Showing posts with label italian. Show all posts
Showing posts with label italian. Show all posts

Friday, January 25, 2019

An open letter to Elena Ferrante | Frantumaglia

Dear Elena Ferrante,

It's a little odd for me to be writing this post in the form of an open letter. I could, after all, just write a real letter, I suppose, but it feels so unlikely that it would ever reach you (and thus, anyone) that I find myself more inclined towards simply writing an open letter, sending it out into the void known as the internet, and hoping that maybe (maybe!) you'll see this letter someday and find it interesting or worthy of your time.

I've finished reading the collection of letters and fragments published in English as Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey (translated by Ann Goldstein and a few others). It was, I have to admit, a bit of an odd, at times unsettling read for me. The first section was perhaps the least interesting, to a certain degree, because I have yet to read Troubling Love. I know, I know, what sort of fan am I? (I also haven't read The Lost Daughter, and I've had that on my shelf for almost four years! I am soundly ashamed...) I definitely want to read it now, but it complicated my ability to read Frantumaglia, since I tried to skim through the early section and had to skip entire portions. I suddenly feel as though I'm missing a whole lot of necessary context to understand and engage with your writing, but there you have it.

The unsettling part for me, though, wasn't so much in the content. I've thought a lot about narratives over the past year or so, specifically the degree to which modern journalism is built around the idea of building narratives from nothing and then perpetuating them by giving them more and more airtime. So it becomes easy to craft a narrative about, say, a certain politician. Or about a certain demographic. Or even craft a narrative about a complex conflict or disagreement. It's enough to suggest that there is a narrative, and then build a whole story around that suggestion.

And as I read your repeated, almost exhausting (frustrated?) responses to journalists and readers persistently questioning you about your "identity", I grew angry. Truly, I grew angry for your sake. I realize, rationally, that these journalists weren't coming from my perspective of reading your interviews/letters/responses one after the other and could thus see with cold clarity the degree to which you have explained your stance over the course of almost thirty years, but it seems to me honestly shocking how persistent they are in disregarding your obvious wishes. Why every interviewer felt the need to re-ask the same questions that they knew (and cited!) from previous interviews about information they felt they deserved to know... I'm sorry, I truly am.

I was struck by your response and how it ties into this question of narrative that I've been obsessing over for so long. You say it exactly right - the story comes from the fact that the media wants there to be a story. After all, many writers don't engage in much publicity of their works. There's nothing too shocking about wanting to stay out of the limelight or writing under a pen name. Would anyone have even noticed if you'd used a fake jacket photo and written a bland blurb about living in a fake town with your fake children and your fake dog? I'd offer my photo, but seeing as I was barely alive when your first novel was published, I don't think it'll fly.

I wish I could undo the nonsense that others have asked you. I wish I could remove the question from our lexicon. And yet you see, even without me asking the questions (because, frankly, I don't think it's necessary; my curiosity is secondary to my respect for an individual's privacy and I steadfastly refuse to read or acknowledge attempts to dismantle it), I have to address it. It's become a necessary part of the story of your works. How exceedingly disappointing and frustrating. Here's to hoping the narrative will truly die down, and with that I will leave the matter behind.

There are so many interesting points raised within the pages of Frantumaglia that it's a little overwhelming to try to address them all. I honestly don't think I can, and as I write these words it occurs to me that perhaps I also shouldn't. I'm not nearly clever enough to be able to adequately address so much of what you have written about your own works, and I'm the sort of reader who doesn't retain very much in the way of plots or individual lines from a text, rather holds on to the emotions I felt while reading, which means that I can hardly be viewed as an expert on any book I haven't reread at least a dozen times. (And I have only read each of your works once, alas. This will change soon.)

