Friday, December 2, 2016

ReadAlong post from Paris. . .

I hope you're not becoming too impatient with my posts pleading for your patience. I've obviously bitten off more than my traveling self can chew -- or write! -- with this ReadAlong (plus the whole idea of two blogs is a bit goofy, isn't it!)

This is our last day in Paris, though, and I'm grabbing a few minutes to write this while my husband finishes his coffee downstairs. I finished my rereading of Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend and scribbled a few notes in the margins as we rode the train here from Bordeaux (and I also spent some time reading Lauren Groff's Arcadia, which I've enjoyed and which has provoked some thinking, some reminiscing, but which I've also found a bit forced toward the end -- any of you read it?).

I'll do my best to write a wrap-up post on MBF when I'm settled back home, but I wanted to pop in here quickly just to make sure you've all seen my post (over on my other blog) on our quick visit to Naples. I'm still thinking about how much this accorded with and how much this changed my vision of Naples as Lenù/Elena knew it and I hope to write a bit more about that later.

I also wanted to say that of those last 30 or so short chapters, what truly surprised me in my rereading was realising that the title comes from something that Lila says of Lenù when the latter claims that she will be finished school at a certain point. Lila responds that Lenù can't stop because"you're my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls." In case you want to check out that passage, it's on page 312, if you have a print copy of the book; Chapter 57 if not. The paragraphs that follow are extraordinary as well -- note the distance, in them, of Elena's use of the distancing second-person pronoun to refer to her young self.

I must say that this discovery has me rethinking the series quite significantly. Let's discuss that, can we? I'll be checking in for comments regularly although it may take me a little while to write here again.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Ferrante ReadAlong -- Turning Points?

First, thanks to Dottoressa (long-time reader and generous commentator here) for pointing me to this article on Ferrante's Naples by journalist Irene Casselli who grew up in that city. I suspect other readers might find it an interesting complement to My Brilliant Friend.  And stay tuned. . . I may be able to give an up-close-and-personal report on Naples myself before too long. . .

Next, to apologise (yet again) for the slow pace of this ReadAlong. If I'd thought the project through more carefully before attempting it, I might have realised how much it could be hampered by the reality of traveling. As it is, while too slow to be effective for many of you, especially if you're galloping through the novel your first time, the postings have provided a useful discipline for my second reading, and your comments have enriched my appreciation of the novel. Overall, the experiment has been worthwhile for me -- Perhaps you'll chime in and tell me what, if anything, has worked for you, and whether you think it might be worth attempting another ReadAlong next year.

And third, let's talk about Chapters 31 to 40 -- I think that I'm going to try to compress the last chapters of the book (from 41 through to the end) into one final post, so that I'm done before I head back home at the beginning of December. But these ten chapters ahead of me right now definitely demand a post of their own.

I have to admit, though, that it's tempting to skip past these chapters. Just as we've seen Elena blossom into another, happier version of herself at Ischia, away from the community that reflected back only a limited vision, some of that community intrudes and we see her stepping back into its tangled web.  Reading these chapters, knowing Elena's potential but seeing how much of her energy and her self-worth she stakes in Nino Sarratore returning her interest (obsession? adoration? surely it's not yet love as the Nino she sees is one she's constructed from dreams), I think as I have watching bright young teen girls, nieces, friends' daughters, my daughters -- She's only one bad boyfriend from becoming a doctor, or a writer, or a president. . . .

The revelation she shares with Lila about Donato Sarratore's inscription promiscuity should have dialled down Elena's propensity for romance, but again, she's 14! Soon, she's caught  between her fascination with Sarratore Senior (such an indulgent, engaging, fun father to his family, willing to include her in the good times) and his unappreciative, recalcitrant son, Nino, of the dark, handsome, silent allure... Especially knowing what will come later in this four-volume series (tetralogy is such an awkward word, no?), I couldn't help be particularly attentive to Lenù's efforts to engage and attract Nino. I also couldn't help trying to push past her adult self's controlled, reportorial tone to discern the feelings generated by her retrospective analysis.

Imagine if Lenù had been able to speak of both her infatuation, and of her frustration with its target, with someone who already had her adult self's experience with a certain type of man, one who wanted a woman to be audience, perhaps even muse, but not to occupy the speaker's role for long. What might any of us tell our younger selves, looking back now to some of the heartthrobs we imagined as soulmates, only to discover, slowly and often too late, their narcissism? How many of us recognised something when we read this passage: Since I wanted him to be aware of my intelligence I endeavored to interrupt him, to say what I thought, but it was difficult, he seemed content with my presence only if I was silently listening, which I quickly resigned myself to doing.  And see how quickly Lenù returned to her self-deprecation, sure that Nino said things that I could never have thought -- although she qualifies that claim (at the time? now, as the narrating adult?) by noting that at least she couldn't have said those things with the same assurance. . . in a strong, engaging Italian.

