The Days of Abandonment

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A Year in Reading: Anne K. Yoder

2017, I resented you and your Twitter feeds, the obscenity of your news stream. The skyrocketing of petulance and greed. The normalization of hate. It was a year of half-read books: too difficult to concentrate. But books, they were also, for me, bright stars against the dark night of our political nadir. Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book tore a hole in my soul. A semi-autobiographical novel about the break-up of a marriage: think Scenes from a Marriage, think Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? set with West Virginia as its backdrop. The sad, clever, and at times woefully misguided Scott chronicles the fallout of his marriage to Sarah, ICU nurse and self-appointed caretaker of helpless things. It’s a sad beautiful song of bleakness and alienation lined with sunbursts of tenderness and redemption.

I loved Jess Arndt’s slender gem of a story collection, Large Animals, for its ways of seeing. Arndt’s uncanny observations give life to desire, to despair, to the smallest things. In her stories, the mundane is drawn anew—waves appear “like sandwich foil that had been crumpled up and hucked away,” a refrigerator’s shelves, like a rib cage. The embodied sensuality lies in stark contrast to the narrators’ struggles with the physical encumbrance of inhabiting a body with breasts, and fantasies and fears associated with having them surgically removed.

I’ve spent months teasing out relationships of teenage girls in my fiction, and sought out other fictions that depict the young girl with complexity: their surly, backbiting, tender, loyal, and vulnerable ways, the ferocity of their attachments. Megan Abbott’s Dare Me did this brilliantly well; I am loath to admit I so enjoyed a book about a team of high school cheerleaders, but, oh, I did. The girls are drawn with such intelligence and wit.

Edith-May, loner and protagonist of Coco Picard’s graphic novel Chronicles of Fortune would hate cheerleaders, I imagine, as much she hates bachelorette parties, and for this (and many other reasons) I adore her. “If I have to eat a penis lollipop I’ll die,” Edith-May tells her roommates (who consist of a mountain that’s grown in her city apartment and a crocodile she took in from the roof). Edith May’s superhero alter ego comes to life after the death of her mother, though she only appears at night and suffers from ennui. Together they encounter ghosts and healers and moth populations and find ways to grieve. Kate Zambreno’s powerful, lyric processing of her mother’s death in Book of Mutter is an artful encomium and stunning homage of a book that at its center conjures Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”  I’m in awe of Vivian Gornick as a thinker and reader and of her powers of observation with regard to the city (New York) and of her love/hate relationship with her mother in Fierce Attachments. I’m still not over Patty Yumi Cottrell’s beautiful and devastating Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, whose narrator returns home after her brother’s suicide in an  attempt to piece together his reasons and instead finds her parents inhospitable and in denial. And last in this line of loss is the first Elena Ferrante I’ve read—Days of Abandonment—consumed in what now seems like a prolonged summer haze.

Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People is a brilliant book of interlinked stories that revel in wordplay, and that depict the lives of temporary workers in the UAE and their families and their interchangeable identities in the eyes of the state. In contrast, these characters are so vivid on the page—a woman tapes together workers who have fallen from tops of buildings; a son throws his grandfather’s ashes into a river; a suitcase sprouts legs, a man devours, and in devouring, becomes a plane. Dispensability is key, too, in Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone, which tracks a group of refugees housed in Berlin through the vantage point of their tutor, a recently retired college professor. We see Richard’s privileged life and its relative continuity (despite the fall of the Berlin Wall), his companionship of friends who are like family and have grown old with him, and the stark contrast this poses to the lives of the refugees he befriends and attempts to help. They’re survivors of genocide and oppression who escaped via harrowing journeys. They are  subject to bureaucracy without rights, subject to prejudice against their skin color and origins, shuffled at the whims of the state, condemned for the burden they pose while not being allowed to work or to settle there. The disregard for the men’s lives is staggering—as is their suffering, the ways state’s intercession only perpetuates the shuffle and undercuts their humanity. Go, Went Gone, is an important book. It’s impossible to read and not take a long, hard look at how we’re all implicated.

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Limits of the Soul: On Domenico Starnone’s ‘Ties’

When writers marry other writers, the union can prove to be painfully inequitable. One career often soars above the other, sometimes in a permanent fashion, with the spouse dwelling seemingly in the shadows. Nick Laird, despite his achievements as a prize-winning poet, is probably primarily recognizable to the public as the husband of Zadie Smith. Likewise, Raymond Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, is an accomplished but unheralded poet herself. Not since Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, one could argue, has there been a writer-couple of parallel impact, a husband and wife duo making contributions of equal standing to literary history.

