Isn’t it odd how certain individuals appoint themselves explainers of another country’s culture to their own, native nation? They’ll go live in the Other Place, and then shoot back bulletins to their benighted countrymen and –women.
I think of Julian Barnes explaining France to England. Tim Parks explaining Italy to England (and by default, America). Bill Bryson explaining England to America. And there’s Rick Steves, of course, explaining Everywhere to America, in his cheerful, plainspoken Steves-ology.
Odder still is the fact that (in my view) many extremely gifted individuals cannot quite truly deliver the intangible essence of a place.
From my experience, you’ve just got to be there. In the place, I mean. Seeing, smelling, feeling, tasting, hearing. Not always, but often. Or so it strikes me.
You can read Parks complain about the new train station built at Naples, which on street level appears capacious and sleek and seemingly efficient—but which hides the below-ground wreckage of a falling-apart, ghoulish tram service to outlying towns, which is what all the regular Neopolitans (local people who are dirt poor) routinely use.
But you cannot really feel and understand the shock of this disparity until you’re standing in the shiny new above-ground station thinking, ‘Hey, Naples doesn’t seem so bad’—and then taking the escalator down to what looks and feels like hell.
One lovely and memorable exception to my above theory is the magnificent author Shirley Hazzard, all of whose work (novels, story collections, essays) brilliantly delivers a sense of place. In particular, her Greene on Capri is a masterful inside-look at a time and locale when writers could wander, dream and work with little difficulty in exquisite retreats like Sorrento, Positano, and the Isle of Capri—where Graham Greene lived for long periods and where Hazzard and her late husband, the Flaubert scholar Francis Steegmuller, spent significant portions of their lives together.
They all met up when Hazzard overheard Greene quoting a Robert Browning poem to a friend at a café table; Greene could not, as he reached its closing, recall the final line. Hazzard, who’s memorized swaths of poetry in her lifetime, gently told him the line—“or so very little longer” —as she exited the café. And the complicated, troubled friendship began. (Greene was an embattled soul.)
Greene on Capri, like all Hazzard’s work, is measured and wise. Unlike many other such accounts, it takes you there.
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.