What I’m reading this month – Sept 2019

Last month, I predicted a very limited set of book review blogs this autumn, as I had chosen to embark on Elena Ferrante’s ambitious and ballyhooed series of novels about friends Lenù and Lila. Given the sheer amount of words, combined with the number of duties I also have to attend to in life – work, parenthood, marriage, sleeping, playing the odd open mic – I expected it would take me a while to get through.

The author on the train through France, reading Elena Ferrante’s novelNot so, dear reader. Her writing is vibrant and exciting, and My Brilliant Friend really pulled me along. I had, with a little neglect of other things, reached its end just before we embarked on our cross-continental holiday plans, so I was able to get started on the second novel as my vacation book. Long train journeys (made longer by my good friends at TGV, but that’s a story for another time) are a bit of artificial time; it’s not like real life at all, and it provided sufficient conditions that I’m now launched on Number Three, the appealingly titled Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.

Cover image of Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who StayI note that the Italian title in fact renders it “The Story of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay”, which is more in keeping with the storytelling theme running through it all. The second novel is The Story of a New Name, and My Brilliant Friend is divided into two parts: The Story of Don Achille and The Story of the Shoes. This is an interesting choice, for me, as it applies some of that artificial thematising to what is otherwise a running narrative of a life, or two lives. I won’t say this irritated my wife, but she did comment to me that, from a structural perspective, it is quite loose. Things just keep happening, as they do in life generally, and the closure of one part before the beginning of another is quite arbitrary. I agree that there is a soap operatic quality to the novels I’ve read so far – more so for the second, which is not so tightly controlled as the first. Where she concludes it had that gasp-for-the-camera quality that had me waiting for the “tune in next season to see how she responds…” message to start scrolling across the bottom of the page. And that novel could have ended at any of several points in the last thirty pages or so.

But of course, this is highly critical and perhaps slighting to Ferrante’s work, and the term “soap opera” doesn’t at all convey the depth of observation she employs, nor the real beauty of much of her writing. Yes, it’s a work in translation, but there are some stunners in this series. Along with that, it is highly sociological, which appeals to me. I see Jane Austen’s name in some of the review quotations, and I recall reading someone associate her name with Flaubert back when the first three translations had really taken off and we were anticipating the fourth. Certainly, she’s read her Bourdieu – not literature but our ruthless current analytical attempts to make sense of our lives, through literature as much as fieldwork. Perhaps too much: Anthony Giddens talks about the double hermeneutic, where sociologists are interpreting interpretations that people have already made of their lives, as well as this relay effect, whereby the people from whom we glean our data are themselves familiar with the way scholars have made sense of social life already. So in my own field of Muslim studies, people’s social and political choices are highly informed by, say, postcolonial theory, and this affects what they tell us in interviews, which we’re then supposed to go and make sense of using, among other things, postcolonial theory. The circle closes on itself.

I’m highly conscious of these observations in her writing. But I also like the characters she’s created. Lila is original and constantly surprising, as she is meant to be, and though the events in their neighbourhood are extreme, they are also rendered in a wholly naturalist, realist fashion. I salute Ferrante’s continual reference to violence – a casual, everyday male violence to women whom they love, with whom they are intimate, their sisters, lovers, wives, and daughters. This has not been a dynamic in my own life, and so its constant presence is shocking. Challenging but not gratuitous. I expect to make good time on the remaining works, though I think nothing will quite match the brilliance of her first book.

Cover image of Jan Morris’s Trieste and the Meaning of NowhereI chose Ferrante’s works as appropriate for my Italian vacation. And if I need an Italian vacation from my Italian vacation literature, I have some recourse in Welsh literature. It was Trieste we visited right before the school year began – not a city I had much knowledge of, though I envied its location on the Dalmatian Coast. It wasn’t till we were there, getting off the bus to walk up Scalia Dublino, “the Dublin Steps”, that I remembered the name from recesses of my brain. “Hey, didn’t Joyce exile himself to here…?” I say. And then further up the steps is an interpretive plaque on step 19 or whatever of the Joyce journey through town. So yes, other things, too.

But that’s not Welsh, that’s Irish, I hear you say. True enough. But in the nice bookshop we found, across the street from the papally approved gelateria and upstairs from the reasonably hip clothing shop where I got shorts to fill the hole in my suitcase where I forgot to pack my shorts, there was a reasonable English language section amidst all the Italian. Joyce, sure, if you want it. But also Jan Morris’s memoir Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. It describes her observations and her life when she was a soldier named James Morris posted there after the Second World War. Having read it and enjoyed it, my wife is now pestering me to read it so she can talk about some of the details about Castello di Miramare, where we spent a pleasant, sunny Sunday morning. So this, too, will appear on my docket this month.

Cover image of Tonke Dragt’s The Letter to the KingAt bedtime, we’re reading another work in translation – The Letter for the King, by Tonke Dragt. This Dutch novel from the early 60s is quite compelling. It’s not one I knew of before, but my daughter won it as part of a lit quiz competition, and she recommended we read it all together. It’s the sort of thing I would have absolutely loved as a kid: knights, coming of age, a quest, mountains. When I think of the books that I encountered as a child that endured in my imagination – Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper – I think about how capricious it is. Why these and not others, such as Dragt’s book? And, given how critical I am of Cooper’s work, especially, upon rereading it later, does Dragt’s book stand out for me just because I’m encountering it fresh? Still as children-oriented literature, yes, but without the standard of my cherished memories of it from my initial reading?

I don’t know. There are some clunky bits. Tiuri, the hero, makes some rather formal gonna-be-a-knight statements that become comical to read aloud. And he catches on to some key details several chapters after we’ve all gotten there – why these Grey Knights are pursuing him and fixed on this particular ring, for example. But that’s okay. It’s got a great, suspenseful tone and, again, an unadorned realism to its depiction of action. I’m not quite sure how it will be sustained over the thickness of the novel still remaining. His journey seems simple, and the encounters that hold him back may start to become repetitive. Or, Dragt has some real surprises cooked up yet. I’ll wait and see.

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