Monday, June 26, 2017

Following Elena Ferrante's extraordinary journey, Part 2

Elena Ferrant's Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey is a collection of letters and e-mail responses to interviewer and reader questions. In Part 1 of this blog, I wrote about her unusual relationship with her publisher. I now want to quote her extensively on writing, starting with her observation that "when you begin a story, you have to be the sole source of the story, you have to get lost in it, because there are no predetermined maps; and if perceptible traces of what you have learned from books remain, they have to be eliminated without indulgence, assuming it's possible. Because it's not always possible, nor is it good: writing is also the story of what we have read and are reading, of the quality of our reading, and a good story, finally, is one written from the depths our our life, from the heart of our relations with others, from the heights of the books we've liked."

It should be clear to anyone who reads her novels that Ferrante has written, if not for the ages (as if one could), but from as deeply within herself as she can. She is not interested in the well-plotted story in which all the pieces fit together neatly, all loose threads tied off by the last page. Nor is she interested (pace MFA programs) in "beautiful" writing. She wants to write a story that has the energy to create a world, "not because it strings together metaphors. . . . The problem, if anything, is the cult of the beautifully wrought page, a recurring feature that I've long struggled with in myself. Today I throw out the pages that are too written—I prefer the rough draft to the final version."

Frantumaglia is full of gems for working fiction writers like this observation about dreams in novels. They are "difficult to relate; as soon as you write them they force you to invent, to put in order, and they become false. In novels especially they are so shamelessly functional to the requirements of the psychological construction of the character that their artificiality becomes intolerable."

One of the questions serious writers ask themselves often when no one seems willing to publish their books is: Why write at all? Is it simply a form of self-pleasuring? Pure solipsism? Apparently Ferrante has always believed that a book will find its readers. Her international success has validated her belief. She asks therefore, is it possible to make an immaterial organism of language, ethics, stories, experience "a concretely narratable object, that is, to employ techniques capable of conveying that organism to the reader as one does with the wind, the heat, the feeling, the events that make up the plot? To control that noisy permanent fragmenting in your head, explore that transformation into words that lasts as long as the story lasts is, I think, the secret ambition of anyone who fully dedicates himself to writing."

She notes that writers ask themselves "what experiences do I know I can be the voice of"? But that, says is not the most urgent question. "The more pressing questions are: what is the word, what is the rhythm of the sentence, what is the suitable tone for the things I know? These seem like questions of form, of style, all in all secondary. But I am convinced that without the right words, without long practice in putting them together, nothing alive and true emerges."

As I hope I've indicated in this quick review I believe Frantumaglia to be interesting and inspiring for anyone seriously interested in serious writing, that is someone who believes she has something deeply truthful to say and wants to express it in a profound and profoundly honest way. The book may also interest readers of Ferrante's novels for her notes on her characters and why she has insisted on remaining anonymous. And asked whether readers can expect to see more from her, she gives perhaps the one rule of writing: "If you have nothing worth writing, don't write any more."

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Following Elena Ferrant's extrarordinary journey, Part 1

This is the first of two posts about Elena Ferrante's Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey. The book offers too much to readers and writers to pack into a single note.

"Elena Ferrante" is the pen name of an Italian author, who, I suspect, has very mixed feeling about the success and consequent attention her recently-published extraordinary tetralogy My Brilliant Friend has provoked. (Rights sold in forty countries, New York Times best seller.)  

"Frantumaglia" in the Neapolitan dialect means "a jumble of things." Ferrante describes it as the word her mother used to name "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 book is a collection of letters and e-mail responses to interviewers, a jumble of things all related to the author's writing, literature, feminism, and what she has attempted to do in her novels.

Ferrante's first letter in the book, dated September 21, 1991, informs the publisher of her first novel, Troubling Love, that she will do nothing personally to promote the book—no TV, no radio, no personal interviews. "I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won't." What, after all, do we need to know about Shakespeare's childhood, methods of working, or thoughts about other playwrights to appreciate and enjoy his plays? Until very recently when an Italian reporter apparently revealed Ferrante's identity, she had been able to remain anonymous—no book jacket author photo, no potted author biography.

It's a position that contradicts everything I know about American publishing today that, in general, believes an author is a brand and should be marketed as such. What the author produces is almost secondary. Faithful readers are buying King, Steele, Roberts, Cussler, Patterson, Grisham, Woods, Child; their books have to meet a certain level of interest, entertainment, engagement but not much more. With the tens of thousand of books published and self-published every year, how else is an author going to stand out enough for readers to find her.

What I find extraordinary in Ferrante's journey as a writer is that her publisher, Edizioni E/O, with whom she has stuck through nine books, was willing to make that deal. An editor had to fall in love with Troubling Love and be willing to defend it as a publishing investment without the author's participation. Ferrante (and the publisher) were also fortunate that an Italian movie director fell in love with the book and made a well-received film based on it. Ferrante commented extensively on the script, and Frantumaglia includes her observations about and suggestions for the script.

