Memorial Day Weekend Reading, Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, & Literary Links

The perfect beach read.

The perfect beach read.

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.

days of abandonment ferrante 51MHqt44whL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_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!

master and margarita 97801431082761  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.

shrill 41wjF5kS+BL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_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)

stevie smith all the poems 9780811223805

Six Series to Lose Yourself in Over the Holidays: Balzac, Durrell, Ferrante, Burgess, Gabaldon, & Le Guin

"Marley's Ghost"

           “Marley’s Ghost”

I do not like Christmas books.

One year at a posh friend’s, we listened to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol on public radio. Luv ya, public radio, but the reader’s enunciation was excessive!  Everybody looked glazed and drank a lot of wine. I don’t drink.  And I have never cared for A Christmas Carol.

So what do I do to escape the holiday madness?  I dive into trilogies, quartets, quintets, long series…and come up for air next spring.

Here are Six Series You Can Lose Yourself in over the Holidays.

1 Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy), a series of approximately 90 novels, short stories, and novellas in which Balzac portrays French society during the 19th century period of Restoration and July Monarchy. The plots are racy and the characters memorable.   Several are available from Penguin and Modern Library, and  most are available free in nineteenth-century translations at Project Gutenberg.  Personally, I prefer the newer translations, but Lost Illusions  and Cousin Pons are good in any form.   And here is a link to an excellent Balzac blog.

Lost Illusions Modern Library2 Lawrence Durrell’s The Avignon Quintet.   This year I devoured Durrell’s modernist masterpiece,  The Alexandria Quartet, and Prospero’s Cell, a  travel memoir.  And now I’m reading his odd metafictional  Avignot Quintet, consisting of Monsieur, Livia, Constance, Sebastion, and Quinx.   This labyrinthine series questions the nature of reality and love, authors and their characters. Not until the end of the first novel,  Monsieur,  do we discover the characters are characters in a novel written by  the bitter character Blanford.  And then in the next books Blanford weaves together his stories with those of his  fictional characters.  He even has telephone conversations with Rob Sutcliffe, the novelist in his own novel.  Intriguing but weird.

durrell avignon quintet 51GoOSphbOL._AC_UL320_SR204,320_3 Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series: My Brilliant Friend,The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child.   These pop literary pageturners are about two difficult women who are friends from childhood to old ag,.  They are entertaining, beautifully-written, and  I swear  as popular as Gone with the Wind.   I have read the first two, and they are very good indeed, though, honestly?   The hype about them is too much.

ferrante neapolitan series quartet lctpnk325gzcumijtsdc4 Anthony Burgess’s The Complete EnderbyInside Mr. Enderby, Enderby Outside, The Clockwork Testament, and Enderby’s End.  The hero, Enderby,  is a Kingsley Amis-ish character who writes poetry while sitting on the toilet, farts a lot, and is shocked to receive a literary award.  Winning the award is his downfall, though he is up and down throughout the books.  Inside Enderby  is hilarious, but there are actually some startling serious bits that I didn’t remember.   An excellent reread of the first book, and hope to get to the others.

the complete enderby anthony burgess 51Y8C7CHQNL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_5 Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.  I hope to lose myself in this popular series of time travel romances someday, because friends love them and assure me that they are entertaining and erotic.  There is also an Outlander coloring book, DVDS of the Outlander TV series (which I’ve heard is good), and totebags.  Do you think Outlander is Game of Thrones for women?

outlander gabaldon 1322638297Outlandertpb3wide

6 Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, The Other WindNow that I’ve read David Mitchell’s the introduction to the new Folio Society edition of A Wizard of Earthsea in The Guardian, I would like to go back and reread the series.  Plus there were only  four books when I read it:  it has grown!

wizard of earthsea le guin 8504013716

Off to read one of my series books!