May I interrupt myself here to suggest that if this were a Book Club, and I were the host, perhaps I'd pop into the kitchen right now to grab a tray of goodies to go with the wine. While I'm gone, you might carry on the discussion. Possible topics: Nino's obvious (?) use of Lenù as a way to pursue an interest in Lila; Nino's indifference, in comparison to the other young men of Lenù's acquaintance, to other male interest in her and in Marisa; Nino's hatred of his father; Lenù's too-innocent admiration of Sarratore. . . 

Oh, and I'm back, just because I heard you speaking about the last topic, and I wanted to point out that young Lenù was astute enough, even in her innocence, to note that Sarratore Senior"never opened a book" despite being a published poet. But she kept silent out of fear that she might "spoil[] the great esteem he had for me. This silence, a dangerous habit cultivated early.

And -- spoiler alert! -- I have to point out Nino's manifesto, his oath that he "will devote [his] life. . . to trying not to resemble [his father]." Why do I call this a spoiler art? Well, let's just say that you may find this statement becomes retroactively ironic. . . .

In these ten chapters, however, most significant for me, especially on rereading, is what happens in Lenù's room, the assault by Donato Sarratore. The assault not only marks her forever, but it pushes her back to her community as the only escape possible, and as a place where Lila's drama demands all the spotlights while Lenù buries her own horrors under layers of silence and disgust with herself. So innocent that, as her 60-something self writes to us, "however unlikely it may seem today, as long as I could remember until that night I had never given myself pleasure, I didn't know about it, to feel it surprised me." And how honest of that adult self to write now, that she said and did nothing not only because she "was terrified by that behavior, by the horror it created" but also because of "the pleasure" she "nevertheless felt" -- which pleasure also engendered the terror.

So poignant to me that she thought, in the immediate aftermath, that she "finally had a story to tell that Lila could not match" although she immediately realises "that the disgust I felt for Sarratore and the revulsion that I had toward myself would keep me from saying anything." In fact, she writes, "this is the first time I've sought words for that unexpected end to my vacation." Note that even as she seeks words, she doesn't clearly name what happened, substituting "unexpected end to my vacation" for "sexual assault by a trusted and admired adult."

The five following chapters develop actions set in place already, with Lila seeming to manipulate the men who want to control her. Her machinations seem to have borne fruit by the end of Chapter 40, although there's clearly still a potential threat from the Solaras. But I, unfortunately, have a plane to catch later today, so I'll leave you to tease out some of the implications here or to debate the wisdom of Lila's strategy or the likelihood it will work out well for her. Or perhaps that seems less important to you than Elena's revelation, the lonely pain and shame of that secret, guarded for fifty-some years...

For the moment, though, please excuse me as I clear away the dishes, go pack up my suitcase. Feel free to finish your glass of wine, linger and chat among yourselves. We're old friends here at this Book Club, right, and my home/blog is yours. . . 

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Recent Reading, Armchair Travel and Mystery Novels and Marriage . . .

I'm determined to post another Ferrante ReadAlong entry soon, but I've hardly been a monogamous reader -- and my travel status tends to encourage Vacation Reading. If the move into the year's darker days has you looking for comfortable armchair reading -- or if, in the southern hemisphere, you're looking for a book to enjoy in your hammock or on the beach, I've got a few titles that might satisfy:

For armchair travel, always a pleasure in my book (pun, ha! not intended!), you might enjoy Dianne Hales' La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language, particularly if you're interested in language-learning in general, in Italy and its language(s) in particular, and even more, if you find the history of a language fascinating, as I do. Hales' book wraps the history and culture of the Italian language up in a delightful memoir, although if you're looking for more personal anecdotes and fewer facts about opera or Italian literature, it might not be the travel memoir for you. But if you're looking for a fairly erudite, yet entertaining, visit to Italy with a sustained look at its history and culture, she throws in enough romance and gossip to make learning fun.

I know that many of you like to do your armchair-travelling via the mystery genre, and since we've already flown to Italy with Ms. Hales. . . . I borrowed Michael Dibdin's Vendetta from the bookshelves of the home we're renting in Bordeaux, and as soon as I was a chapter or two in, I wondered why I hadn't gobbled up all the Aurelio Zen mysteries back when I first came across them. I've read one or two, but I'm thinking now that I'll work my way through the backlist once I get home. The library is sure to have copies. Interesting, reading this title, first published in 1990, and noticing how quickly we've come to expect our fictional detectives to use a cellphone. Poor Aurelio gets himself into a situation which requires rescue, and he desperately needs a phone booth. . . That plot device wouldn't work anymore to generate tension, would it?
Zen is an intriguing character -- a bachelor at this point in the series, although that could change, he otherwise shares some traits with Donna Leon's Brunetti, and if he ever takes the train from Rome up to Venice, perhaps they might meet. I think they'd approve of each other.
I'd recommend this one, not only for the writing quality, the likeable character, and the entertaining plot, but also -- especially? -- because I loved walking the streets of Rome again with AZ.

