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Summer 2011

Table Talk

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Janna Malamud Smith

I’m not sure which narrow, cobblestoned Naples street I was descending when I passed the singing boy, but it was a mild day in mid-January, and I was with my Neapolitan friend, Annamaria. That morning we happened to be making our way from her apartment on Vico Mandragone down the hill toward the Royal Academy of Music, an old ex-monastery called San Pietro a Maiella, where she—with the infinite kindness of Italians to their guests, and knowing my love of “the arts”—had arranged for us to have a tour, and to see not just the once-elegant rooms but also the portraits of composers and performers and the many shelves of bound scores of compositions by the likes of Donizetti, Scarlatti, Cimarosa, Rossini, and Bellini, all of whom were native sons or sojourners in the city.

It’s more accurate to say the boy passed us. Definitely, our paths crossed for an instant, and he was singing. I cannot even tell you what he looked like, though I think he was maybe five feet tall and slightly heavy. Let’s say “a good eater,” with dark, short hair and a black winter jacket, dark pants, and sneakers. He might have had a backpack. But my visual memory is poor, and I wouldn’t wager even that much in a police line-up. Furthermore, like many other vicoli in Naples, this one swarmed with Vespas and Fiats but lacked sidewalks. So just weaving in and out of harm’s way took all the concentration I could muster, and I lacked the wherewithal to focus on his features. I imagine he was eleven or twelve, though I am old enough now that the age of someone between ten and thirty can sometimes be hard to figure.

He must have come out of a building to my left, and within an instant, probably half a minute, he had disappeared further down the hill of the street, out of earshot. I do know that as he was making his way to wherever he was going, he was singing, unselfconsciously, casually, an inviting, melodic song. He projected nicely, and just loudly enough so anyone nearby could hear. Yet I am certain that he was not singing to us, but to himself. I believe that distinction was what made the moment striking. He was singing quietly as he walked along the winter-darkened alley (the low-angled sun was blocked out by buildings, so all was in shadow), and he was not performing. His voice was lovely. The Italian, or possibly Neapolitan, words were not comprehensible to me. All the same, there was something instantly evocative and even slightly haunting about the song; and I experienced the moment of listening to him as exotic and out of time.

“A boy just singing to himself, how rare,” I observed to Annamaria, and she nodded. Later, I heard her, in Italian, telling her husband about my noting the boy. I cannot be positive if she found my reaction interesting because such singing is still usual in Naples, or because she hadn’t previously thought about its disappearance and was struck by the fact behind the observation; but I believe it was the latter.

Certainly, no one where I live just plain sings in public anymore. No boy in my New England neighborhood would walk along amusing himself by unselfconsciously trilling like some bird. On a warm day, someone might place a hat out on the sidewalk and run through a list of tunes, or, in the subway station, belt away with a boom box or while strumming a guitar. In the United States, whether in street, living room, or bar, we do performance. But where song qua song might once have been, we have silence—or, more often, the whispered hiss of digital song that leaks from iPod earbuds and the like. Best left undiscussed are the mangled ends of words or partial musical phrases that moan forth from human lips “singing along” with what they hear through the plugs in their ears.

It happened, when I returned home from Naples, that I began reading Jonathan Galassi’s translation of Giacamo Leopardi’s Canti. (Leopardi spent his last few years in Naples, and died there of cholera in 1837; he was thirty-nine.) No one is as anguished and obsessed with all that has been lost from the world as Leopardi. In “The Calm after the Storm,” he writes, “The artisan comes to his door singing, with his work in hand, and stares up at the glistening sky.” I wonder if the poet anticipated that this casual, quotidian expression of joy and sorrow would one day, too, have mostly vanished.

Janna Malamud Smith is the author, most recently, of My Father Is a Book: A Memoir of Bernard Malamud.

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