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Mount Vesuvius douglas allanbrook

See Naples: A Memoir of Love, Peace, and War in Italy, by Douglas Allanbrook, A Peter Davison Book, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York and Boston, 1995, 269 pp.

Douglas Allanbrook came to St. John’s, Annapolis in 1952, in his early thirties. It was here that his two sons were born, Timothy and John, to whom this memoir is dedicated. Here he has been teaching for four and a half decades, here he composed his musical oeuvre, and here too, seemingly out of the blue, he wrote an accomplished autobiographical book. In it he reflects on the difference between composing music and recollecting a life:

It is a consolation that in music there are no people, no facts, no places, nor is there, in any comprehensible way, any meaning, while in our own stories we are stuck with intractable memories which only the boldest fiction can unite into a whole. When a piece of music is composed, it is complete, all wrapped in a tight cocoon, awaiting its release into the sunlight of performance. For the listener it is a portable memory that can be run through again and again, a vicarious and safe experience, so utterly different from the course of a life, which seems hardly a whole, composed as it is of pathos and shameful bits, of brief joys played out against the backdrop of wars and politics.(p. 41)

It was at this college, then, that the composition, the cocooning, not of his life but of a decade of his life, was accomplished and here that this one decade was fitted into the whole and made “a portable memory” for the reader.

This place, the college, is mentioned only twice in passing as an obscure little safe-harbor whose life, looked at from a distance, is bizarre and out of the way: “When work and marriages and children begin, the lights dim, the landscape becomes habitual.”(p. 267) Such dimming is a phenomenon familiar to everyone whose life has been front-loaded by history. All that matters seriously, all day-by-day responsibilities and permanent attachments, extensive in time and local in place—the “long plateau” (p. 268) of human reality—are muted compared to the vivid flashings of retrospection into a more intense and dangerous time. Yet it is in this relative safety of habitual reality that imagination and memory accomplish their joint work of fixing the throng of memories into this one memoir. Here, experience is recollected if not in tranquility then at least in domesticity, the evidently transferable craft of composition is perfected, the private readings and the public studies that give memory a frame are pursued. The book acknowledges this ordinary and orderly ground of its genesis tacitly but, to my sense, powerfully.

pocketwatchThe decade so emblazoned on the composer’s memory is that of his twenties, his European years. He was a gifted, already well-trained and well-read, receptive and very young American, abroad in a frightful war and again in a post-war time that was especially golden for Americans. Whether he found himself in a hell or in an idyll, this musician, as soldier and veteran, allowed things to happen to him. Hence the surface texture of the book is thick-woven not only with incidents, involvements, and vignettes, but also with returns, resolutions, recursions, delightfully trivial and heartrendingly significant: On the troop transport to Africa, Private Allanbrook’s cherished watch, his father’s gift, is stolen, only to be miraculously retrieved by a protective buddy at a crap game inland from Oran. A repulsive fascist major provokes his own bullet-riddled death while in bed with his mistress, and his wife later turns up, the keeper of an open house for Allied officers, as the neighbor of the writer’s Florentine friends. There are parallel river and bath idylls, classical in their nude disportings, in Texas and in Tuscany. There are the three cosmopolitan Fates that preside over the Fulbright Fellow’s return, his Neapolitan land­ ladies: the Vesuvius-hating Hungarian witch, the Polish snob, and the desparate and decent Swiss spinster, Erika of fond memory.

Douglas Allanbrook

Douglas Allanbrook

Then there are the deeply wished for resolutions and recursions. For eighteen years, back in Annapolis, the composer has carried a restless guilt for the abrupt dumping of Laura, his “Neapolitan Bette Davis,” a high-strung and wilful girl, who was superseded by his wife-to-be, the placid nymph, Candida. Finally he sets forth to seek out Laura’s solid and straight sister, who puts two decades of doubt to rest with the casual and candid words: “She had a bad character, you know. We were so afraid you would marry her!”(p. 42)

But above all, there is the ever-returning sight of Vesuvius erupting and the sound of Leonard calling.

Is this book a memoir or a fiction, then? It is a work of genuine memory, such as is possible for those to whom life is an occasion for art, for life always supplies amenable incidents to its receptive composers. Does the consummating imagination rectify or falsify? The question is pitched too low: The imagination actualizes the merely real; it makes a fact into an event.

Nonetheless, this book is a prodigious feat of detailed memory. No doubt this or that aide memoire was to hand: regimental records, maps, perhaps letters, but much of the work has the bright clang of exactly recalled fact.