It was revealed last year that global phenomenon Elena Ferrante was married to another writer, Domenico Starnone, a name known primarily in Italian literary circles. Ferrante, of course, has achieved deserved renown in America and worldwide for her astounding Neapolitan tetralogy. As of now, Starnone, winner of one of Europe’s most prestigious literary awards, the Premio Strega, remains read and lauded mainly in his native Italy and parts of Europe. Yet if his brilliant new novel Ties (Europa Editions; translation by Jhumpa Lahiri) — only his second to be translated into English — is any indication, Starnone’s international reputation abroad may be due for a bump of its own.

Starnone’s engrossing and masterful story of the Minori family, told from a trifecta of perspectives — the betrayed wife’s letters in the opening section, the doddering husband’s viewpoint in the middle, the closing section recounted by the downtrodden adult daughter — is almost too impeccable a work. Shaped and polished as meticulously as an Etruscan urn, no portion, no narrative ligament, no single word feels out of place. Starnone wastes no time gathering narrative steam but, almost before the first word is sounded, pitches the reader directly into the chaotic epicenter of a damaged couple’s erotic drama and then, in a way only geniuses can do, guides the tale grippingly toward a conclusion that has that rare combination of qualities: stupendous unpredictability alongside perfect inevitability. “All great art is inevitable,” goes the (probably apocryphal, but no less true) Leonard Bernstein aphorism. One lays down Starnone’s novel in the end almost exhausted at what the form can still do to us.

The basic story itself is familiar. A man, Aldo Minori, betrays his wife, Vanda, and the resulting emotional devastation wrought upon the family, including their children, Anna and Sandro, turns out to be of far greater magnitude and implication than could have been predicted. Aldo’s world, inner and outer, becomes vulnerable to the savages of grief, fury, and revenge. For decades he tries to contain the damage, repress his past, but is thwarted by his own bungling aloofness and flawed memory. Using the simple conceit of infidelity and the protagonist’s futile attempts to transcend the past, Starnone manages to capture a glimpse of a human emotional universe much larger, far grander, and more intimidatingly incomprehensible than one could have imagined. Then as the simple machinery of the Naples-based drama churns, as Aldo Minori’s nose is forced into the filth of his past, a theme emerges that transcends the novel’s overlapping sub-themes of desire, escape, betrayal, family, discontent, chaos, time, and the myth of Pandora’s box — it’s the idea of the nature of the human soul.

What, if anything, does the soul contain? The familiar Delphic maxim “know thyself” comes to mind — but can we really know ourselves, our souls? What is it that can or should be known? Why does Aldo, an ostensibly ordinary or even decent man, behave the way he does, why does anyone? During my reading of Starnone, I happened to come across another piece of wisdom, a fragment by Heraclitus that seemed more to the point. Heraclitus wrote: “You will not find out the boundaries of the soul, even by traveling along every path: so deep a measure does it have.” Here, the soul is not knowable at all, not inwardly containable, but just the opposite, it casts us outward, conceiving of the spirit as an infinite shadow-complex in which the person travels upon endless roads, drifting in a permanent state of displacement. Heraclitus’s forte was the metaphysics of inconstancy — chaos, change, transformation, contradiction, the ceaseless disorder of the human spirit — and it’s the idea of chaos itself, the eruption of dissonances between action and reaction, around which Starnone’s novel coheres.

In the visual center of the novel, as Aldo Minori picks through documents containing his life’s work that had been scattered around the apartment after a mysterious act of vandalism in his home, the writer says of himself:

Was I that stuff?…A concrete accumulation, through decades, of papers, hand-written, printed, a trail of scrawls, reports, pages, newspapers, floppy discs, USB fobs, hard disks, the cloud? My potential realized, Myself made real: that is to say, a chaos that could overflow, if I just typed Aldo Minori, from the living room to the Google archives?

The examination of his own writing seems to show that all that work the aging artist did throughout his life was, itself, a regime of containment, a futile attempt to make knowable an unpredictable soul, an unwinnable struggle to which, as it happens, no less are his daughter and wife later fated.

As are we, perhaps. What’s instantly noticeable about the book is the extent to which Ties is in conversation with Elena Ferrante’s early novel The Days of Abandonment. Both stories take place in Naples; both books are the same manageable read-in-one-sitting length. In both, a woman and her children are abandoned for no apparent reason by a man of good standing. Only, in Ferrante, we strictly follow Olga, the embittered wife, whereas in Domenico Starnone we cling largely but not only to betrayer Aldo Minori’s viewpoint and then to the perspectives of his wife and daughter. This is entirely appropriate, given that the central ideas in either book are essentially at odds. Ferrante turns us inward, forcing Olga to attempt to “know thyself,” an effort that, after a string of gut-wrenching domestic horrors, delivers her to her own body, her Self, her striving to know what lay within. Starnone does the perfect opposite, forces Aldo outward, revealing the soul’s ongoing volcanic eruption, the eternal outflow of indecipherable Everything, of which he is fated to learn nothing at all.

