Naples ’44 – Norman Lewis

[I read this wartime journal in three sections. I wrote about each section before reading the next, so I never knew what would be coming next.]

21 November 2016
1943 – September to December
I realise that I’ve never read a complete book based on real diaries before. Some novels are written in diary form, and in plenty of others there’s an invented first-person narrator who takes us through cataclysmic events in what is now the distant past. But this is different. However much Norman Lewis might have edited his thoughts, either at the time or 30-odd years later when he decided to publish his journal, these are categorically the thoughts of a young middle-class Englishman of the time. And while for us, as ever, the past is a foreign country, Lewis’s present-day experiences in Naples are as foreign as it gets. During these first few months, he has come to realise that the city and the surrounding region isn’t only this weird because an occupying army has just departed. It’s always been weird. So, sometimes, the matter-of-fact tone he adopts feels like a desperate kind of affectation. If he pretends he isn’t out of his depth – and often, he doesn’t pretend at all – it’s absolutely clear that he’s never seen anything like it.

Lewis wants us to know that he isn’t an innocent abroad, having already spent months in North Africa. But he tells us almost nothing about that, and before he arrives in the city, most of what he describes is to do with the stupidities of army life. In his foreword, he tells of how one commanding officer used to appoint only blue-eyed men to positions of trust. Later, we get the shambles of the landing, which he and the others were lucky to have survived, and of a chain of command whose inefficiencies would be comic if they didn’t put so many lives in danger. Some good comes of it for this well brought up Englishman: for many days, he has all the time he needs to explore the beauties of landscape and architecture. This means, bizarrely, that sometimes he is in role as a middle-class tourist from the Home Counties in an earlier part of the century. And his Englishness is far more than skin-deep: he reserves a particular distaste for the Americans, many of whose men seem no better than farm-boys. Maybe this is what I meant about an authentic 1940s voice – for Lewis, the British army might be shambolic, but at least it’s British and usually gets things done in the end. If we are to believe him, the Americans are a waste of space.

And then he’s in Naples. My God. Even after years of Fascism and German occupation, the social structures and mores seem part of a far older way of life. There are the penniless aristocrats – even in the 19th Century there were only ever four wealthy families in the city – and now the war and the German retreat have left them still trying desperately to keep up appearances on almost no income. Lewis focuses on two or three that he comes to know through his policing duties, and describes how they can only eat one impoverished meal a day. Occasionally, for form’s sake, they will forfeit that meal in order to afford an ice-cream that they can eat ostentatiously as though it’s an everyday pleasure.

But that’s nothing. In most ways, although Lewis never states it explicitly, Naples seems as far away as Africa from the English mores he is familiar with. People might have affairs in England – memoirs have been written about how inhibitions were lowered during the war – but here the sex is mind-boggling. There is a running joke concerning one officer, quite unable to keep up with the demands of his Neapolitan lover however many aphrodisiacs the locals suggest – and an assignation in the cemetery means that you will take your place alongside the other copulating figures who, allegedly, outnumber the dead beneath them. (The cemetery offers a cloak of invisibility of particularly Neapolitan kind: you don’t recognise even near neighbours there, or on the bus as they head in that direction.) The restoration of virginity is a lucrative business, at least in peacetime, for one of the local doctors.

Then, in the nearby towns and countryside, there are the vendettas. This isn’t a city thing, but even in Naples, stuck in a policing role he never signed up for, Lewis is constantly faced with reports from informers who clearly only want to do their hated neighbours in. And, near the end of the 1943 section, he is faced with a very tricky situation. A minor police chief of a small town has arrested Albano, a former Resistance fighter, on trumped-up charges. When Lewis confronts the cop, he is given a lesson in how vendettas work here. Albano’s activities had led to Nazi reprisals, and more than twenty men and boys were shot. Now, the families of every one of them are out to kill him in revenge. Fine, the cop says, he would be happy to let them get on with it – but ‘as soon as one of them killed Albano his people would … swear to keep the vendetta going. There’d be no end to the thing.’ He has arrested Albano for the sake of a quiet life for everybody: ‘Somehow, this man has to be got rid of.’

It’s a world with every dial turned up to full volume. Conventional Home Counties one-upmanship is a pale shadow of the aristocratic behaviour that will have one of them borrow a few sticks of furniture and enough crockery to serve a single, almost inedible meal to British officers. (All this because, by local convention, to enter trade would be anathema. Expensive training to become a lawyer – one of Lewis’s contacts is a lawyer – is for form’s sake only. There’s status to be gained, but almost no work.) But hunger for almost all has shaded into starvation for some. A school class of weeping blind children, allowed to wander into an impoverished restaurant, become a symbol of Lewis’s pessimism. These final months of 1943 have not been good for Naples.