Particularly notable is the musician’s remembering ear for the ritualistic obscenity and pungent accuracy of G. I. speech. Here is a caution to stay out of the shipboard crap game, given to young Allanbrook by the protective Sergeant Kovacs: “…You’d be skunked and them punks would find some way to screw you once they seen your honest little puss.”(p. 91) The reader will find said visage on the frontispiece and take the sergeant’s point. It should be noted that the writer’s own cadences can be eloquent and his turns mordantly witty: “Carnal knowledge of our own likely demise…became part of our soul’s equipment”(p. 127)

The order of telling mimes the associations of memory, whose contiguities are not of time but of theme. One might say that the format is Proustian, were it not, for all its artfulness, far less contrived.

For example, one of the most memorable incidents is the officer’s gazelle hunt in Africa before the Italian invasion, to which Private Allanbrook is detailed as liaison with the Arab guide. The officers blast away from jeeps with Browning automatic rifles (a weapon no good in true combat), and the telling of the slaughter immediately puts the writer in mind of a later gratuitous lethal sport, the gunning down of an escaping carabiniere sergeant running like a rabbit before some Partisan boys and Allanbrook’s own fellow-soldiers.

Fossanova Abbey

Fossanova Abbey

But the memory does not only project the present onto the future. It also paints a backdrop of history for the current event. The hated Colonel Fry has established regimental headquarters at the Cistercian Abbey of Fossanova, where there is also a field hospital in which very young soldiers lie dying, and that brings to mind a different death: Here Thomas Aquinas ended his life, having lived it.

For me the most moving overlay of remembered and present sights occurs one hazy morning, when the regiment, having stumbled (among the first to arrive) into Rome by night, sleeps by the Tiber, and the soldier wakes up to see across the river the sepia print of Castle Sant’ Angelo that hangs in his parents’ living room in Melrose. Everyone of a certain age knows that print and can envision that veduta, in which the Eternal City is seen through a mist of home and history class.

For all the artful interleaving of time, the central sequence of events largely occupies the middle six chapters of the book’s ten: induction, training, passage, the Italian campaign, and its often bloody aftermath. The mood is stark and darkly comic, and this part of the account has more the air of factual truth. The reason is that here the memoir serves as memorial for the many dead fellow soldiers and for a few good officers.

Douglas Allanbrook was a real soldier, who earned the four stripes of a staff sergeant, was not above coveting the six of a master sergeant, and took a proper pride in his bronze star medal. His loyalty is with the men and his perspective that of a G.I. It is the strong bond of the faithful and friendly “we” (p. 78), for Allanbrook the Intelligence and Reconnaissance platoon to which his able map reading assigned him. His soldier’s honor is that of loyalty to his friends. The one circumstance that exhausts his always liberal sympathy is the German P.O.W.’s ready and detailed betrayal of their comrades’ positions. Their incomprehensible lack of honor taints all Germans for this soldier who has no independent conception of Nazism.

The account of the campaign, otherwise so grim, abounds in affectionate portraits of all his American fellow-soldiers, each a highly personal realization of a recognizable ethnic and local type. It is also suffused with a kind of abashed pleasure that this near­ sighted, slight, musical, well-read youngster takes in the affectionate esteem of his buddies.

General Clark

General Clark

But then there are the “them”—a rogues’ gallery of stupid, bigoted, pathetic, posturing officers, not least among them the General Clark who got them to Rome first—at a terrible cost in casualties.

The redeeming figures are some fatherly, competent noncoms, and the anti-hero, the trusted and sidelined Major Melcher, “a prudent manager, not a ‘leader;’ but all of us, in a pickle, would have chosen to follow him and not our fearless colonel” (p. 168); the colonel goes on to become a general, while the major is kept on, humiliated, after returning from a three-day breakdown. This is a passage that should be required reading in the services’ leadership courses.

Though the horror of the march through Italy does not abate, because the protective carapace of body and soul wears ever thinner and never thickens with time, there are redeeming moments of wild absurdity and comic relief. One is particularly close to my heart because I recognize it. A package reaches Allanbrook in a cold Christmas season on the Apennines, sent by his mother who is a teetotaler. It is a moldy fruit cake with a bottle of Scotch secreted within; no sooner was it sent than she grew anxious lest he get drunk and wander into enemy lines. My brother was also a foot soldier, who uncannily resembled Douglas in point of youth, slightness of build, near-sightedness, musicality, literariness, and in winning the affectionate regard of his buddies—and even as I write I hold in my hand the very same combat infantryman’s badge that Douglas is wearing on the frontispiece. I sent him—was he stationed in Panama or already fighting in Korea?—a similar camouflaged package (only it was gin) and then worried similarly about the effects.

