AN UNEDUCATED GUESS

The Neapolitan Novels
by Elena Ferrante

A couple weeks ago, I happened to find myself in the back corner of a Sarasota (that would be Florida) bookshop, perched on a folding chair, talking about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels with a group of women who had at least a generation on me. Because this is what I do. I travel to destinations even sunnier and warmer than where I already live to participate in book clubs of the elderly. (And/or my mother happens to be quite good at coming up with creative cultural activities when I’m in town.)

So the ladies and I were rapping and inevitably the conversation turned to the question that fans of these books seem anxious to answer: Who is Elena Ferrante? Funny how when a writer uses a pen name, people immediately want to know their true identity. Perhaps they feel it will give them a deeper understanding of the book, one they could not possible have otherwise. Yet once the author’s true identity is revealed, I wonder how much it actually brings any new, significant insight versus simply pacifying the public’s curiosity.

When it comes to uncovering the real Ferrante, the literary gumshoes out there seem to be focusing their detective work on people whose lives are/were very similar to the novels’ narrator, the fictional “Elena Greco.” What’s particularly strange to me about this line of investigation is that if someone has gone to all the trouble of publishing pseudonymously and even in the midst of international acclaim has yet to come forward, would she really veil herself so thinly in the story itself?

I’m thinking the author is buried a little deeper within these books. The series does have two protagonists, after all. The yin to Elena’s yang is Lila, Elena’s lifelong frenemy, muse, cheerleader and antagonist, all wrapped up in one very troubled, brilliant woman. Unlike Elena, Lila never makes it out of their insulated neighborhood in Naples and consequently, she never experiences the academic or professional success of Elena. But Lila is innately intelligent and clearly has a gift for writing from an early age. And it is her talents and example that spur Elena on.

Interwoven but ultimately divergent, the paths of these two characters could be seen as two tines of a fork in the road; each can see in the other what her life may have been like had she made different choices. Or maybe the two women are meant to be two sides of one person. Maybe a female born in 1944 Naples wouldn’t feel “whole” following one path or another. Maybe none of us do.

For my money (and I have people in Sarasota willing to back me on this), the real Elena Ferrante isn’t someone whose life has been like that of the fictional Elena. It is someone whose life has been like Lila’s. Rather than re-hashing a semi-fictional version of her own experiences, wouldn’t it be more interesting for a writer to explore what it would have been like had she taken another path?

 

HANGSAMAN

This book's weird title comes from an American folk song.

This book’s weird title comes from an American folk song.

Hangsaman
by Shirley Jackson

One of the things I find most interesting about adolescence is the fact that it’s such a new phenomenon. The teen ages (and puberty) have always existed, but for the majority of human history, ages 13-19 were considered a part of a person’s childhood or adulthood, not a separate developmental stage. While there isn’t an exact moment in history when the teenager emerged, in the U.S., it was really not until the mid-20th century that teenagers became a separate group. There are a lot of reasons for this. As earlier 20th century economies shifted from an agrarian economy to an industrial one and the Great Depression took hold, laws mandating compulsory education and child labor protections went into effect. Suddenly adolescents from a wider range of social classes were attending high school in much greater numbers and through this shared experience, a communal culture began to form. Marketers caught on and in the 1940s, they coined the term “teenager” for their newfound customer. The rise of the automobile is also considered a major factor in all this.

It was with some of this context in mind that I recently read Shirley Jackson’s 1951 novel, Hangsaman. You’ve probably all read The Lottery, Jackson’s short story about a town that holds an annual lottery to determine which of its members will be stoned to death by their neighbors. Hangsaman is equally dark in its own way. Its simple premise is this: a young woman begins her freshman year of college at a fictional version of Bennington (at the time, an all-women’s school for daughters of the upper class). But this is not your standard Bildungsroman, my friends. The story is much closer to a psychological thriller. With humor. It’s pretty bizarre.

But a mid-century gothic horror story is hysterically appropriate for a book that follows a hypersensitive, hyperaware young woman as she analyzes every last painful detail of both her family life and her introduction to college. Because what could be a greater “terror of the soul” than adolescence? It’s fair to say that this oddly named, oddly written book captivated me until its clever conclusion. I enjoyed Jackson’s metaphor of female adolescence as a neurotic nightmare.

And then I realized that 1951 was also the year that The Catcher in the Rye was published. It occurred to me that Catcher could be seen as the teenage boy’s neurotic nightmare. Yet The Catcher in the Rye is, well, The Catcher in the Rye—a classic, a part of the canon—and meanwhile who the hell has ever heard of Hangsaman, even with a title so weird it would be hard to forget.

