One-Minute Book Reviews

February 19, 2016

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Antidote to Tuscan Sunburn, ‘My Brilliant Friend’

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At last a book that dares to say, “The Italians don’t know how to live.”

My Brilliant Friend. Book One if the Neapolitan Novels: Childhood, Adolescence. By Elena Ferrante. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. Europa, 331 pp., $17, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

This novel is an antidote to Tuscan sunburn. It is a book you can turn to when you’ve read too many memoirs of fragrant olive groves, medieval bell towers, and lovably indolent workers. You need not fear that you will weep as you read about black-truffle pasta made with the freshest ingredients while you’re eating Buitoni shaken into the pot from a box.

51putd03r7l-_sx317_bo1204203200_Elena Ferrante tells a bleak story of two friends whose lives keep converging and diverging as they move from first grade to the end of high school in a mob-infested working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples in the 1950s. The good Elena, the narrator, is blond, and the bad Lila is black-haired. That echo of stereotypes from myths and legends suggests the nature of the tale.

Ferrante’s writing is nominally in the social realist tradition. But the plot owes a debt to neo-Gothic melodrama, if not soap opera, without the usual supernatural elements. It opens with a mysterious disappearance that is never credibly explained. (Later books in the series may resolve the issue, but in context, it’s a cheat.) From then on the novel unfolds as a grim rush of incidents that befall its young heroines in a city with dead rats on the streets. In an early scene Elena and Lila climb a dark stairwell, a Gothic trope, to the apartment of a shadowy man — “the ogre of fairy tales”– who terrifies children. Over the next decade, the two will make their way in a world of murder, theft, adultery, mob shakedowns, and more. Men embittered by beatings at the hands of their creditors or enemies return home to beat their wives and children, Elena and Lila among them. The childhood friends become links in “a chain of wrongs that generated wrongs,” all leavened by little kindness and less love. If many books about Italy imply that “the Italians know how to live,” this is the rare novel that dares to say, “The Italians don’t know how to live.”

My Brilliant Friend involves so much of children that the novel should be a moving — if not heartbreaking — coming-of-age tale. Overseas newspapers have said that Neapolitan women have wept on seeing their lives on its pages. But it’s hard to admire the industrious but charmless narrator, Elena, or her foil, the defiant Lila, who has a malicious streak. The novel doesn’t linger on their trials long enough to evoke the deep sympathy for their plight merits. It’s always racing off to describe the next misery. You never fully see why Elena remains in emotional thrall to her childhood playmate long after she has begun to see her friend’s faults and to move out into the world while Lila remains tethered to their neighborhood. Like a good Gothic novel, this book is a gripping horror story with characters whose actions often defy belief.

Jan is a novelist and award-winning journalist who spent 11 years as the book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. Please follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

Best line: Lila tells a violent suitor that “to call him an animal was to insult animals.”

Worst line: “As their vindictiveness increased, the two women began to insult each other if they met on the street or the stairs: harsh, fierce sounds. It was then that they began to frighten me. One of the many terrible scenes of my childhood begins with the shouts of Melina and Lidia, with the insults they hurl from the windows and then on the stairs; it continues with my mother rushing to our door, opening it, and looking out, followed by us children; and ends with the image, for me still unbearable, of the two neighbors rolling down the stairs, entwined, and Melina’s head hitting the floor of the landing, a few inches from my shoes, like a white melon that has slipped from your hand.” Tim Parks, one of best living writers on Italy, describes the “lazy writing” in the paragraph: “Making no effort of the imagination, Ferrante simply announces melodrama: ‘Harsh, fierce sounds’; ‘One of the many terrible scenes of my childhood’; insults are ‘hurled.’ The memory is ‘for me still unbearable’ though in the following pages the incident is entirely forgotten.”

About the author: Elena Ferrante is a pen name for one or more authors who may or may not be female and may or may not live in Italy.

Published: First Italian edition, 2012; first U.S. edition

© 2016 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

 

January 25, 2008

The Underworld on a String: Poet Louise Glück’s ‘Averno’

A former poet laureate meditates on a crater lake near Naples that the ancient Romans believed to be the gateway to hell

Averno. By Louise Glück. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 96 pp., $12, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Louise Glück writes about figures from Greek mythology as though they might show up tomorrow in a laundry room at Yale, where she teaches. Orpheus and Eurydice, Aeneas and Dido, Achilles and Patroclus – she knows them better than many of us know our relatives, well enough to claim the right to explain them to others.

