I'm trying to find something wrong with this book, but so far nothing. Every event or action naturally folds into the next one. The continuity is supeI'm trying to find something wrong with this book, but so far nothing. Every event or action naturally folds into the next one. The continuity is superb. Neither does anything seem superfluous: no gesture or detail. Impeccable structure and flawless tone. I find myself slowing down to take in the richness as I would when reading a poem. That's the tension Ferrante incites in us: between wanting to gallop through the stunning tale, to just gobble it up like cake, and slowing down to take in the beauty of its construction, jewels of surpassing quality passing before the eye.
It's the early 1960s in Naples and Lina Carracci (née Cerullo) is newly and miserably married and living in a virtual purdah with her husband, Stefano, whom she has quickly learned to hate because he is a tool of the Solaras, who are Cammora. Mr. and Mrs. Carracci live quite well in a new apartment with modern decor and lots of money because of their connection to these local criminals.
Lina, we will recall from volume one of the tetralogy, My Brilliant Friend, was unable to go on with her education at age ten or so and was made to work in her father's shoe shop. Her chance of higher education gone, she then had to resort to other means of self advancement, namely marriage. In the early going here we see that is not going so well. She feels, not without justification, that Stefano tricked her into marriage. So she refuses him the great gift and he beats her regularly, in effect raping his wife.
Lina's highly intelligent and both friends are girls of only sixteen. In her friend Lenù, our narrator, Lina sees her own lost dream of education still alive. Yet Lenù's having her man problems too. Her lover, Antonio, a car mechanic, suspects her of interest in another fellow, Nino, who is intellectually Lenù's match in a way Antonio can never be. Lenù stays with the blue collar Antonio, though, because she doesn't feel worthy of Nino, having come from a background much like Antonio's. Lenù disparages her intellect and achievements, lusting over the distant Nino. She is trying to make that leap but can't see how she might do it.
This is all a little silly when you consider that Nino is actually from her own neighborhood. She's known him since she was a child. But his father moved out of the neighborhood many years ago and became a college professor. And now Lenù feels Nino's somehow out of her league.
There was no escape. No, neither Lina nor I would ever become like the [sophisticated] girl who had waited for Nino after school. We both lacked something intangible but fundamental, which was obvious in her even if you simply saw her from a distance, and which one possessed or did not, because to have that thing it was not enough to learn Latin or Greek or philosophy, nor was the money from groceries or shoes of any use. (p. 84)
Groceries and shoes refer to the businesses of Stefano Carracci and Lina's father, respectively....more
Well, here we are again in the land of obsessive compulsive disorder, suicidal rage and death panic. It's like Bernhard has one channel and one channeWell, here we are again in the land of obsessive compulsive disorder, suicidal rage and death panic. It's like Bernhard has one channel and one channel only: sturm und drang, but without the post-Enlightenment restraint. How did Richard Hugo put it: "hatred of the various grays / the mountain sends...." Bernhard's satirical narrators are against everything: especially mountains, in this case the Alps, nature, people, society, art, any and all institutions, the church, the state, you name it. No culture, usually Austrian, can have a single redemptive aspect in its favor. One might think: 'Oh, the mountain air is great! I love to hike. Might take in a movie later.' For Bernhard's characters, there can be no such trivial daily existence. If we do hear about it, it's acidly deprecated. Death is inevitable; birth was never asked for. One is simply hurled into the "existence machine" by one's parents, probably drunk at the time. How dare they subject one to life and death! They should be put up against a wall and shot! If there's humor in Bernhard, it's of the gallows variety. Whistling in the graveyard. Bernhard's novels are voice novels, not surprising for a playwright, his other literary stronghold. They are almost entirely interior monologues with little or no description. Almost always one ranting narrator, pent up, unloads as if from a stage. This can be entertaining, but the cumulative effect is gloom. You can't get intimate with Bernhard as you would, say, Proust. That's how consuming the negativity is. Like a horrific spectacle from which one cannot avert one's eyes. Bernhard may be a complete original, I'm not sure, but take heed. His art is dark, blackened by madness, numbing like opium....more
A portrait of the artist as a young bear. He's a jazz musician, an alto saxophonist of genius, with a rich inner life. The writing is without pretensiA portrait of the artist as a young bear. He's a jazz musician, an alto saxophonist of genius, with a rich inner life. The writing is without pretension and so far wholly chronological. Author Zabor has an astonishing ability not only to make jazz come alive on the page, but to catch his hero's most transient angst in mellifluous sentences. The Bear's inner voice, his self-loathing, runs deep and profound.
