Feverish after Ferrante?

ferrante1I was impressed by Elena Ferrante’s fierce honesty and gritty style in ‘The Days of Abandonment’, but I avoided the Neapolitan novels for a long time. The hype, the marketing of it as a family saga, the sheer wordiness of 4 thick volumes seemed to me run counter to everything I admire and aspire to be as a writer: elegant and pared down style, hidden and allusive observations, modest and restrained topic matters.

But then I found the whole set in English at the local library, so I thought I’d give them a whirl.

The flashes of insight and genius which I’d glimpsed in the standalone novel were what sustained me for the first few chapters. 60-70 pages in, I scoffed: ‘Soap opera’.  After the next few chapters, I paused:  ‘Hmm, soap opera with gender politics.’ Halfway through the first volume, I readjusted this to: ‘soap opera with gender and class politics’. I never watch soap operas on TV, but I started to understand why my mother would: this made for compulsive reading. I finished the first volume and almost immediately made a trip to the library for more. And now I’ve finished all four in record time and am tempted to say: ‘political and feminist discourse disguised as a soap opera’.

Many reviewers have spoken of its ferocious howl of anger – but there is also resignation, resilience and ‘getting on with things’ in the most unheroic of ways. I have mentioned before how it reminds me of my female relatives: the trials and tribulations, small joys and greater pains of their own lives, the way they come together to support but also sabotage each other.  Events unfold at high speed, often with melodrama, blood, guts and tears, much shouting and throwing of objects, families and friends breaking off relationships for years, then perhaps reconciling for practical reasons. One of Ferrante’s brilliant abilities as a storyteller is to accelerate and slow down time at will, move from the overarching universal to the very particular detail and then zoom out again, in a way which feels very natural and effortless.

Picturesque Naples, from Raileurope site.
Picturesque Naples, from Raileurope site.

She has also been described as the Dickens of Naples. Yes, she conveys the noises, smells, charm and grubbiness of the city, she is unafraid to show its darker sides rather than the picturesque touristy bits, and she populates her pages with numerous vividly drawn secondary characters, but there is also a running commentary and analysis of events (through Elena/Lenu), as they occur, which is seldom the case with Dickens. Ferrante’s narrator shows a lucid self-awareness and hunger to understand, and the reader embarks upon the journey of self-exploration with her and gains her wisdom at the end of the tale. I am not quite sure that we get this level of self-dissection and clear-eyed, unsentimental analysis of those close to one’s self, even in David Copperfield.

One touching and very revealing moment occurs when the two friends, Lila and Lenu, both pregnant, are caught up in a major earthquake. Lila becomes surprisingly fearful and breaks down, trying to explain herself and her world view to her friend like never before (or after). She speaks of her need to control and manipulate things, and explains it as arising from her terror of dissolving boundaries, of being caught up in a messy flood, of something seeping through the cracks of reality (very reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s famous diary entry), of overthinking and overcomplicating things until you lose all joy in life:

…the fabric that I weave by day is unraveled by night, the heads finds a way. But it’s not much use, the terror remains, it’s always in the crack between one normal thing and the other. It’s there waiting. I’ve always suspected it… nothing lasts… Good feelings are fragile, with me love doesn’t last. Love for a man doesn’t last, not even love for a child, it soon gets a hole in it. You look in the hole and you see the nebula of good intentions mixed up with the nebula of bad.

Elena finally understands that perhaps brilliance comes in flashes rather than a steady lifelong light, and that she had been the stronger one after all in their friendship:

Everything that struck me… woud pass and I – whatever I among those I was accumulating – I would remain firm, I was the needle of the compass that stays fixed while the lead traces circles around it. Lila on the other hand… struggled to feel stable… However much she had always dominated all of us and had imposed and was still imposing a way of being… she perceived herself as a liquid and all her efforts were, in the end, directed only at containing herself. When, in spite of her defensive manipulation of persons and things, the liquid prevailed, Lila lost Lila, chaos seemed the only truth and she – so active, so courageous – erased herself and, terrified, became nothing.

elenaferranteI’ll be honest: Ferrante inspires me with mixed emotions. She writes in a voice which, despite my best efforts to be polished and Anglo-Saxon in attitude, comes through far too loudly and clearly in my own life. As with Javier Marias, I recognise in her a kindred spirit: she writes the way I think when I don’t censor myself, when I allow my Romanian side to come out. A voice which I have suppressed and perhaps slightly disparaged all my life. A voice which is easy to mock as too convoluted, messy and therefore inferior. A voice which has been misunderstood, laughed at, satirized or met with aggression and prejudice. So it will take a while for me to appreciate this voice – and I find it surprising that English speakers are so attracted to it.

