The Neapolitan novels

This post is dedicated to my fellow Neapolitan sister Disha.

There are few books ever written which, put it simply, rocked your world. Such an experience is by necessity to a reader’s sanity few and far between.

And yet when I started reading My Brilliant Friend, the first of the Neapolitan novels by Italian author Elena Ferrante, I already knew it was going to change me, my world, and my words forever. I read the four books in the series about a year ago – practically inhaled them once I got the complex web of characters and relationships down. And it’s one of those experiences where I wish I could erase my memory of it just so I could live it again. For a year I’ve known the impact of these books on me and my worldview but I couldn’t articulate quite properly why they were so life-changing and important, and every effort that put words to paper felt inadequate and cumbersome.

But today I’m trying. Because I’ve been thinking recently about how we can never know what’s going to happen in life. I’d like to think I know everything and can see everything lying ahead, but the truth is the universe is just playing with us as tennis balls. I’m inspired to use the Neapolitan novels as a lens to life just because while the author grasps that wild, unpredictable quality of life, she is able to contain and control it in her narrative – something I’ve never quite experienced, and something I envy.

The Neapolitan novels chronicle the lives and friendship of two girls from a poor neighbourhood in Naples: Elena/Lenu the narrator and her friend Lila. From the beginning, Lila is a force of nature that leads Elena everywhere and Elena is always a step behind, in her studies, in love, in understanding the world. Elena would gladly follow Lila where she leads, yet this also means Elena is always trying to catch up to Lila but will always remain in her shadow, despite the fact that Elena eventually escapes her poverty through education, while Lila becomes trapped in a loveless marriage and the conventions of provincial life.

The story is a traditional bildungsroman so we follow the two characters as they grow up and learn about the caprices of the world, while they try to take what they can from it. While traditional in structure, it’s not traditional in tone. There’s no pot of gold waiting for Pip at the end, or a courageous build up to killing Voldermort. The books follow the natural crest and fall of life as it is, and it’s the most realistic thing I know. There’s no satisfying emotional payoff because life just goes on and on and on.

At the start the reader hopes for these two girls – these brilliant, creative, interesting, girls with so much interiority. We hope they could journey on like other famous characters to get out, get better, especially when Lila (and Elena) show the promise of brilliance which in other novels mean they could have an extraordinary story ahead. Lila is years ahead of her class, and Elena is the most hardworking girl – both deserve exceptionalism. After all, why else are we reading about them?

Yet as the reader keeps going, you realise there is a sense of resignation that permeates the novels. Despite hope, despite education, despite upward mobility, despite class struggle, Ferrante punctures her words with a minimum brick layer of despair. I’m not sure what it is – is it because these characters are female and are therefore not meant to hope/strive for what they want, or is it because these characters are born in the violence of poverty, and much like Gatsby, will never escape that stink? Or is it both?

This sense of inevitable disappointment makes the experience of reading the books an emptying affair. I always close a chapter feeling like my guts were completely dug out. But at the same time, the level of psychological detail in the narrative is so rich that I feel like I’m bursting to the seams in my imagination, almost leading these people’s lives – that this is me. I am Lila. I am Lenu. They are every woman. I am every woman.

While Elena goes away to complete her college education and meets people from more educated and affluent backgrounds, one day she is inspired in an almost torrential rush (in fact by a book Lila herself wrote many years ago) to write a novel and there’s something very female about it that demonstrates what it means to be a woman. She pens down a sexual experience she had on a beach with a man she did not love, a man who thinks he could have his way with any woman, a man she turns to in an act that completes her lack of self-worth, following the most painful rejection by the one Elena actually loved. This act is characterised by a kind of dirty quality – the kind that almost all women can understand because so much of interaction with men still has that dirtiness – just in the way men use women, in the way men treat women as objects just for sex, in the way there is violence in some intimacy, and in the way there is almost always an element of shame to women’s sexuality.

