Saturday, November 21, 2015

Neapolitan Lives

After having read a couple of reviews raving about Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels I decided to try the first volume, and quickly became hooked. A few weeks and some 1,700 pages later I've come to the end. Are they all they're cracked up to be? Close enough.

"Elena Ferrante" is the pseudonym of an Italian writer whose true identity is apparently known to only a handful of people. She has written a few other books, was born in Naples, and is probably in her sixties or thereabouts; she doesn't grant many interviews, although there is one in the Paris Review. There seems to be no particular reason why we need to know more than that, and she herself has bluntly declared "I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors."

The narrator of these novels, who must be at least roughly contemporary with their author, is named Elena Greco, but no one ever calls her that. She is known as Lenuccia or Lenù, just as her closest friend, who is named Raffaella, is always referred to as Lina or (by the narrator) as Lila. The two grow up in an inward-looking, tightly-knit, and often violent neighborhood in Naples. Lila, depicted as the more charismatic and gifted of the two, leaves school at a young age and enters into a disastrous marriage (few if any of the relationships in the book bring enduring joy to the participants). Lenù, on the other hand, applies herself to her studies, attends a university, marries a professor, and becomes a successful author, becomes, in fact, the notional "author" of the narrative we read. Through the course of the books, which span roughly fifty years or a bit more, the two women orbit each other like twin suns, often at a distance but never entirely escaping each other's gravitational fields.

The story the books relate is too complex to try to summarize here (William Deresiewicz's longer consideration in the Nation is worth seeking out); there is an Index of Characters at the beginning of each novel and if you are anything like me you will refer to it regularly. The books are not flawless (and see the pointed demurral from the Ferrante admiration society by Tim Parks). The narrative could have been tightened and several hundred pages cut without sacrifice, the prose occasionally resorts to summary instead of description, and much of the third book, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, parts of which are set in a sausage factory, struck me as, well, a bit of a sausage factory itself. But in the end, these are quibbles. The books manage to maintain an intensity and integrity that are rare in the contemporary novel, while creating both a vivid (and uniformly dark) portrait of Neapolitan society and a meticulous delineation of a not untroubled friendship between two women.

All four books have been translated by Ann Goldstein. I don't read Italian well and didn't have access to the originals in any case, but the translations struck me as thoughtful and workmanlike despite the very occasional turn of phrase where the English and Italian languages seemed to have battled to a draw. The handsome, sturdy paperback editions shown here are published by Europa Editions. My only complaint with them is that the cover art lends the books a more burnished, lyrical tone than suits Ferrante's narrative. These are not comforting books.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Demain dès l'aube (Victor Hugo)

Demain, dès l’aube, à l’heure où blanchit la campagne,
Je partirai. Vois-tu, je sais que tu m’attends.
J’irai par la forêt, j’irai par la montagne.
Je ne puis demeurer loin de toi plus longtemps.

Je marcherai les yeux fixés sur mes pensées,
Sans rien voir au dehors, sans entendre aucun bruit,
Seul, inconnu, le dos courbé, les mains croisées,
Triste, et le jour pour moi sera comme la nuit.

Je ne regarderai ni l’or du soir qui tombe,
Ni les voiles au loin descendant vers Harfleur,
Et quand j’arriverai, je mettrai sur ta tombe
Un bouquet de houx vert et de bruyère en fleur.


Tomorrow, at dawn, the moment the countryside is whitened,
I will leave. You see, I know that you wait for me.
I will go through the forest, I will go across the mountains.
I cannot stay far from you any longer.

I will trudge on, my eyes fixed on my thoughts,
Without seeing what is outside, without hearing a single sound,
Alone, unknown, back bent, hands crossed,
Sad, and the day for me will be like the night.

I will not look upon the gold of nightfall,
Nor the sails from afar that descend on Harfleur,
And when I arrive, I will place on your grave
A bouquet of green holly and heather in bloom.

(Uncredited translation from Wikipedia; photo via Cachivaches.)

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

From Niagara Falls to Juárez

Peter Case has a new album out. Its title, HWY 62, alludes not only implicitly to Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited but also to the 2,248-mile road that, in its easternmost stretches, runs through Hamburg, New York, where Peter was born. "As a kid," he writes in the liner notes, "I was fascinated by the sight and sound of the trucks hauling by, and U.S. Route 62 always seemed like the connection to the world I wanted to live in, the American West. I tried to run away down HWY 62 for the first time when I was four."

Other than a fine cover of Dylan's early "Long Time Gone," the songs are all originals, and, as always with Peter, they mix the personal and the political. The haunting "Bluebells," featuring Ben Harper on slide guitar and Cindy Wasserman's backing vocals, may be my favorite so far:

HWY 62 can be obtained from Omnivore Records.

Monday, November 02, 2015


They emerged from the forest footsore, hungry, their panting dogs at their heels. Somewhere at their backs — a few hours, a day at most — their pursuers could take their time, knowing they would find them waiting where the river tumbled into the frigid sea. In any other season the shoreline was an arrow-shot further out, the water deep but untroubled enough to raft across. Not now; swollen by meltwater, the river churned, rising and falling, disgorging shards of ice and fallen trees — birch, larch — in a ceaseless roar. They stared into the torrent; its face bore the patient features of Death.

Brittle strands of rockweed skittered between their feet. In the offing, high above stray bergs, gulls dipped and soared in a wind so cold it struck the heart like a hammer. The mist lifted off, but the sun failed to warm their bones. The bleached and broken skeleton of some great sea beast lay upended on the beach, as if welcoming them home.