And I still haven't made it to Venice, but I'm currently walking its streets with Commissario Brunetti, my hold on the series' seventh title, Noble Radiance, having come available at the Vancouver Public Library and technology miraculously delivering it to my iPad here in Bordeaux. Just getting started on this one. . .

Before that, my Hold on Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies worked its way to the top of the VPL list, and I downloaded and read that over several very pleasurable, lazy hours this past weekend.  I'm recommending this one quite highly -- it's engaging and entertaining at the level of what we used to consider bedside-table reading. But it's also very clever, flipping itself inside out at a certain point to reveal something very surprising about (a) marriage. And stylistically, it's a delight, full of surprises at so many levels, with brilliant imagery and sharp metaphors. Mostly, I love what it does to/with the notion of a conventional long-term marriage, lulling you into thinking one thing and then. . . But no, the second half of the book deserves to be approached without preconceptions. No spoilers. Let me know if you read it or if you've read it. This would be such a great Book Club choice -- I can imagine long, wine-fuelled discussions.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm heading back to Venice with a certain uxorious Commissioner (whom I've only just discovered has a beloved older brother). . . it's the only way I'm going to be able to ignore the loud growls from my tummy, being incited into howls by the kitchen fragrances of Pater's Boeuf Bourgignon, apparently not ready for another half hour . . .

Have you read any of these titles? Or could you recommend other related ones -- in the spirit of those bookstore signs that read "If you liked____________, you might also like____________"? Or perhaps just catch us up with what you've been reading since we last chatted.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Our Ferrante ReadAlong Continues, Chapters 21-30 of "Story of the Shoes"

It seems to me that in this section we start to see these adolescents, nearing adulthood,  beginning to sort out ways to exercise some agency, to try to make a difference, to change their communities and the systems that control them, even if they scarcely have any models for how they might do so. As Elena recounts Lila thinking, Stefano, for example, "wanted to try to get out of the before." It's a naïve hope, perhaps, but also a bold one, and it captures the imagination of the young crowd enough that they join in his plan for New Year's Eve of wanting to clear away the past.

Yet it's in the middle of this decisive move, this erasing of the acrimony between the Pelusos and the Caraccis (never mind that they only unite to strengthen their enmity against the Solaras!), that Elena sees that her potential boyfriends are all "waiting for their war of men" and don't even pay attention to Lila, never mind Lenù. And while one local prejudice might be overcome, Lenù links the fighting represented by the fireworks to long-past civil wars such as the ones "between Romulus and Remus, between Marius and Silla, between Caesar and Pompey." In other words, as much as Stefano might want to get out of the "before," the weight of history is not so easily lifted.

At a time when hormones are pushing the young women toward the young men, then, the young women are simultaneously seeing their childhood friends -- and for Lila, horrifyingly, her beloved brother Rino, in full testosterone-fueled combat. As "males whose bodies gave off a heat hotter than the fires in the sky."

And from the moment of this recognition on, Lila sinks into depression, and when she rallies, it's only to think of ways to make money, and that only for the sole goal of "fix[ing] Rino's head." Yet Rino's desire for money as a means to power and independence gets in the way, and he pushes against his father's own lifetime of frustated desire to the point of an explosion in the family which Lila can't find any way out of other than apparently accepting a traditional domestic role for the time being.

Yet she's certainly not ready to accept the traditional female role of wife, which she's apparently approaching even at the early age of 14, and she turns down Pasquale's attentions and then, shockingly, Marcello's. Elena, the adult writer, admits that she "felt a pang" on learning this, on seeing that Lila had become, in her teen-aged eyes, a "woman capable of making anyone bend to her will." The adult Elena has also just described Lila's inability to change her father's mind about the shoes, however, so we should keep in mind that fourteen-year-olds don't always see the world as it is.

Lenù does see the danger in Lila's insult to Marcello, however, especially when she finds that Lila, who never gossips, has told everyone about refusing Marcello's proposal.  And I would say that the next several chapters make it very clear how far Lila is from being able to make anyone bend to her will. Neither she nor any of the other girls are able to stop the horrifying fight that ensues when the group of friends on a Saturday night passeggiata in town, where they encounter young people who seem "absolutely different from us," so different that Lenù and Lila's group is not even "perceptible" -- a "humiliaating difference."

