Posts Tagged ‘Margaret Drabble’

I giorni dell’abbandono by Elena Ferrante

Futile the winds
To a heart in port,
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart.
(Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights,” second stanza)

Dear friends and readers,

A few weeks ago a good friend, Kathy, who writes a thoughtful varied blog on the books she reads and her experiences, wrote a blog on Ann Goldstein’s English translation of Elena Ferrante’s <Days of Abandonment. She had bought it by mistake and meant to buy Elsa Morante’s Storia (History), but when she began this one was pulled in and praised it highly. Her description persuaded me this would be the sort of subjective woman’s novel delving profound emotions and thoughts originally and absorbingly. The sort of thing that (to go for an English example) Margaret Drabble did in The Waterfall; Carol Shields wrote much softened variants (Mary Swann, Unless) in the US, Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights is the stuff raw, uncompromising, exhilarating.

The type is seems most congenial to Italian writers, Natalie Ginzburg (Le voci della sera, Voices of the Night), Anna Banti’s Artemisia Gentileschi.

Gentileschi loved heroic images: this is her Clio, or History

One I read recently which shared in this genre is Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Falling, only she complicated it by making the center a male sexual predator;or Margaret Atwood with her pronounced feminism. Surfacing? . Chantal Thomas combines the mood with the essay, Souffrir (Coping with Freedom). Men can write in this genre too: Tennessee Williams’s The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone, recently Colm Toibin, The South.

It’s important to know what genre this kind of book belongs to, and what it seeks to perform. They mean to break taboos, to move (as George Eliot put it in a meditation in Middlemarch) onto the other side of silence to explore abysses women walk by or in and how they can emerge.

Movie come in this genre too, sometimes mistakenly referred to as Brontesque, or Bronte-like. In fact the Brontes do not break taboos, but show why they exist. The source may be a book, another movie, it does not have to be a book of this type, so Before the Rains, and its significant (if you want to understand the popularity of the Austen movies), that Jennifer Ehle, a quintessential Elizabeth Bennet, plays the wife who leaves her husband here:

Here we watch the “other woman” (Nandita Das) destroyed.

with Linus Roache as the treacherous (in the end) cowardly husband/lover

Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment as translated by Ann Goldstein came and I was too busy or tired for quite a while to pick it up, but when I did, I found myself compelled to go on to the end. I write about it here to recommend it to others.

Kathy’s blog will tell you the central gist of the novel; also Jean Hanff Korelitz’s review in the Canadian Times praising the book.

This is a subgenre which revels in expressing what people might think inexpressible and what cannot be communicated to someone who has not experienced the same, or with great difficulty: a review of Anne Carson’s Nox included the line “The bereaved cannot communicate with the unbereaved.” Yes. It’s not a ritual of remembering but of the experience here and now. At one point someone comes to fix the locks in her house — because she’s frightened now living alone. Well she can’t cope with the mechanism, and locks them in and then locks them out. It’s not funny from the standpoint of the novel, but rather how to a confused mind all becomes bewilderment.

I want to address Kathy’s comment it’s Kafkaesque. Yes, we are in a paranoid world where the heroine is helpless against her husband leaving her. She seems utterly dependent on him and she describes other women as being the same.
But I’d like to say for me it goes beyond this: implicitly it addresses so many novels, memoirs, movies, I see or read — especially those by men. Here is the other side of silence it seems to say. In so many novels we see women from the outside; this tells of the inward life of one woman when the world she was told she had built by shoring up her husband and her relationship with him crashed. On his say so.

Her case is the husband has abandoned the woman but then the narrative is filled with fierce outcries. One can read it as radically de-contextualized; there’s a sense that it doesn’t matter what are the details; it’s the experience on offer that we live through.

