Reviews, riffs, etc. of June-July, 2016 (and an unrelated pig)

I read a lot of great books over the past few months and failed to write proper reviews for some of them, including two by Stanley Elkin—The Franchiser and The Dick Gibson Showa double feature of two novellas by W.D. Clarke called White Mythology, and Marketa Lazarova by Vladislav Vančura. But I did riff on other books.


One of the best books I’ve read in ages is Brazilian writer João Gilberto Noll’s 1991 novella Quiet Creature on the Corner (new in English translation (by Adam Morris) from Two Lines Press). I reviewed the book, but also noted

The book is probably best read without any kind of foregrounding or forewarning.

Forewarning (and enthusiastic endorsement): Quiet Creature on the Corner is a nightmarish, abject, kinetic, surreal, picaresque read, a mysterious prose-poem that resists allegorical interpretation. I read it and then I read it again. It’s a puzzle. I enjoyed it tremendously.


 

I also wrote about the books I’ve started the most times without ever finishing, asking readers in turn what books they’ve started the most times without finishing. 

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Frequent answers (both on the blog, on Twitter, and via email) included lots of “big” books, especially Gravity’s RainbowWar and PeaceMoby-Dick, and Infinite Jest. I was also surprised at how many readers cited Dostoevksy’s novel The Idiot, a book I’ve started at least four times without success.


Readers also told me that I needed to stick it out with The Charterhouse of Parma, which I did. I wrote about French Stendhal’s “Italian” novel here and here. Short version: Parts were great but the novel was often exhausting—Charterhouse is a novel about boredom that is frequently boring. But the fault is mine.


Another French novel I got bored with was Hell, Henri Barbusse’s 1908 novel of voyeurism (I read (and often just skimmed, to be honest) 1966 English translation by Robert Baldick. (As an aside, I think my boredom and comprehension of the novel made it easy to write about—whereas I sometimes have difficulty writing about a novel that I find perplexing and which I feel a passion for, like Vančura’s Marketa Lazarova).


I was very passionate about an Italian “Italian” novel (or set of novels, I suppose), Elena Ferrante’s so-called Neapolitan Novels. I wrote about Ferrante’s powers of abjection, stating—

From the earliest pages of the first novel, My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante crafts a world—a brutal neighborhood in Naples—which seems real, full, squirming with dirty bloody life. The novel also reminded me of 2666, although I couldn’t figure out why at first (my friend had not suggested a connection). A simple answer is that both novels are propulsive, addictive, impossibly rich, and evocative of specific and real worlds, real worlds anchored in dreams and nightmares.

But it’s also the horror. Ferrante, like Bolaño, captures the horrific violence under the veneer of civilization. While My Brilliant Friend and its three “sequels” (they are one novel, to be sure) undertake to show the joys and triumphs and sadnesses of a life (and more than one life), they also reverberate with the sinister specter of abjection—the abjection of violence, of history, and of the body itself. The novels are messy, bloody, and tangled, their plot trajectories belying conventional expectations (in the same way that the novels’ awful covers belie their internal excellence—kitschy romantic smears glossing over tumult).

I’m glad I finished the quartet.


As a sort of sequel or answer or rejoinder or whatever to my question posing post about books I’ve attempted the most without ever finishing, I wrote about the novels I’m always dipping into without ever hoping to really finish.

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I also recycled two older posts: A thing I wrote about The BFG as a love letter Dahl wrote to his deceased daughter (recycled for the Spielberg film) and a review of Hemingway’s overlooked novel of doomed polyamory, The Garden of Eden (recycled for the man’s birthday).


I also spent a fun Friday afternoon browsing old sci-fi covers.


Also: Derek Pyle, of Waywords and Meansigns,  interviewed novelist Brian Hall about a bunch of stuff, including his work adapting Finnegans Wake, a novel on my “I probably will never really read this all the way through, but…” list.


Promised pig: Jamie Wyeth’s Winter Pig, 1975–

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The empty frame where the image of the author is supposed to be (Elena Ferrante)

Evidently, in a world where philological education has almost completely disappeared, where critics are no longer attentive to style, the decision not to be present as an author generates ill will and this type of fantasy. The experts stare at the empty frame where the image of the author is supposed to be and they don’t have the technical tools, or, more simply, the true passion and sensitivity as readers, to fill that space with the works. So they forget that every individual work has its own story. Only the label of the name or a rigorous philological examination allows us to take for granted that the author of Dubliners is the same person who wrote Ulysses andFinnegans Wake. The cultural education of any high school student should include the idea that a writer adapts depending on what he or she needs to express. Instead, most people think anyone literate can write a story. They don’t understand that a writer works hard to be flexible, to face many different trials, and without ever knowing what the outcome will be.

Elena Ferrante in her Paris Review interview, 2015.

Dissolving boundaries | Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels

Organism (detail), Fred Tomaselli
Organism (detail), Fred Tomaselli

A few weeks ago I finished The Story of the Lost Child, the last of Elena Ferrante’s so-called Neapolitan Novels, and now perhaps have enough distance to comment on them briefly.

