Violence and Ascendance in Elena Ferrante's MY BRILLIANT FRIEND

Italian author Elena Ferrante has had quite the effect on the American literary community–with her Neapolitan quartet of novels starting with My Brilliant Friend especially. Much of the more recent response (My Brilliant Friend was published in English in 2012) is likely due to this New York Times article: “The Ferrante Effect: In Italy, Women Writers are Ascendant.” And then there are the spoofs, including this one in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency called, simply, “I am Elena Ferrante,” that confirm Ferrante (a pen name, her real identity a mystery) has captured the American imagination.

She has captured this American’s imagination, anyway. Selfishly, I love the idea of women writers being ascendant anywhere, especially in a patriarchal culture dominated by, well, men–in literature and at home, in the neighborhood, at church…

Not all women readers have been as impressed by Ferrante as I have been, albeit only one novel into the quartet. A quick scan of Goodreads reviews of My Brilliant Friend, which follows the childhood and adolescent friendship between Lila and Lenú–sometimes fond, sometimes rivaling, always close–set against the backdrop of a poor neighborhood in post-war Naples reveals some dissent. “Why are the kids always throwing stones at each other?” one confounded reader asks.

Having studied up a bit on Italy between the wars for my own writing, it’s the stone-throwing, writ large–over the girls’ neighborhood, over their city, and over their country–that is most interesting to me. Often it’s stone-throwing in lieu of seizing any real, lasting power. (No real spoilers in this post–if you’ve read the summary.)

Oddly, some of the moments that describe the history of violence in this place are more lyrical than the moments devoted to friendship:

So she gave concrete motives, ordinary faces to the air of abstract apprehension that as children we had breathed in the neighborhood. Fascism, Nazism, the war, the Allies, the monarchy, the republic–she turned them into streets, houses, faces…

Isn’t this act of turning formless fear into places and characters just what a good writer does? So too do Ferrante’s characters expose this strange place to us through the everyday, the neighborhood. Leaving one of the girls to believe the other “…enclosed me in a terrible world that left no escape.”

The domestic, the old hearth-and-home, offers no respite from the violence, but only offers a different kind of violence. The neighborhood in this novel produces rival gangs, even agents of the Camorra (Neapolitan Mafia). Even inside Lina and Lenú’s homes there is violence–between husbands and wives, parents and children, mothers and daughters. No one is safe; certainly no one is ascending anywhere.

Perhaps the most startling admission in the (at least somewhat autobiographical) novel:

I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence.

How to rise above it all? How to escape the cycle of violence and poverty? This is Italy. So, God? No, Lenú ranks faith wholly inadequate to the task of pulling anyone out of her neighborhood, in a scathing derision of the Catholic Church–made all the more scathing as it’s delivered by a teenage girl:

[I] said that the human condition was so obviously exposed to the blind fury of chance that to trust in a God, a Jesus, the Holy Spirit–this last a completely superfluous entity, it was there only to make up a trinity, notoriously nobler than the mere binomial father-son–was the same thing as collecting trading cards while the city burns in the fires of hell.

Of course, this speech of Lenú is devastating–if also a bit humorous. We faithful, and we writers, alike, love a trinity, don’t we? But what a powerful image, those trading cards–reminiscent of the prayer and saint cards we Catholics receive at funerals and other ritualistic events. Were I to write about my own childhood and adolescence adhering to the rites of the Roman Catholic Church, there wouldn’t be much grasping at God. Rituals and ceremony, yes. What do I remember of my first communion in second grade? The white dress and veil I wore–the last veil I wore, not carrying on that particular tradition at my wedding, when I wore a tea-length dress to show off my legs.

If not God, where then can these adolescent girls, Lila and Lenú, turn to ascend from this violence they call home? Like all young people they dream of riches and fame–that would result, in their fantasies, from publishing a book “like Little Women…” But that dream fades as the girls’ intellectual and feminine powers grow. Lenú goes to high school, excels in languages, history, and even religion, mentored by a female teacher, a Communist distrusted by Lenú’s very-traditional mother. Lila turns her attention to a young man as savior. “He’s rich,” she says to her friend. “Also nice, also good.” Lenú considers those two adjectives as providing the “final blow to the shrine of childish fantasies.”

