Missing in almost all war fiction, from the time of Gilgamesh (2800 BCE) on, is the recognition that war takes place not only at the front but in fields, villages and cities, that others than soldiers are involved, that their experience, without the illusion that there are plans and purposes or possible rewards of booty and fame, may be more terrifying than that for the men with guns.
If non-fighters appear, say in The Downfall/La Debacle by Emile Zola (1892), All Quiet On the Western Front/Im Westen nichts Neuesby by Remarque (1928) or From Here to Eternity by James Jones (1951,) they are there as observed by soldiers, providing services, shelter, food, wine, sex. The point of view is always that of the soldiers, whether the writer was a soldier or not. The few exceptions are stories written by women. These too, however, are written about those in or near an army. Vera Brittain’s Testament to Youth, and Helen Eva Smith’s Not So Quiet , both powerful stories, are about nurses in combat conditions. Those not part of the fighting forces are, for the most part, invisible.
It is very rare to find a story, especially one written by a participant, soldier, sailor, flyer, nurse, doctor, which sees these people: the refugees, the prisoners of war, the civilians “employed” by the occupying armies. John Horne Burns in his 1947 The Gallery, is not only interested in these civilians, he, and some of his characters, genuinely like them. There is a dignity and love in the “enemy” they find missing from Americans, whether back home or in the occupying forces.
“Sometimes, said Michael Patrick, wiping his mouth with an olive drab handkerchief, I like you Eyeties better than I do my own. There’s something … good … and gentle in most of you.”
One wee problem is that although The Gallery is fiction, created from Burns’ own life at war to be sure, as both a private and later as a second lieutenant, it is not really a novel. It is, like the title and the location of the novel, a gallery. The Galleria Umberto in Naples Italy, August, 1944, which is, he tells us “… a cross between a railroad station and a church.” Although half the book takes place in North Africa –Oran and Algeria– the Galleria stands as an apt metaphor. In the several locations chapters alternate between nine Portraits and eight Promenades connected by time, location and narrator, but otherwise unlinked by plot or person.The Portraits are third person omniscient short fiction: three of women, two of whom are Italian, and six of US military men, two enlisted, three junior officers and one of two mid-rank chaplains, Protestant and Catholic. The Promenades, five in North Africa and three in Naples are shorter than the Portraits, 8-10 pages long, and are told by a first person, I, John, narrator. Each Promenade begins with “I remember.”
~I remember the smell of the air in Casablanca … the look of the old Aryab vendor … what my mother had taught me … that my heart broke in Naples.~
“I remember the farmers out in Caserta standing in their fields and crying over the drought. In 1944 Italy needed food. But the war had dried up even the heavens.”
The lack of a narrative through-line is at first disappointing; we are not pulled by a plot or a main character we come to like. Nearing the end, however, the cumulative effect of our own visual and aural immersion into this gallery of people, in their flesh and their dreams, makes a powerful impression. Uniquely in war-fiction we feel some sense of war other than the front and the battle lines. There is not a single battle scene in the book but war has certainly come and left its mark
In the first person “Promenades” and, especially in the military men’s, “Portraits,” Horne brings thoughtful self-reflection not often appearing in war novels. Not only are the Italians seen with a generous fullness, Americans become revealed to themselves in ways not suspected before embarkation.
During a leisurely afternoon at a bar in Oran, a parachute captain (possibly an alcohol delusion of the portrayed Hal) says he doesn’t like Americans.
“Oh, they’ve got quite and ingenious system of government, I grant you. But none of them gives a damn about it except when it gets them into a war…. They’ve got less maturity or individuality than any other people in the world. … This war is simply the largest mass murder in history. Theirs is the only country that has enough food and gasoline and raw materials. So they’re expanding like mad to wipe out the others in the world who’d like a cut of their riches.”
“Sounds like treason,” says Hal. “Truth is always treasonous,” replies the captain. After the “conversation” Hall decides it’s time to go on the wagon, disturbed either by the “truth” he has heard, or the presence of such a bar companion.
Later, sobered up and in the office at headquarters, he,
“…cocked a critical eye at [his friends] to see whether possibly some new insight or mercy had been born in them as a result of being overseas and brooding on the war. They cursed the Ayrabs and said that the French were playing us for all they could get. All their meannesses, latent in the States, had only been crystallized by a year Africa “
The early thrill of going to war, gets to several of the men, as it does in almost all war stories, British, French, German, Japanese.
