Book Review: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Anybody in the contemporary literary scene has heard the name of Elena Ferrante. This past week, as a first act of vacation, I immersed myself in the first of her four Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend.

The story is narrated in semi-omniscient first person by Elena Greco, a young girl growing up amidst the violence and misery of a small town in 1950’s Naples. Setting served as an influential and interesting driving force of the plot, as the acute and insightful descriptions of how poverty shaped people reminded one of the wonderful A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Evidently, social struggle is a central trope of the novel, but comes second to the tense whirlpool of Elena’s friendship with Lila, the magnetic and intelligent classmate.

The novel begins with a phone call from Lila’s son to an older Elena, announcing that Lila has disappeared after essentially erasing her physical existence. Elena, in reaction, recounts her and Lila’s intertwined tale, fighting against Lila’s self-destruction. She recounts how she met the remarkably bright Lila in elementary school and was fascinated by her. This fascination continues as their relationship grows both close and fraught as a result of shared experiences in the neighborhood: love, sex, local politics, and social struggles. The book spans the period from the first grade, when they meet, to the age of sixteen, when Lila is married while Elena continues her education.

I am very critical of contemporary books. With the extraordinary tradition of literature we have built up to the year 2017, we should be reaching more fabulous heights. Unfortunately, books nowadays generally fall flat in the face of the twentieth century, for instance. It is not that books are poorly written per se,  but rather that they have begun to adopt the superficial and banal tone of our lives. This is why I am not hopeful for the books of the twenty first century, though I hope to be wrong, and cling to the idea of a desperately needed Romantic revival in the future.

That said, I have mixed feelings about Ferrante’s work, which is much adored at the moment. There were things I liked: the assured tone of a woman looking back on life and analyzing her past self objectively, for instance. The poignancy of childhood and the awkwardness of adolescence were well defined, at times even elegant. I also enjoyed the setting – it seems that every film and book about Italy is based in Sicily, so it is nice to see another side of the country. I disliked the emphasis on petty feelings and would have liked some deeper reflection on what Elena was feeling. Particularly bothersome was the fact that Elena’s fascination with Lila seems fairly unjustified: Lila is meant to be ‘brilliant’ but simply comes across as cold, detached, and not easy to empathize with.

As a result, I don’t know that I would continue to read Ferrante were it not for the dreadful cliffhanger that the book concludes with (and this is a personal preference, too: I do not like books that cannot stand on their own and I’m sure others feel much the same). We shall see: I may change my ambivalent opinion into a more positive one if curiosity eventually triumphs.

‘Hm…’

On late May walks, I realize that summer, with its street-lamps festive against the fading light of day, does not belong to home, but to me, all its music to me, and to who I once was and would so like to remain. Slender-armed, long-haired, Youth is such a sweet girl…

And what of the smell of laundry, and the bizarre presence of wasps? Why there are not wasps at any other time of year I know, but I can’t imagine why the smell of laundry doesn’t float about boulevards all day long. It would be a better world if it did, don’t you think?

Yes, the summer wind rushes over my face. I’ve been in a furred stupor for longer than I’ve thought, consuming sparkling cocktails and bitter rains, which I feared would leave my face in a permanent rumpled mess of mud. How easy to forget, all that is, when the sun shines, and one feels happy without knowing or wondering why…

‘Frantz’

**spoilers**

The good film is characterized by a pensive interlude, often silent. It extends from the final credits to the callousing return to daylight, and is broken when one asks one’s friend: ‘Do you think he was a coward?’.

Frantz is such a film. Set in 1919 Germany, it offers an astonishing flashback to the adolescence of the avid reader, who surely read his share of Remarque. It rings with that slower, more pensive and inherently poetic atmosphere that we grow to forget as we mature – away from the world of dreams. The rain-slickened cobblestones accentuate that intensely natural, woodsy flavor of Central Europe. The beautiful protagonist, Anna (played by the demure Paula Beer), remarks that what makes her love springtime is the sound of leaves rustling in the wind. I recall savoring the remarkably fresh greenery of Berlin last summer, and found it indeed apt to have viewed this film so close to the delicate (if allergenic) flowering of Bloomsbury squares.

It is a superb film: the plot is ripe not only with mystery but with emotion. All actors finely avoid melodrama, and many of them inspire tenderness. It is a multi-facted film that conjures up not only the tropes of love and death but the workings of the strange and fabulous construction called life.

2016. François Ozon: director of ‘Jeune et Jolie’ and ‘Dans La Maison’. Dark films all three; ‘Frantz’ is less satirical – although it retains Ozon’s observance of how life’s ironies turn on humans. Like his other films, this one too is voyeuristic: it is the slightly unstable Adrien who encroaches upon his victim’s deepest intimacy by way of the imagination: he comes to fall in love with the dead, rather artistically, through observation of what remains after the death of a man who he killed in an accidental lovers’ embrace.

Cinematography is in keeping with the themes: elegant, lyrical, sombre in a simultaneously tragic and quiet muteness. 2013 ‘Ida’ comes to mind, and both films showcase the timelessness of black and white, which can indeed translate into the 21st century without seeming jarring or outdated. ‘Frantz”s moments of symbolic coloring were not overdone, though they did encourage a wish in the viewer to see Anna perfectly happy.

Pierre Niney’s intense eyes and superb French complement the fascinating and incomprehensible character of Adrien. Paula Beer is sweet and appropriate in her perfume of mournfulness, though occasionally excessively stoic. Anton von Lucke did not strike a particular impression as ‘Frantz’, but might have been incapable of doing so as a result of the plot. In exchange, Ernst Stötzner and Marie Gruber are realistic enough to inspire veritable pity.

