Law and Conversation

January 15, 2013

Crazy clients? Read Elena Ferrante’s Days Of Abandonment

James Wood reviews Elena Ferrante’s novels in The New Yorker, so now seems like a good time to paste the review I wrote of one of that Italian writer’s novels for The Europa Challenge Blog.
I once heard a lawyer with years of experience in family law assert that everyone who gets divorced is “crazy” for at least a year afterwards. By inviting us inside the head of her divorcing narrator in “The Days of Abandonment,” the pseudonymous Italian writer Elena Ferrante lends support to that view.
Ferrante’s books are tough reads. Having “pre-read” this one and discovered that some graphic and extreme unpleasantness was in the offing, I was tempted to bag it and return it to the library.
But graphic and extreme unpleasantness can’t be a dealbreaker if you’re going to read 21st century literary fiction. I’m glad I didn’t succumb to my momentary impulse, because Ferrante’s tale of the thoughts and actions of 38-year-old Olga, the narrator, in the wake of her husband’s leaving her for a mistress half his age and only just out of her teens, blew me away, as Alice Sebold’s cover blurb promised.
“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me,” Olga tells readers at the novel’s outset. In the wake of that “it’s not you, it’s me” declaration, Olga describes how behind her outward calm, “a wave of anguish and rage was growing that frightened me,” particularly once she learns that there’s another much younger woman behind her husband’s departure.
Her circumstances bring back the desperation and deterioration of a similarly bereft neighbor from her childhood, “La Poverella.” Olga remembers her mother and associates remarking “when you don’t know how to keep a man you lose everything.” Like La Poverella, Olga tries to hold it together and to get her husband back. Neither is within her power.
Olga’s unflinching description of even her most unflattering thoughts and actions are part of what make Ferrante’s story so compelling. Early on, in a flashback to her college days, Olga remembers “As a girl I had liked obscene language, it gave me a sense of masculine freedom. Now I knew that obscenity could raise sparks of madness if it came from a mouth as controlled as mine.” And indeed it does: she gets into a riproaring fight with her husband, and, with the children in the next room, lets him have it with both barrels, as Marie notes in her review. “Speak like what? I don’t give a shit about prissiness. You wounded me, you are destroying me, and I’m supposed to speak like a good, well-brought-up wife?…What words am I supposed to use for what you’ve done to me, for what you’re doing to me?…Let’s talk about it!…[I]n order not to disturb the gentleman, not to disturb his children,, I’m supposed to use clean language, I’m supposed to be refined, I’m supposed to be elegant!….”
Describing her descent into deep, self-destructive depression, Olga muses “What was I? A woman worn out by four months of tension and grief.” When a series of unrelated and grim crises hit at once, she realizes she must pull herself together, but she has such difficulty in doing so that she gives her preteen daughter a sharp paper cutter and instructs her to prick her with it if she perceives that her mother is becoming “distracted.” Confused and repulsed, the child asks how she will know whether Olga needs a prick. Olga responds, “A distracted person is a person who no longer smells odors, doesn’t hear words, doesn’t feel anything.”
Her daughter does have to prick her, the crises get resolved—though not all happily—and Olga begins her climb out of depression and back to normal life. Throughout Ferrante’s taut storytelling, we feel Olga’s emotional and even physical pain. Even in translation, Ferrante makes every word in every sentence count. I’m looking forward to reading “My Brilliant Friend,” her newly published Europa novel, which I have at the top of my TBR list.

July 20, 2011

Three to read from Maurice Sendak, and how we create our families

The other day I added Maurice Sendak‘s “Nutshell Library,” composed of “Alligators All Around,” “Pierre,” “One Was Johnny,” and the immortal “Chicken Soup With Rice,” to my personal list of series books everyone should have read before the age of 21. If Sendak wrote or illustrated it, it’s hard to go wrong, in my experience.

“Where The Wild Things Are” is probably Sendak’s most famous book. Here are three more wonderful but not quite as well known books that Sendak either wrote or illustrated:

1) “The Wheel On The School,” by Meindert De Jong. This Newbery Medal winner for 1955 is a wonderful story of what children can achieve when they’re motivated and organized.

2) “Zlateh the Goat,” by Isaac Bashevis Singer. This earthy, timeless tale is suitable for children and adults alike. The Great Books Foundation has included it in its Shared Inquiry student anthologies for the early grades from time to time.

