Thursday, June 30, 2016

Kamila Shamsie / Let’s have a year of publishing only women – a provocation

Kamila Shamsie

Kamila Shamsie: let’s have a year of publishing only women – a provocation


It is clear that there is a gender bias in publishing houses and the world of books. Well, enough. Why not try something radical? Make 2018 the Year of Publishing Women, in which no new titles should be by men

Kamila Shamsie
Friday 5 June 2015 12.45 BST



S
everal years ago, Martin Amis chaired a literary festival panel on “The Crisis of American Fiction” with Richard Ford, Jay McInerney and Junot Díaz. I was in the audience, and halfway through the discussion leaned over to the person sitting next to me and said: “Clearly the crisis of American fiction is that there are no women in it.” It’s not just that there weren’t any women on the stage. In the entire discussion, which lasted nearly an hour, there was no mention of Toni MorrisonMarilynne RobinsonAnnie ProulxAnne TylerDonna TarttJhumpa Lahiri or any other contemporary female writer. A single reference toEudora Welty was the only acknowledgment that women in the US have ever had anything to do with the world of letters. Díaz, near the end of the hour, made the point that the conversation had centred on white American males, but it was too little, too late.

I think of this panel when reading yet another article or survey about the gender imbalance that exists in publishing houses, in terms of reviews, top positions in publishing houses, literary prizes etc. The issue can’t of course be broken down into a story of fair-minded women versus bigoted men. Like any effective system of power – and patriarchy is, over time and space, the world’s most effective system of power – the means of keeping the power structure intact is complex. One area in which this complexity can be examined is via literary prizes, which carry increasing weight in a book’s chance of success.
As a snapshot, let’s look at the Man Booker prize over the last five years. Ever since the women’s prize for fiction – formerly the Orange, now the Baileys – was set up 20 years ago in response to an all–male Booker shortlist, the Booker has been the prize to which the most attention is paid in gender terms, and the question of the prize’s judges and gender came up last year when only three women were on a longlist of 13. In response, one of the judges Sarah Churchwellsaid: “We read what publishers submit to us … [If] publishers only submit a fraction of women, then that is a function of systemic institutional sexism in our culture.” So I asked the Booker administrators how many of the books submitted in the last five years have been written by women. The answer was, slightly under 40%. This isn’t an issue around the Booker alone. I’ve been uncomfortable with the imbalance between male and female writers in terms of the books that get submitted for prizes that I’m judging on a number of occasions.
In the five years in which slightly under 40% of the submitted books have been written by women, the percentage of women on the longlist has been slightly over 40%. The percentage of women on the shortlist has been 46%. The percentage of women who go on to win the prize has been exactly 40%. In this period, although four out of five of the chairs of the Booker juries have been men, there has been an almost even split of male and female jurors. The picture that starts to emerge from these statistics is one of judges who judge without gender bias but are hamstrung by publishers who submit with a strong tilt towards books by men. But, as is so often the case with statistics, there are other figures that complicate the story. The author Nicola Griffith recently published a study of prizewinning books on both sides of the Atlantic, broken down by the gender of their protagonists; it revealed that in the last 15 years, 12 of the Booker-winning novels have had male protagonists, two have had female protagonists, and one has had both male and female protagonists. The Booker does well compared with the Pulitzer across the Atlantic, which has had no female protagonist among its 15 winning books.

I could go on with the statistics and observations – the 64 male versus 36 female authors who make up the World Book Night picks of the last five years; the gendered decisions about how to package and describe male versus female authors; a recap of the Vida statistics that show how much more space male writers and reviewers receive in literary publications on either side of the Atlantic; the far greater propensity for male writers to pick other male writers when asked to recommend books. But at this point, I’m going to assume that the only people who really doubt that there is a gender bias going on are those who stick with the idea that men are better writers and better critics, and that when men recommend books by men it is fair literary judgment, while when women recommend books by women it is either a political position or woolly feminine judgment. To these people I have nothing to say except, go away and read some Toni Morrison.
Enough. Across the board, enough. Let’s agree that things have improved over the last 50 years, even over the last 20, and then let’s start to ask why. Was it simply the passage of time? Should we all sit around while the world continues on its slow upward trend towards equality? Or should we step outside that fictional narrative of progress and ask what actually helped to change literary culture in the UK? Two things come to mind: the literary presses of the 70s, of which Virago is the most notable; and the women’s prize for fiction. In part, what both the presses and the prize did was to create a space for women in a male-dominated world, giving voice and space to those who wouldn’t find them elsewhere.

