Monday, September 26, 2016

Ferrante Read-along, Adolescence, Postponed . . .

Goodness, What was I thinking?
You, perhaps, knowing I was to fly somewhere this past Sunday, that I was embarking on ten weeks' travel, wondered how I'd ever manage to post on ten more chapters. I was wilfully optimistic and woefully unrealistic.

But even as I adjust to jetlag here in Rome, I'm plotting ways to write a few words about the first ten chapters in the section covering Elena's and Lila's adolescence. As I've been rereading, I've been so aware of how little guidance they had as they experienced the strange and wondrous and often terrifying changes to their bodies and negotiated newly delineated relationships between the genders. Perhaps you might jump in here to help me out as I try to carve a few hours' reading and writing time out of my limited days in Rome (and no, sadly, I don't think I'll try to manage a trip to Naples of the five I have here this trip).

I always welcome your comments here, but they would be particularly welcome now when I've probably bitten off more than I can chew. That said, I promise I will be back soon with an observation or two. Thanks for your understanding and patience meanwhile.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Ferrante ReadAlong Continues: Childhood, My Brilliant Friend

I'd love to keep the excuse-making to a minimum, but I will tell you that Pater and I enjoyed a long bike ride on Friday; I spent a glorious day with a friend visiting from out of town, Saturday; and today (I'm writing this late Sunday afternoon, but will post Monday morning) was not only the morning for my weekly long run, but we'd also committed to taking a certain red-headed three-year-old to her pre-ballet class. Delightful activities all, but all time and energy-consuming.

And life will stay busy for the foreseeable future: Two little ones will spend the day here tomorrow, and we'll hang out with them again on Tuesday for a while; mid-week I head to the island for a couple of days, visiting a wee one and her parents in one city, then driving to another to visit friends and get my hair styled.

So while I don't want to make excuses, I'm going to have to be realistic.  Much as I'd like to aim at reasonably polished prose shaped into something like an essay format,  I might end up settling for something closer to a series of observations. . . Let's see what happens in this space over the next hour or two. When Pater rings the dinner bell, I might have to say this post is done like dinner as well.

Beginning at Chapter 11,  I'm fascinated to see Elena describe an "enduring malaise" she suffered in the years beyond the dolls being thrown in the basement, herself having "believed everything she [Lila] told me." What particularly fascinates me is that the malaise sounds similar to the "dissolving margins" Lila suffers throughout her lifetime (yes, I'm drawing on knowledge from my previous reading of the novel, but you'll find this out for yourself very soon). At this point, of course, the malaise reflects that plethora of unpredictable changes to our bodies that adolescence encompasses, but still, it's interesting to me that it will soon be echoed in the novel in Lila's affliction.

Also in Chapter 11,  I can give you the benefit of my earlier reading of all four novels to say: Pay attention to Nino Sarratore's declaration. . . . on a second reading, I can't help think how significant it is that the iron that flies out of a window at the decamping Sarratores nearly -- but only "very nearly" killed him. I'll say no more about that. . .

In Chapter 13, we see how clearly the children's paths are set by the beginning of adolescence, so that Enzo is already working with his parents, quitting school by fifth grade, despite being so good at doing sums in his head. And Lila and Elena starkly illustrate the limited power even the academically gifted have to lift themselves out of the neighbourhood. Yet even with her parents (her father, to be more accurate, since "Nunzia couldn't yield, she didn't have permission from her husband") blocking her way so emphatically, Lila persists in hoping.  When Elena describes her belief in Lila's assertion that she will take the admissions test anyway, I can't help wondering if this is what she wants to learn from Lila, this ability to ignore prohibitions. She speaks of Lila being "the strongest of us girls" stronger than some of the boys, than her brother, than the parents, than all the adults, in fact, even teachers and carabinieri.  Despite her apparent fragility, Elena recounts, Lila "knew how to go beyond the limit without ever truly suffering the consequences."

By the time she's writing this narrative, of course, Elena knows full well that Lila has suffered consequences, but she's speaking of her belief as a nine or ten-year-old girl in a world that seems full of limitations. What a model Lila must have been!

