June 2023 marks the 70th anniversary of the English publication of Gustaw Herling-Grudziński's most famous book, “A World Apart”. To honour this milestone and pay homage to the esteemed Polish writer, I embarked on a journey to Naples, the city that held a profound connection to Herling-Grudziński for 45 years of his life. In just two days, I sought to immerse myself in the places and experiences that shaped his life outside of his native country.
My exploration began at via Crispi 69, where a commemorative plaque was unveiled in 2012 by Presidents Bronisław Komorowski and Giorgio Napolitano. This address served as Herling-Grudziński's residence in Naples, and it symbolizes the starting point of my quest to understand the writer's profound relationship with the city.
Naples captivated Herling-Grudziński, particularly its vibrant, old centro storico district. He found enjoyment in wandering along San Biagio dei Librai, a street brimming with fascinating books that fuelled his writing endeavours. His fascination with Naples is vividly evident in his short stories, where numerous places he frequented and traversed grace the pages. For instance, the ill-fated Ponte della Sanità known for attracting suicides, takes centre stage in the story “The Bridge: a Chronicle of Our City”. This bridge is located near the Church of Santa Maria della Sanità, famous for its underground catacombs housing the skeletal remains of plague victims.
This Neapolitans' unique relationship with death fascinated Herling-Grudziński, as reflected in the book, interview, "Conversations in Dragonei." He marvelled at their practice of preserving skulls and skeletons in lockable cabinets, which they diligently clean each day. Naples boasts several places that embody this fascination, such as the Catacombs of San Gennaro and the Fontanelle Cemetery, the latter one featuring prominently in his story “Suor Strega” about a deranged nun.
There are other city's peculiarities, which continued to captivate him. That includes the extraordinary miracle of Saint Gennaro's blood liquefaction. The most important saint and patron of Naples, Saint Gennaro, has his blood housed in the Duomo, where the miraculous liquefaction occurs three times a year. This awe-inspiring phenomenon finds its place in Herling-Grudziński's story aptly named “Miracle”.
Neapolitan churches also held a profound allure for Herling-Grudziński. One such example is the deconsecrated church of Santa Maria Donnaregina, which he once proudly showcased to his friend, the art historian Tadeusz Chrzanowski. Another church, the oldest Gothic church in Naples, Sant'Eligio near Piazza del Mercato, takes centre stage in his story “The Arch of Justice”. Intriguingly, the church features male and female heads under its clock, a mystery that continues to baffle historians.
However, Herling-Grudziński's most beloved church was the Church of Saint Clare, which he devoted an entire story to about a bell ringer.
Finally, I visited the Poggioreale cemetery, the resting place of Gustaw Herling-Grudziński and his father-in-law, Benedetto Croce, a prominent Neapolitan. It is within these hallowed grounds, in the story The “Bridge: a Chronicle of Our City”, Pipistrello, a local beggar occasionally finds solace and slumbers on the grand tombs.