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Posts Tagged ‘Elena Ferrante’

Beware the Mean Beach Attendant, and Other News

March 21, 2016 | by

From the cover of Ferrante’s The Beach at Night.

  • Our basketball columnist, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, has stepped over to The New Yorker to bid farewell to Kobe Bryant. And he’s a defender of Bryant’s poem-cum-retirement-announcement: “ ‘Dear Basketball’ was mocked by some, but it has more going on in it, from a literary perspective, than may be immediately clear. Not only is the narrative circular, with a changed perspective at the end, it’s also both an epistle and an apostrophe—a form of rhetoric in which the speaker addresses an inanimate object as though it’s a living thing. As both a basketball player and a personality, Bryant has always put extraordinary emphasis on the importance of craft. He has also always owed a debt to Michael Jordan, and this was the case here as well: Jordan, too, published an open letter to basketball in order to say goodbye to the game. But his was in prose.”
  • Today in parenting, Ferrante style: next year you can lull your sons and daughters to sleep with The Beach at Night, Ferrante’s new book, aimed at readers six to ten. It’s a sunny, feel-good story, suffused with light and hope: “The Beach at Night is a spinoff of The Lost Daughter, one of the author’s lesser-known early novels, in which a teacher goes on vacation in a coastal town and steals a doll from a child. In The Beach at Night, the doll isn’t stolen. Instead, she is abandoned by her young owner to face nighttime terrors such as the Mean Beach Attendant of Sunset and his friend, the Big Rake … ‘A Beach Attendant arrives, I don’t like his eyes,’ the doll says, according to a sample translation … ‘He folds up the big beach umbrellas, the chaises. I see the hairs of his mustache moving over his lips like lizards’ tails.’ ”
  • Geoffrey H. Hartman, whose Criticism in the Wilderness took criticism perhaps farther afield than anything before it, has died at eighty-six. “In Criticism in the Wilderness, he argued that criticism should not only stand on an equal footing with literature but also be literature … In elevating criticism to the status of literature, Professor Hartman did not mean merely that it should be well written. What he also meant was that criticism should function for criticism’s sake alone. ‘The spectacle of the critic’s mind disoriented, bewildered, caught in some ‘wild surmise’ about the text and struggling to adjust—is not that one of the interests critical writing has for us?’”
  • Reminder: art and commerce don’t really “intersect” anymore. They’re running parallel toward the horizon, forever. Want to go the other way? You can’t. Just ask young artists: “A few years ago … if you were a creatively minded person, you might have become a sculptor or a painter. Now you are equally likely to become the founder of a tech startup, channeling your creative ideas and risk into what is, ultimately, a business … A lot of young startup people are viewing their companies as an artwork … I think the creativity involved in painting, say, and that of tech are getting closer. The incredible risk—with vision and values—that artists once represented is now embodied in these tech companies. That has a real resonance for me. People can make a beautiful business or a beautiful venture.”
  • What compels a writer to abandon one language for another? Beckett, Conrad, and Nabokov all traded one tongue for another: “Some do it because they are intoxicated by the possibilities offered in a new language—the words and turns of phrase for which their own language doesn’t have any equivalents, the strange new rhythms and patterns of sound … Yet the adoption of a foreign language isn’t just about looking for a fresh perspective. It can signal a vexed relationship with the original language; the psychological burdens of a writer’s previous texts, his literary reputation in that language, the entire tradition in which he is working … Writers rejuvenate themselves by fleeing to foreign tongues. They escape all the psychic associations that gather around a language and a literary tradition. In a sense, it’s an extreme cure for writer’s block.”

Twenty Brutal Years of Tuscan Sun, and Other News

March 14, 2016 | by

A still from the film adaptation of Under the Tuscan Sun.

