Frantumaglia, A Writer’s Journey by Elena Ferrante tr. Ann Goldstein

A fabulous collections of correspondence and essay like responses to interview questions over a period of twenty-five years since the publication of her first novel Troubling Love.

The title ‘Frantumaglia‘, a fabulous word left to her by her mother, in her Neapolitan dialect, a word she used to describe how she felt when racked by contradictory sensations that were tearing her apart.

She said that inside her she had a frantumaglia, a jumble of fragments. The frantumaglia depressed her. Sometimes it made her dizzy, sometimes it made her mouth taste like iron. It was the word for a disquiet not otherwise definable, it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain. The frantumaglia was mysterious, it provoked mysterious actions, it was the source of all suffering not traceable to a single obvious cause…Often it made her weep, and since childhood the word has stayed in my mind to describe, in particular, a sudden fit of weeping for no evident reason: frantumaglia tears.

And so for her characters, this is what suffering is, looking onto the frantumaglia, the jumble of fragments inside.

The first half chiefly concerns communication around Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment, the latter written ten years after her debut, although other stories were written in between but never published, the author not happy with them as she so piercingly reveals:

I haven’t written two books in ten years, I’ve written and rewritten many. But Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment seemed to me the ones that most decisively stuck a finger in certain wounds I have that are still infected, and did so without keeping a safe distance. At other times, I’ve written about clean or happily healed wounds with the obligatory detachment and the right words. But then I discovered that is not my path.

The second half implies a delay in the publication of the collection to include interviews and question-responses around the Neapolitan Quartet, beginning with the renowned My Brilliant Friend.

Readers ask poignant questions, while the media tend to obsess about her decision to remain absent (as opposed to anonymous) from promotional activity, to which she has many responses, one here in a letter to the journalist Goffredo Fofi:

In my experience, the difficulty-pleasure of writing touches every point of the body. When you’ve finished the book, it’s as if your innermost self had been ransacked, and all you want is to regain distance, return to being whole. I’ve discovered, by publishing, that there is a certain relief in the fact that the moment the text becomes a printed book it goes elsewhere. Before, it was the text that was pestering me; now I’d have to run after it. I decided not to.

Perhaps the old myths about inspiration spoke at least one truth: when one makes a creative work, one is inhabited by others-in some measure one becomes another. But when one stops writing one becomes oneself again.

…I wrote my book to free myself from it, not to be its prisoner.

She shares her literary influences (works of literature about abandoned women) from classic Greek myths, Ariadne to Medea, Dido to the more contemporary Simone de Beauvoir’s The Woman Destroyed, referring to recurring themes of abandonment, separation and struggle. She mentions literary favourites, Elsa Morante’s House of Liars.

One interviewer asks why in her early novels, her characters depict women who suffer, to which she responds:

The suffering of Delia, Olga, Leda is the result of disappointment. What they expected from life – they are women who sought to break with the tradition of their mothers and grandmothers – does not arrive. Old ghosts arrive instead, the same ones with whom the women of the past had to reckon. The difference is that these women don’t submit to them passively. Instead, they fight, and they cope. They don’t win, but they simply come to an agreement with their own expectations and find new equilibriums. I feel them not as women who are suffering but as women who are struggling.

And on comparing Olga to Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, who she sees as descendants of Dido and Medea, though they have lost the obscure force that pushed those heroines of the ancient world to such brutal forms of resistance and revenge, they instead experience their abandonment as a punishment for their sins.

Olga, on the other hand, is an educated woman of today, influenced by the battle against the patriarchy. She knows what can happen to her and tries not to be destroyed by abandonment. Hers is the story of how she resists, of how she touches bottom and returns, of how abandonment changes her without annihilating her.

In an interview, Stefania Scateni from the publication l’Unità, refers to Olga, the protagonist of The Days of Abandonment as destroyed by one love, seeking another with her neighbour. He asks what Ferrante thinks of love.

The need for love is the central experience of our existence. However foolish it may seem, we feel truly alive only when we have an arrow in our side and that we drag around night and day, everywhere we go. The need for love sweeps away every other need and, on the other hand, motivates all our actions.

She again refers to the Greek classics, to Book 4 of the Aeneid, where the construction of Carthage stops when Dido falls in love.

Individuals and cities without love are a danger to themselves and others.

