An almost seamless narrative with a large and voluble cast. Author Ferrante starts Vol. 1 of her tetralogy with a classic framing device (presumably nAn almost seamless narrative with a large and voluble cast. Author Ferrante starts Vol. 1 of her tetralogy with a classic framing device (presumably not closed until the end of Vol. 4). It's the present day and Lila's son calls Elena, who's living in Turin, to say his mother is missing from her Naples home. This sets Elena to writing about her and Lila's hardscrabble yet eventful upbringing in post-World War II Naples.
The families are blue collar, desperately poor, for whom education is viewed as a luxury. Lila, the smarter of the two, the "brilliant friend" of the title, has a dream of writing novels with Elena one day. But there is no money for textbooks in the Cerrulo family, so Lila is taken out of school to help in the family cobblery and at home. Extremely shrewd and calculating, once education is excluded for Lila, she must resort to woman's traditional means of securing the future: marriage.
Elena, meanwhile, partly due to coaching from Lila, makes it all the way to high school where she excels in languages and writing. But the fire for learning that Lila kindled in her begins to wane without her friend's eager presence. It's no longer much fun. Moreover, Lila's approval is the constant standard Elena aspires to, even as she meets and exceeds it.
Lila and Elena's families do not live enlightened lives. Their skin is extraordinarily thin. There is an almost mystical belief in honor accompanied by its cruel machismo. They possess almost no ability to mitigate their quarrrels through language. There is much acting out, things said that would be better left unsaid. There is the threat of enormous violence which may erupt at any time.
When as teens they travel to an exclusive section of Naples, because Lila wants to see it, the young men in the party, enraged by the splendor, insult a chic local couple and start a melee. Remarkably, though they are clearly in the wrong, the reader understands their anger and hopes they make it through unscathed. At the last moment, the hated Solaras arrive in their shiny new Fiat in a neat example of the neighborhood circling the wagons and joining forces against the spoiled rich.
Everyone hates the Solaras, who are successful bar and pastry shop owners as well as Camorra and live well. Rino, Lila's brother, especially hates them. When Rino is frustrated in a get rich quick shoemaking scheme with Lila, he becomes first a braggart, telling of his coming good fortune, and then a brute. He beats Lila since she will have nothing to more to do with him. Ultimately the Solaras seduce him with their money and "prestige." Pathetic.
Don Achille Carraci has made a career out of loan sharking and intimidation, especially of the poor. The carpenter Peluso, who gambles away his earnings every week in the Solara bar, conceives a murderous hatred for the gangster, eventually stabbing him to death. Peluso is jailed but the neighborhood breathes a sigh relief now that the menacing Don is gone. But the Don's work is in a sense finished. For the Carracci sons have taken over the convict-carpenter's shop and turned it into a grocery, which seems to continually expand and prosper.
Lila grows to become the most beautiful of the two friends. Marcello, a despised Solara, shows up at her parent's flat with food and a television and wine and other goodies. He dines over there every night for weeks on end, providing much of the fine food himself. Expensive items the family could never afford. All this as a means of allying the parents with his suit, but Lila hates his guts because he's Camorra, a mafioso. Her ultimate rejection of Marcello reduces him to sobs. Later, like a child, he retaliates with ridiculous calumny, besmirching her reputation.
Lila is headstrong. Her beauty captivates men and makes women jealous—including, sometimes, Elena, our narrator. Lila has turned from ugly duckling to magnificent swan. When she dumps Marcello and Stefano Achille, the Don's son, whisks her off in a car full of money, we begin to wonder if she's sold out. The end of Vol. 1 is a humdinger. I don't want to give it away. Suffice it to say, that Stefano and Lila marry at a hugely expensive wedding and Marcello, whom Lila does not want there, attends anyway.
A real corker. The action is set around abolitionist John Brown's raid on the Harpers Ferry armory in 1859, which helped precipitate the American CiviA real corker. The action is set around abolitionist John Brown's raid on the Harpers Ferry armory in 1859, which helped precipitate the American Civil War (1861-65). Brown's plan was to steal tens of thousands of rifles from the sleepy, rural armory. With them he would arm fugitive slaves hiding in the Blue Ridge Mountains against their so-called masters. It didn't quite work out. Brown and nineteen others were hung for the attempt.
I like that it's a folksy tale without literary hi-jinx. The whole thing—prefaced by a hilarious news story dated 1966—is said to be gleaned from the newly discovered slave narrative of one Henry "the Onion" Shackleton, the only survivor of the raid. The beauty of this sort of writing is that it gets out if its own way, leaving the greater narrative arc open to view. It's interesting how some of the constructions here—the tropes—their economy and method of proceeding, remind me of E.L. Doctorow. I'll have to think some more about that.
