‘Everything in her, was the result of the chaos of an occasion’: Elena Ferrante’s ‘The Story of a New Name’

“When she closed the door behind her and, as if she were inside a white cloud of steam that made her invisible, took the metro to Campi Flegrei, Lila had the impression that she had left a soft space, inhabited by forms without definition, and was finally heading toward a structure that was capable of containing her fully, all of her, without her cracking or the figures around her cracking.”

The Story of a New Name, the second book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, explodes into life like a meteor shower. It begins at Lila’s wedding, where it is already clear to Elena that her childhood friend’s decision to marry the up-and-coming neighbourhood grocer Stefano is a huge mistake, and one that will have tragic consequences. Feverishly moving between nihilism (“if nothing could save us, not money, not a male body, and not even studying, we might as well destroy everything immediately…”) and envy (“I saw myself identical to a dented bowl in which my sister Elisa used to feed a stray cat, until he disappeared, and the bowl stood empty, gathering dust on the landing…”), the marriage generates storm-clouds of conflicting emotions within her, which clash and produce the lightning-flash of her own hesitant, half-suppressed sexual desires. These, at last, find an outlet in her boyfriend, Antonio:

“We kissed without stopping, behind a tree, in the doorway of a building, along dark alleys. We took a bus, then another, and reached the station. We went towards the ponds on foot, still kissing each other on the nearly deserted street that skirted the railroad tracks… I wanted desire to find a violent satisfaction, capable of shattering that whole day… I said nothing else. I embraced him, I clasped him to me with all my strength. I would have liked to be caressed and kissed over every inch of my body, I felt the need to be rubbed, bitten, I wanted my breath to fail… My heart began to beat hard, I was afraid of the place, of myself, of the craving that possessed me to obliterate from my manners and from my voice the sense of alienation that I had discovered a few hours earlier… … yearning and anguished and guilty…”

With this, the stage is set. The Story of a New Name, which takes up the adventures of Elena and Lila, now sixteen years old, and their Neopolitan neighbourhood, is a story of sexual and emotional awakening, of the personal and the political coming together with an intimate violence, and – in the words of Charles Segal – of “the intransigence of reality before the plasticity of language” (and, we may add, the plasticity of desire). In the first book, My Brilliant Friend, we had seen the first hints of how the world impinges upon imagination, upon possibilities, and most of all, upon women’s freedom to fashion their own lives. In The Story of a New Name, the protagonists are older, their dreams more real and their desires more formed, and so they find reality to be even more implacably intransigent. “Words”, Elena tells herself at one point, “with them you can do and undo as you please.” But even words must fail before the “gluelike consistency” of time, the substance of which, now that the protagonists are seventeen, “no longer seemed fluid… but… churned around us like a yellow cream in a confectioner’s machine.”

Marriage – even a mistaken, bad marriage – destroys the possibilities of autonomy: “They had been consumed by the bodies of husbands, fathers, brothers, whom they ultimately came to resemble, because of their labors or the arrival of old age, of illness. When did that transformation begin? With housework? With pregnancies? With beatings?” Class forestalls the possibilities of love requited: “… the girl who came to meet Nino… was superior to us, just as she was, unwittingly. And this was unendurable.” Gender precludes the possibilities of academic excellence. To the coming-of-age heart, it is all quite unendurable:

“And then there was the lazy sea, the leaden sun that bore down on the gulf and the city, stray fantasies, desires, the ever-present wish to undo the order of the lines – and, with it, every order that required an effort, a wait for fulfillment yet to come – and yield, instead, to what was within reach, immediately gained, the crude life of the creatures of the sky, the earth, and the sea.”

But The Story of a New Name is not about a quiet surrender to the suffocating embrace of time and the world. There is a scene in which Lila and Elena are refashioning the display at the front of her family’s shoe shop window, to the utter chagrin of Lila’s brother and father. As they work together:

“We suspended time, we isolated space, there remained only the play of glue, scissors, paper, paint: the play of shared creation.”

And this, in a sentence, could be what The Story of a New Name is all about. Moments when time is suspended, space isolated, where “the play of… creation” becomes a question of authenticity, of authorship in a constraining world. These moments take different forms: a doomed extra-marital affair (or many), an undesired-yet-desired sexual encounter, an against-the-odds university education, and so on. They are moments of rebellion, of self-actualisation, and most of all, moments when women act in a world that denies them the very possibility of action.

Yet this is not to suggest that The Story of a New Name glorifies these acts of rebellion. More often than not, there is more ugliness than glory, more grit and slime than the music of the spheres, more breaking (frantumaglia) than making whole. This is not surprising. Ferrante’s material is the material of everyday life, her characters are excruciatingly, agonisingly, infuriatingly, human (and therefore us, and therefore, impossible to love). Yet even as she deals with the every day, Ferrante never drags us down to the level of a soap-opera. She manages to avoid the perils of both glorification and banality, and, instead – to borrow a phrase from the phenomenologists – takes us “to the things themselves“. In her writing, our submerged thoughts, our buried dreams and desires, the darkness that we keep secret even from ourselves, takes on flesh, shape, contours, reality. Hannah Arendt once wrote about Heidegger, that “he worked his way down to the roots of things, but rather than hauling them into the light, he left them embedded, merely opening up exploratory roots around them.” That is a perfect description of Ferrante.

