“Dante and the Lobster”
It was morning and Belacqua was stuck in the first of the canti in the moon. He was so bogged that he could move neither backward nor forward. Blissful Beatrice was there, Dante also, and she explained the spots on the moon to him. She shewed him in the first place where he was at fault, then she put up her own explanation. She had it from God, therefore he could rely on its being accurate in every particular. All he had to do was to follow her step by step. Part one, the refutation, was plain sailing. She made her point clearly, she said what she had to say without fuss or loss of time. But part two, the demonstration, was so dense that Belacqua could not make head or tail of it. The disproof, the reproof, that was patent. But then came the proof, a rapid shorthand of the real facts, and Belacqua was bogged indeed. Bored also, impatient to get on to Piccarda. Still he pored over the enigma, he would not concede himself conquered, he would understand at least the meanings of the words, the order in which they were spoken and the nature of the satisfaction that they conferred on the misinformed poet, so that when they were ended he was refreshed and could raise his heavy head, intending to return thanks and make formal retraction of his old opinion.
He was still running his brain against this impenetrable passage when he heard midday strike. At once he switched his mind off its task. He scooped his fingers under the book and shovelled it back till it lay wholly on his palms. The Divine Comedy face upward on the lectern of his palms. Thus disposed he raised it under his nose and there he slammed it shut. He held it aloft for a time, squinting at it angrily, pressing the boards inwards with the heels of his hands. Then he laid it aside.
He leaned back in his chair to feel his mind subside and the itch of this mean quodlibet die down. Nothing could be done until his mind got better and was still, which gradually it did and was. Then he ventured to consider what he had to do next. There was always something that one had to do next. Three large obligations presented themselves. First lunch, then the lobster, then the Italian lesson. That would do to be going on with. After the Italian lesson he had no very clear idea. No doubt some niggling curriculum had been drawn up by someone for the late afternoon and evening, but he did not know what. In any case it did not matter. What did matter was: one, lunch; two, the lobster; three, the Italian lesson. That was more than enough to be going on with. Continue reading ““Dante and the Lobster,” a short story by Samuel Beckett”
“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.”
“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.
From Vladimir Nabokov’s 1970 interview with Alfred Appel. Originally published in Novel, A Forum on Fiction and republished in Strong Opinions.