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June 2000

Fact or Fantasy

A superb memoir and a popular boy named Harry

Greene on Capri *** Shirley Hazzard Farrar, Straus, Giroux: New York, 2000

A rainy Sunday is the perfect time to depart for the radiant sun and gentle warmth of the Bay of Naples. No need to buy a ticket or pack a valise, simply open the pages of Shirley Hazzard’s enchanting memoir of life on the Isle of Capri. The sparkle of the unspoiled Mediterranean reflects and refracts the great literary lights who conversed and cavorted on the island’s shore. These exquisite gems include: Miss Hazzard; her husband, Frances Steegmuller, both acclaimed writers; and Graham Greene, the brilliant, imposing and enigmatic British author of such wartime classics as The End of the Affair.

A serendipitous meeting between Hazzard and Greene one rainy afternoon in a café on Capri marks the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Both writers fled from scores of bleak British winters to the milder climes of southern Italy in the postwar years. Over a span of decades, Hazzard and Greene tend to a true, if thorny friendship, enriched by shared passions for books and talk, enlivened by a swirl of notable guests and tested by Greene’s hot tempers and episodic taciturnity. Hazzard blends elements of the personal and the worldly with breathtaking fluidity. Her carefully worded recollections of Greene himself, while fair, fascinating and revelatory — without ever being sensational — are interesting even to those not familiar with his works or personal history. Greene, a disciplined, prolific writer, retreated (in the company of various lovers) to his Mediterranean bunker for winters of contemplation, composition and privileged exile.

Not adhering to rigid chronology, but rather dipping into the past, Hazzard spoons out the pleasant and repugnant of Greene’s life — and hers. The reader gleans some of Greene’s bleak childhood, his brilliant career in British wartime intelligence, his rapid rise to literary prominence, his abiding love of fiction and femmes fatales as well as his political activism. With consummate modesty, Hazzard also hints at her own life, namely her long and happy marriage to Steegmuller, her acclaimed contributions to the world of prose and the pools of loss following her husband’s death.

Hazzard’s triumph in this work is her exquisite evocation of those moments of rare contentment — when, for example, all senses are gratified by the close gathering of friends in the company of wine, books and the eternal sea. Whether detailing a tour of the crumbling, yet still splendid halls of the Roman Villa Jovis, or evoking the pain of witnessing Greene decline into old age, Hazzard’s prose, ever mercurial, flows with delicacy and grace. This book is a pure distillation of a place, an era and a life described with candor and affection. One wonders if even so great a man as Graham Greene is worthy of such a memoirist. << Who is Harry Potter? Off to see the wizard

The line between juvenile literature and adult fiction is usually sharply drawn. Every so often, however, a book appears that doesn’t seem to apply to these traditional genres, a book that wins readers’ hearts regardless of their age. Alice in Wonderland did it, and so did The Hobbit trilogy. But never has a book that was originally aimed at adolescents captured the imagination of such a broad audience the way the Harry Potter books have. The series about a young wizard in training has been a phenomenal success — some 13 million volumes (!) have been sold worldwide so far — that can neither be planned nor imitated. The fourth, as yet untitled volume in a series of seven is due to be released July 9. It is unquestionably the most eagerly awaited book of the season, even topping sales of major Internet booksellers months prior to its publication.

So why is it that millions of readers are holding their breaths to learn about the adventures of a young boy at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry? For one, the books are brilliantly written, bursting with memorable characters, incredible details and surprising twists of fate. The basic idea, however, is anything but revolutionary. An orphaned boy grows up with a wicked aunt and uncle, living in a closet under the stairs. He is invited to attend a prestigious sorcery school and, in the course of his training, must embark on a number of dangerous adventures, which involve confronting his archenemy, the dark wizard Voldemart. What makes Harry Potter so exceptional is the consummate skill with which the author creates a fantastic new world, perfect in every detail, fabulous and yet not so different from the one we know. At Hogwarts, for example, students compete in Quidditch, field hockey played on flying broomsticks. We meet a dead teacher who hasn’t noticed that he has died and teaches as a ghost. On the other hand, among the aspiring wizards and witches you will find the usual assortment of nerds, snobs and bullies, and Harry struggles with the secrets of sorcery just as other kids do with math or grammar.

Joanne K. Rowling, the Scottish writer who has conjured up the world of Harry Potter, strikes a careful balance between the fantastic and the credible, between mischief and heartfelt emotions. Perhaps it is exactly this mixture that has caused the unprecedented crossover success of Harry Potter. <<< Claudia Hellman

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