“I’d climbed the gangplank with some of that feeling of adventure with which all soldiers go overseas. All the pacifist propaganda of the twenties and thirties couldn’t quite smother the dramatic mood of well-here-we-go-again-off-to-the wars.”
“To Hal it seemed as though America had grown sharp and young again after the years of 1929-1939. They all thought of themselves as part of an adventure, so for the first time in a decade they were united, proud, and rather gay.”
Of course, once the initial sense of adventure wears off, more thoughts rise.
“I remember that at Casablanca it dawned on me that maybe I’d come overseas to die.”
In Naples, the fighting has shifted further to the north and not a few officers find the desks and paperwork of the census detail, to be necessary and vital work. When a brigadier general arrives to transfer some of them to the fighting front, they arrange to have all the incoming and outgoing mail for several weeks dumped on their desks, eyes never turning up from the letters, black markers in hand.
“Oh my God! the general said softly. Don’t envy those poor fellows. Read read read….is this a normal day for them major?”
“Quite normal sir…. ” The general left “muttering apologetically that the major did indeed need a larger staff.”
While almost all western-authored war fiction, from WWI on, has enlisted ranks take swipes at the incompetence of the high command, Burns lets others in on it, too.
Louella, a middle-aged American woman who volunteers for Red Cross work in Naples, had begun doing what she could in Cambridge, Massachusetts, inviting officers over for meals;
“… now she was entertaining rather smug older officers with big rear ends. They were forever talking about how they’d give their eyeteeth to get overseas, but they never seemed to go. … she decided they were cowards … having the time of their lives in the foxholes of the 1st Service Command, drawing per-diem, eating C-rations at Copley Plaza. And all the while they cursed draft dodgers and strikers and criticized the slow conduct of the war in North Africa.”
In the first Promenade, I/John, in another of his striking phrases, makes the earliest comment I have come across about the contradictions of courage, one recently repeated in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, that men are brave because of fear of what others will think of them if they are not.
“Those who brood on death in wartime find that every pattern of life shrivels up. Decency becomes simply a window-shade game to fool the neighbors, honor a tremolo stop on a Hammond organ, and courage simply your last hypocrisy with yourself—a keeping up with the Jonses, even in the foxhole.”
The war had savaged the city. Normal peace-time food markets were disrupted or non-existent. Although the Allies distributed some rationed food to the population it was nowhere near enough. There was wide and significant starvation. Black markets, corruption and prostitution grew quickly in such soil.
“I remember too that an honest American in August, 1944, was almost as hard to find as a Neapolitan who owned up to having been a Fascist. I don’t know why, but most Americans had a blanket hatred of all Italians. They figured it this way: These Ginsoes have made war on us; so it doesn’t matter what we do to them, boost their prices, shatter their economy, and shack up with their women …
“We were nice enough guys in our country, most of us; but when we got overseas, we couldn’t resist the temptation to turn a dollar or two at the expense of people who were already down … with our Hollywood ethics and our radio network reasoning we didn’t take the trouble to think out the fact that the war was supposed to be against fascism–not against every man, woman and child in Italy…
The GIs were forbidden to hand out left-overs to the hungry kids, so the scraps were dumped into bins, where the kids then scrounged.
“When I watched the bitten steaks, the nibbled lettuce, the half-eaten bread go sliding into the swill cans in a spectrum of waste and bad planning, I realized at last the problem of the modern world, simple yet huge. I saw then what was behind the war.”
Burns writes often of sex. Though not noted by reviewers at the time, there are significant signals of homosexual longing: men with “meaty thighs” leaning against a railing; soldiers in tight shorts in a bar; not so subtle invitations from fellow soldiers to those who have caught “the syph” from local women. One Portrait that departs most radically from standard war stories is that of Momma, who after her home is shattered in a bombing, decides to open a bar, furnished with whatever she can find in the rubble. Everyone is welcomed. “She loved the world and the world returned her love in her bar in the Galleria Umberto.”
“Her soldiers were gentle… [they] had an awareness of having been born alone and sequestered by some deep difference from other men. For this she loved them. And Momma knew something of the four freedoms the Allies were forever preaching. She believed that a minority should be let alone….
[she] tried to spell out for herself some theory of good and evil, but the older she got and the more she saw, the less clear cut the boundaries became to her. She could only conclude that the boys who drank at her bar were exceptional human beings. The masculine and the feminine weren’t so nicely divided in Momma’s mind as they are to a biologist. They overlapped and blurred in life. This trait was what kept Momma’s bar from being black and white. If everything were so clear cut, there’d be nothing to learn after the age of six and arithmetic.”
And of course, there is plenty of more traditional war-time sex.
