Monthly Archives: August 2016

‘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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