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Naples '44: An Intelligence Officer in the Italian Labyrinth (1978)

by Norman Lewis

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4921643,991 (4.02)13
The basis for the powerful documentary narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch, Lewis's memoir of the Italian city after Nazi occupation is a "masterpiece" (Will Self).   "Vivid, lucid, elegant, often funny," Naples '44 is the starkly human account of the true cost of war as seen through the eyes of a young, untested man who would never again look at his world the same way (The New York Times Book Review).   With his gift for linguistics, Norman Lewis was assigned to the British Intelligence Corps' Field Security Service, tasked with reforming civil services, dealing with local leaders, and keeping the peace in places World War II had devastated.   After a near-disastrous Allied landing at Salerno, Italy, Lewis was stationed in the newly liberated city of Naples. But bringing the city back to life was unlike anything he had been prepared for. Much of the populace was far from grateful, stealing anything they could, not only from each other but also from those sent to help them. Local vendettas and endless feuds made discerning friend from Nazi collaborator practically impossible, and turned attempts at meting out justice into a farce. And as the deprivations grew ever harsher, a proud and vibrant people were forced to survive on a diet of prostitution, corruption, and a desperate belief in miracles, cures, and saviors.   But even through the darkness and chaos, Lewis evokes the essential dignity of the Neapolitan people, their traditions of civility, courage, and generosity of spirit, and the indefatigable pride that kept them fighting for life during the greatest calamity in human history.   Praised by Graham Greene as "one of the best writers . . . of our century," Norman Lewis presents a portrait of Naples that is a "lyrical, ironic and detached account of the tempestuous, byzantine and opaque city in the aftermath of war" (Will Self). His Naples '44 "reads like prose . . . sings like poetry" (The Plain Dealer).  … (more)
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English (15)  French (1)  All languages (16)
Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
This is an interesting account written by Norman Lewis, a former British Intelligence officer, of the several months that he spent in southern Italy in the immediate aftermath of the Allied invasion. Lewis has a good eye for the dissonant and the dramatic, the small details that tell a bigger story: dead cattle lying, their rigid legs in the air, in front of Classical temples; weeping blind orphan girls, drawn into a restaurant by hunger, and ignored by the diners all around them.

Yet I’m quite sure that there are times when Lewis was exaggerating or inventing in the interests of greater drama. Were there villages around Naples—“medieval” places where the inhabitants had “Neolithic faces”—where women were still forced to submit to droit de seigneur, as the author claims? Well, no: droit de seigneur is a myth with no basis in historical fact. And while Lewis does at times express empathy towards the women and girls who were sexually assaulted or forced into sex work because of the war, there’s an “oh she was lying about it being rape” story and at least one moment when he says that peasant women are just used to rape, which is such absolute bullshit. I never warmed to Lewis as a result, and while this had interest for me as a historical piece, it didn’t grab me in the way it seems to have done for others. ( )
  siriaeve | Apr 12, 2022 |
Of special interest to me for its descriptions of Canadian soldiers in the days after the Italian campaign.
  wbell539 | Dec 22, 2021 |
The best book about Italian culture I’ve ever read. Combine that with a book dealing with the conclusion of WWII, and that makes for an absolute winner. Finished: 24.04.2021. ( )
  untraveller | May 8, 2021 |
fantastic, incredible, harrowing. ( )
  mjhunt | Jan 22, 2021 |
Naples '44 by Norman Lewis is his personal account of his experience in the British Intelligence Corps during WWII. Lewis was attached to an American unit in Naples after serving in North Africa. He and his colleagues were given little supervision and, for the most part, left to do their own tasks. He went on to write other books about French Indochina, Indonesia, India, Brazil and other countries. Lewis has also written fifteen novels.

There are at least a thousand books on World War II and plenty on the war in Italy. What makes this book different than most is that is a soldier's journal. Taking that a step farther, it is a soldier who had a great deal of freedom in Italy and worked in the intelligence field. It is not a journal about battles; it is more a journal about interaction with the people of Naples. Freed of Mussolini, but still under the Germans, then Allied occupation the people suffered. A prisoner at court was asked if it meant anything that the Allies freed him and his people from fascism. The reply through the interpreter came back “ With respect, your honour, he says Americans or Germans, it's all the same to him. We've been screwed by both of them.” The prisoner was released, because the judge thought he was insane. How could anyone in their right mind compare American liberators to fascists?

Food shortages are described. Fish served in restaurants often had a head of a desirable fish attached to the body of undesirable fish to ensure its sale. Another restaurant served “veal”, but when pressed the waiter admitted it was horse meat. Rabbit that was sold at the market had the head attached to ensure the customer that he or she was not buying cat. Shortages of the most basic food stuff, like olive oil, created a thriving black market.

A variety of dealings with the local population are covered. Initially cutting communications lines was thought to be enemy or sympathizer attacks against the allies. It turned out that they lines were being cut for the copper to sell on the black market. The people taking the copper thought nothing of it. They claimed it was German wire they were taking, not the Allies' wire. Everything found its way to the black market from sugar to automobile tires, to blankets used to make clothing.

