Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 19, 2010

Ancient Shore, Despatches from Naples (1976), by Shirley Hazzard

I would love to have Shirley Hazzard as a friend.  She would be like my dear friend Lurline, clever and wise, thoughtful and interesting.  She would be a welcome guest at any dinner party, enlivening the gathering with a wealth of stories drawn from a lifetime of experience around the world.

I’m not going to Naples or even to Italy on my forthcoming trip, but I needed a book to read and finish before I go, and this slim collection of writings seemed perfect.  Ancient Shore, Despatches from Naples celebrates the joy of travel and its discoveries as few travel writers can hope to emulate.  I’ve read Hazzard’s fiction and loved it all: The Transit of Venus; The Great Fire; The Evening of the Holiday; The Bay of Noon(Links are to my reviews.)  But Ancient Shore is the first work of non-fiction I have read, and it’s fascinating to see how her love of Naples informs her fiction.

She acknowledges that the city has a bad press.  I remember being given strict warnings about holding belongings very tightly from a friendly Neapolitan on the train from Rome, which made me quite relieved that we were only passing through en route to Pompeii.  Hazzard repeats similar warnings about venturing out with nothing ‘grabbable’.  But she says, Naples has much to offer in the way of fascinating secrets which are unlikely to be revealed to short-stay tourists, and I have friends who have been on academic tours of the city who say the same.

Hazzard never forgets about Vesuvius, brooding always over the city which escaped the fate of Pompeii and Herculaneum but has suffered ‘paroxysms, mild or severe, of a volcano always irresistibly resettled by man’ (p39).  She writes about the Naples of Pliny, Oscar Wilde and Henry James but also about ‘a world event [that] broke loose and strayed to Naples’  (p60) in 1994: the G7.  Hazzard worked for the UN as a young woman in the 1950s and she has the keen eye of an insider; it’s quite illuminating.

It’s a lovely book, and I have others by Hazzard to enjoy on the TBR – some travel writing and a memoir of Graham Greene on Capri.  But although Hazzard (born in 1931) is now getting on a bit, I haven’t given up hope that she has another novel in the pipeline…

Author: Shirley Hazzard
Title: Ancient Shore, Despatches from Naples
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, 2008
ISBN: 9780226322025
Source: Personal library


  1. I agree re hoping for another novel. I haven’t read this, but I have read Graham Greene on Capri and found it fascinating – on Capri and Greene, and to some degree on her and her husband. A fascinating life.


    • Was it Gerald Durrell who wrote about Capri too? I can’t remember. British writers in those days seemed to be able to travel so easily around the continent – and our own Charmian Clift and George Johnson did so too, on the smell of an oily rag.


      • Durrell wrote about Corfu, I think. The place where his family lived when he was a child — Spiro, Margo, the Bootle-Bumtrinket, the tortoise that ate strawberries? My mother had My Family as a set text in high school, and years later she could still remember that one of the questions was, What did each member of the family pack in his or her suitcase, and what does this tell you about them?


        • *chuckle* If you could see me packing my suitcase now, I think you’d be able to tell straight away that I like to be prepared for *every* eventuality…


  2. I’ve loved all of Hazzard’s fiction but haven’t read her non-fiction yet so was interested to see this Lisa.

    I don’t know if you’ve seen her being interviewed for PEN by Richard Hughes earlier this year in the States? If not, you might like to have a look at

    Of course I’m also hoping there are further novels to come!


    • Yes, I did see that, what a wonderful old lady she is!


  3. […] The Ancient Shore: Dispatches from Naples (2008) (See my review). […]


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