At the same time, I feel exhilaration and liberation when I read her work. It is OK to be like this. And she also fills me with envy and the sadness of a missed opportunity. If in future I were to write the saga of my own extended family, farmers and shepherds in the sub-Carpathians, against the backdrop of war, Communism and then wild capitalism, with all the mixed messages about gender and family which have been the bane of my life… it wouldn’t be my story, because it’s all been done now by Ferrante in a different location.

Coming of Age: Then and Now, in Many Countries

I was amused and charmed by the somewhat meandering vignettes of the millenial generation in Lisa Owen’s recent release Not Working. As luck would have it, I had just recently read some other books about growing up and youthful malaise, although all of them took place in other countries and other decades, so I decided to have some fun comparing all of these.

notworkingLisa Owens: Not Working

I expected this to be a bit aimless and self-pitying – the comparison with Bridget Jones did it no favours in my eyes. But I found it sharply observed, funny and perfectly encapsulating the vacancy and emptiness of much of what we take for ‘desirable, sensible goals’ in contemporary life. It is a great portrait of a generation who has (had to?) become cynical before its time.

Claire is in her mid 20s and has quit her meaningless office job to find her ‘true passion’ in life. The problem is, she is not quite sure what that might be, and fears that she may not be cut out for ‘great passions’ at all. Content to amble around, stay in a reasonably comfortable relationship, not embark on anything too adventurous, procrastinate for hours – Claire is our own worst self, someone we can all relate to (if we are being completely honest). She is also much brighter and more self-aware than the hapless being she appears to be, which makes her self-mockery endearing rather than infuriating.

The book has no plot to speak of (although there is some character development, as Claire realises just how important her family is to her and makes up her own mind about the buddleia in her garden), but it really is fun to read, full of acerbic observations, great wit and accurate observations, such as:

Economics
What actually becomes of all this terrible art for sale in cafes, costing the earth?

Job description
Words like ‘maestro’ and ‘superstar’, twinned with ‘administrator’ and ‘volunteer’.

I spend the morning planning an elaborate meal for Luke, composed of recipes from five different websites.
‘So, what have you been up to today?’ Luke asks through a mouthful of Slow-cooked Pulled Pork and Super Zingy Slaw, breaking off a chunk of the Best Jalapeno Cornbread to mop up what’s left of the sauce from the Mac ‘n’ Cheese With All the Bells ‘n’ Whistles.

The same, single article ‘How to Find Your Dream Job’ advises me to: burn all my plans, tear up the rulebook, shop around, try on different hats, county my blessings (and gifts), be kind to myself (yet realistic), listen to my dreams, follow my heart (ditto the path less travelled), move the goalposts, change gears, consider my options, watch out for signs, test the water with a toe before diving in headfirst, take the economic pulse, listen to my elders, ignore all advice.

Credit Photo: Paul Winch-Furness / www.paulwf.co.uk
Credit Photo: Paul Winch-Furness / http://www.paulwf.co.uk

Jean-Michel Guenassia: Le Club des Incorrigibles Optimistes

It’s 1959 and young Michel is discovering rock’n’roll, the first tremors of love and the war in Algeria. In the back room of a Paris bistro, he gives in to his passion for table-football and meets anti-Communist refugees from behind the Iron Curtain, as well as left-leaning philosophers such as Sartre. They loosely form a club, and they might be called optimists because, despite all the terrible news which engulfs them (deaths and desertion in Algeria, poverty and loss of trust and family in Russia and Hungary, broken dreams and love stories), they still hope in a better future.

Although we do hear details of Michel’s family and school life, his preparation for the baccalaureate, losing and making new friends, this is not so much the story of an individual coming of age. Instead, it seeks to paint a fresco of the times (late 1950s to early 1960s) and is framed by the story of the narrator meeting one of the former club members in the present day for the funeral of Sartre. Many poignant and sad personal stories are contained in its pages, but I have to admit this took me longer to read than normally. Not just because it is quite a chunky book, but it didn’t have me rushing back to it every time I put it down (although I did enjoy being transported into that world whenever I picked it up).

diaryeliadeMircea Eliade: Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent

By way of contrast, there is very little to place Eliade’s teenage narrator within a specific historical context, although the sense of place – a more leisurely-paced Bucharest – is beautifully conveyed. Surely post WW1 Romania was a hotbed of political and cultural turmoil, but the author does not choose to explore that at all. The narrator shows all the geekiness, neediness and self-absorption typical of adolescents everywhere, and anyone who has been young will recognise many of the problems he describes with school, approaching girls, grandiose plans for becoming famous, procrastination when it comes to revision, and beating one’s self up for all sorts of failures. So far, so similar to Not Working, except that the protagonist here is 15, studies insects and discusses philosophy and French romantic poets.

