Falling Palace: A Romance of Naples by Dan Hofstadter

Falling Palace: A Romance of Naples

byDan Hofstadter

Paperback | December 5, 2006

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A portrait of the sun-drenched volcanic city from an American who has lost his heart to the place and to a beguiling Neapolitan woman.

In Falling Palace Dan Hofstadter brilliantly reveals Naples, from the dilapidated architectural beauty to the irrepressible theater of everyday life. We witness the centuries-old festivals that regularly crowd the city’s jumbled streets, and eavesdrop on conversations that continue deep into the night. We browse the countless curio shops where treasures mingle with kitsch, and meet the locals he befriends. In and out of these encounters slips Benedetta, the object of the author’s affections, at once inviting and unfathomable. Weaving the tale of an elusive love together with a vivid portrayal of a legendary metropolis, this is a startling evocation of a magical place.
Dan Hofstadter has written four books. His last, The Love Affair as a Work of Art, was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. He has written for most national magazines and was for eight years a regular contributor to The New Yorker.
Title:Falling Palace: A Romance of NaplesFormat:PaperbackProduct dimensions:272 pages, 8 X 5.33 X 0.57 inShipping dimensions:272 pages, 8 X 5.33 X 0.57 inPublished:December 5, 2006Publisher:Knopf Doubleday Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0375714286

ISBN - 13:9780375714283

Appropriate for ages: All ages

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Read from the Book

1Sidewalk-ologyThe Caffè Gambrinus, in Piazza Trieste e Trento, was the most convenient meeting place in Naples. Inside, politicians rehearsed the deals they would later strike in the city council chamber, the Sala dei Baroni; visitors and greenhorns from outlying towns staked out the sidewalk tables; and carabinieri gadded about in the streets, receiving their dole of female admiration. The café''s interior was lined by mirrors full of shifting lights and decorative panels by painters of the Belle Epoque. Two gigantic Venetian chandeliers romped overhead, as though inviting you to do the same on the floor.Benedetta with her unique blend of affection and defiance inevitably claimed a lot of my time; but once, when she had to study for one of her "soul-destroying" examinations, I decided to embark on a study of my own, of the people''s gestures in the Gambrinus. For several nights I took up a station at the bar and watched the patrons, and soon I began to recognize many of their gestures. I could say that I recognized them from Arthur Avenue, in the Bronx, or from Havemeyer Street, in Brooklyn, but really I recognized them from everywhere. I say this because so many gestures are actually universal, signals the body dictates and the mind passively ratifies. To signify money, for instance, we rub a thumb against a pointer; to show exasperation, we fold our arms and cock our heads. Other gestures, though not necessarily unknown to us Americans, seemed more intrinsically Mediterranean. These included nose-tapping, to signify the odor of something fishy; the pulling down of an eyelid, to suggest that one ought to keep one''s eyes open; and the upward jerking of the lower jaw to indicate refusal, like an animal jibbing at suspect food. Still others were typically Italian, such as the hands pressed prayerfully together and shaken at someone who was behaving unreasonably, or the sign for "later," an index finger twirling around in front of the speaker''s nose, like the hand of an imaginary clock. Some gestures enacted an entire social role, such as the hand held edgewise and palm up, rocking back and forth at shoulder height, pretending to threaten a blow. To understand this one, you had to remember that the classic Italian grandmother had two prime insignia, the matterello, or rolling pin, and the spianatoia, or pasta board. The hand held edgewise stood for the matterello.There was never a time when I conceived of Neapolitan mimicry--that rolling-pin gesture, for instance--quite apart from Benedetta. For all her chattiness, she was the archetypal enunciator of body language. Words came second for her: when she spoke, speech glossed gesture, rather than the reverse. Her body never stopped doing its wry little pantomime, her smile archly informing me that nobody''s words could be fully believed, not even hers. "They can''t fool me," she seemed to be saying. It never occurred to her that she might be fooling herself.In those days, prowling the historic Neapolitan bookshops--Treves, Colonnesi, Pironti--I found, at Colonnesi, I think, a book titled La mimica a Napoli, by a learned Neapolitan abbé named Antonio De Jorio. It made a big impression on me. Writing in the early nineteenth century, De Jorio had thoroughly researched his city''s gestural vocabulary, and he furnished amusing plates to support his contention, showing standard types of quarrels and domestic calamities. De Jorio was a French-style positivist, and his writing was as ponderous as today''s social science jargon, but he also championed the nifty idea that conversational mimicry had a grammar much like that of spoken language. He claimed that such mimicry had its nouns and verbs, its adjectives and expletives, even its metaphors. I made heavy weather of the abbé''s prose, but in time I came to enjoy him, responding to the sly humor lurking within his long-winded arguments. Sometimes I wished I could talk to him and put a few pointed questions to him. If you whistled and drew a feminine curve in the air, I wanted to ask him, was that synecdoche, "the part for the whole"?In the Gambrinus I saw De Jorio''s catalogue of gestures come alive, plus others he hadn''t dreamt of. Waiting at the gelati counter, some women moved their whole bodies in unconscious arcs, even pointing with a foot to illustrate a point. The difference between the patrons here and those in, say, an American café wasn''t so much the air pictures themselves as their frequency, their relentless articulation. Wrists, ankles, necks, and waists spiraled in a constant ballet, but the most interesting moves belonged to no known language. They were personal and abstract, like abstract art; and it occurred to me that such intimate gestures were as intrinsically mysterious as the movements of serpents or parrots. In Naples, I was learning, the body spoke the mind. Watch the hands, I would remind myself, as I listened to people talk; keep your eyes always, always on the hands.My very first test, you might have said, was Gigi in Al Portico, telling me a story in his bizarre lingo, a staccato mix of Italian, Neapolitan, and lots of white wine. Gigi was a theater person, a comic and a poet, and he was unlike anyone I knew in this town. I didn''t know anyone else who, flinging himself down opposite me with barely a salutation and no preamble, would launch into an anecdote, a harangue, a routine. Gigi had dyed-blond, porcupine-like hair, and always had a three-day beard. With his tommy-gun stutter and opaque, coffee-bean eyes, he flaunted a vaudeville version of shiftiness, and he habitually glanced around as if to jump up at any moment. Gigi talked mainly with his hands, which flew in all directions, like startled birds, but when he wanted to make a point he slowed down and molded the air, kneading it, cutting it like a baker. Drawing a distinction, Gigi gave you two loaves of air, pushed neatly apart with both hands.Benedetta had recently introduced me to Gigi, who seemed the answer to my difficulties with the Neapolitan dialect. I had originally studied in central Italy and was used to Italian with a Tuscan sound; when I started spending time in Naples, talking at a normal clip, people answered me at the same speed, but in a language I hardly recognized. Many expressions were new to me, while others were old friends in outlandish disguises. Most words ended in a faint generic vowel, a sort of primal "uh," or they simply dropped their final syllables. Down here those syllables seemed expendable, like the outer leaves of an artichoke.I hoped that Italian-without-words would offer a way out of my difficulties. Since the Neapolitans were renowned for the graphic precision of their gestures, I had set about studying the patrons in the Gambrinus, hoping to appropriate the gestural vocabulary, but naturally my study went beyond that café. I had resolved that whenever I encountered a dialect speaker, I''d follow his gestures as an aid to gathering his meaning.That was where Gigi came in. I thought he could unwittingly help me learn what I needed to know. Listening to his stories, watching his simultaneous manual elaboration, I''d gradually absorb a basic gestural lexicon. This evening, for instance, I was trying to follow him carefully without letting him see that I was copying his hand motions under the table.Gigi had the habit of resuming old conversations as if we had left off chatting the evening before, and sometimes he resumed conversations we had never begun. This time we had run into each other by accident. The weather that fall was so balmy that people couldn''t keep off the streets, and toward nightfall, when the traffic fumes had settled, many wandered idly about, performing the passeggiata or dropping into a café for an aperitif. Some restaurants were serving dinner outdoors, and this balmy evening, at about ten-thirty, I had followed my nose to a table at Al Portico, a place that served food on a terrace out back. At one of those tables Gigi had spotted me.That was where I usually met Gigi. The first time he ever saw me, he said, hearing that I was an American, "Do you know Joe Pesci?""Not personally," I answered. "I know who he is.""Well, I''m an actor, too," he said, forgetting all about Joe Pesci, "and I''m famous, too. My name is Gigi Attrice." He extended his hand as though responding to applause. Gigi is a male name in Italian, a diminuitive for Luigi. Gigi told me that he specialized in comic routines and could sometimes be seen on television. I''d never seen him on television, but Benedetta had--she told me later that she''d seen him trying to push a car uphill, with what success she couldn''t remember.This evening Gigi was telling me a long story about a friend of his who worked as a concierge. Like most men in the service trades in Naples, Gigi said, this fellow had to hustle to make ends meet. The story illustrated the arte di arrangiarsi, the technique of occupational improvisation, but it was meant no less to say something about Gigi himself.As Gigi talked his hands went faster and faster, but soon I lost track of the sign language, because I got drawn into the tale. The concierge''s name was Abinotto, Gigi said, and his building had some unusual tenants. Among them were a transvestite, a secretive old widower, and a smuggler of contraband cigarettes. There were also three illegal Arab immigrants and