In fact, the point is best explained by resorting – as ever – to Ferrante’s own language. Early in the book, while reading novels lent to her by her school Professor, Elena feels that “they presented intense lives, profound conversations, a phantom reality more appealing then my real life.” This is not Ferrante. At a later point, suffering from the agony of unrequited love, Elena “call[s]  on poems and novels as tranquilizers. Maybe, I thought, studying has been useful to me just for this: to calm myself.” This is not Ferrante either. Neither a phantom reality, nor a tranquiliser. Simply, the limits of what can be articulated.

Politics, as always, is a subtle yet unmistakable presence. At one point, Elena sees Stefano as cheerful: “he began to speak of Lila with the pride of someone possessing a rare object whose ownership confers great prestige… yet Lila, in his words, was no longer a person who couldn’t be controlled but a sort of precious fluid stored in a container that belonged to him.”  And then there’s Elena’s ambiguous, unequal relationship with Nino Sarratore:

“Have you read Federico Chabod? It was the only moment when Nino seemed to be annoyed. I realized that he didn’t know who Chabod was and from that I got an electrifying sensation of fullness. I began to summarise the little I had learned, but I quickly realized that to know, to compulsively display what he knew, was his point of strength and at the same time his weakness. He felt strong if he took the lead and weak if he lacked words. He darkened, in fact he stopped me almost immediately. He sidetracked the conversation, he started talking about the Regions, about how urgent it was to get them approved, about autonomy and decentralization, about economic planning on a regional basis, all things I had never heard a word about. No Chabod, then: I had left him the field… What were we doing? A discussion? Practicing for future confrontations with people who had learned to use words as we had? An exchange of signals to prove to ourselves that such words were the basis of a long and fruitful friendship? A cultivated screen for sexual desire? … But I also understood that there was no comparison with the exchanges I had had with Lila years earlier, which ignited my brain, and in the course of which we tore the words from each other’s mouth, creating an excitement that seemed like a storm of electrical charges. With Nino it was different. I felt that I had to pay attention to say what he wanted me to say, hiding from him both my ignorance, and the few things I knew and he didn’t.”

There is, I feel, more in there about gender, about patriarchy, and about structural privilege, than in a month of graduate school seminars. Or consider Elena’s first, painful introduction to class, at a party organised by her professor:

“And Nino, politely disagreeing with the professor, contradicted Armando, contradicted Carlo. I listened spellbound. Their words were buds that blossomed in my mind into more or less familiar flowers, and then I flared up, mimicking participation; or they manifested forms unknown to me, and I retreated, to hide my ignorance.” 

Unlike Nino, who “was profound in confronting the great problems of the world as he was superficial in the feelings of love“, Ferrante is equally adept at both.

Previously, while reviewing My Brilliant Friend, I had remarked upon Ferrante’s felicity with the perfect phrase, the almost achingly perfect choice of words, as though for her, language is no barrier to expression, but augments it. The Story of a New Name is simply more of the same. Whether it is describing the ambiguity of friendship and parting (“I had wished to diminish her in order not to feel her loss…”), the inexpressible pains of love (“Maybe he’s hurting himself inside, because the words, shouted in his throat like that, in his chest, but without exploding in the air, are like bits of sharp iron piercing his lungs and his pharynx…”), insecurity (“… as if the pure and simple fact that he loved me were the public sanctioning of my talents…”),  the ending of relationships (“… there are people who leave and people who know how to be left…”), or simply, pure rage against the constraints of the world (“At times she was overwhelmed by a mania to express herself with no mediation…”), after Ferrante has written it, you wonder how it could ever have been expressed differently.

After finishing The Story of a New Name, you take a deep, shuddering breath. You put the book down, and you go out for a walk, into a world that feels – as Ferrante writes – “… formed, reformed, deformed.” But a world that you recognise better than you did before you began the book.

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Hisham Matar and Edmund White

‘Father’s literary memory was like a floating library.’

– Hisham Matar, The Return

‘One of my books is called The Burning Library, an allusion to the saying that when an old person dies a library burns. Bernard’s mental library was the size of the Bibliotheque nationale.’

– Edmund White, Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris

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‘But life is never a material, a substance to be moulded’: Boris Pasternak’s ‘Doctor Zhivago’

Doctor Zhivago is one of those canonical novels that has been so thoroughly written about over the decades, that there is probably nothing you can say about it that hasn’t already been said, and in a similar manner. It’s plot is simple enough: the eponymous protagonist, Doctor Zhivago (Yury), is caught up in the throes of the First World War, and then the Russian Revolution; sent to the front, thence to Moscow, then fleeing the revolution into the countryside before being conscripted into the Red army during the Civil War, he (involuntarily) traverses the length and breadth of conflict-ridden Russia, simultaneously ridden by that most intense of personal conflicts: being in love with two people at the same time. Zhivago begins by being broadly sympathetic to the ideals of the Revolution; by the time the Revolution triumphs, however, he has turned deeply hostile. As much as Doctor Zhivago is about a churning Russia and about its churning protagonist, it is equally about a clash between an institution that, by its own logic, must subordinate everything to a uniform will, and an individual whose intellect will not accept that logic.

