Elena Ferrante (2015) The Story of the Lost Child, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.

the story of the lost child.jpg

The Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante’s fourth and final novel, is largely set in a working-class district of Naples. The narrator in each novel has been Elena Grecco, born the reader is told in August 1944, and this narrative takes us up to 2005 and almost the present day, when she’s an old woman in her late sixties, sitting on her balcony, looking over the Po, a view of Vesuvius and the semicircle of Naples. She is content,  a writer, in the mould of Elena Ferrante, whose books set in Naples have been widely read, translated, and made into acclaimed films, but whose body of work had begun to fade from public view, but is brought back to prominence by the publication of an eighty-page novella, A Friendship, which is a fiction of a fiction telling of her love of ‘My Brilliant Friend’- based on Raffella Cerullo, also called Lila, and their extended families and friends – which is the title of the first book of the quartet of the Ferrante’s novels. Still with me?

Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym of a writer who writes about Naples. A common motif in her work is the madwoman, who everyone knows, sees out of the corner of their eye, but disappears from view. Drowning in love, metaphorically and often literally. To be avoided at all costs in case they too, sane but susceptible women, are dragged down. Class and poverty create many links, often with violent outcomes. The surprise here is Lila jokes it is her that has become the madwoman, akin to her aunt Melina, a widow, who lived up the stairs and had a relationship with Donato Sarratore. And for most of the forth volume Lila lives in the house below Elena. To recap, they both had an affair with Nino, Donato’s son, at one time the great love of their life. Lila created a fiction that her son Rino was Nino’s son and not her husband, Stefano’s, but it was later proved the latter’s child and not the former’s.

This story begins in 1976 when it is Elena who is, once more, besotted with Nino. She leaves her husband Pietro Airota and takes her children Adele, known as Dede, and Elsa, and goes to live with her true love, who has also promised to leave his wife and children. There’s  mirroring here, and in the text, between Elena and Lila, Janus faced, Lila left her husband for Nino, Elena does the same.

The Solara family, who give out loans and deal in other people’s misery, are the adult ogres of the tale. The killing of the widowed moneylender, with her little red book, Manuela, mother of local thugs Marcello and Michele, muscle, who make others pay, goes unsolved, like the death of Don Achiche, but not without blind retribution. Both Marcello and Michele are at different stages and in different books, in love with Lila, as most men are, but it is Nino who wins her and who slips through the years, also a less noticeable and perhaps less lethal, parasitical type. He uses women such as Elena and discards them as he works his to becoming esteemed, an elected member of Italian Parliament, bloated in body and mind, but Lila is the one that got away.

Elena and Lila both fall pregnant at the same time. Lila has a child with Enzo Scanno, who rescued her from Nino and they have a little girl, Nunziatina, called Tina. Elena has another little girl, with Nino, whom she called Immacalotta, pet name, Imma. As Elena comes to realise these were the names of her and Lila’s dolls, mysteriously delivered to her in a package in the epilogue. Ugly dolls, Tina and Nu, but much loved then, pushed into the basement, where bad things happened, more than sixty years earlier (see, for an example of this, the denouement of Ferrante’s debut novel, The Days of Abandonment)  never to be found, but Lila had led her friend to the ogre, and local Mafia boss, Don Achille to demand compensation, which to their surprise the children received. And their children Tina and Imma take to each other in a way that mirrored their mothers. Tina is the brilliant friend, the child prodigy, but Imma, in her own way, is also brilliant. Then one day, when Lila is talking to Nino, Tina disappeared, never to be found.

This was unexpected. It shocked me, but really it shouldn’t have. The story is in the title – the lost child. Lila doesn’t recover but lives on, waiting, and then working out a way to eradicate her story. Elena writes the story of their friendship and breaks the promise of childhood that she wouldn’t. Lila disappears.

