When I was a child I used to be filled with envy when adults recalled the events of twelve or fifteen years before. I would think it must be marvellous, to issue these proclamations of experience - 'It was at least ten years ago', or 'I hadn't seen him for twenty years'. But chronological prestige is tenacious: once attained, it can't be shed; it increases moment by moment, day by day, pressing its honours on you until you are lavishly, overly endowed with them. Until you literally sink under them.
A centenarian has told me that memory protects one from this burden of experience. Whole segments of time dropped out, she said: 'Of five or six years, say, around the turn of the century, all I can remember is the dress someone wore, or the colour of a curtain.' And I would be pleased, rather than otherwise, at the prospect of remembering Naples in similar terms - a lilac dress Gioconda wore one morning driving to Caserta, or the Siena-coloured curtains of the apartment in San Biagio dei Librai.
Shirley Hazzard, The Bay of Noon, 1970
Do you realise that we've achieved this 'chronological prestige'? It's almost thirty two years since you handed this book on to me. I was 28, and so you must have been 20. I wonder if many young women these days read Shirley Hazzard.
Do you remember? It was in Campbelltown in late 1980 - I remember because T and I were staying with your parents before heading overseas.
And I think you did just 'hand it on'. You'd bought it second-hand and read it - I can't remember you saying anything about it, you just gave it to me quite casually and quietly - but I diligently wrote your name in the front, in pencil (I'm very good at giving books back).
Though I never did with this one. I like it too much - and I like this particular copy, which I've just pulled out from the shelves yet again.
I seldom read it cover to cover now - just read all my favourite bits - such as when Jenny first goes to Gioconda's house in the street of the booksellers, and when she moves into her apartment overlooking the Bay of Naples. This is my preferred method of reading - perhaps it's why I'm so bad at chronology and plot in my own writing. I'd like to simply write down scenes, put them in a box and let the reader read the book in whatever order they choose.
I've written about this novel before, and gave my copy to Sophie in My Candlelight Novel.
On that trip to Europe we planned to go to Naples, but it was hit by an earthquake while we were still in London and we changed our plans. So the only part of Italy I've ever been to was my one day in Venice (half a day really) while we waited for our train to Athens. It doesn't seem to matter - I doubt if the real Naples would have measured up to the Naples in this book.
And now the book itself has gained a considerable chronological prestige. Pages are coming loose, the spine is peeling away, and this time when I got it from the shelves I found that wasps had built nests all the way along one edge of the pages. I had to blow the dirt from those nests away as I read.
If you forgot this book and left it under a tree, it would very soon return to the earth: would gently and quietly revert to its vegetable state. But I won't be doing that with it. I think this book and I have a few more years in us yet.