I think the biggest point of contention I have with you is about feminism. While not as ubiquitous as the Big Question That Shall Not Be Named, it's a topic that cropped up again and again in many of your interviews. The evolution of your response to the question was actually fascinating to me, particularly the way you seemed almost cautious to use the label in the 1990s, and then more confidently embrace the term (and adjacent phrases such as "the patriarchy"!) by the early 2000s. I found some of your comments disappointing, though. I'm not going to argue how you view your feminism, particularly when your writing has inspired so many women readers (young and old) from a deeply feminist perspective. Death of the author and all that. But I find your characterization of young feminists to be somewhat concerning.

Are there young feminists today who don't fully appreciate what battles feminism won in the past? I'm sure! I also have no doubt that you have encountered modern feminists who perform a sanitized, stripped down version of feminism that feels as though it is little more than a game. I certainly have! But the vast majority of young women that I know who identify as feminists are nothing like what you write. I am nothing like what you write. And I am not quite "militant" myself (though I think I wouldn't feel as uncomfortable with the term as you seem to be). I feel you have engaged in a rather serious act of oversimplification, viewing the young generation as lazy and substandard simply because you are unfamiliar with what our causes actually are. I'd also argue that the degree to which so many of my feminist friends adore your novels is an indication that we probably speak a much more similar language than you realize.

It's an odd experience, reading a book that feels so intimate while being thoroughly repetitive. I'm not saying that to be cruel, it's obvious to me why themes repeat and recur. When journalists constantly pose the same questions, it seems inevitable. Unfortunately, it does complicate matters from my own critical perspective; I can't quite say that I loved the book when I glossed over so much of it. Some of your conversations are so detailed that they also felt like an infringement upon my own interpretations of the text. As interesting as it is to read, it's not necessarily something I want to adopt. Does that make sense?

I'm glad I read Frantumaglia, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to have spent this time with you. I like your writing and I like what you have to say about it, even if we don't always agree. I feel that you approach the world in an interesting way, which probably explains why I like your novels - they seem to capture a perspective that I connect with, even when I have nothing in common with the characters or the narrative. It was an honor to get a glimpse of some of the thought process behind your writing.

Sincerely yours,
Meytal (aka Biblibio)

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Hollow Heart by Viola Di Grado | Review

I won't lie: This book is creepy, uncomfortable, and I'm not sure I really enjoyed it. Is it good? Yeah, probably. That disturbing, chilling effect is clearly intentional, reflecting Viola Di Grado's talent as a writer (translated into English by Antony Shugar), but I'll say right off the bat: It's not enough.

Hollow Heart follows Dorotea, a young woman who has recently killed herself. Her foray into the afterlife is rather unremarkable - as her body rots away in the ground, she finds herself completely aware of everything. She's effectively "still alive", wandering around the real world, but now aware of all the other dead souls still walking around. In Di Grado's imagination, people do not really die when they die. They can still interact with the living world, move objects and haunt, but they are invisible to all but a few living souls.

For the suicidal Dorotea, this proves to be a shift in "life". She continues to go to work, invisible to the customers in the stationary store she works at, but her boss can somehow still see her. She makes new dead friends. She writes ambiguously imaginary postcards to other dead people who she knows or has stumbled across. She keeps a journal to track her decomposing body, in gruesome and detailed terms.

Unsurprisingly, Hollow Heart is an unsettling read. Dorotea's description of her rotting body is not flat, rather it's an odd blend of curious and ambivalent. For the reader, however, it can be downright unpleasant. I'll note that any readers with aversions to bugs may be especially disturbed by the graphic descriptions of changes the body goes through during decay. It's... well, it's rather horrifying. I won't pretend that I liked it very much.