Chapter 14. Finally, we go up those stairs we first stepped onto at the novel's opening. We could have a very satisfying discussion about how and why Elena has teased us so, why she started on those stairs but took all the detours she did, for that's part of a novelist's toolbox, of course, the plotting, the structure, the sequencing. Why did she tell us what she told us when she did?  But I'll leave that for now (Pater's started some veggie-chopping action in the next room; the countdown to dinner is getting serious). Chapter 14 shows the girls breaking through some local mythology to meet Don Achille (so bold! hard to imagine myself at that age, knocking on the door of someone with such a profile in the community).

In this chapter, I want to applaud this little girl, Lila, who can stand up firmly to a man they've been warned against, a man who terrifies all the neighbours. I love that he is "bewildered" by her effrontery, and somehow, this effrontery results in Elena seeing him as "an ordinary person, a little short, a little bald."

Also worth noting, to me at least, is the emphasis once again on the distance between speaking in dialect and speaking "in Italian." Don Achille uses the latter to his wife to say something Elena doesn't understand, and Elena uses the latter as she says goodbye, signalling respect, I imagine, but also perhaps demonstrating her nascent sense of possible distance from the community's hierarchy?
(I will also just note that if I were ever to teach this novel in a literature class, I'd necessarily begin with some quick summary of Naples' political history vis-à-vis Italy, the relation with the Church, with the Risorgimento. After all, by the time of the girls' childhood, Italy has only existed (as a unified political state) for little more than seventy years, barely a lifetime.)

As for Chapter 15, I'd love to hear from those of you who have read Little Women more recently than I have or who know it better.  All I can say here for now is that the choice of book bought with Don Achille's money is obviously significant in the novel's exploration of possibilities for girls growing to womanhood in post-war Naples. Looking for possibilities beyond those their mothers represent, the children's novel was clearly talismanic for Lila in particular -- and again, we could have a whole separate discussion about the roles that existed for women in fiction of the day (and, for that matter, for decades to come, really).  Stories about women's lives rarely bothered to imagine them beyond marriage or premature, often romantic, death.  At least Little Women postulated some agency, if very much wrapped up with virtue, domesticity, and romance.

But beyond the characters in Little Women, the girls were also captivated by knowing that a woman had written the book and somehow -- and I think this is an important turning point for them -- they "began to link school to wealth." Lila, in fact, writes a novel, but when Elena tries to champion it for her, showing it to Maestra Oliviero, she confronts a troubling, confusing attitude (which, it has to be admitted, she does nothing to challenge). Another turning point, perhaps, in the girls' relationship, and one where Elena begins to wonder if she should do as Oliviero suggests and begin to think of herself and abandon a friendship that might hold her back.

And at this point, we have yet another potential pivot, a significant event which sees the girls defying the restrictions that govern them and setting out for the beach. In Chapter 16, I've underlined the phrase describing the girls' awareness of their neighbourhood's perimeter, beyond which there's a mountain whose higher peak "was called Vesuvius and was a volcano." Her younger self was apparently oblivious to the iconic status of this scene, a function of the reality that they had been "trained by [their] schoolbooks to speak with great skill about what [they] had never seen" dismissing any potential importance of the local.

Another sentence I've underlined in this chapter is Elena's remark that "When I think of the pleasure of being free, I think of the start of that day. . . . I felt joyfully open to the unknown." It's a rich, exuberant, detail-filled passage, capturing the symbiosis, no, more, the synergy, of the two young girls defying the rules designed to keep them in place. But while she holds Lila's hand, lends her strength, Elena quickly reveals her dependency, her own abdication of responsibility. In her words, "I felt as if [Lila] had everything in her head ordered in such a way that the world around us would never be able to create disorder. I abandoned myself happily."

Hmmmmm. . . .I continue to remind myself how young they both were, how brave, how vulnerable, how naive, etc. But Elena's attribution of power to Lila troubles me, particularly as she suggests that Lila may have planned the entire episode so that Elena wouldn't be able to continue her schooling. I do remember some of the machinations of that age, but these calculations (the ones Elena suspects Lila might have made and Elena's own tentative analysis of Lila's actions) seem both sophisticated and unlikely and naive all at once.  Most convincing,  for me, in the entire chapter, is the closing line, the adult Elena wondering whether Lila could have wanted both that Elena be punished and that she not be. . . . In fact, of course, it's Lila who suffers the most painful consequences of the day, despite Elena's earlier claim that Lila never paid a price for her defiances.

