Thursday, July 28, 2016

Elena Ferrante - The Story of the Lost Child (Neapolitan Novels #4)

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Translated by Ann Goldstein from Italian into English.

'It was the Solaras.' A litte child has been spirited away from the neighbourhood and among other fantastical explanations, we hear the familiar line, 'It was the Solaras'.  After I am done reading the book, I think so too.

Now that all the books have been read I am feeling empty. The books have a very appropriate ending. Even if I do not get the closure that I really wished for, I realize this is better. A character like Lila was not made for an ordinary life.

Right to the end, Lila and Lenu continue their see-saw relationship, now thick with each other, now fallen out. It is not in their character to truly weld with each other. They could be close one minute, yet another minute blow up like the Vesuvius that is forever in the backdrop.

Nino Sarratore is another big character in the books. Yet I have written nothing about him in the past three reviews. To write about Nino is to give away the story. Here, I don't want to give away any of the story. I want the reader to have the same pleasure that I did, discovering every bit of the books on their own.

Nino is intelligent and handsome.  He has also outgrown the neighbourhood because his parents moved away.  He came up in life, despite poverty, due to his education, like Elena.  His destiny is to be linked to the two friends.  They look up to him as a symbol of all that is good in their neighbourhood.  He is their 'God' unlike the Solaras who are the 'Devil'. 

Elena continues to write books, Lila, following Enzo's ambitions, makes a foray into the world of computers. Despite their personal successes, they continue to suffer at the hands of Solara brothers who make life difficult for them.

By the time the reign of Solaras ends, Lila and Lenu are too damaged to be whole again. 
The friends face devastating losses in their lives and a laborious process of trying to mend themselves begins.  But will they succeed at it?

The strident feminist and political activism of the last novel is missing here.  Because times change, I realise.  Women have earned the right to more personal freedom now.  They are able to achieve a lot more, have more command over their destiny.  The men in their lives yield to their insistence on living their lives the way they want.

Lila and Lenu were always strong women but by the time the books end, they are completely in command of themselves.

The political situation in Italy also seems to settle down, becomes less volatile.  The current regime cannot commit crimes, it faces action for corruption.

In the first book, Elena mentions how the girls devoured 'Little Women' by Louisa May Alcott and were tremendously inspired by it.  I was pleased to read this.  Even at the end of the book, Elena (who is recounting the whole story as a tribute to her friend who has vanished), recounts again how the book had set the friends on a path of aspiration that led them here.

I was pleased to read this.  I personally love 'Little Women'.  It has been reviled a lot in recent years for being too preachy.  It is preachy. But it is also a warm and a lovely story of four young girls who want to live their lives to the fullest.  

In a way these books also resemble 'Little Women', but only in the scope.  As in the 'Little Women' quartet, the four Neapolitan Novels also chart the lives of two young women. If you reduce the story from four to two sisters you can find a shadow of a similarity. Like Jo and Amy, Lila and Lenu also love the same man for a long time.

Apart from a very slight similarity in themes, not only with 'Little Women', but also 'Anna Karenina', there is absolutely no similarity in the treatment of the story. Ferrante is too visceral, too original in her depiction of women and their lives to be compared to any other novelist. Never does she pander to her readers, never does she attempt to sugar-coat her story.

I am sure these books are never really going to go out of my head.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Elena Ferrante - Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (Neapolitan Novels #3)

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Translated by Ann Goldstein from Italian into English.

This book is the third in the Neapolitan Novels series.  We follow Lila and Lenu further as they grow into their 20s.  Lila struggles to bring up her love child Renuccio along with Enzo, who is allowed to be with her as a friend, not a lover.

Elena(Lenu) is trying to cope with the sudden success of her first book. She has money now, prestige and fame. She seems to have arrived. She even has a well-born, intelligent fiance.   On a sudden call from Lila, who is very sick, the friends reunite.  Lenu takes care of Lila, pulls strings to get her life back on rails and makes her well again.

Elena has to leave to marry her professor fiance.  Is married life going to bring her stability and greater glory? Or is the story of women the same in all strata of society? Are they looked upon as subsidiaries of men everywhere?

I have read the three Neapolitan Novels back to back.  What struck me most was the change in the tone of the books.  The first book, when Lila and Lenu are children had a 'To Kill a Mockingbird' kind of a feel to it.  The lives of adults are examined through the eyes of children.  We felt the insecurities and uncertainties of children facing terrifying poverty and anger all around them.

The second book had the insouciance of teenage lives, learning about love and life.  The girls map the changes in their bodies, the times of their mensuration, as a kind of benchmark to see who is prettier and better.  The young boys around them are growing up too and settling into professions.  Along with their assurance comes their wish to bag the best of the girls in their neighborhood.

In the third book the voices of the characters grow.  Lila and Lenu are not concerned merely with boys and spending money.  They are embroiled in life, playing with ideas, going places, getting hurt. They discover that to get ahead in life, they need backing of influential people.

