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.

February 21, 2012

Back Stories and Sequels: Jean Rhys and Jane Eyre, and P.D. James and Jane Austen, too

From another literature-loving family member comes this link to a hilarious commentary by Sarah Rees Brennan on Charlotte Bronte’s classic 19th-century novel, “Jane Eyre.” It reminded me, of course, of Edan Lepucki’s wonderful essay from The Millions, “Mr. Rochester is A Creep,” which I noted some time ago.

I love Jane Eyre, and will defend her to the death, but Brennan and Lepucki have a point. Years before they wrote their pieces, in 1966, Jean Rhys wrote the back story of Mr. Rochester’s first wife, Bertha Mason, nee Antoinette Cosway and explored Mr. Rochester’s creepy qualities to a degree that I’m certain Bronte never considered. Rhys’s novel is “The Wide Sargasso Sea,” awarded the Cheltenham Booker Prize in 2006.

Rhys’s novel was enthralling, at least in part, I think, because she didn’t try to imitate Charlotte Bronte’s style. The tropical colonial setting she chose for her story of Antoinette’s upbringing was as different as could be from Jane Eyre’s and Mr. Rochester’s England, which went far toward explaining Antoinette’s breakdown, and deserved its own style—not warmed-over Bronte.

Rhys did a great job of taking another author’s characters and putting them into her own story. But not all writers are as effective. A dear and thoughtful friend (thanks, MSH!) gave me P.D. James’s recently published sequel to Jane Austen’s 19th-century “Pride and Prejudice,” “Death Comes to Pemberley,” in which James uses Austen’s characters to continue the story. The book was a mildly fun read and held my interest, but ultimately left me only lukewarm. I think part of the problem was that, unlike Rhys, James strove to imitate Austen’s style. James may be a very fine writer when she tells a story in her own voice (alas, I haven’t read her other novels, though I know James has many, many devoted fans), but let’s face it: Nobody can possibly do Jane Austen the way Jane Austen did Jane Austen.

I’m glad I read James’s book, though: Her treatment got me thinking about the characters and led me to some insights that I might not have reached otherwise. It also gave me a good push to reread P&P after a couple of decades. In fact, as a result of reading James’s novel as well as Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita In Tehran” (my personal Best Book Read in 2010), I’m certain that I enjoyed this reread significantly more than I would have otherwise.

Lawyer literary buffs will be interested to know that James included passages on 19th-century English legal procedure in her book. She worked for years in contemporary British courts, and I’m certain she did her research on past practices. As I wrote earlier, “Jane Eyre” and “The Wide Sargasso Sea” raise a multitude of legal issues, especially about the treatment of women and of the mentally ill in days not so far gone by.

Wouldn’t it be fun to hear Charlotte Bronte’s and Jane Austen’s reactions to Rhys’s and James’s explorations of their characters? Would Bronte see that Mr. Rochester really is a bit creepy? Would Austen  agree with James’s continuation of Lydia’s unqualified dreadfulness? What do you think?

April 29, 2011

The royal wedding, law, and story

UK freelance writer Alex Aldridge has provided a 3-part legal perspective on today’s royal wedding for Above The Law, including quotes from some who believe that Will and Kate have a signed prenuptial agreement and at least one who thinks they don’t. And Penelope Trunk lends some affirmation for my fascination with the royal wedding by acknowledging her own in a thoughtful post in which she muses on how Will and Kate will build a happy life together by finding meaningful work.

Media reports notwithstanding, we don’t and can’t really know much of the real story of this royal couple’s romance–though it’s very pleasant to see that they seem happy and very much in love, and at least as likely to remain so as any newlyweds. For some really detailed accounts of other aristocratic relationships, history provides a more fertile field.

It’s hard to beat Stella Tillyard‘s “Aristocrats,” the story of Caroline, Emily, Louisa, and Sarah Lennox, 1740-1832, for a marvelous story of 18th century marriage among the English gentry. For other stories of upper-class alliances that clearly set forth the role of completely non-romantic factors in marriage negotiations–i.e. money and social rank–read not only the nonfiction “Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt:  The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age,” by Amanda Mackenzie Stewart, but also any of Jane Austen‘s novels and Edith Wharton‘s sadly unfinished “The Buccaneers,” among other titles.  What I’m currently reading, Anthony Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now,” is a completely cynical look at marriage among the 19th century’s English upper classes that’s guaranteed to cast a dark veil over any starry eyes.

Stella Tillyard said “I’ve always thought that one of the reasons why people read biography is to find out ordinary things. We tend to read the lives of extraordinary people in order to find out details of ordinary life.” What do you think?

February 4, 2011

Egypt: Politics and Literature

With the unrest in Egypt as the major world news story, it seems like a good time to talk about Egyptian literature.

I love reading literature from other parts of the world.  It’s a good way of experiencing areas to which you’re unlikely to travel any time soon.  Or, if you’ve already been to a place where a book is set, your memories of it can charge your reading experience with extra resonance.

So I was really looking forward to immersing myself in the paperback English translations of the “Cairo Trilogy” by Nobel literature laureate Naguib Mahfouz, which have dreamy, atmospheric photographs of Egyptian scenes on their covers that enticed me to settle down for a long, satisfying read.

