Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Reading group: The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

Prompted by the immense success of the novels of the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante, in particular her linked Neopolitan novels, and of course by the recent fuss around her apparent 'umasking', John suggested this stand-alone novel, and the rest of us, none of whom had yet read Ferrante, jumped at the chance to read it.

However, not everyone in our group shared the popular opinion, and views of the book were sharply divided.

Suspecting that this would be the case, John avoided expressing his emotional reaction to the book, and concentrated on discussing it in more neutral literary terms. A breathless first-person narration, it charts the emotional journey of Olga from the moment her husband Mario announces that, through an 'absence of sense', he feels the need to leave, and walks out on her and their two young children. As John said, the book is significantly titled: not only is Olga abandoned, thereafter she abandons herself, falling into the kind of madness of the abandoned woman she witnessed in childhood and subsequently despised and dreaded, and consequently at moments abandoning her children both physically and emotionally. As Jenny would point out later in the discussion, and as Olga herself will realise later, it is not Mario but Olga who, as a result of his actions, suffers an 'absence of sense'. (Mario has in fact of course gone off with another, younger woman.) Initially, before she comes to realise that Mario is never coming back, Olga makes a point of being reasonable and understanding, a stance she has always previously taken. It is the way in fact that women are traditionally supposed to behave, and is thus another kind of absence of sense.

Mark interjected that surely this was a hackneyed subject, but John stated that he thought that this novel was not simply telling a hackneyed story, but was very much a political statement of the continuing trap of the institution of marriage for women. Having once despised tragic heroines like Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, Olga is now haunted by the spirit of them (and, as she becomes more unhinged, haunted more literally by the ghost of the abandoned woman of her childhood, the poverella). Having at eighteen considered myself a talented young woman, with high hopes, and having indeed begun a career as a published writer, she has ended up a mere wife, modulating herself for the lives of others, subsumed to the Family. John thought it no coincidence that the book that most strongly haunts this novel, Anna Karenina, begins All happy families... He pointed out that, like that novel (and in his opinion most great novels), The Days of Abandonment begins with a sentence that gets right to the thematic point: One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. (Note that reference to lunch, not only locating Olga in the domestic that traps her and in which she will be left, but implying the familiar order and composure from which she is now shaken.)

It now became clear that the three women present, Jenny, Clare and I, had found the book utterly emotionally engrossing - although I had to confess that because I had read it at a huge compulsive rush I read it again, and the second time, without the tension of not knowing what was going to happen, felt less emotionally engaged and more distanced from the character. On first reading, however, all three of us had identified closely with Olga and her experience, and had found the portrayal searingly truthful. John and Mark, however, the two men present, both said that they had wavered as they read it, sometimes liking the book and sometimes disliking it, John saying that he found it sagged a little in the second half - a sensation I did have on my second reading. Mark seemed to come down on the side of dislike, as he went on to be pretty critical. He repeated his view that the situation - a woman emotionally trapped by marriage and motherhood - is outdated; he thought young women nowadays would be baffled by it. To begin with we found it hard to answer that, except to say that nevertheless women of our generation who do identify with it are a significant enough demographic not to be discounted and to account for Ferrante's huge popularity, and that in any case Italy is still a conservative enough society for its theme to be still current there for younger women. But a main point made by this novel, as had been said, is that that so-called outdated stereotype, which might baffle younger women, and which had indeed baffled the young Olga herself, is not so easily sidestepped even now, a notion that we three strongly agreed with as a result of our own experience.

Clare said she was really interested in the meta-issue of Ferrante's anonymity and 'unmasking' (as far as I know, no one knows for sure if the woman who has been fingered as the author behind the pen-name is really the author). In discussing Olga's state of mind John had mentioned that there is a lot of excrement and urine in the book, and the fact that Olga is obsessed with sex, in particular transgressive sex. None of this is gratuitous; all of it is an inevitable outcome of the situation and Olga's deteriorating state of mind. Rejected so suddenly and roundly by her husband she is inevitably swamped by a sense of her hitherto unsuspected inadequacy: has he found her sexually inadequate? Does his lover provide sexual satisfactions she hadn't? - questions that lead her unsuccessfully and depressingly to abandon herself 'without love' and 'with pure ferocity' to transgressive sex with a neighbour, Caranno, a practical stranger. Everything inevitably seems to her spoiled and poisoned - there is dog-shit on the pavement, a lizard and ants invade the house - and Olga herself becomes the focus of loss of control, letting the house fall into chaos, running out precipitously with the dog in her nightgown and needing herself to urinate and defecate in the woods. As one of her children falls ill with a fever, and the dog simultaneously lies dying and leaking shit, she becomes convinced that she is secreting some sort of poison that is affecting all around her. Such graphic material caused shock on the book's publication in 2002, which I consider a telling comment on continuing perceptions of women (women are not supposed to be so earthy or to lose control), and on what a female author is allowed to write. It is probably therefore significant that one suggestion has been that the author of the Ferrante books is a man.