He becomes somewhat unhinged. He is falling, disintegrating when slammed in prison, for what are the authorities to do with an intelligent bear alto saxophonist? Right, hide him away. Behind bars his love of jazz feels gone, expunged. It's a stirring yet sad interval. I understand many readers find the book funny. So far, I do not, which is not to say that the humor isn't well handled here, but that on this first reading it's the Bear's musings that I find so deeply affecting. It is that frequency to which I am tuned.
Belay that, I just got my first laugh on page 122. The Bear has just asked the old Austrian doctor to help him break out of jail. The doctor demurs. Here's the exchange:
"There is one eppel you did not eat," said [Dr.] Friedman, casting an eye down upon a fold of brown army blanket. If you don't mind, it vould freshen my breaths."
"By all means," said the Bear, passing him the apple. "By all means cover up the inconvenient smell of internal rot, failed will, suspect sentiment."
This is one irritable if articulate bear. Later, sprung with élan by musicians and friends dressed as EMTs, he hides out at admirer Iris' apartment in Peter Cooper Village where the atmosphere is charged with interspecies lust. His old pal, Jones, who won the Bear as a cub years ago in a card game, has arranged a top-flight recording contract. An earlier LP—the novel was published in 1997—has sold out overnight. The Bear's going big-time. He's given the chance to record with Jack DeJohnette and Charlie Haden. He composes several pieces and writes out the music for a quartet.
Problem is the Bear still feels estranged from his talent. The jailhouse has taken its toll. Unfortunately, for those around him—luckily for the reader—the ursine instrumentalist is of a most choleric temperament. You might say he's bearish. Nothing can be easily done. Everything's an imposition. This induces misery in Jones and everyone else except for the blissful musicians, who inhabit a realm of their own. During the recording session he's so out of touch with his mojo that he can only perform by way of a conscious imitation of himself. Eventually things swing again.
Here the writing becomes striking. The prose becomes so descriptive about music that in the mind's ear one can almost hear it. It's unlike anything I've ever read before. And then there's the sex. Interspecies sex between woman and bear that is anything but bestial. It's such a peculiar interlude, so new, that I found myself not at all bored as I so often am by human fictional schtuppings. Especially well told is the sense of lover Iris's fragility. It's ambiguous, but if I'm reading it right, there seems to be something of a history of taboo-breaking with her. In that sense then she's the perfect—if rather neurotic—match for the Bear. But it doesn't bode well for the future, does it? When she arrives at the Bear's bed she is described as wearing a "winding sheet." Uh-oh!
The jazz, much of the stuff the novel revels in, was already classic when the book was published in 1997. (Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk etc.) The jazz argot comes across as dated, too, so Zabor's careful not to overdo it. The book may read better once the period in which it has been set is beyond living memory. Who knows, it may become a Don Quixote of its time. I certainly think the Bear has that kind of iconic potential. The novel really sings. For example, there are so many, the sequence in which Jones meets Mr. Big in the midtown offices of Megaton Records is astonishing. The details are pitch perfect.
But here comes the cognitive dissonance. The Bear is fully imbued with the thoughts and impulses of a human, yet he is a bear. This duality smacks the reader upside the head a bit when he or she comes to passages like this one on p. 257. The downstairs tenant, a photographer—the Bear's living upstate with Iris now, closer to nature—shows up "in the early evening with two teenage girls who looked like they might fancy being models."
The Bear found it morally offensive and knew that it could lead to trouble – outraged parents, charges of statutory rape, police. He wasn't about to barge in there, but he made a mental note to have a serious talk with the man the next time he found him alone.
Now, it would be impossible for the Bear, given what we know of his socialization, to think those thoughts. Fact, it is said, is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to be plausible. Well, here author Zabor breaks that rule, just tosses it out. It is impossible for the reader in this case to lend plausibility to the scenario. Just like that the writer has mucked with the fabric of the novel's believability. Yet we read on, why? Somehow it happens. Very confounding. . ....more
An almost seamless narrative with a large and voluble cast. Author Ferrante opens Vol. 1 of her tetralogy with a classic framing device (presumably noAn almost seamless narrative with a large and voluble cast. Author Ferrante opens 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 the hardscrabble yet eventful upbringing she and Lila shared 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 her 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 mêlée. 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 outsider 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