Book Review: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels read like memoir, so why are they not shelved that way? Shouldn’t four books, emotionally and factually detailing the life of a woman in a first-person voice, with an author whose given name is the narrator’s, be considered memoir? The form of the books directly compare with Karl Ove Knaussgard’s six-tome memoir My Struggle or Simone de Beauvoir’s four chronological autobiographies. But Ferrante says she is writing under a pseudonym and has not revealed her true identity. Should we believe her?

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Ferrante’s novels follow the lives of Elena (Lenù), her best friend Lila and the people with whom they grew up in a poor neighbourhood in Naples. There is (of course) speculation that Ferrante is a man, but I’ve never known a man or writer so passionate about female friendship, the bones and meat and soul of the story. Lila and Lenù are competitive, jealous, resentful, spiteful and obsessed with each other, or in other words, best friends. Lila is a brilliant but troubled woman who Lenù cannot help but love for their formative memories and their intertwined emotional lives. In a way, Ferrante’s novels follow the narrative style whose most common reference is The Great Gatsby, wherein the narrator is more of a neutral observer of the much more interesting, evasive and irresistible main character. Maybe Ferrante doesn’t care to share herself with her readers because then we would want to find Lila too. Or maybe she is Lila. In any case, I find it hard to believe that whoever Ferrante really is, this all did not happen.

Maybe that is the mark of a good novel: the reader continues to suspend their disbelief even once the reading is done. I generally shy from books that preface with family trees. If the narrative is so complex that I need a reference document, I highly doubt I will lose myself to this world. That is not the case for this series; the world is there, all the characters heaped in and held together by this poor neighbourhood in Naples no one can truly escape. The Story of a New Name, the second book in Ferrante’s series, chronicles the teenage and early adult years of Lenù and Lila and all their friends. People follow or veer away from well-planned paths, and though the writer doesn’t develop characters like Ada and Gigliola enough that I could draw them for you or pick their voices out of a crowd, I can tell you the role they play in Elena’s and Lila’s friendship, which is all that matters.

What is maybe most remarkable to me about these books—what differentiates them the most from other books I’ve read—is the careful balance between divulging and holding back. Elena is not afraid to tell us that she is in love with Lila, or close enough to it, or to take each emotion and analyze it right down to its component pieces. But even then, the language never loses its consistent, delicate distance. This is something I’ve found before when reading a translated work. Maybe it is in the translator’s attention and care to each word, or in the flow that is lost or maintained from the original language. Or perhaps it’s in the translation from a culture whose emotional life I cannot so quickly access. We don’t just learn about Italy through this book, we learn the story of Italian women, of poverty in Italy in the 40s and 50s, and we learn maybe even more: the life of one Italian woman, whether living or not, still very real to me. It’s also only now, reading these works, that I realize how lacking my bookshelf is of Italian literature, and, in particular, Italian female writers. If this book has anything to say to this point, it’s that it isn’t because of a lack of brilliance or determination in Italian women.

Thoughtless Book Reviews #3

This is my third in a series of book reviews I’ve written into a Moleskine notebook and feel I should share with you because of their concise honesty, scrawled as I was falling asleep or years later after having realized I never wrote a review.

The Dinner by Herman Koch

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One of those books where you don’t really know what it’s about until the very last page. You are just led to believe it’s bad and somehow it turns out to be bad enough to fulfill all the bad ideas you thought up.

The Little Washer of Sorrows by Katherine Fawcett

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Surprisingly good surprising stories about both supernatural and normal things. They never get too deep or tragic or gross or long but are always a good combination of those things and FUNNY!

Negotiating with the Dead by Margaret Atwood

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I thought about a lot while reading this book, but was rarely moved by the book itself. I wonder if it’s because my mind is different from Margaret Atwood’s?

The Pleasure of Reading by Antonia Fraser

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This is a book of essays I haven’t gotten to yet but love to look at on the shelf.

Dead Girls by Nancy Lee

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So gross! Put down the book and swore to petition against reading it at three separate points. Sexually gross, murdery gross. Okay – this was obviously the intended effect, but I fell for it.

The Riders by Tim Winton

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Ghosty, shadowy soap opera written by a man. No real payoff but lots of lead up. Leaves you asking the question, “Why’s that lady such a jerk?” and also, “Why does that nice man with the hard face like her so much?”

