This is the third of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, and in the course of the friendship between Raffaella / Lila and Elena / Lena which these novThis is the third of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, and in the course of the friendship between Raffaella / Lila and Elena / Lena which these novels map it marks the point where they are the furthest apart, so much in fact that rather than braided it appears as a case of parallel lives.
The novel’s title, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, quite clearly marks the reason for this distance: while Lena continues to move away from Naples, both geographically and socially, Lila stays – she briefly moves to another part of the city, but finally returns to their old neighbourhood – even after the parting from er husband. There is barely any contact between the two friends at all during the first half of the novel, and the book’s structure reflects this: It starts out with several chapters dedicated to the developments in Lena’s life, then switching to Lila as Lena (and with her the reader) catch with what has been happening to her in the meantime. But eve as the friends are physically and spiritually apart, they continue to be connected by a bond – each still is the other’s dark guiding star, each is for the other – in increasingly obscure and difficult to understand ways – their ideal existence, having what she secretly desires but cannot have because she took the wrong path at some stage in her life. It probably is this which allows the two to reconnect again after their long parting and initiate a slow process of approaching each other again.
Both friends are grown women by now, and this volume takes place mostly during the seventies, and even more than even in the second novel events in the wider world play heavily into individual lives here. It is a time where the ideals of late sixties begin to wear thin, where it becomes increasingly clear and finally undeniable that the better world so many had hoped for ist not going to manifest any time soon, which basically leads to two opposing reactions among those who hoped for that better world – either they resign and turn inward, retreat into their private lives, or they turn outward and become even more radical, finally even openly violent towards the existing system. This split runs not only through the friendship between Lila and Lena but through all of their friends, too, and leads to some very painful ruptures and, in some cases, tragedy.
And in a way, the split runs through this latter half of the Neapolitan Novels, too: In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the metafictional thread has become so thin as to be almost invisible, while on the other hand it the most openly political of the novels (and things will be the precise reverse in the final novel, The Story of the Lost Child). And if the second volume already dared to be very unfashionable with its unabashed advocacy of feminism, then this third one tops that by speaking very clearly and very loudly in favour of something even more unfashionable and (supposedly) discredited, namely socialism and the labour movement. With both Lena and Lila coming from poor families, and both rising (at least temporarily) into the high and petit bourgeoisie respectively, the Neapolitan Novels always have been very class-conscious; but this reaches its culmination here with Lena’s circle of friends becoming increasingly involved in increasingly radical politics while Lila experiences working life first hand as labourer in a factory.
Ferrante (and I do think it’s her rather than just the narrator) makes her sympathies for the oppressed lower classes very clear in this novel, but she does not flinch away from the more questionable aspects of radical left politics – the fruitless debates, the way the class struggle breeds violence on both sides, and finally, terrorism. As all the hopes and dreams of the late sixties are either smashed or perverted one after the other, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay turns into the by far saddest instalment of the series, becoming at times outright bleak and is kept from being depressive only by the continuing use of the melodrama structure of the narrative – the reader remains aware that, no matter how bad things are, there always is hope in soap opera, as each episodes ends with a “To Be Continued.”
And again, I find myself marvelling how this series of novels could become bestsellers – while part of their success is certainly due to Elena Ferrante’s deft use of melodrama to keep readers turning the pages, her subject matter and her emphatically non-sugarcoating way of treating it make them a rather unlikely candidate. Also, The Neapolitan Novels, while not exactly breaking new literary ground, show an awareness of form and a degree of reflection of themselves as writing that alone would raise them head and shoulders above the usual reading fodder filling the bestseller lists. These novels, while always humane and touching, emphatically are no comfort read, as becomes especially clear in this volume, and while reading it, I needed to pinch myself from time to time to make sure that yes, they really were widely read and even loved....more
While I love me some Sword & Sorcery or Epic Fantasy, I also find myself often bewailing the many wasted chance in this genre: Fantasy – as the naWhile I love me some Sword & Sorcery or Epic Fantasy, I also find myself often bewailing the many wasted chance in this genre: Fantasy – as the name already should indicate but so very often it turns out to be a misnomer – offers so many possibilities to the imaginative authors, and yet most of would give your average Harlequin Romance a run when it comes to sticking with a true-and-trusted formula. There are exceptions; but they are rare and one has to go looking for them.