“Blow” such a telling action there–a violent end to a kind of shrine (a place of faith–even if fanciful). One chapter of life ends. The friends’ lives have diverged, a bit violently, one down the path of marriage and family, the other down the path of education:

Was it not true, then, that school was my personal wealth, now far from her influence?

Lenú weeps at this realization of the separation between the friends who have known each other, always.

This is a book that captures the violence of a time and place as it captures a female friendship, the portrayal of which–in my mind–makes these characters ascend (like their creator, Ferrante, a female writer in Italy) from their hurtful home. At least, I hope they do. There is more to come.

I can’t wait to see where Lina and Lenú go next.

Have you read any Elena Ferrante? Have you read My Brilliant Friend and the rest of the quartet? (No spoilers!) What did you think?

Have you known any of your current friends since early childhood? How have you traveled the same paths in life? How have your paths diverged?

Looking for a review? See my categories above for book reviews, author interviews, and more. And find me on Goodreads, where I try to at least rank what I’ve read. Let’s be friends there!

Open Wide

Image by Erich Westendarp from Pixabay

Nope, not a post on eating, or on embouchure (a new favorite word meaning lipping, or using the lips, face, tongue, and teeth to play an instrument–including our first instrument, our voice). But close.

Today I’m going to talk about singing. Yep, on a reading and writing blog. Stop me. You’ve heard me say here before that my next-life career plan is to be an opera singer. I feel pretty confident my lack of planning for the rigors of this job isn’t going to bite me in the ass, since I’m pretty sure my next-life ass will be incorporeal.

Lack of planning for this-life careers can hurt, however. Which is why I want to talk about the glories of hobbies and my new hobby. Wait for it…

Backstory: I was never one much for hobbies. By the time I was in middle school, ballet had progressed from hobby to vocation, as serious as a religious calling in my mind: all time-consuming and all identity-consuming. I was not a girl with hobbies but direction.

When injury knocked me off that career path, I briefly considered going to culinary arts school. I mean, I liked to cook–it was fun. Why not make a job of it? (Truth be told, I think I was just excited to, finally, eat.)

Next stop: English major. And here I am, writing for my job-and-passion.

However, it’s only as I’ve gotten older that I’ve been able to start separating job-and-passion and realize I don’t have to make a gig of everything I’m passionate about.

So, we arrive at singing. My mom and her mom both enjoyed singing, both sang with their church choirs, and plied Christmas carols at the piano on the eve. (Can you hear my children groaning at the very thought?) Neither woman conspired to rise in the ranks of the choral world or make a single cent off their voices.

Is it me, or does today’s gig economy-mindset encourage us to turn any talent, penchant, or hobby into a job? To monetize passion. And in doing that, does the passion remain? (I’ll let you know from the afterlife how the opera goes.) Here and now, I have to say, I started this blog as a little passion project and have rejected the idea of making money from it–maybe, partly, because it would make blogging a job. (And I have one of those already.) Do hobbies now smack of privilege?

They say that if you do what you love you’ll never work a day in your life—but what if what you love becomes nonstop work?

From “The Truth About the Gig Economy” by Julia Tache

Who has time for hobbies? Maybe none of us. Maybe we all should be striving to monetize every facet of ourselves. But, really, no one is ever going to pay me to sing.

Yet, that didn’t stop me from belting out the carols as the newest member of the soprano 1 set in my church choir. (Don’t laugh–or do. Either way, I loved it.) I loved it, even when I messed up the last few stanzas of “Come Join the Angels Singing.” I loved it when I probably didn’t quite hit the high note in “Carol of the Bells.” I loved it so much that when my boys hugged me after the concert, I didn’t think to turn the moment into a photo op.

So…jobs, passions, hobbies, gigs. What’s your take? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

But first, Merry Christmas, if you celebrate it. I hope that all the voices you hear sing sweetly as angels!

The big reveal… and creating from personal portraits

In my last post, I talked about how we mythologize the loved ones we’ve lost–in my case, Mom.

I also asked the pressing question: Who the hell is Walt? The references to this mystery guy were plenty in Mom’s high school yearbook, which recently came into my possession.