28 November
1944, first half – January to May
Time passes, and it’s surprising how quickly Lewis settles down into what seems to be a full understanding of how things work in this new world. Mostly, it’s the old world in Naples, and in the surrounding, Camorra-ridden countryside, but the added layer of an Allied administration not at all fit for purpose means that he has to deal with the two worlds, all the time. The Allies’ own administration is divided, with the British and Americans having little contact and Italian American soldiers acting as interpreters complicating things in their own ways. The General, chief of the local British top brass who seems to take it personally that the locals ignore his regulations, makes decisions and issues edicts that only cause problems for the men on the ground. Every day, Lewis is having to police the awkward places where the reasonable-sounding objectives of the Allied Military Government (the ‘AMG’) rub against the Neapolitan realities.

Lewis’s work is almost all to do with policing, and the experiences of two crooks at the opposite ends of Naples’ social spectrum illustrate the frustration he never stops feeling. The black market is thriving – one estimate, whose accuracy nobody can assess, is that one third of all AMG equipment is stolen and re-sold. The selling is becoming ever more open, and arrests are no longer made for wearing an overcoat made from Allied blankets and other such universal misdemeanours. Locals steal the AMG’s communication wiring for its copper, reasoning that it was German wiring to start with and they have abandoned it. (Self-serving logic of this kind is another everyday reality.) An old man is arrested with lengths of the wire on his cart and, according to current practices, can expect a fine. But Poggia Reale, the local prison we see a lot of in these months, seems to be run by lunatics and the man can’t be found in time for his trial. Twice. By the time he is found, the General (or whoever) has insisted on ever more draconian punishments. He receives a sentence of three years, and Lewis knows that the man’s housebound wife will die of starvation. There is nothing he can do, because every last detail of the administration of such things is out of his hands. Another case, after which some petty crooks are sentenced to ten years, is ‘a sickening experience’ for Lewis.

Later, Lewis is delegated to do something about the huge black market in pharmaceuticals which has led to penicillin being more easily available to the locals than to the army that imported it. He manages to get one man to agree to stand as witness against a major player – he isn’t interested in the men lower down the food-chain, the ones who fill the jails – and he has him arrested. The man is relaxed, even at the prospect of being remanded in Poggia Reale, because he is perfectly certain he will be acquitted. Lewis knows he is almost certainly right, but keeps him on remand in order to stop him getting too much help from his influential friends in the AMG. But by the end of May, Lewis appears to have been thwarted. The man has been moved to an almost open prison hospital in order to have his appendix removed. Lewis knows that he could have him returned to Poggia Reale, but also knows that this would be presented as victimisation. No doubt the man will have been provided with the requisite operation scar… so there’s nothing Lewis can do but leave him alone. And he knows that the lawyer who will certainly represent him has never lost a case – while for those caught actually handling the goods, sentences get longer every month.

This is only one thread, and other things are going on. Including sex, obviously. If Lewis is sleeping around, he doesn’t tell us – maybe he edited out any details before publication – but the officer having the energetic affair is still in the frame. Lewis goes for a day trip to Capri with him, the woman and her friend, and it’s an opportunity for descriptions of the ongoing privileges of wartime life for the upper classes and the officers who have made friends with them. Later, the issue of whether Lewis’s friend should become the woman’s only lover leads to a kind of ritualised breaking-off of her other relationship, complete with requisite (visible but minor) injury. Will they marry? This seems very unlikely but, as it happens, Lewis finds himself in charge of vetting women applying for permission to marry British soldiers. It is nearly always a scam – they are almost all prostitutes still working (I think) for their pimps – but Lewis tells us of one very genuine-seeming applicant. She has a beautiful house, far better decorated and furnished than most, and seems relaxed at home in her quietly stylish clothes. He only discovers on an unscheduled further visit that the furniture, decorations and clothes were all borrowed. She is as poor as everyone else, but Lewis doesn’t regret having already approved her application. He marvels at the efforts people will go to.

It’s all a mess. There are other threads, often to do with the impossible job faced by the local police and the exasperation clearly felt by judges, only ever dealing with the sad low-lifes caught red-handed while their bosses, to use Lewis’s own phrase, go scot-free. Conditions in the prisons are foul, and convicted men howl with grief at the thought of their families left without them for years. Lewis imagines what it will be like if they survive to return home. They will be broken men and, if they haven’t gone altogether, their families will be grown up and won’t know them.

For me, a 21st Century reader, Lewis’s voice is at least as important as the details of what he’s telling us. He isn’t prissy, often giving us quite graphic descriptions of what he finds, and of how he is as disgusted by AMG as he is by the underbelly of this part of wartime Italy. But beneath it all is a decency, a genuine shock at what is considered normal in some parts of Europe. Earlier, I was a bit sarcastic about his Home Counties sensibilities. I have no right – he has seen, and has had to deal with, horrors I have no conception of. I might recognise the mores of mid-20th Century Italy from a hundred other sources, from Rossellini and Fellini to Coppola and Elena Ferrante. But Lewis has not only faced up to it all day by day, he has found the time to keep this record. All I can do is admire.