The novels have been much-hyped, which initially put me off (nearly as much as their awful kitschy covers), but the same friend who urged me to give Bolaño’s 2666 a go (after I misfired with The Savage Detectives) insisted I read Ferrante.

I’m glad I did. From the earliest pages of the first novel, My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante crafts a world—a brutal neighborhood in Naples—which seems real, full, squirming with dirty bloody life. The novel also reminded me of 2666, although I couldn’t figure out why at first (my friend had not suggested a connection). A simple answer is that both novels are propulsive, addictive, impossibly rich, and evocative of specific and real worlds, real worlds anchored in dreams and nightmares.

But it’s also the horror. Ferrante, like Bolaño, captures the horrific violence under the veneer of civilization. While My Brilliant Friend and its three “sequels” (they are one novel, to be sure) undertake to show the joys and triumphs and sadnesses of a life (and more than one life), they also reverberate with the sinister specter of abjection—the abjection of violence, of history, and of the body itself. The novels are messy, bloody, and tangled, their plot trajectories belying conventional expectations (in the same way that the novels’ awful covers belie their internal excellence—kitschy romantic smears glossing over tumult).

It’s this horrific abjection that fascinates me most about the novels. I’ll offer two longish passages from the final book in the quartet, The Story of the Lost Child, to showcase Ferrante’s prowess with (what I take to be her dominant) theme and tone.

The first passage comes fairly early in the long novel, when our (now mature) heroine Lenù encounters a suicide’s corpse:

No answer. I knocked harder, I opened the door cautiously, the room was dark. I called him, silence, I turned on the light.

There was blood on the pillow and on the sheet, a large blackish stain that extended to his feet. Death is so repellent. Here I will say only that when I saw that body deprived of life, that body which I knew intimately, which had been happy and active, which had read so many books and had been exposed to so many experiences, I felt both repulsion and pity. [He] had been a living material saturated with political culture, with generous purposes and hopes, with good manners. Now he offered a horrible spectacle of himself. He had rid himself so fiercely of memory, language, the capacity to find meaning that it seemed obvious the hatred he had for himself, for his own skin, for his moods, for his thoughts and words, for the brutal corner of the world that had enveloped him.

Ferrante’s passage here strongly echoes Julia Kristeva’s 1980 essay “Approaching Abjection.” Kristeva writes (emphasis mine):

The corpse…upsets even more violently the one who confronts it as fragile and fallacious chance….as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border…the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. It is no longer I who expel — “I” is expelled.

In my reading, Ferrante’s heroines Lenù and Lila are detectives of the abject, of the (literally) unnamable forces of culture (and oh-what-a-culture patriarchal Naples is!) that threaten subjectivity. They each seek to assert an I in a world that would devastate such an assertion.

Lenù and Lila claim their assertion through creative agency—through art. And Ferrante’s greatest strength, perhaps, in the Neapolitan Novels is that she harnesses this art, she conveys the brilliance of these brilliant friends, and does not merely “tell” the reader of their brilliance (like so many contemporary “literary” novels do). Ferrante shows authorship (and genius) as a shared, collaborative process, not an isolation, but a synthesis.

If these novels concern synthesis, they also show fracture, fragmentation, and dissolution. Observe Lenù and Lila in a key moment from The Story of the Lost Child , during a calamitous earthquake (again, emphasis mine):

She exclaimed: Oh Madonna, an expression I had never heard her use. What’s wrong, I asked. Gasping for breath, she cried out that the car’s boundaries were dissolving, the boundaries of Marcello, too, at the wheel were dissolving, the thing and the person were gushing out of themselves, mixing liquid metal and flesh. She used that term: dissolving boundaries.

It was on that occasion that she resorted to it for the first time; she struggled to elucidate the meaning, she wanted me to understand what the dissolution of boundaries meant and how much it frightened her. She was still holding my hand tight, breathing hard. She said that the outlines of things and people were delicate, that they broke like cotton thread. She whispered that for her it had always been that way, an object lost its edges and poured into another, into a solution of heterogeneous materials, a merging and mixing. She exclaimed that she had always had to struggle to believe that life had firm boundaries, for she had known since she was a child that it was not like that—it was absolutely not like that—and so she couldn’t trust in their resistance to being banged and bumped. Contrary to what she had been doing, she began to utter a profusion of overexcited sentences, sometimes kneading in the vocabulary of the dialect, sometimes drawing on the vast reading she had done as a girl. She muttered that she mustn’t ever be distracted: if she became distracted real things, which, with their violent, painful contortions, terrified her, would gain the upper hand over the unreal ones, which, with their physical and moral solidity, pacified her; she would be plunged into a sticky, jumbled reality and would never again be able to give sensations clear outlines. A tactile emotion would melt into a visual one, a visual one would melt into an olfactory one, ah, what is the real world, Lenù, nothing, nothing, nothing about which one can say conclusively: it’s like that. And so if she didn’t stay alert, if she didn’t pay attention to the boundaries, the waters would break through, a flood would rise, carrying everything off in clots of menstrual blood, in cancerous polyps, in bits of yellowish fiber.