I said that one of the reasons I found the book so deeply and personally compelling was that it made me wonder why I hadn't written about certain of my own experiences, and I realised it was because I don't write anonymously (although Elizabeth Baines is a pen-name, people have long known who I am). I would love to go back to the days when I first started writing under a pen-name and no one knew me: there was freedom then from my writing being judged through the lens of my real-life persona or vice versa. Reading Ferrante's book made me realise that the better known I have become, the more difficult it has become to write about certain experiences of my own in a way that could be interpreted as autobiographical.

Now there was a huge altercation. Mark seemed to think this fairly ridiculous. Surely when you write, he said, you don't write for others but for yourself? Hadn't we read the Paris Review interviews in which so many writers say they write for themselves? It is however a matter of degree and of negotiating between, on the one hand, the desire to express oneself and portray the truth as you see it, and, on the other, the need to communicate and the context into which your writing must be published. But surely, Mark said, it's fiction? He was right of course that it is a mistake to read fiction as autobiography, but the fact is that there is a huge tendency to do so, and to identify the author with the protagonist.

Mark then criticised the translation of the book, citing the substitution of the American use of Fahrenheit for the European Celsius (when Olga is taking her ill child's temperature) and the use of 'magnifying lens' which he thought should be 'magnifying glass'. The rest of us found these trivial points in a book dealing so truthfully with searing issues, and hadn't even noticed them. I found 'magnifying lens' acceptable anyway, and in fact more resonant in a book about shifts in perception, and John said he thought Fahrenheit was acceptable in a translation probably aimed at the American market. Mark criticised the prose, finding it lacking in punctuation, especially in commas. I said, isn't this a function of the fact that the breathless style mimics Olga's slipping state of mind, and isn't it actually explicitly addressed in the book: Olga reflects that as a young woman she despised the lack of commas in those novels of tragic heroines, but abandoning herself to loss of control in her new situation, she embraces a lack of commas. Mark said he knew this, but he still objected to the lack. (However, leafing through the book now I can't actually find this lack; the book is in fact liberally sprinkled with commas - sometimes in place of full stops, indicating Olga's sliding, uncontrolled state.) In direct contrast, the rest of us found the book extremely well-written, with style beautifully suited to the situation. In fact, I said to the group, I don't believe that I would ever go to pieces in the way that Olga does in that situation - I don't believe I'm like Olga  - but I found that the way the book was written made me identify with her totally on that first reading, and Clare and Jenny agreed.

From the meeting it looked as if our opinions of this book were divided along gender lines, but Doug, who hadn't been able to make the meeting, had written that, 50 pages in, he was finding it 'captivating and harrowing in equal measure' and couldn't wait to find out where it went next. And, conversely, Ann, who was also unable to be present, had written that she had found the translation clunky and clumsy, and had 'just wanted to shake the protagonist', finding her 'too overwrought, incompetent, incapable'. LIke Mark, Ann found her 'just old fashioned in attitude and assumptions' and simply thought 'At last!' when Olga comes to realise that she has invested too much of herself in her relationship and her role as a wife and mother. There is an agonising section where Olga is trapped in the house with her ailing child and dying dog because she can't undo the lock she has had installed by workmen who made lewd lock-based insinuations as they installed it. She is able to undo it only when the neighbour Caranno arrives outside the door. Ann thought this an outrageously overdone metaphor, and John pretty much agreed with her, but none of the rest of us women did. While it does of course operate on a symbolic level, I read it chiefly not as an authorial metaphor, but as a purely practical effect of Olga's state, which I found realistic (ie she was simply in too much of a state to get the thing open before she relaxed, her situation creating an emotional and physical block about it). Ann had also foreseen the ending of the book early on, but none of the rest of us had done so, since we felt that the book was interrogating traditional paradigms rather than simply employing them. And there was quite some amazement on the faces of us women at Ann's statement that if this is typical of the rest of Ferrante's work she wouldn't be bothering with it. 

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Monday, November 21, 2016

A literary weekend: a meeting with prize shortlistees, reading with literary icons and a new review of Unthology 7.

On Saturday I zoomed off to London, first to attend a gathering for bloggers to meet the shortlistees of the Sunday Times/Peters Fraser and Dunlop Young Writer of the Year award, and then on in the evening to Waterstone's Piccadilly to read at Word Factory.

