Return to Naples. The Power of Family, History and Memory
Robert Zweig has written a delightful and charming book that manages to both illustrate and overcome cultural differences.
Zweig’s father was a German Jew who somehow managed to survive internment in the Auschwitz extermination camp and the Death March to Dachau; his mother was born into a Jewish family in Naples. The two met when the father was in Naples searching for a lost brother. The two fell in love, married in July 1946 and the elder Zweig took his Italian bride to America. But during the 1960s, as Robert was growing up as a young boy, he and his family would return to Naples every summer to visit his mother’s extended family. By the time he was ten, in 1965, Zweig had already spent ten summers in Naples. His was a family where “the past is a subtle, yet tangible presence,” emerging “in whispers, hovering overhead like the vapors of a cloud.”
Here is a work that treats of two aspects of modern Italian culture not familiar through the tourist industry image of Italy: Jewish culture in Naples and the 1960s divorced from the “dolce vita” stereotype.
Of particular note is the emphasis on Neapolitan daily life – both private and public – as a performance. Indeed, we come to recognize the ambiguous and often murky delineation between public and private. Zweig’s writing captures his child-like wonder at a place so different from his home in the Bronx of the 1960s and 1970s. This is not a “coming-of-age” memoir but rather a lovingly-drawn remembrance, tinged with a bit of nostalgia, for a world now lost.
There are beautifully rendered episodes at the family table, on the street and especially the purchase of a book which assumes almost mythical dimensions in the mind of the young boy. There are light-hearted and humorous scenes such as the search for Virgil’s tomb, which reveal something of the Neapolitan character. The image of America – an America of John F. Kennedy, big cars and prosperity – as seen through the eyes of the Neapolitans is something that readers of a certain age will remember wistfully. Readers will laugh out loud (as I did) at the cross-cultural miscommunication, misconceptions but common humanity of an episode that ends with the image of the Madonna and Child printed on Zweig’s Bar Mitzvah invitation.
Zweig has mastered the Neapolitan art of the aphorism: “Nothing in Naples is bad, even for children, as long as it is diluted enough (p. 8); in Naples, “complaining, it seems, was a moral imperative”; at the local market, “aesthetic appeal was paramount in every display.” And there is wisdom that comes only from experience and the passage of time:
The beating of a young boy’s heart has a different calling than that of a seasoned man. Only as an adult could I grasp the sense of satisfaction and contentment that comes when desire can no longer be satiated by illusions of progress. Rather, the day comes when solitude and the cessation of activity are the true requisites for satisfaction.
Eventually the childhood trips to Naples came to an end; but in 2004, Zweig returned, this time with his wife and daughter. This time, the people and places of his childhood were mere ghosts, haunting the cityscape. Zweig found himself “mining a dark, unknown terrain that had become an important part of who I was.”
Return to Naples is not just a delightful way to pass a few hours in the company of a good storyteller: it is also an insightful memoir about the importance and power of family, history and memory.
* Stanislao G. Pugliese is professor of history at Hofstra University and the author of the forthcoming biography Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone.
Return to Naples: My Italian Bar Mitzvah and Other Discoveries by Robert Zweig, Barricade Books, 2008, 222 pp. $23.95.