To create convincing speech of the period, McBride makes interesting use of solecisms—such as runned for ran, set for sat, gived for gave, throwed for threw, hisself for himself, and incorrect subject-verb agreement as in: "We has come to free the Negro. And you is our prisoner." There are intentional clichés, too, figures of speech which are key to the Onion's idiom. Because this non-standard English is consistently rendered throughout, it never seems a burden to read, as overwrought dialect can often be. See William Faulkner's Flags In the Dust, his third novel, for an example of such overwrought dialect. By contrast, McBride's novel is fresh, broadly funny, a delight. Highly recommended.
N.B. — A movie is in the works with author McBride as producer and Liev Schreiber, who will play the fiery abolitionist John Brown, also serving as producer. Henry "the Onion" Shackleton is to be played by Jayden Smith. Let's hope they do a good job....more
A novella: 101 pages. Set at Fort Bragg, South Carolina, among new army recruits, during the height of the Vietnam War. Seamless shifts from 3rd persoA novella: 101 pages. Set at Fort Bragg, South Carolina, among new army recruits, during the height of the Vietnam War. Seamless shifts from 3rd person to 1st and back again. A tale of young men finding their way in the world. Beautiful and shattering....more
This is the story of an ecstatic, The Robber, who enjoys life about as much as anyone possibly can, even when he suffers. Set in Switzerland in the eaThis is the story of an ecstatic, The Robber, who enjoys life about as much as anyone possibly can, even when he suffers. Set in Switzerland in the early 1920s, he is forever moving between elation over this wonderful world, and despair over the fickle indifference of his great love, Edith. He tries to assuage his disappointment with liaisons with other women, but to no avail. This third-person narrative alternates with a first-person intrusive narrator who upbraids Edith for her indifference to The Robber and sounds off on any number of peripheral matters in a seemingly offhand if not random fashion. These "arabesques," as W.G. Sebald calls them, might also be thought of as a kind of ur-magic realism. As if that weren't enough, late in the text it is announced by the author that he and The Robber have teamed up to create the present text. This reader was reminded of Herman Melville's Pierre: or, the Ambiguities, though it should be said that The Robber is a laugh riot compared to that formal novel and far more, indeed almost obsessively, discursive.
This is wonderful. Dense with historical incident, deft characterization, and the telling detail that is García Márquez's hallmark. It's the story ofThis is wonderful. Dense with historical incident, deft characterization, and the telling detail that is García Márquez's hallmark. It's the story of Simón Bolívar--he who liberated South America from Spanish colonial tyranny--and his retreat from public life just prior to his death. The great trick of the novel is to make condensed passages of historical summary ring with life through the recollections of the dying General. Predictably perhaps he obsessively catalogs his enemies' perfidies which on some level seem to be the disease which is killing him, though it's actually TB. Such is the loyalty of the man's officers that just before his death he sends them off on various guerilla missions to undermine the governments of his enemies. Despite the sure knowledge of his impending death he seeks to promote insurrection instead of harmony.
It is for this reason that John Lynch, one of Bolívar's biographers, detests the popular idea of the man as the "George Washington of South America." Truly, he was nothing of the kind. He allowed himself to be named Liberator and Dictator of Peru and through the Ocaña Convention named himself Bolivia's "president for life" with the ability to pass on the title. He needlessly promulgated multiple contradictory edicts. He was against popular representative government. Though, paradoxically, he believed in a US-style federalist union for South America, he was incapable of putting goals for the growth of inclusive democratic institutions above his petty enmities, as Washington did with such aplomb time after time.
(N.B. Washington was a Virginia plantation owner who freed his slaves upon his death in 1799. All U.S. slaves were freed by Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1865. See Speeches and Writings, 1859-1865. It was 1816, however, when Bolivar manumitted the slaves of South America, including his own.)
We also meet his longtime, forebearing lover, Manuela Sáenz, and find her to be as formidable a character as the General himself. At one point some weeks after after the General and his retinue have traveled into exile on a cortege of barges down the Magdalena, she incites civil unrest back in Santa Fe de Bogata against his enemies:
In an attempt to make her life impossible, the Ministry of the Interior had asked her to turn over the [General's] archives she had in her care. She refused and set in motion a campaign of provocations that drove the government mad. In the company of two of her warrior slavewomen [manumitted] she fomented scandals, distributed pamphlets glorifying the General, and erased charcoal slogans scrawled on public walls. It was common knowledge that she entered barracks wearing the uniform of a colonel and was apt to take part in the soldiers' fiestas as in the officers' conspiracies. The most serious rumor was that right under Urdaneta's nose she was promoting an armed rebellion to reestablish the absolute power of the General.