Doubles in Elena Ferrante’s “The Story of a New Name” & Erica Jong’s “Fear of Dying;” And Books I’ll Never Blog About

Erica Jong Fear of Dying 41zXii1q0qL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ The Story of a New Name by Ferrante 41nSyupOdRL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I am far, far behind in blogging about books. Will I ever catch up?  Well, no.  I write Mirabile Dictu four to six days a week (whew!), so I sometimes choose only marginally bookish topics.

But today I had a brainstorm: doubling up on two novels about doubles, Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name and Erica Jong’s Fear of Dying.

In 2013 I read the first book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy, My Brilliant Friend.  I enjoyed it, but it was a bit like reading  an Italian version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. And I didn’t continue with the series, till every publication in the world had praised the tetralogy. I finally read the second novel, The Story of a New Name.

It is easy to see why these books are best-sellers. Ann Goldstein’s translations are elegant, and they are very fast reads.  There is something for the literary reader, and something for the reader of pop fiction.   On the Sept. 20 New York Times Best-Seller list, My Briliant Friend is No. 6 and the latest book, The Story of the Lost Child, is No. 7.

The Story of a New Name is a delightful realistic novel.  Still, I quickly sussed out that it is about doubles, and even possession,  rather than a literal friendship.   Elena, the novelist narrator, and Lila, the troublemaker, are childhood friends who squabble, compete, adore writing, read the same copy of Little Women, and grow up in a poor neighborhood in Naples.  Lila breaks all the rules, but is ultimately the least fortunate: she drops out of school to work in her father’s shoe shop and marries the grocer’s son at 16, while  Elena achieves their childhood dreams by graduating from secondary school, going to college, and becoming a writer.

The Story of a New Name begins with Elena’s destroying Lila’s secret childhood notebooks.  Lila, fearful that her husband will  read them, entrusts them to Elena.  Elena reads them, memorizes her favorite parts, and yet is disturbed by a certain artificiality.  She  pushes the box of notebooks off a bridge because  “I couldn’t stand feeling Lila on me and in me, even now that I was esteemed myself, even now that I had a life outside of Naples….”

Later in the book, when they are on vacation at the beach without Lila’s husband, Lila swipes Elena’s boyfriend, Nino, seemingly because she has to have whatever Elena has.  She also reads the books Nino lends to Elena and talks more intelligently about Beckett and politics.  She trumps whatever Elena or Nino says.

Elena is furious.

I couldn’t take it anymore.  What I already knew and what I nevertheless was hiding from myself became perfectly clear:  she, too, now saw Nino as the only person able to save her.  She had taken possession of my old feeling, had made it her own.  And, knowing what she was like, I had no doubts:  she would knock down every obstacle and continue to the end.

By the end of the book, Elena has written her thesis on Book IV of the Aeneid, graduated from college, and published her first novel.  At home in Naples, she receives her own package of  childhood notebooks from the sister of a dead teacher. The notebooks are charming, and Elena smiles at the spelling mistakes and the “good”s and “excellent”s in the margins.  But in the midst of her notebooks, she finds Lila’s little book, The Blue Fairy, which Lila wrote as a child.  And then she realizes that Lila’s The Blue Fairy had inspired her own novel. Their lives are parallel.  They are almost like one person.  Are Ferrante’s books autobiographical, as everyone speculates?  Yes, perhaps:  we all have difficult friendships; but these also seem to be about different aspects of the same person.  Elena and Lila are like Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.

Erica Jong

   Erica Jong

Don’t underrate Erica Jong’s Fear of Dying a brilliant little novel about aging, sex, and death.  Jong, 73, is one of the old-style feminists who believe in power and sex for women.  She is often compared to Henry Miller, that risk-taking novelist whose lively, philosophical, autobiographical novels about sex were banned until 1964.

I thought this was a sequel to Fear of Flying, Jong’s first novel, the story of Isadora Wing, a writer in search of the “zipless fuck.” Alas, Fear of Dying is not about Isadora, but it hardly matters, because the narrator, Vanessa Wonderman, is Isadora’s friend.  They are so alike they might as well be doubles.