The current political situation is affecting the lives of Naples. On one side the Communists are trying to rouse up the workers and creating problems, on the other side the Fascists are ready to kill the people who are trying to cause disruptions. 

Both the communists and fascists have their roots in the little suburb where Lila and Lenu grew up.  They see their childhood friends on opposing side of political spectrum, ready to kill and maim each other.  

The common people, in the meantime, are tired to their bone, exploited by their employers and loan sharks, are equally fed up with both.  An uneasy truce emerges after the people align themselves with the most powerful. It is a means of survival for them.  However, there are some guerilla like elements who are killing important people.  The people being killed are notorious for exploiting the worker class.

The familiar characters of the past two books cease being people and turn allegorical in our eyes.  Is Michele Solara just a local moneylender or is the embodiment of the 'Evil Corporate'?  He seems to be behind all evil ventures that suck the blood of the people and gets more and more powerful.  Pasquale Paluso is a vociferous communist.  Is he behind all the guerilla attacks on the rich and influential? He is the spirit of the people, the 'vigilante' who looks out for the oppressed.

Elena also gets involved with the feminist movement and begins to question the established authority of men.  The socio-political turbulence of the 70s is very prevalent in the book.

Lila and Lenu have grown in stature.  They are trying their best to live fulfilling lives in the way they know best.  They are making mistakes, but are ready to own them too.

All the three books have had a fantastic cliff-hangers for endings that have send me racing for the next in the series.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Elena Ferrante - The Story of a New Name (Neapolitan Novels #2)

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Translated by Ann Goldstein from Italian into English.

The story of Lila and Elena continues in the 2nd installment of the Neapolitan Novels.  The girls are sixteen and have chosen diametrically different paths from each other.  Lila is married to Stefano Carracci, the gentle, soft spoken, grocer. Everyone envies Lila.  She is a posh young woman now.

Almost all the boys in the neighbourhood had coveted Lila.  She is no longer a scrawny 12 year old, but a tall beautiful young woman who seems to attract all men to her.  By contrast, Elena is bookish, pimply and ungainly.  She has continued to study, unlike the children of the little niche of Naples.  She has to study very hard, depend on scholarships and gifts of books from her old teacher.

Is she right in being envious of Lila?  Has she chosen the right path? Who of the two friends will wind up happier?

We are drawn once again into the world of Elena Greco and Lila.  The little band of boys and girls who grew up in abject poverty are tied together.  Some of them become rich by devious means and some of them are still struggling.  

The conflicts between the friends remind me of Lord of the Flies. They are constantly at strife with each other to gain the maximum power and money.  The most cruel and the most unscrupulous are the ones who win.  

Lila tries to stop the madness and keep her loved ones from making wrong decisions.  Being a woman, she is unable to prevent the madness of men, and finds herself being trampled.

Elena has her own battles to fight and hardships to overcome, which often keeps her apart from Lila. 

Ferrante's voice is crystal clear as she speaks of the pains of growing up in places where women find no privilege, are beaten and subjected to marital rape, where women have very few choices. Even in the Lord of the Flies situation that I mentioned earlier, the power game is played among the young men, while women hover in the periphery.

While the world ponders over communism, aftermath of Hiroshima and wars, in the shabby little suburb, Elena and Lila aspire to grow out of their squalor and find love and comfort.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Elena Ferrante My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels #1)
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Translated by Ann Goldstein from Italian into English.

Elena Ferrante is likely appear frequently on my blog.  I am so bowled over by this book that I am going to stalk her and read everything she writes.  This book has long been gracing several lists of books that MUST be read.  I caved in when a couple of friends recommended it highly on twitter. 

In this book Elena Ferrante takes us back to the 1950s when her protagonist - Elena Greco - was a little girl growing up in a poor suburb of Naples.  Elena (Lenu) makes friends with a thin, fierce little girl called Lila.

We are given a deep and incisive look into the world of little children and how they cope with pressures of growing up in a neighbourhood that is full of poverty and squalor, tattered lives held together by a fraying string.

There was something unbearable in the things, in the people, in the buildings, in the streets that, only if you reinvented it all, as in a game, became acceptable.  The essential, however was to know how to play, and she and I, only she and I, knew how to do it.

There were countless number of times while reading the book that I was transported back to my own childhood.  I felt all the insecurities and anxieties that I felt in those years all over again. 

Children live in a world that can be completely detached from their parents at time.  The parents come alive only when the children return home to them in the evening.

The relationship between Lenu and Lila is not the usual girlish sorts that we see in most young adult books. They are not inseparable besties giggling through puberty and boys. Their relationship is like a see-saw.  They are sometimes jealous of each other, sometimes, fiercely loyal, sometimes distant, but never indifferent to each other.