So a beautifully written if dense narrative that satisfies on multiple levels. Do read it. One final note, there's no magic realism here as in The Autumn of the Patriarch or One Hundred Years of Solitude. But the narrative is nonchronological which demands an attentive reader. This is no in-flight or beach read! I found it deeply satisfying....more
I am an Ishiguro enthusiast if ever there was one. I have read his oeuvre. That's why it pains me a little to say that I found The Buried Giant disappI am an Ishiguro enthusiast if ever there was one. I have read his oeuvre. That's why it pains me a little to say that I found The Buried Giant disappointing. I say this not because I think Ishiguro's skills as a novelist are one whit duller than usual. But because I did not care for the story or its characters. They did not engage me. He's going after a new readership with this book. He's going after the vast fantasy market. That's fine. A writer must write what he must write. Just don't expect me to tag along. In abeyance here is Ishiguro's wonderful sense of humor. The book is stolidly earnest in its depiction of an ogre infested, post Arthurian, post Roman Britain.
The first three chapters are straightforward chronology. I suppose I'm used not only to Ishiguro's wit, but also to his keen ability to shift about in time. I understand that a straightforward, unwavering chronology to open the book will have a greater appeal to less nimble readers, but for me — a reader of subtle capacities — it was an absolute slog. Only with the introduction of the boy, Edwin, does the narrative start to deepen, but it never achieves true Ishiguroian depths. What do I care about this dead world of British myth?* I've never really cared for Malory's Round Table tales. They're terribly one-dimensional. I tried to read a recent treatment by Peter Ackroyd but it was just so shallow storywise, and redundant. Ishiguro returns the favor. How many times do we have to be reminded that it's better to forget than to remember? Not to mention the interminable politeness of the chivalric code, which, if you do a little reading, you will discover was the exception rather than the rule. Most knights were out for booty and they murdered anyone who got in the way of that goal. Unhindered knights turned Europe into a charnal house. Read Sir Steven Runciman's A History of the Crusades or Norman Cohn's Pursuit of the Millennium. Anyway, for me the novel's a dud, though I suspect it will appeal to many new readers. Recommended with reservations. I suppose it's mandatory if you've read all of Ishiguro.
P.S. I disagree with Ms. Kakutani's view (NYT) that Ishiguro's prose here is "ham handed." It is not. He writes as vividly as ever, it's just that the story is a bore. He had to stumble sooner or later. Let's be happy he's gotten this one behind him....more
Highly oneiric. Revolutionary Mexico. Swift jumps from conciousness to conciousness, yet with the purpose of generating a coherent narrative. The langHighly oneiric. Revolutionary Mexico. Swift jumps from conciousness to conciousness, yet with the purpose of generating a coherent narrative. The language is spritely, sullen, erotic by turns. The old gringo, American journalist and author Ambrose Bierce, is a bitter man come to Mexico seeking death at the hands of the revolution. He meets the younger rebel General Tomas Arroyo whose innate machismo turns his relationship with the old gringo into a Game of Manhood. A game only the general seems to be playing. The old gringo fearlessly marches straight into the most dangerous faceoffs with the Federales. He seems invulnerable, god-like. The bullets don't so much as graze him. Arroyo's rebels marvel at him. Arroyo resents the gringo for stealing his thunder. In a comandeered train the general, his army, and the gringo cross the desert for a day and a night to the famous Miranda Hacienda. It was here that Arroyo was fathered by Señor Miranda. It was here Arroyo grew up and came to know intimately his nation's "aristocracy." It is in the destruction of the hacienda that the general seems to want to make a grand statement. On arrival he and the old gringo find the white woman -- the "gringa" -- arrived only hours earlier from the U.S. to teach English to the Miranda children, long since flown the coop. Her name is Harriet Winslow. She becomes Arroyo's lover. One feels she could use the workout. She positively screams uptight white anglo-saxon protestant, and the destruction of personal property is incomprehensible to her. She discounts the long history of class oppression in Mexico in a trice. Somehow she feels -- laughably -- even in the absence of the departed Mirandas, that she is responsible not only for stopping the destruction of the hacienda, but also for seeing to its restoration. (She sets the peons to ridiculously whitewashing the place.) Yet like certain characters in Anita Brookner's oeuvre, she knows she's missed much of life in her 31 years. The old gringo sees her submission to Arroyo only in terms of the general's machismo. He does not for a minute imagine the attraction this man of action might hold for Harriet. The sex is electric. As I've said elsewhere, I am no fan of sex in literature. It's almost always badly done -- but not here. Here the sex is integral, it works to push the story forward; whereas, usually, all the action of the fiction must stop for nookie time. It's almost too long, the sex. Fuentes pushes it about ten pages too far. But one can see why. It's working so well. The novel's onieric bent seamlessly blends backstory, dialogue both thought and spoken, hopes and dreams, you name it. The prose is consistently dazzling. You must read it....more