3) “The Bat Poet” and “The Animal Family,” by Randall Jarrell. The former, which I read only as an adult, is one of the best children’s books I’ve ever read. The latter, which I read many times as a child and loved, is also wonderful, though, contrary to John Updike, I think “The Bat Poet” is even better. For each, Sendak’s drypoint (?) illustrations perfectly enhance the story.

“The Animal Family,” which has to do with a family in the woods made up of a hunter, a mermaid, a bear, a lynx, and a boy who was a foundling, made me think about how many people create their own families, sometimes because they don’t have many close biological family members, sometimes because they don’t find their biological family members congenial or because they’ve grown away from them, and sometimes because they live far away. Naturally, that line of thought took me to musing about how social customs and practices have influenced the evolution of family law.

Though there’s great current popular emphasis on family, it seems to me that creating family-equivalents from unrelated friends must have a long tradition in the Americas and Australia, as Laura Ingalls Wilder recounts in her stories of Christmas and other occasions with the Boasts and Mr. Edwards in her “Little House” books. The alternative would have been a solitary existence–fine for some, but probably unbearable for most. Now as then, true friends are more valuable than rubies.

Marriage and adoption are the most common and accepted ways for those who aren’t related by blood to create families. In the last couple of decades, the law around the world has been rapidly changing to encourage marriage and permanent relationships by permitting marriage or civil unions between adult same-sex partners.

Though there’s great wisdom in current U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s famous quote, “It takes a village” to raise a child, courts and legislatures have understandably proceeded with great caution when considering claims for custody or visitation of minor children from persons other than the children’s legal parents. In my home state, for example, the Illinois Supreme Court has grappled with such issues in headline-making cases such as “Baby Richard,” in which the court reversed the termination of a biological father’s parental rights, and Wickham v. Byrne, in which the court invalidated the state’s then-existing grandparent visitation statute. In the latter case, the court found it troubling that the statutory standard, the “best interests and welfare of the child,” put grandparents on the same footing as the child’s parents. It felt that courts should second-guess parental decisions only when a child’s health, safety, or welfare was shown to be at risk. The statute has since been amended.

You can listen to an interview with Maurice Sendak here on NPR. Did Maurice Sendak’s works make an impression on you when you were a child? Have you reread them on becoming a grown-up, and if so, did they inspire you with any fresh insights?

May 11, 2011

Miserable marriages in literature

To my disappointment, I couldn’t find any fictional stories containing prenuptial agreements to accompany my recent post on the royal wedding and prenups.  But fiction abounds in unhappy marriages, as the Guardian recently observed.

In addition to the Guardian’s recommendations of Edward Albee‘s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” and Henry James‘s “Portrait of a Lady,” I’d recommend George Eliot‘s “Middlemarch,” and Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome” and “The Custom of the Country.” And for a stunningly well-crafted saga of an absolutely dreadful marriage between two absolutely dreadful people from two absolutely dreadful families, John Updike’s “Rabbit” tetralogy is hard to beat. (To be fair, those dreadful people are three-dimensional, and from the circumstances that Updike presents, the reader can understand, if not excuse, why they’re as dreadful as they are.)

All of these books are classics, meriting reading and rereading.  But they’re only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to fictional depictions of miserable marriages.

Do you think prenuptial agreements would have mitigated the fallout of any of the marriages depicted in these works? And am I being too hard on Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom and his family?

May 9, 2011

Read this: more Jane Gardam, on marriage

A few months ago I recommended reading Jane Gardam’s “Old Filth,” a novel told from the point of view of Edward Feathers, an elderly British barrister who is looking back over his long life and distinguished career. By itself, the book is a gem. To fully appreciate the story, though, you need to read its companion novel, “The Man in the Wooden Hat.”

In “Old Filth,” we learn something about Feathers’s long and seemingly staid marriage to Elisabeth (Betty). In “The Man in the Wooden Hat,” Gardam tells the story of Feathers’s marriage from Betty’s point of view. The resulting portrait is surprisingly complex and anything but dull.

I thought of Gardam’s fictional stories of the Feathers’s marriage in connection with the recent wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Last week I wrote that I fully expect theirs to be a long and happy union, though, of course, nothing in this life is ever certain.

All marriages have many facets, though, and unhappy ones are more often the stuff of novels than happy ones. Please check back on Wednesday when I’ll have some recommendations for more reading on marriage in fiction.