I would argue that is time for everyone, male and female, to sign up to a concerted campaign to redress the inequality. Last year a number of readers, critics and at least one literary journal, the Critical Flame, signed up to a “Year of Reading Women” (for the Critical Flame it was female writers and writers of colour). Why not take it a step further? Why not have a Year of Publishing Women: 2018, the centenary of women over the age of 30 getting the vote in the UK, seems appropriate.

Of course, there will be many details to work out, but the basic premise of my “provocation” is that none of the new titles published in that year should be written by men. I’ve been considering literary fiction so far but other groups within fiction – and non-fiction – publishing could gain from signing up too. The knock-on effect of a Year of Publishing Women would be evident in review pages and blogs, in bookshop windows and front-of-store displays, in literature festival lineups, in prize submissions. We must learn from the suffragettes that it’s not always necessary or helpful to be polite about our campaigns. If some publishing houses refused to sign up, then it would be for the literary pages and booksellers and bloggers and festivals to say they wouldn’t be able to give space to the male writers who were being published that year. Many male writers would, I’m sure, back the campaign and refuse to submit their books for publication in the given year, while also taking an active part by reading, reviewing and recommending the books that were published.






Taking on one form of exclusion while continuing to replicate others should be an unthinkable idea. Vida has recognised that power privilege on either side of the Atlantic is not merely about gender but also about race – they now have an annual women of colour count alongside their annual women count. That I’ve failed to dwell on race until now doesn’t mean I don’t recognise it as an even more lopsided and neglected matter than gender within publishing. And that’s by no means the only other area of exclusion. If we are to truly claim that we’re pushing back against inequality it’s essential that the build up to a 2018 Year of PublishingWomen should include debates and commitments to ensure that the YPW doesn’t end up looking like the year of publishing young, straight, white, middle-class metropolitan women.
What would it look like, this changed landscape of publishing in 2018? Actually, the real question is what would happen in 2019? Would we revert to status quo or would a year of a radically transformed publishing landscape change our expectations of what is normal and our preconceptions of what is unchangeable? I suggest we find out.
 This is an edited version of one of The National Conversation pieces published by the Writers’ Centre Norwich.


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Elena Ferrante´s New Book / Art wins






ELENA FERRANTE’S NEW BOOK: ART WINS



A few paragraphs into Elena Ferrante’s new novel, “The Story of the Lost Child,” the final volume of the writer’s so-called Neapolitan tetralogy—the first three volumes are “My Brilliant Friend,” “The Story of a New Name,” and “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay”—Lena, the narrator, says that now we’re coming to “the most painful part of the story.” Really? It’s going to get worse? When we last saw Lena, she was walking out on a decent husband and two daughters to run off with a man who we know is going to betray her. The little girls scream and weep and hang onto her skirt, begging her not to go. “I couldn’t bear it,” she writes. “I knelt down, I held them around the waist, I said: All right, I won’t go, you are my children, I’ll stay with you.” This calms them down. Then she goes to her bedroom and packs the suitcase she will take when, a few days later, she drops the girls off with a neighbor, says she’ll be back shortly, and leaves for the train station.

Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, unlike other long historical novels we might compare it with (“Buddenbrooks,” “Remembrance of Things Past”), does not go to a lot of trouble to span generations or social classes. Most of its characters come from a single cluster of working-poor families living in a noisy, hot slum on the outskirts of Naples between 1950 and 2010. Ferrante supplies a dramatis personae at the beginning of the first volume—the shoemaker’s family, the Cerullos, Fernando, Nunzia, Lila, and Rino; the mad widow’s family, the Cappuccios, Melina (the widow), Ada, and Antonio; the grocer’s family, the Carraccis, Don Achille, Maria, Stefano, Pinuccia, and Alfonso; the train conductor’s family, the Sarratores, Donato, Lidia, Nino, Marisa, et al.—and, apart from births and deaths, the cast hasn’t changed much by the fourth volume. All these people are fantastically enmeshed. They practically can’t walk to the corner without running into someone they’ve slept with or beaten up.

