Book Review: The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

abandon

Book cover for the Europa edition of The Days of Abandonment

A very good friend of mine—an Italian woman—has lately been going through a very rough patch in her marriage. These last few years have been filled with much drama and melodrama, with betrayals and reconciliations, with threats and recriminations, and with lots and lots of pain.

I know much of this because she is also a very good and honest writer, and, at times, I have been a sounding board/early reader for her essays as she finalizes them prior to sending them out. With these, I am a bad critic because I cannot separate the raw, emotional writing from the woman I know and care about. The quality of the writing seems secondary to the pain being displayed.  So I can’t focus on the writing as I should.

This was also the case when I first began Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment. Immediately, it too draws you in with the story of an intelligent woman–a writer–blindsided and abandoned by a careless husband. It too draws you in with the raw pain, the self-doubt, the self-incrimination of one who has been abandoned.

And Ferrante’s writing is such that we forget easily that this is all a fiction–we believe we are reading the true story of a real woman who is in pain and confusion and despair.

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave,” reads the very first sentence.

And thus Olga, the narrator, is demolished. Her sense of self-worth is destroyed, her understanding of her past is shakened, her hope for the future vaporized. And through Ferrante’s words we feel that abandonment greatly.

bjp8-square-orig

Book cover for the audio-book edition of The Days of Abandonment

Like one grieving at a death, the narrator experiences all the varying emotions of loss: she is in turn defeated and determined, angry and frustrated, confused and clear-minded.  Besides the trauma of her husband’s leaving, she must also deal with the business of raising two children and running a household.

At times, Olga can also be quite funny in her frustration and anger. Once when she goes to the telephone offices to complain that her service has been cut off, she is told that all complaints must be phoned in. Where do I  go, she asks “if I want to spit in somebody’s face”? And her attacking her ex the first day she sees him in the street with his mistress is very funny–and satisfying.

There is a sex scene–one that ends prematurely and unsatisfyingly for Olga– in which Olga attempts to grasp some sense of self-worth, and while sad and pathetic, it also highlights Ferrante’s skill as a writer for it is well-written and unique and believable–never an easy thing to do when describing sex.

There are sick children and dying dogs and grumpy natives and the usual manipulations that accompany a formal separation between couples. And through it all we see Olga hit bottom, recover and then survive.

At one point, Olga says, “In order to write well, I need to go to the heart of every question, of a smaller, safer place. Eliminate the superfluous. Narrow the field. To write truly is to speak from the depths of the maternal womb.

And this is what Ferrante herself has done with her novel–she has stripped away the “superfluous,” she has asked the essential questions, and she has written from the very depths.

One reviewer wrote that The Days of Abandonment could have been written only by someone who has experienced the pain and despair of sudden separation, and implied that this is Ferrante’s own story.  I don’t know if that is true or not.

I do know that such an assumption is a critical fallacy, and it demeans the artistry that Ferrante possesses. The Days of Abandonment is a novel; it is a piece of fiction. Whether Ferrante has drawn on her own experiences or not does not matter. She has created a work of art that stands on its own.

Olga’s story is ours to read, to think about and to empathize with.  And in the process, she becomes someone we care about and worry about and celebrate with.

It is like having a good friend tell you her story.

The Days of Abandoment by Elena Ferrante
translated by Ann Goldstein
Europa editions, 2005

 

Book Review: Honeymoon by Patrick Modiano

Honeymoon

Book Cover for Honeymoon by Patrick Mondiano

It is perhaps a sad testimony to how parochial my reading has become.  There was once a time where I knew almost every Nobel Prize for Literature winner–would have yearly bets with colleagues and follow the London odds makers’ short lists.  And while my knowledge was primarily eurocentric/american, I was an early reader of the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz before he won and I understood that his time was eminent and important. (My sister, after a trip to Egypt, had turned me on to him. I don’t know how, but she brought me back two uncorrected proofs of his novels.)

But again, I am increasingly ignorant of the world’s literature.

Which is why discovering Patrick Modiano is such a wonderful treat. The French Modiano is the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature winner. And until a New Yorker review of his most recent novel, I had not heard of him nor his winning. Lately, I must have my head very deeply buried in the sand.

patrick-modiano-illustration

Patrick Modiano illustration by Niklas Elmehed © Nobel Media

Honeymoon (published in 1990 in France/1995 in the U.S.) is the novel I decided to start out on. The language is direct, bare and sparse–reminding me much of the first half of Camus’ The Stranger. But the story is intricate and convoluted, told in such an honest style that makes the intricacies and coincidences of life seem matter-of-fact.

