Evening Descends Upon the Hills by Anna Maria Ortese (tr. Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee)

First published in Italian in 1953, Evening Descends Upon the Hills is a brilliant collection of short stories and reportage by the critically acclaimed writer Anna Maria Ortese. As a whole, the collection conveys a vivid portrait of post-war Naples in all its vitality, devastation and squalor – a place that remains resilient despite being torn apart by war. Sharp contrasts are everywhere Ortese’s writing, juxtaposing the city’s ugliness with its beauty, the desperation of extreme poverty with the indifference of the bourgeoisie, the reality of the situation with the subjectivity of our imagination. It’s a powerful and evocative read, enhanced considerably by Ortese’s wonderfully expressive style.

Evening begins with three fictional pieces – the first of which is A Pair of Eyeglasses, an excellent story in which a young girl, Eugenia, is eagerly anticipating her first pair of glasses. Eugenia lives with her parents, spinster aunt and two younger siblings in an impoverished neighbourhood of Naples. Partly in return for their basement-level accommodation, Eugenia’s parents are at the beck and call of the Marchesa, the rather demanding and thoughtless owner of the dwelling, who thinks nothing of doling out casual put-downs at various opportunities.

Ortese skilfully captures the inherent spirit of the neighbourhood, complete with a multitude of vivid sights and animated sounds.

When the cart was behind her, Eugenia, raising her protruding eyes, basked in that warm blue glow that was the sky, and heard the great hubbub all around her, without, however, seeing it clearly. Carts, one behind the other, big trucks with Americans dressed in yellow hanging out the windows, bicycles that seemed to be tumbling over. High up, all the balconies were cluttered with flower crates, and over the railings, like flags or saddle blankets, hung yellow and red quilts, ragged blue children’s clothes, sheets, pillows, and mattresses exposed to the air, while at the end of the alley ropes uncoiled, lowering baskets to pick up the pick up the vegetables or fish offered by peddlers. (p. 22)

Nevertheless, it’s an environment that Eugenia is unable to see clearly, particularly as she is virtually blind. Only with the aid of glasses is the true horror of the environment revealed – an experience Eugenia finds utterly overwhelming, shattering her previous perceptions of life in the bustling courtyard.

…the cabbage leaves, the scraps of paper, the garbage and, in the middle of the courtyard, that group of ragged, deformed souls, faces pocked by poverty and resignation, who looked at her lovingly. They began to writhe, to become mixed up, to grow larger. They all came toward her, in the two bewitched circles of the eyeglasses. (p. 33)

The contrast here is particularly striking, pitting Eugenia’s blurred, almost rose-tinted impressions of her surroundings against the brutal reality of the situation. It’s a memorable story, effectively setting the tone for the collection as a whole.

In Family Interior – probably my favourite of the three stories – we meet Anastasia Finizio, a successful shop owner, who has worked tirelessly to support her mother, spinster aunt and younger siblings for several years. At thirty-nine, Anastasia is vaguely aware that her life is slipping by – a realisation brought into sharp relief when she hears news of the return of Antonio, a man from her youth. This development rekindles dormant feelings within Anastasia, prompting her to dream of the kind of life she might have had – and may still to be to have? – with Antonio.

What Ortese does so well here is to convey the power dynamics within the family, particularly in relation to Anastasia’s mother who sees the danger in any disruption to the present equilibrium.

It seemed to Signora Finizio, sometimes that Anastasia wasted time in futile things, but she didn’t dare to protest openly, for it appeared to her that the sort of sleep in which her daughter was sunk, and which allowed them all to live and expand peacefully, might at any moment, for a trifle, break. She had no liking for Anastasia (her beloved was Anna), but she valued her energy and, with It, her docility, that practical spirit joined to such resigned coldness. (p. 48)

In truth, Signora Finizio is a selfish woman, one who takes a perverse satisfaction in hurting Anastasia – effectively humiliating her to keep everything in check. It’s an excellent story, subtle and nuanced in its exploration of Anastasia’s position, highlighting the tension between familial responsibility and personal freedom.