Chapter 17 (I'm hurrying now -- good smells are beginning to emanate from the kitchen, and storm clouds are gathering above the terrace garden where I'm typing these words). . . This line, when Lila is "suffering" and Elena doesn't "like her sorrow. I preferred her when she was different from me, distant from my anxieties. And the uneasiness that the discovery of her fragility brought me was transformed by secret pathways into a need of my own to be superior."

And Chapter 18, the chapter which closes out the section, "Childhood," is all about fathers, the powers they held, the powers that governed them, and the vicissitudes that they could suffer. So that "Fathers could [break their daughter's arm] and [do] other things to impudent girls," but that they are also subject to feeling sorry for their violence, that they suffer the loss of hope, that they suffer "losses, by alcohol, by debts, by deadlines, by beatings, and at the first inopportune word they beat their families, a chain of wrongs that generated wrongs."

And then Don Achille is murdered. Besides the stunning upset this meant to the community's hierarchy, I'm struck by the details with which Lila repeatedly describes the scene. Some of these details seem to be gleaned from the neighbourhood's grapevine, but Lila builds on these, imagining the scene ever more precisely, even describing the murderer as female (intriguingly, Elena suggests that Lila does so in order that it be "easier for [Lila] to identify with her."

Not only is Don Achille's patriarchal power erased in Chapter 18, but the carpenter, Signor Peluso, is dragged away from his family by the carabinieri. And this is where the section ends, with Elena's claim that this removal is "the most terrible thing we witnessed in the course of our childhood."

Okay, here's where I had to leave off yesterday evening, so that Pater and I could enjoy our meal together and catch up on the weekend's events with each other. I'm writing now early Monday morning, writing quickly before I need to get ready for the arrival of a three-year-old and her toddler brother. They'll be here for most of the day, and there will neither be time to write while they're here nor energy left to write once they're gone. So I'm going to call this "Enough to get started," and ask you to add observations or question or argue with mine or let me know if you agree. I'll check back when I get a moment, but meanwhile, feel free to chat among yourselves. 

And shall we try for another ten chapters by the end of the week?

Friday, September 16, 2016

Read-Along Check In

I've finished reading the "Childhood" section of  Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend for the second time, and I've begun my post on it, likely to be up by Sunday, but I want to pause and ask what readers think of the ReadAlong so far. As I wrote earlier, this is the first time I've ever tried something like this, and I'm very happy with what's happening here so far, but I'd love to get a bit of feedback from you at this stage.

First of all, are there still a few new readers just beginning the novel, trying your best to catch up with the rest of us? Feel free to comment anonymously, but I'd love a quick Hello from you if you're not too shy.

Next, as we're at different stages of our reading (some have finished the novel already; some are reading it for the second time; some are halfway through, gobbling it down, and not keen on slowing down to listen to our conversation about chapters they read last week) -- how is the pacing for you so far? If I continue to post at this rate -- approximately ten chapters per post discussion, about two posts (so twenty chapters) per week, does that work for you or would you prefer faster or slower, bigger chunks at a time or smaller?

Is the discussion format adequate? I'm thrilled to see the conversation emerging via the comments section, and I love that you're giving each other feedback. I'm going to do my best to continue facilitating the Comments discussion, but I'm trying to relax a bit about taking responsibility for it (although, of course, I will never relinquish my responsibility to keep the discussion civil).  But I'd love to know whether or not the conversation is meeting (or exceeding) your expectations or if there are suggestions for how we could improve it. The one thing I worry about sometimes is that because some of us have been meeting like this for at least a year, the conversation might feel a bit too chummy to join, if you're shy. I hope it's clear that we're all very keen to welcome new voices and to entertain new perspectives, but let me know what you think.

If you're not comfortable at all in commenting right now, or perhaps ever, that's fine too, absolutely. But even if you're probably going to remain a lurker, if you could pipe up bravely just enough to say whether or not you are finding the posts or the comments helpful to your own understanding of MBF, I'd love to hear that.