For me, the greatness of the book – and its great success – lies in its subtle, moving, and evocative portrayal of this clash. Of course, this is a theme that has been well-explored in literature (most of it, of course, after Pasternak wrote Zhivago): in the writings of Milan Kundera, or Danilo Kis, or George Orwell, to name just three writers who are stylistically very different, but are dealing with the same question. What’s different about Doctor Zhivago, however, is that it is about a pre-totalitarian regime – that is, the fate of the revolution has not yet hardened into (what would ultimately become) Stalinism, and there is a sense that in some way, the possibilities are still open:

“Everything had changed suddenly – the tone, the moral climate; you didn’t know what to think, who to listen to. As if all your life you had been led by the hand like a small child and suddenly you were on your own, you had to learn to walk by yourself. There was no one around, neither family nor people whose judgment you respected. At such a time you felt the need to entrust yourself to something absolute – life or truth or beauty – of being ruled by it now that man-made rules had been discarded. You needed to surrender to some such ultimate purpose more fully, more unreservedly than you had ever done in the old familiar, peaceful days, in the old life which was now abolished and gone for good.” 

As this passage suggests, the situation, therefore, is considerably more morally ambiguous than the stark scenarios painted by the writers of totalitarianism. This is a historical moment in which to give way to that ‘oceanic feeling’ seems not only understandable, but almost inevitable. Of course, the character of Doctor Zhivago shows us that it is now. As the moral certainty of the purveyors of the revolution increases, he begins to grow more and more ambivalent about it. The contrast shows up most clearly during a moment when, mistaken for a counter-revolutionary, he is briefly apprehended and brought before the local commander (who is also the husband of one of his lovers), Strelnikov. Here is Strelnikov’s description:

“For some unknown reason, it was clear at once that this man was a finished product of the will. So completely was he himself, the self he chose to be, that everything about him struck one immediately as a model of its kind – his well-proportioned, handsomely set head, his eager step, his long legs, his knee-boots, which may well have been muddy but which looked clean, and his grey serge tunic which may have been creased but looked as if it were made of the best linen and had just been pressed.”

This account – and in particular, the almost chilling phrase “a finished product of the will” (bringing to mind, of course, ‘the triumph of the will‘), is set at odds with Zhivago’s own character, described back to him in a letter from his lover, Lara:

“As for me, I love you. If only you knew how much I love you. I love all that is unusual in you, the inconvenient as well as the convenient, and all the ordinary things which, in you, are made precious to me by being combined in an extraordinary way; your face which is made beautiful by your expression, though perhaps it would be plain without it, your intelligence and your talent which replace your will – for you have no will.” 

This distinction – between being a finished product of the will (and thereby being able to subordinate oneself to the cause), and having no will, is mirrored in a parallel distinction that runs through the book – between the abstract and the particular. What Strelnikov needs to have (but doesn’t) “besides the principles which filled his mind, [was] an unprincipled heart, – the kind of heart that knows of no general cases, but only of particular ones, and has the greatness of small actions.” At another point, Zhivago notes that “it was as if there was something abstract in his expression – it made him colourless. As if a living human face had become an embodiment of a principle, the image of an idea.” Here, the juxtaposition of ‘principle’, ‘abstract’ and ‘idea’ on the one hand, and ‘colourless’ on the other, suggests that there is something unnatural, almost inhuman, about the pure revolutionary imagination. At other places, Pasternak refers to ‘the power of the glittering phrase‘, people ‘grim as idols‘, and ‘shrill textbook admirations… forced enthusiasm, and the deadly dullness...’ to suggest that the necessary conclusion to abstraction is the death of all that is human. In fact, Zhivago and Lara fall in love because there is “something intangible, marginal, that we both understand and feel in the same way”, and that something is the sense that “the riddle of life, the riddle of death, the beauty of genius, the beauty of loving – that, yes, that we understood. As for such petty trifles as re-shaping the world – these things, no thank you, they are not for us.”

In some ways, Doctor Zhivago reminds me of Elias Khoury’s latest novel, Sinalcol, set during the Lebanese Civil War. Stylistically, of course, they are very different. Pasternak’s novel contains a sprawling ensemble of characters, epic in scale, highly realist in its description, linear from beginning to an end; Khoury’s is scattered, impressionistic, feverishly moving between past and present. But in both novels, the protagonist is caught up in a war that he is fundamentally unequipped to deal with, because of his fundamental inability to paint over a half-cynical, half-doubting mental landscape with the brush of revolutionary fervour. This leads to paralysis. In Sinalcol, the protagonist has a conversation with a Palestinian revolutionary, where he exhorts her not to subordinate herself to the vision of the revolution; her answer is that it is only through that that she is able to act at all. The understanding that alternative is paralysis in a world where standing by is itself a morally fraught choice is something ever-present in both Sinalcol and Doctor Zhivago, and prevents hasty judgment upon those who have chosen the path of subordination and action. So towards the end of the book, when Lara says this to Zhivago, it is powerful and moving – and yet, and yet, not altogether convincing:

“‘The whole human way of life has been destroyed and ruined. All that’s left is the bare, shivering human soul, stripped to the last shred, the naked force of the human psyche for which nothing has changed because it was always cold and shivering and reaching out to its nearest neighbour, as cold and lonely as itself. You and I are like the first two people on earth who at the beginning of the world had nothing to cover themselves with – at the end of it, you and I are just as stripped and homeless. And you and I are the last remembrance of all that immeasurable greatness which has been created in the world in all the thousands of years between their time and ours, and it is in memory of all that vanished splendour that we live and love and weep and cling to one another.”

