Wednesday, March 30, 2016

March Cultural Roundup

Tunnel Vision: The Story of Toronto's Subway at Market Gallery
Outsiders: American Photography and Film at AGO, March 13, 2016

Outline by Rachel Cusk
The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

The Story of a New Name

The Story of a New Name - Book 2 Youth by Elena Ferrante (Europa Editions, 2013) 471 pages
*** Spoiler Alert ***

Before we proceed, please read this review of book 1 ... 

When we left Lila at her wedding reception at the end of book 1, she has experienced a terrible betrayal. The shoes, which she worked so hard to create with the assistance of her brother and father, the Cerullos, have been given (or sold) to the dreaded Marcello Solara, the son of a Camorrista and a much feared loan shark in their Napoli neighborhood.

This abrogation of trust devastates Lila, who storms out of the wedding but she is persuaded to return by Stefano Caracci, the groom. She withholds her fury until their departure in the convertible leaving the wedding and gets into a terrible altercation with Stefano. The hostility climaxes with a devastating act of violence on their honeymoon. I'll say no more on that if you have not read the scene. 

Stefano's imperative is stark: subdue her now or forever lose his ascendancy as a male and as a husband. He warns her: 

"What are you doing, be quiet, you're just a twig, if I want to break you I'll break you ..."
How often I have heard those words. Not from a husband but from someone in my family more powerful than me, someone who intimidated me. The words chilled me, not because they were so strange but because they were so familiar. 

Lila confronts a brutal reality. For her this is the end of a certain fantasy because Stefano stood in sharp contrast to the brutality of the Solaras to request a favour. Now she sees that Stefano is merely a variation of Marcello or Michele Solara. As a wife she is expected to succumb to any, or all, of Stefano's demands. She is beaten, and often, as the text suggests through Lenu's horrified observations. 

But she exacts her revenge. When Lenu shares her worries about her boyfriend Antonio's imminent conscription (the simple mechanic Antonio serves as a poor substitute for the cerebral Nino), Lila drags Lenu along with her to the Solaras' café. Lenu understands how inappropriate and uncharacteristic this is - that Lila, a married woman, should ask a favour of these two who still covet the beautiful Lila - mortifies Lenu and makes her fearful for her friend. Lila's sole object is to humiliate her husband, whom she no longer loves nor respects.

Antonio is so angry at Lenu's perceived interference that he breaks with her and willingly enters the army. Still fixated on the studious Nino, the son of the lascivious Donato who tried to interfere with Lenu last summer at Ischia, Lenu languishes physically, emotionally and academically. Nino has gone to England to work and learn English (and has a fifteen year old girlfriend, the daughter of a professor) much to Lenu's despair. 

When she sees the girl, Lenu is chastened by the girl's beauty and a subtle perception that the girl belongs to a "higher" class than Lenu. How devastating is that realization of class difference ... she feels that she will never be as beautiful nor as prized as Nadia, the girl that Nino cares for, because of her "superior" origins. 

Whatever Lenu is experiencing, it is is soon eclipsed by Lila's troubles. Now pregnant, Lila forgoes returning to school and devotes her energies to managing the new grocery store that her husband is building. Angry and resentful about the pregnancy, Lila appears to be on a collision course with everyone in her life, feeling like a commodity bought and sold by her husband. Lila despises children, despises her pregnant body - correctly viewing herself as the means by which the Caracci clan might perpetuate a dynasty and that she is merely the instrument through which this is accomplished. 

Lila's antipathy towards the child is so pronounced that when she miscarries at ten weeks, those around her willingly believe that she has caused it. Both Lila and Stefano are vilified for this - Lila for the "refusal" to carry a child and Stefano for his inability to impregnate her - she is perceived as a witch, he as a weakling. 