Lewis writes a personal look into a “liberated” Italy. He brings a part of war that many people do not know or think about. It is a common misconception that liberating a country brings peace and stability. It usually brings suffering and corruption/crime long before it brings meaningful change. Naples '44 not only tells of war, but more importantly shows human nature in wartime. The behavior of both the Allies and the people of Naples are reported. Lewis does an outstanding job of documenting his experiences in Naples and provides a very worthwhile read. Recommended to those interested in WWII or the human experience in war and “liberation.”
( )
  evil_cyclist | Mar 16, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
“Naples is extraordinary in every way,” says Lewis. It has always been a theater, and in 1944 it combined Grand Guignol with Fellini (we hear of “the famous midget gynaecologist Professore Dottore Salerno”). Its thieves and black-marketeers exhibited an audacity perhaps unequaled until Vietnam...

Lewis dwells also on the starvation, the quasi-medieval religious credulity, the epidemics, the madness and deformities, the fraud and bribery and flagrant injustice, the syphilis and child prostitution, the open banditry, the wholesale rape, and the cruelty. A boys’ pastime was to ignite gasoline-soaked rags tied to bats and release them prettily into the night sky; a grave adult Neapolitan “was full of praise for the ingenuity with which they made their own small pleasures.”
added by SnootyBaronet | editNew Republic, Paul Fussell (Mar 3, 1979)
 
On 19 March 1944 Vesuvius erupted, "the most majestic and terrible sight I have ever seen, or ever expect to see", Lewis wrote. Overhead rose a cloud in the form of Pliny's famous pine-tree, apparently quite solid. While steadily growing larger, it remained entirely immobile. That still shape, hanging above the city, was full of menace. Recently, when I was writing my book Vesuvius: The Most Famous Volcano in the World (Profile, £15.99), I reread Naples '44. Of perhaps a dozen resounding accounts of the volcano as it erupted down the centuries, no one has bettered Lewis's description...

Early-21st-century leaders are frequently seduced by credible tribal warlords; their mid-20th-century counterparts seemed unable (or unwilling) to tell a gangster king from a social democrat. For all that, Lewis wrote about the values, ingenuity and extraordinary spirit in many of the individuals he encountered. Tragically, behind them the stage for modern Italy was being set on shifting moral sands guided by little more than ignorance, naivety and astonishing misjudgement. Lewis, a figure in the shadows, was the most profound witness to that process.
added by SnootyBaronet | editThe Guardian, Gillian Darley
 
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For All My Old Friends of Naples. Especially for Sergio Viggiani
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Volunteers from the armed forces in World War II found to possess linguistic qualifications, but who had attended either a redbrick university, or no university at all, were frequently directed into the Intelligence Corps.
Quotations
All my new friends have been issued with special officer's-type identity documents [...] with the authorization to be in any place, at any time, and in any dress.
The shape of the eruption that obliterated Pompeii reminded Pliny of a pine tree, and he probably stood here at Posillipo across the bay, where I was standing now and where Nelson and Emma Hamilton stood to view the eruption of their day, and the shape was indeed like that of a many-branching tree. What took one by surprise about Pliny’s pine was that it was absolutely motionless, not quite painted - because it was three-dimensional - but moulded on the sky; an utterly still, and utterly menacing shape. This pine, too, trailed uncharacteristically a little tropical liana of heavy ash, which fell earthwards here and there from its branches in imperceptible motion.
She asked me to mention to him in as tactful a way as possible that comment had been caused among her neighbours because he never called on her during the day. Conjugal visits at midday are de rigueur in Naples. This I explained, and Frazer promised to do better.
I was reminded by this display of audacity and resourcefulness of the first days of our arrival in Naples, and my amazement at the spectacle of a damaged tank abandoned at the Porta Capuana, which, although one never saw a finger laid on it, shrank away day by day, as if its armour-plating had been made of ice, until nothing whatever remained.
I reminded him that the Germans shot wire-cutters on the spot. ‘Of course they did,’ he agreed. ‘Thank God, you’re a civilised and humanitarian people, and you liberated us from those barbarians. You’ve taught us what democratic justice is all about and we can’t thank you enough.’ Not a muscle moved in his face to show that he was laughing at me.
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The basis for the powerful documentary narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch, Lewis's memoir of the Italian city after Nazi occupation is a "masterpiece" (Will Self).   "Vivid, lucid, elegant, often funny," Naples '44 is the starkly human account of the true cost of war as seen through the eyes of a young, untested man who would never again look at his world the same way (The New York Times Book Review).   With his gift for linguistics, Norman Lewis was assigned to the British Intelligence Corps' Field Security Service, tasked with reforming civil services, dealing with local leaders, and keeping the peace in places World War II had devastated.   After a near-disastrous Allied landing at Salerno, Italy, Lewis was stationed in the newly liberated city of Naples. But bringing the city back to life was unlike anything he had been prepared for. Much of the populace was far from grateful, stealing anything they could, not only from each other but also from those sent to help them. Local vendettas and endless feuds made discerning friend from Nazi collaborator practically impossible, and turned attempts at meting out justice into a farce. And as the deprivations grew ever harsher, a proud and vibrant people were forced to survive on a diet of prostitution, corruption, and a desperate belief in miracles, cures, and saviors.   But even through the darkness and chaos, Lewis evokes the essential dignity of the Neapolitan people, their traditions of civility, courage, and generosity of spirit, and the indefatigable pride that kept them fighting for life during the greatest calamity in human history.   Praised by Graham Greene as "one of the best writers . . . of our century," Norman Lewis presents a portrait of Naples that is a "lyrical, ironic and detached account of the tempestuous, byzantine and opaque city in the aftermath of war" (Will Self). His Naples '44 "reads like prose . . . sings like poetry" (The Plain Dealer).  

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