Lila’s trajectory from preteen novelist, beautiful teenage bride, designer of iconic footwear and builder of a computer business is all faithfully chartered by her friend and follower:

Here’s what she had done, she had deceived me, she had dragged me wherever she wanted, from the beginning of our friendship. All our lives she had told a story of redemption, but this was hers, using my living body and my existence [italics in the text].

As a reader you’ve got to be glad to Ferrante for all her deceptions and for her narrator Elena’s moment of illumination. All redemption is written down, waiting to be found. Amen to that.

 

Broken, BBC 1 (iPlayer) written and produced by Jimmy McGovern and directed by Ashley Pierce.

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http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b08s323v/broken-series-1-episode-1

I watched Episode 1 of Jimmy McGovern’s series Broken. It was meant to be on last Tuesday, but because of the Manchester bombing was held over for a week. I’m a fan of Jimmy McGovern. His dramas are usually about working-class people that are broken, in some way, and have to find a way forward.  A sympathetic portrayal, and counterpoint to the propaganda from sources such as the Daily-Hate-Mail and Channel 4 and 5’s programmes with tag lines ‘Welfare’. McGovern runs his own production company and is pretty much guaranteed a prime-time slot, like last night, when he sells his work to the BBC.

Using the motif Broken there are a couple of narrative strands up and running. The lead is easiest to identify. Christina Fitzsimons’s (Anna Friel) life is shit. She has three young kids, no partner and no money. McGovern follows a simple dramatic rule (which I often use myself) when thing are bad, make them much worse. So in the first scene Christina’s phone is ringing, even though she’s in chapel, a meeting before her daughter makes her first holy communion (or for the Catholics among us, First Holy Communion).

Ironically, I’m going to a First Holy Communion this Sunday. The usual jokes about the chapel falling down apply. But here, down-to-earth and salt-of-the-earth Father Michael Kerrigan (Sean Bean) who is trying to work miracles in a working-class, Northern town, where everybody is skint rubs one of his parishioners up the wrong way by suggesting, to save money, First Communicants didn’t try to outdo each other with bridal-type dresses and fancy suits and should simply wear their school uniforms. But the world doesn’t work that way, not even in skint Northern towns. Little girls like to dress up and their mum’s like to show off they’ve got the dosh for a big spread.

Here’s the second narrative thread. Father Michael has doubts and somehow they’re related to his dying mum. He has flashbacks and there are reference points to Kes that coming-of-age, Northern, drama based on Barry Hine’s book A Kestrel for a Knave. I’ve read the book and seen the film but can’t remember nowt about it, apart from it’s a about a bird, probably a Kestrel. And there’s lots of kids getting smacked about the head at school and getting the belt. Father Michael relives the same experiences in flashback and there’s something about his mum, he doesn’t want us to know. He’s a priest, probably that old chestnut, a promise to his mother that he’s felt duty bound to keep.

So let the dominoes fall. Christina’s extended meeting about white, wedding-type dresses for eight-year-old girls means she’s late for work. Her boss isn’t happy. She’s a Catholic too, but she’s a boss, which means she’s nasty, pays the minimum wage and sacks Christina for being late and leaving an IOU in the till for £60, which she wasn’t supposed to see. They get into a fight. Christina goes home with a burst lip and is sacked. She promises her wee girl that white dress. But then she goes to the buroo. I can see what McGovern is trying to do here. Christina is telling the supercilious DSS worker that she’s worked all her life, never took a penny even though her partner was a shit and didn’t pay  a penny for their kids and you know the rest…Barred for 18 weeks from all benefits because she intentionally made herself unemployed.

Good drama, but that’s not the way it works. Benefit claimants such as Christina don’t get to meet a real live ex-Chancellor George Osborne type figure that rejoices in telling them they’re scum and deserve everything they get which is nothing and did they ever consider foodbanks for starving children?  No. These things are all done by phone. The equivalent of drone strikes and unsuspecting targets whose lives are changed forever. It’s not good on the screen, and that’s why we don’t have it here.