I find it cathartic, and at moments profound in the way this kind of book can be. As Olga reaches an abyss of letting go, breaking taboos of thought, refusing to act out what she has been trained to for years (the person who shops, cooks, cleans, does bills, is controlled endlessly for all), we get these raw great passages, long lyrical. One is about the years of having very young children, which for some women includes breast-feeding (the “acid of vomit”, the smells, regurgitations, swellings of body, and impatient children, and insights about need); another on the man going off to work; this one is at the heart of the book because the heroine’s electrification comes from the breakup of this love relationship around which her world (and many women’s worlds) was constructed:

Everything was so random. As a girl, I had fallen in love with Mario, but I could have fallen in love with anyone: a body to which Fe end up attributing who knows what meanings. A long passage of life together, and you think he’s the only man you can be happy with, you credit him with countless critical virtues, and instead he’s just a reed that emits sounds of false­hood, you don’t know who he really is, he doesn’t know him­self. We are occasions. We consummate life and lose it because in some long-ago time someone, in the desire to unload his cock inside us, was nice, chose us among women. We take for some sort of kindness addressed to us alone the banal desire for sex. We love his desire to fuck, we are so dazzled by it we think it’s the desire to fuck only us, us alone. Oh yes, he who is so special and who has recognized us as special. We give it a name, that desire of the cock, we personalize it, we call it my love. To hell with all that, that dazzlement, that unfounded tit­illation. Once he fucked me, now he fucks someone else, what claim do I have? Time passes, one goes, another arrives …

Among other things what happens is she meets the husband and his new girlfriend (naturally much younger than she) in the street and she tries to beat them up, becomes wildly violent. I’ve seen analogous examples of this in descriptions of how women can come to want to murder a man who has left them (court cases) and do it, and not care if they are punished afterwards. What they want is to stop this thing from happening which so humiliates them.

She considers suicide. Not thoughtfully but cleans her medicine cabinets. (Now and again she cleans the house steadily). Then gets two bottles of sleeping pills, a big bottle of cognac. Sits there. Then throws it all away.

She offers herself up to have sex with the one person left in her building during this hot August, a musician who we can see is a depressive man. A remarkable scene where sex is written about with great frankness — not romantic at all (to connect threads).

The boy and girl (her children) bother her — they are upset. The boy has urinated on the girl’s bed and the girl complains. Interesting to me apparently the girl makes it a habit to threaten her mother physically. This time with pinching. I would not tolerate this for a minute but have been told some women do — as they tolerate their children being cruel to the smaller ones. So often children are idealized; especially in movies. They are presented as innocent and sweet and the adults hug and play with them. Not reality at all.

She cleans the mess and then realizes she has been neglecting the dog, Otto.

The dog is huge, her husband’s, not her choice to have such a large animal in an apartment, but she takes Otto out to teh park to run and to play. Something begins to click as she realizes it has held itself in. Trained. It licks her as they go out, then in the park it pisses, shits, romps, wants to play with her. Is grateful to her.

It’s then something breaks. She writes: I”t seemed to me if I were behind him, holding tight to the leash, I would feel again the warm air on my face, my skin dry, the ground beneath my feet.”

I feel she is taking a turn for the better. It may not hold, but it’s a sign.

Still Days of her Abandonment go on in much the same vein until we come to what I was waiting for: she runs out of money (at least for a time). Remarkable sardonic humor over scenes where first she lies, then when her lies are ignored, goes to the offices, and wonderful (I’m ironic here) finds there is no one to complain to anywhere. She does begin to get money from the husband, but it’s that moment where we see how society is set up to deflect her utterly, a wall.

Gradually she becomes calmer and a friend of a friend gets her a job as a translator of correspondence and reading foreign correspondence for someone. One of the more memorable passages for me is when a friend comes to “reason” with her: yes, it’s terrible how your husband has treated, but you don’t want to deprive the children of him and other things like that. It reminded me of how Lady Russell in the film 1995 BBC Persuasion (Nick Dear) speaks to Anne Elliot of how she’s got to get out — go to Bath; you only think you dislike it. Olga has been violated utterly over the course of 15 years, blamed for not being able to cope when it was she who coped with what is hard to cope with and now she is to accept, submit. She does actually: she begins to send the children over to the father and his lover for weekends, and the children (being children) are often mean: they will say how the new girlfriend is better at this, prettier, and what a great time they had.