But no two characters are more bound together than Lila, the shoemaker’s daughter, and Lena, the porter’s daughter. Both were born in 1944; they meet at the age of six, when they are entering first grade. Lena is blond and plump and inclined to do as she’s told. Lila is dark and skinny and ferocious. “Her quickness of mind was like a hiss, a dart, a lethal bite.” Everyone’s afraid of Lila, and most of them are in love with her, too, but none more than Lena, and Lila loves Lena back, though “love” is too narrow a word for it. The two envy each other, compete with each other. They help and gravely harm each other. In “The Story of the Lost Child,” they get pregnant at the same time; they go to their doctor’s appointments together, and each holds the other’s hand during her pelvic examination. For much of that book, Lena’s family lives upstairs from Lila’s, and their children eat and sleep now at one apartment, now at the other. You could say (as Rachel Cusk more or less does, in her Times Book Review essay this week) that they are two halves of one complete woman, but actually each is complete in herself. And it is through their interaction that Ferrante says what she has to say about the world.

She has two subjects, basically. The first is women. This is the most thoroughgoing feminist novel I have ever read. (I will call the four books one novel. They are, though the first volume, at least, could be read without the others.) In the person of Lila, we have an embodiment of female beauty like something out of Titian. At the end of “My Brilliant Friend,” this girl, sixteen years old and due to get married, to Stefano, that afternoon, asks Lena to give her a bath. Lena speaks of her inner turmoil at being asked to rest her 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, and 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. … I washed her with slow, careful gestures, first letting her squat in the tub, then asking her to stand up: I still have in my ears the sound of the dripping water, and the impression that the copper of the tub had a consistency not different from Lila’s flesh, which was smooth, solid, calm. I had a confusion of feelings and thoughts: embrace her, weep with her, kiss her, pull her hair, laugh, pretend to sexual experience and instruct her in a learned voice, distancing her with words just at the moment of greatest closeness. But in the end there was only the hostile thought that I was washing her, from her hair to the soles of her feet, early in the morning, just so that Stefano could sully her in the course of the night. I imagined her naked as she was at that moment, entwined with her husband, in the bed in the new house, while the train clattered under their windows and his violent flesh entered her with a sharp blow, like the cork pushed by the palm into the neck of a wine bottle.


As Ferrante makes clear here, a woman’s sexual allure will not get her much. Lila never liked sex. (Her wedding night is a violent rape scene.) As for Lena, she does like sex, and, in a touching passage, she says to her old boyfriend Antonio—whose heart she broke for the sake of the no-good Nino she’s running away with at the end of “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay”—that it was he who awakened her to it: “He was the discovery of excitement, he was the pit of the stomach that grew warm, that opened up, that turned liquid, releasing a burning indolence.” But, as she goes on to tell him, nothing ever fulfilled that expectation. At the end of the book, Lena is alone, and Lila, no doubt, is, too.

Yet there is no repudiation of the trappings of femininity: the dolls, the bracelets, the buttons and bows. The book fairly teems with women’s things, women’s bodies, which, furthermore, are imagined as being in a state of constant flow, as if they were part of some piece of French écriture féminine. Lena again and again has visions that her mother, whom she mostly hates, has crawled inside her body and is kicking around inside there. Lila has something worse, a condition she calls “dissolving boundaries”: it seems to her that edges of things melt, and their innards squirt and slosh into each other. Do you remember, Lila asks Lena, that night on Ischia, when you all said how beautiful the sky was? To her, it wasn’t beautiful: “I smelled an odor of rotten eggs, eggs with a greenish-yellow yolk inside the white and inside the shell, a hard-boiled egg cracked open. I had in my mouth poisoned egg stars, their light had a white, gummy consistency, it stuck to your teeth, along with the gelatinous black of the sky, I crushed it with disgust, I tasted a crackling of grit. Am I clear? Am I making myself clear?”

As plenty of readers will have heard by now, “Elena Ferrante” is a pen name. Apart from the information in the jacket bio—that she is a woman and was born in Naples—we know nothing about the author. (There is an interview with her by Sandro and Sandra Ferri in the Spring, 2015, issue of The Paris Review, but it gives no further biographical details.) It seems to me unquestionable, though, that these books were written not just by a female but by one who has been pregnant. Lila says that, if she didn’t stay alert, the world would undergo a huge inundation: “The waters would break through, a flood would rise, carrying everything off in clots of menstrual blood, in cancerous polyps, in bits of yellowish fiber.” In fact, at this point in the novel waters might indeed be breaking. Lila and Lena are both heavily pregnant, and they are sitting in a rocking car in the middle of Naples, where they have taken refuge from an earthquake, the Irpinia earthquake of 1980. (The book tracks world events closely. We hear about the Red Brigades, Chernobyl, the World Trade Center.) All around them, gas mains are exploding, buildings are collapsing; a cemetery is breaking off the mainland and falling into the sea.

