Elena Ferrante (2013) Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.

 

This is the penultimate book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. It picks up where it left off in the second book, with ‘Middle Time’ and Elena Greco narrating what happened to her and her brilliant friend Lila Cerrulo after her disappearance in the winter of 2005. As the storyteller Elena has access to Lila’s motives and actions because her friend had given her diaries to her –asking her not to read them. She did, of course. There’s no secrets between brilliant friends. Immediately when they return to Naples they are dragged into the past, with a body in a flowerbed, near their old elementary school. Lila recognises her immediately. It’s Gigolina Spagnuolo, ex-wife of  gangster Michele Solaris.

‘I hadn’t seen her for several decades. Her beautiful face was ruined and her ankles had become enormous’.

This is a familiar figure in Ferrante’s books, the woman abandoned that goes mad and becomes suicidal. Love has sharp edges and women, rather than men, fall off the sides and are lost to themselves. The other constant is everyone loves Lila and the apparent success of Elena has its foundations in Lila’s charisma and brilliance. As a first-time author Elena draws on her experience of rejection by Nino Sarratore, whom she has always loved and desired for literary success. Her dream lover takes up with Lila, even though she’s married. The drives of lust and competitiveness with Lila combine to let Donnato, Nino’s father, have sex with her on a beach, as a kind of way of getting her own back – on Lila and Nino, even though they don’t know about it – and depite Donnato having sexually abused Elena, when she was a girl, . But more than that Elena draws on the magic of Lila’s childhood book The Blue Fairy, which she’d penned when she was ten, and a precocious child.   Lila flings the copy of The Blue Fairy, Elena presents her with as a precious memento, into a brazier outside the sausage factory in which she works and faces daily humiliations. Bruno Soccavo, the owner, for example, and son of a rich industrialist, tries to grope and rape her, because, droit de seigneur, he could. Circles within circles. Bruno Soccavo, the gallant and gauche boy that courted Elena on the beach in Ischia, a friend of Nino and tried to kiss her on their holiday vocation, but was rejected.

Elena’s life is on the rise. As she rises Lila’s life turns to shit and vice versa. Elena is engaged to be married, does marry, Pietro Airota and lucks into the higher echelons of the movers and shakers in Milan and Italian society. Pietro is destined for a brilliant academic future and already has tenure at a university when they marry. He too, when he meets Lila, at the house of Marcello Solaris, who lives with Elisa, Elena’s younger sister, is drawn to his wife’s brilliant friend, affected by her, in a way he doesn’t seem to be affected by others. He describes her as highly intelligent, but evil.

Lila is on the way up, Michele is obsessed with her, in the similar way his brother was, and wants to own her and be near her. He hires her, paying her thousands of lira a week to manage his computer stock system for his stores. Lila picked up programming skills from Enzo Scanno, who saved her after Nino had deserted her, the former fruit and vegetable seller, bringing up the bastard child, Gennaro, whilst living in San Giovanni, near the sausage factory. Elena gets published and, later, is much praised for her insight into working conditions of woman in the sausage factory that leads to violence, but much of the writing is culled from Lila’s notes.  Lila wants to return to her former home in Naples, and Enzo a devoted follower gives her what she wants. Lila admits she’s not really interested in sex, always found it disappointing, but hints she might sleep with Enzo, as a kind of reward for his unfailing love and loyalty, which she values more.

Elena loves sex, but doesn’t really love Enzo. Although making her pregnant with a boy and girl, he’s a bit of a disappointment in that regard and more generally. But she and her friends are over thirty, she’s no longer able to write and settled for domestic existence. She still fantasizes about Nino and when Enzo bring a university colleague home, Elena tries to hide her delight. Nino is married and has a daughter. His wife is rich and loves him, but Nino, finally admits he loves Elena. Love conquers all –only it never does, if you are Elena Ferrante (or mankind, generally). I look forward to the next instalment.

 

Elena Ferrante (2012) My Brilliant Friend, translated by Ann Goldstein.

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Poco a poco I’m working my way through Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, starting with Book 1, My Brilliant Friend.  When I put it like that it seems like a chore, and that is not the case. Ferrante helps me enormously, and I guess other readers, by providing an index of characters.