After The Gold of Forcella – a vividly-realised story of a pawnshop in the heart of Naples – the focus shifts to non-fiction pieces, essentially conveyed in a reportage style. The Involuntary City is the most powerful essay in this section – a candid account of Ortese’s visits to Granili III and IV, a sprawling shelter for those made homeless by the devastation of war. Initially intended to be a temporary solution for the displaced and dispossessed, The Granili is ‘home’ to some 3,000 individuals (approximately 570 families), with an average of three families per individual room. The conditions are horrific – damp, cramped and filthy – particularly on the lower floors of the building where the most impoverished residents are housed.

In a few homes someone was cooking: smoke, which had the density of a blue body, escaped from some doors, yellow flames could be glimpsed inside, the black faces of people squatting, holding a bowl on their knees. In other rooms, instead, everything was motionless, as if life had become petrified; men still in bed turned under grey blankets, women were absorbed in combing their hair, in the enchanted slow motion of those who do not know what will be, afterward, the other occupation of their day. The entire ground floor, and the first floor to which we were ascending, were in these conditions of depressed inertia. (pp. 86-87)

There is a sense of desperation about the existence in these squalid, smoke-ridden conditions, almost as if the building’s lower echelons are representative of a race’s demise following the destructive impact of war.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a form of class structure has developed within the Granili, separating the displaced into different social strata, largely according to status. Some of those on the higher floors have jobs – consequently their days are structured, and this sense of order tends to be reflected in the immediate surroundings. In short, these individuals have adapted to reduced circumstances without giving up their sense of decorum. Nevertheless, there is a widespread understanding of the precarious nature of this situation. On occasions a random stroke of bad luck, such as an illness or the loss of a job, will force someone on the third floor to give up their lodgings and descend to a lower one, usually to move in with another family member. For the most part, these people are destined to remain in their relegated positions, despite harbouring hopes of regaining their previous status.

In the final section of the book, Ortese recounts a series of journeys to visit former colleagues from Sud, the avant-garde cultural magazine where she worked in the late ‘40s. There is a melancholy, elegiac tone running through these pieces, a sense of alienation from those who have become indifferent or embittered.

In summary, Evening Descends Upon the Hills is a fascinating collection that blurs the margins between fiction and reportage to paint a striking vision of post-war Naples, vividly capturing the city’s resilience in the face of poverty, suffering and corruption. The attention to detail is meticulous – as is the level of emotional insight, particularly about women’s lives and family dynamics.

The collection comes with an excellent introduction by the translators which outlines the reactions to Ortese’s candid (and sometimes brutal) vision of Naples following the book’s initial publication – the author was subsequently banned from the city for several years. Also included is the preface from the 1994 reissue, in which Ortese reflects on how her disoriented state of mind may have influenced her picture of post-war Naples, as captured in the original book.

In short, this is very highly recommended indeed – particularly for fans of Elena Ferrante, who has cited Ortese as a key influence on her work. My thanks to Pushkin Press and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.

26 thoughts on “Evening Descends Upon the Hills by Anna Maria Ortese (tr. Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Indeed. The instructions and preface are so interesting, particularly in the terms of placing the book into a broader context – both personal and political. I think you’d find it a fascinating read!

  1. A Life in Books

    You won’t be surprised to hear that Ferrante’s name sprang to mind almost as soon as I started reading your review, Jacqui. I like the sound of the blending of reportage and fiction here, and the quotes you’ve pulled out are very arresting.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I really liked the combination, and it reminded me a little of a couple of recent reissues from Handheld Press with a similar kind of structure. Firstly, Inez Holden’s Blitz Writing, which contains a novella and a reportage-style account of life for working women during WW2; and secondly, Rose Maclaulay’s Non-Combatants, which Ali wrote about recently. They’re such interesting books, each one offering a range of different perspectives on the impact of war…

  2. heavenali

    Well this sounds fabulous. I have enjoyed a few Ferrante novels and have read several Ann Goldstein translations before. These stories with their blend of reportage and fiction sound extremely vibrant, full of life and colour. Ortese is a new name to me.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d really like this, Ali. The stories are wonderful – quite melancholy in tone but flecked with moments of brightness and beauty. The combination of fiction and reportage reminded me a little of some of the recent Handheld releases e.g. Rose Macaulay’s Non Combatants (which I’ve yet to read) and Inez Holden’s Night Shift. There’s something very compelling about that combination of insights, a kind of synergistic effect from the marriage of fiction and reality.