Kristeva’s abjection is again strongly embodied in those last few lines—the dissolution, the unspeakable and repressed forces, the trauma. The rivers of abject bodily filth. Here’s Kristeva, again from “Approaching Abjection” (my emphasis):

A massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness, which, familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten life, now harries me as radically separate, loathsome. Not me. Not that. But not nothing, either. A “something” that I do not recognize as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me. On the edge of nonexistence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me. There, abject and abjection are my safeguards. The primers of my culture.

Lila and Lenù face abjection, the primer of their culture. They trace its contours, aim at ways of speaking the unspeakable—through friendship and the fruits of that friendship: storytelling. The storytelling offers a literal form to handle the abject violence of the culture in its many, many forms (corrupt politicians, abusive fathers, abusive husbands, predatory rapists, predatory lenders, Cammorist gangsters, systemic class inequality, religion…).

The storytelling confronts abjection without seeking a transcendence, an exit, an out. Ferrante recognizes that humans are violent animals, and doesn’t want to comfort us. In an interview, she said:

I’m drawn, rather, to images of crisis, to seals that are broken. When shapes lose their contours, we see what most terrifies us…I cling to those that are painful, those that arise from a profound crisis of all our illusions. I love unreal things when they show signs of firsthand knowledge of the terror, and hence an awareness that they are unreal, that they will not hold up for long against the collisions.

Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels have no interest in consoling their readers. Yet they do evoke an essential power of storytelling, a power not to transcend abjection, but rather to endure a subjectivity through abjection: Love. “Love is something spoken, and it is only that: poets have always known it,” writes Kristeva in another essay, “Throes of Love: The Field of the Metaphor.” In the Neapolitan Novels, Lenù speaks her love to her brilliant lost friend Lila. The result is moving and exhausting, an epic of fragments, a saga as discontinuous and unexpected as a real and full life. And if not all those fragments will stick in my memory, what comes through in the end is a sense of love, an author’s love her characters that persuades the readers to love them too.

Organism (detail), Fred Tomaselli
Organism (detail), Fred Tomaselli

Ghostly moves (From Elena Ferrante’s novel The Story of the Lost Child)

We locked ourselves in her office and sat at the computer, a kind of television with a keyboard, very different from what she had showed me and the children some time before. She pressed the power button, she slid dark rectangles into gray blocks. I waited, bewildered. On the screen luminous tremors appeared. Lila began to type on the keyboard, I was speechless. It was in no way comparable to a typewriter, even an electric one. With her fingertips she caressed gray keys, and the writing appeared silently on the screen, green like newly sprouted grass. What was in her head, attached to who knows what cortex of the brain, seemed to pour out miraculously and fix itself on the void of the screen. It was power that, although passing for act, remained power, an electrochemical stimulus that was instantly transformed into light. It seemed to me like the writing of God as it must have been on Sinai at the time of the Commandments, impalpable and tremendous, but with a concrete effect of purity. Magnificent, I said. I’ll teach you, she said. And she taught me, and dazzling, hypnotic segments began to lengthen, sentences that I said, sentences that she said, our volatile discussions were imprinted on the dark well of the screen like wakes without foam. Lila wrote, I would reconsider. Then with one key she erased, with others she made an entire block of light disappear, and made it reappear higher up or lower down in a second. But right afterward it was Lila who changed her mind, and everything was altered again, in a flash: ghostly moves, what’s here now is no longer here or is there. And no need for pen, pencil, no need to change the paper, put another sheet in the roller. The page is the screen, unique, no trace of a second thought, it always seems the same. And the writing is incorruptible, the lines are all perfectly straight, they emit a sense of cleanliness even now that we are adding the filthy acts of the Solaras to the filthy acts of half of Campania.

From Elena Ferrante’s novel The Story of the Lost Child. English translation by Ann Goldstein.

There’s a lot going on in this passage, in which the heroines of the so-called Neapolitan Novels, Elena and Lila, write an essay together using a personal computer’s word processing program (it’s the first time for Lila; I haven’t done the math here, but I think this episode might happen around 1982 or ’83). From the outset, from the earliest pages of My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante’s heroines have been preoccupied by writing, and in many ways these novels perform their own metatextual self-critiques. Not only does this passage show the experience of writing refreshed by a new technology, it also shows shows that authorship  is a shared, collaborative process, a synthesis (and fracture)—and not the act of a solitary genius. And in its final sentence, the passage points to a willed purity of writing, a stable resistance to the abjection and filth and evil that unceasingly threaten our narrator’s existence.

Reviews and riffs of February-May, 2016 (and an unrelated stag)

Hey, wow. Haven’t done one of these in a while.