There are two stories that braid themselves around two middle and connected ones. On the first page the narrator discovers that a woman in the hotel in Milan where he is staying has committed suicide.  He then learns that he had known her once decades when she and her husband had picked him up hitchhiking and had taken him in and cared for him for several days.

This coincidence sets the man on a quest–of sorts. After his wife and his business partner (her lover) drop him off at the airport where he is to fly to Rio de Janeiro for business, he disappears. He takes a plane back to Milan and then returns to Paris, where he goes to ground and hides in the outer arrondissements.

His purpose is to make sense of the woman’s suicide, of her life.

We find that he has been obsessed with this couple for a long time, ever since his youth, long before the knowledge of her death. He has taken numerous notes, cut out clippings, and prepared to write a memoir of the couple, and so he tells us of their hardships and trials during the Nazi occupation of France.

While we at the same time are following his exploits in the Parisian neighborhoods, aware of his wife’s comings and goings, and preparing for a new life in his rougher world.

All the plot threads, in a way, revolve around a single newspaper clipping from the 1940s searching for the woman who suddenly went missing when she was sixteen years old. (From what I have learned, the actual clipping is what sent Modiano himself to fashion his story.) She had simply stepped out of the Metro and  moved from one world–a constricting and dangerous world in Nazi occupied Paris–to another. Her abrupt relocation parallels the narrator’s who moves from his bourgeoise life as a documentary filmmaker married to a high-fashion model to an uncertain world in the boondocks of Paris, seeking for understanding of the couple who once showed him much kindness.

I said that I had started out on Patrick Modiano by selecting Honeymoon It is only a starting point. I look forward to picking up another.

 

Quote 45: “The bowler hat was a motif in the musical composition … .”

Sabina's Bowler illustration 2015 by jpbohannon

Sabina’s Bowler
illustration 2015 by jpbohannon

The bowler hat was a motif in the musical composition that was Sabina’s life. It returned again and again, each time with a different meaning, and all the meanings flowed through the bowler hat like water through a riverbed. … each time the same object would give rise to a new meaning, though all former meanings would resonate (like an echo, like a parade of echoes) together with the new one.

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Mother’s advice: “if you have nothing nice to say…”

motherson

I went to the movies on Monday afternoon to see a film that I had been wanting to see for the past month or so. But I left the theater greatly disappointed. And as I walked up 3rd street, I thought to myself, I am not even going to write about this one.

And I think I am right.

I am not a critic–of film, books or music–I simply enjoy these things. And I enjoy writing about them and sharing my enthusiasms about them. But, I don’t feel comfortable bad-mouthing the ones I don’t like. On Wednesday I posted a piece about a book I didn’t like and I feel more than a little discomforted about it.

In this vast “blogosphere” where everyone so easily can send out his or her opinions, I want to rein myself in. Of course, BAD ART exists–there are books that are dreadful, movies that are deadening, music that irks me, but they will find their own levels of acceptance, they will find their own audiences (or not) without my weighing in.

And besides, I don’t have the time to waste on negativity.

After all, all creativity is risk…risk of missing the mark, of being misunderstood, of being ripped apart. But one has to put it out there and let it find its own life. (As Woody Allen says, “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.”)

coffeeshopSo, I’m sitting in a shop having a coffee after the movie and am asked what I thought. “I didn’t like it,” I say, and I give my reasons, listen to counter-positions, discuss the pluses and minuses. This is good, this is what Art should engender–conversation, dialogue, thought, and, yes, even judgment.

But is there really a need for me to blast it on the internet? I’m not so sure, but I don’t think so.

Don’t get me wrong; I will point out inconsistencies in the things that I like, choices and perspectives I disagree with, differences and surprises that throw me, things I see as flaws or would have wished the artist had done differently.

But with things that I don’t like…?  Well, as my mother would say, “if I have NOTHING nice to say, I’m not going to say it.”