Lila clings to Lenu ... she even offers to pay Lenu to spend the summer with her which Lenu agrees to only if they go to Ischia, an island off Naples, where the Napolitani vacation and where Lenu knows that Nino will spend his summer. Her instincts pay off and she indeed encounters him but becomes aware of a disturbing development: Lila ,who has forsworn reading and further education, becomes interested in both upon meeting Nino. In some twisted sense of rivalry, Lila appears to try and ensnare Nino, the one boy that Lenu truly cares for. Is this payback for the humiliation that Lila now feels before the more educated Lenu? 

Lila initially denies her emotional involvement but at every juncture Lenu witnesses their intimacy. On the eve of Stefano's return to Ischia (he comes only on weekends), Nino dares to read a letter from his girlfriend Nadia before Lila which throws Lila into a rage. She demands that he break with her and he, in turn, demands she leave her husband. Later, she confesses that she revels in the idea of Nino abandoning the professor's daughter for the shoemaker's daughter. Class consciousness permeates all, the girls cannot escape it - the engrained sense of inferiority, of otherness, of class resentment.

Lenu tries to convince Lila of her folly which prompts a long (a page long) feverish avowal of Lila's love for Nino much to Lenu's shock and dismay. Lenu is heartbroken by this betrayal but something has been awakened in Lila - love and sexual intimacy with an equal - and she refuses to abandon it.

When the lovers scheme to have one night together in Barrano, they make Lenu their unwilling accomplice, who is filled alternately with both hate and love for the innamorati. 

Lenu, crushed by Nino's new obsessive interest in Lila tells herself that "... men are all made from the same clay." Even the worthy Nino is a mere man susceptible to Lila's charms. The path of the two girls diverge: Lenu receives a scholarship and goes to university in Pisa; the now pregnant Lila runs away with Nino to live in secret, in squalor, as neither has money. But even Nino cannot withstand the volcano that is Lila and eventually abandons her and returns to his family.

Relief floods over the reader, when we learn of Lenu's scholarship and acceptance to the university. Escape Lenu, escape, we silently plead. We stand with Lenu when she looks at family, home, neighborhood, street, and wishes to flee from these sordid circumstances.

When Lila is discovered by a neighborhood friend Enzo, he persuades her to return to her husband. But this is a short-lived, fiery solution to Lila's dilemma ... and we are left with another cliffhanger about Lila's fate.

I have spoken of the lack of beautiful writing in this series. But Ferrante's (or the translator's) awkward phrasing do not put me off even when faced with lines such as these regarding the deflowering of one of the female characters: "... the nightime mass of x [you will read yourself who I am referring to] communicated to me nothing except a sensation of nothingness" - an awfully awkward way to say that the loss of virginity by the predatory male cited here meant nothing to the girl. Or a phrase such as this: " ... he behaved as if their hostility because he had sold himself to the Solaras were a gripe that made no dent on their friendship." There are many such instances as these.

But I forgive all, everything, every misplaced word and clumsy construction, because Ferrante taps into a source of anger in me that I cannot name or properly voice. And now, on to book 3. 

Saturday, March 19, 2016

My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend - Book One: Childhood, Adolescence by Elena Ferrante (Europa Editions, 2012) 331 pages
                                                         *** Spoiler Alert ***

Who is this Elena Ferrante and why has she captivated so many?

I approached the series with some healthy skepticism – Ferrante's four part series has had a volcanic effect on the literary establishment. I engaged with some reserve and not a small part of jealousy. The language was not beautiful or elegant I quickly affirmed (I don’t know who is to blame for this – Ferrante or the translator Ann Goldstein). The scenarios are frighteningly bleak and many characters very unsympathetic but ... the scenes are so powerfully wrought and touch on the inequality of the young female in Italian society so profoundly that it is impossible to ignore or dismiss. 

It pecked away at me - it reinforced the many small and big things I had seen and experienced as a young female and adult in an Italian family: the lowered expectations for girls of a certain class, the disrespect accorded them, the inordinate emphasis on physical beauty and sexuality, the achingly painful aspirations of the two girls Elena and Lila who wanted more, so much more.