Vanessa, 60, is a retired actress, best known for her role as a villainess in a soap opera.  The daughter of two actors who owned a rare bookstore, she wears $1,000-shoes and is a believer in plastic surgery.  But ignore her wealth:  her feelings are the feelings of any older woman, hating the thought of moving beyond her prime.  Her rich husband, Asher,  is in the hospital after an aneurism.  When she is not at the hospital with Asher, she visits her parents, in their nineties, who are not always cognizant of who she is, and are dying in their apartment, with 24-hour caregivers, when they are not in the hospital.

Vanessa hates the prospect of losing her parents.  She also hates getting older herself.  She is losing her looks: now her daughter has them now.  Vanessa, who misses the days when men ogled her, badly needs sex. Can we blame her for looking for it at  She meets a normal-looking man who takes her to a hotel and wants her to wear a rubber suit.  When she says no, he calls her a bitch.

Vanessa’s and Isadora’s sharing of women’s wisdom at frequent meetings is one of the highlights of the book.At a coffehouse, Isadora joshes her about the rubber suit.  “HOw do you know you wouldn’t like it?”

But then…

“At one point in my life I may have been a love junkie, but it taught me a lot–and I would never be fooled by a site like Zipless now–even though I named it.  Sex on the internet is much overrated.”


“Because most people drawn there are confusing fantasy with reality.  They think they know what they want, but they don’t.”

“What do they really want?”

“Connection.  Slow sex in a fast world.  You can’t get that from a woman in a rubber suit.  Or a man.”

I think about it.  Isadora is right.  We all want connection, and the velocity of our culture makes it harder and harder to find.

And I think that both Isadora and Vanessa are right.

Surprisingly, the book follows the trajectory of a Jane Austen novel.  Marriage is stability, and we learn whether or not the sex can be repaired.  It’s a sad book, but a very good one.  Vanessa finds what she is looking for.

Before I go, here is a  short list of books I loved but will not be blogging about.

  1.  huxley point counter point c69eb10e5f34e9d21de54b8a8cbacb94Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point, a brilliant 1920s satiric novel about Bright Young Things, with a huge cast of characters, writers, artists, scientists, anarchists and suicides.  So many miserable love affairs!
  2. Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy.  Often compared to Hamlet, this Jacobean revenge tragedy makes Hamlet’s meditation and play within the play seem tame.  Vindice chats to his dead girlfriend’s skull, vowing revenge on the Duke who poisoned her when she refused to sleep with him. That skull is really creepy.  Vindice and his brother get so carried away that almost everybody dies!  (This fascinating play, which I’d love to see, used to be attributed to Cyril Tourneur.)
  3. Margery Allingham’s Traitor’s Purse.  A classic mystery, said by A. S. Byatt to be her favorite.  She wrote the intro to the new Folio Society edition.
  4. Jean Kerr’s Penny Candy.  A delightful collection of humor pieces by the author of Please Don’t Eat the Daisies.  I laughed hard when she goes to a play and  is wearing the same dress as the transvestite on stage.

Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend

The Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s new novel, My Brilliant Friend, the first of a trilogy, has been much lauded.  Publishers Weekly ran an interview with Ferrante in November, The New York Times praised the book (albeit in brief) in December, and a long essay by James Wood was recently published in The New Yorker.  If you didn’t know who Ferrante is, and no one knows who she is because she writes under a pseudonym, now you know, or rather don’t know, who she is.

My Brilliant Friend ferrante

It is hard to imagine a more elegant stylist than Ferrante, at least in the translations of Ann Goldstein, an editor at The New Yorker. (I wish I could read the Italian, too, because the structure and sound of Italian are so different.)

I loved Ferrante’s 2002 novel, The Days of Abandonment, and described it (at my old blog, Frisbee:  A Book Journal) as “Kafkaesque, but crossed with the realism of Marilyn French and Doris Lessing.”  It is narrated by Olga, a housewife whose thoughts are tempestuous yet often comical after her husband of 15 years deserts her without explanation.  She had thought she and Mario were living happily ever after with their two children and dog, and cannot believe he is gone.  She stays up all night and writes letters to him.  She descends into sadness and craziness, and her cruel friends will not tell her for whom he left her.

