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.
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:
What actually becomes of all this terrible art for sale in cafes, costing the earth?
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.
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).
Mircea 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.
Elena 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.