Friday, October 09, 2015

The Water Street Mission, Revisited

This little "Manual of the Water Street Mission" in New York City was published in 1880, and seems to have served both as an introduction for prospective clients and as the mission's annual report. The founder of the mission, a onetime "river rat" and reformed alcoholic named Jerry McAuley, was still alive at the time. Following his death in 1884 a number of subsequent publications would keep track of the mission's activities, including the Rev. R. M. Offord's Jerry McAuley: His Life and Work (1885), Samuel H. Hadley's Down in Water Street (1902), and Mrs. S. May Washburn's "But, Until Seventy Times Seven": The Story of the McAuley Water Street Mission (1936).

The image at the top of this post shows the pamphlet's very nice engraved frontispiece; the cover, which sports another engraving, is shown below. Neither image is credited.

Laid inside my copy, but definitely later in date, I found the gatefold photograph below, which bears the caption "This photograph was taken by Mr. Thomas Savage Clay, and shows the class of men from which we get our converts." A cropped version of the same image is reproduced in "But, Until Seventy Times Seven."

Previous Water Street Mission posts:

The Madonna of Cherry Hill
Death of a Salesman
A Manhattan Mission
Cassie Burns

Friday, October 02, 2015

Faithful objects

María Paz Otuño, writing of the late Spanish novelist Ana María Matute:
Her idea of order was her own; with her writings she was very meticulous: she knew where everything was, what it was, and whether or not it was of use; entirely the opposite of the disorder that presided over her life, her apartment, her table. Only what really mattered to her (books, pages, texts, pencils, papers, paint pots, brushes, figurines...) was ordered in the manner she thought fit, every object occupying its place in the world, in her world. They were her "faithful objects": "I refer to little things, ordinary and humble: a piece of red pencil, a key that no longer opens anything, a coin from before the war, who knows what, an infinity of things that stubbornly accompany us wherever we go, that resist abandoning us, stubborn in the face of, first, our indifference, then our curiosity, and finally our love." Objects that meant so much to her and that, when they disappeared, took away with them a little part of her life. "Perhaps to live is to lose things" – and in her case nothing could be more true: she left few material things behind, perhaps because she lived so much.
From a text appended to the end of Demonios familiares, Matute's final, unfinished novel. The passage is very simple, but allows almost endless possibilities for translation; in this case the translation is mine.

Earlier posts on Ana María Matute:

Last words (on Demonios familiares)
Bonfires (on Primera memoria)
Childhood (on Paraíso inhabitado)

Monday, September 28, 2015


Bacbuc threw something into the fountain, and suddenly the water began to boil fiercely, as the great cauldron at Bourgueil does when there is a high feast there. Panurge was listening in silence with one ear, and Bacbuc was still kneeling beside him, when there issued from the sacred Bottle a noise such as bees make that are bred in the flesh of a young bull slain and dressed according to the skillful method of Aristaeus, or such as is made by a bolt when a cross-bow is fired, or by a sharp shower of rain suddenly falling in summer. Then this one word was heard: Trink.

'By God almighty,' cried Panurge, 'it's broken or cracked, I'll swear. That is the sound that glass bottles make in our country when they burst beside the fire.'

Then Bacbuc arose and, putting her hands gently behind Panurge's arms, said to him: 'Give thanks to heaven, my friend. You have good reason to. For you have most speedily received the verdict of the divine Bottle; and it is the most joyous, the most divine, and the most certain answer that I have heard from it yet, in all the time I have ministered to this most sacred Oracle.'
Translation by J. M. Cohen (1955).

Harry Mathews:
Consulting his watch, he continued: "The hour is right, you won't have to wait. Here's what you do: take the boot off your right foot, and your sock if you're wearing one, and stick your leg in up to the knee. Keep it there for a minute plus eight seconds, which I'll time for you; then remove it quickly. The prophecy will follow."

I did as I was told, although I could not believe we had reached the bog. It was nearly dark.

Supporting me by my left elbow, the Count said, "Ready? Now," and I stepped forward. My foot sank slowly into heavy mud still warm from the sun.

A minute passed. Renée counted the final seconds: ", eight," and I extracted my leg from the mire.

Following the Count's example, I knelt down. In a moment there was perhaps a liquid murmur or rumble and out of the ooze, as if a capacious ball of sound had forced its passage to the air, a voice distinctly gasped,


The mud recovered its smoothness. After a pause, the Count shook his head and said, "Aha! Rather enigmatic. But there won't be more. And," he chuckled, "you can't try again for another year."
I've found only passing mention of the possible influence of Rabelais on Harry Mathews (truth to tell, there isn't all that much critical literature on the latter), but here the inspiration seems clear enough. Since I've been reading Mathews for decades but Rabelais only recently, this gives his novels an interesting new light — as does the description of the intricately contrived, magnetically opened temple in Chapter 37 of Le cinquième livre de Pantagruel, wherein is engraved the motto "All Things Move to their End." Readers of the last chapter of The Conversions will no doubt know what I mean.

N. B. J. M. Cohen regarded the chapters describing the Temple of the Bottle as "so dull that it would be charitable to ascribe them to another hand." Without weighing in on the debate over the authorship of parts of the cinquième livre, I can't quite agree. They're certainly bizarre, but maybe they just were ahead of their time.