Monthly archives of “May 2016

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My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (2011)

img_2419I just started reading the second of Ferrante’s four “Neapolitan Novels,” so I should say a few words about this first one before my memories of it fade. All the NYRB types freaked out so hard about these books that I figured I’d give them a whirl, and I enjoyed this first one very much, though I guess I don’t see quite what all the fuss is about. Well, I take that back, I think that the rationale for the fuss is that there’s so little fussiness in Ferrante’s style. We have here an exceedingly rare thing, a contemporary novel with a near-religious respect for realism and simplicity, without a formalist or stylistic flourish in sight. There’s a moment, about two-thirds through, where the narrator Elena is talking about the prose style of a letter from her friend Lila, and she goes on, quite movingly, about Lila’s pellucid prose, and then you suddenly realize that its Elena’s own pellucid prose that you’re reading, or rather Ferrante’s, and that right there is really the most engaging drama of this text, the drama of experience clearly expressed. Nothing particularly fascinating happens to either of the two main characters Elena and Lila. They’re bright aspirational girls bound by socio-economic situation designed to keep them stupid and stationary. Promises of escape come in many forms — industriousness, education, marriage, sin, social climbing — but the implicit message of Ferrante’s simple and elegant style is that being able to see, understand, and express your situation and your self clearly is probably at once the most viable and most powerful means of transcendence available. Sure, I’ll buy that, and so I bought the next three volumes and I look forward to them.

I’m getting ready to teach my “Uses of History” class this fall, where we read literary works which incorporate or respond to historical events, so that’s on my mind as I read anything and everything these days, and I’ll say I’m a little disappointed by Ferrante’s superficial engagement the historical circumstances of her characters. We get some small allusions and references, but surely the political and economic confusion and energy of postwar Italy could seep into the narrative a bit more.

There’s a nice big rabbit hole of reality v. representation to go down with these books, if you’re into that sort of thing, thanks to the fact that the author writes under the pseudonym Elena Ferrante and has not made her (or, unlikely but possible, his) identity known. So you have a budding writer (Elena Greco) for a narrator, and the author (Elena Ferrante) is herself a character, and one of the main dramas of the story is that Elena Greco deeply suspects that her friend Lila, who’s abandoned her education in favor of marriage, is actually the better writer. Is this an autobiographical novel or an entirely fictional one? We don’t know. So who is the titular brilliant friend? The author’s friend Elena Ferrante, the persona in which she writes brilliantly? The author’s “friend,” her brilliant character and perhaps avatar Elena Greco? Lila, Elena Greco’s brilliant friend of whom she is so jealous? In a lovely twist, we find out late in this book that the phrase originates with Lila to describe her Elena. Fun to think about — I’ll be interested to see how these dynamics play out in the other books.

 

Edit 7/28/16: Having surveyed the entirety of this large canvas, I come away not thrilled or delighted or amazed, but mighty satisfied and faintly suspicious. I’ll explain. Mighty satisfied because it’s a great story, lucidly told, with ample subtle psychological insights and a pleasingly comprehensive and rich sense of a great many characters’ lives. A little suspicious because I still can’t quite tell if there’s more to it than that. You could very nearly head off into a reading where you stipulate that Lila never existed except as a projection of Lenu’s anxieties (about her intellect, her past, her family, her choices), and then find yourself bound to acknowledge that wait, Lenu doesn’t exist either, she’s a character in a book, and then . . . I get about that far, and I don’t know that it’s worth pursuing, or right to pursue, but somehow I feel there may be a there there, in this novel about a novelist. Luckily it’s not my job to say anything smart here; if it were I’d be anxious myself. What I can dumbly testify is that I was wholly engaged through all 1500 odd pages of this series and wish it hadn’t ended.

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Be Safe I Love You, Cara Hoffman (2014)

18143785I stumbled across this and it sounded in theory like something I’d be very interested in: a novel about a soldier coming back from Iraq with undiagnosed PTSD (a subject I’ve been researching and reading about for years now as I struggle with my own work on a similar subject), and even better, the solider is a woman (as is the author, obviously), and that’s a demographic that’s badly underrepresented in literature. In my “Uses of History” class, during the unit on war’s continuing effects on returned soldiers, I always teach Sigrid Nunez’s great For Rouenna; it’s one of the very few novels I know of that takes up the lingering effects of war on  women who’ve served. Even more, reviews of Hoffman’s novel promised that she also incorporated the realities of class in Be Safe I Love You; the returned soldier, Lauren Clay, enlisted out of a sense of economic responsibility to her family. This too is an aspect too often missing from contemporary war literature and film. I’ve looked at a lot of novels, stories, plays, journalism, documentary films, and fictional films about soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan; not many focus on veterans’ economic realities.

So this was ticking a lot of boxes for me before I even started it, and I was anxious I’d be disappointed because I tend toward disappointment. The novel begins slowly, and drags a bit as Hoffman somewhat methodically gets all her characters and settings into position for the first 150 pages or so, but the second half of the book really pays off. Lauren Clay is the most reliable and self-sufficient person in town, and everyone — her family and friends — has come to rely on her and take her steadiness for granted. When the damage done to her in war begins to seep through her facade of competency, it’s terrifying for those who love her, and you feel it too.

Deceptively simple book. Hoffmans wears her politics and knowledge very lightly. The Joan of Arc oilfield. The ghost dog Sebastian. Lots of small touches.

I find the marketing for this book interesting. The intertwined hands on the cover, and the treacly title . . . what’s that about?

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Black Sea, Kevin Macdonald (2014)

x900Longtime readers know I have a thing for submarine movies. It’s a subgenre (ha) with such a specific set of conventions that watching the movies is almost like reading sonnets; you marvel to see how the author finds freedom within the boundaries. This isn’t one for the ages, but it has its moments of interest. Typical motifs include:

– The guy who’s never been on a submarine before
– Uncontrolled dive and ensuing tension over whether the hull will collapse, punctuated by bolts shooting out of the hull sporadically
– Captain exhibits savant-like ability to navigate through narrow passage (cf The Hunt for Red October)
– Crew threatens mutiny
– Saboteur on board
– The old rustbucket sub turns out to be more durable than everyone expected
– Gruff but incredibly competent and creative mechanic keeps engine running against all odds
– Having to shut compartment doors on still-living crew members, guaranteeing they’ll drown, in order to save the ship

Less formulaic aspects:

– This isn’t a war movie or a sci-fi movie, which are by far the two most prevalent types of sub movies. It’s a movie about undersea salvage. I can’t think of another.
– Escape suits. I don’t remember ever seeing escape suits in a sub movie before.
– Businessmen screwing over workers. I can’t recall any other sub movies I’ve seen that have put me in mind of Marx.
– Divers going outside the sub to move around on the sea floor. That’s more unusual than you’d expect.

Pretty relentlessly grim and dark movie with an excess of turns for the worse and not a good one for the claustrophobic to watch, even by sub movie standards, but a worthy little bit of filmmaking nonetheless.