The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2012

All Issues
SEPT 2012 Issue

BENJAMIN TAYLOR In Conversation with Adam Fitzgerald

Earlier this spring, I had the pleasure of sitting down at an Italian restaurant in the West Village and asking Benjamin Taylor—author of two novels, Tales Out of School and The Book of Getting Even, and recent editor of Saul Bellow: Letters—about his new book, Naples Declared: A Walk Around the Bay, a genre-bending travelogue that is part memoir, part history, part distillation of how ancient myths continue to shape our inner lives. Because I had been to Naples for the first time last summer, I knew this city, which Taylor has visited over 16 years and 11 stays, was as riveting and deserving as any other great European destination. But with the delicacy of Taylor’s narrative, as casually erudite as it is fiercely intimate, one learns so much more than regional history or soundbite folklore (which Naples Declared manages to disperse handsomely) can offer. Instead, as in Henry James’s travelogues, the scope and understanding of place is for Taylor an invitation to silhouette the subject—to detour, digress, and fall away from the routine. The result is not just that he absorbs more individualistic angles and complexities of Naples past and present. You see why the topic of a city remains such an elusive challenge. To reveal a city is to intimate the invisible narratives while making the physical place palpable. It is a feat that Taylor pulls off dazzlingly.

Adam Fitzgerald (Rail): You were telling me how you went about writing this book, and you mentioned weaving.

Benjamin Taylor: Everything I’ve written has come from three baskets of yarn. There’s mythology, a lifelong obsession. There is history, also a lifelong obsession. And there are inner lives—the stuff of stories and novels, a lifelong obsession. And I’m always weaving these together, whether the book is a novel or a work of nonfiction. I turn 60 this summer, and that’s a good birthday on which to figure out what it is you’ve been doing, what your fundamental interests have been. You’ve crossed a few shadow-lines by the time you reach my age. But with any luck, you still have two more decades of work ahead, or even a little more, and can finally be clear about what your passions are and what you want to give your remaining energies to.  

Rail: Naples Declared sweetly combines mythology, history, and inner life, particularly your own inner life. And these interests, and their conjunction, were yours from the start, as you say.

Taylor: Well, I always loved any story—whether pagan, Jewish, or Christian—about contact between divinities and people. Later on, I developed a romance with philosophy, but dropped that when I realized that particular stories, particular events, particular personalities—not ideas—were the great teachers. I’ve developed a strong distaste for abstraction. What I love, yes, are myths, histories, novels, short stories, etc. Anything based in the particulars of our humanity. You may have noticed that Giambattista Vico, the great Neapolitan philosopher, is among the heroes of Naples Declared. He’s hard to read; he’s not a splendid writer like Hume or Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard or Nietzsche. Frankly, he’s a mess. But because his fundamental teaching is that truth resides in the particulars, I continue to (try to) read him. Vico teaches that to understand anything we humans have made—a city, a work of art—is to understand the genesis of it and its development; to understand genetically, so to speak. Which is how myth-makers, historians, and novelists all understand the world—in terms of causes and developments and outcomes.

Rail: You claim in the book that your Italian isn’t very good. I remain skeptical of this modesty.

Taylor: It’s pretty much kitchen Italian, but it served me well enough to find out something of what was going on, and it left me with a salutary sense of what I was probably missing. Then the moment came, despite my rudimentary grasp, to do the writing and hand in the book. You may know Joan Didion’s famous remark in her Paris Review interview: “There’s a point when you go with what you’ve got. Or you don’t go.”

Rail: When did you start learning Italian?

Taylor: I learned it abortively when I was a graduate student at Columbia, many years ago, for my qualifying exams. I got more serious about it when I started spending considerable time in Italy, in the ’90s.

Rail: Tell me a little bit more about what you were studying back then.

Taylor: I wrote a doctoral dissertation at Columbia. It became Into the Open, which I published in the same year as Tales Out of School, my first novel. I was very interested in the idea of genius, which has, like most ideas, a describable career. Its origins are in the 18th century, its triumph is among the Romantics, and its afterlife is still with us. I focused on three writers: Walter Pater, Paul Valéry, and Freud, all of whom became obsessed with Leonardo, their paradigmatic genius.

Rail: All geniuses themselves.

Taylor: All geniuses themselves. Pater, of those three, is the one who remains my personal hero. To have a career like Walter Pater’s would be, well, more than fine.

