46 of 46 people found the following review helpful
on January 2, 2000
This is quite possibly the best book about World War II AND the best book about Italy you're likely to find... Full of striking telling detail from the opening confusion of the Allied invasion on the beaches of Salerno (the author, a young British intelligence officer posted to Italy behind his knowledge of Spanish, finds himself under fire in a wilderness of typewriters and other randomly strewn office equipment) to the improbable eruption of Vesuvius (and the Neapolitans' belief, amply demonstrated by historical prededent, that otherwise inexorable flows of lava could be stopped by the relics of Catholic saints)... Lewis is a master observer of the particular and this book, written after a mid-1950s perusal of his old wartime notebooks following publication of half a dozen other volumes, shows off his unmatched gift for quiet understatement. The residents of Naples were reduced to medieval conditions of famine and hygiene and were heartily sick of the war in 1944, prostitution was rampant with young girls often the only employables in a family, electric lines and even manholes were plundered for their scrap value. A clandestine mail service between Naples and still-Nazi-occupied Rome was a particular vexation to Lewis and his intelligence collegues, especially as some of Naples' most prominent citizens (including a midget gynecologist who was able to use both hands for non-incision internal surgery, and who specialized in restoration of virginity), were among the amateur postmen. The doings of Lucky Luciano and other characters on the late-WWII scene in Italy, and the incredible bungling and callousness of the occupation authorities are ably chronicled. Don't miss this one.
28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on April 21, 2004
This is not a book for the sqeamish, nor is it a book for those seeking a Tom Brokaw-ish golden memory of WWII. It is, however, a wonderfully written, and easy-to-read war diary. Every page is fascinating in it's detail of human behavior. If you are seeking information about the movements of great armies and generals,or a recap of military hardware or uniforms, this isn't it. This is a good look at what war does to the people who have to live in the middle of it, and how occupying armies deal with people and customs they barely understand. We have very deep ties with Italy and the Italians, so it makes one wonder whether it's possible for Iraq to make a post-invasion recovery. There is a critical difference, we and the Germans mostly disarmed the Italian populace.They didn't wander the streets with AK-47s and RPGs, though weapons were hidden for a possible civil war. I also recommend reading "The War in Val D'Orcia" by Iris Origo for a look at WWII Italian life farther north in the Apennine mountains of Italy.
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on January 3, 2006
This is a real gem of a memoir-cum-diary of World War II in Naples and its environs. I have just 'discovered' Mr. Lewis, and am knocked out by his eye for detail and the transparency of his writing. The book really gives you a sense sense of the tragi-comedy of a city recently liberated from the Germans; more than that, you cannot help but be impressed with the creativeness of Neapolitans' dealings with the incredible difficulties they faced after the Germans retreated North. You will also, sadly, get a sense that the United States Army was not completely comprised of "Band of Brothers" soldiers. Nor, for that matter, was the British. Read this book.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on December 14, 2007
When I was younger I knew an Italian-American veteran who spent time in Naples at roughly the time covered by this book. His stories while entertaining always seemed a bit exagerated to me. Now, after reading Norman Lewis' account of those days I owe my long departed friend an apology for having doubted him.
This is a remarkable account from a gifted observer. Lewis as a British intelligence officer assigned to the Area occupied by American forces immediately following the expulsion of the Germans was in a unique position to observe many aspects of the struggles and adaptations of the locals under these extraordianry conditions. The ingenuity and superstition of the Italian people is displayed from a point of view that is neutral in it's judgements while sparing the reader nothing of the darker side of the stuggle to survive at the same time.
As somone who has read extensively about WWII I was surprised this one got by me for so long. I stumbled on it while browsing Amazon and highly recommend it to anyone interested in the War ,Italy or just a good entertaining read.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Before becoming one of the finest travel writers in English (Graham Greene called him "one of the best writers, not of any particular decade, but of our century"), Norman Lewis served in British intelligence during WWII. From September 1943 to October 1944, he was in southern Italy. He landed with the U.S. Fifth Army near Salerno and then spent the next year with the occupying forces in and around Naples. NAPLES '44 is his marvelous account of that year.
In addition to being superbly written, NAPLES '44 stands out on two scores. First, it belongs on the top shelf of WWII books, not as a report of combat (though Lewis had a few experiences of front line danger which he describes in the book) but as an account of the chaos, bureaucratic claptrap, and occasional callousness of the Occupation. Just one of far too many examples from the book: A 10-year-old boy was brought into the hospital with three fingers chopped off and wrapped in newspaper; he had been part of a gang that specialized in jumping onto the backs of moving army lorries and then tossing out to confederates whatever might have value, but he became a victim of a British campaign to stop such theft by hiding soldiers in the backs of supply-trucks with bayonets and orders to chop down on the hands of any boys who grabbed the tailboards as a preliminary to hauling themselves in.
Second, NAPLES '44 is an indelible portrayal of Naples, "that anthill of humanity", and its countryside neighbors, including the wretched poverty and Dark Ages living conditions and the proclivity of many for banditry, lechery, and superstition. In the Cathedral there was an ampulla of the congealed blood of San Gennaro, patron saint of Naples. On the first Saturday in May the ampulla was brought out by priests and a ritual was conducted to see whether the blood would miraculously liquefy. If it did so promptly, all was well in the Neapolitan world; if it did so in a slow and reluctant manner, that was a poor omen for the coming year and reason for civic gloom; and if the blood utterly failed to liquefy, that was a sign that a calamity of some sort was at hand and the Neapolitans would be so prone to hysterical large-scale rioting that on May 7, 1944 the Occupation security forces were on high alert. (As matters developed, in 1944 the liquefaction was balky, but at least it occurred.)