In her latest collection of poems, Glück recasts story of Persephone, the personification of spring. In most retellings of the myth, Persephone is a man’s victim: She is abducted by the king of the underworld and partially ransomed by her mother, Demeter, who arranges for her to spend two-thirds of the year on earth and one-third in hell. Glück envisions the tale instead “as an argument between the mother and the lover / the daughter is just meat.” In this Freudian version, Persephone is her mother’s victim as much as a man’s.

This interpretation suggests the fatalistic vision of Averno, a collection of linked poems that glide back and forth between myth and modern life. Averno is a crater lake west of Naples that the ancient Romans saw as the gateway to the underworld and that Glück uses as a unifying metaphor for a book about the dialogue between life and death that intensifies in the last trimester of life. In her title poem and others, she returns to a theme introduced in her earlier work, an idea that’s a sophisticated variation on the sign the Grim Reaper often carries in cartoons: “Prepare to meet thy doom.” She delivers an italicized warning in “October”: “You will not be spared, nor will what you love be spared.”

Glück too good a poet to allow this idea to devolve into a parody of a televangelist’s message, and her book has a grim integrity lacking in the work of poets who serve up Splenda in quatrains. Even so, the fatalism at times borders on oppressive. It’s a relief when a spark of hope ignites at the end of “October”: “Surely it is a privilege to approach the end / still believing in something.”

Best/worst line: This is the rare book in which the best and worst lines are the same. In “The Night Migrations” Glück wonders how the soul will find comfort after death. She concludes that “maybe just not being is simply enough / hard as that is to imagine.” The idea “not being” might be “enough” is perhaps the memorable in the book. But the adverbs weaken it, especially that “simply,” which seems to serve no purpose except that of scansion.

Published: 2006 (hardcover), 2007 (paperback) www.fsgbooks.com

Furthermore: Glück won a Pulitzer Prize for The Wild Iris. She was the 2003–2004 U.S. poet laureate. You can hear her read “October” at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16723.

Consider reading also: The short poem “Demeter at Yellowstone” in Deena Linnet’s Woman Crossing a Field: Poems/American Poets Continuum Series (BOA Editions, $14.95, paperback) www.boaeditions.org.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 8, 2007

Under the Neapolitan Sun — A Repressed British Soldier Has a Sensual Awakening in Anthony Capella’s World War II Novel, ‘The Wedding Officer’

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When love seasons the pasta sauce

The Wedding Officer. By Anthony Capella. Bantam, 423 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

The Wedding Officer gives unexpected life to a theme that English novelists have developed so often it borders on a cliche — that of the repressed Brit who has a sensual awakening in Italy. This love story isn’t on par with E. M. Forster’s A Room With a View and Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April. But it is popular fiction of a high order, or easy but intelligent reading that is far above novels such as Newt Gingrich’s Pearl Harbor.

Captain James Gould arrives in Naples in 1944 with the thankless assignment of discouraging marriages between British soldiers and their distracting Italian girlfriends. His emotions collide with his duties when Livia Pertini becomes the cook for the Allied officers and prepares sumptuous pasta dishes followed by deserts such as baked pears with honey and rosemary. As James’s passions awaken, Mount Vesuvius emits ominous plumes of smoke, the bloodbath at Anzio approaches, and Naples resembles an open-air brothel overrun by prostitutes who sleep with soldiers to pay for their syphilis treatments.

As he tells this briskly paced story, Anthony Capella deftly balances history, gastronomy and the dilemma of a young intelligence officer at odds with more than the Axis powers and the local gangsters. And that mix helps to make The Wedding Officer the rare popular love story that may appeal equally to men and women. Anybody who doubts it needs only to read the first line of this novel and see if she — or he — can resist reading more: “The day Livia Pertini fell in love for the first time was the day the beauty contest was won by her favorite cow, Pupetta.”

Best and worst lines: This post will be updated, possibly by the end of the day, with these lines and more information on Capella’s work. I’m still in computer purgatory.

Published: May 2007 www.theweddingofficer.com and www.bantamdell.com

Furthermore: For information on the movie versions of The Enchanted April and A Room With a View, go to the Internet Movie Database www.imdb.com and search for their titles. Von Arnim was born in Australia and moved to England at a young age.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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