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Hisham Matar and V.S. Naipaul

“All the books on the modern history of the country could fit neatly on a couple of shelves. The best amongst them is slim enough to slide into my coat pocket and be read in a day or two. There are many other histories, of course, concerning those who, over the past three millenia, occupied Libya: the Phoenicans, the Greeks, the Romans, the Ottomans, and, most recently, the Italians. A Libyan hoping to glimpse something of that past must, like an intruder at a private party, enter such books in the full knowledge that most of them were not written by or for him, and, therefore, at hear, they are accounts concerning the lives of others, their adventures and misadventures in Libya, as though one’s own country is but an opportunity for foreigners to exorcize their demons and live out their ambitions.”

  • Hisham Matar, ‘The Return

 

Brilliant… true autobiography arises when a man encounters something in life which shocks him into the need for self-examination and self-explanation. It was natural that a sojourn in India should provide this shock for Naipaul… the experience was not a pleasant one, but the pain the author suffered was creative rather than numbing… tender, lyrical, explosive and cruel.”

  • John Wain in The Observer, on the blurb of V.S. Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness

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‘Every day I felt more strongly the anguish of not being in time’: Elena Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’

“My father held tight to my hand as if he were afraid that I would slip away. In fact I had the wish to leave him, run, move, cross the street, be struck by the brilliant scales of the sea. At that tremendous moment, full of light and sound, I pretended I was alone in the newness of the city, new myself with all life ahead, exposed to the mutable fury of things but surely triumphant: I, I and Lila, we two with that capacity that together – only together – we had to seize the mass of colours, things, and people, and express it and give it power.”

In Charles Baudelaire’s poem, Le Soleil, the poet goes out into the streets questing for words. “Along the old street on whose cottages are hung/ The slatted shutters which hide secret lecheries,/ When the cruel sun strikes with increased blows/ The city, the country, the roofs, and the wheat fields,/ I go alone to try my fanciful fencing,/ Scenting in every corner the chance of a rhyme,/ Stumbling over words as over paving stones,/ Colliding at times with lines dreamed of long ago.” There is a sense of language as a physical obstruction, condensed in words such as “stumbling” and “colliding’, a barrier against expressing meaning. In the next two stanzas, Baudelaire turns to the sun for clarity: “This foster-father, enemy of chlorosis,/ Makes verses bloom in the fields like roses;/… commands crops to flourish and ripen/ In those immortal hearts which ever wish to bloom!” With the right catalyst, then, language (words) can serve to make the world “flourish and ripen”, replacing “chlorosis” with “bloom”.

On similar lines, the protagonist of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (also called Elena), writes of her friend Lila: “… she took the facts and in a natural way charged them with tension; she identified reality as she reduced it to words, she injected it with energy.”  And this, I think, is the aptest description of Ferrante’s writing as well. To borrow a line from the Irish playwright Brien Friel, Ferrante’s novel is all about how “an experience, an event, even a small unimportant happening [can be] isolated, and assessed, and articulated.” It is not quite as simple as just glamourising the quotidian; rather, it is about taking that collage of human life – love, loss, friendship, growing up – and, like Baudelaire’s sun, casting a light upon the ordinary language of experience that makes it flourish, ripen, and bloom.

My Brilliant Friend is the first book in a four-volume series called The Neapolitan Novels. It is an account of a rough Neapolitan neighbourhood in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, told through the eyes of the narrator, a young girl called Elena Greco. The novel features a generous ensemble of characters (James Wood calls it an “amiably peopled bildungsroman“), tracing out the intertwined lives of a number of families of the neighbourhood, a neighbourhood whose dense past hangs over it like a thick cloud of regret, unhappiness, and unresolved tension, and which continues to choke the lives of its residents: “and they thought that what had happened before was past and, in order to live quietly, they placed a stone on top of it, and so, without knowing it, they continued it, they were immersed in the things of before, and we kept them inside us too.”

At its heart, however, My Brilliant Friend is about the intense, passionate friendship between Elena and another girl her age, Lila. Like all things intense and passionate, it is never quite equal, and invariably causes Elena equal amounts of joy and pain. In the beginning, Lila’s fierce intelligence and fiercer wit makes her a subject of near-worshipful adoration. And although as they grow up, it is Lila who bends more to the demands of society and of convention, Elena can never quite shake off their initial equation, much though she tries (“… maybe I should erase Lila from myself like a drawing from the blackboard.”) The relationship between the two comes to define, to characterise, and to colour the world around, even as it presses in upon them, constricting their choices and suffocating their desires.

My Brilliant Friend has been called a ‘bildungsroman’, a coming-of-age novel. I’m not so sure. A significant part of it is, indeed, about how Elena’s interior landscape transforms and evolves in response to the world around her, and Ferrante describes this with rare sensitivity: “I was absorbing much of that sight, many things, too many, were scattering around me without letting me grasp them.”