That dirty quality is one other women in the book recognise; when Elena returns home, the other women from her childhood echo her, praise her, for her ‘dirty’ book because they know what it’s like – that Elena has articulated the previously incommunicable. However male intellectuals are embarrassed by Elena’s book or they see it as gratuitous, unimportant and sensationalised. But that’s because there is some element of being a woman that men can never understand, with men as conquerer rather than the conquered, the one acting but never the one being acted on.

As I’ve read in a review, Elena Ferrante is Jane Austen on fire. I have never read a series of books that more accurately portrayed what it means to be a woman in the world, which makes this such a quintessentially female experience that perhaps only women can possibly fully understand the text, just like the women with Elena’s book. But at the same time these books are one of the best ways men can ever hope to get into the minds of women subject to the violence, inequalities, hopes and dreams, and poverty of being female. For any dudebro who says ‘I just don’t understand women’ or ‘women are a mystery’, well, attempt to read Elena Ferrante and you’ll understand.

Another element of the female experience is Elena and Lila’s friendship. That sense of despair I mentioned is also felt in their friendship. It’s one of the best, most complex depiction of a female friendship I’ve read before, and it rings so true. There is so much in the life and death of these friendships. Lenu and Lila were inseparable; they mirrored each other; they supported each other. But at the same time there was comparison and rivalry and envy. I felt at certain points in the novel that we were all Elena; we all wished we were Lila but we could only be Elena. And despite all the ugliness that Lila’s life became, there’s still an inequality there that Elena could never fill.

The first novel is called My Brilliant Friend and I’ve always thought this title referred to Lila as she had so much natural potential which Elena so envied and wanted. But in the end because of Lila’s circumstances and fear, Elena is the one who could complete her education while Lila dropped out of school. And as Elena advanced in her studies, Lila one day tells Elena ‘you’re my brilliant friend’ in the novel, when Lila is using her newly gained husband’s money to help Elena buy her books. It’s a deliberate twist of perspective from the author, but for the characters it was just so. And that’s when I realised that perhaps we all thought we were Elena, and Elena is perhaps enough after all, perhaps even better than Lila. That this circle of envy emblematic of many female friendships is just that: a cycle that should be broken.

Throughout the series, both women rely on each other in a manner of deep love, but also holding each other as the benchmarks of their lives: Elena always comparing herself to the Lila in her mind, who she could have been, and Lila seeing in Elena the life she could have lived, the mother who could have given her children more. On some level it’s almost sick that these women would do this to each other. But at the same time, when these women come together, something electric happens – they bring out the best in each other and they create a force that – no matter how parasitic – pushes them both to move forward in life.

As Malaysian writer Sarah Ngu says, “Lenu and Lila are so primordial in their drives—one hungering for approval, the other for control and stability—and so unchanging throughout the series that, over time, they come off less like two characters and begin to sound more like two warring voices within ourselves. Lenu is the voice that we hear when we wonder, “Was that enough? Am I enough?” while Lila is the voice that hisses back, “What do I care? Fuck them all.” ”

And there seems to be nothing more female than this.

The truth is reading the Neapolitan novels makes me rather depressed about the state of class and gender in the world. While much has changed since the time these girls grew up in Naples, so much is still the same that I almost feel like giving in to that sense of despair.

But what I choose to take away from this complex series of works is that there’s something spellbinding in Ferrante’s writing that bounds us all, and it is this common point from which we must build.

 

 

2016 Reading Challenge: Water For Elephants

It’s been a while since I’ve read a book I felt like writing about but I finished Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen at 2am last night and the words just flowed out of me. I got the novel on my Nook shortly after I watched Totem by Cirque du Soleil, which was absolutely amazing, and it was fascinating to imagine the life of a circus performer or working man which is entirely different from mine. And how if you’re part of a circus, that’s your whole life. I wikied the whole of Cirque du Soleil’s history that night, but needed more.

I remember watching the Water For Elephants movie trailer starring Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon years ago, and remember thinking meh. It just felt like yet another typical 1930s story, and Rob Pat held the same expression the entire trailer – sorry dude. But of course the book is different. The book is always different. And so there I was at 2am, voraciously swallowing the book to know every detail.

