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Archive for February 20th, 2019

Friends and readers,

I’ve put off writing another blog on Ferrante since my first so long ago on her Days of Abandonment, I fear I’m too late to join in on the controversy that exploded in 2016 about her supposed anonymity, but here goes — in brief.

Not bothering to disguise a vicious attack on this author, Claudio Gatti made a strong case that she was Anita Raja, known publicly thus far for her sympathetic translations of Christa Wolf (which she has written about), and then proceeded to do all he could to characterize her as a liar, someone trying to attract attention, and insinuate her husband, the Neapolitan writer Domenico Starnone, may have “helped” write her novels (see Alexandra Schwartz of the New Yorker, “The Unmasking of Elena Ferrante”). Reviewers and critics, especially when women, defended her right to be anonymous ferociously (Jeannette Winterson}: it was an attack on her as a woman writer; others said they couldn’t care less who the writer is, and it made no difference to know accurately the life or about the character of an author insofar as this is possible. People became mystic over how the mystery added to the books deepened them. Some said the novels are nothing but chick-lit, or they are the usual tired sentimental stories about women as victims. Look at the covers; in a more nuanced ways, objections were made to the paradigm of the abject, half-mad vulnerable heroine (Days of Abandonment), the raw language and anger (Troubling Love), the repetition of a very few motifs over and over (it was suggested this is common with a certain kind of woman’s novel).

Other praised the books strongly, showed how deep and nuanced each of the texts, how the Neapolitan novels were only pretending to be large depictions of a social world: Ye a the same time a depiction of a violent still fascist corrupt order; all agree elusive, with Ferrante’s abiding interest the inner life of women (Lidija Haas, TLS: “Closet Conservative or Radical Feminist?” — no longer available to the public).


Anita Raja

When the dust settled, we were still left with the troubling reality that Ferrante’s Frantumaglia, which she presented as truly autobiographical, is from a concrete standpoint, knowingly untrue in places; recent contradictions where she seems to want to be recognized (an introduction to Austen’s Sense and Sensibility where she said she was strongly influenced by Austen’s doppelganger and novels in general), and worse yet, continued repetition in respectable books that Ferrante’s texts could be written by her husband (Karen Bojaar who seems not to know that female friendship is a common topic for women writers).

I, for one, am glad to know who she is so as to throw light on her literary world, outlook, and also gladdened by her refusal to commercialize her life (I believe her as I notice many ordinary commentators do not), sell her books, alienation from the capitalist values of her society, value for privacy. Yet her attempts to shield herself and protest the norms and values of our violent patriarchal society have backfired; critics like James Wood read her all wrong because they want to de-gender her texts

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Ann Goldstein who also translates Primo Levi

Now for her novels in translation and in the original Italian:

Put me in the camp of those who find true genius in her novels; who think she wrote them unaided by a husband, find in them the strengths of the best l’ecriture-femme (so she belongs to traditions of women’s texts, read Rebecca Falkoff), and am (alone may be) enchanted to think she translated Wolf’s great anti-war essays Cassandra, her autobiography, her touching historical fantasy set in the later 18th century, No Place on Earth into Italian. Yes they have some flaws: they are not intended to be Tolstoy-like depictions of society that finally neutral but the social order analysed and felt on the pulses of her heroines in the different stages of their lives.  I love reading Italian and have three of Ferrante’s books in the original Italian. I find Ann Goldstein’s to be good translations : she captures the elegance more than the raw but she gets enough there an has her own elusive tone too. When you think you are reading Primo Levi in the most recent English editions, you are reading Goldstein’s translated English.


La figlia Oscura

Since being so riveted by Days of Abandonment, I’ve read Troubling Love (a raw, bitter expose of the life of her mother, a woman continually beaten by her husband, taking revenge out on the daughter until the daughter escaped), The Lost Daughter aka La Filia oscura (quiet elegiac, a woman academic now divorced comes with her student papers to a beach after her daughters have chosen to stay with the father, fantasizes and steals a young girl’s doll) and The Beach at Night (a nightmare vision disguised as a child’s book), and some of the essays in Frantumaglia (brilliant political analysis of fascism in Italy, explications of her books and her stance for alienation).


The Beach at Night

A truly terrifying book. Masquerading as a children’s story, it is a kind of prose poem where a doll is left behind on a beach in favor of a kitten the child has been given a present of. The doll gets covered with sand, is treated badly by a Mean Beach Attendant, ends up laying next to a dead beetle with his feet up (shades of Kafka’s metamorphosis, is set on fire at one point, then doused with water, come near drowning. She is abandoned, deserted, motherless. I cannot imagine anyone giving this book to a child, European or not. I remember when by mistake (or not knowing) I bought the first Barbar book for Laura; she was traumatized by the sudden death of the mother elephant, shot wantonly and without warning by a hunter. It took hours for her to calm down. This is a distillation of Ferrante’s deeply powerful novellas before & her Quartet.