Novels by Jo Walton are one of those exceptions, she is an author who has consistently pushed the boundaries of the Fantasy genres and uses formulas only to play with them in surprising ways. Farthing starts out not as Fantasy at all, but as Cozy Mystery, i.e. the kind of mystery that takes (mostly British) crime novels of the 30s and 40s (by the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers or Josephine Tey) as its model and is characterized by a closed, usually upper-class setting (country houses are the classic here, but exotic locations are also popular, the Orient Express probably the most famous of them) and a general lack of violence and sex. Jo Walton goes to far as to not only use the structure and setting of a cozy mystery but even to have it take place in the period from which the genre originated, namely 1949.
The narrative, of course, starts off with a murder in a country house and is told from two points of view: there is the perspective of the investigating police officer Carmichael and of the daughter of the country house’s owners, Lucy. Carmichael’s chapters, with him being a policeman and an outsider, are written in distancing third person, Lucy’s chapters, her being part of the “set” and in the midst of things, in first person perspective, and with the latter in particular Jo Walton does a really excellent job of precisely nailing the tone of the period (and the tone of the cozy mystery genre), her protagonist freely oscillating between sharp witticism and vapid chatter.
Things appear to be all set for a delightful, if not particularly original genre romp – until Jo Walton starts to slowly but inexorably spoil the fun. For as the reader gradually becomes aware, the 1949 of Farthing is not the 1949 as we know it, but a 1949 where the United States never entered the Second World War, and Britain, finding itself unable to continue battling Nazi Germany on its own, accepted Rudolf Hess’ peace offering in 1941. As a consequence, the Third Reich is thriving, albeit locked in a seemingly endless struggle with Soviet Russia, while Britain remains the only part of Europe not occupied by the Nazis.
Farthing, then, is not just a Cozy Mystery, but also an Alternative History novel (which would make it either Fantasy or Science Fiction – common opinion appears to tend towards the latter, while I personally am more inclined towards the former) and as the reader watches the plot gradually unfurl, with both Carmichael and Lucy with their own methods (and their own motives) searching for the culprit, the alternative history starts to slowly nibble away at the cozy mystery, with things becoming more and more uncomfortable until the last vestiges of coziness evaporate as circumstances decline even further towards the outright bleak. It becomes increasingly obvious that the Britain of Farthing, even though it may not be part of the Third Reich, it has not remained unaffected by it, and has developed its own homegrown brand of fascism which eat away even the foundations of the mystery genre.
And not only does Jo Walton stand the cozy mystery on its head (or, probably more correctly, from its head on its feet) but by the end of the novel our own present starts to shine through the novel’s fabricated history, and the reader is left asking just how alternative the world described in Farthing really is.
In Farthing, Jo Walton proves once again that Fantasy can do fascinating things even without elves and dragons (although she has demonstrated in Tooth & Claw that she can do unusual things involving dragons, too) if it just dares to veer off the trodden path. The novel really stands very well on its own, but is the first volume of a trilogy which I am eager to check out the rest of....more
As the title of this second volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolian Novels already indicates, it is centred around marriage, and more generally, the relaAs the title of this second volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolian Novels already indicates, it is centred around marriage, and more generally, the relationship between the sexes. That had already been a subject in the second part of My Brilliant Friend but is even more in the foreground here, as the lives of the two friends Elena / Lena and Raffaela / Lila move steadily more apart, with each of them representing one of the ways and shapes a female life in sixties Italy could take: marriage and motherhood for Lila, education and a profession for Lena.