I think that's it, for now. I'll be busy writing our next post, but I'll check in later and see what you're thinking. (and your comments on the earlier posts/earlier chapters are still very welcome as well)

Wishing you a good weekend -- Happy Reading!

Monday, September 12, 2016

Our Readalong Continues -- "Childhood" Complicated in Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend

With all the demands of moving, I must admit that I wished I hadn't committed to a Monday post on those first ten (short, admittedly) chapters of the "Childhood" section of Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend.  But when I began rereading those pages Sunday afternoon,  the regrets slid away as I was quickly absorbed by the dense narrative. Scribbling in the margins, underlining, muttering to myself, I confirmed my suspicion that this novel would amply repay a closer study than I was able to give it on a greedily speedy first reading.

As many of you are reading this for the first time, I will assume that there might be some readers turning the pages as greedily as I did, although some of you will be more measured, more observant, even more analytical. Most of you will have been mesmerised by the relationship developing between these two little girls during their seventh to ninth or tenth years, and you will have traced a story of their interest in and rivalry with each other through various classroom and schoolyard and neighbourhood interactions until they climb those fearful steps to Don Achille's home, presumably in an attempt to retrieve their dolls, lost through Lila's bold act and Lenū's pale and defiant imitation. Depending on your age and where you grew up and your personality and your individual experience, you may find much or little to relate to in the way the narrator tells us about her childhood perception of her classmate and, eventually, friend. You might wish to share your thoughts about this in the comments below. . . 

If you're really careful about understanding character relationships from the outset, when you read, you might have been making mental notes, perhaps even notes in the margins or inside the book covers or in a separate notebook, about who's who in Elena's community, sorting out the hierarchies of the neighbourhood and the school. You might have kept track of whose husband died, and why, and which two wives fought over another husband, and which boys were involved in the scholastic competition and who threw which rock and wounded whom. For my part, I'll admit that the first time through, not yet having a context for the significance of these individual names, I focussed more on a sense of the community as a whole and trusted that if individuals became significant, I'd figure them out as I went along. This indeed turned out to be the case, but it's surprisingly satisfying to go back again and say "Ah, there's Enzo already. And Nino. Hmmm, so the seeds were there, but not necessarily as I might have predicted." That's all I'll say for now -- I promised to be careful about spoilers. 

I know that the first time through I was already struck by the poverty of the neighbourhood -- and not just a physical poverty, but a poverty of hope, of possibility, of room for aesthetic appreciation, of any reason to lift up eyes in any particular direction. That existed only in the classroom, and even then, in very limited ways. Or perhaps there was hope. The carpenter must have hoped, once, in his gambling, before he lost his tools, his shop, his pride in his livelihood, one by one, to Don Achille. We can't see back through any of the mothers to the hope they might have had before marriage and a quick succession of pregnancies, but I will concede that perhaps Elena's mother still has some hope, manifest in her occasional eruptions at her husband that he has to do something because she can't go on like this. Maestra Oliviero still hopes for students who will demonstrate her superiority as a teacher, particularly over the male teachers.

But in the opening pages already, our narrator Elena makes it clear that poverty prevails, and that while there might be a way out through scholarship -- as seen in the fairly limited example of Maestra Oliviero -- this is curtailed even beyond the class constrictions by the clearly delineated expectations of gender. All in the community defer to Don Achille, whose shadowy powers are clearly linked to violence and probable criminality; while the adults grumble about and warn against him, no one dares challenge him, and by Grade Two, Lila and Lenù know that any competition against Achille's son must be negotiated carefully. We will find out before long how broad and deep runs Achille's power over the community, but these first chapters already establish that the current is not a new one. There is a history of violence, of terror, that the girls have imbibed without ever being able to ascertain the details -- in writing about this, the narrator suggests the balance between what is and is not said, or even more, what can and cannot be said, in a primarily oral culture.

And to me, it's so significant that Elena, the writing narrator of the girls' shared story, has emphasised her Writing Self in the prologue, and now focuses considerable attention on the girls' move into literacy from their primarily oral culture. Maestra Oliviero quickly intuits that Lila's mother is illiterate; we will soon suspect that she's not the only non-reader in the neighbourhood. And there is much emphasis in these first chapters on what is acquired through oral knowledge.  I'm thinking, for example, of the incident in which Lila's father apologizes to Don Achille "without ever saying what he was apologizing for." The adult Elena tells us that she "didn't see it" or at least doesn't remember it, "but it was said that the apologies were made aloud, and in such a way that everyone could hear."