Here, Ferrante has used a catastrophic real-life event to exemplify—indeed, culminate—her sense of women’s undefended boundaries, but the matter comes up again and again, even in modest circumstances. At one point, Lena’s daughter Dede, now a young woman, who for years has avoided any physical contact with her—she’s another one who fears being invaded—breaks her rule and goes and sits in her mother’s lap. Lena describes the feeling of her daughter’s warm bottom, the “wide hips,” against her thighs. To me, that was almost as unsettling as the earthquake.

Much of the thrill of the four books lies just in this elastic back and forth between realism and hallucination. No one is a more careful realist than Ferrante. When Lena’s husband, in their kitchen, gets ready to punch her in the face, Ferrante takes time to tell us about the hum of the refrigerator and the drip of the faucet in the background. And her general faithfulness to reality encourages us to stay with her as she veers off into hallucination. Some scenes, just by their tone and pacing, and by what they omit as much as by what they include, seem to take place in slow motion or under water or on another planet. It’s not that things are askew. The very air is different. This, Ferrante seems to say, is what happens in the world of women, and though much of the book is devoted to women’s more frequently discussed problems—such as how they are supposed to go out to work and raise the kids at the same time, and, if they do have work, work they care about, how come this still seems to them secondary to their relationship with a man?—it is the exploration of the women’s mental underworld that makes the book so singular an achievement in feminist literature; indeed, in all literature.

Ferrante’s other subject is language. Insofar as the book is realist, the critical thing in it is the neighborhood: the poverty, the ignorance, the unremitting violence. The only way to gain any power or happiness is to get out, and the only way to do that is via schooling, the learning of words, and not the words your parents speak—that’s dialect—but standard Italian. Apart from femaleness, there is nothing in the book more important than this. From page to page, in passages of dialogue, Ferrante tells us (and then so does the excellent translator, Ann Goldstein, who is also the head of the copy department at The New Yorker) if someone is speaking standard Italian and the other is speaking dialect, so that we can understand what is going on between them, and then, if anyone switches, as they may do, what that means.

Basically, what the linguistic difference means is whether the person is going to remain in the neighborhood and—to put it in female terms, Ferrante’s terms—get pregnant every two years, and get beaten up by her husband if dinner is late, or whether she’s going to escape this. Both Lila and Lena understand the situation early on. When they are twelve and have the chance to go to middle school—where you can perfect your Italian and even learn Latin, and also write essays and read books—both of them are desperate to go. But first you must pass an exam, and taking the exam costs money, and Lila’s family is marginally poorer than Lena’s. Also, Lila’s father fails to see why a girl needs an education, as Lena’s father, for some reason, does not. So Lila is told that she can’t continue her schooling. This is the fork in the road for the two girls, and it is marked by the book’s first serious moral crime. Lila, with all her powers of seduction, suggests to Lena that they play hooky one morning and walk across the city to the harbor, to the sea, which they have never seen. Lena agrees, as she always does to Lila’s mad plans. But on the appointed morning, when they set out, Lila begins acting strange. She slows down; she keeps looking behind her, as if she’s afraid they’re being followed. Her hand starts to sweat. Suddenly, a storm breaks, and Lila insists that they go back. This baffles Lena—Lila is never afraid of anything—but they run back home, and Lena gets a beating. The next day, Lila inspects Lena’s bruises:


“All they did was beat you?”

“What should they have done?”

“They’re still sending you to study Latin?”

I looked at her in bewilderment.

Was it possible? She had taken me with her hoping that as a punishment my parents would not send me to middle school?

Yes, presumably, and then she repented. For the rest of the novel, that ambivalence never lets up. From middle school, Lena keeps on going, through university. She becomes a writer—of feminist novels! Along the way, Lila helps her. She encourages her, praises her. Once she gets married and has some money, she buys Lena’s schoolbooks, and not used ones but new ones. “My brilliant friend,” she calls her. She also mocks her and, for long periods, stops speaking to her. She knows that the more learning Lena has, the more this will separate them. But her feelings are also in accord with the old, primitivist formula whereby the less refined something is, the truer it is.

