Open Letters Monthly, September 2014 Edition

FerranteGraphicAnother new month, another new issue of Open Letters Monthly! As always, I hope you’ll check it out; I think almost anyone could find something of interest in it! Among my favorites this month are Laura Tanenbaum’s review of Julie Hayden’s The Lists of the Past, and Erin Wunker and Hannah McGregor’s essay on Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda. You’ll also find Steve Donoghue on 13 Days in September, Lawrence Wright’s new book on the Camp David negotiations; Justin Hickey on Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman; Robert Minto on a new book on the Hundred Years War; two new poems; and more! My own contribution this month is a ‘peer review’ feature on the critical reception of Elena Ferrante. The more of her reviews I read, the more I felt that something was going on that deserved some closer scrutiny. My conclusion? Well, you’ll have to pop over and read the piece, won’t you?

“Absence of Sense”: Elena Ferrante, The Days of Abandonment

ferrantedaysRemember when I said I couldn’t think of a book that I actively hated, that I truly regretted having read? Guess what: I found one! I did finish reading it, partly because I wanted to be sure it didn’t pull some kind of switch on me at the end and surprise me into liking it better, but mostly because it’s pretty short so reading it all the way through didn’t require a great investment of time. It took some will power, though, because I really wanted to get away from it as fast as I could.

Why did I pick out The Days of Abandonment in the first place? I had heard of it because I have been reading Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy, starting with My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name, and though my initial reaction was not rapturous, I couldn’t deny the interest and power of her story of two girls grimly battling their way through childhood and adolescence. (I was interested enough to grab the third volume, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, away from Steve on my recent trip to Boston, and I’ll still read it.)

Why did I dislike The Days of Abandonment so much? Basically, take all the things I didn’t like about Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, then remove all the things I did like about Messud’s novel and add a lot more bile (metaphorical bile, but also literal, as in the kind your dog would vomit up if he ate strychnine). The novel is about Olga, a writer with two children who collapses into rage and depression after her husband leaves her for Carla, a younger woman. He attributes his departure to “an absence of sense.” At the end of the novel, Olga tells him he was wrong to excuse himself that way:

Now I know what an absence of sense is and what happens if you manage to get back to the surface from it. You, you don’t know. At most you glanced down, you got frightened, and you plugged up the hole with Carla’s body.

“An absence of sense” does perfectly describe her life during those abandoned days: she spirals emotionally out of control, she can’t manage housekeeping or childcare, she loses the ability to do ordinary things like lock and unlock her doors. She tries with unsuccessful guile to track her husband down, and then when, quite accidentally, she happens across him and Carla on the street she viciously attacks them. She tries to have an affair with her neighbor. She starts swearing a lot, screams at and threatens her children, and basically behaves like a nasty, incompetent, raving idiot. That’s all, of course, in some ways perfectly appropriate and understandable in the circumstances.  It seemed disproportionate to me, her complete disintegration less about grief than a woeful abdication of her self-respect and autonomy — but who am I to judge? So her dog dies and she puts her children through hell: everybody hurts, right? And I have to give Ferrante credit for presenting Olga’s bad behavior without a hint of softening or compromise. I can’t think of a novel I’ve read recently that has a main character so entirely devoid of redeeming qualities. She doesn’t do or say one nice or admirable thing for the entire 200 pages.

But why? Why put us — not to mention Olga — through that? In my post about The Story of a New Name, I wondered if “the critical enthusiasm for [Ferrante’s] novels is connected to the current anxiety about niceness in female characters: is anger the new obligation of the “serious” woman writer, or the new touchstone for critics of women’s writing?” I agree that the obligation of any novelist is not to be nice but to be interesting, but I found Nora’s anger in The Woman Upstairs tedious and Olga’s “absence of mind” repulsive. I guess I can’t rule out repulsion as an aesthetic effect, but I can opt against it, at least as the sole effect a novel has to offer. Just because for so long it was considered unladylike to show anger — just because anger needed to be admitted to the repertoire of women’s writing — doesn’t mean that in itself anger equals art. I thought Messud was “trying to make a broader political and feminist case for anger out of one woman’s very personal neuroses and bad judgment.” Now I think, well at least she was trying. I didn’t really see her point (I honestly didn’t think Nora had much to be angry about), but Ferrante doesn’t seem to have one: she’s just creating a spectacle, immersing us vicariously in Olga’s psychological and emotional catastrophe. It’s like confining her novel, rather than her protagonist, to the Red Room. Here, indeed, is “a mind filled with hunger, rebellion and rage.” But Bronte’s heroines are angry at something — and something systemic, too — and their novels are both protests against injustice and assertions of their right to transcend their oppression. The Days of Abandonment, in contrast, stakes everything on its skillful and ruthless portrayal of Olga’s unreason.