To conclude at where I am in my Ferrante reading just now:  at last after having listened to My Brilliant Friend as translated by Goldstein read aloud, and watched avidly a couple of times all eight episodes of the recent HBO film, I’ve read this first book of the quartet slowly — as lovingly as I once read Elsa Morante’s Historia so feel I am qualified to speak, though I’ve not much to say: it’s a novel centered on a doppelganger (like Austen’s Sense and Sensibility) where the tragic heroine is Lila (Raffaele, and her counterpart, the luckier (because sent to school and then allowed to find an identity where she can try to fulfill her gifts an individual), Lenu (Elena).

As I read I recognized analogous events and experiences and thoughts and feelings to those I experienced as a girl-child growing up in the working class southeast Bronx and then Richmond Hill High School in Queens (both NYC). While at first I was turned off by Lila’s temptation to get back at the world through malice, wild anger, spite, withdrawal, even revenge on her friend, gradually I recognized the source for all this as the source I had known that turned me into an isolated teenager. Lenu too I recognized myself in. I had — as have so many girls — even read Little Women over and over and recently discovered so did other girls who now women I count as among my friends. So I became deeply invested in the book.


L’amica geniale (Italian title emphasizes the girls’ deep congeniality)

The awfulness of Lenu’s mother, the successful attempts of her teacher to rescue her, the experiences of the girls in the streets dominated by sexually and socially anxious-domineering males, what parties and schools are like, but above and especially the girls’ responses to one another amid all this take us through the childhood and young puberty of a girl. The sexual experiences Lenu has on the beach with Donato Sarratore, the older man who takes advantage of her after her luxurious and intellectually awakening summer at Ischia (she reads much of the time, learns not to be ashamed of her body, to swim too, falls in love with the intellectual Nino) re-taught me about my own. The climax of the book is a fireworks display on a roof after a dance where the each of the personalities and values of the different characters are exposed as they take a turn into young adulthood.

Since the common cover of My Brilliant Friend is now this stereotypical bridal gown and wedding party seen from the back, let me emphasize this: at its close the book mounts an uncompromising attack on everything having to do with a wedding, every hypocrisy, and how its meaning far from giving a girl access to a new wonderful life, cuts her off utterly from herself, and can be the first step in a life-long imprisonment.

Ferrante’s book is about how social life attempts to destroy, or repress or distort the best that was in one young woman innately and distorts the life of another) or she truly doesn’t mean us to care about these other characters as she, like Lila, silently cannot stand their norms and values.

A couple of incidents where I felt so moved and the film adaptation tried to capture. Unexpectedly (to Lenu), Lila wants Maestra Oliviero to come to her wedding. From the point of view of Lenu and probably everyone in the world Lila has done nothing to catch the woman teacher’s attention, compel her liking or respect, yet how badly she wants her to come. When she comes to the door, although Lenu has given us enough to feel Oliviero does remember Lila (because she says she dislikes her) she is very cruel, says you are not “Cerullo” I don’t know you, don’t want to come.

I identified and understood wholly how Lila could be crushed. In my life analogous incident have happened to me where in my mind I so admired someone for their intellect or position in a school and thought (naively) they valued me and was taught that no, unless you obey the world’s rules and do something to make yourself valued the world gives prizes too, you maybe insulted, cut off. I had some hard lessons in high school this way. Lenu is right to say Oliviero is “a mean old lady,” but we are given to know she would be miserable at such a wedding too. Lila might not see this.

I don’t know what a “speech master” is at an Italian wedding but guess it is a important function of announcing the people who speak. (These speeches are more than half phony and I wish the custom had not grown up recently.) Stefano, Lila’s bethrothed insists it shall be the chief crook of the neighborhood, the Solaro father, Silvio. At that Lila also breaks off the wedding altogether after all that has been done. Only Lenu can get her to change her mind, “seduce” her is how Lenu puts it. So she is acting as a Satan — the argument that persuades or seems to is they must not judge their generation by the older people, and Stefano is different. But from the dialogue we see Lila is sensing she is making the worst mistake she can. Stefano she says loves her “only when I don’t put real money at risk.” That’s important — money comes first. Lenu says she is able to rebel momentarily as she did in school as the authority of a religious teacher, but she caved, and what would happen to Lila if she returned to “the pale ponytailed Lila, with the narrowed eyes of a bird of prey, in her tattered dress.” She is admired by all now in her Jackie Kennedy icon look with dark glasses. During the (tellingly) long but boring ceremony Lenu knows her mother thinks Lila is doing infinitely better because at 16 she owns a flat, has this refrigerator and so on.


Lenu and Nino (walking together in school)

Everyone so overdressed, the only person not is Nino (who we are to have identified as the one true partner for Lenu apart from Pasquale who, fool in this wya, preferred Lila for her looks not her mind). But is he true to himself either dressed in such dishevelment? He comes so his mother overdressed can come; somehow she is slightly disgraced because her husband is blamed for the profoundly distressed Melina. Lila’s parents look well for the first time Lenu ever saw: the father’s Randolph Scott face (so many connotations there) and the mother all in blue. Note she kept away from most of the fraught conflicts. But one she invites: inward. She asks if her essay has been published, but discovers it was not included. Like Lila, she is a girl, comes from the wrong family or school, so it will take a lot more than the school certificate to gain a place in a community she might hope to fulfill part of herself in.