Lena works ceaselessly, in school and later. Her books make her famous. And sadly, in the dark of night, she too trusts the old formula. She feels she can never truly write well because she lacks Lila’s wild, prodigal spirit. Lila, she thinks, “possessed intelligence and didn’t put it to use but, rather, wasted it, like a great lady for whom all the riches in the world are merely a sign of vulgarity.” If, on occasion, Lena thinks she has written well, that’s because she has somehow captured Lila’s spirit, made “space for her in me.” (This is why, in “The Story of the Lost Child,” Lena has moved back into her natal slum. She feels that she needs to be near Lila in order to do her work.) When she’s not worried about whether she’s been able to absorb Lila into her books, she worries that Lila will turn out books of her own.

Of course, Lila can’t produce a book, but she does write little things now and then. In the second volume of the series, when she gets married, she gives Lena a tin box tied with a piece of string—her writings, she says. She doesn’t want her husband to find them. Neither must Lena ever read them. Lila is, of course, no sooner out of sight than Lena opens the box and begins poring over the eight notebooks it contains. They are poignant: Lila practicing Italian, penning descriptions of things (a leaf, a pot), recording what she thought of a movie she saw in the church hall. But halfway down a page, she will lose patience and fill the rest of the space with drawings: “twisted trees, humped, smoking mountains, grim faces.” For weeks, Lena studies the notebooks, “learning by heart the passages I liked, the ones that thrilled me, … the ones that humiliated me.” Finally, one night, she leaves the house with the box under her arm:


I stopped on the Solferino bridge to look at the lights filtered through a cold mist. I placed the box on the parapet, and pushed it slowly, a little at a time, until it fell into the river, as if it were her, Lila in person, plummeting, with her thoughts, words, the malice with which she struck back at anyone, the way she appropriated me, as she did every person or thing or event or thought that touched her.

This person that Lena loves more than anything in the world: she is trying to kill her. And in keeping with the book’s logic, she is doing it by killing her words.

In “The Story of the Lost Child,” something very terrible happens to Lila (see the book’s title), and one day, after laboring for years under her sorrow, she simply disappears. Her son, Rino, calls Lena, now living in Turin. Everything Lila owns, he says, is gone from the apartment. As Lena understands, this is not because Lila needed those things but because she wanted to erase herself. She even scissored herself out of the photos of herself with Rino. Lena, who had been stalled in her work, now starts to write again, to prevent Lila’s self-annihilation. To Lila’s oppressive disorder—the menstrual clots, the yellow gobbets, the things flying apart—she will oppose her own, once-despised instinct for order. Dispersal will meet containment; dialect, Italian. This is an old literary trick, or at least as old as Proust: to tell a story of pain and defeat and then, at the end, say that it will all be redeemed by art, by a book—indeed, the book you are reading. Lena will write for months and months, for as long as it takes, she says, to give Lila “a form whose boundaries won’t dissolve.” She will thus calm her friend, and herself—and, to reach beneath the metaphor, rescue life from grief, clarity from chaos, without denying the existence of grief and chaos. She pulls her chair up to her desk. “We’ll see who wins this time,” she says. Art wins. We win.



Joan Acocella has written for The New Yorker, reviewing dance and books, since 1992, and became the magazine’s dance critic in 1998.






Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Who Is Elena Ferrante?




Who Is Elena Ferrante?



By GIDEON LEWIS-KRAUS, MEGHAN O’ROURKE
and EMILY GOULDAUG. 22, 2014

The writer known by that name has never been photographed, interviewed in person or even made a public appearance, but a collection of fiercely candid novels has earned her (him?) recognition as one of the keenest observers of Italian society. On the eve of the publication of “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” the much-anticipated third volume in the author’s Neapolitan series, three admirers celebrate this elusive talent.