The other big dramatic moment was Christina’s mum dying suddenly. She’s clutching the phone, trying to phone the priest and book a place in the heavenly choir. Christina tries to hide her mum’s death so she can cash her pension. She does the latter and phones the priest three days later. He immediately says she’s been dead for a couple of days and you’ve probably hidden the fact to cash her pension. Wow, he’s good. A direct line from Peter Falk’s Columbo, up above. I know somebody that did that, but they didn’t need to keep their mum hidden under the sheets. They just needed to keep cashing the book – until they get caught – as Christina is and will be. The domino effect. Make it worse. I’ll probably not watch the other episodes. I know what is going to happen. Things are going to get bad, so bad the Tories are going to call an election and win by a landslide. They’ll probably lock up people that don’t vote Tory. People like McGovern and Christina. I’m all broke up about that. I don’t mind telling you. Fuck the Tory scum.  Anyone that votes Tory will surely go to hell. That’s the way I see things, but god might be more understanding, but I doubt it, eye of the needle and camel and all that… I’m going to pray on Sunday not to hate Tories so much.

 

Richard Holloway (2004) Looking in the Distance: The Human Search for Meaning.

looking into the distance.

Richard Holloway’s Looking in the Distance, predates, his classic autobiographical account, Leaving Alexandria of leaving the Anglican church, where he was a Bishop of Edinburgh, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church and Gresham Professor of Divinity, which is quite a mouthful for an agnostic.  This is a short volume. A working out of ideas, a companion piece to Godless Morality, which I’ve not read and not likely to read. It reminds me a bit of the kind of chapbooks properly brought-up, young, women such as, Jane Austen’s heroine Catherine Morland kept in Northanger Abbey. A personal note of things they should know and others should know that they know. If that sounds old fashioned then Richard Holloway is old fashioned and so am I. My reviews tend to remind me what I’ve read and what I thought of it. I’d forgotten, for example, I’ve read Holloway’s A Little History of Religion. My memory is appalling. I write something down and forget what I’ve written and what I thought of it. There’s a bit of showing off, as well, of course, but since nobody reads my reviews I’m quiet safe. The problem for me is time. If I continually review books and films I’m not writing fiction and that’s what I choose to write. But it’s not that simple. Reading is the engine of writing.

The polymath Umberto Eco tackled the problem of memory in his novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. The protagonist Yambo has had a stroke and he has to reconstruct himself from the books he’s read and the early films he saw. Memory is who we are, he is told.

Memory can be beautiful…Someone said it acts like a convergent lens in a camera obscura, it focuses everything, and the image that results from it is much more beautiful than the original.

Holloway makes the point that there comes a time when most of our life is behind us. Death is not on the horizon, but waiting to tap us on the shoulder. In the first part of the book he begins with Still Looking and quotes Vasili Rozanov:

All religions will pass, but this will remain: simply sitting in a chair and looking into the distance.

Holloway deserves tremendous respect. Most folk make a ghetto of their lives. To turn aside from a role he has carefully crafted and grafted and  saying,  no, I no longer believe in religion, or god, is courageous. It sets an example. The example of Jesus is one that the moron’s moron, the American President, pays lip service to. In books such as The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist the counterweight to capitalism is nationalism and religion based on Calvinism and the gospel of Holy Willie’s Prayer.

O Thou, who in heaven must dwell,

Wha, as it pleases best thysel’.

Send ane to heaven and ten to hell,

A’for thy glory.

And no for ony guid or ill

They’ve done afore thee!

I bless and praise thy matchless might,

When thousands thou has left in night,

That I am here afore thy sight,

For gifts and grace,

A burnin’ an’ a shinin’ light,

To a’ this place.’

Robert Burns delighted in undermining class and religion pomposity. It’s not surprise that his poem To a Louse, takes place during a Kirk service, but could just as well have been the inauguration of the 45th American President.

O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!