Irma Voth by Miriam Toews

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This book follows the style I love from The Flying Troutmans: humour in the face of everything sad and tragic. I love that the book never slows, never lies, never breaks character or style. I love that everyone is witty, and that people speaking in their second language are so loveable. Irma is the ubiquitous Toews character, like Hemingway.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

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The language pulls me in like no other book. I love it not really because of its story but its writing and its moments.

Motorcycles and Sweetgrass by Drew Hayden Taylor

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I liked it but didn’t always connect with it. My dad did and this is his favourite book, so that’s how humour works.

Anne Sexton: A Biography by Diane Wood Middlebrook

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I had no idea that I could like biographies, especially when I hadn’t read any Anne Sexton but I read it like a novel and that worked. A life is a story.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

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This book was SO LONG but I continued reading it because of a feeling it gave me: boredom, but also some form of being haunted, like if I stopped reading it the book would follow me home. Somehow this book surprised me on like, page 800, but maybe it was because I hadn’t been paying attention.

Photos from: theneuroticblonde.wordpress.comwww.npr.orgwww.goodreads.com

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A Sense of Urgency

Do ants carry dead ants around to bury them? I just saw that happen! I don’t think I killed the first ant, but I very well might have.

I am feeling a newfound sense of urgency to “complete” my novel. (Studio audience laughter). I recently finished a draft that got the story out cleanly. I am now working on a draft that should be easy – fill in the bits I missed and start to make it look nice! But there is a lot more rewriting involved in that than I thought. My spirits (just the ones inside of me) are waning.

Right now the wind is blowing so warmly that I am tempted to stay outside, even though a few minutes ago I set a schedule for myself saying I would go in and see the new fan and look at the cat at 4:00. It’s nice to make a schedule on an off-day and then defy it.

There is a sense of urgency, a sense that I told someone (my imaginary editor) that I would be done soon, but alas, I am nowhere near! This sense of urgency leads me to constantly feel guilty. I just want to sit and read this very hard Virginia Woolf book for a bit and then I think no – get back to your writing!

I just looked up “how to row a dinghy” as I have to do that tomorrow. The Internet has its limitations when it comes to street or boat smarts, which is often what I need it for!

Along with the sense of urgency to complete this draft comes a sense of negativity, of self-loathing as I reread the previous one. I was so rosy-coloured glasses about it. It almost doesn’t even seem like a novel. Don’t novels have characters that seem real? Don’t they have moments that are poetic, that make you stop and think, yes, someone really knows something about life. Well, mine doesn’t have that yet. I hope that’s okay.

Sometimes senses of urgency aren’t good, like when I’m trying to sleep, or when I’m trying to “take time off”. But it is a very good thing when I am driving at night or when I need to learn things quickly, like the ukulele (today or tomorrow) and how to row a dinghy. I know I need to chill out sometimes, but it’s hard when a story is so badly wanting to be written and I am writing it so poorly! What is driving me is having it done, but I also can’t imagine how much I’m going to hate the feeling of having nothing to do but continue to read, forever it seems, that really hard Virginia Woolf novel.

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(from wallpaper.org)

 

Virginia Woolf’s Exclamation Marks

“In love!” she said

He was in love!

And there’s no flesh on his neck; his hands are red; and he’s six months older than I am!

“She is beneath this roof … She is beneath this roof!”

“Good morning to you, Clarissa!” said Hugh, rather extravagantly, for they had known each other as children.”

The way she said “Here is my Elizabeth!” – that annoyed him. Why not “Here’s Elizabeth” simply? It was insincere.

He had escaped!

I haven’t felt so young in years!

“Well, and what’s happened to you?” “Millions of things!” he exclaimed.

But it was delicious to hear her say that – my dear Peter!

“How heavenly it is to see you again!” she exclaimed. He had his knife out. That’s so like him, she thought.

Mrs._Dalloway_cover(from en.wikipedia.org)

The Reading Fad

I admit I walk around carrying a book in my  hand more than I used to, though I used to read more than I do now. I admit I don’t read as many classics as I should, but I always name classics as my favourite books. I admit I bought glasses that make me look like I’m reading and I get shivers in trendy used bookstores. But I will not admit that I am a part of this new trend called reading.

I’ve had a few different people lately tell me they are reading a book out loud as a couple. That’s great! I wish I was in a couple in which we read books out loud! But it also seems to signify something: is reading a becoming a novelty?

When someone walks by me wearing a Great Gatsby tee-shirt, I’m usually pretty sure it’s not an English Lit major. Why would someone who studied English feel the need to wear a tee-shirt announcing they like books? They decided that already, probably early in life, and it has since been their identity.

