We’re ignoring the flags but celebrating the first weekend of summer with beverages, barbecues, and books.
Beverage: Arnold Palmers (half iced tea, half lemonade). We rattle the iced cubes in Great-Aunt Helen’s big pink champagne glasses as we sip the tea. They are the last glass glasses in the house. We have broken all the rest–not like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, who simply did it for kicks–but because of dishwashing accidents. At this point we prefer plastic.
Books: I’m finishing up the third volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, set in the late ’60s and the ’70s. Yes, it’s literature (kind of), but it’s also a beach read, perfect for a wide spectrum of readers, from fans of Middlemarch and The Group to aficionados of The Diary of a Mad Housewife and Fear of Flying. It’s a grittily realistic pageturner, but, honestly, I find it somewhat trying. Both Lena and Lila, the two heroines, are getting on my nerves.
I am ambivalent about Ferrante’s work. Enjoyable as it is, it is very hard for me to catch the worldwide excitement about these ultra-traditional novels about women’s friendship. I can see why they are popular: these straight-ahead reads require very little work. Ann Goldstein’s translation is smooth and readable, though I’m finding Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay less riveting than the first two volumes, My Brilliant Friend (which I wrote about here) and The Story of a New Name (which I wrote about here). Whether Ferrante or the translator lost pep, who can say?
The narrator Lena has published her first novel and goes on a book tour, feeling insecure about the book but also excited by its popularity. Visiting her parents in Naples, she runs into old girlfriends who fervently praise it for the “dirty” parts, i.e., beach sex scenes which capture women’s ambivalence toward sex. She is engaged to a likable professor, who insists on a civil ceremony, and that is a point of contention with her mother, who wants Lena to have a big wedding like Lila’s. And Lena is still fascinated by her childhood friend Lila, a working-class prima donna who has left her husband, lives with their childhood friend, Endo, with whom she refuses to have sex, and now works at a sausage factory, leaving her child with a neighbor while she works. Lila is sexually harassed at work, but is not a victim: she takes care of herself and knows how to say no, thank God! But after she confides in radicals about how women are treated, they show up to protest at the factory and she gets in trouble. Then Lena writes a newspaper article based on Lila’s carefully-written study of the factory. No wonder her old teacher, who saw Lila’s version first, snubs Lena and pays more attention to Lila’s writing! Of course that’s also part of what happens to people who succeed and come back to their hometown: people begrudge the prodigal’s success! But Lena does exploit Lila’s experience for her writing.
It’s a very fast read. But honestly? I tire of Lila’s hyperbolic tantrums (are they Italian?). And Lena’s typical experiences with her insomniac baby and unsympathetic husband, who goes on writing and ignores the crying baby, seem barely sketched in. Of course that mightbe a translation problem.
For me, this one is the weakest of the novels (so far)! I do want to love these best-sellers, and yet…
On the other hand, I do recommend Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, a truly Kafkaseque narrative peppered with the feminist outrageousness of Doris Lessing and Marilyn French. The narrator, Olga, a housewife, goes mad when her husband deserts her for another woman after 15 years, leaving her with two children and a dog. She is mystified by his departure, and the hours, days, and weeks that follow are described with agony, spite, and humor. Eventually Olga gets her own back!
If you’re not interested in reading Ferrante, here are some literary links that will give you other options for Memorial Day!
1 Boris Fishman writes in The New York Times about the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. This excellent essay begins,
Were it a kinder world, Mikhail Bulgakov’s incandescent novel “The Master and Margarita” would be commemorating its 75th rather than 50th anniversary, for the author completed it in 1940, just as his own brief life was ending. But in the Soviet Union of the time — then concluding one of the most grotesquely violent decades in history — the fate of authors like Bulgakov was so precarious that he was fortunate to die of natural causes. Having finished the book, he reportedly said to his wife from his deathbed: “Now it deserves to be put in the commode, under your linens.” She did not even try to get it published. A censored version finally appeared in 1966-67.
2 At Lenny, in the article “Lit Thursday: Books That Won’t Disappoint,” Lena Dunham says she is reading Lindy West’s Shrill.