This is the first of the four part series of The Neapolitan Novels. We get a look not just at the lives of Lenu and Lila, but the entire community of people who live in the suburb, tied by a common thread of poverty.  Yet among them live young people who promise to bring a better way of life for them all.
You are my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.
These are the lines that Lila says to Lenu, willing her to achieve everything that she cannot, showing the Lena that she is not merely a friend or a sister, but an extension of herself, Lila.  Lila and Lenu, each looks upon the other as a 'brilliant friend'.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Alexander Pushkin - Eugene Onegin

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This is a book that was for a very long time on my to-be-read list.  Decades ago, I saw a beautifully illustrated copy of this book in one of those book stores that sold Russian books.  

I do not remember why I did not pick it up.  I was there to buy some books to gift little children and maybe did not have enough space in my bag (silly excuse). 

Anyway, I was reminded of that beautiful book when I read Vikram Seth's Golden Gate.  He admitted to being heavily influenced by Eugene Onegin while writing his own, a worthy successor, I must say.

The final version of the Eugene Onegin was published in 1837.  Pushkin used the iambic tetrameter for the verse.

Eugene Onegin is a world weary fop in his mid-twenties.  He is done with the society which is a mad repetition of parties, balls, opera, ballets.  He is careless with the feelings of society girls who vie to get close to him.  His father collapsed in debt like many aristocrats in Moscow.  He was fostered by some benevolent friends until, luckily for him, an uncle died leaving him a legacy; wealth and a country house.

He goes to live in the country, not completely appreciative of what it has to offer.  He makes friends with a neighbour Lensky and goes calling on the Larina family with him.  Lensky is engaged to the younger Larina girl, Olga.  Eugene is drawn to the silent and intelligent older sister, Tatiyana.

In her turn, Tatiyana falls absolutely in love with him.  She is a romantic creature, given to reading and spending time in solitude and reflection.  This unspoiled maiden of the country decides to declare her feelings for Eugene through a letter.  

Eugene lectures Tanya (Tatiyana) about not wanting to be tied down.  He is sure that he will be bored if he is married to her and her dreams would come crashing down.  He exhorts her to be more circumspect in her dealings with men in future as someone may take advantage of her innocence.

He leaves Tanya heartbroken to the core.  She weeps silently and mopes for a long time.  After Eugene's departure, she goes to his house and reads Eugene's books in an effort to understand him.

Will the lethargic Eugene ever see sense? Will not the pastoral surroundings help him redeem himself? Will he sink deeper in the mire of ennui? What happens to Tatiyana? Will the Olga-Lensky romance culminate in a wedding?

The poem is a classic of Russian literature.  There are breathtaking descriptions of the countryside and candid portrayal of the true feelings of the characters.

Eugene is not completely a fop, though he behaves like one.  He likes to read and ruminate.  He is charming.  If he had been just a fop, he would have lived like any other aristocrat.  He would have sown his wild oats, married, had children and spent his life gathering wealth and settling his children.

It is his restless mind that makes him seek more than what his life has to offer him.  But lack of self-awareness makes him fall between the two stools of being flippant and being serious. All the experiences of life, good or bad, do not seem to teach him anything.

Tatiyana, by contrast, grows immensely as a person.  She retains a sense of self and does not get mired in the commonness of the society around her.

At the heart of this book is, of course, Pushkin's brilliant verse.  This book is translated by Stanley Mitchell, about whom I quote from wikipedia:

His life's work was a translation into English verse of Pushkin's Russian verse novel Eugene Onegin, commenced in 1966 and published in 2008. In this he has been praised for capturing not only the precise meaning, but also the wit, the grace and the constantly varying intonations of Pushkin's voice.

Here is a sample of the verse, this is when Tatiyana finds herself in love. 

"I am in love," again she whispered

In sadness to the old above.

"My dearest, 'tis only illness" -

"Leave me alone: I'm in love."

Meanwhile, the moon in skies was shining
And with a languorous light was lightning
All Tanya's features, pale and fair,
Her splendid, loosely falling hair,
Her tears, and the old woman here,
With a kerchief on her gray head,
In her old, warm, too long jacket,
Sitting before our maiden, dear.
And all was sunk in silence soon
Under the pale inspiring moon.

Here is one about Eugene, the star of the Moscow Society:

They would bring him the morning letters,
When he's still lying in his bed.
What? Invitations? Yes, the matter's:
Three evening parties in a set.
There’ll be a ball, an evening children's.
Where will he go, this lad mischievous?
Who will be first? That's all the same:
It's simple to visit all of them.
But now in the morn's attire -
A wide hat, a la Bolivar,
Onegin rides to the boulevard,
And walks there, calm and free entire,
Until the watchful watch's alarm
Will advertise the dinnertime.

My copy of Eugene Onegin is plain.  I will keep looking for a better illustrated one, something that will showcase his beautiful verse better.