The first-person narrator looking back to childhood and adolescence is Elena Greco, also called Lenuccai, but known by the more popular diminutive Lenu. Elena is the oldest of the Greco children. Her father is a porter at the city hall. Her mother a housewife. They share a tenement-type house with Cerullo, the shoemaker’s family and  many others, but it is Raffella also called Lina and by Elena, Lila, that really is My Brilliant Friend a polymath that burns brightest and lights up the poverty of a district in post-war Naples where everybody knows everybody and nobody knows anything but violence and hate and jealousy, and girls and women are coveted and loved and protected by walls within walls. Lila dares to dream and think herself beyond those walls but is always dragged back to the fray of everyday life, not least by her courtship by Marcello Solaro, whom, for good reason, she hates and despises, but his relative wealth and social position makes it difficult for Lila’s father, Fernando, to discourage the suitor.

All of these things take place in the second part of the story, in Adolescence, 13 to 16 when Lila blossoms from ugly duckling to queen of the male gaze, and Elena who had initially thought herself in front once more falls behind. In everything that mattered then Lila takes the lead, but it’s not as simple as that. In life there is a mirroring action, but the very thing that Lila most wants, continuing with her education, Elena has, and is flourishing in a way that her friend can be proud of. When Elena, for example, when she hears that her friend is getting married she becomes cynical but her friends lifts her in a way that is instructive.

‘Two more years: [says Elena] then I’ll get my diploma and I’m done.’

‘No [ says Lila] don’t ever stop. I’ll give you the money, you should keep studying.

‘I gave a nervous laugh, then said: “Thanks but at a certain point school is over.’

“Not for you: you’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.”’

The brilliance of My Brilliant Friend is in the dissenting voices of others. When the school teacher Maestra Oliverio urges Elena to abandon her friend, with the disparaging remark ‘Do you know what the plebs are?’ I hear horsey laughter and the Conservative Party trumpeting the believe that we need to leave others behind. We need more grammar schools.  There’s winners and losers and losers are always the same familiar faces. That’s a conclusion Elena also reaches.

The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, the 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. They were all laughing, even Lila, with the expression of one who has a role and will play it to the utmost.

I enjoyed this book because I too am a pleb and my reading of this is fuck off with your grammar school and excluding over 80% of the population on a vision of society based on pre-First World War Britain. A vision that excludes the Lila of this world. I’ll be moving on to the next of the Neapolitan novels. The brilliant polymath Lila lights up any book and obviously her betrayal at her wedding is a good omen, because it’s bad.

 

Elena Ferrante (2016) Frantumaglia. A Writer’s Journey.

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Elena Ferrante (2016) Frantumaglia. A Writer’s Journey.

All writers are historians. Subject and object. Subjecting what we know with what other people know. In other words, we read to write. We look for resonance in our writing and our reading. And sometimes somebody says it better and you’ve just got to acknowledge mastery. This is an honest book, a beautiful book in so many ways. When I start taking notes— Papers: 1991-2003; Tesserae 2003-2007; Letters 2011-2016—I find that I’ve copied word for word all 384 pages of questions and answers and it will take me another lifetime to read it, but if I pluck open any page there will be wisdom and advice. One often translates into the other as Ferrante’s Italian is translated into English and other languages, but the resonance of meaning remains true. This is a book, not so much about writing, but about living.

Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym. If you want to look for her, she asks you to look for her in her writing, in her novels. The media obsession with who a writer is unhealthy and unnecessary. A good book will find an audience of willing and receptive readers. This is counterintuitive advice. As a crowdfunded author, published by Unbound (Lily Poole) I should be a critic of this approach, not an admirer. I’ll let you into a secret, crowdfunding doesn’t work, even when it does. Another way of putting this, of putting Ferrante in her place, is claiming she is saying nothing new. We don’t need to know, for example, who William Shakespeare, Robert Burns or the J.D Salinger was to appreciate their work. The message of Robert M. Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was the idea that somehow quality created its own momentum and would stand out. A conflation of both ideas is To Kill a Mocking Bird and Go Set a Watchman. Both had millions of world-wide readers and are financial success stories, but only one is readable. That’s a value call. A value judgement. The inference is my book flopped because it wasn’t marketed well enough, I wasn’t marketed well enough, or it was rubbish and therefore found no readers.  A combination of all three is the most likely answer. Because despite what Ferrante says, much of which purist ideology I agree with, a book I’ve never read, or intend to read has sold 125 million copies and, like Ferrante’s work, two films so far created, based on the book.. It relied on social media, word of mouth marketing and the fan-fiction community. Fifty Shades of Grey breaks all of Ferrante’s rules. And the power of social media is Trumpeted by the election of the moron’s moron as the most powerful man on earth.