What makes this a rare movie is its detachment from moral judgments. It avoids didacticism, but is rather objective through its multi-vocal nature without being smug: like an Aznavour song, it successfully reflects on a passage of life that simply is… in a point in time, smelling of cigarette smoke and impenetrable enigma.

Chance

The pride of my small home nestles its fat self in a corner of the couch. It isn’t a cat, though it’s stuffed and squishy. It’s a pillow: brocaded, regal, and esoteric. Two chaste medieval lovers rendered by an expert embroider. Birds hover over them against the black background. Their sumptuous clothes indicate nobility. She is paused with her feather in hand, mid-two-dimensional-air, distracted from her script as he enchants her with his clarinet. They do not speak. Their eyes brim with meaning.Made of threads, they look at each other with the passion of centuries. They do not watch me as I spend innumerable days in ageless quotidian pressed against them. If you look at their embroidered eyes, it’s evident that they dream about each other at night. I suppose their souls must now be living somewhere in another form, perhaps across the planet from each other or unknowingly close, searching for what they do not know, along a lifetime.

Toxic Verses

Against me

your heart beat to the rhythm

of verses,

of Russian phrase;

And the headlights of cars passed outside the window,

ordinary,

Against the dying light of day.

I smelt myself,

Perfume and cigarettes,

Wooden in scent

and in attitude.

I watched you stare,

your blonde curls against the seat,

as always

melancholic,

and slightly warped as my head twirled, waltzing against the walls.

I remained estranged in a foreign room

of foreign tongue,

with only the sway of leaves outside the window

And a wet pansy,

drenched in alcohol,

To keep me company.

Review: ‘Benjamin Fondane: The Existential Ulysses’

 

An event about Benjamin Fondane, poet and existentialist philosopher, was held in honor of the Romanian Cultural Institute’s tenth participation at the London Book Fair. Panelists included Professor Mircea Martin of the Faculty of Letters of Bucharest, Ramona Fotiade, lecturer of French at the University of Glasgow, Nicholas Lezard, star journalist for The Guardian, and Andrew Rubens, translator of Fondane’s poems.

The evidently distinguished panel discussed an evidently distinguished, though lesser-known literary figure. The event was dedicated to Fondane, also known as B. Fundoianu, as a result of the resurgence his work is making as a result of two publications recently launched by the New York Review of Books. One is Fondane’s ‘Existential Monday’ and of particular notability is ‘Benjamin Fondane: Cinepoems and Others’, a first bilingual edition in English.

 

Professor Mircea Martin is widely accepted to be the biggest authority on Fondane in Romania, and kicked off the evening with a detailed, complex train of thought regarding the subject. Fondane ‘elevated the Romanian language to great heights’ and gained notoriety as a poet in Romania from an early age, but is now know for his anti-rationalist philosophy. Particularly interesting is an exposition that the professor gave us regarding Fondane thought on the ‘decolonization of Romania’: Fondane saw Romania as a cultural colony of France as a result of the bilingualism of the upper classes, and condemned the phenomenon as a problem of ‘a lack of echo’ (in other words, of inferiority complex) that characterizes all peripheral countries/cultures. Although the Western world is so globalized and so infused with ideas of postcolonialism today, Fondane’s observation highlights the reality that even now, countries such as Romania and most of Eastern Europe, tend to be culturally overlooked. Fondane is a pioneer of national self-examination in this sense, and therefore a consequential and seminal figure.

 

Statements such as ‘these translations indicate that his work is both the present and the future’ provoked questions for the audience. One gets the impression that Fondane is a titan of postmodern sensibility; his holistic thought is representative of the linear train of thought that Europe has been following since he was writing and has continued to follow naturally. This involves, for example, ‘a world in which there are no facts left, only interpretations’.

Professor Martin suggested that if Fondane had not met his tragic end in Auschwitz, his book on Baudelaire would have been championed over Sartre’s. Dr. Fotiade remarked that he wanted to make his own Un Chien Andalou, and was an early sort of Man Ray that, unfortunately, lacked funds. Such information was striking, as the common consensus even among many people in the field of literature who were present at the event was that Fondane is not widely known. Revelations of the sort pose a challenge, and induce a weighing up of who gets written out of the history, and the essentially arbitrary reasons this tends to occur.

The highlight of the evening was Andrew Rubens’ reading of the poetic introduction of his poem Exodus:

‘Remember only that I was innocent

and, just like you, mortal on that day,

I, too, had had a face marked by rage, by pity and joy,

quite simply, a human face!’

 

This was written shortly before the poet’s death and speaks to us in the 21st century, according to Rubens. His piercing reading of it was deeply moving.

Another positive feature of the event was a documentary about Fondane, discussing his life and his ‘polymorphous identities’, all the while enlivening his personality with photos from through his life. Panels have a tendency to become drawn out and overly long; a documentary adds a bit of freshness and completion.

 

 

However, as it was an event at the Romanian Cultural Instiute, there might have been more focus on ‘Fundoianu’ than ‘Fondane’, as he wrote very interesting things about Romania. He is not only a Jewish poet, but it seems like the panelists preferred to, perhaps unconsciously, refer to him as such, which doesn’t do justice to the extraordinarily multilateral figure he was. Fondane ought to be remembered as a fundamentally cosmopolitan character, as this is what makes him strikingly original.

 

Despite this, the event was a thoroughly interesting affair, worth attending. It succeeded in its scope of posing questions, many of which were elucidated in an intellectual manner. Others remained hanging pensively over the empty chairs after the event was over, allowing Fondane to take various flexible forms in the minds of the listeners after they had gone down for the customary glass of Romanian wine downstairs.