Book two of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, The Story of a New Name is as captivating as the first. Following Elena and Lila as they enter their twenties this second installment continues to explore the contours of their friendship, Elena’s growing sense of self and the impact of politics, class and gender on choice.
Book one ends with Lila’s marriage to Steffan and the assumption by Elena of Lila’ triumph in ‘achieving’ this life milestone first. As book two unfolds we see Elena questioning this assumption and coming to realize that once the thrill of excitement has dissipated, Lila has made the wrong decision. More jealousy and comparison ensues. Trips to the beach. Scandal. Writing and studying.
The scenes of Elena recognizes her intellectual limitations (or at least fixating on them) were most resonant for me. Considering the distance between being a ‘hard worker’ and ‘gifted,’ Elena realizes she won’t be a professor, she will instead have to be a teacher.
Book two ends again on a cliff hanger. 3/4 in I decided I didn’t care enough to read book three. I’ve just put it on the list at the library. So… cliff-hanger or not I’m seemingly invested enough in what happens to the friendship to read on. You detect reluctance? It’s there. Just not sure why. Anyone else finding this with this series? You both can’t stop reading and are also pretty ambivalent about the story while you’re reading it?
Don’t believe anyone who tells you they ran a marathon out of a sense of personal achievement. Or to raise money for a charity. Or in honour of someone else. They’re lying. They ran the marathon so they could tell you they ran the marathon.
I’ve run two marathons.
And I read all of David Gilbert’s & Sons even though every page of the last third (two thirds?) felt like an agonizing shuffle to the end. In running they call it “hitting the wall” – the moment around 30km when your body realizes it is still running and decides continuing is a very bad idea and would rather stop, if fact, would rather we had stopped 28km ago. But your brain is all like ‘no no, we need to be able to tell people we ran a marathon,’ so it supersedes all the pain and lactic acid and in a feat of masochistic revel marches each foot forward. Reading & Sons didn’t physically hurt (beyond the arm strain of hauling about a 5lb monster), but it nevertheless felt like a slog. A slog I’d made my way too far into to abandon, and one that I felt I ought to finish so I could say I had. An absolutely ridiculous idea because no one seems to have read or to care about the book – and if vanity was my motivation I really should have finished (okay, started and finished) Ulysses ages ago. Why did I begin in the first place? I don’t know. I’d ordered it from the library. I’d paid some late fines. I felt literary guilt. (what is literary guilt? I’d like to know).
What do you need to know about it? Plot wise it’s another novel about being a writer in New York and attending parties with writerly folks and sharing the unstated but nevertheless omnipresent anxiety of writerly folks. Actually that’s not a plot. Someone alert David Gilbert! Writing about being a writer in New York is not a plot! Sure, sure. He strings in some business about fathers raising sons, human cloning (don’t get excited – there’s nothing thematically or plot-ly interesting about it) and funerals as a waving of the hands like ‘hey! look! a plot!’ But it’s really just more about being a writer. In New York. Character? I guess it’s supposed to be interesting that we have an unreliable narrator – Philip? Patrick? I forget his name and can’t be bothered to look it up – who inserts himself into the famous writerly Dyer family because he so wants to be a part of the family and to tell us about what goes on with the Dyers. I guess it’s interesting like listening to a runner tell you about their training runs and carb loading is interesting. Which is to say: not at all. Setting: Did I mention this is a book about being a writer in New York? That doesn’t actually spend any time on the New York part except to remind us that we’re in New York? Theme: Uhhh… something about the ethics of writing about people you know, and the desire for immortality, and the inheritance of sons (if the title didn’t give it away you should know this book is entirely uninterested in women. In fact it seems genuinely put out that mothers have to exist at all. I think there’s probably some interesting thematic questions buried in here – just like you probably run past some beautiful scenery – but in the focused effort to just. keep. reading. I didn’t notice.
So yeah. Give me my medal and my banana. Time for a recovery read.
Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs opens with the forty three year old Nora Eldridge describing her rage. Anger at a lifetime of aiming to please others and of diminishing her desires, but more importantly anger that the promises made to her by life – becoming an artist, having a child, attaching to a significant partner – are not realized. As much as she is angry that these promises aren’t realized, she’s angry that she wants them in the first place. Anger that she is relegated to the position of ‘woman upstairs’ (a frequent refrain in the novel) who subsumes her desires and is thought by the outside world to have no desires in the first place.
From this opening of anger the novel wheels back five years to Nora’s first person description of her encounter with the Shahid family – Reza, Sirena and Skandar. Encounter seems too light a word for the intense relationships that unfold between Nora and each member of the family, and Nora and the family as a unit. Pulled together by art Sirena and Nora push one another artistically and in Sirena Nora sees the example of the life she wants and feels entitled to lead. Nora’s love for the family is as much a love for its individual members as it is for the promise of this life that she should be leading, but is continually and perpetually left out.
Jealousy is portrayed with such deft complexity in this novel as it is never named – or only ever fleetingly – as such. For Nora it’s not that she overtly desires and covets (though she does) the particular pieces of the Shahid life, it’s that she has actively rejected the opportunity to have such a life herself – actively chosen not to take it for hope of something more, or better, of deeper, or because she thinks she should.
It is in some ways a slow novel, and at times I found myself losing patience with Nora. I anticipated the climactic revelation of the rage (the explanation for which the opening chapter promises), but it wasn’t until the final chapter that I realized with what urgency I wanted the reasons for her anger to be made clear. It was a gripping final scene and is well worth the slower development of character.
So why didn’t I like Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist? Short-listed for the Giller Prize in 2012 and named as one of the best books of the year by Canadian papers The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star and even Amazon, it seems like everyone else thought/thinks this is a terrific read. Is it because I don’t care much about hockey (with the exception of gold medal games and stanley cup finals?) and the book is – on a surface level at least – about the violence engendered in the sport? Is it because the experiments with form – shifting from straight epistolary to metafictional commentary on the purpose of narrative – were neither subtle nor reflective of content (I reveal my bias here that I like formal play best, and perhaps only, when the form compliments or challenges the content)? Perhaps it was because the long delayed climax and been so overly built-up, so assured of its own cataclysmic significance, that when it finally arrived I read it as anticlimax and disappointment: this is it? this is what he’s delayed telling us? this is the source of so much shame? Or maybe it was simply that the experience of the narrator – an experience far removed from my own – was not offered or rendered in a way that invited empathy or connection, such that the distance between his experience and mine felt like that – distance – rather than as an opportunity to inhabit the skin and experience of someone else and in so doing to change my perception and reactions.
With all these complaints I should say that the novel does carefully and fully explore the consequence(s) of using the stories of others for our own purposes: the ways we can exploit one another’s histories and stories for our advantage without intending to perhaps, but just by using the stories as adage rather than as the complex, idiosyncratic experiences that they are.
This is all to say that I didn’t enjoy The Antagonist but it may be more my fault than that of the novel. Or it may just be a case where I disagree with the critical reception. Convince me otherwise – I promise to exploit your comments.