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.

October 16, 2012

Marie’s trip to Europa Editions!

Filed under: Europa Challenge — Helen Gunnarsson @ 8:00 am
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Challenge ButtonBooklovers, go check out my blogger pal Marie’s post about her recent visit to the home office of Europa Editions, a publisher of mostly European titles in English translation, over at The Europa Challenge Blog. I love her photos of the offices and description of her visit!

While you’re there, I hope you’ll take a look at my reviews there as well. I’ve read quite a few more titles than I’ve posted reviews – in fact, I’ve actually made it to the Caffe Luongo level of 12 Europas this year, yay! – and hope to catch up by December 31. In fact, I have one draft that I’m almost ready to let go of, so do check back soon. And if you love Europa’s wonderful titles also, why not consider joining me and the other bloggers over there and posting some reviews?

UPDATE: I posted my review of Elena Ferrante’s “The Days Of Abandonment.”

April 30, 2012

There but for the grace of God: Homelessness in literature and real life

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Over the weekend, I posted a review over at the Europa Challenge Blog. For the 2012 challenge, my modest goal was to achieve the Espresso level by reading four books published by Europa Editions. I’ve now achieved that, so I’m taking this opportunity to crow a little 🙂 . My first 2012 review, discussing Jean-Claude Izzo’s “A Sun for the Dying,” is below. In the near term future, I hope to post on Alexander Maksik’s “You Deserve Nothing,” Laurence Cosse’s “An Accident in August, and Elena Ferrante’s “The Lost Daughter.” I have several more as-yet unread Europas on my shelf and one or two checked out from the library, so the Cappuccino level (6 Europas) is clearly in view. With so much else on my plate, I can’t commit to the demanding Caffe Luongo level (read and review 12 Europas), but I’m not ruling it out, either–after all, there are still seven months left in the year! Hope you’ll enjoy my thoughts on Izzo below and check out my other reviews, as well as those of my co-bloggers, on the Europa Challenge Blog as well.

Reading Jean-Claude Izzo’s “A Sun for the Dying” in tandem with George Orwell’s “Down and Out in London and Paris” gave me a double dose of insight into the plight of the homeless people I see every day on my way to and from work. In this time of mortgage foreclosures, crushing student loan debt, and an extraordinarily difficult job market, it also made me think of how close so many people are to the edge.

Izzo’s novel shows how a person’s bad decisions, coupled with family’s and associates’ equally bad behavior and a stroke or two of bad fortune, can leave someone homeless, penniless, and in ill health, with no chance of climbing back to the upper middle class from which he came. Orwell’s nonfiction account of his own temporary experience with homelessness and poverty in Paris and London during the 1930s contains many similar elements.

If the title alone of “A Sun for the Dying” weren’t enough to clue you in, by the time you read the prologue, which recounts the last few hours of Titi, a homeless man, on a wintry Paris metro platform, you know the story is not going to lift up your spirits.

For Rico, Izzo’s chief protagonist, Titi’s death is a turning point. The two depended on each other not only to share any slight windfalls either might encounter but also, at least as important, to buck up each other’s spirits. Their companionship provided each with a reason to keep going. Though Rico was the stronger of the two, once Titi, his best and only friend, is gone, he spirals downward even more rapidly.

Though Rico wasn’t a likeable character for me, he’s not an unusual person. As the narrative progresses, we learn that not too long before Titi’s death he had a good job, a beautiful wife, a son, a really nice house, and a similarly upscale social circle. But nothing and no one stays the same. A chain of unfortunate events ends with Rico losing everything he has and ending up homeless on the streets of Paris.

You might think that a person in Rico’s position should go to his family, if he has one, for support and a place to stay while he gets back on his feet. Indeed, Rico’s father is alive and clearly well able to offer his son a helping hand. But he’s not a likeable character, either. He’s been out of Rico’s life for many years and, on reencountering his son, seems completely uninterested in his condition or in reestablishing any sort of relationship, let alone helping him out.