In the moment of that fight's beginning, Lila wears "an expression of disbelief, as if a thousand fragments of our life. . . were composing an image that was finally clear," and the fight culminates with the Solara brothers' help which is, albeit saving their friends from certain harm, a terrifying help marked by "a cold ferocity that [Elena] hope[s] never to see again in my life" -- and note, she's saying this in her 60s, not as a naīvely shocked young woman. Still, at the time, Lenù is not as attuned to the potential dangers as Lila is, but Lila has more reason to be so attuned -- Marcello Solara, she begins to realise, is not going to be so easy to refuse. If you're planning to go on (and honestly, how will you resist after this 1st volume?!) you might pay careful attention here, because so much of the series is built around Lila's determination to refuse this man and his (and his family's) determination to have her.

Meanwhile, however, as Lila worries that there might be "something wrong with me" because "I make people do the wrong thing" -- and how deeply entrenched is that notion in so many cultures, in Christianity certainly, and before that Judaism, Eve being forever blamed for tempting poor hapless Adam -- Lenù is torn between her responsibilities to her friend and her justified excitement about spending a few weeks at the seaside.

Surely we're not going to begrudge her that, even if she reproaches herself for it. As I continue to repeat, she's only 14! And although she doesn't realise it yet, her taking this step out of the community is at least as significant a step toward erasing some of the "before" -- and certainly a more effective one, in the long run -- as is Stefano's fireworks party. Maestra Oliviero, as the single educated woman in the community, battling as best she can to pull at least one of her young female charges out of their poverty, has a big emotional investment in pushing Lenù toward the seaside, toward a vision of a new life Beyond. But so does Elena's mother, apparently, and while we might have expected more resistance from the family, she even makes her daughter a bathing suit.

I suspect some of you will disagree with me and think that Lenù could somehow have been a better friend, have stayed home to support Lila in refusing Marcello's proposal. I can only feel sympathy that a young woman who has worked so hard for another possibility in life should have to feel so divided, so guilty, over accepting such a huge opportunity.

Already, it's clear that she's feeling such division over her ties to her mother and to her teacher. The latter strikes Lenù as acting in loco parentis even as her "real" mother the "one with the injured leg and the wandering eye" is right there but treated as if she "were only a disposable living being and as such not to be taken into consideration."  Interesting how closely this perception echoes Lenù's awareness that the young people in the piazza in Naples treat her group as "not perceptible" or "not interesting." In the last paragraphs of Chapter 29, Elena, narrating, seems to recognise her mother's care for her -- she doesn't call it "love" but she notes that her mother is fearful for her, and even asks an old sailor to watch out for her during the crossing.

Still, Elena remembers so many years later, even as she's aware of her mother's concern for her, she is happy -- if terrified also -- to be "leaving home. . . by sea [such that] The large body of my mother--along with the neighbourhood, and Lila's troubles--grew distant, and vanished."

And just as Elena has noted earlier when her group of friends go into town that it "was like crossing a border," we see that she's crossed a border here as well. She begins Chapter 30 with a simple, two-word sentence, "I blossomed." Honestly, I love this chapter, the openness we see being introduced into Elena's life. I can imagine what it would have taken for her to go the beach alone, to wear a swimsuit in public for the first time after an upbringing such as hers, the courage it would have taken to wade out to her depth in the sea --- and then her recognition that she can swim already, her recovered vision of her mother's early care. I'm not sure she could ever have been able to see her mother that way without the necessary distance the seaside gave her.

And her awareness, as our narrating senior, that she learned here, for the first time a pleasure that was often repeated throughout her life, "the joy of the new."

And her lack of homesickness, except for missing Lila. Her fear that her own life's "intensity and importance" was dependent on, or linked to, Lila's presence in her life. I don't, as some of you seem to, find her parasitic in this fear. Rather, I'm aware of the isolation a young woman had to suffer at that time and place to move beyond it. She shouldn't have had to choose, but there's little question of her fate if she hadn't, and we would have had no story, I suspect, as she would have been absorbed into the community, another woman bitterly raising a houseful of children, resenting her husband while completely dependent on him.

And one more paragraph beginning with a conjunction, if you don't mind. . . . When I was in Berlin, I kept seeing the word "Kunst," and trying to remember what it meant. "Art," it finally came to me, and immediately on its heels, the word "kunstlerroman." This last word denotes a literary genre that might be summed up by James Joyce's title "The portrait of the artist as a young man." A more particular form of the bildungsroman, a kunstlerroman is a novel which tells of the growth of an artist (until the last half of the 20th century, almost exclusively male) to maturity. As soon as I clicked from remembering that Kunst meant Art to thinking of the kunstlerrroman, it was only another quick brain-click to begin thinking about Ferrante's Neapolitan series as an example of this genre.

After all, we began the novel with a recognition that Elena wields the power of the pen, and we know that the girls have both dreamt of becoming writers. I won't tell you too much of what happens in the subsequent volumes, but you might imagine that Elena's commitment is eventually rewarded. I'm going to suggest that thinking about the series this way might encourage us to think about whether we would expect a developing young male artist to turn away from his drive to education and art/writing to attend to a friend. Pretty clearly, there have been many such writers and artists and musicians and actors throughout the centuries whose horrid social behaviour we excuse because of their talent. But from her earliest awareness, even Elena herself has judged her achievements against her social behaviour and too often found herself wanting.