Barb

Well, it’s been a long year but so far it ain’t been too bad. It’s been great knowing you this year. Be good and keep ahol’ of ol’ Walter.

B.o.L.

Rick

After last week’s post, I received emails from my mom’s sister, sister-in-law, cousin, niece, and best friend–a veritable social media reunion!–filling me in on bits I’d forgotten or never knew about my mom’s younger years. Spoiler: Mom did not keep ahol’ of Walter.

If you haven’t guessed, that’s him–the elusive Walt–up there with Mom, king and queen of the 1963 senior prom. I’m wondering if my mom’s Grandma Rose, a seamstress, made Mom’s dress. I’m also thinking not all the ladies in the court look pleased. I now remember my mom mentioning this “crowning,” saying it was only because she was the girlfriend of the king–that this was an automatic appointment to royalty. Until I saw this photo, though, I’d forgotten all that.

Really, some of the pleasure of remembering those we’ve lost must come from the selective forgetting, or curating–to use a popular word–of their personal narrative.

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Mythologizing Mom…and other stories we tell to remember the lost

Yearbook artwork by Cathy Doran, Class of 1963

In another month, I’ll celebrate my mom’s birthday–for the 12th time since her death. A dozen years, a milestone of remembering. With the day comes a sort of dread, that I will forget–that I’ve already forgotten how the back of her hand felt under my fingertips, how much she liked her hair brushed, how she looked while telling her favorite jokes (I can’t repeat in polite company).

Am I remembering all that right?

Since my last post on the myths–and reality–we make around boys, I’ve been thinking a lot about the myths we create to remember. And I realize I’ve done that with my mom, picked key memories to cobble together her story–one to tell myself, over and over–because we don’t forget a good story. And forgetting is the most frightening thing.

And so it was with relief that I got ahold of my mom’s high school yearbook, senior year, 1963–all skinny ties and strands of pearls–knowing the photographs and notes from my mom’s teenage friends would bolster the Mom-myth I’d written (providing supporting backstory, if no surprises).

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On myth, taboo, and the making of boys

One of my favorite shots of my boys (age 6) and me (not age 6)

When I was on bed-rest, hugely pregnant with my twin boys, I did what I do in any anxiety-producing situation, especially one that would have me lying on my side for three months: I read. In addition to the care-and-feeding-of-babies books, I read about the raising of boys into men, the emotional aspects and the pitfalls to avoid.

In my reading, I found prevalent boy-myths to steer clear of (in life, not in writing–myths are fun there, but more on that in a bit). Two common ones: boy as animal (he simply can’t be good); and boy as prince (he can do no wrong, no matter how he tries).

Once I delivered my boys into the world, I became uber-focused not on their boyhood but on their infant hood–a precarious time made more precarious by sleep deprivation (mine, not theirs). “Your job is to keep them alive,” the pediatrician said. (If that sounds dire or needlessly heartless, I’ve since learned this is something pediatricians regularly say to moms of twins.) For me, nursing day and night, there was no time or energy for thinking ahead to boyhood–or mythologizing or otherwise romanticizing it in any way.

Amid the mental and physical haze of exhaustion, I did fall prey to infant-mom advertising: you know, the stuff of soft lighting illuminating mother placidly cradling baby in her arms–that’s one baby, not two. And so much gazing–lovingly–into each other’s bright eyes. Kenny G might have been playing his muzak as soundtrack to the ad–trying its best to sell me bottles, bjorns, fancy diapers, or other stuff I wasn’t buying.

What I was buying, however, (and internalizing like the marketing writer I am by day) was that romantic image presented. I was buying that hook, line, and sinker. Yet, I remember a turn of phrase that left me feeling heartless and creeped out all at once: fall in love with your baby boy.

Of course, myths abound in culture and literature through the ages that feature a mother falling in love with her son: not Pampers-love, but romantic–even erotic–love.

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Don’t forget to stretch: A lit fest rundown…with not-pro tips

Nope. Not a churchy post. Hang tight, folks.*

It’s festival season around here. Whether that means discovering just the right pumpkin, a new lager, or a better, more flexible version of your writing self, don’t forget to stretch (more on that in a bit).