Far more than that, however, My Brilliant Friend – as I wrote above – is about “isolating, assessing, and articulating” that core of experience that might (with some trepidation) be called “universal”. Many reviews respond to this by using adjectives such as “honest” and “authentic” (fraught words, both) to describe Ferrante’s writing. There is a kernel of truth there, of course, but that’s not all there is to it. Honesty of expression is all very well, but My Brilliant Friend has something more. Like the “sublimation of sorrow” that Adam Perry invokes to characterise how Virgil’s Aeneid transforms raw grief into art, what is unique about My Brilliant Friend is the range of experiences that it sublimates in this fashion. Consider, for instance, Elena’s musings as she reflects upon her fraught relationship with Lila, at one of its particularly low points: “I wanted her to be curious, to want at least a little to share my adventure from the outside, to feel she was losing something of me as I always feared losing much of her”; and “it was an old fear, a fear that has never left me: the fear that, in losing pieces of her life, mine lost intensity and importance.”

These are sentiments that we all, I suppose, have felt at one point or another (for my part, I can personally affirm to it). But they have been inarticulable: perhaps, partly, we fear to articulate them for what they reveal about ourselves; but perhaps, mostly, because they are buried so deep within us that they defy articulation. Ferrante – to go back t0 Baudelaire’s image – is the sun that casts its light upon them, illuminating them in a way that we can recognise them as our own, claim them, and yet (somehow) not be ashamed of them. That’s why “honesty” does not quite capture it – it is something more, something elusive and fleeting, almost unnameable. “Sublimation” is the best that I can come up with.

Yet more than this, Ferrante is also equal to the task of writing one of the most sensitive and difficult of experiences: the infinitesimally slow, yet infinitely painful process by which our childhood imaginations run up against the rocky shoals of the world, and after an agonising resistance (whether long or short), break upon it. Because of the structure of our society, this is something that I’m sure will resonate far more with Ferrante’s women readers than it will with men (and there are other scenes that will as well: “I myself – especially after the incident with the Solaras – had learned instinctively to lower our eyes, pretend not to hear the obscenities they directed at us, and keep going.“) But consider this:

“… she was struggling to find, from inside the cage in which she was enclosed, a way of being, all her own, that was still obscure to her.”

I cannot think of a word out of place, a word that is not perfect in this pellucid half-sentence. I think of Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art, with its last, almost desperate cry of Write it! – write it so that it can be named, so that language can save us from the wilderness of unsayable sorrows, so that words can anchor us safe from the “terrifying ambiguity of… experience.” Ferrante writes it. And who can be the same again after reading this frisson-inducing account of Elena bathing Lila a few hours before her wedding:

“At the time it was just a tumultuous sensation of necessary awkwardness, a state in which you cannot avert the gaze or take away the hand without recognizing your own turmoil, without, by that retreat, declaring it, hence without coming into conflict with the undisturbed innocence of the one who is the cause of the turmoil, without expressing by that rejection the violent emotion that overwhelms you, so that it forces you to stay, to rest your gaze on the childish shoulders, on the breasts and stiffly cold nipples, on the narrow hips and the tense buttocks, on the black sex, on the long legs, on the tender knees, on the curved ankles, on the elegant feet; and to act as if it’s nothing when instead everything is there, present, in the poor dim room, amid the worn furniture, on the uneven, water-stained floor, and your heart is agitated, your veins inflamed.”

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‘Confusion is not an ignoble condition’: Brian Friel: Plays (Contemporary Classics: Volume 1)

In the middle of Brian Friel’s play, The Aristocrats, a character recites the lines of the Scottish poet Alastair Reed’s ‘My Father Dying:

“But on any one
of these nights soon,
for you, the dark will not crack with dawn,

and then I will begin
with you that hesitant conversation
going on and on and on.”

In a way, these lines exemplify Friel’s work. ‘Hesitant conversation’ marks his characters’ interactions with each other, in different ways. As Seamus Deane puts it in his Introduction to this collection of six plays, it is “the failure of language to accommodate experience, the failure of a name to fully indicate a place, the failure of lovers to find the opportunity to express their feeling…” The human relationship, whether it is between father and son (Philadelphia, Here I Come!), husband and wife (Living Quarters), or lovers of occupied and occupying nations (Translations), is stymied by the insufficiency of language which, in Friel’s hands, becomes a viscous and resistant substance, its thickness lying heavy upon the page. We are always looking for words. We never find them. Perhaps because they do not exist.