Water For Elephants is about vet student Jacob Jankowski who jumps a train after tragedy befalls his family and he’s left with nothing. Little did he know the train he jumped was a circus train belonging to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth! He’s in for the craziest ride of his life, and the story is framed by 93 year old Jacob who is living in assisted care and trying to hold on to who he is while slipping away, though not without a fight.

The book is known as historical fiction plus romance, and that’s exactly what the book delivers. The details written of the circus, so crazy, so bizarre, so completely extraordinary, were so fantastical that they had to be true, and some of them were. From the hippopotamus paraded in formaldehyde, to Lovely Lucinda, the resident ‘fat lady’ dying prematurely and the circus leader using her death to sell more tickets, the amazing thing about circus life is: the extraordinary is the ordinary, but at the same time, the magic means it’s all an illusion. We are brought up close to circus life, but the readers are never fooled; we are not the circus audience. We discover from the beginning of the book as one of the muscle guys holds Jacob out of the train car and wants to drop him for no reason other than his being dispensable that circus life is ugly. It’s rough, it’s wretched, there’s no glamour, nothing truly all that spectacular.

Of course the novel is set in the gritty 1930s during the American Depression era, and some of the book is passed for the young Jacob in an intoxicated frenzy, made even more urgent by the Prohibition at the time. Everything about the circus feels forbidden, and that’s only befitting of the central romance between Jacob and Marlena, the trainer who performs with the horses, and later an elephant named Rosie. Marlena is married to the equestrian director August, who’s equal part charming and violent, almost a personification of the circus himself. Jacob inevitably falls in love with Marlena, which is all so typical that no one can miss it, but how his story with Marlena plays out ultimately reflects the consequences of the violence, both from August and the circus.

(Spoiler alerts from here)

Jacob and Marlena restrain themselves for most of the novel, and the reader feels the overwhelming pressure. In a world where people are drinking openly during the Prohibition, offering prostitution and having sex in the grass outside tents, it can feel like the circus is the exception to morality and the ordered lives of Americans in that era. And yet here were Jacob and Marlena bursting to the seams trying to keep their feelings and desires under wraps. Ultimately when August breaks and accuses them in a violent fit of cheating, he’s mistaken, but he’s also not wrong. And the reader feels an odd sense of injustice and fulfillment. Sara Gruen is skilled in creating a world held together by violence and punctuated with small moments of kindness and generosity, and ultimately you just can’t help but root for Jacob and his foolishness.

And you also grow to love many of the minor but three-dimensional characters like Walter the dwarf who sleeps in the same train car as Jacob and the horses, and instinctively hates Jacob on first sight but has remained kind in spite of the prejudice he’s faced his whole life. You even grow to absolutely love all the animals, especially gentle but deadly Rosie the elephant.

However, it is the human relations that ultimately are all so interesting for me. While the circus is exception to the moral order at the time, prejudice, discrimination and class differences remain, and are magnified in the small space of the circus. The novel does an interesting study of the way people succumb to ugliness because they are subject to ugliness themselves. But how such moments are understandable, so very human. When Walter is angry with August, it seems only fair to use the arsenal of hate already afforded to him by the cultural milieu.

“Because I just know. There’s not a human bone in that kike’s body.”

“Watch your damned mouth!” I shout. 

Walter stops to look at me. “What? Oh, hey, you’re not Jewish, are you? Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. It was just a cheap shot,” he says.

“Yes, it was a cheap shot,” I say, still shouting. “They’re all cheap shots and I’m getting mighty damned sick of them. If you’re a performer, you take shots at the working men. If you’re a working man, you take shots at Poles. If you’re a Pole, you take shots at Jews. And if you’re a dwarf–well, you tell me, Walter? Is it just Jews and working men you hate, or do you also hate Poles?”