Editorial Reviews

“Beautiful . . . Outstanding . . . Hofstadter’s book–free of knowingness, charged with experience–is written with the ease of affection and discovery . . . It is a story of love–for an arcane city and for a girl, Benedetta, who embodies the Neapolitan enigma. The city prevails on every page . . . Hofstadter has penetrated the extended labyrinth, and his account of his explorations, literally breathtaking, is lyrical in the Neapolitan tradition.”–Shirley Hazzard, The New York Times Book Review“Lovely . . . Deeply felt . . . Those who know Naples and those who don’t will enjoy Hofstadter’s delicious descriptions of that unusual metropolis. [A] deft writer . . . He makes these people real and sympathetic to us . . . [He] succeeds wonderfully in conveying the city’s mix of poverty and splendor . . . It’s curiosity about Benedetta that will keep most readers turning these pages, but in the end, it’s Hofstadter’s feel for her city that satisfies most deeply.”–Marjorie Kehe, Christian Science Monitor“Secretive, shadowy and hot: what a lover Naples makes. Hofstadter gives a good sense of its spectral exuberance . . . Like Annie Hall, this is a tale of a fleeting romance looked back upon many years later . . . with the city as much a character, and object of his affections, as the woman.”–Matt Weiland, Newsday“Chilometri away from those sun-kissed, espresso-soaked travelogues . . . Hofstadter paints a warts-and-all portrait of both Benedetta and Naples, and the two are all the more alluring for their imperfections.”–Melissa Rose Bernardo, Entertainment Weekly