I reread William Gaddis’s big big novel J R, writing

Only a handful of novels are so perfectly simultaneously comic and tragic. Moby-Dick? Yes. Gravity’s Rainbow? Absolutely. (G R and J R, a duo published two years apart, spiritual twins, massive American novels that maybe America hardly deserves (or, rather: theses novels were/are totally the critique America deserves). I guess maybe what I’m saying is J  R is the Great American Novel to Come (The Recognitions is perhaps overpraised and certainly not Gaddis’s best novel; J R is. The zeitgeist has been caught up to J R, the culture should (will) catch up).


I also read and wrote about Ashley Dawson’s Extinction: A Radical History, a scary little primer that argues mass species extinction is

…the product of a global attack on the commons, the great trove of air, water, plants and creatures, as well as collectively created cultural forms such as language, that have been regarded traditionally as the inheritance of humanity as a whole…capital of course depends on continuous commodification of this environment to sustain its growth.

My reading of Extinction—and hence my writing about it—is/was inextricably bound up in a viewing of Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 eco-fable 1997 , Mononoke-hime. (The film’s title is usually rendered in English as Princess Mononoke, but I think Spirit-Monster Wolfchild is a more fitting translation). I also linked the book to Gilgamesh and Easter. And I used this gif:

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I wrote a post about listening to audiobook versions of “difficult novels,” taking my lead and license from this big quote from William H. Gass’s essay “The Sentence Seeks Its Form”:

Breath (pneuma) has always been seen as a sign of life . . . Language is speech before it is anything. It is born of babble and shaped by imitating other sounds. It therefore must be listened to while it is being written. So the next time someone asks you that stupid question, “Who is your audience?” or “Whom do you write for?” you can answer, “The ear.” I don’t just read Henry James; I hear him. . . . The writer must be a musician—accordingly. Look at what you’ve written, but later … at your leisure. First—listen. Listen to Joyce, to Woolf, to Faulkner, to Melville.


99 reasons I didn’t read your novel.


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I reviewed Mahendra Singh’s marvelous satire American Candide. Far better than my measly review is a long interview I did with Singh, who is just a damn genius. I’m most grateful for the final exchange of our review, which was not really a part of the official q & a type thing we were doing—rather, I was bemoaning my ability to write anything lately, and Mahendra offered me the following, which I edited into the interview:

The hidden contempt that our culture harbors towards art will drive you nuts if you think about it … so don’t think too much … write instead! And if you can’t write, read smartly. I find great solace in the classics and have devoted most of my life to trying in whatever way I can to perpetuate the classical tradition (in concealment) and create situations where young people can gain access to the eternal truths and beauty of the classical world tradition. We are living in a time of imperial decline and must preserve the best of the past as our ancestors did in similar times of trouble. The pendulum will swing the other way in a few centuries.


Prince died.

I wrote about him in a Three Books post.

The three books had nothing to do with Prince.


Despite some fascinating images, I was not impressed by Ben Wheatley’s film adaptation of Ballard’s High-Rise. I concluded that,

While the High-Rise adaptation delivers Ballardian style, that Ballardian style only points at itself, and not at our Ballardian present, our Ballardian future.


And I wrote about Ferrante, Knausgaard, and their good/bad/ironic book covers.


Here’s that promised stag (by Diego Velazquez):

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Three Books (On Ferrante, Knausgaard, irony, and covers good and bad)

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My Struggle, Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard. English translation by Don Bartlett. First edition trade paperback by FS&G, 2013. Cover design by Charlotte Strick and Bill Zindel, with cover art by Bill Zindel.

I couldn’t really get past page 80 of My Struggle, but I like Zindel’s zany design for the first volume enough to hold on to it. Kinda reminds me of those Vintage Contemporaries I so adore.

A lot of people didn’t like the design though, and FS&G didn’t end up publishing the rest of Zindel’s designs, which would’ve looked pretty neat as a complete set. As literary critic Scott Esposito put it at the time “the market has spoken, and it hates the original paperback.”

Instead, FS&G went with variations on this—

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My Struggle, Book 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard. English translation by Don Bartlett. First edition trade paperback by FS&G, 2014. Cover design by Charlotte Strick; photograph by Andreas Eikseth Nygjerd.

Look at our boy Knausgaard, smokin’ away! This cover is boring but not Bad, which makes it far less interesting than the Bad Knausgaard cover which is actually very Good. The Book 2 cover (and subsequent covers in the series) are safe and “stylish”—and when I write “stylish,” I use it in the way many writers use it—thoughtlessly, blankly—stylish as a word that points vaguely to the idea of style, the zeitgeistiness of style. Etc. (Again—I encourage you to check out Zindel’s vision for the whole series).

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My Brilliant Friend by Elena FerranteEnglish translation by Ann Goldstein. Fifteenth printing, Europa Editions, 2015. Book design by Emanuele Ragnisco; cover photo by Anthony Boccaccio.

My Brilliant Friend is brilliant, my friend.

Its cover is awful, and the subsequent covers in the so-called Neapolitan Novels quartet are somehow worse.

A good friend who’s never steered me wrong with a reading recommendation told me to read Ferrante last year, but I didn’t—it wasn’t the hype that put me off (although the hype put me off), but the covers. I finally acquiesced to an audiobook version, and after getting a few chapters in, wanted the text. So I caved.