Monday, June 27, 2016

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante / Review


“Cellar Window in the Courtyard” –illustration 2016 by jpbohannon

Book Review: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante


MARCH 30, 2016 
J.P. BOHANNON

The English translation of Elena Ferrante’s L’amica geniale has been given the title My Brilliant Friend and for much of the book we believe it to be a reference to Lila Cerullo, the daughter of the shoemaker and the much-admired friend of the narrator Elena Greco (known as Lenù). And indeed, the phrase fits, for Lila is a precociously wise, driven, and independently thinking little girl. (The novel spans the two girls’ lives from six to sixteen.) And yet, much later in the book, when Lila is being fitted for a wedding dress, it is she who utters the phrase, calling the quieter, less assured Lenù “my brilliant friend.” Much to Lenù’s delight.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Elena Ferrante Writes Fiction That Feels Autobiographical. But Who Is She?



Elena Ferrante Writes Fiction That Feels Autobiographical. But Who Is She?





Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions)

In the first novel of Elena Ferrante’s three-volume and still ongoing series, two young girls in an impoverished neighborhood of postwar Naples own in common their most treasured possession: an American book. The little Italian girls read Little Women and extract a dream of success. The girls in Little Women are poor too, and the most bookish one of them ends up supporting the family and making a name for herself as a writer. “In that last year of elementary school, wealth became our obsession. We talked about it the way characters in novels talk about searching for treasure. Then, I don’t know why, things changed and we began to link school to wealth. We thought that if we studied hard we would be able to write books and that the books would make us rich. Wealth was still the glitter of gold coins stored in countless chests, but to get there all you had to do was go to school and write a book.”

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Elena Ferrante / Women on the verge



WOMEN ON THE VERGE

The fiction of Elena Ferrante.




Elena Ferrante, or “Elena Ferrante,” is one of Italy’s best-known least-known contemporary writers. She is the author of several remarkable, lucid, austerely honest novels, the most celebrated of which is “The Days of Abandonment,” published in Italy in 2002. Compared with Ferrante, Thomas Pynchon is a publicity profligate. It’s assumed that Elena Ferrante is not the author’s real name. In the past twenty years or so, though, she has provided written answers to journalists’ questions, and a number of her letters have been collected and published. From them, we learn that she grew up in Naples, and has lived for periods outside Italy. She has a classics degree; she has referred to being a mother. One could also infer from her fiction and from her interviews that she is not now married. (“Over the years, I’ve moved often, in general unwillingly, out of necessity. . . . I’m no longer dependent on the movements of others, only on my own” is her encryption.) In addition to writing, “I study, I translate, I teach.”

Friday, June 24, 2016

Ferrante Fever in Brooklyn




FERRANTE FEVER IN BROOKLYN


At exactly—or just about—midnight on Tuesday, a bearded employee of the Community Bookstore, in Park Slope, rushed into the back room of the shop and, waving his hands, proclaimed, “Ferrante fever forever! It’s midnight! The book is now on sale!”

The small but game crowd broke into applause. They had gathered in the store, starting at 10 p.m., for the release of “The Story of the Lost Child,” the fourth and final book in what is known as the Neapolitan series, by the anonymous Italian author who writes under the pen name Elena Ferrante. The books chronicle the lifelong friendship of the hard-working, ambitious Elena and the fiery, brilliant Lila. Stacks of reserved copies of the new volume sat behind the counter, but they would not officially be sold until September 1st. Although, would anyone really make a fuss if a copy or two slipped out with the occasional patron, who, through no lack of commitment or ardor, couldn’t quite make it until midnight?

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Elena Ferrante / The Art of Fiction


Elena Ferrante

Art of Fiction 

No. 228

Interviewed by Sandro and Sandra Ferri

Notes from Elena Ferrante’s final revisions to The Story of the Lost Child.

Over the past ten years, the translation into English of Elena Ferrante’s ­novels—including Troubling LoveThe Days of AbandonmentThe Lost Daughter, and the first three volumes of the tetralogy known in English as the Neapolitan Novels—have won her a passionate following outside her native Italy; the fourth of the Neapolitan Novels will appear in English, as The Story of the Lost Child, this fall. It is now common to hear Ferrante called the most ­important Italian writer of her generation, yet since the original publication of her first novel, Troubling Love, in 1992, she has rigorously protected her privacy and has declined to make public appearances. (“Elena Ferrante” is a pen name.) She has also ­refused to give any interviews over the telephone or in person, ­until now.
Her interviewers—her publishers, Sandro and Sandra Ferri, and their daughter, Eva—describe how the interview was conducted:
“Our conversation with Ferrante began in Naples. Our original plan was to visit the neighborhood depicted in the Neapolitan Novels, then walk along the seafront, but at the last moment Ferrante changed her mind about the neighborhood. Places of the imagination are visited in books, she said. Seen in reality they may be hard to recognize; they are disappointing, they might even seem fake. We tried the seafront, but in the end, because it was a rainy evening, we retreated to the lobby of the Hotel Royal Continental, just ­opposite the Castel dell’Ovo.