The correspondence with the Director of Troubling Love (L’amore molesto), Mario Martone is illuminating, to read of Ferrante’s humble hesitancy in contributing to a form she confessed to know nothing about, followed by her exemplary input to the process and finally the unsent letter, many months later when she finally saw the film and was so affected by what he had created. It makes me want to read her debut novel and watch the original cult film now.

Frantumagli is an excellent accompaniment to the novels of Elena Ferrante and insight into this writer’s journey and process, in particular the inspiration behind her characters, settings and recurring themes.

Note: Thank you to the publisher Europa Editions, for providing me a copy of this beautiful book.

Buy a copy of any of Elena Ferrante’s novels via Book Depository here.

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10 Books I’m Looking Forward to Reading in 2017, Mirrors, Blooms, Wonder, War, Not Nothing

I’m not really into making reading lists, but I do make lots of reading piles of books I think I might read next, which often then get changed, as I’ll read a great review of a book I have on the shelf and be convinced I have to read it sooner, now it’s come to my attention.

So here are five books on my pile at the moment and five waiting on my kindle to start the year with, though don’t be surprised if you find me reading and reviewing something entirely different!

Five From The Shelf

2017-reads

thousand-mirrorsIsland of a Thousand Mirrors, Nayomi Munaweera (Sri Lanka) – Last year I read her second novel What Lies Between Us and it made my top 5 fiction reads and this one is her debut which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Dublin Impac Prize and won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia. It’s about two families on either side of the conflict during the long civil war, told though the eyes of the eldest daughter of each family.

cereusCereus Blooms at Night, Shani Mootoo (Trinidad) – Part of my fascination with reading stories by women from the Caribbean culture, this one came to my attention last year and is said to be a fascinating narrative propelled by vivdly drawn characters, set on a fictional island, a mystery about a reclusive old woman accused of murder.

sense-of-wonderA Sense of Wonder, The World’s Best Writers on the Sacred, the Profane, & the Ordinary, edited by Brian Doyle– a beautiful Christmas gift from a dear friend containing an anthology of powerful stories, essays and reflections from some of the world’s best writers including Pico Iyer, Mary Oliver, Barry Lopez, Helen Garner, Cynthia Ozick

foundlings-warThe Founding’s War, Michel Déon (France) #RIP – the French writer who lived in Ireland, with over 50 novels, plays and essays published, just passed away Dec 28 at the age of 97 years. Having read his novel The Foundling Boy, translated into English by Gallic Books, I’m going to read the sequel A Foundling’s War as a tribute to his lifetime of considerable achievement.

do-not-sayDo Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien (Canada/China) – no need to say much about this one, shortlisted for the Man Booker 2016 and I would say it was The People’s Choice, the book most people loved most from the list and one I picked to read when the longlist came out. Secrets from the revolution, a pianist and a composer, intimate and political.

5 on the Kindle

three-daughters-of-eveThree Daughters of Eve, Elif Shafak (Turkey) – I’ve been a fan of Rumi scholar Elif Shafak since she wrote The Forty Rules of Love and have since read The Bastard of IstanbulHonour and her essay The Happiness of Blond People – A Personal Meditation on the Dangers of Identity so I’m looking forward to her latest which she says tackles the confusion of Turkey, faith and God from Turkey to Oxford and back.

exit-westExit West, Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan) – literary novel of new love in a time of war which causes them to immigrate when the world is in crisis – by a renowned author, with a couple of rave reviews, time to get on the band wagon, a timely novel.

the-good-peopleThe Good People, Hannah Kent (Australia/Ireland) – well I missed Burial Rites, her debut historical novel set in Iceland, about a woman who was executed, so I’m going for her second novel, this one set in Country Kerry, Ireland in 1825 in a time of traditions and superstitions surrounding those born a little different, and women who are vilified for having anything to do with them. I hope it’s as good as her debut!

breaking-connectionsBreaking Connections, Albert Wendt (Samoa) – Reading around the world brings me down under to leading Pacific writer Albert Wendt’s new novel by the excellent Huia Publishers. A group whose members refer to themselves as the Tribe, mainly Polynesian grow up together, rise from poverty and become successful professionals, bound by love and fierce loyalty. When one of them is killed, they face an ensuing crisis.

train-to-pakistanTrain to PakistanKhushwant Singh (Pakistan/India) – a classic set in the partition, that was recommended me to me last year after reading Where The River Parts by Radhika Swarup.