It's more than the dry way Di Grado writers about death. It's the way the entire book seems seeped in melancholy, depression, and a lack of awareness. And of course, it's hard to resist the urge to compare this to Di Grado's previously published novel, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool. There too Di Grado focused a laser beam on a depressed young woman living with a depressed mother, and the impact this has on both. The two books end up feeling very similar to each other, as though Hollow Heart is an emotional continuation of 70% Acrylic 30% Wool, but with the creepiness turned up. Perhaps this was part of the problem - I already knew that Di Grado could write creepy, subversive novels (though I would argue that Hollow Heart is far more "normal" and "standard" than 70% Acrylic 30% Wool, which at least surprised me in several places), but this almost feels like a continuation of the same. There is an almost pathological interest in the grossness of death. If not for Hollow Heart's clear de-romanticization of death, taken together, it'd almost feel like these books are glamorizing mental illness. Hollow Heart at the very least does little to dispel it.

The writing is a little jerky, at times somewhat abruptly clunky, but it fits the narrative fairly well. Overall, it casts a sense of distance between reader and story, quite befitting a tale of suicide and the afterlife. It's got much of the punchiness that 70% Acrylic 30% Wool had, but little of the enjoyment that I felt from reading that novel (or the payoff from a strong ending). Hollow Heart left me feeling a little, well, hollow towards Di Grado as a writer. Cooler. While I'm still certainly intrigued by her talent, I find myself wishing she'd try a different angle in her next foray... or at least a different take on this same story. Perhaps a slightly more mature one.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

History by Elsa Morante | Review

A colleague of mine saw my copy of Elsa Morante's History: A Novel (translated from Italian by William Weaver) at work, lifted it, and whistled. "Heavy!" he remarked, and then read the back cover. "In more than one way..."

And this seems like the simplest way to explain what History is - it's a heavy novel. Of course, any novel that delves into World War II is likely to be on the less-cheery side, but there's something uniquely bleak about History, perhaps because it is so simply written. In the introduction, Lily Tuck discusses Morante's goal of having a novel that is accessible to more than just a literary class; this effect comes across rather strongly, with a rich-blooded novel alongside a devastating war story.

There is an intentional (I presume) irony in titling the novel History when it focuses so precisely on a single narrative thread (and indeed the Italian title of La Storia implies a duality of history/the story). History alternates between a huge, panoramic scale that chronicles the crushing progress of history from the start of the 20th century, and the individual family drama of Ida Ramundo and her two sons (Nino and Useppe). And while many historical novels of this style tend to have the individual story echo the broader historical context, History curiously doesn't really do this. While there's an obvious reflection of Italian and European history in Ida's story, it's sharply limited as compared to the parallel "history". This is even acknowledged in-text, with the occasional reference to additional horrors never mentioned in the main plot.

Ida's story is more than a metaphor for a tumultuous century. Ida is described early in the novel as having these sorts of fits - clearly epileptic seizures - which often coincide with certain more "historical" events and accompany the novel. The story truly begins with Ida's rape (thankfully frequently referred to as a rape in-text, with little sugar-coating or hand-waving, with a rather cold acknowledgement of rape's role within war), in a deeply uncomfortable scene that rather predictably leads to the birth of Ida's second son, Useppe.

Useppe becomes a sort of lens for the story, focusing it and also providing it with a rather chilling context. Poverty becomes just a little more present when it's experienced by a baby. Fear of racial laws for the mixed-race Jewish Ida becomes a matter of life-and-death for her ambiguously fathered son. Survival becomes something so much more.

Ida's firstborn son fulfills another purpose. The teenage Nino starts out as a rather vocal supporter of fascism, but his character morphs and shifts almost according to public Italian opinion. He soon begins to reflect a sort of political chaos, alongside his own drive to survive and selfishness in relation to his family. Nino's story seems to link to the bigger "history" than Ida/Useppe's, but it too is kept relatively personal rather than generalized.

The novel also introduces several other characters, and here it at times stumbles. I found that I rather liked the narrator's effect of filling in two pages of side-story about a half-mentioned character, keeping the reader up-to-date about their (usually tragic) end. At times, however, some of these stories clogged the main narrative (portions of Davide Segre's story, for instance). For a novel that's over 700 pages long (heavy), History definitely had more than one subplots that could have been trimmed or entirely cut. Particularly in the latter portions of the book, Morante's almost pathological need for bleak character development dragged down the story somewhat and distracted from the stronger focus on Ida.

