So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ, tr. Modupé Bodé-Thomas

An excellent Sunday afternoon read and pertinent to much that is being written and read in the media under the banner of the silencing of women today.

This short, articulate novella is a conversation, in the form of a lengthy letter from a widow to her best friend, whom she hasn’t seen for some years, but who is arriving tomorrow. It is set in Senegal, was originally written and published in French in 1980 and in English in 1981, the year in which the author died tragically of a long illness.

Our recent widow is reflecting on the emotional fallout of her husband’s death, how she is unable to detach from memories of better times in the past, during those 25 years where she was happily married and the only wife of her husband, thoughts interrupted by the more bitter, heart-breaking recent years where she was abandoned by him for the best friend of her daughter, a young woman, who traded the magic of youth for the allure of shiny things (with the exception of his silver-grey streaks, which he in turn trades in for the black dye of those in denial of the ageing process).

With his death, she must sit beside this young wife, have her inside her home for the funeral, in accordance with tradition. She is irritated by this necessity.

Was it madness, weakness, irresistible love? What inner confusion led Modou Fall to marry Binetou?
To overcome my bitterness, I think of human destiny. Each life has its share of heroism, an obscure heroism, born of abdication, of renunciation and acceptance under the merciless whip of fate.

By turn she expresses shock, outrage, anger, resentment, pity until her thoughts turn with compassion towards those she must continue to aid, her children; to those who have supported her, her friends; including this endearing one about to arrive; she thinks too of the burden of responsibility of all women.

And to think that I loved this man passionately, to think that I gave him thirty years of my life, to think that twelve times over I carried his child. The addition of a rival to my life was not enough for him. In loving someone else, he burned his past, both morally and materially. He dared to commit such an act of disavowal.
And yet, what didn’t he do to make me his wife!

It is a lament, a paradox of feelings, a resentment of tradition, a wonder at those like her more liberated and courageous friend, who in protest at her own unfair treatment (a disapproving mother-in-law interferes – reminding me of Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay with Me), took the road less travelled, taking her four sons, arming herself with renewed higher education and an enviable career abroad.

It is a testament to the plight of women everywhere, who live in sufferance to the old ways of patriarchy, whose articulate social conscience has little outlet except through their children, whose ability to contribute so much more is worn down by the age-old roles they  continue to play, which render other qualities less effective when under utilised.

I am not indifferent to the irreversible currents of the women’s liberation that are lashing the world. This commotion that is shaking up every aspect of our lives reveals and illustrates our abilities.
My heart rejoices every time a woman emerges from the shadows. I know that the field of our gains is unstable, the retention of conquests difficult: social constraints are ever-present, and male egoism resists.
Instruments for some, baits for others, respected or despised, often muzzled, all women have almost the same fate, which religions or unjust legislation have sealed.

Ultimately, she posits, it is only love that can heal, that can engender peace and harmony and the success of family is born of the couple’s harmony, as the nation depends inevitably on the family.

I remain persuaded of the inevitable and necessary complementarity of man and woman.
Love, imperfect as it may be in its content and expression, remains the natural link between these two beings.

Mariama Bâ (April 17, 1929 – August 17, 1981) was a Senegalese author and feminist, who wrote in French. Born in Dakar to an educated and well-off family, her father was Minister of Health, her grandfather a translator in the occupying French regime. After the premature death of her mother, she was largely raised in the traditional manner by her maternal grandparents.

She was a novelist, teacher and feminist, active from 1979 to 1981 in Senegal, West Africa. Bâ’s source of determination and commitment to the feminist cause stemmed from her background, her parents’ life, her schooling and subsequent experiences as a wife, mother and friend.

Her contribution is considered important in modern African studies as she was among the first to illustrate the disadvantaged position of women in African society. She believed in her mission to expose and critique the rationalisations employed to justify established power structures. Bâ’s work focused on the grandmother, the mother, the sister, the daughter, the cousin and the friend, how they deserve the title “mother of Africa”, and how important they are for  society.

It’s an excellent short read and an excellent account from the inside of a polygamous society, highlighting the important role women already have and the greater one they could embrace if men and women were to give greater respect to the couple, the family, or at least to exit it with greater respect than this model implies.

 

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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.

Signed, Sealed, Delivered – Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing by Nina Sankovitch

Signed SealedHow could I not pick this book up, a non-fiction tribute to the dying art of letter writing. A pastime that makes the young at heart feel like they have entered old age, because so few people do it any more, it has become old-fashioned!

I am a letter writer from so far back that I didn’t realise how early it began until reacquainting with people from the past via Facebook resulted in some reminding me of letters I had written when I was younger than 10-years-old.

I know I wrote letters when I was at boarding school (from 13), we all did, it was a matter of survival and a tactic to avoid that dreadful feeling at midday as we lined up the staircase waiting to retrieve our lunch to take outdoors, listening to the boarding school mistress read aloud the names of those who had received a letter today, and when your name wasn’t read out – inevitable really – it invoked a sense of disconnect, reminding you that you didn’t live at home, that you couldn’t just visit a friend, a neighbour, your family whenever you wanted, you had to wait for them to write a letter to be in contact.  Four years of listening to names being read out is enough of a sentence to instill a habit of letter writing into anyone surely.

LettersNina Sankovitch has a more romantic view of letters and letter writing and the word joy in the title is a clue. She doesn’t speak of the suffering of not receiving letters, she speaks of the joys of connection.