Rail: Every time I haunt my favorite East Village bookstores, I seem to come across yet another work of Valéry’s prose translated into English that I don’t have.

Taylor: He wrote so much occasional prose, reviews, feuilletons, etc. He made his living that way, as many poets and novelists have done, but he was extraordinarily good at it, He also kept, in the French manner, an immense notebook. There’s a facsimile edition with all his watercolors; it’s a very, very lavish thing. A completely beguiling figure, Valéry. But both he and Freud were phases I went through. It’s Pater, the least famous of the three, who has really stuck with me. I came upon him by accident. At Haverford I had an essay to write on Plato, and I went to look at the scholarly tomes, and I pulled one off the shelf called Plato and Platonism by Walter Pater. It’s completely eccentric, of course, not at all the secondary source you’d want for writing a term paper. It’s a visionary book. And that was how I came upon Pater. Do you know anything about his personality?  Interesting combination of shy and bold.

Rail: I wouldn’t have figured the shy part since his strolling conversations around Oxford with intimates and students have always made me think of him as a commanding presence.

Taylor: Pater led a very sheltered life. He lived with his sisters. He was homosexual  (a brand new word back then). And he taught and wrote in the shadow of the greatest of English art critic, John Ruskin. Though he never mentions him in his work, the implicit quarrel with Ruskin is everywhere. Matthew Arnold was another figure I think he felt tense in relation to. Because these were big men of their time, and Walter Pater was not. Rather, he was seen as “exquisite,” “precious,” “decadent”—words that meant homosexual—by many of his late Victorian contemporaries, and by succeeding generations. 

Rail: When did you first go to Naples?

Taylor: That was in the mid-’90s. And like everybody who goes to Naples for the first time, I was a little scared of the place, because of what I’d heard. My original purpose was to see Pompeii and Herculaneum and have a few days and nights of lotus eating on Capri. Then I got to know Shirley Hazzard, who lived on the bay, and she said, “No, no. You’re missing what’s most remarkable. What’s most remarkable is what’s most hidden here.” So she very kindly took me on a tour of the old city, and that was an unforgettable day. Then I continued the tour on my own.

Rail: But already you knew that something had captured you in the old city itself?

Taylor: The extreme antiquity of it, once I grasped how much older Naples is than Rome. As for northern Europe—when Naples was first founded, in the eighth century before Christ, northern Europe was vast forests and a smattering of shaggy tribesmen.

Ancient Greek colonies, of which Naples was an early example, were different from, say, British or French colonies in the 19th and 20th centuries. Greek colonies were established to be autonomous, separated from the mother city. They went their own way politically, though culturally they remained Greek. I suppose if my book has an argument, it’s that the Greekness is still there in contemporary Naples, a surviving substratum.

Rail: So you’ve been now almost a dozen times to Naples?

Taylor: This book was the fruit of 11 stays.

Rail: At what point did these travels take root in you and begin to suggest a book?

Taylor: Naples is, as I say, nearly 3,000 years old. It occurred to me to wonder what shape New York or Chicago or Los Angeles will be in when they reach the great age that Naples has attained. Out of that came the determination to write this book. Naples was not extinguished, like Babylon or Tyre or Nineveh. Naples has had a continuous existence from archaic antiquity to now.

Rail: Other than Naples, what cites do you like best?

Taylor: The great walking cities: Rome, of course, London, Paris, the new Berlin, Barcelona, Sydney, New York, Chicago. And some of the gems of northern Italy: Bologna, Verona, Ferrara, Parma. I’ve had my share of happy days in Bologna, particularly. And a lot of time in Sydney. I’ve spent three winters (their summers) there. A most welcoming place.

Rail: Yet you haven’twritten a book about any of these places.

Taylor: Well, there’s no end of books on Rome, Florence, and Venice, but the Naples shelf is pretty short. I decided to add to it.  

Rail: What gives Naples its special character?

Taylor: It’s had a much more heterogeneous formation than the other cities of the peninsula. Naples has been conquered by Greeks, Samnites, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Angevins, Aragonese, Spaniards, Austrians, Bourbons, Savoyards. And now they live under yet another yoke—that of the Camorra.

Rail: Did you interview any actual gangsters?

Taylor: Are you crazy? I wouldn’t be here if I’d tried to. There’s a certain kind of research you do not want to do. My book is dedicated to the memory of a fearless young journalist who recklessly did undertake such investigations.

Rail: Into what exactly?