With regards to the writing, I found myself struck early on by the strange sensation that History read like a George Eliot novel. This might have been because I'd been rereading Middlemarch just before, but there was something about History's omnipresent first-person narrator that reminded me of Eliot's writing. This, naturally, is one of the highest compliments I can give, and I truly enjoyed the casual-yet-precise style that History employed. The occasional detours, the personal touch of the narrator that couldn't possibly know as much as she/he did, the often-conversational style... these end up making History accessible in exactly the way I imagine Morante wanted it to be.

But that first impression - this novel is heavy - remains throughout. There is no respite from the horrors of the period, there is no ultimate victory. War has a lasting effect, and History sets out to make sure we do not forget it. This is far from an easy novel, but as many others (and wiser) have said, it's necessary reading. We can all learn something from it.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Nun & Sky Burial | Two minireviews

The Nun - Simonetta Agnello Hornby
This is a weird novel to review. Simonetta Agnello Hornby's The Nun (tr. Antony Shugaar) is an odd, somewhat imbalanced, generally entertaining novel that disappointed me somewhat in its ending and in little failures throughout. The writing was solid and the main character Agata was extraordinarily alive, but there was something... off about the book.

First of all, I'll note that in terms of basic readability, The Nun passes: the moment Agata is so sympathetic (despite... not actually being a sympathetic) is the moment the reader remains hooked. Because The Nun is a novel that very much tells of Agata's growth (or lack thereof), her rebellion and struggles and traumas and dreams. Agata is interesting largely because she's complex: her initial dreams are sweetly young, but there's a bitter aftertaste of her persistent stubbornness, even in areas where she could have perhaps acted differently (especially later in the book, where her motives dissolve into a strange mess of "why is this happening?").

The Nun is all about Agata: forced into a convent by her mother in a bizarre game of politics and personal spite. Both of these factors come into play throughout the book: Agata is constantly seeking approval from her mother (despite recognizing her spite), and constantly stumbling through the political mechanics of the period. The politics frame the story interestingly, but never quite pan out, and I often found myself baffled by the lightness with which Agnello Hornby treated many of these issues (that is: she did not develop them nearly enough).

Finally, the book has a series of love stories at its heart. Truthfully, none of these stories particularly worked for me, and I would have been happier with a technically "colder" book, but with the same sharpness of mind that Agata was given. Oh well.

Sky Burial - Xinran
So... Sky Burial (tr. Julia Lovell) is just a weird book. There's a level on which I absolutely understand the mass appeal (touching story, foreigner's view of a different culture, sparse language), but I also could not (could not) reconcile the genres. Was the nonfiction? Fiction? Fictionalized reality? Something else entirely?!

The story is ostensibly that of a young Chinese woman who goes to find her husband, presumed dead in Tibet. What follows is her journey through Tibet as she searches for him, getting lost multiple times and finding home with different nomads. As befits this premise, the ending is uplifting (sort of?), inspiring (ish) and meant to convey a powerful statement about love (yeah, actually).

If I sound deeply cynical, it's because I am. The story reminded me of a lot of survival stories I read as a child (specifically, Julie of the Wolves, and I'll explain further in a moment), with the same sort of saccharine appreciation of the exotic culture our narrator is suddenly cast into. As a novel of Tibet, I found myself less enlightened than confused, often wishing I had a more direct (and firsthand) narration of the experience. Xinran is writing for our narrator, who is elderly and I seriously doubt was able to remember so many extremely specific details (hence my skepticism as regards the definition of this as "fiction" versus "non"), and herself relaying a lot of secondhand information. My head hurt from all the retellings.