But my god, the cover—why?

The publisher and art director(s) claim that the Ferrante covers are bad on purpose.

An article in Quartz that I found simply by googling “Ferrante covers awful” yields this nugget:

…Sandro Ferri, Europa Editions’ publisher, says the covers were not an accident of too many cooks in the design kitchen, but rather a conscious choice. Writes Ferri in an email to Quartz, “The ‘vulgarity’ is our intention. We don’t want to make the typical ‘literary’ cover designed for an audience of ultra-sophisticated readers. … Ferrante’s novels are a mix of popular literature and highbrow, intellectual writing. We want to communicate this though our covers as well.”

And in a Slate interview, EE co-founder/publisher Sandra Ozzola again asserts that the decision for tacky covers was, um, purposeful:

From the time of our first conversation with Elena Ferrante about her intention to write this novel, we knew the book’s title and that it would be the story of a long friendship between women—and that it would conclude with a scene of a very vulgar Neapolitan wedding. The wedding and Elena’s impression of it … is an extremely important moment in the book. That’s why I intentionally searched for a photo that was “kitsch.” This design choice continued in the subsequent books, because vulgarity is an important aspect of the books, of all that Elena wants to distance herself from.

If we take a book’s cover to be where the book “begins,” where we first start to read the text, then EE’s awful kitschy crappy ugly covers signal postmodern irony—a joke on perception, the marketplace, high-low aesthetics, etc. The covers work as a kind of metatextual critique, then, as Ozzola seems to suggest above—a critique that relies on the reader’s understanding of the novel’s central character’s aesthetic viewpoint.

Well so then: Are the covers indeed ironic critiques of book-cover-aesthetics? Are we to take these covers as pop art parodies of books that traffic in romantic aspirations, that are, like, marketed to women?

Or are these covers simply designed to appeal to the very market that they would claim to ironically mock?

The have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too postmodern answer to these questions is, of course, “Yes.”

To fully appreciate the aesthetic irony of the Ferrante novels of course requires reading the Ferrante novels. And undoubtedly, many people are put off reading these books because of the covers. So much so that Ferrante’s novels got new covers for their Australian release. The new covers were designed by W.H. Chong:

Mr Chong told The New Daily it can be dangerous to try irony on a book’s cover – especially if the joke isn’t clear to readers.

“You have to signal the irony really clearly otherwise the recipient doesn’t realise the irony,” Mr Chong said.

“You have to signal the irony really clearly” — okay, sure. But the finest satire never announces itself as such.

Chong’s new covers feature simple black-and-white photographs, and they have received praise. But in a sense, the Australian covers seem, at least to me, to echo those Knausgaard updates—safe, boring even. But I’d much rather be seen reading one of those, than, say, the original EE edition of The Story of the Lost Child, which has maybe the worst cover I’ve ever seen.

Europa Editions’ forthcoming Ferrante collection, Frantumaglia, has a great cover, by the way.

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend

[Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews Elena Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant FriendI’ve preserved the reviewers’ original punctuation and spelling. I love Ferrante’s novel, by the way. More one-star Amazon reviews].


 

ugh

Odd book

too wordy

so violent

so bummed

Depressing

It’s a series

stupid critics

Maybe terrific

I was so board

Did outline it all

I loved this book

It simply ended!!

So many characters

Too many characters

Not so Good this time

like Twitter on steroids

angst-filled adolescence

I’m an uncultured swine

Everyone in our book club

reading it for my book club

the ending was a dirty trick

there are over 40 characters

Riddled with punctuation errors

Chick lit with no plot or substance

This book is an exercise in despair

I was looking forward to this trilogy

by far the worst book I have every read

Of course it’s a matter of personal taste

the characters were not very nice people

I consider family sagas my favorite genre

endless clusters of names, names, names

Italian names that are difficult to remember

the characters are unlikable (and confusing)

we finished it only because it was Book Club

I damned near tore out what’s left of my hair

too many characters none of whom are likable

a story of domestic violence and male dominance

This book could not have been written by a woman

the main characters are interdependent in a very sick way

Boring and couldn’t Finnish it despite raves from others.?

Just couldn’t get past the violence and disrespect of people

found myself having to look back to figure out who was who

the two central characters may have been intended to be complex and interesting (and may be across the series) they were boorish and flat

the narrator was dryly describing events, as opposed to us being shown what happens through her interaction with characters and the world around her

the struggle of two smart intelligent girls to escape their poor brutal neighborhood in vain

basically a long list of long Italian names and stereotypes

one of my favorite books is The Brothers Karamazov

Just one self-absorbed observation after another

This book could not have been written by a man

WAY too many characters to keep track of

One of the best books I have ever read!