Olga does emerge, haltingly, from the depths. But here too what Ferrante offers is disappointing. Olga falls apart because her husband leaves her; her return to real life and self-control is measured through her response to another man. Again, you could say the same thing about Jane Eyre — but both she and Rochester work hard to earn their happy ending. I’m not against relationships in or out of novels; nowhere is it written that a love story must be a capitulation to patriarchy. But for me, Olga spends way too much time measuring her success according to how attractive or sexually active she is. Fine, this is the character Ferrante has created, and (again!) who am I to judge? I haven’t always handled my own personal traumas in ways that would stand up to scrutiny. I was sure happy, though, to reach the end  and be done with her– not to mention relieved that, bad as the experience was for me, the only actual casualty in the novel was the dog.

Note that I have given my reasons for not liking this novel. Sometimes (can I mention Madame Bovary and Edward St. Aubyn just once more?) when I dislike a novel I can nonetheless appreciate it, even admire it. I didn’t find anything admirable about The Days of Abandonment except, perhaps, its consistency. Oh, and I got that the locked apartment doors were probably symbolic! But I can see how someone would make a better, or at least different, case for it. Indeed, the cover of my handsome edition is adorned (as covers always are these days) with samples of effusive praise. I hated it, but maybe it’s not a bad novel. Maybe it’s a great novel! I don’t know. Feel free to defend it — but you’re more likely to convince me about it if you can avoid the following words: “searing,” “honest,” “raw,” “brave,” “exposed,” “unflinching,” or “naked.”

“For Myself Only”: Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name

ferranteI’m glad I kept going with Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy. I wasn’t bowled over by My Brilliant Friend: I described myself as interested but not emotionally gripped. To some extent, I felt the same about The Story of a New Name, but now I’m more interested: having spent this much more time with the characters, I’ve caught the “I want to know how this all turns out” bug.

This second book takes the central characters, friends (and antagonists) Elena and Lila, through the first phases of their lives as young adults. For Lila, this means through the years of her marriage to Stefano Carracci. There’s a literal but also a symbolic way in which her transformation into “Signora Carracci” is the source of the novel’s title:  it’s the story of her experiences as a young married woman, but also the story of her ceaseless struggle to retain control of her identity. A crucial sequence involves her remaking an enlargement of her wedding photo — made to use as a promotional image for the shoe line she has helped create. When she’s finished with it, Elena realizes, Lila has managed “to erase herself”:

With the black paper, with the green and purple circles that Lila drew around certain parts of her body, with the blood-red lines with which she sliced and said she was slicing it, she completed her own self-destruction in an image, presented to the eyes of all in the space bought by the Solaras to display and sell her shoes.

This act of paradoxically simultaneous construction and destruction is characteristic of Lila’s energy, which seems always to be at once positive and dangerous. Somehow she is more fiercely herself the more she rejects, repels, or opposes attempts to name her or in any way fix who she is. Later, watching Lila deliberately slicing at the bonds of her stifling and violent marriage, Elena remembers “what she had done to the wedding-dress photograph” and thinks that now “she is behaving in the same way  . . . with the very person of Signora Carracci,” trying “to tear off her condition of wife.” Later still, when Lila has left her husband and imagines that she is starting over, “she was again fascinated . . . by erasing herself.”

In contrast, over the same period Elena is resolutely creating herself, determined to “live for myself only”:

In the past there had been Lila, a continuous happy detour into surprising lands. Now everything I was I wanted to get from myself.

Elena ended My Brilliant Friend despairing that she might never find a way out of the grimly claustrophobic neighborhood of her childhood, and her path is certainly not a straight or easy one. Even as she moves on from high school to college, she feels she cannot escape her upbringing, which — through her accent as well as her ignorance of more sophisticated mores — marks her as a misfit in the more cosmopolitan circles she enters:

I arrived at the university very timid and awkward. I immediately recognized that I spoke a bookish Italian that at times was almost absurd . . . I began to struggle to correct myself. I knew almost nothing about etiquette, I spoke in a loud voice, I chewed noisily; I became aware of other people’s embarrassment and tried to restrain myself.

