They lost their hearts ... to the city
A boy fell in love with Hong Kong, and a man with Naples. They want us to get acquainted, too.
Most people fall in love with other people, but then there are those who experience their grandest passion for a city. Two recently published memoirs tell the tales of men who lost their hearts in just such ways. The more deeply felt of the two is Falling Palace: A Romance of Naples, by Dan Hofstadter. Here we are plunged into the feelings a young writer from New York has developed, both for Naples and for a particular Neapolitan woman. We never learn much about the circumstances that led Hofstadter to Naples, although it's vaguely understood that he did some writing there. The focus is his relationship with Naples, intertwined with his feelings for a young art history student named Benedetta - a woman whose hair has the scent of coffee.
Both those who know Naples and those who don't will enjoy Hofstadter's delicious descriptions of that unusual metropolis. He is a deft writer who avoids simply leaning on clichés even as he acknowledges that, yes, sometimes Naples and its inhabitants are exactly the clichés we imagine them to be.
There are some very lovely passages (the time Hofstadter follows a woman he imagines to be Benedetta into a courtyard overgrown with lemon and orange trees and hears only masonry being chipped and schoolchildren calling in an unseen schoolyard; the moment he glimpses two workmen sharing lunch and a card game sitting knee-to-knee and thinks that he has never known such total companionship), and there are also some funny ones (the time an enthusiastic Neapolitan friend shows him the inflatable crèche and manger scenes he believes will make him rich abroad).
He describes a psychic with a radio show beloved in the city, a local actor with a stutter, and two eager brothers who have devoted their lives to mapping out the secret passages underneath Naples, and he makes these people real and sympathetic to us - and no more pitiful than any other human beings whose reach seems likely to exceed their grasp.
But the one person who never fully comes alive is Benedetta. Even her parents and sassy younger sister - bit players that they are - seem more accessible. The writer's great love remains ever in the shadows. But then, perhaps that's exactly the point.
The book is divided into two parts, a period of some months when Hofstadter lived in Naples, and then a second period three years later when he returns for a visit and learns one of Benedetta's secrets.
It's a confusion foreshadowed by an earlier incident when Hofstadter attempts to rent an apartment. All seems to be proceeding well, until the would-be landlady becomes oddly emotional at his request for his own copy of the lease. Suddenly, the deal is off.
It's a comic yet captivating scene. Hofstadter is forced to accept that he must move on without ever really understanding what happened. It's a moment that seems to sum up his entire Neapolitan experience.
There's an ache that runs through this book - a man aches for a girl and a city that he knows can never really be his. And the reader aches for Naples itself. Hofstadter refers to it as "that beautiful and wounded city" and succeeds wonderfully in conveying its mix of poverty and splendor ("the crowds of the unemployed milling around in front of cinquecento palaces").
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.
Golden Boy: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood, by Martin Booth, tells us what it was like for a young British boy to spend three formative years living in Hong Kong.
Booth's father, a British naval clerk, was posted there in 1952 and suddenly 7-year-old Martin found himself living in a hotel called the Fourseas and being driven to school in a rickshaw. The adventurous lad quickly learned Cantonese, slang and all, and - thanks to a mother who relished a few adventures of her own - was allowed to roam freely.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about this book (which was published posthumously) is the fact that Martin Booth grew up to write it. His blond hair fascinated the Chinese - who believed that touching his head would bring good luck - and so he was allowed access to all manner of venues, including such exotic sites as an opium den, a mafiosi meeting room, and a brothel.
He experienced typhoons, trekked to a Buddhist monastery, visited a leper colony, and met and chatted with American GIs, refugees from Communist China, and opium addicts.
Meanwhile, his parents' marriage was deteriorating as his mother - like her young son - fell ever more deeply in love with her exotic new home even as her husband clung more and more stubbornly to his Britishness.
Booth does a good job of telling his story from a young boy's point of view and paints a remarkably detailed canvas from his boyhood memories.
But despite the scope of his adventures, the book is confined to the thoughts and emotions of a boy, giving it a somewhat small, contained feeling. As readers we learn that knowledge of and love for things Chinese shaped the rest of Booth's life, but we don't get to experience any of that adult passion for his adopted city.
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.