Mahfouz’s story, which unfolds over a number of years from the early to the mid-20th century and depicts Egypt’s political history during that turbulent time, held my interest.  Disappointingly, though, I didn’t much enjoy it.  

It took me a while to figure out why; for a while I blamed my own shortcomings as a reader, and I also considered whether the translation might be a factor.  But now I think I’ve identified the problem:  I didn’t find the trilogy’s central character, al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, persuasive. 

Mahfouz portrays al-Sayyid Ahmad as a selfish, sanctimonious hypocrite and petty despot at home who insists on the highest standards of behavior for his family members and absolute servility toward him while displaying zero affection for them.  Out and about in Cairo, tippling with his friends and mistress, al-Sayyid is a genial bon vivant, loquacious and generous. 

The narrative gave me no understanding of why al-Sayyid Ahmad’s wife and daughters—or even his sons—possessed so much love for him.  Real people, and convincing fictional characters, are complex and sometimes contradictory.  Al-Sayyid seemed not one complex and three-dimensional character, but actually two two-dimensional characters:  an absolute Dr. Jekyll outside his home, and an absolute Mr. Hyde within his home, with the twain neither meeting nor mixing.  His wife, Amina, seemed likewise flat to me.  Mahfouz makes her a saint and enabler who, inexplicably, never, ever appears to resent or feel any conflict about her husband’s treatment of her and their daughters as slaves.  Two-dimensional characters are neither convincing nor compelling.  I’d expected better from a Nobel prizewinner.

Two other Egyptian authors whose books are worth a look are Nawal el Saadawi and Lucette Lagnado.  Saadawi is a medical doctor, feminist author and delightful speaker, and has been an outspoken critic of the Egyptian government.  Lagnado’s family left Egypt as part of the Jewish exodus after Nasser came to power and settled in the US.  She now writes for The Wall Street Journal and published a memoir focusing on her father, “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit.”  Though on her publisher’s author page she gracefully declines to discuss works in progress, I’m hoping that, as her Wikipedia page says, another memoir in which she turns her focus to her mother will come out later this year.

If you’ve read Mahfouz’s work, did you have the same reaction I did, or do you think I’m missing something?  Are any of his other books better than the “Cairo Trilogy?”  Any other Egyptian writers you’d recommend?  As I write this post, Andre Aciman comes to mind, and, though Lawrence Durrell was British, so does his “Alexandria Quartet.”  M. Lynx Qualey, a writer and reader who lives in Egypt, has a nice list of Egyptian writers on her very cool blog, Arabic Literature (in English).  I see that The Ruth Group also has a post with convenient links and suggestions for Egyptian, Tunisian, and other Arab literature.

In the meantime, let’s hope that the rule of law and reason will soon provide a peaceful resolution of Egypt’s disquiet.

UPDATES:  Alexander Star in The New York Times has A Reading List for the Egypt Crisis up that includes Mahfouz and others.  (Hat Tip: Eric and Laura at Pimp My Novel.)   And Nina Sankovitch of Read All Day clearly wouldn’t agree with my views on The Cairo Trilogy.

November 5, 2010

More context: Charlotte Bronte vs. Robert Southey

Dennis Low, a scholar in the UK who wrote “The Literary Protégées of the Lake Poets” (Ashgate, 2006), posted an interesting comment on Tuesday in response to my post that day, in which I (accurately) quoted from a letter that Robert Southey, England’s poet laureate from 1813 until his death in 1843, sent to the 20-year-old Charlotte Bronte after she sent him some of her poetry and asked his advice on whether she had any chance of a literary career.  Dennis followed up with a cordial e-mail to which he generously attached chapter 1 of his book, which contains a more extensive excerpt from Southey’s letter than most biographers of Bronte have provided:

“I, who have made literature my profession, and devoted my life to it, and have never for a moment repented of the deliberate choice, think myself, nevertheless, bound in duty to caution every young man who applies as an aspirant to me for encouragement and advice against taking so perilous a course. You will say that a woman has no need of such a caution; there can be no peril in it for her. In a certain sense this is true; but there is a danger of which I would, with all kindness and all earnestness, warn you. The day dreams in which you habitually indulge are likely to induce a distempered state of mind; and, in proportion as all the ordinary uses of the world seem to you flat and unprofitable, you will be unfitted for them without becoming fitted for anything else. Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.”

I haven’t yet finished reading the chapter and don’t have ready access to Dennis’s book.  When I’ve finished the chapter, and when I’ve had some more time to think about his arguments, about Southey’s advice in written and historical context, and about the common tendency  to elevate Charlotte Brontë to icon status (which her contemporary friends and admirers, Ellen Nussey and Elizabeth Gaskell, began), I’ll post some more thoughts.  In the meantime, I’m grateful to Dennis for providing this additional context, as well as for alerting me to his fresh and apparently thoroughly researched perspective on Southey.

Politics and legal proceedings, like academic studies, are also known for placing in sharp relief different points of view on the additional meaning that context can provide to people’s words.   Readers, can you think of some other examples of historical or literary figures whose reputations rest on words extracted from much of their context and interpreted using the standards of different centuries and cultures than those in which they were written?

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