  • Because people are incorrigibly nosy, and because no one seems to find it enjoyable to let an author write her books in peace, an Italian professor has sallied forth with yet another dubious claim as to the true identity of Elena Ferrante. And the professor’s guess isn’t very creative, either; it’s just another professor. “The latest writer forced to deny that she is the creator of the critically acclaimed Neapolitan novels is Marcella Marmo, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Naples Federico II. ‘Truly no, I am not Elena Ferrante,’ she told Corriere della Sera, saying she had only read the first novel in the Neapolitan series and the newspaper should give her the other books as an apology.”
  • Today in super: what a shitty word super is, with its grating long u, its relentless cheer, its strange ties to start-up culture. Teddy Wayne writes “Super followed by an adjective—in other words, in adverbial form—was more than five times as common from 2010 to ’12 as from 1990 to ’94, with the biggest leaps coming in the last decade … What was once reserved for the best, the most awe-inspiring and the wondrous is now routinely deployed for the mundane, the banal and the taste of fro-yo … It is a prefix for a wealth of hard math and science terms (such as superset or superstring theory). It can imbue a nebulous proposition with what sounds like data-tested objectivity: ‘We have implemented a superaccessible user database’ comes off as more authoritative or more high-tech than ‘We have implemented a very accessible user database.’ ”
  • Eileen Myles has become that strangest of subspecies, the famous poet. Arielle Greenberg wonders why Myles’s fame has itself garnered so much attention, and what it might mean for her work: “It is weird for a poet to be famous, and no one feels this weirdness more deeply than poets themselves. It’s even more weird for a poet to be newly more famous—genuinely, glossy-magazine famous—in her mid-sixties, after writing nineteen books … Why is the media so obsessed with Myles’s ascent into mainstream celebrity? I think a host of reasons are at play: the way Americans try to get ‘cultured’ by osmosis so that stylish articles about poetry make us feel more intellectual, the ‘bootstraps’ nature of Myles’s story, the novelty of someone who ran for president as a piece of performance art getting photographed for glossy magazines. I find myself thinking about a term used a lot in my circles in the early 1990s: co-opting. Back then, it seemed that everything authentic and revolutionary and vital—the riot grrl movement, grunge music, hip-hop—was quickly gobbled up by the establishment and spat back out in clean, shiny packages for mass consumption. I worry that the hoopla over Myles is an attempt by the media to take everything underground about her and her work and use it to make itself look cool.”
  • The Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s new film Cemetery of Splendor continues his long, oblique, quiet approach to political cinema, in which characters struggle to awake from the bland dream of history: “By far the most nakedly political film of Weerasethakul’s career, it is a gentle, open-hearted story of human connection, and it is underlain at every moment by rage and dread. Midway through the film, the two main characters, Jen and Itt, go to the movies. In a slick modern multiplex, they watch a trailer for a schlocky horror flick, a fevered montage of impalements, heaving breasts, and prehensile tongues. This sequence is as close to a direct statement of intent as you’ll ever find in a Weerasethakul film. Cemetery of Splendor has no gore, no bug-eyed demons or shrieking victims, and it makes time for flirtatious conversations with the local librarian, a long sales pitch for a miracle skin cream, and several public group workouts (a charmingly inexplicable staple of this filmmaker’s work). But it too is a horror movie, all the more unsettling for its poky, daylit geniality.”
  • It’s been twenty years since Under the Tuscan Sun was published, turning Tuscany into an unseemly pastiche of luxury and authentic European living. What have we done since? Jason Wilson explains: “I have sat on Tuscan-brown sofas surrounded by Tuscan-yellow walls, lounged on Tuscan patios made with Tuscan pavers, surrounded by Tuscan landscaping. I have stood barefoot on Tuscan bathroom tiles, washing my hands under Tuscan faucets after having used Tuscan toilets. I have eaten, sometimes on Tuscan dinnerware, a Tuscan Chicken on Ciabatta from Wendy’s, a Tuscan Chicken Melt from Subway, the $6.99 Tuscan Duo at Olive Garden, and Tuscan Hummus from California Pizza Kitchen. Recently, I watched my friend fill his dog’s bowl with Beneful Tuscan Style Medley dog food. This barely merited a raised eyebrow; I’d already been guilty of feeding my cat Fancy Feast’s White Meat Chicken Tuscany. Why deprive our pets of the pleasures of Tuscan living?”

How Repulsive

February 10, 2016 | by

On the merits of disturbing literature.

Frederic Leighton, Study at a Reading Desk‎, 1877.

In a letter to a reader who was disturbed by his novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “If [Malte] contains bitter reproaches, these are absolutely not directed against life. On the contrary, they are evidences that, for lack of strength, through distraction and inherited errors we lose completely the countless earthly riches that were intended for us.”

Faced with a reader like Rilke’s, it can be hard for a writer to defend the need for “bitter reproaches”—to uphold the disturbing above the merely distasteful. After all, some “disturbing” books do nothing more than shock. Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands, for instance, is a litany of gross and obscene bodily functions that never adds up to more than grossness and obscenity. But good books disturb for good reasons. To disturb is, among other things, to guard against complacency: to make the reader face the underbelly of dark thoughts and actions, see how circumstances can make even good people go astray if they are not vigilant in honoring the best in themselves and in the outside world. Disturbing passages, when skillful, make a vital inquiry into the subtle causes and effects of human behavior. Read More »

Impressive Propaganda, and Other News

February 10, 2016 | by

A book designed by Klaus Wittkugel on display at P! Gallery. Photo: Sebastian Bach