Elena Ferrante, Author of Naples Novels, Stays Mysterious


Elena Ferrante, Author of Naples Novels, Stays Mysterious


By RACHEL DONADIO
DEC. 9, 2014

ROME — The Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s gripping novels about the rich and complex lives of women — as mothers, daughters, wives, writers — have won her a devoted cult following. After several years of growing critical favor, her readership reached new levels this fall with the release of “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” the third volume in her series of Naples novels, which recount the lifelong friendship of two women.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Alex Shepard / Pulp Friction





Pulp Friction

If Barnes & Noble goes out of business, it’ll be a disaster for book lovers.


BY ALEX SHEPHARD
June 20, 2016






Even by the standards of the ailing book publishing industry, the past year has been a bad one for Barnes & Noble. After the company spun off its profitable college textbook division, its stock plunged nearly 40 percent. Its long-term debt tripled, to $192 million, and its cash reserves dwindled. Leonard Riggio, who turned the company into a behemoth, has announced he will step down this summer after more than 40 years as chairman. At the rate it’s going, Barnes & Noble won’t be known as a bookseller at all—either because most of its floor space will be given over to games and gadgets, or, more ominously, because it won’t even exist.

Donald Trump Will Be Buried in an Electoral Avalanche


Donald Trump Will Be Buried in an Electoral Avalanche

Recent presidential elections have been close, but this is the man to lose bigly.


BY JEET HEER Z
June 17, 2016



Over the last two decades, American presidential elections have all been relatively close. But with Donald Trump at the helm, the Republican Party faces the prospect of a historic landslide closer to the creamings received by Barry Goldwater in 1964 (who lost by 23.6 points), George McGovern in 1972 (24.2 percentage points), and Walter Mondale in 1984 (19.4 percentage points). At this point, the only real question appears to be how huge (or beautiful—pick your Trumpian adjective) the margin will be.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Ivan Turgenev / A brief survey of the short story

Ivan Turgenev
Poster by T.A.

A brief survey of the short story part 50: 

Ivan Turgenev

Turgenev's work is imbued with sorrow but pulses with life, and bears powerful testimony to the fleeting beauty of existence

Chris Power
Friday 21 June 2013 14.42 BST


When Gogol died in 1852Ivan Turgenev, the man whom many in Russia were calling his successor, was arrested for writing an obituary in praise of the great writer. In fact, the official reason was a pretext. Turgenev had already displeased the tsarist authorities with his series of sketches of rural Russian life, published in the journal the Contemporary between 1847 and 1851, and collected in 1852 asSketches from a Hunter's Album.
This book, which it is claimed influenced Tsar Alexander II's decision to emancipate the serfs in 1861, comprises vignettes of peasant life as observed by a landowning hunter much like Turgenev. Not even Gogol had presented such rounded portrayals of serfs before. As the translator Richard Freeborn notes, while Turgenev would go on to greater things in both the short story and the novel, he was quite aware of the book's merits. At the time of publication he wrote:
"Much has come out pale and scrappy, much is only just hinted at, some of it's not right, oversalted or undercooked – but there are other notes pitched exactly right and not out of tune, and it is these notes that will save the whole book."