I feel much compassion for Olga as she wonders what has happened.

“I spent the night thinking, desolate in the big double bed.  No matter how much I examined and reexamined the recent phases of our relationship, I could find no real signs of crisis.  I knew him well, I was aware that he was a man of quiet feelings, the house and our family rituals were indispensable to him. We talked about everything, we still liked to hug and kiss each other, sometimes he was so funny he could make me laugh until I cried.”

Part of the reason I liked this book so much was that she finally triumphs (well, in a way) over the man who leaves her for a much younger woman.

Ann Goldstein, Ferrante's translator.

Ferrante’s translator.

You will not necessarily love My Brilliant Friend if you appreciated the stream-of-consciousness of Abandonment. My Brilliant Friend is stunning in a very different way.  Rich in detail, it is a witty, moving, but very traditional chronicle of the friendship of two girls, Elena and Lila, who grow up in Naples in the 1950s.

Elena, the narrator, and her friend, Lila, are the two best students in school.  But Elena feels inferior to staunch, determined Lila, a prodigy who is always in trouble until the teacher finds she has taught herself to read.  Lila vanquishes everyone, even the older students, in academic competitions, initiates games, and teaches herself Latin from a library book. But ironically it is Elena, the second best, who continues in school, while Lila is yanked out after elementary school to work at her father’s shoe shop.

Life is violent in My Brilliant Friend, as it sometimes was in The Days of Abandonment.  Elena says she feels no nostalgia for her childhood in their poor neighborhood in Naples: parents beat their children, boys get into fights, someone gets murdered, and a fireworks competition ends in gunfire.

Yet Elena and Lila have rich imaginative and intellectual lives  apart from what happens in their neighborhood.  They are absorbed in their own world of study and play.

Lila is the leader.  At one point in their childhood, they trade dolls, and Lila throws Elena’s doll down a grate into a basement.  Elena does exactly the same, because she does not want to be outdone.  They cannot find the dolls, and Lila concludes that Don Achille, a man with a terrible reputation whom they are frightened of, has stolen them.  When they knock on his door and accuse him, he gives them money for new dolls.  But they don’t buy dolls:  they buy a copy of Little Women instead.

And since Little Women is one of my favorite books, I was delighted.

After Lila returns the borrowed copy of Alcott’s masterpiece to Maestra Oliviera, the teacher, she

“regretted both not being able to reread Little Women continuously and not being able to talk about it with me.  So one morning she made up her mind.  She called me from the street, we went to the ponds, to the place where we had buried the money from Don Achille, in a metal box, took it out, and went to ask Iolanda the stationer, who had displayed forever in her window a copy of Little Women, yellowed by the sun, if it was enough.  It was.  As soon as we became owners of the book we began to meet in the courtyard to read it, either silently, one next to the other, or allowed.  We read it for months, so many times that the book became tattered and sweat-stained, it lost its spine, came unthreaded, sections fell apart.  But it was our book, we loved it dearly.”

As they grow older, Lila becomes conventional, busy working for her father the shoemaker.  Eventually she stops trying to keep up academically with Elena.  Lila has taught herself Latin and the rudiments of Greek from library books. But then she starts dating, older men with money propose to her, and she begins to dress like a movie star.

But she still has artistic aspirations.  She designs a line of shoes, which her father refuses to make until her fiance, Stefano, the owner of a grocery store, insists.  The shoes are elegant.

Meanwhile, Elena takes on Lila’s role at school.  She studies endlessly, manages to be the best student, and writes, as Lila used to.  She loves The Aeneid, which she reads in Latin (it’s my favorite Latin poem, too), and talks often about Dido and Aeneas.   But she always misses Lila, who was her most brilliant friend.

Ferrante records in a literary way the coming of age of a woman in a poor neighborhood, with humor and without sentiment.

It feels like an important book, but someone who knows Italian literature would have to explain why.

Loved the book!