discussing it at my book club this week

an indulgent description of characters

the words did not flow in an easy way

If there were a zero stars rating

I read a lot in a variety if genres

her prose is dry and impersonal

meandering, fancy Chick Lit

it is the first part of a series

I am an English teacher

the characters are dark

what a very long book

choppy and uneven

too many charactors

more of a YA book

tooooo long !!!’n

laborious at best

like a soap opera

wonderful book

my book club

dix no finish

pure drivel

Pure trash

No possibility of transcendence (Elena Ferrante)

I’m always surprised when someone points out as a flaw the fact that my stories contain no possibility of transcendence. Here I’d like to move on to a statement of principle: since the age of fifteen, I haven’t believed in the kingdom of any God, in Heaven or on Earth—in fact, wherever you place it, it seems dangerous to me. On the other hand, I share the opinion that most of the concepts we work with have a theological origin. Theology helps us understand the origins of the dregs we even now resort to. As for the rest, I don’t know what to tell you. I’m comforted by stories that emerge through horror to a turning point, stories in which someone is redeemed as confirmation that peace and happiness are possible, or that one can return to a private or public Eden. But I tried to write a story like that, long ago, and I discovered that I didn’t believe in it. I’m drawn, rather, to images of crisis, to seals that are broken. When shapes lose their contours, we see what most terrifies us, as in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” and Clarice Lispector’s extraordinary “Passion According to G.H.” You don’t go beyond that; you have to take a step back and, to survive, reënter some good fiction. I don’t believe, however, that every fiction we orchestrate is good. I cling to those that are painful, those that arise from a profound crisis of all our illusions. I love unreal things when they show signs of firsthand knowledge of the terror, and hence an awareness that they are unreal, that they will not hold up for long against the collisions. Human beings are extremely violent animals, and the violence they are always ready to use in order to impose their own eternal, salvific life vest, while shattering those of others, is frightening.

Elena Ferrante in conversation with novelist Nicola Lagioia. English translation by Ann Goldstein. The full exchange between Lagioia and Ferrante will be published in Frantumaglia: An Author’s Journey Told Through Letters, Interviews, and Occasional Writings this fall. Read a longer (and fascinating) excerpt at The New Yorker. 

From this darkness packs of mad dogs will emerge, vipers, scorpions, enormous sea serpents (From Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name)

I made the dark descent. Now the moon was visible amid scattered pale-edged clouds; the evening was very fragrant, and you could hear the hypnotic rhythm of the waves. On the beach I took off my shoes, the sand was cold, a gray-blue light extended as far as the sea and then spread over its tremulous expanse. I thought: yes, Lila is right, the beauty of things is a trick, the sky is the throne of fear; I’m alive, now, here, ten steps from the water, and it is not at all beautiful, it’s terrifying; along with this beach, the sea, the swarm of animal forms, I am part of the universal terror; at this moment I’m the infinitesimal particle through which the fear of every thing becomes conscious of itself; I; I who listen to the sound of the sea, who feel the dampness and the cold sand; I who imagine all Ischia, the entwined bodies of Nino and Lila, Stefano sleeping by himself in the new house that is increasingly not so new, the furies who indulge the happiness of today to feed the violence of tomorrow. Ah, it’s true, my fear is too great and so I hope that everything will end soon, that the figures of the nightmares will consume my soul. I hope that from this darkness packs of mad dogs will emerge, vipers, scorpions, enormous sea serpents. I hope that while I’m sitting here, on the edge of the sea, assassins will arrive out of the night and torture my body. Yes, yes, let me be punished for my insufficiency, let the worst happen, something so devastating that it will prevent me from facing tonight, tomorrow, the hours and days to come, reminding me with always more crushing evidence of my unsuitable constitution. Thoughts like that I had, the frenzied thoughts of girlish discouragement. I gave myself up to them, for I don’t know how long.

From Elena Ferrante’s 2012 novel The Story of a New Name. English translation by Ann Goldstein.

Beckett critique (From Elena Ferrante’s novel The Story of a New Name)

“Have you ever been to the theater?”

“A few times.”

“Did you like it?”

“It was all right.”

“I’ve never been, but I’ve seen it on television.”

“It’s not the same thing.”

“I know, but better than nothing.”

And at that point she took out of her bag the book I had given her, the volume of Beckett’s plays, and showed it to him.

“Have you read this?”

Nino took the book, examined it, admitted uneasily, “No.”

“So there is something you haven’t read.”

“Yes.”

“You should read it.”

Lila began to talk to us about the book. To my surprise she was very deliberate, she talked the way she used to, choosing the words so as to make us see people and things, and also the emotion she gave them, portraying them anew keeping them there, present, alive. She said that we didn’t have to wait for nuclear war, in the book it was as if it had already happened. She told us at length about a woman named Winnie who at a certain point announced, another happy day, and she herself declaimed the phrase, becoming so upset that, in uttering it, her voice trembled slightly: another happy day, words that were insupportable, because nothing, nothing, she explained, in Winnie’s life, nothing in her gestures, nothing in her head, was happy, not that day or the preceding days. But, she added, the biggest impression had been made on her by a Dan Rooney. Dan Rooney, she said, is blind but he’s not bitter about it, because he believes that life is better without sight, and in fact he wonders whether, if one became deaf and mute, life would not be still more life, life without anything but life.