 

 

Plenty to choose from there, I hope you are looking forward to some exciting reads to start the new year as well.

Let me know what you’re looking forward to!

Click Here to Buy A Novel via Book Depository

Sidewalks – Essays by Valeria Luiselli translated by Christina MacSweeney

SidewalksValeria Luiselli is a philosophical meanderer whose roving thoughts bring her to a cemetery in Venice in search of Russian poet,  Joesph Brodsky’s tomb and wandering that alluring city’s streets so late at night she is locked out of the one room she managed to find in a convent.

She ponders the map with the slow-moving icon of a plane on the screen as she flies home and thinks about the layout of the land beneath and later will find a connection between a photo of cartographers in the Mexican Map Library and  Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.

Sidewalks sees her leaving the four walls of her apartment late at night for a last cigarette outside the front door, seeking escape and encountering the advice and wisdom of a doorman who shares his own long life views on how one best comes to know thyself.

“If there still exists a gaze blessed with liminal wisdom, it is the gaze of night-shift doormen. They are the only true free-thinkers – generous men capable of conversing intelligently at midnight; empathetic accomplices, offering the consolation of a companionship replete with the same reprehensible vices you yourself have and defend.”

She laments the age of the individual computer, the window inside the window that has all but eliminated household drama and made high-rise voyeurism unexciting if not nonexistent.

“It is clear that the personal computer is the great modern attack on good old-fashioned voyeurism. From the moment these machines were installed in our homes, the irreversible process of the degeneration of character began and ruled out the possibility of anyone doing anything interesting for the delight of their voyeuristic neighbour.”

Papelos

Original Spanish version

She is interested in spaces, voids, the edge of things, she tries to make sense of her home town in Mexico, a city whose first plan was allegedly scratched into sand and has continued to sprawl out of any recognisable or logical shape ever since.

Her essays reference other essayists as things she observes in her meandering bring back lines once read and remembered, passages of long dead authors become an old-fashioned, enjoyable distraction for a young woman, those words from the past arising unbidden while out walking sidewalks, no electronic media in sight.

In an essay on the river Spree, in Berlin, Fabio Morabito writes:

“A river tends to contain the city it crosses and to curb its ambitions, reminding it of its face; without a river, that is, without a face, a city is abandoned to itself and can become, like Mexico city, a blot.”

It is a slim volume and many of the essays are split into titled paragraphs, the first essay littered with the names and dates of the dead inhabiting the same resting place as Brodsky, although it wasn’t clear to me whether there was a link between the content and the named.

It feels as though there could well be much more to this collection than is picked up on first reading, especially given the original work was written in Spanish and many of the named places are foreign.

Intelligent, introspective essays that delight in being out and about and an appreciative and noteworthy introduction by the Dutch author and translator Cees Nooteboom. An author to watch out for.

Brodsky Luiselli

Joseph Brodsky & Valeria Luiselli

 

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett MarriageAs a metaphor for a collection of essays that pays tribute to a life of writing, it’s an apt title, though as the title of a book that lures me towards picking it up to read the blurb and buy it, I admit to being slow to respond to this collection. It is actually a very beautiful minimal cover, the fact that it has a white background and contains only text proof it is a book targeted at existing fans of Ann Patchett, no need for seductive images or clever marketing to lure readers, this cover has the mark of confidence and attitude.

It also contains something of an illusion, the author’s name is embossed in a shiny aquatic blue, which depending on how much light you expose it to, either appears blue or black. It occurred to me while reading, that this might not be an accident, I played around with the cover, watching letters I would swear were shiny blue disappear and become matt black. Appearances are not always the truest guide, looking at things from a slightly different angle, can significantly alter perceptions. Even this title is not all that it seems and now that I have finished the book, I find it most apt.

Many of the essays have been published in other publications, as Ann Patchett describes how she grew to become a writer of fiction, something she always wanted and knew she would do, but that necessitated a slew of other jobs as well as writing non-fiction articles for magazines that would pay. As she points out in the very first lines of the book:

“The tricky thing about being a writer, or about being any kind of artist, is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living. My short stories and novel have always filled my life with meaning, but, at least in the first decade of my career, they were no more capable of supporting me than my dog was.”