More generally, all the intricate knowledge Elena offers about the relationships between her neighbours has been gleaned by listening. And to characterise what she was listening to as gossip seems unfair because the knowledge about their community seems integral to their survival. The paragraph about what had happened "in the dark ages" of "Before" -- i.e. before the girls were born, when something had apparently happened in which Don Achille "revealed himself in all his monstrous nature -- and the paragraph which follows it support that argument, as well as illustrating Elena's claim that her childhood was full of violence. As much as she might want to adopt the nicer manners of the teachers or priest, "they were not suited to our neighbourhood, even if you were a girl."

Let me pause for a moment here and consider how much I can write, how much you'll have time to read, here today. I'll confess that after my year away from academic writing, there's a part of me that is being pulled back in through this re-reading, and you might be surprised to see how many notes I've made so far. But I don't have time to write an essay on this section, nor is that what we're all here for. So perhaps I can just suggest a few topics for consideration and trust to your comments to flesh out the discussion. Just a few. . . I'll number them. . . You'll see. . . 

1) I could, for example, spend some time considering the gender roles so distinctly articulated. The mothers, old by thirty, worn-down by poverty and multiple pregnancies, and with the added insult of being despised by their daughters for whom they represent only a depressing future. The fathers embedded in a patriarchy which holds them under Don Achilles' power but allows them to beat their wives and children. A world in which a six or seven-year old girl already knows how to wield her blond curls and sweet smile to mitigate against her cleverness.

2) Also worth some attention is the specific socio-economic and historic reality of Naples in this period not so long after the war. The gas masks lurking in basements, the bombs lingering, ready to be exploded at the touch of an unwary child. "Our world was like that, full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection."

3) The "folk wisdom" of this still primarily oral culture as manifest in that brief litany of Elena's of "things that seemed normal" that you could die of.

4) This one I could easily write a whole other post on, but I'll sketch out my observations here and then turn the mic over to you. My closing point concerns Elena's control of the narrative, a control I've already remarked on in discussing the Prologue. Most obviously, you'll see Elena herself drawing your attention to her narrative role in frequent comments about the difficulty she has with some aspects of the narrative or about the significance of something she's saying.  When she writes about something she saw in Lila's face that "is still hard to define, so for now I'll put it like this," she reminds us that she's the one in charge of the story (and if we're wise readers, we should take this as a caution). Similarly, after Nino's defeat in the classroom competition, Elena writes that she saw "something that saddened me: not an inability, not even surrender, but, I would say today, a collapse." As much as the narrative pulls us in, as readers, to the childhood scene being described, the adult Elena, writing, insists on disrupting that transparency and pulls us back to the filtering that is happening back at the computer keyboard on which she's composing her rebuttal to Lila's disappearance.

An extension of this, more subtle perhaps, but also more pervasive, is in the way Elena plays masterfully with the ever flexible relationship between story and plot. She begins the section on "Childhood" by wielding a narrator's privilege, declaratively establishing the moment when the girls' friendship began -- the pages following offer many other moments during the previous two or three years that other writers or story-tellers might have chosen as the friendship's birth. The barest form of the story she describes might be that Two Little Girls Met, One Threw the Other's Doll into a Dangerous Place, They go to Retrieve It. But the plotting is elaborate, and it keeps the reader on her toes with its disrupted chronology and the demands it makes on us to understand implied causation. We might begin to wonder where Lila would have begun the narrative. . . . And is it worth wondering whether her disappearance is highlighted rather than contended by Elena's absolute control over what the reader learns. . .

Anyway, that's probably enough to get a discussion going, although I'm far, far from having shared all my marginalia with you, the underlined passages, the pencilled exclamations . . . But one of our daughters is coming for dinner, with her two little ones, and she's just texted that they're nearly here. So over to you, and we'll chat more about these chapters via the comments. 

Oh, and I'll try to post on the remaining "Childhood" chapters by Friday, but possibly Saturday depending on how the week goes. 