Eventually Walter admits he doesn’t hate anybody, not really, not based on race or ethnicity or class. It’s almost force of habit, it’s what we know, what is easily reachable, a cheap shot. And how much of this is the same today? How much of our hate is automatic, learned, pre-thought? While prejudice against Poles and Jews is taken as matter of fact in the book, it’s never taken as right. And these themes continue to ring true today, if not for Poles and Jews, but for people of colour, Muslims, refugees…

At the end of the day, my favourite part of the book is how it plays with reality. Everything that we know is what we know from Jacob as a cantankerous old man. His memory is not what it was, and the novel reminds us that people tend to remember what they want to. And it’s amazing to consider this key theme in the novel precisely because the circus has never been about the truth. So how much is historical, how much is fiction, and how much does it matter?

One of the most important things in the book is that the prologue which details the ending and the ending itself are written differently. It’s a simple twist that fools the reader at the beginning, and many readers online have insisted on one version of the story because it seemed told with more authority and clarity, but with old Jacob framing the narrative, do we really know? Is he just telling us what we want to hear, just like how circus goers see what they want to see? I’m not really sure, and I think that’s the point.

I’m really glad I picked up this book. When I was done, I went to rewatch the movie trailer again and still meh, though I noticed August was played by Christopher Waltz which can only elevate the material. Maybe one day I’ll actually watch the adaptation, but for the moment, Water For Elephants has got me excited about discovering new worlds again.

Follow this list for my progress on the 2015-2016 Reading Challenge:

  1. A book you can finish in a day: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  2. A classic romance: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
  3. A book that became a movie: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
  4. A book with a number in the title: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham
  5. A book with nonhuman characters: Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea
  6. A trilogy: The Daughter of Smoke and Bone series by Laini Taylor
  7. A book from your childhood: Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong
  8. A book by a female author: The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
  9. A mystery or thrillerCrocodile Tears (Alex Rider series) by Anthony Horowitz
  10. A book with a one-word title: Villette by Charlotte Brontë
  11. A book set in high school: Scorpia Rising (Alex Rider series) by Anthony Horowitz
  12. A book with magic: Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
  13. A book that was originally written in a different language: The Boat to Redemption by Su Tong
  14. A book set during Christmas: The Silent Stars Go By by Dan Abnett (Doctor Who)

2015 Reading Challenge: The Handmaid’s Tale

A book you can finish in a day:

Began my 2015 Reading Challenge with a book I’ve been wanting to read for a long time, written by an author whose prose and poetry both move me profoundly: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Illustrations from Anna and Elena Balbusso

Published in 1985, this novel was later dubbed by critics to be just like ‘Orwell’s 1984, but for women.’ It’s telling that women have their own special kind of dystopian hell, because it simultaneously signifies a kind of oppression that men simply do not face in reality, as well as the ghettoisation of women’s literature that so often discounts the universality of female authorship and experiences.

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in an America where ecological disasters and modern lifestyles have created a vast decrease in birth rates and widespread sterility. In order to ensure our survival as a population, a new order is born where non-elite women who are found to be fertile will serve as Handmaids, essentially a birthing machine for the upper class families. In this society, men of a certain rank are entitled to a wife, who takes care of the household, a Handmaid, who serves as a vessel for birth in cases where the wives are sterile (cos in this society it’s never the man who’s sterile yeah), and a Martha, who is an older, non-fertile woman who does the cooking and cleaning. It’s the trifecta of oppression for womanhood – of our wifely duties, domestic labour, and reproductive responsibilities. For these men and their Handmaids, sex is never romantic or lustful; it’s simply a means to an end, taken place in a Ceremony where the Handmaid lies as a conduit between the wife and the husband.

After finishing the book, I saw that someone online had called it ‘the dumbest dystopian story ever written,’ and I immediately thought: he must be a dude. Because as a woman, the book is terrifying because of how possible it is. Because institutions such as nations and public spaces staking a claim on female bodies is something that every woman goes through, to some extent. As a Singaporean woman, we are always called upon by the nation to do our duty by creating more babies. Such a duty is simply not placed on the shoulders of Singaporean men, despite their part being equally essential.

