Elizabeth Strout (2021) Oh William!

I’m not a great fan of Elizabeth Strout. Yet I’ve read most of the books in this series (My Name is Lucy Barton, Olive Kitteridge, Olive Again, and Anything is Possible).William Gerhardt who Lucy was married to for twenty years, and had two daughters with, before they separated and she married David ( the cellist, and love of her life, who died last year) would explain it in terms of compulsion.

William admitted he had affairs when he was married to Lucy. That was connected to his sense of wealth and entitlement. His affair with Pam Carlson, for example was more of an afterthought. Lucy was friendly with her, but didn’t know they had an affair until he admitted it on their road trip. But the affairs didn’t mean much. Pam didn’t mean much. But he’d loved Lucy.  He questioned the notion of free will as beyond banal.

Lucy, as a successful writer, questioned everything, including whether writing is a vocation (the answer was Yes, in My Name is Lucy Barton, even for the 99% that made no money from the albatross of their gift) the same as being a priest or nun, or whether you could really know yourself. William had been her ‘rock’ (clichéd, I know) when they were married. But now she wondered if she created that myth to sustain herself. The questions Lucy asks herself are the questions we ask ourselves (plural) and the engine of their road trip to find out more about William having a sister. What I mean by that is he found out about her indirectly from a present he didn’t want from a wife that had left him about tracing his ancestors.  

Stylistically, Lucy traces out an idea, and qualifies it by frequent, ‘what I mean by that’ as if she is having a conversation with the reader.

Unlike William, and the majority of her readers (who tend to be women and therefore more empathetic) she doesn’t come from money and tends to be insecure in ways many would recognise, and this spills over into panic attacks and depression (which are big business for the pharmaceutical industry).

There have been a few time—and I mean recently—when I feel the curtain of my childhood descend around me once again. A terrible enclosure, a quiet horror: This is the feeling and it was my entire childhood, and it came back to me with a whoosh the other day. To remember so quietly, yet so vividly, to have it re-presented to me in this way, the sense of doom I grew up with, knowing I could never leave the house (except to go to school, which meant the world to me, even though I had no friends there, but I was out of the house)…There was no escape.  

Authority as a writer, Lucy suggests comes from somewhere without and within. Somehow we’d recognise it. And she echoes other writers such as Robert M. Pirsig search for quality in the classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  In a nudge to the reader of the absurdity of this she suggests William may have lost his sense of authority when he shaved off his moustache. Their two daughters had wondered—perhaps hoped— Lucy and William might somehow get back together again. But his mystique, with his moustache, is gone. Oh William! Is already sniffing around other women and it’s like old times with him asking her to vet them via Google.

They’ve been on a journey and they’re back to where they started. It’s not T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land, but the end-of-life secret of Elisabeth Strout/Lucy Barton isn’t what she thinks, but what she feels…What I mean by that…

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.