It’s an interesting thought to imagine Ferrante and Starnone in dinnertime back-and-forths over the issue. Elena shouting “Within, within!” while Starnone barks back “Without, without!” The eternal question is never really laid to rest, can never quite leave them be, even after the publication of two brilliant novels on the topic. They are fated — perhaps as all married couples are fated — to engage in an unwinnable battle in which both are right, yet both wrong, and for which a satisfactory conclusion can neither rightly be drawn nor, perhaps, should be.

A Year in Reading: Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

This year was unlike any other year in my life, to put it mildly. I was lucky enough that people wanted me to travel to their cities and talk about my book (and, I’m sorry to say, myself) for the better part of this year. Friends, I am here to tell you that there is nothing more soul-deadening than talking about yourself for weeks and months on end — or talking about a book that lives in amber, while your brain (ideally) does not. Grateful as I was for every last opportunity, the lack of a normal routine or schedule was upending in every way. For much of the year, I worried I’d lost the power (or will) to do any of the things that I knew would make me feel more like pre-publication me: read for pleasure; cook a proper meal; sleep peacefully; put in an honest day writing; exercise; pretend to meditate. All of my non-work reading this year was an effort to remind myself of my stay-at-home, solitary self. Although I have an e-reader for travel, I found I wanted physical books more than ever. I needed ballast but couldn’t afford too much extra weight. I needed slender volumes I could tuck into a purse or a coat pocket and take out during a flight delay, a train ride, or while having many a solo drink in many a hotel bar. Some on this list are old favorites I grabbed on impulse as I was leaving the house; some I acquired along the way. All have one thing in common — they are light in weight, but not in substance. So, in no particular order, here are some of the books I carried in 2016.

John Berger’s About Looking and Susan Sontag’s On Photography I reread for a project that might not live but who cares when the reading is that great. Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety also belongs on that pile. I don’t think I’ve had a nonfiction book recommended to me more by so many fiction writers than Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, which I loved as much as the rest of the non-physicist world. Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City was an excellent reminder to turn off HGTV (Dear Ladies of Say Yes to the Dress, if an item of clothing moves you to tears you need to get out in the greater world a little more) and leave my hotel room and walk, walk, walk no matter where I was. One of my favorite literary magazines is One Story, perfectly pocket-sized, and I always had a few with me, old and new. Somewhere (Seattle? Portland?) I picked up Meghan Daum’s excellent essay collection The Unspeakable. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen went into the bag after Wimbledon, specifically so I could reread the Serena Williams parts, but of course I reread all of it. Missing Elena Ferrante, I packed what might be my favorite, if forced to commit at gunpoint, The Days of Abandonment. How have I never read The Lover by Marguerite Duras? An embarrassing confession, but I was so happy to have it with me as I waited out weather in some airport somewhere only to be told later that flights were grounded because Air Force One was landing; my irritation at that political inconvenience feels laughably (tragically?) quaint now. At the Mississippi Book Festival, I picked up Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn and Jesmyn Ward’s The Fire This Time (after the powerful panel of the same name) and devoured both. My well-thumbed copy of Laurie Colwin’s Another Marvelous Thing lived in my carry-on for a few months because I never get tired of dipping in. On a train ride from Paris to Frankfurt, I read the beautiful and devastating The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam. An advance copy of the always great Tessa Hadley’s Bad Dreams and Other Stories fit my page requirement. Maria Semple’s Today Will Be Different did not, but I packed it anyway because I didn’t want to wait. On a muggy, rainy afternoon in Cincinnati, I popped into a bookstore and am so grateful I bought Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers and Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl. I woke up in Germany on November 9th to discover the unthinkable had actually happened and was too busy — and too rattled — for most of that trip to read anything but election news when I could get the Internet to cooperate. But the following week in Barcelona, I pulled from my suitcase Eric Puchner’s new story collection Last Day on Earth. The book is out in February and it’s marvelous. What a relief to be reminded of the vital importance of books when it feels like the world around is crumbling. Worth remembering as we stumble together into 2017.