Lindy has made a name for herself as one of the fiercest and funniest feminists working today. The Internet has been her medium and she’s used it beautifully, responding in real time to trifling comedians and even less impressive trolls. But a writer as skilled as Lindy deserves long form consideration and Shrill, her hybrid memoir-cultural critique-manifesto, does not disappoint. It fulfills the promise of her many well considered (and fucking hilarious) internet offerings. Lindy deftly moves between painful personal recollections, assessments of the sorry state of body positivity, and a clear eyed view of what the feminist movement needs to do so that sisterhood doesn’t kill off its sisters. I am so happy I’ve been reading her for half a decade. I’ll be doing it for another half a century.
3 At The New York Review of Books, Hermione Lee reviews All the Poems by Stevie Smith, edited and with an introduction by Will May (New Directions, 806 pp., $39.95)
I confess I’m trying to avoid the Ferrante books as all the hype has put me off – and I did have a look at them and they didn’t seem particularly outstanding. But everyone has different tastes! And thank you for the links – fascinating!
Yes, I think it is hard to judge books that are universally loved, plus everyone is reading and praising them at the same time! I actually wouldn’t keep reading these if I didn’t feel compelled to keep up with the culture somewhat! Her earlier work is MUCH more interesting.
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I’m relieved to find someone who thinks this quartet a falling-off. I did come across an article (TLS?) where it was argued these represent a mainstreaming of something far more original disquieting. I too loved Days of Abandonment and in your first blog linked in one I wrote. When I read My Brilliant Friend I felt she had taken the deep well of thought and feeling that suffused Days of Abandonment and attenuated and exploited it for a traditional doppelganger heroine. I couldn’t keep all the names straight. It reminded me of how Fanny Burney crowded her novels after Evelina. The first is very much a woman’s book, no man could have written this cri de coeur of a woman abandoned by a man, left with puzzled children, humiliated, broke. Then I found another earlier thin novel, The Lost Daughter (I was able to find it in Italian which I read half way through (La figlia oscura) after I read the whole in English. Goldstein loses the intense directness of the Italian .Well this last is the electric core of the last of the quartet: about a woman who is driven to leave her university husband to follow her own needs to write and eventually have a career: she has been abject as a mother to her daughters, but they have no understanding and by the end of the novel are living with the father. The novel takes place on a beach where the heroine has gone to mark grades at the end of term; she is left out of all the pairings and families, an on-looker for life now (an affair petered out earlier) but has had other satisfactions. Again a thoroughly woman’s book as she finds herself will she nill she jealous of a young woman on the beach with husband, lover, children, who she can see is stifled by her women relatives, leading the stifled life our heroine fled. Yet she is glad she is not policed and in this fret of intense emotions the woman has to endure. it’s not susceptible of moralizing easily.
I have talked to a couple of Italian acquaintance in emails and gather it’s a “known” secret who this woman is, but no one wants to say. I wonder if she is in some danger from the violent groups of males that are part of southern Italy for drawing recognizable people. She does always repeat the same permutations of a name: Elena, Lila, Lena, Lenu, Ninetta.
The male reviewers of her books often seek autobiographical reasons for these fictions or they make a mash of what they are about. A couple of women (one writing for the Paris Review on line) and the TLS reviewer got closer to the inner life of this gifted author who wrote the quartet I’m sure to make more money than she had.
People love these books: I suppose they’re literary pop. But who knows whether people who buy best-sellers read them or not? I have read article after article by critics (at the TLS too) praising these books. And Margaret Drabble, whom I respect, wrote a “My Hero” piece for The Guardian about Elena Ferrante. She did also mention how good The Abandonment of Days Is. And it was actually her article that sent me back to Book 3. She does say Book 4 is the best. I’ll get to it eventually. Am not surprised to hear the Italian is better. As one of my profs once snobbishly said, “You can’t do any serious work in translation.” Of course, you also can’t read a huge percentage of literature if you DON’T read it in translation. And I do think prose is much easier to translate than poetry.
That Hermione Lee review is excellent. I cut it out and put it in my copy of Smith’s poetry and prose. I have Me Again, a wonderful anthology.
I love Stevie Smith!