  • If you’ve been holding off on reading Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels because there’s, like, four of them, and that’s just kind of a lot of books, and you secretly don’t even really enjoy reading that often anyway, you’re in luck: they’re being adapted for television. “FremantleMedia’s Wildside and Fandango Productions will adapt the four novels as four eight-episode series, one for each of the books—My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child. And just in case you were worried, The Hollywood Reporter reports that Ferrante herself will be involved in the production of the series, and it will be shot in Italy.”
  • With his Jack Reacher thrillers, Lee Child writes what are certifiably—at least according to Forbes—the most addictive novels in all of commercial fiction. In this, Christopher Tayler writes, Child owes a debt to Donald Westlake, an earlier thriller writer with a formula that varied in intriguing ways: “Westlake was hailed as a master by John Banville and Stephen King, but he never troubled the bestseller lists, and it’s part of [his series protagonist] Parker’s charm that he’s a bit of a cult property, a creature of the drugstore paperback carousel rather than the airport bookstore … Luc Sante—who published one of the first serious appraisals of the Parker books in 1985—argues persuasively that the master theme of professionalism is as much writerly as criminal. Westlake said that he devised the series because he wanted to write about ‘a workman at work’, and the books offer a double lesson, showing not only, say, each step in the process of breaking though a Sheetrock wall with a claw hammer, but also how to turn the process into mesmerizing fiction.”
  • In the fifties and sixties, you couldn’t step into an East German bookstore (and clearly I speak from experience) without encountering the work of Klaus Wittkugel, one of the GDR’s most prominent graphic designers. A new exhibition in New York collects his striking book designs and propaganda posters. If you doubt his significance, just have a look at this unstinting praise from none other than the East German State: “For nearly every important political event in the history of our Workers’ and Peasants’ State, there exists an artistic statement by Wittkugel, who, through his work, has contributed considerably to the new orientation of our applied graphics.”
  • The author photo, once the foundation of any decent book-publicity campaign, has seen some changes in the Information Age—some might wonder if there’s really any reason for it at all anymore, when you just Google an author and find pictures by the dozen. But when Matthew Shaer saw Sven Birkerts’s author photo, he felt something different. “Its anomalousness shook me: If the vast majority of author photos fit into one of a handful of standard poses—the Fist-on-Chin (conveying thoughtfulness), the Stare-Out-Window (inner depth), the Icy Stare (strength), the Hearty Laugh (confidence!), etc.—here was an author photo that threw centuries of literary convention in our face. Here was a man who was not even fully dressed in his author photo.”
  • In which Alice Gregory ventures to the shadow of Geneva, with a friend and a ten-week-old baby: “Malka is in the other room pumping, ‘like a cow.’ She returns and tells me about a Scandinavian balloon that you insert into your vagina for ten minutes per day for the last month of pregnancy. If you do this, she promises, you won’t need stitches. Malka is full of advice that I don’t need but want anyway. We talk about lots of things up there in the mountains: Buchenwald, deviant sex, how Italians sound like roosters when they try to sing lieders. They use too many vocal effects, apparently. Or, as Malka says, ‘lots of cream all over.’ ”

Press Triangle for More Information, and Other News

January 18, 2016 | by

Camille Henrot, Guilt Tripping, 2015, three-dimensional nylon polyamide print with video and telephone components, 28" x 7 7/8" x 2 3/8". Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York. Via BOMB