The Young Writer shortlist is fantastic, and we had a great afternoon chatting to the shortlistees and hearing them read and being interviewed by Andrew Holgate, prize judge and Literary Editor of The Sunday Times (below). You can read more about it on my critical blog, Fictionbitch, and the thoughts it prompted for me concerning innovative fiction and marketing.

After that it was off to Word Factory. I was reading with Lionel Shriver and novelist and Mslexia editor Debbie Taylor, at the end of a day-long festival for short-story writers, Small Like a Bullet. I read the title story from my collection, Used to Be (and the really great audience was gratifyingly receptive, laughing in all the right places - I guess a roomful of storytellers was just the right audience for a story about story-telling!). Debbie then read from her latest novel Herring Girl, which I have recently read: a fascinating and really quite daring tale of reincarnation set exactly where she lives, in a converted lighthouse at the mouth of the River Tyne, with a depiction of the past so vividly real and particular that I suspect Debbie of having indeed been there then! Finally Lionel entertained us with the tale of her commission from a luxury hotel chain, which she fulfilled by writing a story subverting the whole idea of luxury hotels. She then read us the story, in which, with her customary verbal irony, she put paid to the notion of luxury itself.

Afterwards poet and Word Factory organiser Cathy Galvin chaired a discussion that ranged from the the popularity or otherwise of short stories and publishers' attitudes to them, to the question of whether they are leading to brand-new forms that defy categorisation - Max Porter's Grief is the Thing with Feathers, one of the shortlisted books in the Young Writer Award, being cited as an example. Here's a photo taken by my online friend and Word Factory regular Oscar Windsor Smith:

And as I was coming back on the train next day, I discovered that there's a new review of Unthology 7 from brilliant writer Aiden O'Reilly. He loves the anthology:

I think this is probably the best anthology I’ve read, including all those ‘best new’ anthologies that come out every couple of years. There are just so many standout stories here

and I am of course thrilled by what he, such a talented writer himself, says of my story:

I loved the prose of Elizabeth Baines’ Looking for the Castle ... it’s just perfectly written.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Reading group: Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

After unanimous praise for our last book, there was unanimous dislike of this book, apart perhaps from the view of Jenny who had suggested it, and who said she couldn't decide whether she liked it or not, and wavered as she read it.

Set in millennial New York, it's the third-person account of one day in the life of twenty-eight-year-old multi-millionaire asset manager Eric Packer as, accompanied by his 'chief of security', he is driven in his limousine across the city to get a haircut, moving slowly through jammed traffic while his advisors, his 'chief of technology', his 'currency analyst', his 'chief of finance', his doctor, his 'chief of theory' wait at corners at appointed times and step in turn into the car for meetings. They are held up by a global protest, a state presidential visit and a massive funeral, and Packer nips out of the car now and then for sexual liaisons and to speak to the wife he has recently married as a financial deal, all the while trading in the yen in a way that will bring about a global and personal downfall. Partway through the day it is reported that there is a threat to Packer's life, but there is such an overall air of dissociation that it's not clear if the threat is real. In any case, the way he behaves from this point on seems guaranteed to push him in the face of that danger.

Well, it was hard for me to call up the events of the novel to write that synopsis, as quite frankly I really didn't care in the least what happened during that day to Eric Packer, and was happy to forget it, and neither did anyone else (apart from Jenny). Clearly the novel is about the alienation of capitalism (which we hardly found an original concept), and its death-wish, and Jenny pointed out that Packer's pursuit of a haircut in the run-down area of the city where he grew up in poverty-stricken circumstances is an inchoate attempt to reach back to life and the 'real'. He didn't know what he wanted. Then he knew. He wanted to get a haircut. Jenny said that this made her at times sympathise with him as a man damaged by his own ambitions and the financial world that has sucked him in.

However, while this is clearly a premise of the novel, none of the rest of us saw the book as operating on the psychological level that would elicit such sympathy. Packer seemed to us very much a cipher, and the whole thing is told from the outside in staccato, distanced prose mimicking the lack of affect of a financial world. The result is that it is often, or mostly, impossible to work out Packer's emotional state or motivations, so none of us could engage with him or the situation. Another effect was a (seemingly deliberate) loss of significance at moments that should have resonated with significance. An interesting occurrence in the novel (interesting in retrospect) is the fact that things begin to happen on the camera screen in Packer's car before they actually happen in real life - Packer sees himself rubbing his chin on screen in the brief second before he does it - indicating the takeover of virtuality from reality. However, presumably in an authorial attempt to illustrate the normalisation of such a horror, it is narrated so blandly and glossed over so quickly that it has no emotional effect on the reader (us readers, at any rate). Fairly near the beginning, well before it is heard that there is a plot to kill Packer, there is a first-person section, narrated by a Benno Levin and reporting that he has murdered someone unnamed. It was hard to work out whether or not this was a deliberate authorial bid to give the game away and subvert conventional dramatic tension, and it's an instance of the way we all felt we failed to get a grip on the novel. At this point in fact there is yet no hint of a plot against Packer and the link with him personally is not obvious: is it therefore an authorial attempt not to give the game away? But without that connection the piece seems to float disconnected (and confusing) from the rest of the narrative, and why else would the piece be there? However, I for one had already failed to engage with Packer's fate, and the whole section dropped away from my consciousness with little lasting significance. In addition, the piece itself is an essay in lack of significance: although the narrator writes of his motives for the murder and of his anger, he does so analytically (and again in that staccato affectless prose), and there is an air of futility: All through the day I became more convinced I could not do it [ie, commit the murder]. Then I did it. Now I have to remember why.  And: So what is left that's worth the telling?