Her publisher was also willing to wait ten years for her next manuscript. Ferrante says that she wrote constantly during those ten years, but produced nothing she felt met her own standards. For her next novel, however, The Days of Abandonment, she had softened enough to answer in writing and at considerable length (70 printed page, including outtakes from the manuscript itself) five relatively short questions from an Italian magazine. To sell foreign rights to My Brilliant Friend, the publisher promised an e-mail interview with Ferrante . . . which is why I suspect she has mixed feelings about the book's popularity.

Finally, I found it extraordinary that Ferrante wrote all four volumes of My Brilliant Friend—1,682 total pages in the English edition—in one go. She writes that she does not think about how long a book should be (or not be) when she's writing. She tells the story that has to be told . . . and I imagine the publisher had to figure out how to put it into a  form a bookstore can actually stock.

So one appeal of Frantumaglia to Ferrant's fans is the insight the author can give to the characters and their stories, all skillfully translated by Ann Goldstein. If you enjoyed The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love, The Lost Daughter, The Beach at Night or the Neapolitan quartet: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child you should find this collection of self-contained
fragments a fascinating appendix.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

What happens after the terrorist's bomb explodes?

We read about or watch news stories about terrorist bombers. So many dead, so many wounded. A group claims response or doesn't. The bomber dies or doesn't. And that's it. There's a blast and then it's over. But who are these people? What do they want? What's the point? And what happens to the survivors? Their relatives? The bystanders? The authorities?

The Association of Small Bombs, a novel by Karan Mahajan, published in 2016, was a National Book Award finalist, and named one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review. The author was born in1964 and grew up in New Delhi. He's a graduate of Stanford University and the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, Austin.

It is not an easy book. It is populated with Indian characters and a casual reader may have difficulty keeping names and relationships clear. It begins with a bomb set off in a neighborhood market in Delhi in May 1996. Three boys, friends, have gone to the market without parental permission. Two brothers are among those killed, the third wounded.

It's only a small bomb. The Kashmiri activitists who planted it are disappointed that it killed only a handful of people, but the psychological damage it does to the families of the dead boy and the surviving boy is incalculable. Much of the book is the story of how these extended families cope or don't with the tragedy.

Moreover, Mahajan takes the reader into the mind of the bomber and shows us his actions, his drives as, in the course of the book, he initiates a Delhi resident into the movement. The Indian police do arrest an activist and torture him, but he is only (only!) a theoretician of the movement, not a bomber himself. On the evidence given in The Association of Small Bombs, the men who prepare and set the bombs, foot soldiers in a murky war, don't really understand the larger point, have no coherent political goals themselves. It's also difficult (impossible) to see how killing innocent Hindu and Muslim shoppers helps the cause unless it boils down to: "You want to stop the bombings? Give us Kashmir."

And the red thread running through the novel is the tension—hostility—between Hindu and Muslim. For the boys, the difference hardly mattered. Once two are dead and the other survives, the difference matters to the families and swells over time.

Aside from the power of the story, which at times is almost too strong to read, Mahajan writes lovely passages like this: "Vikas [the father] was awfully partial toward Tushar [one of the dead boys], though he would nave never acknowledged it. Nankul [the other dead boy, his brother] was popular in school, good at sports, intense, competitive, moody—just like Vikas, in other words—whereas Tushar was lumpy, effeminate, eccentric, troubled, getting pushed around in school, and moseying up to his mother in the kitchen with the halting eyes of an abused animal, always eager to please, reading the newspaper and engaging his father in incessant chatter about politics, a pet topic for him, one he had honed through quiz competitions in school, the one area in which he shown."

The action in the book concludes in 2003, and it feels as if we have lived with the characters through their entire lives, pre-bomb and post. The Association of Small Bombs engages the reader in a exotic yet comprehensible world. I think it's an important book, and the world is one in which more and more of us seem to be living with every news cycle.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Why we argue even when we can't win

Prolific Stanley Fish, perhaps best known for How to Write a Sentence (which I reviewed in this blog), has just published his eighteenth book, Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn't Work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroom.

The title is a double entendre. It could mean "here's how to win arguments" or it could mean "here are arguments that win." The jacket flap copy author took the latter meaning: ". . .  Stanley Fish . . . reveals how successful argument can be used to win over popular opinion." Actually, it doesn't.

Indeed, Fish argues (you'll excuse the word) persuasively that a successful argument only provokes further argument. "Argument could produce certainty only if we lived in a world where a settled dispute stays settled because its resolution has been accomplished by a measure everyone accepts and accepts permanently." But, as he points out, we don't live in that world.

Rather than tell readers how to frame their arguments for maximum effect, Fish does something much more interesting. He indicates why no argument is going to persuade a Trump supporter or a Clinton supporter to change. No scientific data will persuade a climate-change denier that it is real or man-made. No husband's entirely reasonable defense of working late will ease his wife's feelings of abandonment. No academically certified Holocaust denier will find a job teaching a university that prides itself on being open to all ideas, even the most abhorrent.

Fish, who is a professor of law at two universities, does point out that it is possible to win an argument in a court of law, but it's not the participants who decide who won. It's a judge or a jury. (The same is true in an academic setting in a formal debate.) In a courtroom, unlike in a political debate, in a bedroom, or in a classroom, formal rules constrain what can be used in one's argument. No discussion of a criminal defendant's character for example. But even a decision of the US Supreme Court can be overturned (eventually). After all as Chief Justice Taney wrote in 1857, "[Negroes] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit." And a civil war, not argument, changed that decision.

