Round-Up: Inoue, Barnes, Roberts, Liu

 

Yasushi Inoue’s The Hunting Gun is my first foray into Japanese literature. A novella, The Hunting Gun uses a narrative device that I recently came across in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer: the same set of contemporaneous events is described by three individuals, one after the other. Not only are there three different perspectives, three different sets of facts, but with each successive (re)telling, the story unfolds a little bit more, casting fresh (even contrary) light upon the previous narration. In The Hunting Gun, it is three letters written by three women to a man, triggered by a tragic death. What is most striking about The Hunting Gun is – like the Japanese art of bonsai – its sense of containment. In the three letters, you have betrayal, love, heartbreak, loss – themes that threaten to bubble up and spill over beyond the pages, but which always – somehow – remain there, within bounds. An instance:

“I knew love was like a clear stream that sparkled beautifully in the sun, and when the wind blew any number of soft ripples skittered across its surface, and its banks were gently held by the plants and trees and flowers, and it kept singing its pure music, always, as it grew wider and wider – that’s what love was to me. How could I have imagined a love that stretched out secretly, like an underground channel deep under the earth, flowing from who knew where to who knew where without ever feeling the sun’s rays?” 

Or:

“As you cooled, with the speed of a red-hot piece of iron plunged into water, I matched your coolness; and as I grew cold, you drew circles around me in your plummeting frigidity, until at last we found ourselves living here within this magnificently frozen world, in a household so cold one feels ice on one’s eyelashes.

There is a sense of balance, an almost preternatural poise in this language, where the most powerful emotions are distilled into language, but never reduced. To use Inoue’s own words, “transformed into [something] as limpid as water…“, and retaining the sense of “a blaze of flowers in the otherwise muted room.”

Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time left me rather conflicted. On the one hand, Barnes’ exquisitely crafted sentences, his wisdom and his insights, and his ability to crystallise those insights into limpid prose. The Noise of Time is a fictionalised biography of Dmitri Shostakovich, the famous 20th-Century Soviet composer, controversial because of his alleged compromises and complicity with the Stalinist regime. Barnes’ subject, then, compels him to explore some of those fundamental questions about the human condition, and especially, the human condition in the 20th century: the meaning of artistic and moral integrity, how totalitarianism can make the heart betray itself, and the ethical contortions compelled by tyranny. There are individual moments – captured, as ever, in perfectly complete sentences, which distil a thought just so – that are breathtaking. For instance: “we expect too much of the future – hoping that it will quarrel with the present…“; “Theories were clean and convincing and comprehensible. Life was messy and full of nonsense...”; “... not shattering, because that implied a single great crisis. Rather, what happened to human illusions was that they crumbled, they withered away. It was a long and wearisome process, like a toothache reaching far into the soul…”; “The self-doubt of the young is nothing compared to the self-doubt of the old.

As a novel, however, The Noise of Time is acutely disappointing. The crushing of the individual under the ostensibly-communist, actually-totalitarian post-1930s Soviet (and post-1950s Eastern European) regimes has been a heavily written subject, from numerous angles. Kundera has written about the regimes’ attempts to control art and music (The Joke), Danilo Kis has written about individual moral degradation (A Tomb for Boris Davidovich), Koestler has written about the horrors of surveillance and interrogation (Darkness at Noon), and there are many more. Reading The Noise of Time, one feels that this is ground that has been covered many times over, and by writers who had access to a more unmediated set of experiences than Barnes.

This issue might have been mitigated had Shostakovich’s character been at the front and centre of the novel. However, Shostakovich himself is painted in generic colours, a placeholder for the ordinary individual whose none-too strong character and none-too courageous heart wilts underneath Stalinism. Unlike Colm Toibin’s Henry James in The Master, for instance, who is utterly unique, Barnes’ Shostakovich is almost an allegory.

Adam Roberts’ The Thing Itself  combines science fiction, Kantian “categories”, time travel, and a bewildering variety of stylistic variations (including one very successful one after James Joyce) in a heady mixture. I’ve never read anything quite like it. Roberts’ premise – that time and space are categories that structure and mediate our perceptions of the world, but can also be transcended – is a remarkably complex and difficult one to pull of in an actual science fiction novel, but he manages it in a quite virtuoso manner. The only downside to that is, that at times, the book is a little… difficult!

In a similar vein, Cixxin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem takes another fairly complex concept (i.e., the three-body problem!), and constructs an absolutely thrilling science fiction novel out of it. Friends have been recommending Liu to me for a couple of years now – and it was certainly worth all the hype. A novel about first contact (but not quite), The Three-Body Problem reads like old-school SF – James Blish’s Cities in Flight comes immediately to mind –  in its sense of wonder, of space, of the most haunting of questions; but it simultaneously avoids the blunders of old-school SF (the white-male-coloniser-centric worldview – it’s set in China, for a start, and has at least two female protagonists).