Taylor: He published, in Il Mattino, Naples’ leading newspaper,the truth about Camorra control of public construction contracts out on the Sorrentine peninsula. And they shot him to death in his car on September 23, 1985. Giancarlo Siani. Another fearless one is Roberto Saviano, who wrote a famous book called Gomorrah, and has a bounty on his head for telling the truth about these mobsters, who are very nasty people to cross. An international syndicate. There are gendarmes of Camorra interests right here in New York, you know, and in London and other capital cities of the world. The Chinese connection, as well, is something that Saviano writes about.

The old Sicilian mafia was provincial; they took their tremendous profits from the drug trade and were content with that and other old-fashioned criminal enterprises—prostitution, numbers, and the rest. The Camorra is much more sophisticated. They take their ill-gotten gains from the drug trade and invest in legitimate businesses—in toxic-waste disposal, for example. Because they’re so rich they can underbid all the legitimate people who are in toxic-waste disposal and put them out of business. Having monopolized the market, they take the toxic waste from Venice, Milan, and other northern cities, bring it down to Campania, and dispose of it unsafely.

Rail: Campania, I hear, has one of the highest cancer rates in the whole world.

Taylor: Pediatric cancer. It gives you some sense of the evil of this organization, their astounding contempt for life. Oh, it’s too gloomy to talk about, too depressing to realize that more than a third of the southern Italian economy is Camorra-run, more than a third of the southern GDP. You go into a shop or restaurant knowing that the owners are giving a portion of their profits for protection. Most of the restaurants and stores one is tempted into are controlled by the Camorra. There’s no escaping these criminals. The Camorristi take their cut everywhere.

Rail: How has the city changed over the course of your 16-year acquaintance with it?

Taylor: The mob has made life more arbitrary and more dangerous. But there’s something else I wanted to emphasize in my book, something more hopeful: I have never, anywhere, known such hospitality. There are no finer people, in my experience. I hate generalizing stereotypes, but this one I will sponsor. The people of Naples have an incomparable generosity and openness.  No one should imagine that the Camorra is representative of Naples. They are invaders and conquerors, that is all.

Rail: Tell me where you grew up.

Taylor: I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas.

Rail: And when did you come to New York City?

Taylor: I came first in 1964, to the legendary World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow. Then I returned, 10 years later, as a graduate student at Columbia.

Rail: And you lived in Manhattan?

Taylor: Yes. I graduated from Haverford in ’74 and came straight here to graduate school. And dragged that out, because I loved New York and didn’t want to leave. Then I went off to be an assistant professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis, where I stayed for some years. Longer than I should have. Then I came back east in 1998, cured of any wish to be a scholar.

Rail: Saint Louis is— —

Taylor: A city about which the less said the better.

Rail: You say you cured yourself there of wanting to be a scholar, yet Naples Declared is tremendously researched, and filled with curious learning. There’s a paragraph in the first half of the book where you kind of chart the history of our whole species. It begins:

As one moves back in historic time, the scale changes. A hundred years of the Bronze Age are like 10 of our own. In the reckoning of prehistoric time—Neolithic, Mesolithic, Upper Paleolithic—the scale changes dizzingly. One’s notion of the Bronze Age world of 1800 B.C., to be comprehensible, should perhaps be set against a few human-making milestones…

And you go on from there, up to historic times.

Taylor: It’s a paragraph I’m very proud of.  But when I turned in the manuscript, the dates were all off, they didn’t add up. My magnificent copy editor, Anna Jardine, sat me down like she was the Internal Revenue and said, “These numbers do not add up.” And she was absolutely right. So we reconceived it, reframed it, made the dates and epochs work. I’m not any kind of professional scholar—not a literary critic, historian, classicist, philosopher, or art historian. I took on this project simply as a writer, a writer without specialized equipment or expertise, to see what I had to say. But if not for the critics, historians, classicists, philosophers, and art historians, I couldn’t have done that, as my notes make clear. At every turn I found myself relying on people who know more than I ever will.

Rail: Tell me about the narrator of Naples Declared and how he tallies with the real you.

Taylor: You touch on something fundamental about memoir and autobiography: that the narrator is an invention, a stylization of the flesh-and-blood person who’s writing. I’m much more gregarious—but also much more settled and domestic—than you would know from reading the book. One needn’t tell everything in nonfiction—one can’t—and Naples contains reticences. What I was after was coherent shape, not total disclosure.

