‘Un paio di occhiali’ (‘A Pair of Eyeglasses’) by Anna Maria Ortese, translated by Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee

Though she’s one of the greatest Italian writers of the twentieth century, the rediscovery of Ortese’s work is quite recent. Il mare non bagna Napoli is a collection of five stories where the author recounts the wretched conditions of Naples after WW2. The book was highly criticised by the Neapolitan intellectuals who were depicted in one of the stories, and due to the criticism Ortese decided to leave Naples, the city she loved the most.
‘A Pair of Eyeglasses’ is the first story of the collection and is about a girl from a poor neighbourhood of Naples – due to her poor sight, she is given a pair of specs by her aunt, who sacrifices more than “ten days of bread” to buy them. When she tries the specs in the shop, the girl – Nunziata – is very excited as she can finally see a world previously unknown to her, shining and opulent, but when she tries them on later in her poor neighbourhood she realises she’s surrounded by misery and filth, not by the world she had imagined so far. Blindness, we discover with Nunziata, had protected her from acknowledging her real social status.
Ortese depicts Nunziata’s slump of hopes with an unparalleled intensity and suggests, with heartbreaking force, that dreams and happiness are tied and proportional to one’s social class.

First published in Il mare non bagna Napoli, Einaudi, 1953 / Latest English version in Evening Descends Upon the Hills, Pushkin Press, 2018

‘A Pair of Eyeglasses’ by Anna Maria Ortese, translated by Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee

Literally how a child sees the world, another tale from Europe’s recent past of poverty, lest we forget how recently we were like ‘the others’ that fortress Europe seems intent on turning away. A girl literally made sick by seeing things clearly. Reminds me of the Bushwhack Bill song ‘Ever so Clear’: “I had to lose an eye in order to see things clearly.” Quite.

First published in English in The Bay is Not Naples, Collins, 1953, most recently republished as Evening Descends on the Hills, Pushkin, 2018. Also collected in The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, Penguin, 2019. Available online here