Now you may be thinking, oh boy, here she goes, she’s going to try to tell us it’s some sort of a gender thing and that if Shirley Jackson had been a man, we’d all have read this blasted book back in the 10th grade and it too would be a modern classic. Honestly you guys, I’m not sure it’s quite as simple as that. First, I could never deny the genius of the narrative voice in J.D. Salinger’s book. Jackson’s book is good, but I don’t think I’d use the term “genius.” And I don’t know enough about the history of either book’s publication to say what would have or could have been. But I do find the duality of the two books interesting.

Both Salinger and Jackson were doing something utterly unique when they wrote their novels – they were chronicling the anxiety and alienation of a new demographic, the adolescent. Both were years ahead of the social upheaval of the 1960s, a time when many social factors would converge to create its particular climate. Certainly one of the biggest of those factors was the disillusionment of the teenage population. Both authors understood the psychology behind that disillusionment years before the zeitgeist caught on.

 

MAKING AMERICA GREAT AGAIN

Fuzzy HangHi guys, it’s been a while, so let’s just jump right in with this point of re-entry, from David Brooks’ February 9 Op-Ed column: “To hear Sanders or Trump, Cruz and Ben Carson campaign is to wallow in the pornography of pessimism, to conclude that this country is on the verge of complete collapse. That’s simply not true. We have problems, but they are less serious than those faced by just about any other nation on earth.”

Before you grow too baffled, rest assured that this blog is not being converted into a political forum. But given what I’ve been up to over the past seven months or so, I couldn’t help but feel a particular appreciation for Brooks calling out the fear/anger-mongering for the sake of mongering. Don’t get me wrong – questioning the status quo is an important and sacred part of a free society, but there’s a difference between intellectual discourse and baiting.

And you know who really resents the disingenuousness of the mongering? My 18-year-old clients. Regardless of their political persuasion, they don’t like to feel as though they’re getting played. Which brings me to: a) what I’ve been doing since we last spoke and b) what I’ve been reading. Hint: the answers to both questions are virtually the same and can be summed up in two words: college essays.

Both the beauty and the horror of 18-year olds is that (with some exceptions) they are innately optimistic. This isn’t to say they aren’t questioning everything that’s come before, but they tend to believe it will get better and they personally can be agents of change. Heck, one of my students wrote a whole essay about being an optimist and how such an outlook will serve him well as a scientist and entrepreneur.

Another of my kiddos described the moment when she knew she wanted to be a doctor. While lifeguarding at the local pool, one of her charges got a bloody nose and as my gal held a paper towel up to the little boy’s nose and tipped his head back, she realized the power of being able to use her hands to help someone.

Even the most mundane-seeming events in a young person’s life can be made meaningful through their sensitive and thoughtful perspective. Like my client who wrote about learning to make her often-grumpy Punjabi grandfather a cup of chai tea, a rite that wasn’t significant to her until she realized how much it meant to him.

And then there was an essay by one of my Chinese students that was so beautifully written, with a narrative voice so strong, I can’t do it justice trying to paraphrase it here. But I’ll just say this (as Senator Sanders often quips): at its heart, the essay was about his struggle to find his place somewhere between the two cultures he occupied as an international student in the U.S. Beyond his lovely writing, the part that slayed me was the raw vulnerability he displayed when describing the intense, to the point of agonizing, desire he initially felt to be American.

I work with a fair number of international students (and lots more who are their family’s first or second generation in the U.S.) and the essays that describe the agony and the ecstasy of this journey are a constant reminder that we’re doing something right over here. Even more encouraging is witnessing how so many of my students–regardless of their background–want to pay it forward. I can’t tell you how many kids want to develop renewable energy systems or businesses based in social entrepreneurship or organizations to address all those parts of the current system they don’t think are working. I’ve got young women who want to work with younger girls to encourage their love of math and science. I’ve even got someone brave enough to want to tackle big money in politics. Beyond their goals, the sheer magnitude of their energy is astounding. How could I possibly identify with the “pornography of pessimism” when this is my daily reading material? I think it’s pretty clear who is going to make America great again.

 

LOWERING THE BAR

Did you miss me? Aw, thanks, I missed you too. Why yes, I have had a nice summer. I’ve been eating a lot of fruit, reading a little and I went somewhere I haven’t been in twenty years: Paris.

Now usually a person doesn’t feel nervous and guilty anticipating a glamorous, upcoming vacation (unless of course that person happens to be my husband), but before the trip I had some concerns. The last time I’d been in Paris I was a college student doing her semester abroad and when I left in the summer of 1994, I assumed I’d be back soon, in the naïve, entitled way that a person does when they’re unable to realize how thoroughly they’re taking something for granted.