There’ve been some snarky assessments on the ‘net of Prince William’s genetic odds of marital longevity. Granted, the marriages of several of his parents’ generation haven’t held up so well, but that of his paternal grandparents is now going on 65 years. His paternal great-grandparents appear to have been models of devotion, as the movie “The King’s Speech” depicts. And his father, whose marriage to Princess Diana was a disaster, has to all appearances remained in love with his current wife (and she with him) for decades.

The new Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, was voted the third most beautiful royal beauty in a poll on a dating site shortly before her wedding, the Telegraph reported. I wouldn’t argue about Kate or any of the other placeholders, but I wonder why we never see the reigning Queen Elizabeth, who as a young woman was as stunning as any classic or modern beauty and who now has the look of a lovely grandmother, on such lists?

May 6, 2011

Royal weddings, prenups, and hats

I couldn’t resist posting last week about Will and Kate’s excellent wedding, including a reference to UK freelance writer Alex Aldridge’s 3-part series of royal wedding posts on Above The Law. In one of those posts, Aldridge quoted speculation on both sides of whether the happy couple had a prenuptial agreement in place before they tied the knot.

After the wedding, the Telegraph reported that they did not: the newspaper quoted an unidentified friend as having said that Prince William held firm against legal advice to do so, saying he loves and trusts Kate completely. We don’t actually know whether this report is true, though I think we can assume that the Telegraph wouldn’t have printed this story if its editors weren’t pretty confident that the information was reliable.

As a lawyer, when I hear stories of a person’s disregarding advice of counsel or not bothering to seek it in the first place, I usually roll my eyes at the person’s folly and poor judgment. Every rule has its exception, though, as lawyers and judges well know. If the Telegraph’s report is accurate, I think William got it right.

Many people like to punt the responsibility for their decisions to their lawyers–and uncritical spectators or reporters often enable them to get away with it. I’ve seen plenty of news stories that quote people as saying that they’d just love to do something, such as explaining some questionable behavior or testifying in their own defense, but their [impliedly overly cautious, mean, nasty, insensitive, and/or moneygrubbing] lawyers won’t let them.

That’s just not correct. Lawyers don’t make those decisions:  the client does.

I can imagine that Prince William might have been under some pressure from other members of the royal family or their staff to insist on Kate’s signing a prenuptial agreement. (A spokesperson denied it, in which case, good for the royal family.) If he had been, his easy course of action might have been to cave and tell Kate “Darling, I’m so sorry, but The Firm insists that you sign a prenup. Our lawyers have drafted something and they told me that we just have to sign it before we can be married.”

But think about it: nothing says “I don’t/my family doesn’t trust you, and I’m going into this marriage with the idea that there’s a decent chance we’ll get divorced” like “I want you to sign a prenuptial agreement.” Could anyone have blamed Kate if, had she been presented with such an ultimatum, she had thrown her sapphire engagement ring back at William, canceled her fittings with Sarah Burton, and moved out?

If the royal family’s lawyers advised William to require a prenup, they were unquestionably doing their job. I’ve written about prenuptial agreements before for the Illinois Bar Journal, and many experienced lawyers and formerly married people alike believe it’s foolish to marry without one, at least when one member of the couple has substantially more property or earning power than the other, and in the case of subsequent marriages where one or both spouses want to protect their children’s inheritances. New York magazine ran a piece a while back with some coaching on some less blunt, yet completely clear, ways to approach this sensitive subject with the love of your life.

Still, even lawyers may disagree on the advisability of prenuptial agreements in particular situations. Though I agree that there’s a place for prenups, it seems to me that in the context of a first marriage with no kids, more often than not, trusting your intended without exacting signatures on a legal instrument is the right course of action–assuming that you’ve acted with due care and diligence.  That means getting to know each other over a reasonable period, fully disclosing your respective backgrounds and positions, meeting family and friends, and perhaps living together. (And being in love, yes.) Will and Kate did all of those things. Nothing’s ever certain, but I’d wager that their union will endure with no regrets for no prenup. Why marry someone you don’t trust? Especially in the 21st century, even royals can always wait until they’re sure.

The Blueness of Tara Palmer-Tomkinson absorbed much of my attention during the part of the wedding that I watched–far more than Princess Beatrice’s Medusa-like hat (as characterized by an old friend of mine), made (and defended) by the same designer, Philip Treacy. How about you? Do you think she’ll ever wear that stunning ensemble again?

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