It wad frae mony a blunder free us,

An’ foolish notion:

Holloway sees that hypocrisy of saying one thing and doing another. Morality can be complex or it can be a simple precept based on the notion of doing unto others what you would (or would not) do to yourself, which is the footstool of all the major religions. The authority he quotes and the question he asks comes from the Russian novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Karamazov Brothers and the character Ivan:

Tell me honestly, I challenge you – answer me, imagine you are charged with building an the edifice of human destiny, whose ultimate aim is to bring people happiness, to give them peace and contentment at last, but in order to achieve this it is essential and unavoidable to torture just one little speck or creation, the same little child beating his breasts with his little fists, and imagine this edifice to be erected on her unexpiated tears. Would you agree to be the architect under these conditions?’

To move away from Holloway’s creed, this is familiar Stephen King territory. Would you, for example, murder Hitler in his crib?

Thomas Piketty Capital  quotes Balzac to suggest inequalities are so entrenched that if in order to move up someone must be harmed or murdered, would you allow it? Eh, aye, probably, is the same answer as those Christian folk that mourn 22 children murdered in Manchester, but Mail-hate cheerleaders are  quite happy for over 200 folks to drown in the Mediterranean in the same week.

Holloway has something to say about fundamentalism and it applies equally to Trump supporters as it does to the Sunni (Saudi sponsored) branch of Islam in which ‘the gates of interpretation is closed’. ‘Immobolism’ Holloway calls it. What he means is Holy Willie is right, to a god given right,  and you are wrong if you believe otherwise. For Holloway there is nothing more dangerous than a fundamentalist. This book was written pre-Trump Presidency. Such an idea then would have been laughable.

Moral relativism. I had to think of an example for this. It comes from another Scottish writer, John Buchan, The Herd of Standlan. The irony here is the author of the First World War bestseller The Thirty Nine Steps later became a Conservative MP, but in this short story a humble Scottish shepherd, has a choice, whether to let go of the hand of Mr Aither and let him drown or hold on, even though he’s got a broken arm and might drown himself. The shepherd does hold on, or there’d be no narrative, but later regrets it, because Mr Aither, goes onto become Lord Brodaker and a prominent Scottish Tory.

‘I did what I thocht my duty at the time and I was rale glad I saved the callant’s life. But now I think on a’ the ill he’s daen’ to the country and the Guid Cause, I whiles think I wad hae been daein better if I had just drappit him in.’

Imagine you’re holding onto the hand of a young Donald Trump, he’s at his mother’s old croft, would you drappit him in?

 

Jago: A life underwater, BBC 4, iPlayer, produced and directed by James Reed.

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http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b08rp0ld/jago-a-life-underwater?suggid=b08rp0ld

If a documentary can be poetic, a meditation on life and death and the sea, then this is it. Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea springs to mind. Rohani was different from the other kids, swimming underwater and hunting fish. He could hold his breath longer and as an adult his eardrums burst as he got to depths of twenty fathoms on mouthfuls of air. I had to look up what depth a fathom was:  a unit of length equal to six feet (1.8 metres), chiefly used in reference to the depth of water. Other boys from the Togian islands in Indonesia couldn’t hold their breath as long. Nor were they as successful, or as well known, as Rohani in hunting for fish with a spear gun he fashioned. Rohani didn’t marry the prettiest girl, because when he was away fishing, they were away fishing too. But his wife, was his life and she gave him two daughters and a son. The sea was his father and mother and he explained that he saw spirits under the water and you had to respect them or they’d get angry. You had to be humble, or the sea would find you out. With a skiff he travelled near and far, working on, for example, Japanese trawlers. He saw first-hand the damage they did to marine life. It wasn’t Rohani taking from the sea the fish one at time, it was mass murder. His was not a world in which ocean acidification feedback loop as an increase in carbon dioxide blanches and helps to kill coral and the fish that feed in those ocean reserves. The spirits got angry and they took his son, killed in thirty fathoms tending nets. Rohani is a remarkable old man, who returns to the sea, in his skiff, catching fish to eat and cooks on his deck as he journeys on.  There’s great beauty here. Catch it while you can.