So why the cynicism? Ultimately, Tibetan culture is expounded upon just as much as wolf behavior was in Julie of the Wolves. Our narrator is still "The Human" and has a purpose in life that is completely separate from the "Other" nomadic group "The Human" is traveling with. It felt... wrong. Less believable, less representative.

I should point out that the book is still very interesting and informative, even if largely through native Chinese eyes. It's a fairly quick read, and probably a fair starting point for literature about Tibet (I hesitate to call it "Tibetan literature" for the obvious reasons). It's not exactly a bad book, but its memory faded somewhat unpleasantly in mind in the weeks after reading it.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Yes, you really should read Elena Ferrante's Neopolitan series

If you're a reader of literature in translation (and let's be real - even if you're just a reader of good quality literature), chances are you've heard quite a bit about Elena Ferrante, her mysterious identity, and the wonders of the Neapolitan series. The books - which begin with My Brilliant Friend - are well written, interesting, emotionally engaging and ultimately extremely satisfying. As a series, they ascribe less to the idea that each book should stand on its own, rather each volume flows into the next with only quiet thematic markers to distinguish the books.

I read the three volumes currently available in English fairly one after the other. All three novels - My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (all brilliantly translated by Ann Goldstein, and kindly provided to me courtesy of the publisher) - end with quiet sorts of cliffhangers. Nothing that will leave you screaming at the page, nothing on the level of the awful non-ending that The Subtle Knife had (probably my least favorite ending to a book ever), nothing that will leave you gasping with its audacity... but cliffhangers nonetheless. Ferrante excels at making the reader truly feel for her main characters (Elena the narrator, and her best friend Lila), and in this sense any emotional turmoil that these girls/women go through, the reader goes through as well. My feeling is that Ferrante chooses to cut the story off at these specific emotional peaks which represent the tone-shifts that occur for the next book, as random as they may seem before continuing onwards to the next tome.

There's not a lot I can say about the plot without ruining the story. Since this is a 100% spoiler-free review for the three first books (book 4 is due out in about a year from now), I don't even want to refer to specific characters or large-scale events that within each novel, even if they don't seem particularly revealing within that context. And so I'll give the generic story idea that those who haven't read the book have likely already heard: the Neapolitan books tell of two girls, Elena and Lila, following them from early childhood to later life. Elena and Lila are a cross between best friends, competitors, and enemies: they love each other fiercely, but recognize the occasionally toxic nature their relationship takes on.

And so it's not too far a stretch to point out that the Neapolitan series doesn't actually have much of a plot. There is a story, yes, but it's not the sort of beginning-middle-end plotting that your middle-school teacher taught you to look for. The books are written on an epic scale, tracing the lives of far more people than just Elena and Lila (indeed, the story looks much more broadly at the cultural and social shifts occurring in Italy at the time, with the two girls serving as a very good anchor). It's this sort of writing that makes it difficult to point to a specific single topic or idea that the books deal with. All three books are big and varied and focused and generic.

There are a few points I'd like to touch on specifically that don't relate to the plot. First of all, I found the progression of the political discussion in the books to be fascinating. I was (unsurprisingly) particularly interested to see how and when the issue of feminism began to crop up. This rather gentle thematic growth ultimately gave me a lot to think about in the context of modern feminism (and modern political discourse), and I quite enjoyed it.

There is also the matter of the book titles. As silly as this may seem, I love the titles. I love how they reflect the stories, I love how they don't, I love what they say about how we could (and perhaps should?) be interpreting the stories, and ultimately I love how the fit together. (I'll admit that I do not like how they look on the shelf, but this is because the print on the spine of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is bolded while none of the other Europa Editions are and it drives me a little nuts)

There's a lot more to say about Ferrante. You've probably heard much of it. Her writing is clear and draws you in. These are not books easily set aside. The characters feel disturbingly real. Emotions are high without being smothering. This is good writing. I'm not sure if I've enjoyed the Neapolitan series more than the tightly intense The Days of Abandonment, but I've definitely enjoyed the books and I'm definitely eagerly awaiting the fourth title. I have ideas about themes and characters that I would love to discuss in spoiler filled reviews (another time), but for now let me say this to those of you who have not read these books yet: Read them. Ferrante's fame is well-deserved, and I promise that you will not be disappointed.

