• The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante

    Ms. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Come and Those Who Go, The Lost Child), are the kind of books that you don’t immediately expect to like.  Written in a dense and reflective prose, with few breaks for dialog, Ms. Ferrante pulls the reader into the streets of the neighborhood, which is a construction that has become increasingly foreign in our globalizing and increasingly mobile world.  Instead of streets filled with yoga studios and artisanal bakeries, Ms. Ferrante draws into a claustrophobic world of relentlessly unnecessary poverty, where the only people with any money are violent criminals and war profiteers, and the slightest sign of success creates bitter jealousies with the neighbors that easily explode into intergenerational feuds.

    It is a fetid place that refuses to take a back seat to her characters, even though it is the seven families of the neighborhood that quickly draw you in and keep you turning the pages.  Ms. Ferrante demonstrates a deep understanding of how places shape people, which is displayed in her opening scene, which takes place between Elena Greco, the series’ narrator, and the son of her closest friend, Lila Cerulla.  The son, Gennaro, calls Elena to ask for her help, because Lila has finally left the neighborhood in the only way that she knows how, which is quietly, silently and without a forwarding address.  The worldly Elena is barely surprised or interested in the news and she harshly asks Gennaro not to call her again.  It is only much later in the novels that we learn that she has decided to write them and publish them in the hopes that her friend Lila will be offended enough at the action to come find her.

     

    Elena and Lila are both brilliant, which makes them fierce competitors throughout their lives, although their lives take different paths when Lila is not allowed to continue in school past the fifth grade, when the years of free public education end.  This is the real tragedy of the novels, as Lila’s intelligence and abilities are extraordinary. Elena, on the other hand, is graced with enough luck to able to continue on through university, thanks to the generous sponsorship of a teacher that helps fund her tuition and books.  Her education makes her a celebrity in the neighborhood, where people begin to help in the family businesses by the age of twelve.  Elena’s education increasingly throws her into contact with children of the middle class, who cannot imagine a world as filled with violence, poverty and petty rivalries as the one Elena goes home to at night.  Instead of returning to a spacious house near her school to discuss her studies with her educated parents, Elena goes home to a cramped and dingy apartment, where her hours of studying make it harder to stay connected to her family and her childhood friends, who are intimidated by the power of education.

    But not Lila.  Although Lila is kept from school, she keeps up with Elena’s studies for several years by making heavy use of the neighborhood’s library and questioning Elena on everything that she is learning.  But while Elena is safely in school for hours each day, Lila goes to work in her father’s shoe shop, where she cannot avoid contact with the neighborhood’s ruling Fascist crime family, the Solaras.  Given no other outlet for her unstoppable energy, she works with her brother to design a custom shoe and opens a shoe factory to produce them in her father’s name.  But to fund the shoe factory, her brother Rino seeks out the Solaras, which quickly complicates Lila’s life.

    While Lila is trying to avoid a youthful marriage into the Solara family, Elena is going to school with Nino Sarratore, who once lived in the same apartment building as her family, but moved away when she was still in elementary school.  Nino blends Elena’s worlds, as he is both from the neighborhood and the one who escaped it.  Elena has always been half in love with Nino, but when he begins to pay attention to her and encourage her scholarship and thinking, particularly about politics, her obsession grows, as does her involvement in Communism, which is perhaps the only sensible reaction to the tragedy of Lina’s short education.  As Italy moves farther from the war, and workers begin coming together to form unions, the political unrest in the country begins to filter down to the neighborhood, where the young people of the seven families divide among their political alliances, which creates problems as the political scene turns violent.

    The Neapolitan novels are strangely attractive, given how much time Elena spends in reflective navel-gazing.  The narrative style is as dense as Jose Saramago’s Blindness, with giant paragraphs briefly interrupted with a line or two of dialog to bring to life the unpredictable and harsh voice of Lila.  But while Mr. Saramago gives unfettered horror for most of his prose, the Neapolitan novels are filled with love.  Even at their darkest moments, as Lila and Elena’s lives take them towards the irrevocable parting that begins the four novels, the love that they share throughout their long history pulses and sustains the reader.  Likewise, the characters of the neighborhood come to life in a way that shows mercy to even the cruelest crimes.  Even at their worst, you cannot help but sympathize with people who have been raised in a place where escape is nearly impossible.  It is only fitting that they begin with Lila’s final escape, which is the mystery that Elena cannot solve.