The spice of the story comes from the contrast between the erudite and polyglot Mircea Eliade, philosopher and professor of comparative religion at the University of Chicago, and the awkward, geeky adolescent he portrays in this lightly disguised memoir of his high-school years. Although Eliade himself never considered the book worthy of publication (only a fragment was published during his lifetime), it is fun and remains surprisingly fresh after all these years (although the English translation tends to reinforce the ‘period feel’ rather than the timeless nature of the story). A full review of this will appear in May on the Necessary Fiction website, but this is the nearest in spirit (and self-mockery) to Lisa Owen’s book.

storynewnameElena Ferrante: The Story of a New Name

It’s hard to remember that the girls populating this second volume in the Neapolitan series are only adolescents themselves as the novel opens. Just 16 and already married, Lila soon discovers her mistake. She has given up her education and ambitions for financial security and involvement in the family business. Meanwhile, the narrator Elena struggles to live up to her teacher’s expectations at school and escape from her working-class neighbourhood in Naples. So this too is very much a coming of age story, coupled with loss of innocence and expectations.

I was impressed with Elena Ferrante’s standalone novel Days of Abandonment, but resisted this tetralogy for quite some time. I was afraid that it would be the kind of ‘family saga’ of working-class girl made good type (Catherine Cookson, Barbara Taylor Bradford) which I enjoyed in my teens, but don’t read much now. After reading this book (without reading the first in the series, so perhaps I am coming to it ‘cold’), I am not quite as won over as all the hype of ‘Ferrante Fever’ would have us believe.

Not that it is bad – certainly not trashy, throwaway fiction. I loved the realistic descriptions of the ebb and flow of female friendships, the need to both escape one’s background and yet never quite fitting in anywhere else, women giving up on their dreams and yet persevering, the resilience and vulnerability of youth. What is perhaps startling and new to English readers is the passion and candour that comes across, as well as all the exotic detail of life in poor neighbourhoods of Naples in the 1950s/60s. For someone who has heard and seen first-hand the rural poverty that my mother was trying to escape from (very similar story to Elena but in Romania of the same time period), and who has listened to many similar stories of macho men and resilient women, this is all familiar ground. Furthermore, Romanian women writers of the 1930s whom I devoured in high school had already opened the way to exploration of feelings, sexuality, self-improvement and even feminism. Authors such as Cella Serghi, Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu, Martha Bibesco, or later ones such as Gabriela Adamesteanu, Dora Pavel, Doina Rusti or Nora Iuga have a similar ability to bring unbridled passion and unfettered feminine wit to a story. I’m not claiming that all these writers are better or even equal to Ferrante – merely that they are treading similar paths.

 

The Fiction of Abandonment

Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment and Tamaz Chiladze’s The Brueghel Moon are both about the breakdown of marriage and the disastrous effects this has on the psyche of the person who is left behind. Both of them also show, with devastating clarity, how the abandoned partner then proceeds to wreak havoc on the people around them as they struggle to come to terms with their new situation and identity. They are anything but dry reads with a thesis, however.

BrueghelMoonChiladze is a Georgian poet, novelist and playwright and comes from a notable literary family: his mother was a poet, his younger brother was also a poet and journalist, credited with playing an important role in the resurrection of Georgian literature in the post-Stalinist era. Have you ever read a Georgian author before? No, neither have I – so it’s kudos to Dalkey Archive for opening up this chapter and this world for us. And it’s clearly a very different world indeed.

However, I can now add Georgia to my Global Reading Challenge – as an unexpected (and controversial) entrant for Europe. Yes, there has been some debate whether Georgia, which is located on the Caucasian peninsula, is in Europe or in Asia, but the population certainly considers itself more European than anything else.

