Falling Palace: A romance of Naples, by Dan Hofstadter

Has anyone seen Benedetta?

Matthew Hoffman
Sunday 30 July 2006 00:00 BST

'Our paths through life are formed not by character but by coincidence." This sentence, in the chapter called by the name of his book, Falling Palace, would seem to provide the key to Dan Hofstadter's "Romance of Naples". And if ever a book called out for a key it is this one, assembled as it is of a seemingly haphazard collection of recollected scenes from the narrator's visits to Naples over a period of several decades. The chapters are strung together by little more than chronology, and although a romantic adventure between the American narrator and a Neapolitan young woman would seem to provide the point of the book, that story too is continually submerged by a sea of barely - if at all - connected encounters and incidents. But as Hofstadter's point seems to be that life itself is a random affair, the disorderliness he finds in Naples provides an attractive metaphor for his sensibility.

The book opens with a sensual invocation of the city: from the sounds of people "calling or quarrelling" to the look of the crowded alleyways and "those tiny street-level flats, with their... monumental, tomblike beds, and gold-embossed icons of the Madonna". He describes his attempts to understand the local Neapolitan dialect and to master the physical gestures that accompany it. And he sprinkles the first dozen pages with Italian words: salumeria, Oggi and Gente (the magazines), contadina, caspita, borbonico, mammone, sfogliatelle, passeggiata - followed by a lesson in when to use the conditional and when the subjunctive. "'Se tu vorresti -' I began. 'Se tu volessi', she corrected me."

The she who corrects the narrator's Italian is Benedetta, Hofstadter's innamorata, the romance in this "Romance of Naples". For the first 90 pages, I thought I was reading a novel; after all, romanzo is Italian for novel, and there is no clear indication on the jacket as to the book's genre. At times it seemed a travelogue, at others a memoir, and at still others a work of fiction, although a very odd one with little character development or narrative drive. Finally, I turned to the back pages and found an "Author's Note", which really should have been at the beginning, that states unambiguously: "This is a work of non-fiction."

Thus the book would seem to fit into the category of non-fiction narrative so ably employed recently, in writing about Italy, by Tobias Wolff and Peter Robb, among others; but these authors, while exploiting their own experience of Italian life, make a virtue of recording contemporary events and their historical antecedents. Hofstadter, by contrast, is self-confessedly bored by politics and, to judge by his occasional explorations into the past, rather carefree about history too. Spaccanapoli, for example, which he calls a "Roman road" was in fact laid out by Greeks, who founded Neapolis ("new city") in the 5th century BC - although no doubt the Romans made use of it, as would the Angevin, Aragonese, Spanish and French conquerors of Naples in subsequent centuries.

But Hofstadter is interested in dreams, not facts; the falling palace of his title refers to a vivid dream that he tries (unsuccessfully) to parlay into a lottery number by consulting two sisters who specialise in this service. Later, he goes so far as to pay a visit to a radio medium in nearby Torre del Greco in the hope of getting him to interpret a recurring "hyperreal dream" about a "car rental agency deep in a catacomb".

Benedetta, who has little patience with Hofstadter's dreamy, romanticised view of her city, turns out to be more mysterious than any of the more ostensibly eccentric characters whose acquaintance the narrator cultivates. These talkative Neapolitans, ranging from local raconteurs to spelunkers, must be more fun to know than to read about, but Benedetta, for all the frustratingly little we come to learn about her, awakens a genuine, sympathetic curiosity. Unfortunately, Hofstadter - despite his baffled love for her - loses touch with Benedetta after their affair ends, and despite his continuing regular visits to Naples he would never "come across" her again. But then, he seems never to have tried very hard, typically waiting for a random event to bring her fate to his attention.

If by chance the publication of this memoir brings news of Benedetta, I hope Hofstadter finds a way of letting his readers know how her life turned out. That would furnish a more satisfactory conclusion than the one we are given: yet another windy meditation on how "dreams determine our waking life", the leitmotif of this beautifully written, but sadly flawed book.

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