The use of the word ‘conversation‘ in the poem is not straightforward either. ‘… the dark will not crack with dawn‘ signifies the death of the poet’s father, and how does one have a conversation with a dead man? It is at best a monologue, conducted with someone who can no longer speak for himself. It is the poet who must take upon himself the burden of representation. And likewise, in Friel’s plays – perhaps unsurprisingly, given Ireland’s colonial past – there is a constant struggle for representation. The characters in the play struggle to represent themselves against those outside the play, whether it is an off-stage Judge and a sociologist in The Freedom of the City, a seemingly omnipotent “Sir” in Aristocrats, or the protagonist’s own private persona in Philadelphia, Here I come! Again, Deane: “[Friel’s] plays are full of what we may called displaced voices. American sociologists, English judges, and voice-overs from the past play their part in the dialogue in set speeches, tape-recordings, through loudspeakers. The discourse they produce is obviously bogus. Yet its official jargon represents something more and something worse than moral obtuseness. It also represents power, the one element lacking in the world of the victim…”

Brian Friel was an Irish dramatist who had a long and distinguished theatre career, at home and abroad. The beginnings of his theatrical life coincided with the beginning of ‘The Troubles‘ in Northern Ireland, a period of sustained political and sectarian violence. Like in the case of his great poetic contemporary, Seamus Heaney, this has left an indelible mark on Friel’s artistic work. Out of the six plays that constitute Volume 1 of the Contemporary Classics edition of his work (Philadelphia, Here I Come!The Freedom of the CityLiving Quarters, Aristocrats, Faith Healer, Translations), two deal with the overtly political theme of the relationship between the English and the Irish (Freedom of the City and Translations), while politics is rarely far away from the rest. Nonetheless, Friel’s relationship with politics is not simplistic, and his plays are anything but polemical. In a certain sense, he seems to view the relationship between art and politics in a manner similar to Heaney: there is a constant tension between keeping art apolitical, and using art to actively intervene in politics, to make a statement, as it were. But ultimately, Friel’s plays exemplify what Heaney himself said, in The Redress of Poetry:

“Poetry, let us say, whether it belongs to an old political dispensation or aspires to express a new one, has to be a working model of inclusive consciousness. It should not simplify. Its projections and inventions should be a match for the complex reality which surrounds it and out of which it is generated.”

In fact, each of the six plays are primarily dedicated to exploring the immense complexity of human relationships, and they do so in limpid, bare and stark prose, that strips everything down to its essentials. In the opening play, Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Gar O’Donnell is a young man soon to leave the suffocating little Irish village of Ballybeg for the United States. Torn between regret at the loss of something undefinable, and relief at the prospect of escaping the provinces, a Gar’s “public” and “private” personas (two separate characters) struggle with each other, and with those they are leaving behind: a former lover, childhood friends, the maid, and a father. As Private Gar tells Public Gar, “no one will ever know or understand the fun there was; for there was fun and there was laughing – foolish, silly fun and foolish, silly laughing; but what it was all about you can’t remember, can you? Just the memory of it – that’s all you have now – just the memory; and even now, even so soon, it is being distilled of all its coarseness; and what’s left is going to be precious, precious gold.” But it is his interaction with his father that takes on an almost terrifying intensity. Having never shared a meaningful relationship through their lives, on the eve of Gar’s departure, the two of them find that having dammed up river of words for so long with the logs of sullen silences, the bed has now run dry: “Say – say – say – say, ‘Screwballs, with two magnificent legs like that, how is it you were never in show biz? Say, ‘It is now sixteen or seventeen – Say – oh, my God – say – say something.”

The Freedom of the City is set during a civil rights protest in County Derry. Three marchers mistakenly enter the Guildhall to escape from the smoke and tear gas of the English. Right from the beginning, we are told that all three are going to be shot dead; in fact, the play alternates between the protagonists’ dialogue among themselves, a tragi-farcical judicial investigation into the “shooting”, as well as an off-stage American sociologist pontificating about the working class. It would be easy for politics to overwhelm the play, to turn it into little more than an anti-colonial polemic. Friel escapes that because of his acute sensibility: Lily’s thoughts at the moment of her death, for instance, are painfully, viscerally human, irreducible to any form of politics:

“The moment we stepped outside the front door I knew I was going to die, instinctively, the way an animal knows. Jesus, they’re going to murder me. A second of panic – no more. Because it was succeeded, overtaken, overwhelmed by a tidal wave of regret, not for myself nor my family, but that life had somehow eluded me. And now it was finished; it had all seeped away; and I had never experienced it. And in the silence before my body disintegrated in a purple convulsion, I thought I glimpsed a tiny truth: that life had eluded me because never once in my forty-three years had an experience, an event, even a small unimportant happening been isolated, and assessed, and articulated. And the fact that this, my last experience, was defined by this perception, this was the culmination of sorrow. In a way I died of grief.”

Living Quarters and Aristocrats are about the disintegration of family: the first through an extramarital affair, and the second through inevitable exile. Living Quarters, in particular, uses an interesting device. It has what seems to be an omniscient figure, only known as “Sir”, who opens the play by informing us that all the characters have gathered to relive a fateful evening, and to try and understand what happened. Through the play, it becomes clear that the characters are not only trying to understand, but trying to escape, to change the course of events. Their attempts are futile, giving them an (almost) grotesque appearance of keenly self-aware, self-regarding, regretful marionettes.

Faith Healer is considered to be one of Friel’s strongest works, although I found it to be the least powerful of the collection. Friel’s special device here is to write a four-act play, each act of which is effectively a monologue by one of the three protagonists of the play (the ‘Faith Healer’, his wife, and his manager). As the three of them go over the same tragic events, Friel gives us a compressed and immensely powerful demonstration of how neither memory nor facts are stable, how everything is subject to interpretation, how there are three sides to every truth.