“Why did you like it?” Nino asked.

“I don’t know yet if I liked it.”

“But it made you curious.”

“It made me think. What does it mean that life is more life without sight, without hearing, even without words?”

“Maybe it’s just a gimmick.”

“No, what gimmick. There’s a thing here that suggests a thousand others, it’s not a gimmick.”

From Elena Ferrante’s 2012 novel The Story of a New Name. English translation by Ann Goldstein.

Ferrante’s so-called Neapolitan Novels do at least two things successfully that so many contemporary novels of “literary” fiction attempt and fail to do:

One, Ferrante harnesses and demonstrates the intellectual force of her two protagonists/antagonists. Many contemporary novelists insist on the brilliance of a particular character, but fail to capture and convey any sense of brilliance.

Two, Ferrante uses metatextual literary references adroitly and meaningfully, where other contemporary writers often clunkily throw in references to greater works of literature as a means to offer ballast to an otherwise-lite offering.

The body of the bride Lila appeared cruelly shredded (From Elena Ferrante’s novel The Story of a New Name)

It was a beautiful warm evening; the brilliant lights of the shop’s interior spread their glow into the square. The gigantic image of Lila in her wedding dress could be seen at a distance, leaning against the center wall. Stefano parked, we went in, making our way among the boxes of shoes, piled up haphazardly, cans of paint, ladders. Marcello, Rino, Gigliola, and Pinuccia were visibly irritated: for varying reasons they had no wish to submit yet again to Lila’s caprices. The only one who greeted us cordially was Michele, who turned to my friend with a mocking laugh. “Lovely signora, will you let us know, at last, what you have in mind or do you just want to ruin the evening?”

Lila looked at the panel leaning against the wall, asked them to lay it on the floor. Marcello said cautiously, with the dark timidity that he always showed toward Lila, “What for?”

“I’ll show you.”

Rino interrupted: “Don’t be an idiot, Lina. You know how much this thing cost? If you ruin it, you’re in trouble.”

The Solaras laid the image on the floor. Lila looked around, with her brow furrowed, her eyes narrowed. She was looking for something that she knew was there, that perhaps she had bought herself. In a corner she spied a roll of black paper, and she took a pair of big scissors and a box of drawing pins from a shelf. Then, with that expression of extreme concentration which enabled her to isolate herself from everything around her, she went back to the panel. Before our astonished and, in the cases of some, openly hostile eyes, she cut strips of black paper, with the manual precision she had always possessed, and pinned them here and there to the photograph, asking for my help with slight gestures or quick glances.

I joined in with the devotion that I had felt ever since we were children. Those moments were thrilling, it was a pleasure to be beside her, slipping inside her intentions, to the point of anticipating her. I felt that she was seeing something that wasn’t there, and that she was struggling to make us see it, too. I was suddenly happy, feeling the intensity that invested her, that flowed through her fingers as they grasped the scissors, as they pinned the black paper.

Finally, she tried to lift the canvas, as if she were alone in that space, but she couldn’t. Marcello readily intervened, I intervened, we leaned it against the wall. Then we all backed up toward the door, some sneering, some grim, some appalled. The body of the bride Lila appeared cruelly shredded. Much of the head had disappeared, as had the stomach. There remained an eye, the hand on which the chin rested, the brilliant stain of the mouth, the diagonal stripe of the bust, the line of the crossed legs, the shoes.

Gigliola began, scarcely containing her rage: “I cannot put a thing like that in my shop.”

“I agree,” Pinuccia exploded. “We have to sell here, and with that grotesque thing people will run away. Rino, say something to your sister, please.”

Rino pretended to ignore her, but he turned to Stefano as if his brother-in-law were to blame for what was happening. “I told you, you can’t reason with her. You have to say yes, no, and that’s it, or you see what happens? It’s a waste of time.”

Stefano didn’t answer, he stared at the panel leaning against the wall and it was evident that he was looking for a way out. He asked me, “What do you think, Lenù?”

I said in Italian, “To me it seems very beautiful. Of course, I wouldn’t want it in the neighborhood, that’s not the right place for it. But here it’s something else, it will attract attention, it will please. In Confidenze just last week I saw that in Rossano Brazzi’s house there is a painting like this.”

Hearing that, Gigliola got even angrier. “What do you mean? That Rossano Brazzi knows what’s what, that you two know everything, and Pinuccia and I don’t?”

At that point I felt the danger. I had only to glance at Lila to realize that, if when we arrived at the shop she had really felt willing to give in should the attempt prove fruitless, now that the attempt had been made and had produced that image of disfigurement she wouldn’t yield an inch. Those minutes of work on the picture had broken ties: at that moment she was overwhelmed by an exaggerated sense of herself, and it would take time for her to retreat into the dimension of the grocer’s wife, she wouldn’t accept a sigh of dissent. In fact, while Gigliola was speaking, she was already muttering: Like this or not at all. And she wanted to quarrel, she wanted to break, shatter, she would have happily hurled herself at Gigliola with the scissors.