Second question: why am I so defensive of books? I didn’t write any of them! Maybe I’ve read more than some people, but I’ve also not read most of them, and I read them pretty poorly.

But books are my thing. They are a thing for people who don’t have many other things. But someone who rides a funny-looking bike and sketches and, like, has a horse, already has so many things! You can’t take books too!

So I propose this: we just all keep reading. Don’t stop when the other member of your couple has moved on to partner yoga (even though that’s so last year). Just keep reading until it stops becoming a trend. Until you missed the next trend because you were so busy reading.

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(from crazetees.com)

Until you become a real smoker, not just one who smokes at parties, you don’t know all the downsides of the trade. You don’t know that you slowly lose your eyesight. You don’t know that there are some books that will plague you, consistently looming over you to get you to finish them. And even if you’ve seen the Dracula movie and you read all of Atlas Shrugged except for the 100-page-long speech by John Galt, you know that one day you will just sit there, miserable, reading those two books instead of whatever book is on everyone’s tee shirt.

And it will become a part of you (not every book you read, but the fact that you do weird little things, like accidentally buy two copies of the same book or bring ten with you on a trip) and you will never stop reading, because it’s the best trend ever invented. It offers a way of seeing the world and of seeing yourself: through words, beautifully arranged, on these little sheets of paper you carry around in your hand for everyone to see.

Take Me Out

I let books do partying for me. They teach me the ways of the young and the damned so I don’t have to get too close to real life. I love books for how they make me feel: wild, traumatised, lovely, like I just woke up and someone made me coffee. Words let me feel things that life doesn’t. I get something more from them, something sweeter and more personal. I let my books do my living for me.

When I think of all the books I haven’t read and want to read I begin to feel panicked but excited at the possibilities. I can imagine all the life I have yet to live in them. I focus on the books I have yet to read instead of the places I have yet to go or the people I have yet to meet. Books replace all the houses I won’t be able to afford and all the men I should have married but turned my back to. Books are easy – they can be put aside, bookmarked or given as a gift. Life doesn’t have a front and back cover.

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(photo from adoptanegotiator.org)

Now I get this one specific feeling from books that rarely comes in real life. The times I have felt it have been first dates, summer nights driving with windows open, and after a first beer at a bar with friends. It’s a distinct feeling of possibility. It smells like something; it makes me smile a certain way.

If you’ve never tried writing, then you don’t know that you get this same feeling when the words are coming together. You get it even when they’re not. And I realized lately what this feeling is. It’s the feeling of making something.

Making something is what is so valuable about reading instead of viewing stories on TV or in movies. When you read, you need to invent. You need to fill things in so you can see. Writing is then just a more advanced invention. There you start with nothing and you make everything. With reading you start with some things and you make more things (you can never make everything). Reading and writing and driving with windows open on summer nights are all about putting things in motion. You feel it in the tips of fingers that things are happening.

I ask books to do my living for me so I can learn to better live. I can live better if I remember that everything I am doing is a product of me doing it. I make things happen by rolling down the windows and picking up the pen. There is nothing happening unless I fill things in so I can see. I am reading and I am writing everywhere everyday. If I’m standing alone at a party it’s not because I’d rather be reading, it’s because I’m taking it all in, trying to make something of it.

The Shortest Story

It seems that if we all had the choice, we would choose to read the shortest story possible. We’re lazy and we’re losing our attention span on words. Fewer are better. If that short story has the same impact on us as the longest novel ever (Atlas Shrugged felt like it; I skipped a 100-page speech) then wouldn’t we always choose it?

I had a conversation with a friend last night who told me she only reads short stories. She reads one novel in the summer. I thought this odd, that one could like reading but simply ignore what I like to read. As I am easily influenced by others’ reading choices (the mark of all good readers, who want to be reading everything), I immediately started naming the merits of the short story in the face of the novel.

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(Heminway, photo from reinhardkargl.com)

Short stories are never boring. They don’t have time to be. Short stories are always finishable in one sitting, giving them a mood that is influenced by the mood you come at them with. Short stories must have strong characters, and you must know only key things about that character. You are given room, then, to imagine and create from what is given, and the text must give you hints in order for you to do so. Most importantly, short stories are about moments. The more striking the moment, the more the story will stay with you. It’s hard for a novel to have a striking moment without it being cheesy, without it seeming too climactic and overbearing for the rest of the story. The novel is a story about time; the short story is about a moment.

When I read I want details. I want to feel them, not live through them. I’m living already – I want to feel.