I'll stop here, and continue next post with chapters 31-40 -- and we'll be able to discuss the "bombshell" that her landlady inadvertently drops at the end of Chapter 30. . .  For now, I welcome your comments about chapters 21-30 -- and don't feel I'm going to be such an apologist for Elena that I don't want to hear your objections to my reading. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Reading Enroute -- Trains, Planes, and Hotel Rooms . . .

Settled in Bordeaux now, and I'm hoping to get back to a more regular blogging practice, but we'll see... I've read the next ten chapters of Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend for our ReadAlong, and I'm putting that post together, but I thought you might like to know what else I've been reading on trains and planes.

Before I left Vancouver, I'd hurried through a big fat book I'd been looking forward to, Annie Proulx's Barkskins, Honestly, I wanted to love this (because, Annie Proulx) but I found it simply too obviously tendentious. Indeed, occasionally I would read some interesting anecdote about one of the many characters parading down the centuries of this historical survey of America's capitalist exploitation of its forests and wonder why the writer had bothered. The characters were so obviously working to convey a message to the reader that any attempt to flesh them out a bit more seemed wasted.  Such a brilliant writer and there were numerous passages that exemplified that, but there was also heavy-handed delivery of information to readers that made me despair about the value of fiction.
Dissenting opinions? I'd love to hear them, but you'll have a tough job convincing me. . .

Also, in the last few weeks before I left, I was trying to finish Elena Ferrante's La Figlia Oscura, which I'd optimistically taken out of the library - in Italian! the English translation out with some other borrower at the time. I only managed about 40 pages of this (in Italian) before I had to return it to the library after I'd exhausted the three renewal periods allowed -- painstaking translation, so slow and with so much recourse to Google translator for words I don't know, but still, satisfying. Interesting for me to see how similar the tone is to that of Ferrante's narrator in My Brilliant Friend, and there are some sentences/paragraphs that the latter novel repeats very closely -- the mother, for example, who wants to impress on her daughter a fear of the sea; the narrating mother who feels immensely liberated from her young-adult daughters' extended absence after their move to the US.

I also had to return Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost to the library before I was done with it, but what I read was enough to reset some of my attitudes to traveling. Or better, perhaps, it reinforced attitudes I'd allowed to drop back into latency.  A must-read, though, that already has inspired me to think about relinquishing the tight hold on my iPhone and the access to Google maps, getting lost in moderate ways, at least, not just in travel, but perhaps in more of life as well. Much food for thought, and I'll definitely return to this one.

Then for the plane, and for those nights back in the hotel room in Rome, on my own, a couple of good mystery novels: You might remember that I'm still lucky enough to be working my way through Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti mysteries, learning about Venice as I do, planning to visit someday.  The latest title for me was Fatal Remedies which further develops the rich relationship between Brunetti and his academic, feminist, firebrand of a wife. No complacency in their marriage, but love and much keeping each other on their toes. In this volume, she makes him furious, but by the end, they come around to see each other's point of view. So many mystery novels present detectives unable to sustain relationships; it's intriguing to consider the possibility it might be otherwise.

But  Jussi Adler-Olsen's Detective Carl Morck is one who doesn't do so well with personal relationships.  A Conspiracy of Faith is the 3rd in the Scandinavian Department Q mysteries, and while the serial killer phenomenon might be getting tired, overdone, to many, farfetched even -- and I don't mean Adler-Olsen's, particularly, but the concept in general -- the character development is strong here. This is particularly so between Morck and his mysterious Syrian assistant Assad, but also with the, er, erratic clerical/administrative staff in the department.  Apparently, three novels in this series have been made into film. Has anyone seen these? (I should add that if you're looking for a "cosy," these are not your mystery novels. Plenty of graphic violence, some gruesome, some grotesque, but this is oddly mixed with the comic. Dark humour abounds.