Monday, August 18, 2014

WITMonth Day 18 - Sworn Virgin | Review

Important notice: Elvira Dones' Sworn Virgin (tr. Clarissa Botsford) is one of those books that once you stop reading you just can't put it down. Believe me, I tried. Several times. But the book is clearly written and flows brilliantly and is so very interesting that setting it aside for more than five minutes just wasn't an option.

Of all the books I've read for WITMonth so far, there's no doubt in my mind that Sworn Virgin is the most thought-provoking, and also the book that addresses sexism most overtly. Sworn Virgin is about Hana, who lived as Mark for fourteen years (and yes, there's a reason I'm presenting it like this). The premise is based on a legit (but uncommon) Albanian practice of gender swaps, essentially in order to cross gender role boundaries. Hana originally decides to "become a man" in response to oppressive gender dynamics in her culture that prevent her - as a woman - from being able to fulfill various roles.

And thus - even where it occasionally succumbs a bit too much to the idea of clearly defined gender boundaries - Sworn Virgin emerges as a wholly fascinating account of gender roles. Hana-as-Mark is unsure about her position at times, unsure about how her sexuality fits into Mark's life, and unsure of how her previous life as a woman can meld with her current one.

But Hana-as-formerly-Mark is even more confused. This is where the story begins - Hana has arrived in the US and is casting off the "shackles" of her gender swap. She's not gay, she explains to her cousin's young daughter, nor transgender. But she also can't easily shake off various "masculine" traits, despite her cousin Lila's constant attempts. It's in this drive to "fix" Hana and bring her back to some sort of standardized femininity that Sworn Virgin becomes a bit problematic with its treatment of gender roles, but it also constantly shows these steps as being in accordance with Hana's own desires. Hana goes about things slowly, and we as the reader go with her.

The story is non-linear, with alternating chapters of Hana's past (pre-Mark and as Mark), and the post-Mark era. Through this, we gain a good understanding of what leads Hana to become Mark, and ultimately, what also leads Mark to go back to being Hana. Plus a healthy heap of family dynamics along the way, and relationships too. Unlike a lot of other stories with back-and-forth narratives, I actually had zero preference here - I enjoyed both aspects of the novel immensely. Each section tells an important story about gender, and about culture as well. It's all interesting, and it's all well-written, and it's all completely worth reading.

Monday, August 4, 2014

WITMonth Day 4 - The Days of Abandonment | Review

It's hard to be a reader of literature in translation in recent months without having heard of Elena Ferrante. Praise has simply overflowed for Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels (published in English by Europa Editions, all translated by Ann Goldstein), with a fair share of notice for Ferrante's earlier The Days of Abandonment as well. I kept seeing such rave reviews, I knew I'd have to read one of Ferrante's novels for WITMonth. Then, at Hebrew Book Week, a bookseller began to wax lyrical about The Days of Abandonment after I asked him for recommendations. I bought the book, went home, and read it a couple weeks later.

And goodness if it isn't a fantastic book.

The Days of Abandonment starts where a lot of stories get to - a woman's husband leaves her. Olga and Mario have been together for years - they've built a home together and have two children together. But now Mario, in what at first seems to Olga utterly out-of-character, announces after dinner that he simply cannot stay anymore, that it's too much for him. And he walks out the door, and Olga's story may begin.

This abandonment is the trigger for the journey on which Olga now embarks. The Days of Abandonment tracks Olga through her initial shock - and outright denial - straight through to her realization of what sort of marriage she had had and who her husband was. This is a painful, raw journey, often so realistic and terrifying in its presentation of life on the edge that just the act of reading it felt like letting some demon into my soul.