My own favourite, however, was the last play: TranslationsTranslations is set in 1833 in County Donegal, Ireland, around the very real events of the Ordnance Survey – an attempt by the English to draw up a map of Ireland, and in doing so, replace all the local, Irish names with their English variants. As Druim Dubh becomes Dromduff, and Poll na gCaorach becomes Poolkerry, tensions begin to rise, especially as one of the members of the community acts as a go-between, informing the soldiers and the surveyors about the Irish names, and suggesting their anglicisation. And matters are further complicated when an Irishwoman and an English soldier begin to fall in love, with their languages a desperate, almost insurmountable barrier between them. From Philadelphia, Here I Come!, we have turned a half circle: there, communication ceased because words could no more be found; here, all the words in the world will not help, since they come from different universes. And the tragically inadequate, unfinished relationship between words and the world is at the heart of this play: the abortive relationship between the lovers is mirrored by the fear of the death of the Irish language with the great renaming, and the consequent death of Ireland itself. As Hugh, the schoolmaster says:

But remember that words are signals, counters. They are not immortal. And it can happen – to use an image you’ll understand – it can happen that a civilization can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of… fact.”

And yet, soon after that, he contradicts – and corrects – himself:

“James thinks he knows too. I look at James and three thoughts occur to me: A – that is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language. James has ceased to make that discrimination. .. B – we must never cease renewing those images; because once we do, we fossilize.”

And realising as he does so, the limits of it all:

“I will provide you with the available words and the available grammar. But will that help you to interpret between privacies? I have no idea. But it’s all we have. I have no idea at all.”

And, as in the case of language itself, Friel leaves the play unfinished, ambiguous, unresolved. Perhaps it is the last few words of the play that best sum up Friel’s work itself, in its refusal to embrace easy certainties:

“Maire: Master, what does the English word ‘always’ mean?

Hugh: Semper – per omnia saecula. The Greeks called it ‘aei’. It’s not a word I’d start with. It’s a silly word, girl.”

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“Written with needles on the eyeballs of insight…”: Elias Khoury’s ‘The Broken Mirrors: Sinalcol’

“He tried to explain to her that words must enclose meaning so that meaning can keep its meaning, and that in spoken Arabic they don’t say “I want to smoke a cigarette” but “I want to drink a cigarette” so the tobacco melts in the mouth and imparts to it the flavour of the plant.” (p. 74)

In his introduction to Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain, Edward Said attributes to him the following quote about Lebanon: “the past is discredited, the future completely uncertain, the present unknowable.” That could well be the blurb of Khoury’s latest novel, The Broken Mirrors: Sinalcol. Sinalcol is the story of Karim, who flees Lebanon soon after the outbreak of the Civil War. Karim wants to build a new world for himself in Montpellier, abandoning “his life among the bombs that had made gaps in his soul and his memory precisely so that he could begin a new one…” (p. 204), to “erase his memories and manufacture new ones” (p. 227).

But now, at the age of forty, with a successful dermatology practice, married to a Frenchwoman and with two daughters, Karim inexplicably accepts his brother’s invitation to return to Beirut and help set up a hospital during the temporary truce. And from the outset, it is clear to Karim that the hospital is no more than a reason of convenience. When he had left Lebanon, he had done so under the shadow of personal and political betrayal, “his life…  like a rubble of events and memories that it was beyond him by then to reorganize” (p. 204). The intervening years in a faraway country have only served to heighten his own sense of dislocation. Even as the Lebanese Civil War intensifies, his brother marries Hend, his lover, whom he had left behind when he fled, and his father dies. So now, after all these years, Karim is driven to return, to “repair his mirror and redraw his image” (p. 267), and to “find” once more an enigmatic individual lost to him in the northern-Lebanese city of Tripoli, who goes only by the name of “Sinalcol” (expectedly, we are left in uncertainty until the very end about whether Sinalcol exists at all, whether he’s alive or dead, or simply an invented alter ego of Karim’s).

Mirrors play a central role in Khoury’s novel, beginning with the title. At the heart of Sinalcol is the idea that just as an individual needs to construct a stable and defined image of herself for the sake of her personal and mental integrity, nations too must have their mirrors before them, for succour and reassurance. But mirrors break. In the middle of his increasingly fraught attempts to reconcile himself to his memories, to Beirut, and to his family and his former lover, Karim realises that civil war is “an assemblage of broken mirrors that run parallel to one another, making of the fragments images that reproduce each other but refuse to form a coherent whole” (p. 267). In a strange way, his own dislocation, and his inability to put his ideas “in a vessel that imposes form on them, adding to and subtracting from them” (p. 267) is “mirrored” by his nation’s inability to impose form and coherence upon its own past and present.

The book’s own form embodies this sense of dislocation. For old readers of Khoury, this style will be immediately familiar: there is no continuous narrative (although there is a lot more of it than in Little Mountain and Yalo, for instance!); characters – whether it is Karim’s lover Hend, her mother, his brother Nasim, or himself – are scattered and broken, fruitlessly trying to make sense and impose patterns upon themselves and their lives; events are told and retold, each time partially and from different perspectives and points of view, taking radically different hues and complexions, and sometimes even contradicting each other, so that rather than proceeding linearly, the book unravels itself like a complex web; and even at the end, one is not quite sure what exactly happened, and how it happened.