As the novel moves on it and she begins to accept what has happened, she does become less passionate, and probably for many more probable. Time speeds up.

At first her husband looks better and younger, but within a year or so he has returned to his sloppier heavier looks. We begin to piece together information to discover he’s a real shit in business dealings too. Her friends invite her over and she has to endure their trying to find a man for her. It ought to be hilarious she says, but it isn’t. She is taken to a nightclub and sees the depressed musician in her building in his public self, looking accomplished, making beautiful music. The novel ends with her beginning a quiet friendship-love affair with him. Its last sentence:

I pretended to believe him and so we loved each other for a long time, in the days and months to come, quietly.

To me it’s probable throughout. For example the creature who suffers most in the novel is the poor dog, Otto. He eats poison by mistake and Olga just doesn’t have the strength or whatever it takes to do for a dog to save him in time. The huband says it’s her fault the dog died. No. It’s his.

One particular passage from many of insight into what we do in relationships that we don’t like to face:

What a mistake it had been to close off the meaning of my existence in the rites that Mario offered with cautious conjugal rapture. What a mis­take it had been to entrust the sense of myself to his gratifica­tions, his enthusiasms, for the ever more productive course of his life. What a mistake, above all, it had been to believe that I couldn’t live without him, when for a long time I had not been at all certain that I was alive with him .. Where was his skin under my fingers, for example, where was the heat of his mouth. If I were to interrogate myself deeply –and I had always avoided doing it –I would have to admit that my body, , in recent years, had been truly receptive, truly welcoming, only on obscure occasions, pure chance: the pleasure of seeing, and seeing again, a casual acquaintance who had paid attention to me, had praised my intelligence, my talent, had touched my hand with admiration; a tremor of happiness at an unexpected . encounter in the street, with someone I had worked with in the past; the verbal fencing, or silences, with a friend of Mario’s who had let me understand that he would like to be my friend in particular, the enjoyment in certain attentions of ambiguous meaning addressed to me at various times, maybe yes maybe no, more yes than no if only I had been willing, if I had dialed a telephone number with the right excuse at the right moment, it happens it doesn’t happen, the palpitation of events with unpredictable outcomes.

The book could be read as a warning lesson. The outward outline is an older woman’s husband leaves her for a young woman and does it ruthlessly and remains unpunished, and there’s been a mildly praised film adaptation in this vein: I Giorni d’abbandono too.

Olga (Margarita Buy) and Mario (Luca Zingaretti)

Looking at herself in the mirror

Elsa Morante’s Storia (History), a long masterpiece, one of the important books of the 20th century, combines an outward objective male historical saga approach (she covers 1910 to 1950 and much is about the wars, politics, vast and objective drama of Italy) with this kind of subjective inward woman’s novel, for she has two narrators, much like Dickens’s Bleak House: there is the impersonal ironic narrator, and there is the woman, Ida, Iduzza, driven this way and that, a schoolteacher, married, the war comes, she loses family, place, money, then fleeing, raped, exploited, starving, driven with her epileptic child and their dog. She does do right by the dog insofar as she can; it does not survive and when it and the boy go, she does too and so the book ends.

I probably would have gotten more out of Days of Abandonment in Italian but I no longer give over time to reading Italian. The blurb about Ferrante suggests it’s autobiographical. We are told the author lives in Naples and this is her second novel (and that has sold well apparently) but she keeps her identity a secret. I imagine she must know more people in publishing and distribution and good translators that this suggests 🙂

Chantal Thomas, a photo, back cover of Souffrir


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Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), The Cup of Tea (1879)

Again Cassatt, again her sister, Lydia, this time At the Tapestry Loom (1881) (we went to a wonderful show and lecture on her art at the National Women’s Museum of Art in DC this year)

Dear Readers and friends,

Over on Reveries under the Sign of Austen, meant to be a more personal and musing blog, I’ve written a personal account of how I and my family have experienced Christmas over the last few years, one intended to have some general application too. Here where I intend to write more impersonally and provide essay-like columns, I thought I’d list the books I’ve read this year that meant a lot to me — each set under the listserv community where I was led to read the book or posted about it. So it’s a celebration of listserv community life as well as an indication of what the different online communities do.