Earlier this month, I headed to Youngstown, Ohio, for the third annual Lit Youngstown Fall Literary Festival held on the YSU campus. Here’s a rundown, plus tips, and–of course–a list of the autographed books I lugged home! (First, shout-out to my cousin, Theresa and her husband, Steven, who kindly fed me homemade pizza and put me up for the night along my way through PA.)

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On reading GLORY DAYS…and other summertime scares

It starts with fire sirens, so loud the littlest children clap their hands over their ears. But not my guys, old enough now to tough it out–and join the parade on their decorated bikes to cheers from neighbors lined on both sides of the street.

Only … this Fourth of July Parade, one boy returned after he’d finished the short parade route, red-faced and sweating. The other wasn’t with him. “Where’s your brother?” was answered with a shrug. The street was empty. And I had the feeling of dread every parent knows, that hollowing out, followed by cold palms–on a very hot day.

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Still Spiraling

Photo by iSAW Company on Pexels.com

Because spinning sounds like losing control.

And it’s not as dire as that, I’ve just been busy. Busy with my freelance writing work, with family–it’s my husband’s birthday today–and with moving forward with my creative writing process: create, recreate, revise, edit, submit, repeat. And that’s only for my short stories. As for my completed historical novel manuscript, I’m taking a break from querying agents. After receiving some constructive feedback, but no offers of representation, I will be back to the editing desk, come fall. For now, what better impetus to get a second manuscript under my belt than a little healthy rejection?

So, I’ve been working on my latest WIP, a multi-generational novel–and spiraling. Spirals are a shape I’ve had in mind for a while, since reading Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland (my take on that book, here) with her potent imagery of Kansan funnel clouds. (And, we had our first tornado warning of the season the other day, here in Maryland.) As it happened, the book I picked up as a tandem read to Heartland was Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, a fascinating craft book that takes the traditional story arc (or wave) shape–ya know, rising action-climax-falling resolution–to task. Or, at least suggests various other shapes our stories can take: spirals, webs, radials.

This led me to thinking about the “shape” of my creative process, which feels very much like spiraling. If you picture a funnel cloud spiraling, I’m the still eye in the center (most of the time). Of all the swirling ideas around a theme, say song and singing (one of the major themes in my WIP), I need to grab hold of the ideas that might fit and let the rest blow on by. Thus far, I’ve grabbed onto Finnish lament singing and folk songs; American Blues; Christian hymns and spirituals; and the best of the 80s radio hits: Whitney Houston, Wham, Elton John. (As you can see, I’ve held onto more than I’ve let go.)

Yet, such amassing of material around a theme–this kind of gathering research–I find much more freeing than the longitudinal historical research I did for my completed novel. Following along a historical plot line (albeit with fictional characters) was a bit constraining. And I’d thought it would have been the other way around: plot line laid out would free me to explore the other elements more fully: character, theme, setting. And maybe it did. But I’m having fun, this time around, creating in a freer way.

Now, it’s your turn, how do you capture ideas for your writing? How do you construct a post, a story, or book? Do you follow a forward-moving path? Do you regress? Do you turn in circles?

Of course, narratives move forward–the stories we create and the stories we are. But, I’m finding, we don’t always have to push them forward quite so hard. In fact, I will have a wonderful opportunity to look back on my own personal history soon. My boys and I are headed to Ohio, and I’ll have the opportunity to show them the house on the old country road I still think of as home.

I was thinking about our trip as I had a funny exchange on Twitter with the novelist Ivelisse Rodriguez, author of Love War Stories. (She was a featured author and read at the Barrelhouse literary conference I talked about here.) A Cleveland venue where she was appearing blurbed her as a young writer and she corrected them. I joked that maybe we’re all young in Cleveland. But then I got to thinking that I always feel young when I return to Northeast Ohio, maybe because I left at 19 and time for me, like my memories, has frozen in place. Let’s just say, I’ll be glad to get back, feel young, and look afresh at my native place through the eyes of my boys. Maybe we’ll turn around in circles a few times–even get a little lost.

What are your upcoming summer adventures–in reading, in writing, in travel? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

P.S. Want more Rust Belt? I’m always on at FB. Want the best in lit? Check out Parhelion Literary Magazine, where I am the new Features Editor.

