My Brilliant Friend (Neapolitan)

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The Year in Reading: Mohamed Asem

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In The Dud Avocado, Sally Jay Gorce, a young American girl eager to live life to the fullest, goes on a romp through Paris in the 1950s. She hangs out in bars and cafes, runs into all types of characters, falls in and out of love, gets caught up in all sorts of random situations, and yet doesn’t come across a grumpy waiter (maybe things were different back in the day). All the same, it was good fun tagging along with Sally Jay–she’s an entertaining narrator.

Part of the fun I experienced came from recognizing many of the places she frequents. Having grown up in Paris, I could clearly situate and follow her around the city. But the Paris described in the novel, and the Paris I remembered from my childhood, was nothing like that of the present, in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when I read The Dud Avocado. Shuttered stores and deserted streets, landmarks looking forlorn in the quiet around them. Paris had gone empty and silent. Portland, the city I live in, was also in lockdown and not much different. At times I could forget what was going on in the world and just lose myself in The Dud Avocado, but at other times, when the present and future weighed heavily on my mind, I couldn’t read the novel without feeling an ache, a yearning for the cinema experience, the cafe and dining experience; the company of friends and family–life before the pandemic.

After The Dud Avocado, I started on the short stories of Katherine Mansfield, a Kiwi who lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. A bookseller in Wellington, New Zealand, highly recommended her when I asked him about local literature. This was back in May of 2005. I took two weeks off from work and traveled to New Zealand to explore the breathtaking locations I had seen in the Lord of The Rings films. Only when I arrived it was winter! The plane took off in summer, landed in winter – somehow it didn’t cross my mind, the fact that New Zealand was (and still is, apparently) in a different hemisphere. Since it was off-season, tourist operators weren’t taking people out to the country, so I spent my vacation in cities. Alas, I didn’t get to experience those extraordinary, magical places: Hobbiton, Rivendell, Gondor…

Fifteen years after my uneventful trip to New Zealand, I finally got around to reading Katherine Mansfield. Her stories, to my surprise, are not at all written in a Victorian vein–far from polite and well-mannered, they possess an edge that surprises and even feels avant-garde. Influenced by Virginia Woolf and Anton Chekhov among others, Mansfield was very much interested in form, and especially the manipulation of it to disrupt narrative and reader expectations. I’m surprised that she’s not more widely read. Moreover, I’m baffled that none of my MFA instructors brought her name up when discussing writers who’ve experimented with the craft of writing.

Then, quite unexpectedly, the sight of a page full of words became overwhelming. I’d experience a sinking feeling and, after a sentence or two, would have to give up reading. I picked up another book. Same thing–all those words and sentences; pages and pages of them. Unbearable. Lockdown must have hit me quite hard, I thought. Restrictions on social life and the prospect of an uncertain future can affect one’s mental health. Or so I’ve read. However, at that time I was also struggling with a new manuscript. It was in the doldrums–had been there for a while, long enough for anxieties to have gnawed away at my confidence, leaving it in tatters. Unable to read or write, I sought solace in streaming, gave into it with unbridled abandon. Days went by this way, with my brain growing comfortably numb, until one morning my eyes caught the spine of Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems sitting on my bookshelf. A friend of mine–a poet– lent me this collection. Gilbert had traveled and lived around the world, and since I’ve done a fair share of traveling and have lived in different parts of the world, my friend thought I’d appreciate Gilbert’s poetry. I opened the large book and, remarkably, was able to read. Every verse I came across had a stillness that, to me, felt meditative, even healing. All day I held Gilbert’s verses in my mind, basked in them, while my TV looked on, its screen dark.

Eventually, my manuscript crept out of the doldrums and I was able to read prose again. I set Mansfield aside, promising to return back to her before another fifteen years go by, and moved onto Sula by Toni Morrison. Sula came up in a search for novels on female friendships (research for my manuscript). Frankly, the relationship between the two main characters in the story did not leave a strong impression on me. In fact, most of the characters and the story faded into the background for what, to me, was the star of the novel: Morrison’s prose. Lyrical, graceful, creative–it had me hooked and enticed me to read on. I remember feeling the same way reading the short stories of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, a contemporary of Mansfield. Their styles are very different but their command of prose and narrative is nothing short of virtuosic.

 

My Brilliant Friend is another novel that came up in my search for stories on female friendships. The story transported me to vibrant Naples and immersed me in the life of its protagonist, a young girl who, by pursuing an academic path, finds herself estranged from her socially conservative milieu. As interesting as that narrative arc is, I was more captivated by the relationship between the protagonist and her best friend. Colored by jealousy, competition, and love for the other, this friendship is fascinating and authentic. It’s the beating heart of the novel. What is more, My Brilliant Friend has a bang of an ending. Back in my MFA days at Kingston University, Rachel Cusk, one of my instructors, always encouraged us students to use objects to develop characters. I’d grumble (under my breath, of course) at the prompts she’d assign, prompts that usually involved objects–my writing favors mood and atmosphere over props. At any rate, I remembered Rachel Cusk and her lessons when, at the end of My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante masterfully thrusts into the foreground an object that she had been hiding in the background, subtly adding layer upon layer of meaning onto it. The timing of the reveal is perfect and the effect is shattering. Glorious.  

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann is another novel that has a memorable ending. Interestingly, Tyll is one of those rare novels that, after reading it, I can’t say for sure what it’s about! I know it’s a work of historical fiction set around the time of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), and that the different pieces of the story are connected by a character, a jester, Tyll Ulenspiegel. But why did Kehlmann write that particular story? What question did he want to explore by writing that story? And why choose a jester as the main character? I haven’t the faintest idea, and, frankly, I didn’t mind not knowing; especially not when the characters are all so alive and compelling, the period details fascinating, and the narrative so engaging, so expertly constructed. On top of all that, the ending is outstanding. No object used this time. Instead, the focus is on an action, the kind one does after making sure no one else is around to see it. But the reader is there, looking. I loved reading this curious, fascinating novel–definitely my best of the year.

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