On Trollope19thCStudies at Yahoo, there were four:

I had read Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey before, but a long while back and it didn’t mean that much to me somehow. It just struck as more like Austen in tone and outlook than the other Bronte novels I’d read thus far.

This time Agnes Grey just stirred me deeply: AG is far more feminist than
either of her sisters’ books: it’s about a young woman’s attempt to become independent and fulfilled through the only respectable job offered to someone of her class: that of governess. That she fails is the result of her nobility of soul. I loved the acrid angry tone and the candour of the descriptions of social life as seen and experienced by the marginalized governess. She marries at the end: a gentle, aimable man as kind and egalitarian at heart as she; as much a reading person. It’s a quiet joy which she reverts to as a refuge.

Then I read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall for the first time. It’s a masterpiece about so much: the alcoholism so emphasized in the early and recent criticism is but a symptom of what makes Arthur Huntingdon a horror: the point is (like Richardson’s Lovelace) he was educated to become a tyrannical amoral horror, all his worst characteristics developed and his better ones ridiculed or ignored. And so he would make his son another like himself. It’s a novel of female sexual awakening too — and renunciation. The use of journals in the form of letters makes it about the deep past and since these are read by the man Helene Graham grows to love while still married, Gilbert Markham, it becomes his novel too. He is similar to the kind of man who appears at the close of Agnes Grey, only his male ego and pragmaticism and poetry of soul developed much more. I loved the movie adaptation by Nokes and Barron, and then I listened to it read aloud alternatively by David Case (oh a new voice for him I’d not heard before, softly lifting Northern burr) and Donada Peters as Helen.

Tara Fitzgerald and Helen Graham and Toby Stephens as Gilbert Markham

I now think Anne Bronte’s two novels superior to Wuthering Heights and all Charlotte’s novels with the exception of Jane Eyre and Villette.

The third was George Meredith’s Beauchamp’s Career, one of the great political novels of 19th century England — philosophically, realistically, psychologically, autobiographically.

Finally, John Sutherland’s Life of Scott. I won’t read the novels in the somewhat naive way I did before. He put together the man who wrote the journals with the man in the novels.

On Eighteenth Century Worlds at Yahoo, largely due to the enthusiasm of my good friend, Clare, I reread Richardson’s Clarissa not once but twice — I am just finishing it once again. How can this possibly have been a revelation? A transformation. Well, it was. I feel for the first time I’ve begun to read it aright. It’s meant as a portrait of a rapist: Lovelace fits all the characteristics of rapists as gathered by sociologists and others: hatred, desire for revenge, huge egoism (cannot see outside himself), strong turn to violence. The very approval of Lovelace makes visible the substructure of approval for predatory male behavior as attractive that makes the common large percentage of rapes in our society possible — with impunity for the most part. For it is still hard to get a rape case to court where there is no aggravated assault with clear injuries to the woman, she is still on trial. An added-on letter for the 3rd edition shows Lovelace imagining himself with a gang of men raping and humiliating Anna, her mother and servant: Richardson makes the point even here a court case might go in favor of Lovelace.