Book Review: Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947-1966 Susan Sontag

illustration by jpbohannon 2013

Susan Sontag (1933-2004)
illustration by jpbohannon 2013 (based on painting by Juan Bastos)

There is a danger in reading memoirs, diaries, journals. Certainly, there are times when our angels are shown to have feet of clay. Or other instances, when we weigh the turmoils and angst of a particular life with the end product that impelled you to read the memoir in the first place.

But with Sontag it is quite, quite different.

Next to even her young self, I feel so inadequate, so shallow, so wasteful of time.

Here is a young woman–14 years of age when the journals begin–embarking on a intellectual career that would put most of us to shame. Her reading lists, her “to-do” lists, her debates with herself, her analysis of events, readings, concerts and people she meets, her experiences, all are more fervent, more intelligent, more thoughtful in the years between her 14th birthday and her 30th, than mine have been for most of my life.

Susan Sontag bookcover

I teach a group of extremely bright 18-year old boys. They have great intelligence, and some are quite creative. But every so often they need to be reminded that their superior intelligence is frequently measured within the very small pond of our school.  Here’s what I read them from Sontag’s journal:

…Yet we do exist, + affirm that. We affirm the life of lust. Yet there is more. One flees not from one’s real nature which is animal, id, to a self-torturing externally imposed conscience, super-ego, as Freud would have it–but the reverse, as Kierkegaard says. Our ethical sensitivity is what is natural to man + we flee from it to the beast…

I ask them to describe the person who would write this in his or her personal journal.  And they are always far off…in both gender and age.  Sontag wrote this (a snippet of a much larger journal entry) two weeks after she had turned 17!  Already her depth of reading and understanding and active thoughtfulness is evident.

Immediately in this first volume of the journals, one meets a brilliant, thoughtful intelligence. She attended Berkeley at the age of 16, transfered to University of Chicago, married Phillip Reiff–a sociology professor–at 17, taught at the University of Connecticut when she was 19, and attended graduate school at Harvard, where she got her degree in philosophy and theology. And throughout these years, she recorded her thoughts and criticisms and interpretations, as well as her fears, her doubts and her insecurities.  As her marriage began to falter, she received a fellowship to Oxford and then moved to Paris. When she moved back to New York in 1959 (26 years old), her marriage was dissolved and she had gained custody of her son. Established in New York, she began teaching at various colleges, completed her first novel, The Benefactor, and witnessed her reputation as part of New York’s  intelligentsia begin to grow.

These are the years covered in the volume. Aside from the inquisitiveness, interpretation, and analysis of what she reads, sees and watches (she was a rabid film-goer), there is the struggle of understanding who she was. The marriage was unsatisfying, the lovers often hurtful, and in reading the journals we see a young woman trying to discover herself and come to terms with her own individuality, her own bi-sexuality, her own identity. There are times when one feels she is too hard on herself…when one wants to warn her, NO, this is going to end bad, but then again, one can’t.

Beginning when she was 14 and ending when she was 30, the journals are remarkable for their honesty and the peek into her rigorous mind.  But at the end, one is moved by the ever-going struggle between her sexuality and her intelligence, by the vulnerabilities and insecurities she reveals in her two major love affairs with Harriet Sohmers Zwerling  and Irene Fornés.  For her extraordinary mind struggled continually to understand the extraordinary pull of the flesh.

Her last two entries for 1963 read:

The intellectual ecstasy I have had access to since early
childhood. But ecstasy is ecstasy.

Intellectual “wanting” like sexual wanting.

♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦

Reborn is the first of a proposed three volumes of journals. The next volume–As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh– covers the years 1963 to 1964, when Sontag develops her reputation, her political activism, and her writing. It is now on my “to-read” list.

Book Review: Winter’s Bone by Darrell Woodrell–can you find a better heroine in all of literature?

I have a tendency to exaggerate, to think that whatever I have read, heard or seen lately and liked  is the BEST!  I am much more nuanced about things I dislike and usually soften the blows rather than exaggerate them.

But with Daniel Woodrell’s novel Winter’s Bone, I feel confident in stating what a truly fine book it is.