Yet, at the end of the day, dystopia is dystopia. Just as it is terrifying that society organises women via their fertility (the Unwomen are ferried off to the Colonies to do cleanup work), it is frightening in equal measure that men are expected to behave without love, lust, morality, affection, greed, freedom, envy… So many dystopian novels are similar because all extreme ways of organising society can never snuff out humanity, in all its shortcomings and all its beauty. Atwood succeeds at this: revealing the true nature of mankind, and how many parallels our current society shares with this dystopian imagining.

My favourite part of the book is Atwood’s decision to explore this new society at its very beginning. The protagonist Offred (literally ‘Of Fred,’ her Commander) is the very first generation of Handmaids, and she still remembers a past life of normalcy, freedom, a husband, and a child. She remembers how it was like before, and she still holds on to fragments of her family. As I read the book, I kept waiting for the next moment she would find her husband or her child, but thinking back on this, I should have known that it was damn near impossible, and even Offred was resigned to leaving them behind in her memories, even in the very same moment she relished them. I love the consistent shifts between the dystopian present and the nostalgic past, and the talking about them in the same breath, precisely because were they really so different?

When the very first moves against women were made in the novel’s universe by freezing their bank accounts, Offred is terrified, but her husband Luke doesn’t get what the big deal is. He can just support them, he says. That crippling feeling of having no power is female-specific in this book, while the men can never truly understand, because they benefit from the system, or appear to. As Offred says,

“I thought, already he’s starting to patronize me. Then I thought, already you’re starting to get paranoid.” (also see: Gaslighting)

One of the most interesting things to me was how Offred was brought up as very much a second-generation feminist. A part of the book shows us Offred’s mother in flashback, who reminded Offred that many women’s lives and women’s bodies had to be sacrificed in marches, protests and rallies in order to even get to a stage where her husband would do some cooking. This is something Offred doesn’t recognise or bother to recognise, even just as she benefits from the gains of feminism, of all the things women of the previous generation have achieved for her. And this reminds me so much of a quote from Amy Poehler:

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And of course, it also reminds me of how many women of my generation are so complacent of our place in the world today, saying things like ‘I’m not a feminist; it’s too strong a word’ even as the privilege to speak their minds, to have that very opinion, to be heard, to debate, to insist on their stand, even as this very privilege was something that feminism fought for them.

In Offred’s case, she quickly learns that what feminism gained can quickly be dismantled and transformed into a nightmare that simply won’t go away. For some of us in real life, this nightmare continues to stay. For others, we are lucky enough.

The Handmaid’s Tale is gorgeous in its prose – rich in detail and bursting to the seams in emotion. While Atwood’s intricate writing is hardly naturalistic, and can be overwhelming at times, I promise you following it to the very end will be worth it.

Follow this list for my progress on the 2015 Reading Challenge:

  1. A book you can finish in a day: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Of great romantic epic love

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In the recent Gatsby fever, I know of some people who have expressed their love for the Gatsby/Daisy relationship. What I don’t understand is… why?

Daisy Buchanan represents the American dream (Need I even say more?). Gatsby has yearned his entire life for Daisy; his trajectory to success is rooted in his desire to be with her, but just like how the American Dream that used to champion excellence and hard work has become morally corrupted, the careless and selfish Daisy is no longer worth Gatsby’s creative passion. The character basically exists to illustrate the self-destructiveness of one’s blind pursuit of materialism and this twisted version of the American dream.

Perhaps the magnitude of Gatsby’s love for Daisy is romantic somewhat, after all, Gatsby is a romantic character. He’s very hard to forget, and it’s only natural to admire his gift for hope, his romantic readiness, his extraordinary capacity for wonder. I wish all of us had that imagination, had that ability to open ourselves up, to always reach further and further. Perhaps this is what everyone admires. Perhaps this is why The Great Gatsby persists as one of the most popular classics today. There is something in the way Gatsby loves Daisy – we wish someone would love us like he did, we wish someone would build an entire mansion just so he could one day show it to us and to be absolutely ready to tear it down at our slightest fancy, we wish someone would whisk us away with their beautiful shirts and yellow Rolls-Royce, we wish someone would yearn for us so terribly he would do anything for us.