In the first novel of the Neapolitan series, Elena Greco, also known as Lenu, tells the story of a tempestuous friendship with Lila Cerullo (also known as Lena), which spans sixty years. Their beginnings in a poor Napoli neighborhood in the 1950s are humble but their aspirations are not. Already I am smitten ... I was known by both names as a girl - Lenu and Lena. This pains me somehow. It makes their travails much more immediate. I identify with both - the cerebral, bookish girl and the sexy, bad girl. 

The girls compete in all areas of their lives – Lenu, daughter of a porter, is bright but Lila, daughter of an equally impoverished shoemaker, is brighter and they both know it. This ignites a lifelong rivalry – profound, if largely unspoken – in intellectual achievement, their physical looks and love interests. At all stations of their personal development, Lenu feels dwarfed by Lila even while she witnesses the ugliness of Lila’s daily existence. Once when she defied her father’s wishes, Lila is unceremoniously thrown out of a window.  The shocking nature of the scene has a visceral effect. The lives and happiness of these young girls are worth nothing – if they are not valued as sexual beings, as wives and mothers, they seem to have no value at all at times. 

When Lila’s parents are unable to afford education for her beyond elementary school, Lenu is both distressed and relieved but at last here, academically, Lenu might shine and overshadow her friend. Lenu excels with the assistance of sympathetic teachers and a yearning, inquisitive mind. Thwarted by her parents, Lila and her brother Rino focus on the design of a pair of shoes that they hope to sell with the Cerullo name and become a thriving business that will sustain her family.

Lila develops into a rare if prickly, foul-mouthed beauty coveted by all the boys in the neighborhood and in particular by Marcello Solara, son of a Camorrista and loan shark - the wealthiest man in the neighborhood who runs a prosperous café. Marcello and his brother Michele Solara are rich, violent, dangerous bullies, universally feared and hated. She aggressively rejects his advances despite her family’s imprecations even while he courts Lila and the whole family with gifts and offers of financial support. Marcello even goes so far as to offer to buy the hand-made shoes that Lila has created.

When Lenu is afforded a chance to escape to Ischia for the summer to care for some children, she seizes the opportunity. At Ischia, she falls in love with Nino, a studious boy from her neighborhood who is the son of a poet and a reputed womanizer. Finally, she sees herself as desirable, worthwhile, but only because Nino has bestowed a kiss on her. Excelling academically will not do, a boy must validate her sense of self-worth. The summer is almost ruined by the advances of Nino's predatory father Donato - he has distinguished himself in the neighborhood by bedding Melina, an unstable, impoverished widow who has become obsessed with him. 

Ferrante’s eye is unsparing and unsentimental towards Italian family life. Lenu’s mother is dreadful – mean spirited, cold and physically repulsive - she initially objects to Lenu’s small summer adventure. If she is unhappy why should her daughter be happy? This last item might seem a small literary distinction but to have an Italian born writer cold-heartedly analyze the patriarchal nature of working class life and wade through the treacly stereotype of maternal love in Italian culture is truly revolutionary for this reader.

Lila appears to find a way out of poverty by accepting the attentions of Stefano, a local grocer, who displays courtesy and respect for Lila. With his attention (and money), she grows even more beautiful and the couple plan to marry.

The final scene of book 1 is the wedding of sixteen year old Lila and Stefano. Lila faces  a horrifying discovery – Stefano, whom she has exalted and loved above the rest, has decided to throw in his lot with the hated Solaras in some sort of business enterprise.

I admit that I was lukewarm on the plot until the wedding scene. Lenu observing Lila at the church:
"As a child I looked to her ... to escape my mother. I had been mistaken. Lila had remained there, chained in a glaring way to that world from which she imagined she had taken the best."
Lila is now trapped in her role at sixteen. Inspired by Nino's intelligence and seriousness, Lenu vows to escape her family, her neighborhood, her life. 

What follows for Lila is horrifying ... and must be discussed in book 2.