These two conditions - wartime Occupation and the Neapolitan ways of life - often had a degrading synergistic effect, engendering phenomena even more squalid and sordid than either alone might have produced. One example was the rampant prostitution: "[It has just been reported] that there are 42,000 women in Naples engaged either on a regular or occasional basis in prostitution. This out of a nubile female population of perhaps 150,000. It seems incredible. Three out of four of these girls I have interviewed will probably cease to be prostitutes as soon as they can hope to keep alive by any other means." Once Lewis was accosted in the street by a pleasant-faced old lady who dragged him to the one-room hovel where she lived and where awaited a thin girl, her daughter, aged thirteen, who offered to strip and display her pubescent organs for twenty lire and, for greater sums, do much more. Another manifestation of this nefarious synergy was the enormity and impudence of the black market: "65 percent of the per capita income of Neapolitans derives from transactions in stolen Allied supplies, and one-third of all supplies and equipment imported continued to disappear into the black market." Seemingly every middle- and upper-class woman in Naples wore coats tailored from stolen army blankets. "Nothing has been too large or too small - from telegraph poles to phials of penicillin - to escape Neapolitan kleptomania."
Ultimately, however, the beauty of the Mediterranean setting and the Neapolitans' love of life, their rich traditions, and their perverse dignity won Norman Lewis over. As he prepared to leave, he wrote: "A year among the Italians had converted me to such an admiration for their humanity and culture that I realize that were I given the chance to be born again and to choose the place of my birth, Italy would be the country of my choice."
Note: The edition I have and read is a sturdy paperback published by Eland Books in the U.K. The subtitle of the Eland edition is that of the original publication: "An Intelligence Officer in the Italian Labyrinth." I agree with reviewer V.M. Badertscher that the subtitle of the Da Capo press edition currently on offer by Amazon ("A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy") is a mindless change for the worse. A small nit, but that prejudices me against the Da Capo Press edition. Moreover, in my experience Eland Book publications are always well and sturdily produced (the poorest Eland I have seen is better produced than the finest Da Capo). Plus, copies of the Eland edition are currently available on the secondary market for less, even with shipping, than the price of a new Da Capo Press edition. Thus, even though Da Capo deserves kudos for maintaining this excellent book in print in the U.S., if I were you I would first look for a sound used copy of the Eland edition.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on March 23, 2006
Lewis left us with a fascinating account of this small but very human part of WWII. And gathered some very interesting details that otherwise would have been lost forever.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Carroll & Graf paperback edition cover captures a ball capped American GI caressing the legs of a well traveled skirt lifting Italian seductress standing on a table while others look on; the "decisive moment" in "Naples '44." One photo and a well written text can seduce the reader as well. The well known, prolific and talented English travel writer, Norman Lewis, spent from September 1943 to October 1944 in Naples as an intelligence officer for the British 5th Army. In this short, descriptive, witty diary type book, he fights gun battles with bandits, investigates the Camorra (or Mafia) and its control of the City and environs, describes the vast black market in tires, arms, blankets, penicillin, and all else, and the daily trials and rituals of the Neapolitans in surviving. Vesuvius erupts in March '45 and it is his "most majestic and terrible sight." The rapes of Italian women by "the Moors" are rampant; one victim "majestic in true Southern style, with a cataract of black hair, the eyes of a tragedienne and the innocence of expression that contemplates the armament of any outstanding harlot." He hunts fresh grass after the October rains in woods "full of chestnuts, fungi spring up out of the damp earth, and edible plants of the order of dandelions and plantains, for use of salads, sprout among the new grass." His last panoramic view of Naples as he leaves; "the great grey and red city spread below; presenting a totally fallacious aspect of dignified calm." Repeatedly cited by Rick Atkinson in his "The Day of Battle," this book is definitive and classic.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on August 8, 2005
I am Neapolitan and a British friend of mine told me to read this book that I found amazing. I reccomend to read this book to learn more about different cultures, lifestyle, and most important about the difficulties that people experience during the world, what they are forced to do to survive, something that I have learned from my parents, since at the time they were young kids starving in Naples. Naples is a vibrant and "smart" town where people is unique, in good and bad...
9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on January 11, 1998
Vignettes of the author's observations of war time Italy while assigned to Naples area as part of British Intelligence. First hand descriptions of the Neopolitan's desperate ordeal to survive with little food and work available. Tremendous insight into Italian culture and customs. Sad portrayals of ancient towns bombed to rubble by allied forces, perhaps unnecessarily. But most disturbing are his reports from various sources that the American troops marching through Italy had been given orders not to take any German prisoners alive. Any Germans who surrendered were to be shot.
8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on January 1, 2011
I would not go as far as rating Norman Lewis' account as the best book about WWII ever written, as some reviewers have noted. Although informative, entertaining, and well-written, his day-by-day notebook account was somewhat repetitive and uneventful. Prostitution, hunger and desperation were rampant throughout war-torn Italy, but this to me is a given, and Mr Lewis seems to mimic this sentiment throughout his account. One can basically summarize the book in one of his more noteworthy passages where he states, "Here, to all intent and purposeless, we were living in the middle ages. Only buildings had change--and most of these were in ruins. Epidemics, robbers, funerals followed by shrieking women, deformed and mutilated beggars, legless cripples dragged themselves about on wheeled platforms--even raving lunatics they'd no room for in asylums."
It is not, altogether clear why this wartime diary was published much later in his life, in 1978. One can be glad that it finally was.