But I’d like to think of Gatsby as a cautionary tale. It is wonderful to have an extraordinary capacity for wonder, I think dreams are meant to be dreamt big. Yet, such hope should be tempered with wisdom and thought, or it will only lead to the tragic consequences the novel presents. Gatsby couldn’t see Daisy for who she really was – a small woman who treated everything with ennui and who never had to take responsibility for anything in her life. And Daisy could never live up to everything Gatsby asked of her, including going back into the past and repeating what they had (which is essentially a super dumb dream of Gatsby’s if you think about it.)

“There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams — not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Daisy was a vision, but she wasn’t real. Gatsby had built his whole life around something that wasn’t real, wasn’t even grounded in a person – just a vision of a vision of a person, a copy of a copy of a copy, a reflection in the glass.

To me, Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship is not romantic at all. I completely do not understand why anyone would wish to root for them. Nothing good came out of their union, and Daisy only retreated into her carelessness and the protection of her rich husband when shit got real. There was nothing substantial about the Gatsby/Daisy relationship. They did not support or love each other or made each other better. Even when tragedy struck, it was not as if they persisted in their love, Daisy left Gatsby to take responsibility for the damage she created, basically killing the man. So, why do people love them??

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The same goes for Romeo and Juliet really (Oops, Leo you are here again.) Let’s forget that Juliet is like 13 when their story happens (but let’s be honest, how can we forget?) Their entire relationship took place over like one day before they decide to get married, I mean c’mon. And ultimately they both sacrifice themselves in the name of this short-lived romance (though their feuding families were reconciled by their deaths.) Yet, Romeo and Juliet is held up as the story of great love, for some reason, something we should emulate. Why is it that we seem so drawn to star-crossed lovers, to tragedy, to carelessness?

Are we such masochistic creatures?

Absolutes and binaries

Someone asked me once why Anna Karenina is widely regarded to be one of ‘the most magnificent of heroines’ when she cheated on her husband. ‘It’s not so simple,’ I told him. It is and it isn’t. You know, it’s not right. Cheating is dishonest and damaging no matter which way you spin it, or however you romanticise it. It shouldn’t be condoned, even when it might be forgiven. And at the same time, love is love. Joy is joy. (You know, I believe you can control with whom and when you fall in love, but that’s for another entry.) Anna may be immoral, but she is brave, enduring, compassionate, full of humanity, and (dare I say it) devoted.

People are terrible and complicated, but they are still deserving. Everyone has a story to tell. ‘Everyone’s got their own stuff.’ It might be a tragic story of circumstance, or life may be unfairly good to some of us, but shouldn’t everyone be given the benefit of the doubt? I don’t think it’s entirely useful to hold on to absolutes, to impose a particular worldview on others, even if it is commonly articulated or collectively agreed upon. It’s not always divided so clearly into binary opposites either. It’s not always good vis-a-vis bad. Creation vs. destruction. Helpful vs. harmful.

I like to think of things on a spectrum. Shades of grey (haha.) And yet, even this analogy breaks down in the face of certain peculiarities. What about pain? How does one measure pain on a scale? Am I supposed to feel less pain or ashamed of my pain if your cause is more worthy of hurt? Is my pain negated by a greater kind of suffering?

I’m not trying to advocate moral relativism, though. I believe there’s good and there’s evil. The tolerance of all things leads to the tolerance of intolerance.

But isn’t it always a good thing to suspend judgment, to avoid pigeon-holing people? Ultimately, I believe that we should always engage in mental activities to expand our understanding of people and things. Not practise philosophy, though that is always welcome and interesting. But something as small as not writing someone off based on their appearance or mannerisms or rumours we hear. Or reading, because our understanding, tolerance and identification with fictional characters is one of the best ways of understanding and loving ourselves and others.

Ha, how typical of me to arrive at the conclusion to love storytelling and fiction yet again. But, you know, to the person reading this… I just wish we would learn to judge a little less and love a little more, especially in the age of tabloids and excessive exhibitionism.