Friday, September 9, 2016

My Brilliant Friend Readalong, The Prologue: Importance of the Frame. . .

I've chosen four-and-a-bit pages to begin our Readalong with, reserving this post for a discussion of the Prologue. This small "assignment" isn't suggested simply to give you time to catch up after the long weekend, but also, as I've written before (scroll down about halfway), because I think this framing device casts an important light on the overall narrative. In fact, when I tried listening to the BBC radioplay of My Brilliant Friend, I was annoyed enough at the effacement of the narrator's role that I quickly lost interest (despite the peculiar enchantment of hearing those little Neapolitan girls speak in their English accents).

What's the big deal? Well, so much is revealed in the Prologue that we would do well to keep in mind as we read. For starters, the opening pages make it very clear that the entire narrative is filtered through the memory of a woman at a particular stage of life, and that the story is being told a very specific reason. Beginning the novel with those little girls would have been a completely different choice on Ferrante's part, allowing us to follow their story more innocently, with less bias, less expectation. Instead, we meet them knowing already that one of them will decide, at 66, to disappear completely, eliminating all traces of her life, to her son's supposed dismay, and to the anger of the friend her actions goad into writing their story.

I should confess here that my interest in the way lives get narrativised in fiction began at least as far back as a grad school class. The prof, who was known for her scholarship on "the metaphysical detective story," used to repeat a formulation summarising a particular kind of novel whose narrator mourned the loss of a hero. In this "elegiac romance," my prof pointed out (using the term coined by another scholar, Kenneth Bruffee), the narrator might just as well have said, "I'm telling you a story about him which is really a story about Me." 

So even before we enter the novel proper -- the story which is supposed to be about "My Brilliant Friend" (and it's worth considering that translator Ann Goldstein must have spent some time replacing the "geniale" of the Italian title L'Amica Geniale with "brilliant") -- perhaps we could pause to wonder: What does a narrator reveal about herself if, in claiming to write a story about the life she's shared with her friend, she also tells us that she's "really angry" and that she begins writing determined to  " "see who wins this time."

Perhaps you could let us know, in the comments below, what you learn about Elena (whose name, we'll learn a bit later, has a diminuitive counterpart similar to the one she gives Raffaella) from the Prologue. As well, what clues or puzzles get set up in these few pages -- what do you become curious about already? Many of you, of course, have already read well into the rest of the novel, have perhaps even finished it and even the rest of the tetralogy. Still, it might be worth thinking about the way the narrating writer disposes us to receive her version of events by framing it in a certain context from the outset.

For example: what does Elena's treatment of Rino tell us?
What claims does Elena make that we have only her word for?
And even, perhaps, Why should you trust Elena, in her story-telling? Do you? Or are you at least willing to suspend disbelief or suspicion and let the story unfold?
And further: Even if you find Elena reliable enough, as a narrator, doesn't she herself warn you, at the end of the Prologue, that memory may get in the way? There are, after all, something like sixty years between the scene of the Writing Present and that of the Written Past we turn to in the section called "Childhood" which follows the Prologue.
As well as alerting us that memory might (surely!) fail, Elena earlier qualifies a claim that she "know[s Lila/Raffaella] well" by adding, parenthetically that "at least I think I know her." Readers must keep in mind that much as she's in control of her narrative, Elena is not an omniscient narrator.; she can't read Lila's mind.

That's enough to get us started, don't you think?  

Monday, September 5, 2016

My Brilliant Friend, readalong, The Prologue

Welcome to this Read-Along of Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend.  Never having attempted to host a read-along here before, I'm not sure how this project might evolve, but I'm sure we'll figure it out together. For now, I'm going to write a few words about the epigraph, ask for a brief introduction (via the Comments section) from those of you who are reading along (although you certainly don't need to speak up if you're not comfortable doing that yet), and end by giving a schedule for the next two posts.

