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The powerful influence of Vesuvius in fiction

the-powerful-influence-of-vesuvius-in-fictionThe Volcanic mountain of Vesuvius is both real and mythic. Anyone planning to travel to Pompeii will have done some research into history of the place and the eruption of AD 79. When I travel I also read fiction to enhance the flavour of the place. Before and during an early spring trip to Naples and southern Italy I selected three novels.


The first was Pompeii by Robert Harris; a real page turner and perfect airplane reading for the flight to Naples, a few days before visiting Pompeii and Herculaneum. Our protagonist is Marcus Attilius, the Aquarius of the Aqua Augusta.

He is in charge of the intricate system of water ways for the Roman Empire. Attilius has come to Pompeii to investigate a blockage in the water supply to the town. There have been a couple of strange occurrences - fish have died in the pool at a nobleman's palace, and there is a strong smell of sulphur from his water pipes.

We, of course, know that Vesuvius is going to erupt as the chapters count down the 48 hours immediately before - but our characters do not. I love this sort of story, it is a great method of creating suspense and impending doom.

Attilius has a plan to locate and repair the blockage, but he must cut off the water for a time in order to fix it - not a popular decision with those who will be without water even for a brief time. There is much superstition and unrest among the people during these, the hottest days of August.

Attilius is worried about the consequences of his actions - the readers know it is not worth worrying about - because of the events that will take place in the next two days. There is a love interest thrown in, the daughter of a corrupt nobleman becomes his ally, and the reader wishes very much that they will somehow survive the eruption and have a future together.

The descriptions of the water systems, the science of the volcano, and the story of life in this time and place is fascinating. This novel brought the place to life - I could picture these people when I climbed to the cone of Vesuvius and explored the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

'The Volcano Lover'

The second book was The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag. This one is not a page turner -but it was very much worth reading. I have long admired the writing and the woman. Susan Sontag was an American cultural icon, an award winning writer and director - a radical, liberal woman, close friend of photographer Annie Leibovitz.

I had not read this novel, written in 1992, but I found it perfect reading for time spent exploring the Naples area. The main character is The Cavaliere - the longtime British ambassador to Naples. He is a passionate collector. He collects paintings and archaeological remains - "He got better at removing treasures from the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum under the very eyes of the King's archaeologists". Many of these he takes back to England on his leave to sell so that he can afford to collect more. He is obsessive - "he must have the one more thing; but when completeness is achieved", it is sold and a new collection is begun. The Cavaliere is an utterly appealing character, he is as much interested in Vesuvius and the science of volcanoes as he is in his collections. His first wife is an interesting character, a woman of her time and background; but it is his second wife who fascinates not only the reader but everyone in her own time - because this book is actually a fictional biography of real people - The Cavaliere is Lord Hamilton, who was the British Ambassador to Naples in the late 1700s, his second wife Emma Hamilton, and her lover, Lord Nelson. Even the poet Goethe plays a role on his own Italian Journey.

The 1779 and the 1794 eruptions of Vesuvius take place, as does the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette is beheaded (she is the sister of the Queen of Naples, the Austrian born Charlotte, whose daughter Maria Theresa is the Hapsburg Empress in Austria), putting this story into the same historical time as The Tale of Two Cities - but it feels so much more modern.

Written in our own time, however, the writer has made her characters more modern than they would have been if the novel had been written at the time that the events are taking place. It is one of the most interesting books I have ever read - I have pages and pages of notes, I was exhilarated by all that I was learning.

This novel resolved the confusion I had always had about the history of the time in which the opera Tosca is set, the story of the liberal aristocrat Angelotti, the corrupt Scarpia, and the opera star, during the brief reign of Napoleon in Italy. The way of life and the history of the time make for an absolutely riveting novel - and again one that adds a depth of knowledge for the tourist in Naples and the Amalfi coast.

'The Bay at Noon'

The third novel was The Bay at Noon by Shirley Hazzard, written way back in 1970. I started this book in the departure lounge at the Naples airport. It opens with the words "A military plane crashed that winter on Mount Vesuvius." This is the story of a young woman, Jenny, who begins her adult life as a translator for the American military in Naples a few years after the end of the Second World War.

Life in war time Naples is described by a woman who lived through it, a writer, the beautiful Gioconda, and her lover, the movie producer, Gianni. During the blackout "Mount Vesuvius was in eruption, the entire region irradiated with a red glow that could be seen for hundreds of miles….thousands of the poor got into little boats and rowed out to Capri". Naples is very much a city of Vesuvius, "the very streets were composed of blocks of lava". Jenny meets a scientist, Justin, who becomes part of this circle of four. The time is set by the fashions, the films, the Russian dog sent into space, the Bergman divorce. Life changing events take place - and it is on revisiting fifteen years later that Jenny tells the story of the earlier time in the lives of these characters.

I would perhaps never have read any of these novels if I had not been looking for books set in Naples - but I enjoyed each of them.

If Naples is a travel destination for you they will definitely enhance your experience of the place.

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