 

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Filed under Adam Roberts, Cixxin Liu, Inoue, Japan, Julian Barnes

Connections: Proust and Wilde

From the Loose Signatures blog:

“The visits that Bergotte paid us were a few years too late for me now, because I didn’t like him as much any more—which doesn’t contradict the fact that his reputation had grown. An oeuvre is rarely completely victorious and comprehended without another writer’s work, perhaps still obscure, beginning to replace the cult that has almost finished coming to the fore with a new one (at least among a few more hard-to-please minds). In the books of Bergotte that I re-read most often, his sentences were as clear before my eyes as my own ideas, the furniture in my room, and the cars in the street. All things were comfortably obvious—even if not exactly as you had always seen them, at least as you were used to seeing them at the present time. But a new writer had started publishing works where the relationships between things were so different from those that bound things together for me that I could barely understand anything he wrote. For example, he said, “The watering hoses admired the lovely upkeep of the highways” (and that was easy; I slid down the length of those highways) “which left every five minutes from Briand and from Claudel.” I didn’t understand any more, since I’d expected the name of a city, but instead it gave me the name of a person. I didn’t just think that the sentence was poorly made; I thought that I wasn’t strong and quick enough to go all the way to its end. I picked up my spirits and clambered on hands and feet to get to a place where I could see the new relations between things. Each time I got a little closer to the midpoint of the sentence, I fell back down, like the slowest soldier in a regiment during the “portico” exercise. I admired the new writer no less than the clumsy kid who gets a zero in gym class admires a more dexterous child. From then on, I admired Bergotte less; his limpidity now seemed to come from inadequacy. There had once been a time when people recognized things when Fromentin painted them, but not when Renoir did.

Today, people of taste tell us that Renoir is a great painter of the nineteenth century.* But in saying so, they forget Time, and that it took a lot of it—well into the twentieth century—for Renoir to be hailed as a great artist. To successfully be recognized as such, the original painter or artist must set forth like opticians. The treatment of their painting, their prose, isn’t always pleasant. When finished, the practitioner tells us: “Now look.” And behold—the world (which was not created just once, but as often as a truly original artist appears) looks entirely different to us from the old one, but perfectly clear. Women pass in the street, different from those of the past, since they are Renoirs—those same Renoirs in which we long ago refused to see any women at all. The cars are also Renoirs, and the water, and the sky. We feel like we are walking in a forest like the one which on the first day seemed to us like everything excepta forest—like a tapestry with a number of nuances that nevertheless lacks just those nuances that a forest should have. That is the universe, new and perishable, which has just been created. It will last until the next geological catastrophe unleashed by a new painter or writer who is truly original.”

  • Proust, The Guermantes Way, part 2, chapter 1

—-

“Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of Art. You smile. Consider the matter from a scientific or a metaphysical point of view, and you will find that I am right. For what is Nature? Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into
existence. At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them. Now, it must be admitted, fogs are carried to excess. They have become the mere mannerism of a clique, and the exaggerated realism of their method gives dull people bronchitis. Where the cultured catch an effect, the uncultured catch cold. And so, let us be humane, and invite Art to turn her wonderful eyes elsewhere. She has done so already, indeed. That white quivering sunlight that one sees now in France, with its strange blotches of mauve, and its restless violet shadows, is her latest fancy, and, on the whole, Nature reproduces it quite admirably. Where she used to give us Corots and Daubignys, she gives us now exquisite Monets and entrancing Pissaros. Indeed there are moments, rare, it is true, but still to be observed from time to time, when Nature becomes absolutely modern. Of course she is not always to be relied upon. The fact is that she is in this unfortunate position. Art creates an incomparable and unique effect, and, having done so, passes on to other things. Nature, upon the other hand, forgetting that imitation can be made the sincerest form of insult, keeps on repeating this effect until we all become absolutely wearied of it. Nobody of any real culture, for instance, ever talks nowadays about the beauty of a sunset. Sunsets are quite old-fashioned. They belong to the time when Turner was the last note in art. To admire them is a distinct sign of provincialism of temperament. Upon the other hand they go on. Yesterday evening Mrs. Arundel insisted on my going to the window, and looking at the glorious sky, as she called it. Of course I had to look at it. She is one of those absurdly pretty Philistines to whom one can deny nothing. And what was it? It was simply a very second-rate Turner, a Turner of a bad period, with all the painter’s worst faults exaggerated and over-emphasised. Of course, I am quite ready to admit that Life very often commits the same error. She produces her false Renes and her sham Vautrins, just as Nature gives us, on one day a doubtful Cuyp, and on another a more than questionable Rousseau. Still, Nature irritates one more when she does things of that kind. It seems so stupid, so obvious, so unnecessary. A false Vautrin might be delightful. A doubtful Cuyp is unbearable. However, I don’t want to be too hard on Nature. I wish the Channel, especially at Hastings, did not look quite so often like a Henry Moore, grey pearl with yellow lights, but then, when Art is more varied, Nature will, no doubt, be more varied also. That she imitates Art, I don’t think even her worst enemy would deny now. It is the one thing that keeps her in touch with civilised man. But have I proved my theory to your satisfaction?”

 

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Filed under Oscar Wilde, Oscar Wilde, France, Marcel Proust

‘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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Filed under Elena Ferrante, Italy

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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