In fact, since I have read it, I have tried to think of a heroine in an American novel who matches Ree Dolly for grit, perseverance, wisdom and sheer moxie. These are the suggestions I have gotten so far:

1. Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (too spoiled, mercurial and self-centered)
2. Scout Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (not really her story but her father’s–who, by the way, may be the best father in literature.)
3. Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter (interesting suggestion, but her props come from accepting her punishment and not revealing who the father of her child was, while letting the simpy Rev. Dimmesdale preach his sermons and fill himself with self-loathing. I don’t see her as a particularly active heroine.)
4. Katniss in Susan Collins The Hunger Games (must say, I don’t know enough about her, except that Jennifer Lawrence played both Katnis in the Hunger Games AND Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone.)
5. Mattie Ross in Charles Portis’ True Grit (Mattie is a good second to Ree Dolly. Her challenges just don’t seem as daunting as Ree’s.)

Please feel free to add your own selections.

But my point is, I can’t remember any heroine–or any protagonist for that matter–who is so admirable in her refusal to not back down, in her persistence in doing what she must, and in her bravery in standing up to the very nasty forces that surround her.

In case you don’t know, Winter’s Bone is the story of Ree Dolly, a seventeen-year old girl who is raising her two younger siblings and caring for her catatonic, demented mother. Her meth-cooking father has just skipped bail and he had put up their hovel of a home as bond.  If he doesn’t show up for court, Ree and her family are out on the streets–or more realistically out in the fields of this very hardscrabble Missouri Ozarks setting.

Suffice it to say that her father is dead. And people aren’t real happy about Ree poking into their business. This is a community whose main economy and main diversion is crystal meth-amphetamine, and there are a whole lot of very, very nasty people.  No one talks. Talking creates witnesses.

In the course of her journey, Ree gets a truly horrible beating, she allies herself with her rough Uncle Teardrop (named such because of the three tears self-tattooed on his face), and finally proves her father’s death by sawing off his two hands (with a chain-saw from where he is sunken in a murky lake) and bringing the “identification” back to the authorities.

If it sounds gruesome. It is. But it is also one of those books that hooks you immediately and which you wish would go on forever. And it is all because of the character of Ree.  It is Ree that rises above all the violence, the poverty, the bleakness. But while Ree completes her quest at the end, while a few things begin to go right for her and her family, one is left feeling that in another five or ten years Ree will have turned into one of the many harridans that populate this mountain.  I hope not.

♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦

I read the novel for a film class I am teaching.  And so, I also had to show the film. As in all translations, there are various changes–her two brothers for some reason become a brother and a sister–and particular scenes are deleted.  Yet the film very much captures the spirit and the landscape of the novel.

Jennifer Lawrence is, at times, magnificent. There are moments when the camera captures the soft plumpness of her face adding even a greater vulnerability to this girl/woman who has to face such ordeals.  At other times, that softness works against her, straining our credibility that she is who she is supposed to be.

Not so with John Hawkes.  Hawkes, who was the soft-spoken hardware salesman in Deadwood–a similar world of extreme dirtiness and corruption, plays Teardrop perfectly. Hard as Ozark flint, creased and shaky, Hawkes captures the violence, the drug addled paranoia and stupor, and the family loyalty of these inbred mountain folk with studied truthfulness and credibility.  While Winter’s Bone is Lawrence’s movie, you don’t forget Hawkes for too long.

Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone.

John Hawkes as Teardrop in Winter’s Bone

printed books, personal libraries, cleaning out and French bookstores

by roboartemis. Found on deviontart.com

It seems I have always loved books, and in my lifetime have amassed quite a library. I find some sort of comfort in being surrounded by books, books on shelves, in piles on tables and floors.

In the past few years, though, I have had to thoroughly cull my shelves, for a variety of reasons.

Last year, I inherited about a thousand books from an uncle–he had promised me them ever since I was about nine years old–but after he died I simply couldn’t house them. I  already owned more than that myself and his simply were not going to fit. The two of us had had similar tastes and many of the same titles, so the duplicates  were easy to get rid of.  Others I gave to friends, even to non-readers. And the majority I gave to two used book sellers.

In 2004 I had ghostwritten a history of Ireland and part of my contract was that the publisher paid for any books I purchased while doing my research–I bought a lot. So I was able to make more room by donating about seventy-five of these titles to the Irish Center in Philadelphia.  They were hard to part with but I consoled myself in thinking that they are being read rather than simply sitting on my shelf. (I had ghostwritten a biography of Darwin as well but for some reason the publishers didn’t offer to pay for that research. I had far less books on Darwin than on Ireland.)