Before doing that, I'll just point out for those of you who haven't visited before, or at least not often, that I've already posted a few times about Ferrante's Neapolitan series (i.e. My Brilliant Friend and the three volumes following it). You can find those posts, if you're interested, here, but there may be a few spoilers. What those posts show, I think, is that having read all four books in the series through in relatively quick succession (I had to wait for the fourth to be published in English),  I closed the last pages of the final volume and turned almost immediately back to the introduction of the first one. Despite the linearity -- an inexorable pull to the end, to find out what happens, to follow these two women's lives -- the "frame story" of the series, I believe you will agree should you read all four titles,  circles us right back to where we started.

For now, though, it is time to get started. We can think about endings and circling back later.


Rereading My Brilliant Friend, I decide I should pay more attention to the epigraph. My copy of Goethe's Faust is packed away in storage with all our moving boxes, but a little Googling takes me to this article by Alice Brittan, published in Open Letters Monthly in September 2015. In the article, Brittan helpfully "unpacks," as we used often to say in academe, the provenance and the significance of this quotation as epigraph at the beginning not only of My Brilliant Friend but also, by extension, of the entire Neapolitan series.

Most of you are reading this novel for the first time, and you are too eager to get on with it to read Brittan's article -- which, fair warning, is replete with "spoilers," as it's a work of literary criticism (i.e. analysis) rather than a review.  But it's worth at least skimming the paragraphs that consider the epigraph. In case even that much time away from Ferrante's pages is too much for you, let me summarise very briefly: Brittan sketches the scene for those who haven't read Faust, describing the devil, Mephistopheles, interrupting a "colloquium of archangels" to scorn humanity as "a rather sorry sight." God disagrees, and bets the devil that he will not be able to seduce the professor Dr. Faust to abandon his allegiance to good.

What is arguably shocking in Goethe's play is that when the devil boasts that he will be able to bring the man to the ground, to the level of the Eve-tempting snake, Goethe's God answers, Brittan tells us, that he never "never hated those who were like you" (i.e., like Mephistopheles, the devil). And this is when, as Brittan points out, God makes the speech which Ferrante has taken for her epigraph, a speech in which he points out that humanity is prone to boredom, to "unqualified repose," and that therefore God has gifted human beings with a companion, the Devil, "who works, excites, and must create."

Brittan goes on to link the creative energies associated with Mephistopheles to the chaotic creative power that Lina/Lila unleashes throughout and from which Lenù, the story's writer-narrator, benefits. We don't need to decide whether that's a viable reading of the epigraph's relation to the novel/series, but I do think it's worth keeping in mind throughout that the epigraph draws attention to the compromises creativity might seem to demand of one's morality. That the epigraph suggests that Good and Evil might be more complicatedly intertwined than we sometimes like to believe. That "unqualified repose" is worth disturbing, perhaps even at the cost of one's soul. . . Or not, because, of course, in the end Faust will suffer. . .

Something else the Goethe quotation does, Brittan argues and I would agree, is place the novel in a category labeled World Literature. That is, as much as the novel is so specifically about two girls growing to older women in (and out of, for one of them) a neighbourhood of Naples, it also has universal or international relevance. We can find out something in these novels about the human condition that is not limited to its Neapolitan provenance, important, absolutely integral, undeniably, though that regional flavour is.

That's enough to get us started, I think. Now perhaps you could leave a Comment below and introduce yourself briefly if you haven't visited before. Feel free to use the Anonymous option, but it would be great if you used a name within that option, at the end of your comment -- fine if it's a nickname or psuedonym, just something so we can get a sense of who's saying what as we move through the book together. For now, perhaps just your name and a few words about where you are in the novel (just starting, finished, re-reading, halfway through) and what you think so far. Let's try to avoid spoilers, for now, in consideration for those who haven't read as far yet.

On Friday, I'll post a few thoughts about the Prologue, and next Monday, on Chapters 1-10 of the section Childhood. I'm really looking forward to our conversation! (oh, and a recommendation: I wouldn't bother spending much time looking at the Cast of Characters before you begin reading, but you may find it useful to refer back to as you get caught up in the Neapolitan neighbourhood's complex relationships).