“On these [worn out leather chairs] the GI’s lolled. Past their relaxed bodies flitted the corps of mademoiselles, about fifty in number. They had union hours and union prices. The rules of courtship weren’t strictly observed … the girls moved from one cluster to the next, making their sales talk….
Burns, being a sensitive soul, finds the pay, or trade food, for sex not what moves him.
” [Some of us] came to look upon this Having Sex, this ejaculation without tenderness as the orgasm of a frigidaire. There was no place for it in the scheme of human love. It wasn’t so much bestial as meaningless. For Having Sex meant that the two bodies involved never really knew each other. They just rolled around and arose strangers, each loathing the other.”
But he, the I/John narrator, does find what can only be found when not looking for it:
“…passion …carried us slowly, and steadily up to that place where there is understanding. Higher and higher. We didn’t say much, only one another’s names in a rising intensity of pain and delight, and for one instant we were in a place where there was no difference between us. We melted into all those who’ve ever loved and lived at all. But then the hand that had buoyed us up to those places slowly set us down again on earth. For no one can live very long up there.”
“And I remember that something in the air of Naples or in the Neapolitans brought me and other Americans back to the strength of human love. In the middle of a war it’s easy to forget how to love, either another’s body, or just humanity. War throws out of kilter that part of us which delights in a kiss, the feel of skin, a smile. Our emphasis falls on sheer physical release taken hurriedly and brutally.”
The Portrait that may stick (pun intended) with the reader the longest is “Queen Penicillin:” one week in an army containment camp with penicillin shots — not intended to be gentle– every three hours. It has been included in several collections of short stories, such as The Best Short Stories of World War II, An American Anthology (1957), and American Men at Arms (1964).
Throughout, Burns is such a master of the unexpected image or turn of phrase, we have to stop to admire.
“They didn’t have the finished peace of ordinary dead, embalmed in funeral homes. There was a rigidity and bitterness about them as though a cop had surprised them in the orgasm of life.”
“There are few Aryab girls of sharp hurt beauty, flowers manured in a rich and poignant soil…
“How tiny we all were, like fleas dressed up for a pageant.”
“I know my army officers pretty well, having observed them for years from the perspective of a pebble looking up and squinting at the white bellies of the fish nosing above it.”
He is good with language because he loves it in its natural state. Here he is on that he is beginning to learn.
“Italian is a language as natural as the human breath. Italian is a feminine and flowing tongue in which the endings fill up the pauses, covering those gaps and gaucheries of conversation that embarrass Americans and British. It’s a language whose inertia has remained on the plus side. It keeps in motion with its own inherent drive. The Italians are never silent with one another. It isn’t necessary even to think in this lovely language, for your breath comes and goes anyhow and you might as well just put it to use. …. If you’ve got nothing to say, ehh and senz’altro and per forza and per questo are always tumbling from your lips to prevent the flow from getting static.”
The Saturday Review called The Gallery the best novel of the year. John Dos Passos wrote,
“It is written with a reality of detail and a human breadth and passion of understanding that is tonic, healthgiving. If Americans can still write in this sort of exultation of pity and disgust of the foul spots in the last few years of our history, then perhaps there is still hope that we can recover our manhood as a nation and our sense of purpose in the world.
Gore Vidal and Herbert Mitgang praised the novel. Ernest Hemingway called Burns a new literary power, and he might have been. He returned to Italy after the war and wrote two more novels, Lucifer with a Book (1949,)
a satirical representation of life at a boarding school, and A Cry of Children
(1952), “a merciless novel” of “young love in the bohemian fringe-world”. He accepted, if he hadn’t while in uniform, his sexual nature and tried to find recognition and friendship. The still suppressed nature of life with same-sex companions, and the temptations of alcohol finally took their toll. He died on a sailing trip of a cerebral hemorrhage, in August, 1953, nine years after August, 1944 in which The Gallery found its birthplace.
Another novel about Naples during occupation, by the wildly gifted writer, Curzio Malaparte, an Italian, with Fascist connections, is The Skin / La Pele. Like The Gallery, it has been reissued by New York Review Books. (My review here.)
The talented British writer, Norman Lewis, highly thought of by Graham Green, wrote a memoir of his time in Naples during occupation: Naples ’44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy
Elena Ferrante’s much acclaimed My Brilliant Friend, is also in Naples, but in the mid 1950s sometime after the occupation and the severe privations, and presence of thousands of troops
Francesco Rosi’s film, Hands Over the City, set in the post war ruins of Naples, is worth seeing.