You might also think that France’s socialized institutions would provide Rico with support. Not in Izzo’s book; whatever services or organizations there are in France that help the poor are largely absent from the story.

Orwell, whose real-life descent into living on the edge was precipitated by a theft, describes exactly how it feels. From chapter 3: “You discover, for instance, the secrecy attaching to poverty. At a sudden stroke you have been reduced to an income of six francs a day. But of course you dare not admit it – you have got to pretend that you are living quite as usual. From the start it tangles you in a net of lies, and even with the lies you can hardly manage it.” He continues to describe the precariousness of life on the edge, how just staying alive consumes him, and how any deviation from his strict centime-pinching regimen throws his entire life off. Eighty years later, his description of a homeless person’s daily life on another continent is as vivid and about as accurate, I don’t doubt, as it was then.

Izzo doesn’t attempt to propose any solutions for homelessness in his gritty novel, which simply tells a realistic and very depressing story. Though Orwell does present some reasoned suggestions in his book, for me, his most effective message is the benefit of understanding, compassion, and a sense that there, but for the grace of God, could go any of us. As he says in his concluding chapter: “I can point to one or two things that I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy….That is a beginning.”

January 2, 2012

Looking back on 2011 and forward into 2012

2011 was a great year for reading for me. I focused even more than I have in past years on reading critically and with purpose. That meant I read more books, and better books, than when I’ve read more haphazardly.

I like to keep a running list of the books I read, the better to remember them (which writing about them on this blog also helps me to do). My personal Best Book Read In 2011 was the graphic novel “Watchmen,” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Other books I enjoyed greatly included several by Alexander McCall Smith; Scottish poet Jackie Kay’s memoir, “Red Dust Road;” Suzanne Collins’s YA blockbuster, “The Hunger Games;” and Anthony Trollope’s masterwork, “The Way We Live Now,” which had been on my TBR list for at least a couple of years.

One book I especially enjoyed wasn’t even my idea to read. Knowing of my passion for Laura Ingalls Wilder, an intuitive friend surprised me with a gift at the end of 2011, Kristin Kimball’s “The Dirty Life.” Ever wonder what it was REALLY like for Laura to live with Almanzo and build a life on the farm together? After reading Kimball’s memoir of meeting, moving in with, and marrying her farmer husband, I think I have a pretty good idea (and, like Kimball’s husband, I bet Almanzo and, for that matter, Laura, had smelly armpits, too).

One of my resolutions last year was to read a nice, juicy biography. I had two in mind: Maynard Solomon’s “Beethoven” and Benita Eisler’s “O’Keefe and Stieglitz.” Alas, they’re still sitting on my nightstand, unread. But I kept that resolution by reading another thick biography I’d had for several years: Mary S. Lovell’s “The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family.” Lovell’s book was a good read about an interesting family, but I found myself agreeing with a discerning friend who described it as having “lost its moral compass.” To her, and to me, the author seemed rather too enthralled by the faded glamour of the unrepentant Diana Mitford, in particular, who married Oswald Mosley, an M.P. who became the leader of the British Fascists and, with Diana, was imprisoned for much of World War II because of their open sympathy for Hitler. Scandalous Women has more about the Mitford sisters.

Another aspiration of mine in 2011 was to read a Dickens novel. I’m sorry to say I didn’t keep that one. But in 2012 I hope to make amends by reading both Claire Tomalin’s new biography of Dickens and a Dickens novel I haven’t read before, since both were under our Christmas tree. I’m excited!