The Shape of Things: Reading Sarah Smarsh’s HEARTLAND

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

One particular shape captured my attention freshman year of college. That was Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory triangle. Remember that one? A foundation of basic needs building up, I.M. Pei style, to more lofty psychic needs, like self-actualization: the needs-lite, if you will, that keep people like us writing and reading.

I don’t recall taking any social science courses in high school, so introductory Psychology and Sociology were a revelation. Our high school courses were cut and dry: dates, times, rules of usage, facts, and figures that were set, that didn’t depend on personal or group experience. An isosceles triangle was the same, whether it sat in a wheat field in Kansas or a steel mill in Ohio.

Of course, like shapes, people are also the same everywhere. Isn’t this what we like to think? Americans are Americans, wherever they’re set down? Heck, I grew up in Ohio, The Heart of It All (my home state’s tourism slogan then). The world was my oyster, or, perhaps, zebra mussel. But I digress…

I did not grow up in Sarah Smarsh’s American heartland of Kansas. Yet, Smarsh, the author of HEARTLAND: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, and I share enough similarities that I recognized much of the emotional terrain of her memoir. We’re both white females who were born into Catholic Midwestern families of German extraction with Amish down the road; we’re both college educated (at state schools). Only, our roads to college were decidedly different, due in large part to what sociologist and journalist Barbara Ehrenreich calls “America’s most taboo subject”: class.

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Trash on Easter

“Tie-dyed variety this year–cute, right?

This Easter, I’m thinking about trash. Of course, I’m also thinking about the usual holiday trappings—the decorated eggs, the leg of lamb, and flowers for the table. Then, there are small shirts to be ironed, my slip to find… Wait. Why trash? Well, as I was listening to The Passion read at Good Friday mass, last night, arm around one of my boys, I tried to see myself in the “Crowd” role we congregants play. You know, the crowd, who witnesses the suffering and death of Jesus, the crowd who yells out in unison “crucify him,” several times—something which felt fairly naughty to me when I was a kid and feels just plain conflicting now.

Before I lose you… whether you view Jesus as a savior, a prophet, or simply a literary figure, today, it can be instructive to think how we might have viewed him if we were his contemporaries. This poor vagabond, wandering around preaching too loud, associating with prostitutes, beggars, and the diseased. We might have thought his sandal-ed feet smelled bad. We might have even called Jesus “trash.”

This one terrible word, “trash,” shorthand (on our worst days and in the worst ways) for something we Americans have a hard time discussing—class—is following me around in my wider reading and pondering.

I just finished the audio version of Elizabeth Strout’s novel, MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, in anticipation of the sequel to her Pulitzer Prize-winning OLIVE KITTERIDGE. In the deft, character-studying way Strout has with fiction, her Lucy Barton character discusses her family’s poor upbringing in the Midwest with her mother, who visits at her hospital bedside. (And this is the thrust of the entire novel; do not expect plot from this one.) After a strained discussion between mother and daughter about Elvis Presley and his upbringing, Lucy’s mother says he was from a “trash” family. Then, in a moment of painful clarity, Lucy responds: “We were trash. That’s exactly what we were.”

Really, I should have pulled the car over, listening to those words, like a gut punch if there ever was one in literature. But, why? I wondered. Why is it so hard to even hear—from a character at that, not even a real person—that insult, “trash.”

In my tandem-reading way (find my last tandem read here) I consulted Sarah Smarsh’s well-researched HEARTLAND: A MEMOIR OF WORKING HARD AND BEING BROKE IN THE RICHEST COUNTRY ON EARTH (a finalist for the National Book Award) in which the journalist author examines class in America through her own personal lens, having grown up in a working poor family in Kansas.

We were “below the poverty line,” I’d later understand…And we were of a place, the Great Plains, spurned by more powerful corners of the country…”Flyover country,” people called it…Its people were “backward,” “rednecks.” Maybe even “trash.”

Sarah Smarsh in Heartland

And, so what? We read about it, think about it, write about it, publish the stories of the underdog if we have the means. For the rest of us, our influence may be small. But witnessing something is something. As is finding our voice, however small, in the crowd.

Now, it’s your turn. Have you read either of these books? Do you read or write about that other C-word: class?

And on a lighter, holiday note, Happy Easter to you and yours from me and mine…

~Rebecca