     

     

     

    Publisher: Europa Editions
    Publish Date: 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015
    Paperback: 331 pages,  471 pages, 400 pages, 415 pages
    ISBN:1609450787, 1609451341, 160945233X, 1609452860
    Language: Italian, translated into English by Ann Goldstein
    Rating: 5 of 5 stars


    Genre: bildungsroman, contemporary, fiction, literary fiction, postmodernism
    Subjects: 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, communism, family, fascism, female friendship, friendship, italy, naples, poverty, rome
  • Moral Disorder and Other Stories by Margaret Atwood

    The political turmoil in the world has made me turn this year to Margaret Atwood, who is enjoying a resurgence as a result of her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale being broadcast as a much acclaimed television series.  I haven’t reread The Handmaid’s Tale, which does still stick with me from when I first read it nearly 20 years ago, but I have been working my way through her other novels.  Given the time constraints in my life, I’ve been picking them out mostly by page length, which brings me to Moral Disorder and Other Stories, a novel told in a series of short stories.

    Even Atwood’s earliest novels are full of her wit, wry humor and bitingly funny characterization, so it is unsurprising to discover these same qualities throughout all of the stories, which tell the life story of a woman named Nell in short episodes.  The stories are framed by aging; in the first story, Nell is in late middle age and meditating on the nature of a long-term marriage.  In the next, she is a young girl, who has yet to meet Tig, the married man that she makes her life with.  By the last stories, Nell is long past her adventures and taking care of her elderly parents.  Although each story could stand alone, together they tell a powerful story of an ordinary, but interesting, life spent in the Canadian countryside and wilderness.

    Moral Disorder and Other Stories is very much literary fiction, so some readers may find it frustrating, particularly if they’re not accustomed to the genre or to short story collections.  But for readers who are willing to forgo an orderly plot for the love of language, there are many delights to be found in each story’s vivid description and Atwood’s strong voice.

    It’s morning.  For now, night is over.  It’s time for the bad news.  I think of the bad news as a huge bird, with the wings of a crow and the face of my Grade Four school teacher, sparse bun, rancid teeth, wrinkly frown, pursed mouth and all, sailing around the world under cover of darkness, pleased to be the bearer of ill tidings, carrying a basket of rotten eggs, and knowing — as the sun comes up — exactly where to drop them.  On me, for one.

    One theme that has emerged for me, in reading several of Atwood’s early novels, is how prevalent the Canadian wilderness is in her writing.  Perhaps because I have always lived either in a city or in its suburbs, there’s something about the wilderness and the farm settings in Moral Disorder and Other Stories that really caught my imagination.  Nell and Tig rent a farm and then later purchase their own.  They are city people pretending at the rural life, so it is not too surprising that their first set of ducklings are eaten by owls.  After this first disastrous foray into livestock, their herd begins to expand in much more productive ways.  First there are Tig’s children from his first marriage, who visit on weekends, running wild around the farm and smoking pot in the barn.  Then there’s a high-strung dog, a herd of sheep, constantly escaping cows and eventually a fat horse.  Atwood doesn’t shy away from the brutality of farm life, as Nell trades in her city upbringing for a rural lifestyle, but she always shows the beauty in it as well.

    There’s never been such a lovely spring, Nell thought.  Frogs — or were they toads? — trilled from the pond, and there were pussy willows and catkins — what was the difference? — and then the hawthorn bushes and the wild plums and the neglected apple trees came into bloom, and an uneven row of daffodils planted by some long-vanished farmer’s wife thrust up through the weeds and dead grasses besides the drive.  Birds sang.  Mud dried.

    Unfortunately, for me, the last story did a poor job of finishing off the book, because some of the details contradicted and confused the overall narrative arc, which pulled me straight out of the story and had me flipping back pages to see if I had missed something. Perhaps I had – or perhaps the story kept its conflicting details because, like many of the stories in the collection, it was published elsewhere before being collected into this novel.  But for all that the novel felt unresolved because of this, I would gladly read the whole novel over to answer my questions.

    It’s just that there are so many other Atwood novels that I have  yet to read…

    Publisher: Doubleday
    Publish Date: 2006
    Hardcover: 225 pages
    ISBN: 0385503849
    Language: English
    Rating: 3 of 5 stars

     

    Moral Disorder Book Cover Moral Disorder
    Margaret Atwood
    Fiction
    Nan A. Talese
    September 19, 2006
    304

    Margaret Atwood’s latest brilliant collection of short stories follows the life of a single character, seen as a girl growing up the 1930s, a young woman in the 50s and 60s, and, in the present day, half of a couple, no longer young, reflecting on the new state of the world. Each story focuses on the ways relationships transform a character’s life: a woman’s complex love for a married man, the grief upon the death of parents and the joy with the birth of children, the realization of what growing old with someone you love really means. By turns funny, lyrical, incisive, earthy, shocking, and deeply personal, Moral Disorder displays Atwood’s celebrated storytelling gifts and unmistakable style to their best advantage. From the Trade Paperback edition.


    Genre: contemporary, literary fiction, short story collection
    Subjects: canada, female friendship, nature, regionalism, rural, toronto, wilderness
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