Of these, perhaps the one pitched most perfectly of all is Bezhin Lea. This masterful story begins with a description of a July day, and close rendering of the natural world represent one of the deep pleasures of Turgenev's writing. As Edmund Wilson writes, in Turgenev "the weather is never the same; the descriptions of the countryside are quite concrete, and full, like Tennyson's, of exact observation of how cloud and sunlight and snow and rain, trees, flowers, insects, birds and wild animals, dogs, horses and cats behave, yet they are also stained by the mood of the person who is made to perceive them".
Returning home at the end of this glorious day the hunter becomes lost, and as night falls he passes through a landscape of endless fields, standing stones and terrifying gulfs. The mood is that of fairytale, but rather than supernatural beings, the hunter eventually finds only a group of boys guarding a drove of horses. They are gathered around a fire telling ghost stories. Throughout his story Turgenev, the committed realist, repeatedly balances the unreal, the ghostly, with the simply human, fantastical terror with everyday pathos and empathy. The little ring of storytellers, gathered in a small patch of flickering light on a vast plain, effortlessly coexists as concrete setting and existential symbol. At the story's end, when the narrator reports that one of the boys died the following year, he moves quickly to defuse any supernatural tension. As Frank O'Connor notes, Turgenev did not want "the shudder of children sitting over the fire on a winter night, thinking of ghosts and banshees while the wind cries about the little cottage – but that of the grown man before the mystery of human life".
Although Turgenev did occasionally explore supernatural themes, particularly towards the end of his life, his greatest achievements in the short story have love and youth as their main themes. He was at his best when writing autobiographically, and two of his finest stories, the novella First Love (1860) and Punin and Baburin (1874), draw deeply on his own memories. Near the end of his life, Turgenev said of First Love: "It is the only thing that still gives me pleasure, because it is life itself, it was not made up … First Love is part of my experience." This long and beautiful story powerfully evokes both a teenage boy's experience of love, and the complex sorrow of an older man looking back on his youth. The story unfolds over a summer when the narrator, Vladimir Petrovich, becomes one of a number of suitors clustered around Zinaida, whose mother is an impoverished princess using her daughter as bait to lure a wealthy husband. This story sees the first full flowering of Turgenev's ability to create and move between distinct, remarkably vivid characters and points of view, displaying what VS Pritchett calls the "curious liquid gift which became eventually supreme in Proust".

If this liquid sense infuses Turgenev's work as a whole, its point of origin is the individual phrase. Wilson writes: "Turgenev is a master of language, he is interested in words in a way that the other great 19th-century Russian novelists – with the exception of Gogol – are not." Constance Garnett, whose translations introduced most of the great 19th-century Russians to English readers, considered Turgenev to be the most difficult of them to translate "because his style is the most beautiful". "What an amazing language!" Chekhov wrote when rereading Turgenev's 1866 story The Dog. Whether writing of ponies groomed until they are "sleek as cucumbers" or the "steam and glitter of an April thaw", the large edifices of his stories are always built brick by brick, with immense and detailed care. In Death, from the Sketches, he describes the scene of a terrible accident:
"We found the wretched Maxim on the ground. Ten or so peasants were gathered round him. We alighted from our horses. He was hardly groaning at all, though occasionally he opened wide his eyes, as if looking around him with surprise, and bit his blue lips. His chin quivered, his hair was stuck to his temples and his chest rose irregularly: he was clearly dying. The faint shadow of a young lime tree ran calmly aslant his face."
That last detail is a master's touch, all at once visually anchoring the scene, conveying nature's indifference to Maxim's plight, suggesting the border between existence and oblivion, and underlining the solitariness of the moment of death as the observer notes a detail that Maxim never would. Turgenev may not have written quite as often as Tolstoy about the actual moment of dying, but was perhaps equally skilled at summoning the twin currents of dread and banality it so often encompasses.
Turgenev is a poet of disappointment, whose rapturous descriptions of youth are always filtered through an older consciousness aware that it "melts away like wax in the sun". The stunning evocation of childhood in Punin and Baburin begins with the words "I am old and ill now". In an essay of 1860, Turgenev divides heroes into prevaricating Hamlets and mad Don Quixotes, who get things done. As that distinction suggests, action in his work is often troublingly problematic – Baburin's costly outspokenness before his masters, Harlov's fatal destruction of his home in Turgenev's version of King Lear, A Lear of the Steppes – while inaction proves no more profitable (witness the pathetic figure described in The Diary of a Superfluous Man). Yet for all this sorrow and anguish, which led Henry James to speak of Turgenev's collections as "agglomerations of gloom", his stories pulse with a life as vivid as any in literature. In Fathers and Sons, one of the great novels of the 19th century, Turgenev writes of a character's "quiet attentiveness to the broad wave of life constantly flowing in and around us". It's this that his work channels, a wave that carries us ineluctably to our end, but that also contains all the powerful, fleeting beauty of existence. As Vladimir Petrovich says of love, so Turgenev seems to think of life: "I wouldn't want it ever to be repeated, but I would have considered myself unfortunate if I'd never experienced it."

 Translations from the work are by Isaiah Berlin, Richard Freeborn, Constance Garnett and Michael R Katz.