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RICHARD EDER

At Peace With War : A man more comfortable in uniform than in his own skin : SEE NAPLES: A Memoir of Love, Peace and War in Italy, By Douglas Allanbrook (A Peter Davison Book/Houghton Mifflin: $22.95; 320 pp.)

October 01, 1995|RICHARD EDER

The "Peace and War" in the subtitle of this memoir by a man who fought in Italy during World War II, and studied music there afterward, is descriptive but with a twist. Douglas Allanbrook, a harpsichordist, composer, professor of philosophy and untranquil spirit, found his only real peace among his fellow soldiers in the 88th Division. The loves and pursuits of peacetime, on the other hand, were a painful warfare which he is still fighting.

There are memoirs that reconcile the past, and others that vent old wounds. Allanbrook's is largely of the second kind, not so much out of anger as out of the pain that his pleasures have seemed to inflict on him.

Allanbrook's story of two postwar years in Naples, of the musical career he was trying to develop, of a woman who was his lover and of another woman whom he married, contains freezing gaps and silences. By contrast, his account of a grimly fought year-and-a-half in the Italian campaign--three quarters of the original members of his regiment were killed or wounded--is passionate, detailed and oddly joyful.

Judging from his writing Allanbrook is not, as the French say, comfortable inside his skin. He was less uncomfortable in a uniform. The army, he remarks at one point, is a place where it is not only possible but necessary to blame all one's miseries on "they." What would be civilian paranoia is a blessed military sanity.

If the wartime portion of the memoir is more satisfying, the peacetime part, awkwardly joined, is frequently arresting. This is so despite, and in a way because of, its emotional oddity. Allanbrook, who had passed briefly through Naples on the way to the Monte Cassino front, arrived there a second time at the start of the 1950s. He had studied music on the G.I. Bill at Harvard where, he tells us, he was one of the two best composers of his generation. He won a scholarship to work with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and then a Fulbright to Italy to study harpsichord with a disciple of Wanda Landowska and to work on an opera.

It sounds like a golden start but there was a crack, not entirely explained. Harvard's Walter Piston had backed him but another Harvard professor let him know that there would be no job for him when he returned (why?). His advice was "to live in Europe on a private income"--not merely a rebuff to a young man without resources but, seemingly, a mockery.

His account of Naples in the early 1950s, still war-battered and desperately poor, has a beginnings of affection stiffened by judgment and unease. He is very good on the city's complex social machineries. For example, he gives a shrewd account of the terrible mistake he made when he reported to the police a theft from his lodging. Both the proprietor and the maid had familial networks among the authorities; Allanbrook became a temporary social pariah. He writes beautifully--not enough, perhaps--about music; particularly a description of a harpsichord lesson:

"A curve, a curve. You must never play in a straight line." It is Landowska we hear in the voice of M. Gerlin, her disciple, who painstakingly enters her fingerings into Allanbrook's scores. They were designed, the author writes, "not so much for facility (although often they did facilitate) as for proper articulation: discourse for the fingers."

The two years in Naples were marked by two love affairs: the first with Laura, a fellow student; the second with Candida, the woman he married. Allanbrook's account has a removed and chilly focus. With Laura, there was much fire, but he writes that it was mostly hers. To paraphrase another French expression: She kissed, he proffered his cheek.

"Did I love her?" he asks, after describing her sexual voracity. A bout of lovemaking in the waters off a beach is recalled not for its pleasure but for the sight of a priest watching them through binoculars. Allanbrook writes of his women as if he too were using binoculars.

Laura's passion, "framed in its Neapolitan setting, made me hold her at a certain aesthetic distance." When he drops her and goes off to Positano with Candida, his interest seems mainly aroused by the polymorphic erotic tangle in that Bohemian mini-Capri. Of Candida herself we learn little more than that she has beautiful white skin and a substantial body, earning her the nickname of "Grassaletta" (Fatty).

At no point does he write of her or of Laura as real people with human feelings. The memoir gives them no voice. Surely they were more than physical conveniences--his marriage to Candida lasted 18 years--but Allanbrook repellently presents them that way.

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