After sinking into the weird escape that mystery novels are for me (I can't understand why I would want to escape to such a universe, but perhaps the satisfaction of puzzles being solved?), I generally try to redeem myself by reading something more "worthwhile," something with more substantive content. This time, I turned to a memoir recommended by a friend which I was thrilled to find available as an e-book through the Vancouver Public Library -- even better, I was allowed to access the book despite being out of the country. Yes, there is the downside that I won't have my own copy of a book I suspect I'll want to go back to, but the ease of downloading -- for free! -- such high-quality reading while travelling is an absolute boon.
Okay, then, who's the author? what's the title?  Susan Faludi's In the Darkroom. So good, this memoir of Pulitzer prize-winning journalist/feminist Faludi about her rapprochement, as she moves into her middle years, with her father after his astonishing transition, via surgery at an advanced age to Stefanie, a woman (he fakes documentation to be able to do this -- in fact, as the memoir details, his life is marked, perhaps even directed, by his skill at faking),. Almost as astonishing is that after having survived the Holocaust as a Budapest Jew (and, by the way, having rescued his parents by impersonating a Nazi soldier -- at barely 18!!), her father chooses to live his last several decades there. So much about this memoir that illuminates so many dark corners -- the ugly persistence of anti-Semitism in Hungary; the strange struggle between Hungarian nationality and Jewish identity in her father; the troubled history of sex-change operations and the Trans community's historical struggle with strict gender binaries, its worrisome (for Faludi) understanding of what it means to be a woman. Fascinating, fascinating memoir -- highly recommended! I could write so much more about this book, and if you're in a book club, it would fuel a marvelous discussion. Seriously, grab this one! (and if you don't believe me, or you'd like a longer review that my quick-and-dirty, read this

And then I turned back to the mystery genre. Well, how could I resist? The VPL emailed to tell me a book I'd put a Hold on was now available: Carol O'Connell, Blind Sight, the just-released latest title in a series I love.  If you don't know this series featuring Kathleen Mallory, a New York detective with a traumatic childhood and an arguably sociopathic personality, you're in for a treat.  Not too much is added here to our knowledge of Mallory, except that we see glimpses of rare empathy, with children not surprisingly. And there's a young blind boy in a predicament which, if you're old enough, might recall Audrey Hepburn's role in Wait Until Dark. Amped up exponentially by the age factor! You'll see. . .

So there you have it. What I've been reading while I wasn't re-reading and posting about Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend. What about you? Especially if you're a reader who's felt excluded by my current focus on the ReadAlong, here's a chance to chime in and tell us what books are stacked by your nightstand (or on your desk or on your kitchen table or in your purse, or perhaps all of the above!).  And if you've been ReadingAlong with us, but cheating on the side, you can 'fess up now as well. And I'll get back to Ferrante next post.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Ferrante ReadAlong, The Plot Thickens. . .

As I begin re-reading Chapter 11 of "The Story about the Shoes," the section of Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend recounting the girls' adolescence, I see the easy temptation to think poorly of Lenù for her constant competition with Lila while, at the same time, she seems to depend on Lila for inspiration. Speaking to Lila about Donato Sorratore's declaration of love for Melina in a book he's actually written and had published, Lenù is impressed by having a painful reality of Sorratore's move (his thoughtlessness and cowardice in raising Melina's hopes; the cost of his romantic gesture being borne by that woman) pointed out to her by her friend. "What wonderful conversations," she thought, noting how well Lila could arrange facts to give them significance, tension -- and she realises that once she is aware of Lila's ability, she begins to see how she could do the same. . . and she does, easily, she claims.

It's very tempting, I say, to think in binaries here, and to see Lenù thus as some kind of parasite, at worst, or a copycat, or perhaps a poor friend simply in the way she keeps some distance in her observations.  But I'm inclined to cut Elena some slack. After all, she was only fourteen or so at the time, and she was so isolated in her community in terms of places to look for intellectual stimulation for women -- yes, Maestra Oliviero was one possibility, but she would have only limited appeal during the years when hormones exercised their vigorous influence. (Besides which, there were considerable limitations on her access to Maestra Oliviero's company.)

And yes, in the confusion of realising that Pasquale has only been using her to get closer to Lila, in the frustration of seeing Lila's commitment to her shoe project take time from the intellectual discussions she so cherished, hungered for, was deprived of everywhere else, she blurts out her news about high school, wants Lila to recognise that "she couldn't do without me, as I couldn't do without her." And as a weak counter, Lila, with "the expression of someone at a loss," can only tell Lenù that her period finally arrived.

But tempted as I am to judge Elena harshly for feeling, and acting out of, envy and jealousy, I also admire her willingness to recount and analyse her adolescent behaviour so honestly.  Again, we see evidence of the filtering she can exercise as a narrating writer. She says, near the end of Chapter 11 "It seemed to me--articulated in words of today. . . " and I think how easily she could have expunged her own callowness. Instead, she dares to tell us some nasty truths about her adolescent friendship and thus allows us, perhaps, to admit some truths about our own.

Some readers may assume at first that the friendship is one-sided, that Lenù brings nothing to Lila while Lila is the one who offers strength, the street savvy to rescue Lenù from the Solaras boy-men, for example. But when Lenù has the marvelous opportunity to visit Naples city centre with her father, the "boundaries of the neighbourhood" beginning to fade for her, finally, she stores up everything she sees with the idea of telling Lila all about it. When she gets home, and does so, she is met with an apparent lack of curiosity which she works to persuade herself isn't malicious, that Lila "simply had her own train of thought that was fed on concrete things."