‘Ultimately, the function of literature is to intensify mystery, not to solve it,’ Chiladze says in an interview – and he certainly succeeds in that. It’s the story of a psychotherapist, Levan, who is suffering a mid-life crisis and starts blurring the borders between his personal and his professional life. His wife leaves him just as the novel opens. Levan is baffled but emotionally frozen, yet soon embarks upon illicit relationships with not just one but two of his patients – the enigmatic Nunu (an astrophysicist who appears to know some state secrets and who perhaps was involved in her husband’s death) and the fragile, depressed Ana-Maria, wife of the French ambassador, who attempted to commit suicide. The points of view shift between these three main protagonists, sometimes within the same chapter, from 1st to 3rd person, so it’s not always easy to tell who says what. The voices themselves are not distinct enough. These are all intellectually gifted people perpetually on the edge of a breakdown.

I found the perpetual shifts confusing: just as I was warming to one particular voice, I had to acquaint myself with a new one. I also found the monologues of Levan at times a little too self-referential, too didactic. For example:

My composure is an act, a ploy. My professional mask. The questions asked by my patients might sound abnormal, but are deeply human and only someone hiding behind the mask of composure can ward them off… I have erected a lofty wall around myself, which means not only that it’s impenetrable for others, but that my essence can’t get out either, being confined within, unable to splash in the stormy waves of what’s called Life…

A contrast to the ‘splashing’ in emotional and stormy waves in Ferrante’s book, obviously. There was something a little arid about The Brueghel Moon, which didn’t quite allow me to fully engage .I’m not sure if it’s the translation or the lack of contextual knowledge on my part. Nevertheless, this was an interesting depiction of a country and period in recent history about which I know very little.

daysabandonFerrante’s book has the upper hand when it comes to reader engagement: by focusing on just one narrator, one side of the story, we have a coherent, undiluted dramatic monologue. And what a monologue it is! It sweeps the reader (and all else before it) away in a relentless turmoil and maelstrom of emotions. This is bold, brassy, uncensored description of wallowing in self-pity, anger, desire for revenge, confusion and loss of self-esteem. And it’s all described in Technicolor, not in a genteel, quiet way. This way of handling emotions is not that unfamiliar to me coming from a Latin culture: we are noisy and expressive and shameless. Think of Pedro Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or All About My Mother – or indeed pretty much any Almodovar film. Think of the impassioned gesticulation of Camilleri’s characters in his Montalbano novels.

Yet the narrative is tightly controlled. It all starts in a matter-of-fact way. “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” Olga is thirty-eight, tidy, neat, precise, the kind of woman who always puts in commas and avoids the melodramatics of her family back in Naples. She is married to Mario, lives in Turin and has two young children, a girl and a boy. So Olga’s descent into a messy hell of bereavement is all the more shocking.

The author knows exactly what she is doing, however, how much to reveal and how she wants us to view her main character, even though the language and thoughts seem to flow so naturally and uncensored. Olga behaves erratically, sometimes descending into farcical situations (the shards in the pasta sauce) or tragicomedy (being locked inside the house, unable to open the door, with a dying dog, a child with a high temperature, and no telephone connection).

Her  internal monologue appears to be captured in a literal transcription, with no filter, admitting even her most bizarre, unsayable thoughts: what if she just left her children in the park? what if she were to use her neighbour as a sexual prop? I could not help but feel sorry for her, deeply empathetic to her plight, yet also faintly repulsed and wanting to shake her out of her stupor. Olga has given up her own ambitions and career for marriage and motherhood, and now is furious at the double betrayal: by societal expectations, but also by biology. Her chilling condemnation of maternal instinct is miles away from the cosy pictures we get to see elsewhere.

I was like a lump of food that my children chewed without stopping; a cud made of a living material that continually amalgamated and softened its living substance to allow two greedy bloodsuckers to nourish themselves, leaving on me the odor and taste of their gastric juices. Nursing, how repulsive, an animal function.

Ultimately, both of the main protagonists of these novels are self-centred, self-absorbed, but not really self-aware. That’s why I suspect they are quite credible descriptions of the despair of abandonment, even if they manifest themselves in different ways. I would certainly pick the Ferrante book over the other, partly because I can relate better to a female character, but also because on this occasion I prefer my emotions out in the open.

 

Reading Challenges Update

This is a bit early for a monthly reading update, but I seem to be currently stuck in three books which will take me through right to the end of January and beyond, so it is fair to say that the ten books below are the only ones I read through January.

My only New Year’s resolutions have been my reading challenges. I have signed up for three of them – how have I fared this month? Well, it’s a mixed picture, but I’m not quite ready to give up on my resolutions just yet.