30 November
1944, second half, June-October – to the end
Lewis is as knowing about himself as he is about the people he describes. Some weeks before he is transferred out of Italy, he comes to the sad realisation that he will never be trusted by the locals in the little town he’s been posted to, some way out of Naples. From the start, he had ignored the list left for him by his predecessor of acceptable amounts to be paid or received from people of different rank in Italian society. He would always politely refuse to take, say, the 100 lire tendered with an application form or some other request, sliding the money back across the desk. This has done him no favours. On the contrary, he has upset a centuries-old way of doing things, a way of paying and returning respect that in the eyes of the locals has nothing to do with bribery.

He recognises the harm he has done himself when the trust he could take for granted at first is gradually replaced by a sort of stiff politeness. Then, far worse, he notices that as he approaches, men unthinkingly make the standard testicle-touching gesture to ward off the evil eye, and women surreptitiously hide their faces. Nobody wants anything to do with him, and he is not at all unhappy to be returned to Naples. The people there have their own ways as well, but nothing quite so – so what? So African, to use his word. The superstitions – he cites one particular village that seems to have a fox cult – the ‘dash’ that oils the wheels of every transaction, the feudalism that means the droit de seigneur is alive and well in some villages…. There might be something fascinating about time travel to a medieval world, but you wouldn’t want to live there.

However. Lewis isn’t proud of a single aspect of the Allies’ dealings with the Italians. A lot of these journal entries are concerned with the ways that he, and in their different ways every section of the occupying army, have trampled over ancient social norms. He has an anthropologist’s eye for how things work here, and can sympathise with how it must feel when strangers to come along and mess it all up. That jibe about ‘African’ ways of doing things, and his worldly-wise description of the systematic rape of Italian women by North African troops, demonstrate that Lewis might have many of the prejudices typical of an Englishman in the first half of the 20th Century. But he is able to give a perfect description, for example, of how British soldiers with their tiny bit of extra spending power distort the Neapolitan marriage market. Naples is a collection of villages, in each of which everyone is bound in a web of interconnection, and marriages are usually within the community. How must it feel for penniless young Neapolitan men to have British – or American, or Canadian – soldiers come along and pay for sex with the women they are courting? Lewis doesn’t call it colonialism, but that’s what it feels like to him. ‘One wonders how long it will take the young of Naples, after we have gone, to recover from the bitterness of this experience.’

These are conclusions he reaches towards the end of his fourteen months in Italy, but he has been uneasy about the Allied soldiers’ attitudes to sex for a long time before that. We understand the quiet disgust Lewis feels over the casual way the newly arrived Canadians go looking for any girl willing to sell herself for a morsel of army rations or some other small gift – it’s all part of the same de facto colonialism – and over their equally casual way of dealing with a peasant whose legs they’ve almost amputated with their Dodge truck. It all shows how cheap human life has become for the occupying army.

I’ve made it sound both bleak and solemn. In fact, the tone is usually urbanely conversational. As time has gone on, he has become no less shocked by the small-scale atrocities thrown up by the Allies’ routine callousness and by the often primitive attitudes of the locals – but life goes on, and a man has to get by as best he can. He makes friends, does his job and, among all the rest, continues to develop into one of the best travel writers of the 20th Century. Every diary entry tells us something about both his own culture and the one he has landed in and has to deal with every day.

So, alongside the dreadful truths of life under occupation, come anecdotes that are often about the absurdities of everyday life. There’s the hunting expedition to bag a couple of dozen migrating songbirds whose combined meat might just be enough for one person. There’s the macho café culture, which Lewis is never quite able to infiltrate. There’s the ‘uncle from Rome,’ the expensive casket and floral wreaths all hired for the day to give added status to funerals. And there’s that ongoing story of the British officer and his long-running affair with the Italian woman he is never really going to marry. Lewis brings it all to a satisfactory conclusion, as the man is posted elsewhere and the woman returns to the relationship she so loudly and publicly brought to a close earlier in the year.

I realise I haven’t even mentioned the eruption of Vesuvius, that causes an unexpected side-flow of lava that destroys half a town. (Luckily, some behind-the-scenes shenanigans concerning a disgraced patron saint – some people thought he hadn’t been doing his protection job properly – ensures that the other half is saved by the requisite miracle.) And by the time Lewis is posted abroad there isn’t a picturesque town or ancient site he hasn’t visited. One excursion, to a lake regularly immortalised by the Roman poets, is such a disappointment compared to lakes he has visited he can only guess that they had to make the most of second-rate material.

And it’s the wry humour of that kind of conceit that stays with the reader. Lewis might be a Home Counties chap appalled by what he has seen, but not only does he survive a dangerous year in Naples without falling victim to the Neapolitan criminal bosses and the godfathers of the Camorra – an achievement in itself – but he does it with such humour and grace it feels miraculous.