighs of relief, flashes of anger, catarrhal coughs, and ripples of laughter. My writing is informed by the sulfur and the carbon monoxide of the braziers lit in small rooms overlooking icy, suffocating streets. It comes from the smell of home-roasted coffee and the feint gurgle of the pot cooking Sunday’s thick sauce all night by the heat of a candle.”
■ Ever resistant to the elements
In the vicoli [communes] that choke the sun, the air is scented with broom shrubs and washing powder. Erri De Luca says: “Naples smells of the sea-charged southwest wind that wafts its salty energy through the narrowest of streets, unsettling them with its force, but never obliterating them.” Built with the tuff left behind by the eruptions and resistant to bombings and earthquakes, Naples is invincible. “Tuff is the tender, cold remains of what has been cooked to hell. It will last forever, and can’t stand being covered with plaster for long. The layers of plaster are like the reigns of the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, French, and Spanish, who arrived in waves in the city over the ages, yet who have never conquered it.” Erri De Luca walks on into the old Toledo district (constructed in the 16th century by the invading Spanish kings), with it extraordinary edifices: palace and cloisters, small altars carved into aristocratic facades, sculpted stairways at the end of patios, and, in the historic quarter, the Duomo celebrating San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples. Men still secretly play morra, the gambling game that gave its name to the Camorra (the Neapolitan mafia). “The color of Naples is the red waxen seal of the blood of San Gennaro, the porcelain-red color of the blood of gutted anchovies in the fisheries,” says Erri De Luca with a smile.
■ Between the sea and the volcano
The writer reaches the summit overlooking the city, with its grand view of the wide blue bay and the dark shadow of Vesuvius. “Naples is female, geographically concave, yet male due to the sea that surges into it. Both sexes in one body: Adam before he lost his rib. Not a hermaphrodite, but the invasion of one sex by the other.” To the west lie the islands of Capri, Ischia, and Procida, and the hill of Posillipo where Virgil is buried. Is Erri De Luca thinking, by any chance, of Gerard de Nerval’s line in “The disinherited”: “Give me back Posillipo and the Italian sea?” Does he feel possessive about the city that nurtured him? “No one owns Naples, neither its inhabitants nor Italy. It belongs to itself. The city is part of the surrounding gulf and the volcano, which promises the area the most spectacular farewell, with a funeral pyre of fire, flames, and dark ash, worthy of Golgotha and the Holy Land.”