Grace PaleyWe read about the memorable story her father read to her over the telephone one Christmas, her fiction teacher Allan Gurganus who made them write a story every week for two semesters, turning them into musicians of language who learnt that a habit of regular practice leads to improvement and classes with Grace Paley, for whom support of human rights sometimes trumped attendance at class, whether that meant her disappearing to protest in Chile or being absent from a scheduled appointment having given her attention to a tearful tale from another student.

“Grace wanted us to be better people than we were, and she knew that the chances of our becoming real writers depended on it. Instead of telling us what to do, she showed us. Human rights violations were more important than fiction. Giving your full attention to a person who is suffering was bigger than marking up a story, bigger than writing a story.”

It is perhaps not until she opens her own bookstore, Parnassus Books that the influence of Grace Paley rises, as Ann Patchett becomes something of an activist herself for the plight of the independent bookstore, which she writes about ni the essay The Bookstore Strikes Back.

Parnassus Books

She writes about a legacy of separation and divorce stretching back generations, not so much present in the genes, more like evidence that we all need to experience those natural life stages that often mean a significant relationship or marriage doesn’t survive. Finding it hard to accept and taking advice from her mother to heart, she vows never to remarry. She is wedded to her work. And she has a dog. She loves.

She shares a growing love of opera, a late bloomer having discovered it almost by accident while researching her novel Bel Canto she discovers what becomes a lifelong passion, which living in Nashville, known for another type of music altogether wasn’t so easy to foster, until The Met realising that thousands of people would love to see opera regularly but couldn’t, came up with the idea of bringing it to the masses via cinema – live high-definition opera performances.

Met Opera“We watch the patrons in New York, people who have paid ten times more for tickets, and some more than that, as they make their way to their seats. Like us, the audience members on the screen stop to greet the familiar people around them, and like the audience in New York, we clap for both arias and curtain calls. We call out Brava! And Bravo! The rational mind understands the singers can’t hear us, and yet we are living so completely in our high-definition moment it is easy to forget.”

“There, in a comfortable fold-down seat with a whiff of popcorn in the air, I watched Anna Netrebko lie on her back, dangle her head down into the orchestra pit, and sing Bellini like her heart was on fire.”

And The Story of a Happy Marriage? Yes, it is an essay in the collection and one that she was endlessly encouraged to write and in the end becomes the cover title of this book, because the metaphor is all embracing of a woman who always knew what she wanted, never straying from that despite the numerous obstacles and even finds time now to give back to those who helped set her out on the path early on.

The essays stand on their own but equally form a cohesive narrative and are written as if Ann Patchett is writing to that one true friend, one of the reasons that many readers and reviewers have commented on this collection by saying they could imagine being friends with
her. And as she says in one of her books, Truth and Beauty:

“Writing is a job, a talent, but it’s also the place to go in your head. It is the imaginary friend you drink your tea with in the afternoon.”

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Bibliobibuli by Anne Fadiman

This is my kind of memoir. Or non-fiction. Or essays. Collection of whatever it is we wish to call it. Vignettes.

I have to thank one of my favourite bloggers for bringing this beautiful slim volume of vignettes to my attention, literally.  And if you haven’t already been there, you must visit: Vishy The Knight, an impassioned bibliophile and meticulous reviewer of a wide range of books.

Ex LibrisAnne Fadiman has compiled this collection of eighteen essays written over a period of four years. She calls them confessions, I say they are a tribute to reading and to books. The subtitle to the book actually reads Confessions  of a Common Reader, but I think she might also be a bibliobibuli (those who read too much). One of the most preferable over indulgences I can think of.

I love that her first line is a reference to the Irish novelist John McGahern.  She shares an anecdote from his reading life that she relates to and that many of you, if you have ever been carried away with the reading of a book to the exclusion of all else, will recognise. From that first sketch we read on  continuing to delight in her bookish obsessions and hilarious family, with whom she has long shared the joy of sesquipedalians (big words).

Merging book collections with her husband only takes six years after moving in together and the difficult decisions that are required to be made as a result of deciding not to keep multiple copies and other dilemmas are hilarious and almost comforting to read.