Gradually, she learns to speak and act like someone who belongs, particularly by downplaying the very intellectual abilities that made her move possible in the first place: “by never appearing arrogant, by being ironic about my ignorance, by pretending to be surprised at my good results.”  She becomes a promising student, gets involved with a well-to-do but militantly Communist boyfriend who takes her to Paris and thus expands her mental horizons as well as her literal ones. Then she takes another step: she begins to write about her life, in a novel, which is immediately accepted for publication. Elena feels, understandably, “very pleased with myself.” Surely this proves that she has an identity of her own, one that will carry her away from her past. But this, too, is not so simple, for no sooner has she written herself into her new existence than she comes across an old manuscript of Lila’s, a story called “The Blue Fairy” that Elena had admired so devotedly as a child. On Lila’s behalf, she had given the story to their teacher, her mentor, Maestra Oliviero, who had never returned it. But there it is among her papers, the pages “full of her wonderful, goods, very goods.” Elena rereads “The Blue Fairy” and discovers that once again, her life and Lila’s are entangled:

Lila’s childish pages were the secret heart of my book. Anyone who wanted to know what gave it warmth and what the origin was of the strong but invisible thread that joined the sentences would have had to go back to that child’s packet, ten notebook pages, the rusty pin, the brightly colored cover, the title, and not even a signature.

No signature: again, Lila has cut herself out, but Elena can no longer imagine that she is the sole author of her own identity.

The interplay of their two characters and stories is intricately developed, and Lila is a fuller presence here because a significant section of Elena’s narrative draws on Lila’s notebooks to present events more or less from her point of view. The emotional intensity of their lives is probably the quality of the novels that strikes me the most . . . and yet, as before, I’m not myself emotionally gripped. The prose itself has a somewhat flat affect: this may be the effect of the translation, of course, but I’m almost tempted to call it plodding: one thing after another is recounted, with no conspicuous change in register. I’ve been reading some of the reviews I linked to last time, trying to see what I’m missing. James Wood’s description of My Brilliant Friend is disconcertingly unlike my own experience of the book: he calls it “beautiful and delicate,” for instance, when I would have said it is ruthless and raw; he calls it “amiably peopled” and thus makes me wonder if he met the same people in it that I did (find me one “amiable” character!); he talks about the “joy in the book not easily found in [Ferrante’s] earlier work.” If My Brilliant Friend is joyful by comparison, I’m not sure I’m up to reading the earlier books! Catherine Morris’s discussion in the TLS comes much closer to what I thought about the novels, and she helped me appreciate what she calls Ferrante’s “forensic attention to psychological states.” But she likes the flat writing style more than I do: “Scenes of high emotion . . .  are all the more powerful for being simply rendered.” Morris praises Ferrante’s “doggedness in unearthing – and fearlessness in articulating – thoughts that usually remain unspoken.” Ivan Kreilkamp’s essay on Ferrante in the LARB is called “A Rage That Had No End.” I wonder if the critical enthusiasm for these novels is connected to the current anxiety about niceness in female characters: is anger the new obligation of the “serious” woman writer, or the new touchstone for critics of women’s writing? Claire Messud’s much-hyped The Woman Upstairs was also all anger, all the time: I found it tedious, and also not all that innovative (Charlotte Brontë was doing anger a long time ago, after all).

That said, I’ve spoken out myself in favor of books, writers, and characters who are interesting: that isn’t everything I look for in a novel, but it’s a lot (and a lot better than boring, that’s for sure). When the third volume in the triology comes out, I’ll definitely read it.

“A Continuous Game of Exchanges and Reversals”: Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend

brilliant-friendElena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first in her trilogy of ‘Neapolitan novels,’ tells of the childhood and adolescence of two friends, Elena and Lila, living in a rough edge of Naples in the 1950s. This is not the familiar Brit. Lit. Italy of balmy escapism or emotional liberation. “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood,” Elena reports:

it was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall ever having thought that the life we had there was particularly bad. Life was like that, that’s all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us. . . . The women fought among themselves even more than the men, they pulled each other’s hair, they hurt each other. To cause pain was a disease. As a child I imagined tiny, almost invisible animals that arrived in the neighborhood at night, they came from the ponds, from the abandoned train cars beyond the embankment, from the stinking grasses called fetienti, from the frogs, the salamanders, the flies, the rocks, the dust, and entered the water and the food and the air, making our mothers, our grandmothers as angry as starving dogs. They were more severely infected than the men, because while men were always getting furious, they calmed down in the end; women, who appeared to be silent, acquiescent, when they were angry flew into a rage that had no end.

 As the girls grow older, they gradually learn more about the histories — both personal and political — behind these daily hostilities. One of the big questions of the novel (though Elena doesn’t articulate it clearly for herself until near the end) is how, or even whether, it is possible to move beyond the intricate web of hatreds, obligations, and loyalties that entangle all the families in the neighborhood. What else is there? Where else is there to go? In an early escapade that comes to seem symbolic, Lila convinces Elena “to skip school, and cross the boundaries of the neighborhood.” “What was . . . beyond its well-known perimeter?” Elena wonders, as she lies awake the night before. They head out through the “shadowy light” of a tunnel, and Elena feels “joyfully open to the unknown.” But as they walk and walk down the road that they believe leads to the sea — past the “small snotty children” and the “fat man in an undershirt who … showed us his penis” — the adventure becomes tiring; they get hungry and thirsty, and then a thunder storm moves in, and they end up running, “blinded by the rain,” soaked, frightened, back towards home, where anger and beatings await.

For most of My Brilliant Friend it seemed obvious that the title referred to Lila. But near the end, it’s Lila who turns to Elena and says, “you’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.” It’s an important moment, because up to that point we have been given little idea what Lila thinks of Elena or why, from her perspective, they have been friends for so long. Naturally enough, given the novel’s point of view, we know a lot more about what Elena thinks about Lila, who is part muse, part rival, part antagonist. Yet Lila herself seemed oddly opaque to me: I couldn’t really understand her or her motivations, and I can’t tell if this is a problem with the novel or one of the points of the novel (the result, for instance, of Elena’s limitations, perhaps of her inability to see Lila except in relation to herself).

Throughout the novel there is a constant push and pull between the two friends, at least in Elena’s mind. Her incessant measurement of herself against Lila motivates her and shapes her response to her own life; even as they take different paths, it seems to her that they are playing some kind of zero-sum game, as if she can only flourish if Lila falters:

I traced lines between moments and events distant from one another, I established convergences and divergences. In that period it became a daily exercise: the better off I had been in Ischia, the worse off Lila had been in the desolation of the neighborhood; the more I had suffered upon leaving the island, the happier she had become. It was as if, because of an evil spell, the joy or sorrow of one required the sorrow or joy of the other; even our physical aspect, it seemed to me, shared in that swing. In Ischia I had felt beautiful . . . But Lila now had retaken the upper hand, satisfaction had magnified her beauty, while I, overwhelmed by schoolwork, exhausted by my frustrated love for Nino, was growing ugly again.

“What I lacked she had, and vice versa,” Elena reflects, “in a continuous game of exchanges and reversals that, now happily, now painfully, made us indispensable to each other.” Close as they are, the distance between them widens as they mature. Though as a child Lila excels at school, seemingly without effort, her family circumstances and her own aspirations turn her away from her education, and it’s her physical beauty (which has always set her apart) that makes her exceptional: “When you saw her, she gave off a glow that seemed a violent slap in the face of the poverty of the neighborhood.” Elena, in contrast, persists with her studies, even continuing to the high school in Naples. Lila dedicates herself to the family business and eventually becomes engaged to someone who can finance her ambition to transform it from a simple cobbler’s shop to a  high-end artisanal footwear company. Elena dreams of being a writer — and, as always, holds herself up against Lila and feels inadequate:

she would start talking about . . . shoes, shoe factory, money, and I would slowly feel that the novels I read were pointless and that my life was bleak, along with the future, and what I would become: a fat pimply salesclerk in the stationery store across from the parish church, an old maid employee of the local government, sooner or later cross-eyed and lame.

Perhaps their two different paths both lead away not just from the poverty of their neighborhood and the brutality of their immediate families, but from the past that surrounds them all. After Lila’s engagement, Elena wonders at the way she and her fiancé decide to “rise . . . above the logic of the neighborhood”:

They were behaving in a way that wasn’t familiar even in the poems I studied in school, in the novels I read. I was puzzled. They weren’t reacting to the insults . . . They displayed kindness and politeness toward everyone, as if they were John and Jacqueline Kennedy visiting a neighborhood of indigents. . . . Was this her latest invention? Did she want to leave the neighborhood by staying in the neighborhood? Did she want to drag us out of ourselves, tear off the old skin and put on a new one, suitable for what she was inventing?

But Lila’s path is not an escape route after all: though she marries well, as the novel ends Elena looks at her brilliant friend and sees that Lila is, in fact, trapped:

As a child I had looked to her, to her progress, to learn how to escape my mother. I had been mistaken. Lila had remained there, chained in a glaring way to that world, from which she imagined she had taken the best. And the best was that young man, that marriage, that celebration, the game of shoes for Rino and her father. . . . I should take note, I thought: not even Lila, in spite of everything, has managed to escape from my mother’s world.

But “I have to,” Elena realizes; “I can’t be acquiescent any longer.” If she wants a different life she has to embrace her own alienation from those she has grown up with. She sees how — through her education, through her writing — but even as she grasps at the possibility, it seems to elude her. Years before her teacher, Maestra Oliviero, pressed Elena to be ambitious for herself: “Do you know what the plebs are,” asks Maestro Oliviero;

“The plebs are quite a nasty thing.”


“And if one wishes to remain a plebeian, he, his children, the children of his children deserve nothing. Forget [Lila] Cerullo and think of yourself.”

There at Lila’s wedding, she tries to do just that, but she meets instead with a disappointment that seems to her a sign that she has no higher destiny:

At that moment I knew what the plebs were, much more clearly than when, years earlier, she had asked me. The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts. The plebs were my mother, who had drunk wine and now was leaning against my father’s shoulder, while he, serious, laughed, his mouth gaping, at the sexual allusions of the metal dealer.

Elena is left feeling that her best is not good enough — that “studying was useless.” But though My Brilliant Friend ends on this dispiriting note, we know from the Prologue, which takes place many years later, that Elena does move on, while Lila “had never left Naples in her life.” And we also know that though, in their ongoing “game of exchanges and reversals,” it was Lila who was the better writer (or so Elena thought), the novel itself stands as Elena’s ultimate triumph: angry at her friend’s latest trick, “I turned on the computer and began to write — all the details of our story, everything that still remained in our memory.” What we don’t know is how she got away — these details of the story are presumably told in the sequel.

I found My Brilliant Friend very interesting, and yet I can’t decide how high a priority it is for me to read on in the series. As I tried to write about the novel, it seemed richer and more complicated in some ways than it had while I read it, yet I didn’t find myself emotionally gripped by it and I’m curious but not anxious to know what happens next. One issue was, as mentioned, Lila’s opacity, though the one thing we do know about her experience of the world — her occasional bouts of “dissolving boundaries” — made her less, rather than more, understandable to me. I also (and this may just be a failure of my reading, of course) had persistent trouble telling the other characters apart, especially the boys (eventually, the young men). Even when I looked them up in the Index of Characters, I could not summon up more than a perfunctory recollection of what was notable about them (except the thug-like Solara brothers). Is this, again, perhaps a feature rather than a failure of Ferrante’s characterization? Is the tendency of their lives to suppress their individuality? By the final chapter, I had Nino and Stefano straight, at least. On the plus side, there’s a wonderful particularity to Ferrante’s descriptions, and though words like “evocative” and “atmospheric” seem like reviewers’ clichés nowadays, they do seem apt for the way she conveys the sights and sounds of Lila and Elena’s gritty, turbulent environment. As a story of female friendship, My Brilliant Friend is perhaps also notable for its unsentimentality and the room it makes for jealousy (but not, refreshingly, romantic rivalry), anger, and ambition.

I know Liz has read My Brilliant Friend, because she very kindly sent me her copy: I’m eager to hear her thoughts about my mixed reaction, and also to hear from anyone else who has read this or any other of Ferrante’s novels. She’s getting a great deal of attention (e.g. here, here, here – I have not read these closely yet, as I have been trying to sort out some of my own thoughts first, and also fear spoilers about the second book, but I notice James Wood calls My Brilliant Friend “a large, captivating, amiably peopled bildungsroman,” at least one word of which takes me by surprise).