One of those concrete things is the dance parties the adolescents begin to join in the community, and one day, practising their steps (Lenù has discovered she likes to dance, whereas for Lila it's a skill that must be mastered), Lila's brother comments on their lack of a gramophone. This gives Lila the opportunity to reveal something: she's begun studying Greek on her own. "Would she always do the things I was supposed to do, before and better," Lenù wonders. She sees that Lila "eluded me when I followed her and meanwhile stayed close on my heels in order to pass me by." So it seems clear that both girls are inspired -- or egged on, rather? -- by the other. What seems sad to me, and what I think the novel does a brilliant job of showing, is that rather than knowing they could collaborate to lift each other up and beyond the limitations of the neighbourhood, they instead get caught up in an unhealthy competition.

So much has been written in feminist theory about the cost to women of the patriarchal systems that grant women subjectivity primarily, even only, as sexual objects in the gaze of men, about the ways that limited subjectivity works to ensure our competitiveness with each other even as we ultimately become substitutes for one another. I won't revisit that theory here, but the collective insights of such work over the past decades could well be brought to bear, and made manifest, in the last two paragraphs of Chapter 15, as Lenù watches the males watching Lila dance, and realises that they "were seeing more than I was." And that this realisation is twinned with Lenù's "permanent sense of inadequacy and shame" which she hoped would pass but which, in fact, only intensified.

Chapter 16, though. Wow! this is where the rubber really hits the road. The intensity of the males' desire for Lila, for, as the adult Elena writes it, "the figure of a fourteen-year-old girl" culminates in an explosive scene where the various powers of the community are revealed. I would say this is where the elements of the novel are put in action by the catalytic dance with Marcello, but in his rage afterward, Pasquale outlines how long those elements have already been in gear, just waiting, it seems, to catch up the next generation.

And when Lila finishes her unusual bout of tears, she gets to the point, wanting to understand the outside, larger forces that turn her neighbourhood into something of a puppet show -- a puppet show marked by "the sum of all the crimes that human beings have committed and commit." While Lila is forced to eschew further formal education, she makes her community something of a classroom, while augmenting it with what she's able to study independently, loosely following Lenù's curriculum.

Significant that she fixes on the story of Dido, who compromised her powerful role as queen when she fell in love with Aeneas. Lila understands the importance of holding herself back from the male advances, although she uses the energy from those advances in dubious ways. Again, I remind myself how very young these girls are. Despite her youth, however, Lila is determined to understand their place in the world around them, to understand how what came before is written already in their blood, as Lenù summarises it.

And I find this one of the most powerful paragraphs of this section -- indeed, of the novel, perhaps even of the quartet -- the paragraph in which Elena recognises that Pasquale has given Lila enough information that she can now try to order into significance, complementing what he tells her with library research.
So she gave concrete motives, ordinary faces to the air of abstract apprehension that as children we had breathed in the neighbourhood. Fascism, Nazism, the war, the Allies, the monarchy, the republic--she turned them into streets, houses, faces, Don Achille and the black market, Alfredo Peluso the Communist, the Camorrist grandfather of the Solaras, the father, Silvio, a worse Fascist than Marcello and Michele, and her father, Fernando the shoemaker, and my father, all--all--in her eyes stained to the marrow by shadowy crimes, all hardened criminals or acquiescent accomplices, all bought for practically nothing.
Let me close this post -- finally! -- by noting how cleverly and circuitously Elena brings us back, finally, to the New Year's Eve party with which "The Story of the Shoes" began. Go back and look, if you can spare a minute, at the move from Chapter 1 to Chapter 2, when it seems as if we're done with the episode of the party and the fireworks and Lila's dissolving margins, although our narrator has promised that she will return later to explain the ritual involved in the firework. In fact, reread the description of Lila's experience -- as recounted to Lenù much later -- and you might think about how terrifying it must have been, having worked to impose order on the chaotic information she's gleaned about her community, to see "the outline of the world" broken down into a "demonstrat[ion of] its terrifying nature."

From a structural analysis perspective, I'm fascinated by how that moment we get a brief glimpse of in Chapter 1 -- illuminated, in that Chapter, mainly by disclosures Lila made to Elena many years later -- is put in a much, much larger context by the twenty chapters that come between it and the ensuing reference to that New Year's Eve. It's worth thinking about what this narrative approach says about the relation between what we see and what's happening behind the scenes. As well, we might think about why that New Year's Eve was pivotal enough for Elena that she's organised "The Story of the Shoes" around it.

Enough for now, and I'm travelling a bit over the next few days, meeting up with Pater after two weeks apart. But I will have Wifi along the way, and I will enjoy reading your comments and thinking through any complications you raise or insights you offer or objections you shout ;-)

And I'm going to take the book along and see how soon I can post something about the next ten chapters. I suspect my pace is far too slow for you, but honestly, given that I'm travelling, I'm reading and writing as fast as I can! (although I must admit that I've got some other reading going on behind the scenes -- I'll tell you about that soon as well, and feel free to tell me what you might have on your bedside stand or kitchen table or wherever you like to stash your #AmReading pile. . .