In conclusion we all agreed that it's all very well writing about alienation, futility and lack of significance, but you have to find a way of doing so that doesn't alienate the reader and make the book itself seem futile and lacking in significance. On the whole, people got the feeling that this was one of those books commissioned and rushed out as a millennial novel by a Great American Author, which did not do justice to the talent we found in DeLillo's White Noise.

Through a last-minute change of venue, Doug failed to make the meeting, and when we called him later he said that he hadn't particularly wanted to discuss the book anyway, as he hated it, it had bored him rigid, though he did think it remarkably prescient in view of the 2008 crash.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Reading group: All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski

Everyone present loved this suggestion of Doug's, Walter Kempowski's 2006 novel set in 1945 East Prussia as the German army retreats from the Russian advance and refugees begin to trickle and then pour from the occupied lands.

Sealed off from the growing chaos in their rundown rural mansion, the Georgenhof, the remains of an estate now largely sold off, is the semi-aristocratic von Globig household: a dreamy young wife, Katharina, known as a beauty, whose army officer husband is away in Italy requisitioning goods for the German army, her introspective twelve-year-old son, a spinster relative who acts as housekeeper, and their few Polish and Ukrainian servants. Unaware of the military threat, and of the slyer threat from their envious Nazi neighbour, Drygalski, the 'kind of deputy mayor' of the new housing estate across the road, the von Globigs merely watch curiously as the processions of refugees pass the house, and make no preparations to leave. Their peace begins to be broken, however, by a series of travellers who call at the house from out of the surrounding snow, and when Katharina is asked to harbour a particularly mysterious stranger for one night, their fate is set.

Doug said - to murmurs of enthusiastic agreement - that he thought the book brilliant. It begins in a mode that at first seems old-fashioned, with leisurely, objective and omniscient descriptions first of the house and then of each member of the household in turn - a mode which does indeed recall the nineteenth-century world from which the von Globigs have failed to be woken. Yet there are strange repetitions that do not belong to the polished, patrician prose of an earlier century: in the section concerning one character we will be told a fact that we have already been told in an earlier section dealing with a different character, and in exactly the same words, as though the fact is being introduced for the first time. There is too much of an overall air of authority to the prose for this to be authorial clumsiness. As Doug said, the precise verbal repetition creates a sense of the fateful connections between the characters - such as between the von Globigs and Drygalski - and, at the same time, of their psychic isolation from each other in the situation. As the book proceeds, there is a growing musicality in the repetition, and the novel builds like a piece of music, moving in simple prose through a dreamy tone towards nightmare as the chaos of war overtakes the von Globigs, and opening out to orchestrate a huge cast of characters, the repetitions becoming sinister: Where would they all end up? ; Had it all been for nothing?

Previously to writing this novel, after coming across abandoned papers and photos revealing the unrecorded experience of German people during the war, Kempowski had produced a monumental non-fiction work of witness, and this clearly informs All for Nothing. What had seemed at the outset a conventional omniscient narration about one family becomes a magnificent piece of free indirect discourse giving witness to whole populations devastated by war, moving from head to character's head and out again, breaking down the stereotypes through which they see each other and showing us all of them - Nazi, Jew, German, Ukrainian, Pole - from every perspective in all their flawed humanity.

The book is translated from the German by Anthea Bell, who also translated W G Sebald's Austerlitz (which we also loved). Once again we were extremely impressed by the translation. In particular, as Ann pointed out, the handling of idioms is especially impressive, easy on the English ear whilst never detracting from the German feel of the prose.

In a nutshell, we all loved it. There was one small doubt, which I think all of us shared: although the novel has something of the quality of fable (rather than of the realist novel), we did find the ending, which I won't give away here, psychologically unconvincing and potentially sentimental, though we forgave the book that for its overall magnificence.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here