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Outside the Neighborhood: Reading Italy Through Elena Ferrante

1.
Near the beginning of My Brilliant Friend, the first of Elena Ferrante’s series of novels about a complicated friendship between two women from the slums of Naples, the girls, then in elementary school, play hooky and sneak out of “the neighborhood,” their claustrophobic network of courtyards and stairwells filled with violence and poverty. Lenú and Lila aim for the sea. Though Naples is a port city, neither of them has seen the “vague bluish memory” of water. After hours of walking, Lila becomes suddenly afraid and turns them back, while Lenú, usually the timid one, discovers that distance “extinguished in me every tie and every worry.”

The Neopolitan Novels, as they are known, expand this dynamic tension between the pull of Naples, the city, and the expansion of the girls’ consciousness as Italy enters the modern era. This is a story of self-realization alongside the self-realization of a nation. Acutely sensitive to the workings of class and power, Ferrante subtly works in black market war profiteers, fascist collaborators, mafiosi, the workers’ movements and radical terrorism of the 1960s and ’70s, and the arrival of wealth and consumer goods to Italy’s new middle class. Ferrante attaches the story of Lenú and Lila to the history of postwar Italy in a way that never feels contrived.

That’s also the history of feminism in Italy, a story that remains unfinished. Lenú escapes the confines of the neighborhood thanks to her book smarts, but remains tethered to Lila, and to the alienation and difficulty that makes “the form of a female body break.” The burden of the physical, the invisible work that makes up women’s lives, is a recurring theme in Ferrante. Radical Italian feminists once proposed wages for housework, but Ferrante is writing, after all, in the Italy where Silvio Berlusconi hosts bunga bunga parties with underage girls, and jokes that to prevent rape, the country needs “as many soldiers as there are beautiful Italian women.” In Ferrante’s early novel The Days of Abandonment, set in contemporary Italy, the protagonist has a breakdown trapped in her apartment. Her children whine and one falls ill; it’s unnervingly possible she may ignore them entirely. She mentally runs through her chores to calm herself. “The vomit stained sheets. Run the vacuum.” “Housecleaning,” is the last word of the chapter, sinking like a sentence.

I wonder if, for the American reader, part of Ferrante’s appeal is that her Italy — with its complicated women and its political history — is an antidote to popular destination literature and visions of expat romance like Eat, Pray, Love, Under the Tuscan Sun, or Beautiful Ruins. The next and final installment of the Neapolitan novels, which have become a surprise hit in the U.S., will be brought out in English this year (her website says only that an as yet untitled fourth volume in the series will be published in September 2015). In the meantime, here are a few suggestions for those hungering for more of Ferrante’s dark Naples and Italian feminist heroines.

2.
A History of Contemporary Italy
Ferrante’s heroines, Lenú and Lila, are born in Naples in 1944, at the very end of World War II. In September 1943, American troops landed south of Naples and marched up the peninsula after the Germans, who retreated looting and killing along the way. Italy — a country then less than a century old — soon found itself “with national state authority having dissolved, two occupying armies and three Italian governments…claimed the obedience and allegiance of the Italians,” writes Paul Ginsborg in History of Contemporary Italy, an exhaustive accounting of Italian politics from the war to the 1980s, paying special attention the position of Italy’s poorest, in the South.

Naples, with over one million inhabitants, was devastated and impoverished by the war. Sewers and water systems barely functioned, Allied bombing left 200,000 homeless, and the black market commandeered what little supplies existed. Ginsborg quotes an Allied report describing “many hundreds of urchins” roaming the streets, “pimping, prostitution of minors, acting as ‘fences’ for stolen goods, etc.,” and “little girls ill and pregnant, at thirteen and even twelve years of age.” Even as Italy experienced enormous economic growth in the 20th century, the South continued to lag stubbornly behind, remaining until today the poorest part of Italy. Ginsborg also explains the consolidation of the reign of the mafia, romanticized in American mob movies and exposed as very real in Gomorrah, Roberto Saviano’s account of the mafia wars of the early 2000s. The children that Saviano finds fed into the Camorra’s violent underworld are modern-day remnants of the destitution that has long characterized Naples: the city’s reputation is still dirty, difficult, and dangerous.

The Skin
In the spring of 1944, Mount Vesuvius erupted violently. American troops captured footage of villagers on the outskirts of Naples preparing to evacuate, holding a religious procession before billowing ash filled the streets and smashed their homes. It must have seemed like the end of the world.