Trying to look cool = no smile

Trying to look cool = no smile

As the years went by and I traveled to other places but never back to the city that had embraced and challenged me, I began to wonder if perhaps I was still up for Paris – meaning mostly that I was terrified of speaking French again (which hadn’t exactly been my forte, even at my most immersed). If you are thinking, “well then just speak English,” you do not understand the solemnity with which the Parisians of my youth took their mother tongue. Rule #1: if you know any shred of French whatsoever, you speak it. It’s a sign of respect. We can get into the historical/socio-political context for this attitude another time. Just know that being the compulsive rule-follower that I am, respect I would show.

Cut to the summer of 2015. Paris is a significantly more diverse city than the one I left. It’s also cleaner, friendlier and generally younger (though maybe that last one has more to do with me being older). And pardon the abstraction, but it also feels more nuanced and layered in ways that are difficult to explain. Or were hard to explain until I reached a particular passage from our old friend Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose second volume of My Struggle I happened to be reading on the trip:

“When I was twenty what I had, what made me me, was so little. I didn’t know that, of course, because that was all there was at that time. But now that I’m thirty-five there’s more. Well, everything that existed in me when I was twenty is still there. But now it’s surrounded by so much more.”

I thought this was a great antidote to sentimentality – the idea that life becomes richer and more interesting as we get older because we are more enriched and interesting ourselves.

Does this mean j’ai parlé with the best of them? Let me put it this way. It’s amazing how fluent one can be in a language of 1,000 words. It turns out that just getting one’s point across, no matter how clumsy, can be a victory in and of itself. In fact, it can even be fun. Lowering the bar allows you to leap over it.

Le Metro I

Which brings me to this blog. During this past year, I wrote a post based on every book I read. The idea, as you’ve figured out by now, was to use the books as launching points for pithy little essays, rather than to write reviews (there are plenty of those out there).

This year there are new demands on the work and personal fronts—all good, but demanding nonetheless—so that both my time and mental energy are more occupied now.

So I’m going to lower the bar. I’m going to write in a language of 1,000 words, rather than 100,000. I’m going to post when I can but not freak out when I can’t. (The compulsive rule-follower in me has trouble changing rules, even when they’re self-imposed.) Hopefully the things I read will be inspiring enough that writing about them will be effortless, but I’m making no promises. I know, dear reader, at this point you’re shaking your fist at the screen and screaming out “WHY???” with a sense of bottomless grief. It’ll be a loss, I understand, but try to carry on as best you can during my absences. I’ll be back before you know it. I do, eventually, return.

Le Metro II

THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE

TITSOAHMThis is the Story of a Happy Marriage
by Ann Patchett

Oh how I dread writing about the books I love. The task makes me wish I had just finished a book I only liked or felt okay about or disliked. These reads lend themselves to short, distilled blog posts much more obediently than the books I love. Because the books that really speak to me have so much to say and I can’t possibly do them justice in less than 600 words – a self-imposed word count that I feel committed to maintaining.

From its title, I had assumed this book was a set of memoir-ish essays about Patchett’s relationship with her husband. And while the eponymous essay in the collection covers that topic, the book as a whole is about the many different kinds of marriages that she has had in her life, it is about the things to which she’s committed herself and loved deeply: her husband ranks high on the list, but so does her reading and writing, her friendships and her dog Rose.

As a species, we tend to catalogue things, especially the things we like. It’s fun to think about what makes us happy and creating lists gives us a sense of order and accomplishment and—I’ll speak for myself here—it can help us remember. But such cataloging and collecting can turn us into people who only skim the surface, who are more consumers than thinkers. Patchett’s collection of essays, carefully culled from the mound of non-fiction she’s crafted over the last 20+ years, is an antidote to these types of superficial, fetishizing tendencies. While the common thread here is clearly that which she adores most, the theme emerged organically through her years of writing and only made itself known explicitly once she started to pull together different pieces that represented her non-fiction career. In other words, Patchett didn’t write “My Ten Faves” at the top of a piece of paper and then proceed to develop corresponding essays.

But I am not Ann Patchett. And (as is evident if you glance to your left) I am not above having lists of faves. So I’ll just go ahead and tell you that within this collection, my favorite essays lean toward the ones about the literary world, the ones describing life on a book tour, opening an independent bookstore and my most favorite of all, The Getaway Car, “A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life.” She also writes beautifully about her relationships—human and canine—like only a true introvert can, with great devotion and depth.

I could feel bitter and resentful that Patchett manages to write about the things she loves with such ease, but instead I can only feel camaraderie because I know that what appears easy for her is in fact the product of a lot of time and hard work. One of her many wonderful analogies in the book compares our ideas to a beautiful butterfly that flits about our heads until we have to kill and pin it in order to get those ideas onto paper. As she says, “The journey from the head to the hand is perilous and lined with bodies.”

Up Next: H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, recent winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize.