Back in Sorrento on one of my periodic visits to my Neapolitan heartlands. I don’t come often enough, I accept that. I am a bad son. Torna a Surriento, they pleaded, whenever it was I left. Come back to us. And I vowed I would.
How could I not? My people were here, the lemon trees, the bay, Vesuvius with its comforting collar of cloud, the songs I’d been singing for hundreds of years. Caruso himself had shaken my hand in the gardens of the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria. Ma nun me lassà, he had pleaded. Don’t leave me. Nun darme stu turmiento. Don’t grieve me this way. Torna a Surriento. But then he knew he was dying and would not ever again return to Sorrento himself once they took him across the water to Naples. Remember me. But sometimes I forget.
This is goodbye country. The bipolar poet Torquato Tasso was born here but wandered off, half-mad, before dying in a convent in Rome at the age of 51. A statue of him in pantaloons and doublet, scratching his beard, stands in the square that bears his name. His eyes look half-heavenwards. His mistake was to suppose that heaven was somewhere else. Guarda guá’ chistu ciardino, siente sié’ sti sciure ’arancio... Look at the garden at your feet. Smell the flowers of the orange trees. Don’t leave, you fool, but if you must, be sure to return. Torna a Surriento.
Once, in an Italian restaurant in Melbourne, I exchanged Sorrento longings with a waiter who’d left decades before. “So why, if it’s so beautiful, didn’t you stay?” I asked. I knew the answer. Some places are so exquisite that a fatality attaches to them; so consecrated to heartbreak that it’s only by going away that you can ever drink deep enough of their sadness. Come back to Sorrento, they sing, because it’s a place you must always think about returning to, and you cannot return to a place you haven’t left.
Gracie Fields settled just across the bay, in the company of her Bessarabian husband, Boris. It is said that she came out of her villa every morning, stood by her pool, looked across at Sorrento and sang about Rochdale. Maybe Boris hummed about Bessarabia. There’s reciprocity in exile. We all come from somewhere else.
It’s no coincidence that the sirens chose these waters to swim in. No one’s easier to enchant than a man who has been away from home too long. How many years had Ulysses been at sea when the sirens saw their chance to lure him? He had his sailors bind him to the mast of his ship so that he wouldn’t succumb to their singing. Torna a Surriento, Ulysses, they sang. And briefly, though they didn’t prise him from his ship, he went as mad as Tasso. Had they sung with half the emotion of Caruso, Ulysses would have gone wholly mad.
I am going half-mad with sirenic yearnings myself. You can’t walk a hundred yards without hearing “O Sole Mio” coming from a restaurant kitchen or a busker pleating “Santa Lucia” on his accordion. I wish the music hadn’t been turned into trinketry for tourists, but then the schmaltzy evanescence has always been part of its appeal. Visitors, too, Sorrento would like to see again. Torna a Surriento with your euros. I’m not going to look down my nose at that. The heart will break, but meanwhile we have a living to earn. And wasn’t I being a cheap tourist of the emotions when, long before anyone had heard of Andrea Bocelli, I sat by the radio in the dark kitchen with my mother and listened to Gigli or Caruso himself sobbing out Core ’ngrato. Catari, Catari – I only have to hear that faithless name repeated today and I dissolve – pecchè me dice sti parole amare? How could you leave me, Caterina?
And, why did my mother initiate me into this Neapolitan agony anyway? We come from Lithuania, not Italy. We have cold in our bones. Our bodies don’t remember sun or orange groves. But there’s no Torna a Vilnius, is there? Does anyone who leaves a Baltic country ever want to return to it? Someone must, I suppose. Homesickness is universal. But Neapolitan homesickness goes back further than the accidents of domicile. It is nostalgia for love and loss themselves, a soul-sickness caused by the very idea of leaving.
The first time I came to Sorrento I stayed, as I’ve already intimated, at the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria. Caruso’s favourite. I got them to show me his suite with its painted ceiling and balcony overlooking the bay – his final view before that fatal passage back to Naples. “Can I have a few minutes to myself?” I asked. Tactfully, the person showing me around withdrew. I wouldn’t have been the first. It’s partly because he was physically unprepossessing, a little round man with a breadmaker’s face, that Caruso touches the soul. No one ever sang of being a clown betrayed as poignantly as he did. And from the depths of his barrel chest he kneaded, as no one ever will, the harmonies of perpetual exile and grief.
Since then, perhaps because the hotel understood my act of homage, it invites me back. Allowing that I’m in its debt you should still believe me when I say there are few finer places to stay on earth. You are funnelled in from Tasso Square along a bowered avenue – more oranges and lemons, ruined statuary, magnificent umbrella trees – and find yourself in a noble villa that seems to own the bay. You’d say Vesuvius itself was in the drawing room. The staff are pleased to see you back. But why did you ever go? The head concierge kisses my wife. The general manager kisses me. Do they remember us from last time? Probably not. Kissing is just what they do here. It assuages the pain of leaving and returning. And hotels see a lot of both. More kisses when we settle our account.
Torna a Surriento. It’s almost an order. Yes, we say, as we take our ungrateful hearts away, yes we will.
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