Now for any new reading, I turn more and more often to the public library, and I have begun buying some e-books, though only a handful.  I make an exception and still buy poetry regularly (kidding myself by rationalizing that these usually take up less space), and I have bought some non-fiction titles that I knew that I wanted to own, and would go back to time and time again. But novels generally come from the library now.  And that’s just as well.

We have all read the dire warnings about the demise of printed books. Such articles crop up almost weekly: The death of bookstores, the death of the author, the death of the novel (granted that one has been going around since long before the internet), etc. A friend of mine in Brooklyn passed along this article to me about how in France book sales are actually rising rather than being smother by digital devices. It makes for some interesting reading. Click on the picture below to read the piece:

Shoppers in La Hune, in Paris, which receives government help.Alice Dison for The New York Times 

So by the end, I went through an enormous amount of books and gave many, many away. (For 6 months I had to rent a storage shed to house my “inheritance” while I figured out what was going and what was not.) I didn’t like doing it, but I knew I had to.

And of course, that book that I hadn’t looked at in fifteen years, that had sat dusty on my shelves for so long.  As soon as I gave it away, I needed it for something or other!  Isn’t that how it always goes?

Sunday Book Review: Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

For ninety-percent of the novel Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd, I was enthralled.

Vienna before the first World War, London on the eve of war, the no-man’s land between the trenches, neutral Geneva at the height of hostilities, London during zeppelin bombing raids. The settings are dramatic and richly drawn.

As was the plot: A young actor, following his famous father’s footsteps (if that’s not Oedipal enough for him, his mother catches him at his first experience at masturbation to boot), goes to Vienna to find a cure for a sexual condition–to Vienna, the center of the burgeoning new concept of psychoanalysis. Although he meets Freud himself, it is Freud’s English speaking neighbor who takes Lysander Rief on–and who successfully cures him.  And we know he is cured because his four month affair with the English bohemian Hettie Bull ends in a pregnancy and his arrest for rape by the Viennese authorities.

When two British diplomats arrange for Rief’s escape, they also arrange for his indenture to British intelligence.

Soon after Rief returns to London, his rescuers called in his debt and he is asked to enter Geneva via  the front lines. He is successful at his mission, survives seven bullet wounds, and completes the assignment that he had been ordered to finish.  And then he is given a second mission.

The action–of both the military and intelligence escapades and Rief’s romantic life–is riveting, fast paced and cleverly intertwined. Each character seems to be connected to another and no one is entirely innocent. And Rief’s inner-life is subtly and intelligently revealed. One learns much about military ordinance, psychoanalytic practices, the British class system and the early 20th-century British world of theater. And the information is never pedantic or overwhelming but richly woven into the plot.

Yet the solution of Rief’s intelligence mission and the resolution of his own personal quests seems to be lacking.  As the Novel wraps up and the various strands are pulled together, the story begins to limp rather than gain strength.  By the end, I felt I was reading a Hardy Boys’ Adventure. The solution was pat and somewhat anti-climactic.

I had been look forward to Waiting for Sunrise for several months and to be quite honest I enjoyed reading it very, very much. Until the end that is.  I was disappointed. It seemed that Boyd had simply decided to quit.

William Boyd

I like William Boyd very much. I feel he is greatly underrated among his contemporaries and is a wonderful stylist with a perfect ear for the nuances of an age.

I had previously read several Boyd novels and do not remember this falling off, this disappointment before. The novels all successfully re-create historic eras, describing its people, its culture, its ethos, its fears, all braced by an intelligent understanding and description of the scientific theories and advancements that are at that moment being born. For instance, Brazzaville Beach deals with mathematical chaos theory and the sociology of chimpanzees.  The New Confessions (modeled on Rousseau’s Confessions) also deals with World War I–as with Waiting for Sunrise–moves through Hollywood and Berlin, treats the horrors of World War II and then ends with the Hollywood Communist  trials, the whole while treating  us to the internal workings of the Hollywood film industry.  The Blue Afternoon (my personal favorite) is centered on the United States invasion of Manilla and its ultimate acquisition of the Philippines through the Treaty of Versaille and travels from Lisbon, Manilla and Los Angeles, from 1902 through the 1930s, while leading the reader through advancements in surgery and trends in architecture.

All of Boyd’s novels are rich with fascinating information, realistic period details, and memorable human stories. And all are vastly enjoyable and worthwhile.  Waiting for Sunrise, however, for me, ends a little too quickly and a little too weakly.