Rail: At one point you mention a kind of travel writer you most certainly do not admire—the Baudrillard of America, for instance, who never appears, in his oratorical abstruseness, to have left the desk.

Taylor: He didn’t need to. He knew everything about the United States before he got here. Simone de Beauvoir is just as lousy when she explains that white Americans can’t understand jazz, for example. (Only French intellectuals at the Café de Flore can understand jazz, I suppose.). There’s a certain style of intellectual arrogance that no one else can do like the French. So, yes, I was venting a little spleen when I attacked that trio of bad travel writers: Beauvoir, Baudrillard, and the dread Bernard-Henri Lévy. To read them on America is to learn how not to write.

Rail: How do you balance your love of erudition with that respect for the unsaid, a space the reader is welcomed to co-create with you?

Taylor: When I travel, I feel very young, about 19—the age you are when the wax is soft and the world is new-seeming and you take a strong impress from everything you see. If you’re a good traveler, you go on reverting to that youthfulness. If you’re a bad traveler, the kind who arrives with a thesis in hand, the inner clock does not reset to age 19.  In which case, too bad for you.

Coming to most any new place, I have an increased ability to walk, increased energy, increased appetitiveness of every kind. I find I can give short shrift to jetlag (about which too much fuss is made anyhow). The good traveler is always at the edge, not just of what he knows, but of what is knowable, and the very greatest travel writers exhibit this to a transcendent degree. They always do seem young when they’re on the scene of some new place. Cavafy describes this better than anyone in his sublime poem “Ithaca”: “ports seen for the first time,” etc., and every arrival but a halting place on the journey. That’s what I like about the genre: the inherent youthfulness of it.  Also, that it really is based on the accidental nature of your experience, what happens to happen to you on the road. Unless you’re making things up, which is not allowed.

Rail: At what point during your 11 visits did you decide to write this book?

Taylor: I actually started writing in 2006, immediately after my brother was killed in an accident. Two years later, our parents died within seven weeks of each other. Those were tough years: 2006, 2007, 2008. I was writing in self-defense. I published The Book of Getting Even, a novel, in 2008. In fact, the first copy reached me on the evening of my mother’s death.  Dark weeks, months, years. I’d drafted some of Naples by then, as I say. But I was also finishing the novel. Then the opportunity arose, in early 2007, to edit the letters of Saul Bellow. I took that on, too, so Naples got delayed. Altogether, these three books—the novel, the letters, and Naples—consumed eight years.

Rail: Are you a journal keeper when you travel?

Taylor: No, I’m not. What interests me much more is a book that comes out of long reflection after the fact.

Rail: Why long reflection rather than fleeting glances?

Taylor: Because what you heard, saw, felt, and learned gains meaning. You discover the right emphases, you delete what’s not germane, you find the form. I talked to scores of people in Naples who aren’t in the book, either because they were less interesting or because I couldn’t fit them to the pattern.

Earlier this year, in Paris, I paid a call on the great short-story writer Mavis Gallant, now 90. She has kept a journal from 1950, the year she arrived in France, to just the other day, and she says the whole point of a journal is to come home and write things down without the benefit of reflection. That is an essential kind of literature. Think of five very different masterpieces: Emerson’s journals, the Goncourts’ journals, Virginia Woolf’s diaries, Gide’s journals, Klemperer’s diaries. I suspect that what Gallant has produced is a fundamental historical document, as well as a work of literature, and in just the way of these others: precisely because it is based on immediate experience, each journal entry blind to the future.

Rail: Who are you personal favorites among travel writers?

I revere Patrick Leigh Fermor and Jan Morris. I admire Mary McCarthy’s books on Florence and Venice; in some ways, they were models for Naples, but I wanted to be more revealing of myself than she is, at least in those books.

Rail: And what about models outside of travel writing, ones you might have been reading at the time, or had subliminally in mind?

Taylor: I did sometimes ask myself, if John Updike had signed on for this assignment, how would he have dispatched it? I wanted a prose that’s musical like his, swift, eager to get to the point, eager to hover and then to move on. I love the lightly held romanticism that carried Updike from sentence to gorgeous sentence.

Rail: In your own prose you digress and ruminate, and while I feel informed by the place and its various timelines and personages, somehow it wonderfully resists becoming another formulated picture-postcard of a city.

Taylor: I like playfulness, not argument; suggestions, not doctrines; intimations, not conclusions—every venture a new beginning, as the poet says. Let’s drink to that.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2012

All Issues