2015global_reading_challengev21) Global Reading Challenge hosted by Kerrie over at Mysteries in Paradise: I’m making it easy on myself this year and opting for the Easy Level – one book from each of the 7 continents (Africa, Asia, Australasia/Oceania, Europe, North America, South America, plus a new continent – Antarctica or a new threshold you are willing to pass – paranormal, historical, space, sea). The reason I have pulled back a little is because I want to choose really brand-new settings/authors, rather than falling back on my usual French/German/Scandinavian/South African staples. So, although I read 3 French books, 1 Japanese book, 1 German book, 1 Irish and 1 Swedish book and 1 ‘vampirish’ novel this month. I am reluctant to put any of them down as my European component. Because none of that would be new to me. Mission not accomplished. Have to do better next month!

2) January in Japan Challenge hosted by Tony Malone at Tony’s Reading List. Not quite good enough. I only managed to finish one book: Kanae Minato’s Confessions and am still in the midst of reading Natsume Sōseki’s last, unfinished novel Light and Dark. As for my ambition to read the new(ish) translation of Tales of Genji (Royall Tyler version): well, this will have to wait, but will hopefully be my epic undertaking for the year.

tbr-dare-20143) TBR Double Dog Dare  hosted by James at James Reads Books. This is a last-ditch attempt to bring some order into the chaos which is my TBR pile – overflowing on shelves, on the floor and threatening to inundate my laptop and tablet as well. The aim is to not buy any new books until I have made a sizeable dent in my pile of ready and waiting books. With a little cheating. i.e. borrowing from libraries just before the holidays and last minute purchasing of books in 2014, I managed to do quite well with this challenge – victory!

The three library books I borrowed were all in French, so they don’t count, because it’s like work (improving my vocabulary, making the most of my current location etc. etc.) They were:

  • Patrick Modiano: L’Herbe des nuits

Given the blurb on the back, I was expecting more of a crime fiction type mystery, but it’s the usual Modiano fare about the reliability of memory, how well we really know people, trying to recapture the past and whether nostalgia really lives up to its name.

  • Jeanne Desaubry: Poubelle’s Girls

poubelles-girls-jeanne-desaubyA touching Thelma and Louise type story of two women living on the margins of French society and the unlikely friendship which arises between them. A depressingly realistic story of the poor and downtrodden, but also quite funny, with fascinating, well-rounded characters and juicy dialogue.

  • Daniel Pennac: Comme un roman

An essay about the joys of reading and how schools, parents, teachers and book snobs are in danger of killing off the joys of reading for young people. Contains the famous Ten Comandments of Reading (or the Rights of the Reader)

1. Le droit de ne pas lire. The right to not read.
2. Le droit de sauter des pages. The right to skip pages
3. Le droit de ne pas finir un livre. The right to not finish a book.
4. Le droit de relire. The right to reread.
5. Le droit de lire n’importe quoi. The right to read whatever you please.
6. Le droit au bovarysme (maladie textuellement transmissible). The right to Bovaryism (textually transmitted disease).
7. Le droit de lire n’importe où. The right to read wherever you please.
8. Le droit de grappiller. The right to dip into books.
9. Le droit de lire à haute voix. The right to read out loud.
10. Le droit de se taire. The right to shut up.

The other books have all been from my existing shelves and most of them have been reviewed elsewhere:

  • Tana French: The Likeness – bought second-hand last year . My first, but certainly not my last Tana French book. Although the plot did seem implausible in places, I really enjoyed the engaging writing, poetic at times, and the genuine sadness of the failure of any idealistic community.
  • Lynn Shepherd: The Pierced Heart  – ebook sent to me by the author in exchange for an honest review (having reviewed a previous book of hers). The vampire story for those who do not like vampire stories (which I don’t).
  • Jonas Karlsson: The Room  – Netgalley ebook sent by publisher way back in November. A perfect modern fable about corporate life and the death of the imagination.
  • Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train – downloaded from Netgalley several months ago. The life of others always seems more attractive when we are making a mess of our own… and when we see them from a distance. A psychological thriller full of unreliable narrators and domestic claustrophobia.
  • girlwhowasntFerdinand von Schirach: The Girl Who Wasn’t There – copy sent by publisher for review on CFL. Not really a crime novel, more of a ‘coming of age’ story, plus a courtroom drama debating issues of justice, art, trial by media and much more – beautifully written.

The final book I read this month was Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, which I bought in the last few weeks of 2014 following the review by Jacqui. I had previously read the reviews by Tony and Bibliobio, but kept putting it off as far too depressing a subject. Then Jacqui gave me the final nudge. A very emotional read, engaging all your senses – abandon all rationality ye who enter this maelstrom! Will review in more depth shortly.