From Elena Ferrante’s 2012 novel The Story of a New Name. English translation by Ann Goldstein. I’m not sure how well the passage stands free of any context—I know there are a lot of characters here with backgrounds that won’t be clear to anyone who hasn’t read Ferrante’s novel (read it!)—but I love this passage, where brilliant friends Lila and Lenù collaborate to turn advertising into art, to artistically—and violently, perhaps—erase Lila’s body from the patriarchal order into which she has been inscribed.

Completely cleansed of the dross of speech (From Elena Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant Friend)

I stuck my head out the window, the postman said there was a letter for Greco. I ran down with my heart pounding. I ruled out the possibility that my parents had written to me. Was it a letter from Lila, from Nino? It was from Lila. I tore open the envelope. There were five closely written pages, and I devoured them, but I understood almost nothing of what I read. It may seem strange today, and yet it really was so: even before I was overwhelmed by the contents, what struck me was that the writing contained Lila’s voice. Not only that. From the first lines I thought of The Blue Fairy, the only text of hers that I had read, apart from our elementary-school homework, and I understood what, at the time, I had liked so much. There was, in The Blue Fairy, the same quality that struck me now: Lila was able to speak through writing; unlike me when I wrote, unlike Sarratore in his articles and poems, unlike even many writers I had read and was reading, she expressed herself in sentences that were well constructed, and without error, even though she had stopped going to school, but—further—she left no trace of effort, you weren’t aware of the artifice of the written word. I read and I saw her, I heard her. The voice set in the writing overwhelmed me, enthralled me even more than when we talked face to face: it was completely cleansed of the dross of speech, of the confusion of the oral; it had the vivid orderliness that I imagined would belong to conversation if one were so fortunate as to be born from the head of Zeus and not from the Grecos, the Cerullos. I was ashamed of the childish pages I had written to her, the overwrought tone, the frivolity, the false cheer, the false grief. Who knows what Lila had thought of me. I felt contempt and bitterness toward Professor Gerace, who had deluded me by giving me a nine in Italian. The first effect of that letter was to make me feel, at the age of fifteen, on the day of my birthday, a fraud. School, with me, had made a mistake and proof was there, in Lila’s letter.

From Elena Ferrante’s 2011 novel My Brilliant Friend. English translation by Ann Goldstein. I love this novel, and what I perhaps love most about it is how Ferrante’s narrator conveys the titular brilliance of her friend Lila. My Brilliant Friend might be summarized in one of its own sentences: “She was trying to understand, we were both trying to understand, and understanding was something that we loved to do.”

Books acquired, almost for their covers alone, 4.25.2016 (Elkin, Fine, Michaux)

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I swung by my favorite used bookstore this afternoon; it’s right near the grocery store and I needed to pick up some mint and some ricotta. I was hoping to pick up Elena Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant Friend at the bookstore. I started the audiobook of My Brilliant Friend today, after finishing the audiobook of Adrian Jones Pearson’s novel Cow Country  this weekend. (Full review of Cow Country forthcoming but a real quick review: great performance/reading of a very strange book which I enjoyed very much, but which I also suspect will have very limited appeal. Cow cult classic to come). But so anyway, I’m really digging the Ferrante, and decided I wanted to obtain a physical copy to reread passages (and maybe share some on this blog). My store had several copies of four of Ferrante’s novels–but no Friend. While scanning the section, my eye alighted (alit?) on a strange-looking hardback spine—Warren Fine’s Their Family. I turned it around and the cover…well, I knew I was gonna leave with it. Knopf, 1972—a few years before Gordon Lish was to become editor there, sure, but interesting bona fides I suppose. Fine does not seem to be beloved by anyone on the internet, and his books seem to have failed to go into second printings of any kind. The Fs are near the Es, and I glanced over the works of Mr. Stanley Elkin, who has his own section there, somehow. I finally broke through the second chapter of his novel The Franchiser this weekend (it’s all unattributed dialog, that chapter, sorta like Gaddis’s JR); I’m really digging The Franchiser now that I’ve tuned into the voice. (It also helps to not try reading it exclusively at night after too many bourbons or wines). Again, the spine of the novel looked interesting so I flipped The Dick Gibson Show around and, again, I knew I was gonna leave with it. Henri Michaux’s Miserable Miracle I found in the “Drugs” section—which I was not perusing (because I am no longer 19)—well I guess I was perusing it, but that’s only because it happens to be right next to this particular bookshop’s collection of Black Sparrow Press titles, which I always scan over. Anyway, the Michaux’s Miserable Miracle was turned face out; NYRB titles always deserve a quick scan, and the cover reminded me of a Cy Twombly painting. Flicking through it revealed a strange structure, full of marginal side notes and doodles and diagrams and drawings. And oh, it’s about a mescaline trip, I think. You can actually read it here, but this version is missing all the drawings and sidenotes.

Oh, and so then I forgot to go pick up the ricotta and the mint.