  3. Jane

    There’s so much here but I particularly like the idea of reading her thoughts on her state of mind when she wrote and the local opinion. The merging of fiction and reportage is something I always find really interesting,this is definitely a must read. I haven’t read any of the other books you mention either so I’ve got quite a list!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the translators’ intro and Ortese’s preface are absolutely fascinating. I guess Ortese was able to take a more objective view of the book some 40 years after its initial publication, largely with the benefit of hindsight and an degree of distance or detachment that would have been very difficult to achieve at the time. It really is a fascinating book, almost like an Italian neorealist film playing out before your eyes…

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Wonderful post, Jacqui, and this sounds fascinating. Although I’m not necessarily drawn to reading Ferrante, I’m more intrigued by the sound of this with its mix of fiction and reportage. A good way to get to know an author I think, and the quotes are gorgeous.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I hear what you’re saying about Ferrante. All the buzz about her books has created a certain degree of hype. Although, fwiw, I think the Neapolitan novels are fully deserving of all the praise that has been heaped on them – they really are very well-written and compelling. Ortese, however, might be more your thing. She was lifting the lid on the reality of Neapolitan life long before Ferrante came on the scene – more of a trailblazer, if you like, although I don’t know enough about early 20th century Italian lit to know if she was the first!

  5. Julé Cunningham

    Always think that Naples seems like such an intriguing place but from a distance. Love your descriptions of the book particularly the stories; that difference between how Eugenia saw things and reality is so heartbreaking. The introduction and preface must be especially interesting to refer back to after finishing the book.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes! I feel the same way about Naples. Fascinating to read about but quite possibly terrifying to visit in reality. Oddly enough I spent a night there while on holiday some 20 years ago, and just the experience of walking around the city at 8pm in the evening felt ominous. It was such a strange feeling – nothing I could my finger on exactly, just a sense of danger. Even though my boyfriend was with me the whole time, I didn’t feel safe. Luckily, we were only staying the one night before travelling elsewhere in Campania, and the holiday itself was wonderful, but it was a strange experience nonetheless…

      1. Julé Cunningham

        That’s an unnerving feeling and experience and wouldn’t have helped in appreciating the city. I get spooked by urban areas that are strangely empty which makes me relieved that I’m not living in NYC any more, the last year might have been too much!

  6. gertloveday

    What beautiful writing. I love the concept of the different visions of the world with and without glasses. Lovely review.
    Although the word ‘eyeglasses’ jars somewhat. Very US usage.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! I absolutely love Ortese’s prose style. It feels so natural and fluid, shot through with these beautiful images in the midst of all the poverty and desperation. The insights into family dynamics are fascinating too, especially the bitterness and resentment middle-aged women seem to feel towards their younger counterparts. There are similarities with Natalia Ginzburg on that front, I’m sure…

      And yes, you’re right – eyeglasses does sound a bit odd, especially to the contemporary reader!

  7. buriedinprint

    These sound lovely. And I’m intrigued by the influence on Ferrante. I love how reading contemporary writers, who also love to read, leads us to other books and other writers (whether in the past or in the present-day).

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, me too. I’d heard of Ortese in the past, but what really made me want to read her (and this book in particular) was her inclusion in Elena Ferrante’s list of favourite books by female authors. It’s a terrific list. I think I’ve read around a dozen of them, all of which were excellent, so this bodes well for the remainder of the list.

  8. Radz Pandit

    This sounds fabulous, Jacqui! Ortese is a completely new name to me but I had loved Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, so I know I will enjoy this collection too.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think you’d like it. The fact that Ortese was writing about the here-and-now (at the time) gives it a sense of immediacy, a kind of rooting in authenticity that really comes through.

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