John Horne Burns: The Gallery
Claims have been made that this book is a better World War II novel than The Naked and the Dead. While this may well be true, the implication that The Naked and the Dead is the standard against which World War II novels should be judged is false. Even if we stick just to USA novels (which we shouldn’t, as there are many fine un-American World War II novels), The Underground City, Catch-22 and, of course, Gravity’s Rainbow are all superior to The Naked and the Dead as are around a dozen novels from other nationalities. As for whether this novel is superior, I would probably say that it is but not by much.
There is no real plot to this novel. It follows the I-narrator during 1943 and 1944 as he serves first in North Africa and then in Naples. As he is called John, we can probably assume that it is Burns himself. The book is divided up into eight promenades – the narrator telling us what he sees and, in particular, what he thinks – and nine portraits of different participants in the war, men and women, Italians and Americans. The Gallery theme is explicitly made by showing the promenades and portraits as part of a gallery. In addition, the main street in Naples where much of the action takes place is called Galleria Umberto and, at least for the author, people who are there are like a picture on the wall of a museum.
For me, at least, the promenades are the least interesting part of the novel. The narrator has a very strong view on the war or, at least, on how it is carried out, on his fellow Americans (he is very critical of them) and on the Italians (he likes them). America was a country just like any other, except that she had more material wealth and more advanced plumbing… Americans were very poor spiritually… They had bankrupt souls. Indeed, one of the key points for him is that he learned that, despite the finer points of his country, it has a lot to learn from others. Unfortunately, he feels that he is one of the few that has benefited from this education. But he loves Italy and the Italians.
However, the nine portraits are excellent. The aim is clearly to show how the war has affected these people and how they have (or have not) risen above it all to be better humans. There is Louella, a Red Cross worker, who looks down on the Other Half and, here, the other half are the Italians, all of them. Her boss says that she is the worse Red Cross worker in Italy but she really doesn’t care, so secure is she in her own smugness. There is Hal, who finally goes insane, and Momma, who now runs a very successful bar in Naples which, as we soon learn, is essentially a gay bar, and considers her patrons as the children she could not have. There is the Virginian, racist to the core, who becomes obsessed with running his censorship bureau and drives his staff mad with his petty slave-driving. Giulia is an Italian woman whose family has lost everything but who manages to retain her honour and integrity, despite threats against both. There is the sergeant, in love with an Italian woman, who gets syphilis from her and has to follow the painful penicillin treatment every three hours, day and night. Finally, there is Moe, the first one we see in action, the kind-hearted Jewish lieutenant and former New York taxi-driver, who wants to help everyone, even the wounded German prisoner, but who ultimately pays the price.
Burns, like Mailer, had been there and there is no doubt that these people, while not actual people are at least based on his experiences while in North Africa and Naples. He tells a good story in his portraits and clearly shows how the war has affected them all, even if the actual military action is relatively remote for all but Moe. His love for the Italians – loveable rogues might be the best way to describe them – definitely comes through and it is this as much as anything else that makes this novel successful, as it certainly is not one-sided.
First published 1947 by Harper