In that dress as Lenu dresses Lila she feels Lila is “the body of a dead woman.” what are they going to all this trouble for: so at night the young man can ram his penis into this 16 year old and perhaps ruin her beauty with a pregnancy.

A deeper incident which does not appear to crush Lila at the time is that these shoes she and her brother made so lovingly are not sellable – no one will buy them. They are dream shoes of young children wishing to have upper class stigmata on their clothes. No one in the neighborhood has the money; outside the neighborhood they make uncomfortable and they will not buy them. Stefano won Lila because he put all this money into the shop and now we see ahead that Rino who seems to be all important for real in Lila’s life will be a failure. Note that he was allowed to beat her

What will become of me, says Lila to Lenu. The answer is you will be destroyed — we see that in the opening chapters of the book where in older age she is vanishing in an attempt to escape a no-good son.

This is an extraordinary women’s book; it’s not recognized for what it is because it’s not explicit in the way Christa Wolff’s are — which books Ferrante translated.

Diane Reynolds wrote to WomenWriters@groups.io about this ending as follows:

The tragedy is that Lila has no other real options but to marry this awful man. The way the teacher rejects her reinforces that. Lenu does act the role of Satan—but what else is there for her friend? What Ferrante makes so relentlessly clear is that Lila would have been destroyed to if she had returned to the self in the tattered dress. The neighborhood/neighbors would have destroyed her. This is great literature because Ferrante shows us step by step that Lila is doomed—as doomed as Oedipus. It’s deeply poignant too. The friendship is remarkable—the one thing Lila has that is pure or as pure as anything can be in that world. I was so moved by the scene—which I did not take as sexual at all—when Lila has Lenu bathe her. She wants her friend as witness to what she was bodily before she is destroyed—she knows she is going to be destroyed by the marriage as much as any soldier going into a doomed battle. And yet the shock is that it happens faster than she imagined—at the wedding

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She has been involved in the film adaptation and it helps as an interpreter of her 4 novels: I’ll begin with Episode 2 (I won’t go through them all): The Money — and high brutal violence at the core of this world. Done in a muted black-and-white, it is in color but they are so muted. To give the impression of heat, chalk, lack of any beauty anywhere …. No trees, nothing to soften, make any beauty, or refreshment for the eyes.

I took the title to refer to how money is controlling much of the behavior we see. While the teacher feels that Lila’s family can afford just as surely (or just as little) to send her on to middle school as Lenu’s parents do, the money while an excuse is real. These people are poverty-stricken and the wretchedness of their existence comes from money, lack of it. The whole milieu reminds me of the southeast Bronx, where I grew up, circa 1950, only the patriarchy is so much more overt, fierce, the women more desperate and/or angry and taking out their misery on those they can prey upon or feel envy for: Lenu’s mother is awful and I for one am glad this portrait was not softened. In the book it explains some of Ferrante’s early deeply disquieted and troubled books: Troubled Love, the Lost Child. I wonder what was Ferrante’s relationship with her mother (and now her daughters – but that’s these other books and later in this series, the second). Lila’s mother is guilty but she is herself in accord with her husband, except when he throws the Lila out of the window.

What I like is it is a portrait of two girlhoods shared. Not like that movie this summer which gave a boyhood acted out by a girl with a mother there for disguise. Girls do let one boss another and Lila is the dominating one. she says let’s throw the dolls down the basement, now let’s see Achille, and then hide the money. I feared they would lose it and would not have give in to Llla then. The buying of Little Women is an allusions: girls’ book! we are told about girls growing up. I went back to the book and yes it’s Little Women all right: in the movie the Italian is back-translated into Alcott’s English. I have a copy of Little Women in Italian which I picked when in Italy in 1994 with Jim and my daughters — on a stall. It must be a popular book — well circulated. I was touched at how they read and reread — that’s what I did.

I would not have given in to Lila to walk to the sea – -I might not be a dominating girl in a relationship but I won’t be dominated. Still the whole sequence gave us a breath of fresh air, Suddenly the movie opened up. The houses are sets, and now we were on location somewhere. Alas Lila was trying to hurt Lena: she knew they couldn’t get there and hoped to get the girl in trouble. She succeeded. So spite. She is trying to one up Lenu so write a story, the blue Fairy. I feel for her because she does never have a chance to get out of this rotten culture. School here is seen as a central lifeline to a better world.

The episode was coherent, held together by the girls’ inner world together and their trajectory — and it began and ended on Achille, killed at the end, perhaps by a woman.

Yes high brutal violence is at the core of this society. And money. When the group finally is old enough to walk in Naples, they find they are outsiders, with not enough money to buy a meal in a restaurant.

For further episodes see comments: 3, Metamorphosis; 5, The Island; 7, The Engaged Ones.

Ellen

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