I did something new in 2011 that I plan to continue in 2012: I became a guest blogger on The Europa Challenge Blog. It was pure serendipity that I peeked at my Twitter stream one evening and saw Marie’s tweet inviting fans of Europa Editions publications to participate on this fan blog. Having already read several Europa books, I had no hesitation about accepting. Initially, I signed up for the fairly conservative four-book Europa Ami challenge level. But I like a bit of competition, so I pushed myself and surpassed the 7-book Europa Haver level, reading 8 new Europa books in all—which doesn’t count the several I’d read before accepting the challenge. For 2012, Marie has renamed the levels with a wonderful continental café theme. I’m starting out cautiously, signing up for the 4-book Espresso level, but I’m quite confident I’ll be able to reach at least the 6-book Cappuccino mark. As a lawyer, I love finding and thinking about the legal issues in the books I read. In Europa’s books, I’d particularly recommend Alberto Angela’s “A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome” for its brief discussion of Roman legal proceedings, Peter Kocan’s “The Treatment and The Cure” and “Fresh Fields” for his depiction of Australia’s treatment of the mentally ill who have committed crimes, and Jane Gardam’s wonderful “Old Filth” and “The Man in the Wooden Hat” for her portrait of a marriage from both spouses’ respective points of view.

What are your New Year’s resolutions?

December 26, 2011

Peter Kocan’s “Fresh Fields:” mental illness and the law

Challenge ButtonNews from the Mental Health Summit at the University of Chicago as well as the Chicago News Cooperative’s excellent coverage of mental health services cuts in Illinois in the pages of The New York Times coincided with my reading Australian writer Peter Kocan’s autobiographical novel, “Fresh Fields.”

In 1966, as a teenager, Kocan tried and, fortunately, failed, to assassinate Australian labor leader Arthur Calwell. Though he was found to be a borderline schizophrenic and sentenced to life in prison, most of which he spent in a mental hospital, he was pronounced cured and released from custody after ten years. He began writing in prison and is now an acclaimed writer, having received a number of literary awards as well as obtaining advanced degrees.

In “Fresh Fields,” Kocan depicts the descent of a fourteen-year-old loner into insanity. The youth, as the author refers to him throughout, didn’t seem fundamentally abnormal to me (though I’m no mental health expert). Rather, his mental unhinging seems to occur as a gradual result of his extremely limited socialization.

Kocan makes the dysfunctionality of the youth’s family clear in his first few paragraphs. The youth, his mother, and his younger brother are fleeing their home and the abusive Vladimir, who is his mother’s husband or partner and may or may not be the youth’s father. Kocan refers to the youth’s mother only as “the woman,” and she has no more than minimal dialogue and interaction with him. Though the youth is only around 15, his mother apparently doesn’t think it important for him to go to school. She pushes him to get a job and support himself, since she evidently can’t. He gets and loses a series of jobs due to his complete lack of experience and missteps that a more experienced and wiser person would never make. The hard knocks he’s gotten, coupled with the absence of any meaningful human relationship or social interaction, cause him to retreat into himself. He becomes increasingly obsessed and identifies with Diestl, a soldier character in a German movie about the aftermath of World War II who is alone, wounded, and bitter. By the end of the book, it’s clear that he’s going to explode.

“Fresh Fields” is the prequel to Kocan’s two novellas, “The Treatment” and “The Cure,” which I reviewed earlier on The Europa Challenge website. His stories and personal history, together with a number of articles I’ve written for the Illinois Bar Journal on mental health law, make me wonder to what extent isolation causes people to develop mental illness, or dementia. (From there, it’s a short step to wondering whether solitary confinement for misbehaving prisoners is ever a good idea.) If only more positive socialization were the answer for all who suffer; unfortunately, it’s clear that there are many other factors that cause or contribute to mental problems, some (but not all) of which can be alleviated by counseling, some (but not all) of which can be alleviated by drugs, and some (but not all) of which may be alleviated by more socialization.

You can read more about Kocan in Patrick Bryson’s paper, “Lunatics and the Asylum: Representations of ‘The Loner.’” We in the U.S. are not alone in having difficulty in funding and framing our mental health care system; see Inside Story for more about Australia’s mental health care problems. And NPR had a story recently about how to hold violent psychiatric patients accountable without punishing them for being sick.

Though it still carries a stigma, mental illness has touched most people’s lives. I admire Kocan and all those who are bringing their experiences out of the closet.

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