After a book is published, let a book find its own way is not something Ferrante preaches. It is something she did. On the media she writes of a common predicament for the nobody of which she is champion:

Is a book from the media point of view, above all the name of the person who writes it? Is it the fame of the author or, rather the author personality who takes the stage thanks to the media, a crucial support for the book? Isn’t it newsworthy, for the cultural pages, that a good book has been published? Is it newsworthy instead, that a name able to say something to editorial offices in on the cover or some book or other?

Writing is not a game of winner takes all and stacking up the number of sales. Ferrante argues, ‘Novels should never come with instructions for use, least of all by those who write them.’ But Ferrante is saying something more than that. She is saying that writing is a private act made public. Not all writing should however be published. And not all writers have attained the skills necessary to say what they are hoping to say. I include myself in that group.  Writing which is published should be able to stand alone. And women in publishing, as in life, find it far more difficult to succeed. That’s not feminism, just fact.  This is a constant motif of her novels. ‘I’ve described women at moments when they are absolutely alone. But in their heads there is never silence or even focus. The most absolute solitude, at least in my experience, and not just as narrator, is always, to paraphrase… ‘too loud’.’ Men explode. Women implode. Melina Cappucino, the ‘mad widow’ in My Brilliant Friend, is a constant, a fragment of a life also held up to the light, similar women, but not stereotypical characters feature in  The Days of Abandonment and Troubling Love. The idea of the ‘other’ not being other, but us, is something in these troubling times we need to keep hold of.  We need to be aware of in the fight ahead. Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, yes, she is indeed. Read her.

John Updike (2000 [2003]) Great Loves. The Women Who Got Away.

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This is a book of five short stories – Natural Color, New York Girl, Licks of Love in the Heart of the Cold War, The Women Who Got Away and Transaction –  about man’s priapic need to love women, come what may and whatever the cost to existing marriages or children. A man that thinks with his dick is a man I can believe in. And I ask myself a simple question is this a true story or not? If I’m not really sure whether it’s fact or fiction then the stories are coins of true worth. I guess there’s every kind of women here, but only one kind of man.

Eddie Chester, for example, in Licks of Love in the Heart of the Cold War is a banjo player from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia (which reminds me of the Laurel and Hardy sketch). He’s hitched a gig on a cultural exchange programme during the Khrushchev era of 1964 and during a briefing in Washington he meets up with Imogene, ‘one of the receptionists a little black haired coffee-fetcher from that afternoon’s briefing came up to me as if her breasts were being offered on a tray.’  It seems like bad manners to resist and like the other narrators being away from home and children means different rules apply. Imogene, Eddie finds, is an easy lay.

I like to press my face into a girlfriend’s nether soul, to taste the waters that we must all swim out to the light. I strove to keep my manly focus, amid the juggling caused by government-issue alcohol, my wondering what time it was, the jostling of my conscience…

In other words they have sex or make love. And that become Eddie’s problem. He sees it as the former and she regards it as the latter – flooding the diplomatic pouches with her missives and plans which follow Eddie from Moscow to the Caucasus.  Eddie’s not an unreasonable man. He just wants to be left alone and he’s got a bit of a thing for Nadia his KGB, translator.

There would be a moment, towards the end of a long public day in, say Tashkent, when her English would deteriorate, just shy of weariness from drawing on a double set of brain cells, and her eyelids and the tip of her long white nose would get pink…and she would give me the handshake, not the palm and meat of the thumb, but four cool fingers, aligned like a sergeant’s stripes.