Another saving grace was music, both as a respite from war and as a way to male friendship and female companionship. At the infamous gazelle hunt, the cultivated Arab guide discovers Allanbrook reading an inscribed Stravinsky score sent by his legendary teacher, Mlle. Boulanger, and a sudden friendship flares up. Wherever a piano is to be found, Bechstein or unstrung upright, the G.l. goes straight for it, carried out of the present by the music, but not entirely unaware of the éclat produced by a creditable rendition of the Waldstein played by one of the uniformed liberators better known for their high spirits than their cultivation.

For all the interludes, death is ever-present in this central section on war and therefore, unavoidably, present in the framing sections on peace. The book is not only a memorial to the many dead, but also an exorcism, half a century later, of some particular ghosts. It appears to have succeeded at least in dispersing a recurrent nightmare: like a Charon forever ferrying but never successfully landing the dead on the far side of the Styx, the dreamer sails back and forth to Naples on the Atlantic betwixt wake and sleep, war and peace, quick and dead; he feels himself to belong in some part of body and soul to the world of the dead.

Naples a MemoirThe book has a noble dust jacket, maroon, black, and gold, framing a painting of Vesuvius erupting some century and a half before the writer’s first sight of it. That is how the book begins: Private Allanbrook and his friend whom he alone calls Leonard—given names are rare in the army—together on the deck of the troop transport, watching an obliging Vesuvius erupting and further illuminated by the brilliant crisscross of anti-aircraft fire. Leonard and Jack, the radio repairman’s bosom buddy, are the first “definite killings” (p. 135) of the platoon, shot by a distinguishable enemy, dead early, got at from behind. Vesuvius flaring up and Leonard calling to Allanbrook to come in the night—these are the visual and auditory images that haunt the book. They are signals from the undercurrent of feeling on which all the incident is borne along. The feeling is regret, the regret of insufficient response. Rich as the book is in involvements and affairs, strong as its young protagonist was in event-eliciting receptivity, it is this sense of incomplete love that moved the writing of the memoir and tethered its memories: “Remorse was the fixative” (p. 103), but, the writer asks, for what? Was it all in the imagination? There is so powerful, so near-theological a sense of the sins of omission—moral sloth, apathy, narcissism, “communion …rejected” (p. 104)—not just toward this friend but toward other friends and lovers, men and women, that the question is rightly set aside. No baseless regrets for fancied young failures could have given the book its poignant gravity.

Although the dates are deliberately out of order, there is a clear temporal progress to the tale. It is to be found in the three successive completions of the title “See Naples.” First: See Naples—and Die; that is in 1944 when Vesuvius is the gate to living hell and likely death. Second: See Naples—and Live; that is in 1952, when Vesuvius greets the Fulbright Fellow returning to the golden and event-laden time that post-war Europe could then offer a young American in Naples. Third: See Naples—and Recollect; those are the ensuing four decades of revisiting in search of resolution and remembrance lasting until the final composition of the memoir and the achievement at least of resignation and lucidity: “I see Naples clearly now I am old.”(p.268.)

Yet there is a hint of further consolation. In his forties, the revenant, on his way back from the settling of Laura’s ghost, made a pilgrimage to Elea, the city of Parmenides. And, by one of those felicitous coincidences of his life, he overhears on the beach what he is listening for, a message of Being. A teacher walks to and fro with his pupil, discoursing, it seems, ever more emphatically on “essere.”(p. 44) This event is recalled at the close of the book:

What a solace it would be if some timeless essence, clear and lucid, were standing in back of our time-ridden lives, if all of our shifting loves were grounded in some apprehensible reality.(p. 266)

The sentence is written, to be sure, in the conditional mood, but the book itself sounds a more affirmative music. For it intimates that some like solace may be found in artfully composing the passages of life into a “coherent and passionate whole.”(p. 41)

Books by Eva Brann may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared in the St. John’s Review (Volume 43, Number 3, 1996) and is republished here with gracious permission of the author. Miss Brann welcomes questions/comments via mail: Dr. Eva Brann, St. John’s College, 60 College Avenue, Annapolis, MD, 21401-1655 (she does not use computers).

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