A plus tard. . .

Monday, October 3, 2016

Ferrante Read-Along, Getting Back on Track, Shoe Story, Chapters 1-10

Now that I'm settled in our temporary home in Bordeaux, where I don't feel the same need I did in Rome to get out of a hotel room and gobble up the city, I'll see what I can do to get this ReadAlong up to speed again. We started so brilliantly, didn't we?!

I suppose you will all have noted the recent news about the "unmasking" of Ferrante's identity. I find the refusal to accord the writer the privacy she requested appalling and disrespectful. Without knowing (or, really, caring) who she "really" is, I found the novels rich, wonderful, a world in themselves, and I have no need to know more about the women who wrote them. Enough for me to focus on the writer within the pages, on that Elena.

So let's turn to that that Elena, in the chapters recalling her own adolescence, and Lila's. In our last ReadAlong post, we chatted about how little guidance these girls had as their bodies changed -- and as those changes, in turn, changed the way the world perceived them, shifted their relationships with all around them.  Many of us were luckier than they, and, at the very least, remember receiving information delivered in some kind of Guidance or Personal Hygiene or LifeSkills class at school -- the boys in the class sent down the hall to another room for their own embarrassing session.

But that's to focus on the difference Elena and Lila experience, growing up in an impoverished neighbourhood just before the explosion of ubiquitous modern communications media such as film, radio, and television, when knowledge could still be carefully guarded and doled out by the adults who held it. It seems to me that there is also much that female readers can identify with, across generation and class and culture, and this begins with the "How I got my first period" meme. Each of us, I suspect, has that narrative still within us and has, perhaps, shared it with others. Male readers might read this passage with curiosity or, instead, with recognition of what they've been told by sisters, partners, friends. But we women will read this more viscerally.

Personally, as a young girl who was late to puberty but precocious academically (I skipped a grade, so was a year younger than my classmates), I knew of girls who began menstruating in Grade 6 (at 11), but my first period arrived when I was alone in Scotland, visiting my uncle, a Jesuit priest. I was 14,  just finished Grade 9,  so the awkwardness of dealing with the "problem" so far from home, no female help, was mitigated by my huge relief at finally catching up, at being "normal," at not having to keep my secret any longer. So I relate quite intensely to Elena's account of the girls' competition over this.

Similarly, as much as Elena's tangled relationship with Lila seems peculiarly complicated -- Lila exercising on Lenù a force "like a demanding ghost," as E tells us -- we might also be able to relate to a strange intensity in the way we evaluated our female peers at that age, using them to explore possibilities, to find models for negotiating this strange passage from childhood to adulthood. Perhaps this is less so now that there are so many more public models available, but I suspect there will still be Carmelas and Lilas and Elenas and Gigliolas watching each other for clues about how to behave.

And, of course, that behaviour was, and is, too often aimed at garnering -- or staving off -- male attention. Elena imagines what Lila would do when she has to contend with Gino's harassment over her new breasts -- her solution would be comic if it weren't so horridly, obviously, naïvely compromising. Poor young girl. But at least she has a model that allows her to feel some agency, a sense of control.

We could discuss at length the emerging politics between the genders, the flirtations, the ultimatums, the fixations -- so much of the energies of this age funnelled into channels monitored solely by hormones. But to get ahead, academically, Maestra Oliviero tells her, she must not waste her time with boys (well, specifically with Pasquale, because of his class/trade association, but one suspects she might find reasons against other suitors also).  And generally, this section focuses repeatedly on the choice between being clever or being pretty, a choice that many of us can also relate to, a division that has regularly been imposed on women throughout history, a division that's difficult to refuse.

No wonder, then, that Lenù is captivated by news of Sorratore's book, inscribed to Melina, who inspired many of its poems. Hearing this news on the same day Pasquale pays her romantic attention suggests rich possibilities for her future which combine academic/career possibilities with romance: "perhaps I, by going to that difficult school called high school, fortified by the love of Pasquale, could write [a book] myself, as Sarratore had done."

And in the next sentence, she compares her possible future with Lila's potential "shoe designs and her shoe factory," hoping that perhaps Elena will be the one to "become rich" first.

There. I'm caught up with Chapters 1-10 of "The Story of the Shoes" now, although I haven't mentioned the introduction of "communism" as part of an emerging thread, nor have I spoken of the intense satisfaction she feels when she and Lila really connect intellectually, nor of the significance of the book titles offered as prizes. . . .

But that will do, I hope, and we'll move to Chapters 10-20-- let's see if I can post something about those by the end of the week.  And if your comment on this post on the first 10 chapters includes comments on those next 10, so much the better. . .