Clary rushing out to meet the amiable Hickman: all unreserve and generosity — I imagine Davies could do justice to this character in a rewrite of the film

Along with the book I’ve read many film studies and studied a number of films adapted from novels heavily influenced by Richardson’s (Les Liaisons Dangereuses, La Religieuse, Valmont, La Vieille Maistresse) and films adapted from 18th century history to look at how sexuality is presented today, how history presented in these films. Modern films too: Lynn Ramsey’s Morvern Callar with Samantha Morton. Also feminist and sociological studies of rape and sexuality, most recently Michelle Fine, “Sexuality, Schooling, and Adolescent Females: The Missing Discourse of Desire,” Harvard Educational Review, 58:1 (1988):29-53. One book by Nancy Paxton (on colonialist books and rape and female sexuality) led me to reading and gathering colonialist novels and listening to novels (e.g., all of Raj Quartet) where female sexuality and rape are among the many significant central topics.

Paradise Road, adapted from Betty Jeffreys’ diaries of captured women in Japan

It’s been fun and deeply educational and I’m not finished yet.

And I must not forget reading Katherine Jones’s A Passionate Sisterhood: Women of the Wordsworth Circle; a complete decent edition of Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun’s invigorating intelligent travel memoir of her life as an artist; Francoise Changernagor’s L’Allee du Roi, a deeply felt memoir-novel of the life of Francoise Maintenon (with the meditative 12th chapter); and Caroline Moorehead’s life of Lucie Dillon de la Tour du Pin, Dancing to the Precipice.. L’Allee du Roi I had read years ago, but it was like new to me; Moorehead on Mrs Delatour (a joke name) added a rich new set of memoirs and letters for me to delve eventually. I fell in love with Southey reading Jones’s book! And the poet, Sara Coleridge. Had it not been for people on the list, I would not have discovered the English translation of Vigee-Lebrun’s book on the Net is abridged, bowlderized, a shallow wholly inadequate version of this 2 volume set of meditations, character sketches, ruminations on a career and woman’s professional life.

Vigee-LeBrun’s watercolor pastel of Mont Blanc (found by Judy)

These experiences were also due largely to two new members, Penny and Catherine whose blog Versailles and more is on my blog roll.

For Women Writer through the Ages at Yahoo, the year began with Iris Origo’s The Last Attachment: The Story of Byron and Teresa Guiccioli, which I found so enlightening and irresistible I went on to her immortal (I think) diary of her experience of World War 2 in Northern Italy, War in Val d’Orcia, and Caroline Moorehead’s biography of her, Images and Shadows. I learned about a whole new Byron I had not met before — and I’ve read a good deal of his poetry, letters and biography, the Byron of his last years in Italy, the revolutionary, the man who was good husband material after all. Teresa has not been done justice to until now.

This was the year we stopped having formal elections on WWTTA, and it’s hard to remember all the books therefor. This was the year I read Ingeborg Bachmann’s poetry and her novel, Marina, but much as I was moved, I think last year’s summer reading of Christina Wolf’s startlingly original and deeply humane meditation on war as well as travel, Cassandra meant more to me. (Both choices and finds, thanks to Fran, for my knowledge of German letters is woefully inadequate.) Having said that, there are few texts that come near this (a translation of) Bachmann:

Every Day

War is no longer declared,
only continued. The monstrous
has become everyday. The hero
stays away from battle. The weak
have gone to the front.
The uniform of the day is patience,
its medal the pitiful star of hope above the heart.

The medal is awarded
when nothing more happens,
when the artillery falls silent,
when the enemy has grown invisible
and the shadow of eternal armament
covers the sky.
It is awarded
for desertion of the flag,
for bravery in the face of friends,
for the betrayal of unworthy secrets
and the disregard
of every command.

For the rest over the course of the year books by women I posted on to the list comforted and strengthened me. The one that most leaps to mind was Margaret Drabble’s Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws. But also (and this personally) important to me were Suzy McKee Charnas’s My Father’s Ghost, and opening up another set of books, Nicola Beauman’s The Other Elizabeth Taylor

Our spring was spent watching women’s films (films by women and about them) and while no one stood out (and I disliked some of the plays) I learned a lot about the subgenre of women’s films: often have women in groups, emphasize women’s friendship, will usually have a lesbian (only recently presented sympathetically), and this fed into my love of Austen films. Yes I discovered Andrew Davies and was won over by him too. Indeed it’s been such a rich year watching films I can’t recall even the half of them but know how much solace and companionship and insight I’ve had — going nearly weekly with Izzy to the movies was part of this.