This is the dark setting of The Skin, a novel by Curzio Malaparte, a former fascist and political shapeshifter, perhaps better known now for his pink modernist villa on the rocks of Capri, where Bridgitte Bardot sunbathes nude in Contempt. The book’s narrator is an Italian Army captain also named Malaparte who has been assigned to escort occupying American officers around the “dreadful Neopolitan mob.” (The novelist, born Kurt Suckert, invented his name, which means “the bad part,” the opposite of Bonaparte.) Dressed in the bullet torn uniforms of dead Allied soldiers, Malaparte and his troops now have “to show ourselves worthy of the shame of Italy,” a people simultaneously liberated and conquered. Malaparte’s Naples is lurid and apocalyptic. He applies caustic humor equally across the decaying pretensions of European aristocrats, the naïve crowds cheering the arrival of U.S. troops, and the dangerously blithe good faith of the Americans. Misogyny abounds: the only women are prostitutes and Nazi collaborators, easy metaphors for Italy’s prone postwar position.

But Malaparte’s chilling prose and bantering wit animate the most surreal horrors of postwar deprivation. The book’s finale is a frenzy at the summit of Vesuvius after its eruption, where supplicants pray and fling offerings into the volcano beneath the “blood-soaked sponge” of the moon. All the book’s cynicism rises to a sincere effort to make sense of the sacrifice the country made to war.

Discovery of the World
Luciana Castellina was 14 in 1943, when she began keeping a “political diary.” On the day it begins, she played tennis with the daughter of the fascist leader Benito Mussolini. The girl was called off the courts abruptly — her father had been turned out of government and arrested. Four years later, when her teenage journals end, Castellina has become a student radical and gone to volunteer building railroads in Communist Yugoslavia. Discovery of the World: A Political Awakening in the Shadow of Mussolini, is a memoir “reconstructed” from these diaries, so we get rather a lot of Castellina, now an elderly former politician and prominent figure on the Italian left, interrupting to explain her younger self. Nonetheless, the diary excerpts are charming. They begin with a dutiful student whose notebooks are marked with her fascist party membership number, to whom the war arrives as the sudden need to hide Jewish relatives, to smuggle rations, and to await the Allies while hiding from their air raids. Later, she learns about the resistance, becomes enmeshed in Communist politics and debates on modernist painting and the atom bomb. It was a historic intellectual moment, when fascism’s fall seemed to have created an opening for utopian political reforms. Though it may be hard to follow for someone unfamiliar with the history of the European left, there’s still something infectious and familiar in the adolescent excitement that declares, one day, “It’s two years since Rome was liberated. What have I learned? Almost nothing. My ideas are more confused than ever,” and on another, “I am happy with everything. The world is mine and I want everything.”

The Art of Joy
“The world is mine and I want everything” might be a motto for Modesta, the ironically named firebrand heroine of The Art of Joy, a novel by Goliarda Sapienza. Completed in 1976, the book didn’t find a publisher until decades later, saturated as it is with sex and blasphemy (one Italian critic called it “a pile of iniquity.”) If Ferrante elegantly weaves history through her protagonists’ lives, Sapienza’s Modesta drags the 20th century behind her by the hair. Born in 1900 in a peasant hut in Sicily, she rises through a mix of guile and happenstance to become the unorthodox matriarch of a prosperous family. Her purpose in life is the pursuit of pleasure and freedom from authority in any form: she battles Catholicism, fascism, Freudianism, and even the demands of lovers and children. She realizes very young in life “how many false concepts I had fallen victim to.” Self-educated in business, politics, and history, she determines to take up every word she encounters, “wipe away the mold, free them from the deposits of centuries of tradition, invent new ones, and above all discard and no longer use…the most corrupt ones, such as sublime, duty, tradition, self-denial, humility, soul.” The first half of Sapienza’s mammoth book is that breathless wreckage, as Modesta’s self emerges from an angry, eccentric, and impoverished child. Later, it sometimes lapses into didactic dialogue and tedious political exegeses. But the initial brilliance of the book is, as with Ferrante, in watching the formal evolution of the narrator’s voice from the sensual environs of childhood to a sharp awareness of herself and her place in history.

A Year in Reading: Elizabeth Strout

This year brought me the work of Elena Ferrante, and reading her reminded me of that child-like excitement when you can’t look up from the page, when your eyes seem to be popping from your head, when you think: I didn’t know books could do this! But there is nothing child-like about Ferrante’s work. It’s adult stuff. The Days of Abandonment deals with the fracture of a marriage, and it takes it straight on. There is a profound thrill in witnessing such honest ferocity on the page. What followed for me were the first two books of her trilogy, My Brilliant Friend, and then The Story of a New Name, and finishing the latter, I had to stumble around the apartment before I could re-enter my own world. The world she creates in these two books is a world of poverty and harshness and childhood friendship that is deep in its love and envy. These scenes take place mostly in Naples, with some excursions as the narrator gets older, but all of this barely scrapes the surface of what Ferrante really does. Which is to keep your face pressed into the realities of class and sex and violence, and make you grateful to be there. I absolutely loved it.

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