Ferrante is an unforgiving writer. She takes no shortcuts in the narrative, nor does she gloss over the difficulty of suddenly being thrown into a new reality. There is no coy foreshadowing here, no attempts at clever plot twists. In this sense, The Days of Abandonment thus ends up feeling somewhat subversive - this shocking novel turns into something believable and unexpected because of how normal it feels. Olga's steady loss of control and gradual disappearance into the madness that is abandonment felt like a painful, preventable slide. I found myself so quickly drawn into the story that I just wanted desperately to shake Olga.

Two sides?
Suffice to say, these qualities make The Days of Abandonment a far from pleasant read. The frankness with which Ferrante shows us two different sides of Olga (and Mario, and their two children as well) can be quite uncomfortable at times, with a sort of vivid realism that settles in deep. This is curiously reflected by Olga's children as well, who respond and mimic their mother's struggles knowingly and subconsciously. In the most painful and nerve-wracking part of the book, this reflection becomes a literal one, as Olga is forced to face her problems head on.

The Days of Abandonment is not a flawless, perfect book. Its pacing is occasionally off and there were characters I constantly hoped for more from, yet all in all there's no denying the power behind Ferrante's words. This reclusive writer (who some have theorized is actually a man despite interviews showing that she has described herself as a mother, so this seems unlikely...) captures life so sharply, so cleanly, that I am honestly in awe. Are there subplots I would have omitted from the story? Most definitely. Are there scenes that were so painful that I had to set the book aside? Yes. But is this a powerful, brilliantly written account of one woman's struggles? Absolutely. I am without a doubt going to read the remainder of Ferrante's books - if you're looking for excellent books by women writers in translation, I think it's fair to say that Ferrante will make a fantastic first stop.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

70% Acrylic 30% Wool | Review

Whatever Viola Di Grado writes next, I will read it. 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (tr. Michael Reynolds), her first novel, is so utterly bizarre, so fantastically disturbing, so engaging and interesting and weird and thought-provoking that I honestly don't care what she plans on doing next - I will read it.

70% Acrylic 30% Wool was read in a single sitting, an intense morning dedicated 100% to this depressing, offbeat novel. Centering around "word anorexic" Camelia, the novel is a curious display of various forms of mental illness and disorders. We begin with Camelia's silent mother, who essentially stopped existing after her husband was killed in a car accident (with his mistress). Her silence spreads to Camelia, who is also grieving and suffering in her own way, miserable in her loneliness but also seemingly incapable of escaping it.

It's in this precarious state that Camelia meets Wen, a young shopkeeper who works near her home. Wen has thrown out the damaged clothing his brother makes from his shop in Camelia's dumpsters, which Camelia - in her warped reality - has adopted as new clothing. From there, Camelia returns to the study of Chinese, which she had begun at the university but given up after her father's death.

Wen and Camelia's Chinese lessons form one of the cores of the novel, specifically in the way they showcase language and essentially culture. Camelia is Italian-born, but she's lived in Leeds most of her life. Her Italian identity is occasionally touched on, but it isn't necessarily the main idea. Similarly with Wen, who is Chinese but has clearly been living in England for a long time as well. During their Chinese lessons, Camelia often tries to understand aspects of Chinese writing (why certain words are drawn as they are, why certain combinations do not form the words she would expect). Through these conversations, a more subtle understanding of language arises. As a bilingual reader myself and one who has studied other languages as well, I found these parts to be fascinating and entirely on the mark.

But the other focus of the novel is, I think, much more about depression. Much more about mental illness. Much more about the silence that has seeped into Camelia's life, and how it's impacted both her and her mother.