Her attitude on how to treat a book starts off with a hilarious encounter between her brother and a hotel chambermaid  in Copenhagen, a woman who shared their passion for books but clearly sat in the opposite camp with regard to their treatment.

“To us, a book’s words were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them were a mere vessel, and it was no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated. Hard use was a sign not of disrespect but of intimacy.”

It is the smallest book ever to teach a reader so many new words and the perfect beginning of year read. A collection of entertaining, head-nodding, essays by a bibliophile. A must read for all!

Ex Libris

Sensual Delight

How differently do mental pleasures

Lead us from book to book to roam

And ever, with these ancient treasures,

How cheerful winter nights become!

*

A happy life grows warm in every limb;

And if a precious parchment you unroll,

Your senses in delight appear to swim

And heaven itself descends upon your soul.

J.W.Goethe (1749-1832)

Kathleen Jamie’s Findings

FindingsHer latest poetry collection The Overhaul recently won the Costa Prize for poetry, another accolade for this award-winning writer who has found her niche, her publisher previously having had difficulty placing her work in a clear genre.

Findings was, by anyone’s standards, a fiendishly tricky sell. Jamie’s choice of the essay form was unfashionable; her subjects (Orkney in midwinter, a pair of nesting peregrines, 21st-century flotsam on a Hebridean shoreline) were queer and disparate. Her publisher wasn’t even sure how the book should be classified. Travel writing? Not quite: none of the essays took Jamie outside her native Scotland; many were written from her own back door. Autobiography? The book was bewitchingly first-person, but there was no sense of a coherent memoir.

An extract from the Guardian’s Kathleen Jamie – A Life in Writing

 

Nesting Peregrine Photo by Christophe Cage, Wikipedia

I see them as wonderful nature essays, a form of creative non-fiction, much more than notes of a nature walk, though they are  inspired by her time on the Hebridean and Orkney Islands and near her home in Fife; but with the purpose of observing and learning to capture in words what she sees, without the need to analyse.  She describes watching ospreys and peregrines and shares her concern over whether they are nesting or not, there having been evidence of only two pair of these birds attempting to nest in the entire country.

She moves away from identifying and labelling what she sees, towards painting a picture with words, a description so apt, it is as if you are there with her as that large unknown bird she describes so vividly traverses the sky overhead.

This is what I want to learn: to notice, but not to analyse. To still the part of the brain that’s yammering, ‘My God, what’s that? A stork, a crane, an ibis – don’t be silly, it’s just a wild heron.’ Sometimes we have to hush the frantic inner voice that says ‘Don’t be stupid,’ and learn again to look, to listen.

Visiting a few of the Scottish Hebridean Islands, Ceann Iar, Coll, meandering along the tide line of inlets, she and her companions find the washed up remains of a small whale, a bit of a plane and other flotsam including seal’s vertebrae, an orange traffic cone, driftwood and plastic garbage.

This is what we take away from Ceann Iar: a bleached whale’s scapula, not the door of a plane: an orb of quartz, not a doll’s head.

Visiting a Shieling – from Twenty Years of Hebridean Memories (1939) by Emily McDonald

Traces of contemporary life at the water’s edge and higher up in the hills, she walks among remnants of an earlier life, the shielings, now abandoned summer huts made of stone and turf, built in the mountain pastures where girls often spent their summers, grazing the animals, receiving visits once a week to take back the cheese and butter they’d produced and to replenish their food stocks, not to mention the young men who paid calls on them in the evening, the time passing sharing local news, story-telling, fun and laughter.

The top of the year, the time of ease and plenty. The people would come up from the farmsteads below around the beginning of July – ‘the girls went laughing up the glen’ as the poem says – and return at harvest time. Up here, they made milk, butter and cheese, and it was woman’s work. What a loss that seems now: a time when women were guaranteed a place in the wider landscape, our own place in the hills.

Not only does Kathleen Jamie evoke something of the present and the past in her observations of these remote islands, she leaves you reminding yourself to pay more attention, to be mindful, to stop, to listen, to stand and stare, to look up – promising as a reward, a renewed connection to our surroundings and an appreciation of all the species that live and have lived within it.

To read Kathleen Jamie is the next best thing to a slow walk in that great living outdoors, I believe she has found the perfect niche.  I’m already looking forward to her next collection of essays ‘Sightlines‘. Do you have a favourite nature writer?