Rather than explaining how to win an argument or providing examples of winning arguments, this relatively short book helps the reader (this reader at least) understand the function of argument in life, when not to argue (an argument with one's spouse is almost always a bad idea), and how to spot a flawed argument (not that it would change your mind anyway).

Fish gives an example of this last point: In any issue involving science—smoking/cancer, human activity/global warming, immunization/autism, evolution/intelligent design—there can be no absolute and conclusive answer. A research consensus "is merely the present thinking of fallible men and women." New evidence or discovering a flaw in the source data can always disrupt the consensus. (Too bad for those who want clear, unambiguous conclusions.) Therefore the consensus should not be the basis for action. I.e., we shouldn't spend money to discourage smoking or regulate acid rain until there's conclusive evidence that smoking causes cancer, human activity causes global warming, immunizing children causes autism, and more and more and more.

But! But! But! We've just argued that, for a scientific question, the evidence is never all in. As Fish writes, "if incomplete evidence is the inevitable condition of inquiry, you can't cite the incompleteness of evidence as a reason for failing to act on the evidence that is in."

Much as I enjoyed Winning Arguments, I would have enjoyed it more if it had an index and a bibliography. Fish bases some of his points heavily on other works and it would have been handy to have them easily available. Still, the book is a provocative and fascinating discussion of an important topic.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Revenge as a dish best served cold

The Hogarth Press was founded by Virginia and Leonard Woolf in 1917. It was relaunched in 2012 as a partnership between Chatto & Windus in the UK and Crown in the U.S. In 2015 Hogarth launched the Hogarth Shakespeare program to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. "The project sees the Bard’s plays retold by acclaimed, bestselling novelists and brought to life for a contemporary readership." Hag-Seed is Margaret Atwood's take on The Tempest.

When the novel opens, Felix Phillips is the Artistic Director of a Shakespeare Festival theater in Ontario (shades of "Slings & Arrows," the Canadian TV series), rehearsing a production of The Tempest and starring himself as Prospero. His wife died shortly after childbirth, a late marriage for him, and three years later his daughter, Miranda, also died. In his grief, Felix buries himself in the artistic side of the festival, leaving all administrative, fund-raising, director-massaging activities to Tony, the festival's second-in-command. Tony forces Felix out in a board-room coup, claiming artistic mismanagement. By page 35, Felix has withdrawn from the world, is living in an isolated two-room shack, and communicating from time to time with his daughter Miranda's living spirit.

Nine years later, Felix spots an opportunity to teach in a nearby prison. He convinces the woman responsible for the job, a woman of a certain age who has known and admired Felix in his earlier life, that a program of mounting Shakespeare's plays in the prison would be valuable. He's hired to work three months a year, and produces Julius Caesar, Richard III, and MacBeth employing inmate actors and technicians. The plays are recorded on video and played through the prison's CCTV system (no assembling a large inmate audience in a medium-security prison) and well-received by the prisoners and administration.

In his fourth year at the prison Felix learns that Tony Price and Sal O'Nally, the two who colluded in sacking Felix from the Festival and now both government Ministers, will be visiting the prison in the spring: "The one place in the world where, with judicious timing, he might be able to wield more power than they could." Felix decides to produce a contemporary version of The Tempest, a revenge play as a vehicle for revenge.

Margaret Atwood is a sorceress. She never slips into mechanically moving her characters around to fit the plot while she does manage to set up echoes and resonances with Shakespeare's play.

—Felix, as theater director, is the wizard controlling events as he plays Prospero who employs magic to enchant his enemies.

—The prison might be an island.

—The relationship between Price, O'Nally, and Felix echo the relationship of Antonio, who usurped his brother Prospero's title as Duke of Milan; Alonso, the King of Naples; and Prospero, the rightful Duke.

—O'Nally brings his son Freddie into the prison to watch the production where he's attracted to the actress who plays Miranda; Alonso's son Ferdinand, also magically shipwrecked, falls in love with Miranda.

—Felix spends twelve years in his cell of a shack; Prospero spends twelve years before Alonso's ship strays close enough to his island that he can use his magic to simulate a shipwreck.

Because this is a contemporary production, in a prison, with inmates, directed by a man willing to push theatrical limits, Felix's Tempest includes raps that the cast—i.e., Atwood—writes. For example:

I'm the man, I'm the Duke, I'm the Duke of Milan,
You want to get pay, gotta do what I say.
Wasn't always this way, no, no,
I was once this dude called Antonio,
I was no big deal and it made me feel so bad, so mad,
Got under my skin, 'cause I couldn't ever win,
Got no respect, I was second in line,
But I just kept smilin', just kept lyin', said everything's fine . . . .

You don't have to know The Tempest to enjoy Hag-Seed. You will have to suspend disbelief if you are familiar with prison routine (although, to be fair, perhaps Canadian prisons operate differently than American). If you know your Shakespeare, however, I believe you'll find Hag-Seed a marvel and a joy.