Glasgow 1967: The Lisbon Lions, BBC 1 Scotland, directed by John McLaverty.

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http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b08rg0bd/glasgow-1967-the-lisbon-lions?suggid=b08rg0bd

Narrator Rory McCann had an easy job, everybody knows the score. Celtic were the first British team to win the European cup. Inter Milan had scored from the penalty spot in seven minutes, cancelled by an equalising second-half goal by Tommy Gemmell and a late winner from Stevie Chalmers. ‘You’re a legend John. You’re a legend.’ Bill Shankly famously said of the late great Jock Stein after this win. The anniversary of the fifty years since that famous win in the Estadio Nacional, near Lisbon, in Portugal on May 25th 1967 is commentated today, and the strange thing was I was biting my nails as if the score was still in doubt.

The joy of that victory still resonates. Celtic will never again win the European Cup or Champions League as it’s now called. Even getting into the competition is regarded as a mark of success, something to be proud of, and rightly so. It’s difficult to imagine Scotland being a powerhouse of European football. Rory McCann reminded us that in 1967 Rangers reached the final of the Cup Winners Cup and Kilmarnock the semi-final of the Fairs Cup. These were remarkable achievements. Even Ranger’s captain of that time and voted Ranger’s greatest ever player, John Greig was wheeled out to say this Celtic team were something special and in Jock Stein they had a twelfth man. He didn’t include the referees, of course, because they were always Ranger’s men, but that didn’t matter. Celtic were so good other teams needed thirteen men.

But they were also innocent times. Bobby Lennox travelled 30 miles from Saltcoats. He was the furthest away player recruited into the European Cup winning team. The other ten players were recruited from a ten-mile radius of Parkhead. Spitting distance. Bertie Auld was in fine form as a raconteur, talking about his old Panmule Street team, that had their own song, which he sung. And how one family in a single end had 15 boys, but they didn’t have a good inside right.  We were shown families crowded around tables in dilapidated and grim tenements and outside playing football. It was played 24-hours a day, boys dreamed about football and playing for Celtic (or whisper it, Rangers). Bertie Auld’s signing on fee was twenty quid. The note was the size of a telly and Bertie recounted how his mum had folded it up and shoved it down into her bra. A neighbour of Jimmy Johnstone’s recalled how he used to practice, dribbling between milk bottles, but he used put on his dad’s steel toecaps first thing in the morning and kick the ball up and down the living room. Non-stop.  The pictures here are of boys, fresh faced and in their prime. Stevie Chalmers was the big money signing for £30 000, but for the post-war NHS and a Ranger’s daft surgeon he’d have died of tuberculosis and meningitis (meningococcal meningitis)  in1955 as most others did. With such crowded conditions TB was common, but he lived to score that winning goal.

It’s hard to imagine in the media world of WAGs Jock Stein’s belief that wife’s shouldn’t be allowed to watch their men at work. Bobby Murdoch’s wife who attended most home matches laughed when she recalled Jimmy Johnstone’s wife Agnes coming to one of the games asking her which team was Celtic and where was wee Jinky? Imagine Posh Beck’s asking what team David Beckham plays for and where is he? It’s just so unbelievable. Jimmy Johnstone voted Celtic’s best ever player worked as a building labourer for Lawrence, and I remember my brother Stephen, saying that wee Jinky had been his labourer. Marking wee Jinky was ‘like trying to pin a wave to the sand’ was the epithet a Dukla Prague defender gave after their semi-final defeat to Celtic that year.

I’d have been four or five when Celtic won the European Cup. I wrote a story about it (luckily I can’t find it, or I’d be attaching it here).  It’s one of the few childhood memories I retain. My dad eating his dinner and watching the game on telly. When Celtic scored that winner he jumped up and flung the mince and potatoes against the ceiling. He was younger than I am now. But these memories never age.

The fans here relive them. The guys that travelled by plane, bus, car, whatever way they got there, they got there. There’s a beauty in that belief. Times were hard. One guy said engagements were a big thing then, but I had to tell her, I’m going to Lisbon. Sauchiehall Street was deserted on the night of the game. Ghost town. The Celtic players sung ‘It’s a grand Old Team to play for,’ coming out of the tunnel that night. The Italian players look like film stars, but Bertie Auld as usual had the last word, ‘Aye, but can they play?’

The answer my friend is Caesar holding the cup in that iconic moment. Upwards of 150 000 met the Celtic team coming off the plane and crowded the streets in a procession. Parkhead full.  I’m sure my dad would have been one of them. Him and his sidekick, my Uncle John, they couldn’t afford to go to Lisbon. But they’d have been there. Celtic in their heart and in their blood. Passed down from generation to generation.  It’s a Grand Old Team…

OJ: Made in America, directed by Ezra Edleman. Storyville, BBC 4, iPlayer.

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Winner of the 2017 Academy Award for best documentary this five-part series is an investment of time. The premium dividend is it shows how America is polarised around issues of class and race. Karl Marx’s dictum that history repeats itself the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce is apt. OJ is the poster boy. A black all American boy that went to a white college, became the All American hero used by Hertz to sell their cars. ‘Go OJ,’ the tag, but used white actors to screen wash skin colour away. He became an actor, starring in films, such as Naked Gun, the biggest role he played being himself. He was involved in the trial of the century. Accused of killing his estranged, second wife, white beauty queen, Nicole and a male visitor to her house 13th June 1994.   Evidence, including forensic evidence, placed OJ at the scene. Black jurors remained unconvinced. One of them agreed that it was ‘payback’ time for a Los Angeles Police Department that acted like an invading army in the black community and regularly got away with murder and the maiming of those of African American ethnicity. Polls taken after the trial showed that over 75% of white thought OJ was guilty. Over 80% of blacks thought him innocent. OJ proved himself more stupid than guilty, ghosting a book, ‘IF’ in which he admitted his hypothetical guilt. He was later jailed for thirty-three years for a botched robbery in which he tried to take back sporting mementos he had once owned from a collector and seller of memorabilia. Black and white commentators suggested this was payback time for OJ.

There is a postscript of course with a black president Obama, in the White House, followed by the moron’s moron, convicted in the supreme court of discriminating against blacks in term of housing, but still elected president on a platform of racial hatred – and appointing a member of the Ku Klux Klan to a senior position in his White House.

If you think black lives matter this is worth watching.   One of the stories OJ liked recalling was after retiring from American football, and becoming a full-time, paid, celebrity, he overhead a little old white women saying ‘she’d seen OJ, but he was sitting with a lot of niggers’. Race didn’t matter. OJ’s celebrity made others colour blind. Until it did. In the same way that class doesn’t matter, until it does. This is the best documentary you’ll see this decade.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08qldj6

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08rb30l

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08rb4wh

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08rb6f2

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08rb6zx

 

Manchester – united.

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Stephen Dunn Sweetness: Staying Alive

Just when it seemed I couldn’t bear

one more friend

walking with a tumour, one more maniac

with a perfect reason, often a sweetness

has come

and changed nothing in the world

 

except for the way I stumbled through it

for a while lost

in the ignorance of loving

 

someone or something, the world shrunk

to mouth-size

hand-size and never seeming small.

 

I acknowledge there’s no sweetness

that doesn’t leave a stain,

no sweetness that’s ever sufficiently sweet…

Tonight a friend called to say his lover

was killed in a car

he was driving. His voice was low

 

and guttural, he repeated what he needed

to repeat and I repeated

the one or two words we have for such grief

 

until we were speaking only in tones.

Often a sweetness comes

as if on loan, stays just long enough

to make sense of what it means to be alive

then returns to the dark

source. As for me, I don’t care

 

where it’s been, or what bitter road

it’s travelled

to come so far, to taste so good.