She gives her son a table and pen and he pens his first postcard letter at thirteen months old, fast forward to the present when he is eighteen and off to Harvard, now she is hankering for more than the brief text messages, tweets and occasional telephone calls, this more disposable form of communication that dominate life today but do not endure. She wants a letter and that desire makes her wonder what it is about a letter that means so much.

Will she convince her son to write to her, the kind of letters she has appreciated herself? Whether she does or not, that desire and the discovery of an old trunk containing letters dating back to the 1800’s that she inherits when she and her husband buy a new house, the seller wanting nothing to do with an old rotting trunk or its contents, send her on a quest of her own through the history of letters and her own personal correspondence, to discover and celebrate what is special about the handwritten letter.

“There have been times when I have needed the reassurance that I am not floating out there alone in the universe, that I am tethered to people who will keep me secure. The letters offer that reassurance. Even if those people are gone, the bond endures through the tokens of connection we passed back and forth, the written manifestation of our relationship.”

The author lost her oldest sister to a fast and brutal bile duct cancer, she has photos and memories of the times they shared, but it is the letters, postcards and birthday cards that keep her most alive within, just as the hundreds of letters written by James Bernheimer Seligman that she inherited in that trunk, a young man she never knew, but came to know through his correspondence created in her imagination, a vision of a person that almost seemed real.

From the ancient Egyptians to the medieval lovers Abelard and Heloise, from the letters received by President Lincoln after his son’s death to the correspondence of Edith Wharton and Henry James, Nina Sankovitch attempts to divine the allure of the letter. She takes us on journey through a stack of published letters that have been preserved and published, introducing those interested in letters and the epistolary form, to a long list of references that speak of great love, erotic fantasy, a mother’s love, a son’s last words from the front and much more.

I enjoyed the book and its introduction to some of the great literary correspondences, including the one found in her own backyard. I did find it overly sentimental in parts and despite the great introduction to those letter writers in history, there were too many examples of short encounters with little depth that had the effect of being easily forgotten.

It may have been better to highlight fewer, more memorable examples than some of the less engaging examples that pad out the book. On the other hand, readers have varied interests. I know I could easily have been swept away by a more in-depth discovery of fewer pairs of letter writers.

Samuel Steward 1957 Source: Wikipedia

Samuel Steward 1957
Source: Wikipedia

The relationship between Gertrude Stein, Alice B.Toklas and Samuel Steward (a poet and novelist I had never heard of) was one of the sets of correspondence that stood out for me. Steward wrote a letter to Gertrude Stein that was to become the beginning of a lifelong friendship, (interspersed with trips to Paris to see the two women), much of it conducted through letters and when Gertrude died he and Alice continued to write for another 20 years until her death.

Steward also wrote a journal, religiously writing notes every evening of all that had happened during the day, from which he penned his memoir Dear Sammy. A character in his own right, Steward left the world of academia to become a tattooist and pornographer remaining committed to the lifelong friendship he developed with Gertrude and Alice.

Ultimately, by referring to so many pairs of correspondence, we find something here for everyone, whether it hails from the present, our more recent history, or medieval characters like Heloise, the cloistered nun writing to her lover Abelard in the early 1100’s.

Madame Sévigné3I have moved Madame De Sévigné’s Selected Letters to within reach and feel inspired to become acquainted with one of the world’s greatest correspondents, a prominent figure in French society and literary circles in the 17th century, her letters continuing to enchant readers 300 years after they were written.

And do I still write letters? Absolutely, I just wrote one last week to an Irish poet!

So when did you last write a letter?

A timely and nostalgic reference to a dying form of communication and literary art form.

*

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

A Letter to her Sister

Hyde Park by Stella Leivadi @treknature.com

After the slow meander through Nancy Goldstone’s ‘The Maid and the Queen’, I reached for this library book because I was sure it would have pace and I am long overdue reading it, considering I gave it to my sister for Christmas two years ago.

Rosamund’s Lupton’s ‘Sister’ is set in London, from Notting Hill to Hyde Park, in a police station and St Anne’s Hospital.

It is Beatrice’s book long letter to her missing sister Tess, in which she narrates everything that took place from the moment she heard of her sister’s disappearance until now, when she will recount the entire episode as a kind of tribute to her sister. Telling a story in this way, as Ruby Soames does in her excellentSeven Days to Tell You’ makes the reading of it more intimate, there’s less use of the I and they and more than usual of the you and your. It’s almost a conversation, only the narrator speaks and you listen.

Beatrice has been living in New York and the disappearance of her sister brings her back to London and provides some distance and perspective on her own life, which will change forever as she attempts to uncover what really happened to her sister, refusing to accept the conclusions of the police and the easy acceptance of their verdict by her mother and fiancé.

As I put down the phone I saw Todd looking at me. ‘What exactly are you hoping to achieve here?’  And in the words ‘exactly’ and ‘here’ I heard the pettiness of our relationship.  We had been united by superficial tendrils of the small and the mundane, but the enormous fact of your death was ripping each fragile connection.

It being something of a mystery, I do try to second guess not just the culprit but also the twist, there always is one isn’t there? I often look for the character that is barely mentioned and I was aware that this particular narrative perspective can be the perfect conduit for the unreliable narrator. However, in this case, I neither predicted the culprit nor saw the twist right until it occurred, leaving me in admiration of Lupton’s ability to outwit and pleasantly surprise her readers.

I look forward to reading her second novel ‘Afterwards’.