  • Orson Welles and Hemingway had a vexed friendship, if friendship is even the word—their first encounter came to blows, after all. In interviews, Welles tended to speak respectfully, if not kindly, of the writer. But now, a 1973 screenplay by Welles, Crazy Weather, has come to light. Set in Spain, the story features a Hemingway-esque tourist with a macho, ersatz approach to the Spanish culture: “The protagonist in the script, Jim Foster, is travelling to a bullfight with his Spanish wife, Amparo, when they encounter a nameless youth who taunts Foster about his misogyny, flirts with Amparo and later sabotages their car tires. Despite having a Spanish wife and spending years living in Spain, Foster speaks the language only in ‘limited and rather stilted’ form, and is continually mocked for his cliched idea of Spain.”
  • What do women want in a mate? And what do men want? For years, I’ve looked to late-night phone-sex ads and flimsy self-help books to answer these timeless questions; Adelle Waldman looked to literature instead. “The ideal mate, for Jane Austen’s heroines, for Charlotte Brontë’s, for George Eliot’s, is someone intelligent enough to appreciate fully and respond deeply to their own intelligence, a partner for whom they feel not only desire but a sense of kinship, of intellectual and moral equality,” she writes. “Straight male authors devote far less energy to considering the intelligence of their heroes’ female love interests; instead, they tend to emphasize visceral attraction and feelings. From Tolstoy, whose psychological acuity helped to redefine what the novel is capable of, to unabashed chroniclers of sex like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth to contemporary, stroller-pushing, egalitarian dad Karl Ove Knausgaard, men have been, in a sense, the real romantics: they are far more likely than women to portray love as something mysterious and irrational, impervious to explanation, tied more to physical qualities and broad personal appeal than to a belief—or hope—in having found an intellectual peer.”
  • Elena Ferrante’s English translator Ann Goldstein talks about her process and being haunted by Ferrante’s work: “With The Days of Abandonment, partly because it was the first one and partly because it is so haunting, and it’s so concentrated, I was very upset by it. There were things in it that I think everyone recognizes. Like the scene with the key where she thinks she’s locked herself in—I have trouble with keys. And with something like that, she’s writing your nightmare. Those things really did upset me and haunt me. I identified with the narrator—one naturally identifies to some extent with an ‘I’ female narrator going through something that you recognize whether you’ve gone through it or not … When I started translating the first Neapolitan novel, My Brilliant Friend, I had not read the other ones, of course, because they weren’t written yet. So it wasn’t until I got to the end of the last one that I knew the whole story. That was a strange experience: to be reading something, or translating something, that I didn’t really know the end of.”
  • Camille Henrot’s latest exhibition featured a series of hotline phones, all designed to show the vagaries and confusions of language. “I picked up and heard a male voice,” Michael Barron writes, “who, friendly enough and definitely assertive, had me run a gamut of bizarre questions, such as ‘If your dad has fathered more than nine children, press 0 / If your father has eaten any of his children, press 1.” “I always felt like language was a way to dominate people,” Henrot told him in reference to the hotlines. “You want to go to the end of the options. That’s the way we—me and the poet Jacob Bromberg—wrote and structured them. The first one we wrote, ‘Hello & Thank You’—the one that was presented at the Lyon Biennial—was so massive, with a maze of multiple choices. Navigating the whole thing from beginning to end would’ve taken over four hours.”
  • Attention, shoppers: have you been feeling guilty about buying used books? Probably not. But if you have been, stop.

Demolishing the Literary Gynaeceum, and Other News

September 3, 2015 | by

From the cover of The Story of the Lost Child.

  • Elena Ferrante would like to remind you, now that her novel The Story of the Lost Child is out, that she is not a man, and that if you think she might be a man, you’re part of the problem: “Have you heard anyone say recently about any book written by a man, ‘It’s really a woman who wrote it, or maybe a group of women?’ Due to its exorbitant might, the male gender can mimic the female gender, incorporating it in the process. The female gender, on the other hand, cannot mimic anything, for it is betrayed immediately by its ‘weakness’ … even the publishing industry and the media are convinced of this commonplace; both tend to shut women who write away in a literary gynaeceum … we’re dealing with a new tradition of women writers who are becoming more competent, more effective, are growing tired of the literary gynaeceum and are on furlough from gender stereotypes.”
  • We often praise fiction for its ambiguity, which is counterintuitive—normally we admire good writing for its clarity, and more confusingly still it seems that the best fiction is at once clear and ambiguous: so what do we mean when we celebrate ambiguous fiction? “Ambiguity, uncertainty, multiplicity are positive in literature in so far as they act as a corrective against a dominant and potentially harmful manipulative hubris … the novelist has to be truly open to the world he describes; it is the multiplicity he then inevitably lets into the text that overwhelms the petty habit of knowing better… Nothing is less attractive, in a poem or novel, than the feeling that ‘ambiguity’ has simply been constructed or contrived.”
  • There’s a rich ambiguity about the nose, at least insofar as it figures in literature. Gogol’s story “The Nose” “was but one part of a larger body of literature improbably concerned with, of all things, the human nose … The history of the written nose is rich, varied, and wildly unpredictable, marshaled for a host of potential uses and meanings from slapstick gag to moral emblem to racial signifier.”
  • Stephen King recently wrote an Op-Ed defending novelists who publish (very) regularly, including himself and Joyce Carol Oates. But it’s time to take a stand against prolificacy: “King concludes his op-ed by saying that he’s glad Ms. Oates continues to write new books ‘because,’ he says, ‘I want to read them.’ I wonder if he really has. If anyone has read them all. Or truly does anxiously await the next one’s arrival … When considering huge bodies of work, there’s still the uncertainty about where to enter and where to go next once you’ve found a way in.”
  • The tremendous resurgence of so-called “nature writing” reveals the inadequacy of the term: “ ‘Nature writing’ has become a cant phrase, branded and bandied out of any useful existence, and I would be glad to see its deletion from the current discourse … The best of the recent writing is ethically alert, theoretically literate and wary of the seductions and corruptions of the pastoral. It is sensitive to the dark histories of landscapes and to the structures of ownership and capital that organize—though do not wholly produce—our relations with the natural world … Some of this writing is kick-up-the-arse furious, some is elegiac, some is about disease and dispossession, some is about dignity and the deepening of knowledge. Across its range, moral engagement and hope are consistently in evidence.”