So now, over to you. I'd love to know who's out there, reading along. Please introduce yourselves below.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Witness and Mysteries. . . What I've Been Reading

I'm supposed to be on a blogging break now, but that, of course, means that I have more time to read, which in turn means there are more titles to record here. . . . and then I look ahead on the calendar and see our big move ahead and some travel plans a few weeks after that. Plus, of course, I'm getting ready to host a Read-Along of Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend in a few weeks. . . My mother used to use an old expression, "Your eyes are bigger than your stomach," and it seems to apply well to other appetites and consequences than those for food. I'm often wanting to do more than I can really manage, tempted to "bite off more than I can chew." Perhaps my new resolution for my blog(s) might be to under-promise and then try to over-deliver. . . . Sadly, there's another old expression, something about old dogs and new tricks, that suggests I might not change my ways so easily.

Excuses and explanations done, then, I'll confess that as much as I'd wanted to spend more time telling you about Anthony Marra's wonderful, haunting, painful A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon, all I'm going to say is that BuffaloGal was absolutely right when she commented that the novel about the damaged humanity left in the wake of the Second Chechen War, "it was brilliant- a story of love, loss, and what binds us together. Run- don't walk!! I can't get it out of my head" I finished the book a few weeks ago, and the characters are with me still. The setting is as well, I'm surprised to say -- much of it is a setting of devastation, to be honest, and depressing more than horrifying. A setting I'd prefer to consign to a Mad Max movie, one that lays bare humanity's willingness to hurt and destroy in the name of a cause or an idea or simply a hatred. But there are also small, persistent images of tentative hope, hope against better judgment, admittedly, often betrayed, yet just enough affirmation of goodness and strength and guarded tipping into love -- just enough to keep me mesmerised, reading forward through the pain.

Wonderful descriptions of the role of art in the novel, particularly its value, if any, in the face of obliterating, banal destruction. Often woven together with these descriptions is an ongoing meditation on the decaying of memory, the disappearance of an entity -- a sorrowful notion, yes, but rendered throughout in lyrical terms that will make you look away from the page for a moment or two and just consider. . . I love the narrator's voice as well, detached somewhat, yes, and omniscient, but with a wry care for the characters he tells us about -- often this narrator will tell us that a certain character will, 30 or 40 years' hence, do such-and-such an action. This inflects the novel's intense focus on a particular, destructive historical and geographic moment, putting it onto a much bigger canvas, time-wise at least, and arguably, by extrapolation, spatially as well.  I think it also has the effect of emphasising the role of witness, a role (and a responsibility?) that I believe a novel like this invites us to take up. My life is undeniably privileged, but at the very least, I can be attentive to the world's sorrows so that I might use that privilege as responsibly as possible. Pursuing this concept here would lead me into a much longer post than I have time for (See? Eyes bigger than my stomach again! Mom was right!), so I'll leave it at that. . .  Thank you BuffaloGal for recommending this and I second your advice to other readers: Run, don't walk! Read this book.

Just quickly, now, to list a few mysteries I've read lately:
Julia Keller's Bitter River.  As with the first in this series featuring West Virginia prosecutor Bell Elkins, I enjoyed this well enough once the rhythm got established quite a few chapters in. I couldn't help but be irritated by the references to the events of the last novel, and overall, I wished for more editing. There are too many metaphors, too much figurative language altogether, and for me at least, too much "folksy," for want of a better word. I like the characters, like the setting well enough, the plotting was satisfying, and I would probably read another in the series, but I won't rush to find one as I have with other mysteries (the two below being examples).

Donna Leon's Quietly in their Sleep (alternatively titled The Death of Faith) -- fifth in the Commissario Guido Benedetti Brunetti series set in Venice. The target of Leon's ongoing exposure of corruption in Italy is the church, in this novel. I know many of you have already read the series, are perhaps enjoying the latest title now, but I'm fortunate enough to have started them quite recently (I mention others here and here, and it's such a delight to watch the relationships and characters develop -- Benedetti and his wife's particularly.

Denise Mina's Field of Blood. Also lucky to have just discovered Mina, via my blogging buddy Sue at High Heels in the Wilderness. This title is the first in a series featuring young journalist Paddy Meehan, and I'm already hooked by the way Mina captures the hopes and fears and impatiences of an 18-year-old looking out at the exciting possibilities of city life from her hermetic family and community neighbourhood.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm really on a blogging break and I have some books to read. . . Comments? You know I love them, although I hope you'll understand if I hold back responding while on my vacation.