And I should not omit how much the weekly poetry day and putting pictures up by women frequently have told and uplifted me — for I loved the subgenres women have invented and fulfilled and what’s typical of their art, e.g., they are coloristic.

Nell Blaine (1922-96), Rooftops (1967)

An author who now means a lot to me I began to read this year on the train going to the Washington Area Print Group sessions on Fridays at the Library of Congress: Colm Toibin. I was gripped by his The South, about an Irish woman that flees Ireland for an unconventional existence in Spain, taught his Blackwater Lightship, and am now so moved by his Brooklyn (which I’m reading right now) I’m having trouble finishing it.

I finished it early this morning. It’s force is grimly powerful, and I’ve been trying to think why. I have read his The South (about a woman who escapes her family to go live in Spain and finds herself embedded eventually in another family group), Blackwater Lightship (about deep alienation within a family), and The Master, Henry James as a gay man, an outsider. After a while the books all do spin around the same concerns, and for me at least are gripping. I find I can’t put them down easily each time I start one up again. I get intensely emotionally involved.

For Booklyn I found I had to peek ahead to the last pages to make sure our heroine does what will eventually lead to some happiness for her, I was so anxious for her. I found I had to have enormous strength to get through so much did I worry for her because she seemed to be this good person, self-sacrificing and could be bullied into giving up what could make her life joyful. But then when I came to the end of the book I saw I had been mistaken. In fact she might have liked to stay in Ireland and not return to Brooklyn, that is, stay with her birth family group instead of the new one she had become a part of it. So right now I’m thinking the force of the book comes from this grim insight: what we think keeps people together is not their intangible feelings, but order itself, and their value for one another comes out of how chance has put someone near someone that fits his or her needs. And either you belong to the order or you don’t.

Now that’s the thing: sometimes you don’t and the reasons for this have little to do with your merit.

It casts a new curious light on life. Come to think of it, I really began to read him as a result of a reading and discussion of two fictional biographies of Henry James: most the 19thCentury Literature at Yahoo read David Lodges’s, which I thought poor and coarse; but Toibin is again stunning as James by virtue of his homosexuality is someone who is not wanted in the order unless he erases who he is, and so he spends his life in exile, unable to become part of any permanent order; the title, The Master, is ironic. Just about every essay I’ve come across by Toibin engages me (I read them in the NYRB and LRB). He loves to write as a woman in drag. Alas, that Sedgwick did not live to write about his books.

A. L. Coburn, Frontispiece for Henry James’s Ambassadors, vol 22 of the New York Edition of Novels and Tales (1922)

The above is a photograph touched up to suggest something of the nature of the novel’s perspective: displaced, quiet, alienated yet there and part of it, ambivalent to cultural prestige (a similar angle is seen in Andrew Davies’s He Knew He Was Right; Davies’s adaptation of Hollinghurst’s gay novel, The Line of Beauty, lays bare the truth in The Master, Brooklyn). Coburn did a number of these frontispieces which were something new and, as photographs, give us insight into period

I have tried to join in on Janeites, Austen-l, and French Literature at Yahoo, but haven’t had the energy. We had a beautiful Austen summer on Women Writers and are enjoying cross-postings on James Edward Austen-Leigh’s memoir of Jane and James Austen, her brother’s poems from Austen-l. For French Literature at Yahoo I really wanted to read with them A Very Long Engagement by Sebastian Japrisot (because I loved the film adaptation, Un long dimanche de fiancailles), but I haven’t been able to make the time.

And finally from teaching: my students led me to reread carefully and appreciate Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake for the first time; I just fell in love with Mira Nair’s film of the same name (a still from this film is now my picture across wordpress) and Mississippi Marsala.

How about you, gentle readers? any book or movie or picture or music you want to list as having meant a great deal to you this year. A new favorite? What say you?


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