Di Grado shows us Camelia's mother's abrupt shut-down - her immediate response to her husband's death and the way she simply stops speaking. We see her through Camelia's frustrated eyes, but Camelia herself is tainted. Indeed, as the story progresses, Camelia is the one putting herself through worse and worse situations: an extremely misguided and intentionally problematic affair which ultimately ends in violence and more pain, repeated attempts to express her feelings for Wen while getting rebuffed, and an obsession with certain themes of holes, emptiness, and the Chinese character Camelia has invented for herself. Meanwhile, her mother is slowly awakening - no longer merely lying on the couch without bathing, we see early attempts at building a new life for herself.

I don't want to spoil the end of the novel, but I'll say this - it's fantastic. It's brilliantly subversive, unexpected and twisted. Di Grado takes everything she's done throughout 70% Acrylic 30% Wool and shows us where we were wrong in our interpretations, where our assumptions misled us, and what we should have seen all along.

This is not a happy book, but there's no doubt that it's a very good one. Di Grado's writing is young and believable, very casual but also crisply intelligent. This is the sort of writing that flows from sentence to sentence, no stutters when it comes to describing characters or locales, just a pure understanding of how to show the world. It might not appeal to readers seeking something a bit more polished, but I found it matched my tastes perfectly. Similarly, the characterization is not heavy-handed, but in light, brief lines Di Grado successfully builds the characters around Camelia (who herself is a wonderfully built character).

70% Acrylic 30% Wool is two things: it's a unique book, and it's a good book. Readers seeking something cheerful - this is not the book for you. But anyone who can stomach a bit of grimness, a bit of depression, or a bit of twisted pain should read this novel. Definitely weird; definitely good.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Archive surprise | After the Divorce

Grazia Deledda's novel After the Divorce doesn't seem to be all that popular, and I'm not sure why. Sure, the fact that it was first published in 1905 might have something to do with it, but that's a pretty weak claim in our contemporary, classic-appreciative world. After the Divorce is a good book. It deserves more attention.

To a certain degree, After the Divorce reminded me a lot of Émile Zola's books. This is partly because Deledda, like Zola, deals with issues that are still fairly relevant in our modern age. The book feels old, but not old-fashioned. It's remarkably interesting and is told in a surprisingly modern way, with a sharp eye for religion and belief, and a little less of Zola's particular brand of preaching.

It's not just that. After the Divorce has a little bit of everything. There's love, loss, murder, an evil mother-in-law... and yet the novel never feels overwhelming. It's relatively short and is remarkably easy to read, but more importantly - it's enjoyable. I read the book in a day not because it's light fare, but because it's interesting. There are soap-opera overtones, but this never degenerates into stupidity.

After the Divorce has a seemingly narrow focus (a small Sicilian town), yet the story is generic in nature and can be applied anywhere, anytime (much like many of Zola's novels). The story opens dramatically - Giovanna's husband Constantino has been convicted of a murder he denies committing and is sentenced to twenty-seven years in prison. Giovanna is convinced to seek out a divorce from her husband under a new clause in the law that would permit her to get a divorce even in her highly Catholic society. After the Divorce - as the name indicates - follows Giovanna and Constantino... after the divorce. The story progresses much like a tragic soap, with events constantly unfolding. Yet After the Divorce isn't petty or shallow. It portrays Giovanna and Constantino's struggles realistically, as each deals with the consequences of Constantino's imprisonment. It's all very interesting... and very different from most books I've read.

After the Divorce strikes me as one of those books that stands the test of time, except for the fact that it seems to have never gained the popularity it deserves. Maybe it's my own literary ignorance, but I had not heard of Grazia Deledda until I began to look up all the Nobel Prize winning writers. She appears on no lists of "greatest novels" or "greatest authors". Like the vast majority of authors, Deledda's works have faded into the background. According to the official Nobel Prize website, Deledda earned her award "for her idealistically inspired writings which with plastic clarity picture the life on her native island and with depth and sympathy deal with human problems in general". This is certainly an accurate description of Deledda's writing in After the Divorce. It's a shame she is not better remembered for it.