The narrator is a man that loves women as does, I suspect the author, who has a propensity for it seems for long white noses and hiding from former beaus in shop doorways. Jane, the New York Girl,  for example, is an artist and a bit of a klutz, ‘with a bony face, high cheekbones and powdered over freckles, seemed a little tugged to the one side.’ Stan travels  Route 17 to New York on the train, leaving his wife and kids behind, to measure up her art for the aluminium frames he installs. He’s shy, but she’s got his measure and he’s got hers. They have a working affair. When he’s working in New York, she meets him and gets a baby sitter for her boy.

Updike is good at when sex becomes love and usually the kick is the narrator looking back with regret and the high of nostalgia for what had been and what could have been. The past is the future in reverse. Yeh, I get that. It’s a man’s world that is constantly expanding, but the choices for women, well, that’s a different story. Try Elena Ferrante for that one. Or if you stick your hands over your ears for the over-exuberant rant try Caitlin Moran, How to be a Woman.

 

Elena Ferrante (2002 [2015]) The Days of Abandonment translated by Ann Goldstein.

 

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I recently watched a film by Andrew Haigh on DVD, 45 Years. It came with the usual plaudits, but was in an ugly word: boring. 45 Years never felt so long. Elena Ferrante The Days of Abandonment is, I guess, all the things 45 Years was trying to be, without sticking its tongue out in the form of a short novel and saying: Fuck You.  The plot is very similar, a woman coming to terms with loss of the things she thought she knew and held true. In Ferrante’s opening Olga has been married for fifteen years to Mario and they have two children, boy and girl, the sickly Gianni and the more spiteful Ilaria and an Alsatian dog, Otto. The opening perfectly captures the wistful tone that quickly turns to fury and madness and then understanding.

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, our children and admitted he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me.

A short-hand explanation here is to superimpose the however many stages of grief. Olga is in denial. She believes she can make thing better by being better, more herself than she’s ever been. Mario will then recognise what a terrible mistake he has made and everything will go back to the way it was before. But haunting Olga is the childish memory of the poverella, a woman from Naples, a kind woman that smelt good and gave children in the streets treats to eat and was married to a man from Abruzzi, who admittedly wasn’t up to much, but was her world and they had two children. When the man from Abruzzi left her for another woman, the poveralla lost everything, including the name she would be remembered by and drowned herself. The poverella turns up, a presence, in Olga’s apartment in Turin to warn her modern heir that her son has an infection and urgently needs a doctor and  unless she gets the dog to a vet it will die as it has been poisoned. Olga knows that to be true, but she cannot open the front door. The key doesn’t seem to work and she is in such a daze Illaria is given the job of hitting her with a tool used in a botched attempt to open the door, whenever she zonks out. A task her daughter takes to with great zest, drawing blood from her shin.

Prior to this Olga herself had drawn blood, battered Mario in the street and tried to rip the earrings he’d once given her and were now worn by Carla, a student her husband had tutored when she was fifteen, and who he was now fucking and had probably being doing so since then. ‘For five years he had been secretly enjoying that body.’

But there is a kind of biblical lament of Olga’s memories (and all women’s) that give the book such a punch.

‘I thought only of him.’

‘Mario expanded. We contracted…’

‘I had gone with him when he didn’t have the courage to appear…’

‘I had taken away my own time and added it to his to make him more powerful…’

‘I had put aside my own aspirations to go along with his.’

‘At every crisis of despair I had set aside my own crises to comfort him.’

‘I had disappeared into his minutes and into his hours.’

Like the poverella, Olga has been erased.  But unlike the poverella Olga refused to be erased. She questions instead what she had become. Not what Mario had made her become, what she had chosen to become, ‘a reed that emits the sound of falsehood’. Again there is that biblical tone, the most powerful knowledge is that of the self. ‘He was blinded by the blonde, but I have given myself the task of analysing point by point, our fifteen years together’.

As the poveralla said so long ago: ‘I am clean. I am true. I play my cards on the table.’

Elena Ferrante plays her cards on the table, some turn up aces, some twos and some trumps, but all are true. This is a powerful book which shows (not tells) what it means to be fucked over by a weak man, as so many woman are, and yet rise up again and claim her dignity. Olga come not to despise Mario, but understand him and herself better.