Nor is Sinalcol a simplistic morality tale, or a polemic. Although its dominant theme might be the individual’s – and nation’s – need for mirrors (“He didn’t tell her that a person cannot live without his mirrors...”  (p. 228), both Khoury and his characters are circumspect about what mirrors can do. In one of Khoury’s previous novels, Gate of the Sun, another character, Khaleel, fears being trapped in one version of history, akin to being trapped before one mirror, and becoming a prisoner of the image that one sees (in Gate of the Sun, it is the image of the Palestinian as a prisoner). In Sinalcol, in almost Kundera-esque terms, Karim resists converting reality into symbols (and it seems that Khoury uses the image and the symbol almost interchangeably), because “when we resort to turning things into symbols it liberates us from responsibility and makes of human experience an arena of random happenings, so that life becomes no more than a story” (p. 267). Hend, to whom this is said, does not understand.

Along with the dominant theme, as in most Khoury novels, there are a number of familiar sub-themes that the novel explores. The most important – as ever – is revolution, and the failure of the revolutionary imagination. In Gate of the Sun, it was about the institutionalisation – and stasis – of the Palestinian struggle. In Sinalcol, it is about the Islamisation of the Lebanese (and Palestinian) struggle. There is a quiet, almost despairing inevitability about how Karim sees his former (secular, communist) comrades transform their own characters – and the character of the struggle – into identities that are defined by Islam (I don’t want to go on being a fool because that way the sects will swallow us up, the Left will die, the Palestinian cause will become a religious cause, and we’ll lose everything” (p. 212)). But even there, Khoury is circumspect. One of the most important characters in the novel is a Palestinian fedayeen called Jamal, whom Karim is in love with (or believes himself to be), and who dies while hijacking an Israeli bus in Haifa. Soon after, Karim is asked by the leadership of the revolution to write an article about her, since his skill as a storyteller has not gone unnoticed (“he said your article on the crusaders was excellent because it was made up of stories…” (p. 211)) For this, they give him her memoirs. Events intervene, and the story is never written, but her memoirs remain with Karim. Many years later, when he returns to Beirut, Karim is asked – and then threatened – by the now-Islamicist leadership to hand over the memoirs. He resists, but even as he does so, he thinks to himself:

“… supposing they were modified and their contents played around with and her picture put on the cover with her hair – which, the last time he’d seen it, in her posters, had been flying in the wind – hidden from sight by an Islamic headscarf and a frown in place of her laughing eyes, would he then hand over her papers? What should he do with the papers? Should he leave them to turn yellow and disintegrate in the drawer? Did the Islamists, now the rising power, not have as much right to take control of their past as the Leftists had had in their day when they’d made a turbaned sheikh and warrior such as Izz el-Din Qassam an icon of the class struggle?” (p. 398)

I paused for a few moments here, thinking about how interesting it is that Karim uses ‘power’ and ‘right’ almost interchangeably, even though we would normally think of them as diametrically opposed to each other. In the unending struggle for control over narrative, Khoury seems to be telling us, there’s never a clear-cut moral answer. I wonder, though: is the claim that everyone acts amorally when it comes to representing the past (and that therefore, nobody is better than the other)? Or is it that everyone has a moral right to represent the past in a way that allows him or her to “take control” over it, to own it, as it were?

And then, of course, there is memory and language, meaning and homeland, and the limits of memory and language in the search for meaning and homeland. An instance of Karim’s continuing dislocation in France is his developing a stutter on hearing of Hend’s marriage to his brother, Nasim: “He’d started to feel that words were betraying him, that he couldn’t relax in the French language. Words, as his father used to say, are the land in which one feels at home” (p. 7). Karim’s wife – Bernadette – however, can never understand his obsession for homelands. And much like language, memory too, is dislocated in a fractured world: “because memory needs a place, time erases memories, and people only come across their memories in the crevices of places”, so that it begins to fail in its basic task – that is, “since it cannot stand inconsistencies… [to] draw… an immutable picture of things.” (p. 251)

And then there’s the sense of the thickness of language, of language almost as a physical object in the world, through a series of striking images: “He knew that people cover themselves with words for warmth…” (p. 239); “… words, like seeds, need ground to receive them, and Hend’s ears weren’t ready” (p. 239); “Muna hadn’t liked his comparisons or his talk of love, perhaps because she’d felt his words weren’t addressed to her, were a kind of delirious speech with which he filled the gaps in his soul” (p. 420); “What he had heard in Beirut and what he heard on that strange night was the sound of silence. Silence has a sound, it can even roar, but it is the roar of a whisper, the rattling of language, that has disintegrated and turned into letters whose wounds will not be knit” (p. 420); and then, at the very end, what could serve as the epitaph of the book, of Karim’s life story, of the Civil War, and of Khoury’s entire literary oeuvre: “He looked at the lines he’d written and found the words were piling up on top of one another, and that the language in which he’d written them no longer served to carry their meanings” (p. 422). By this time, the failure of language, the failure of a human life, and the failure of a nation have all become so entangled with each other, that there is little left to hold on to but a lingering, haunting sense of melancholy.

Other reviews: The Financial TimesThe National; Banipal; and an interview with Elias Khoury about the book.

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