It is however, a bit of a simplification to say that the friends are drifting apart – while they while their geographical and social situations do differ markedly, they still remain bound to each other, each the other’s mirror image and inverted double: while Lena goes to college and university she never stops to envy Lila who to her seems to have received the happier lot, a husband and family. At the same time it becomes increasingly clear to the reader (although not to Lena who either does not or refuses to notice, thus showing herself to be a rather unreliable narrator) that to Lila, Lena fulfills the destiny she never could have herself, her brilliant career that was nipped in the bud when her parents did not let her attend middle school. The friendship between the girls (and this is what the two still mostly are at this stage, marriage and an increasing number of sexual experiences not withstanding) is probably at it most intense as well as its most ambivalent here, and the varying shapes this friendship takes continues to be one of the most fascinating aspects of this series of novels.
There is (as far as I remember) no mention made of the frame narrative established in My Brilliant Friend in this novel, but The Story of a New Name continues to spin out the metafictional thread in different ways.Language plays an important in all four novels of the series – most noticeably in the Neapolitan dialect all characters start out speaking, either retain or lose when they grow older or more educated and keep falling back into whenever they get emotional. It is a dialect that is consistently designated as ugly as violent – by the narrator Lena, who is clearly not all that reliable and who indeed herself strives to eradicate all traces of it from her own speech. We never get to read / hear the dialect ourselves, i.e. there is no attempt made by the author to render the Neapolitan way of speaking phonetically (and according to an interview with Elena Ferrante this is not due the translation but true for the original as well). The dialect, hence, remains a mystery for the reader, an unknown and inscrutable quantity – much like Lila for the narrator, in fact; and I think this does indeed constitute a strong parallel between the city of Naples and Lila, a parallel which will be made pretty much explicit in the third volume and which is a very important motif for the whole series.
“Elena Ferrante” is not the author’s real name; she is writing under a pen name and is as reclusive as any Salinger or Pynchon, avoiding any public appearances and carefully hiding her real identity. Apparently, and unsurprisingly, there has been a lot of discussion in the media, both in Italy and abroad, as to who may be hiding behind the pseudonym and just how autobiographical her novels are. Normally I would dismiss such debates as both futile and irrelevant, but things lie a bit different here: not only is the novels’ first person narrator called Elena, like their author, but she also publishes a novel and becomes a writer – in other words, there is a very strong suggestion coming from the novels themselves that they might be autobiographical and should be read as such. However, one will immediately have to ask, whose autobiography? For not only does the general reading public remain ignorant of the author’s identity, but since the name she and her character share is not her real one, i.e. is itself fictional – does that mean the “autobiography” is of a fictional person, too? It really is impossible to tell, and the only thing certain here is that there is another turn of the metafictional screw.
But what I liked most about The Story of a New Name is how unapologetically feminist it is. The main subject that Elena Ferrante returns to time and again is the way women live in the second half of the 20th century, and she never leaves any doubt that societal power structures are slanted very much in favour of males. Both Lila and Lena, as well as a host of minor female characters, try to cope with that in their different ways, but I do not think a single one among them actually succeeds in the end and patriarchy continues to maintain itself at the cost of women, their wishes and desires, their minds and bodies. While Ferrante is openly didactic, she never is preachy, and keeps her novels compulsively readable by making generous of the structures and tropes of high melodrama – questions of who loves who, whether they will get each other and overcome the obstacles of class or family rise at times to an almost soap-operatic level and drive the novels forward at a brisk pace. No doubt that this has contributed to the large world-wide success of those novels, but call me overly optimistic – I find it quite heartening that a series of novels with such an open and unashamed feminist bias ends up so very widely read. There may be some hope yet, after all....more
Elena Ferrante’s four-volume series Neapolitan Novels (of which this is the first) has been touted pretty much everywhere and lauded by pretty much evElena Ferrante’s four-volume series Neapolitan Novels (of which this is the first) has been touted pretty much everywhere and lauded by pretty much everyone – both by professional critics and (rather more importantly) by trusted fellow-readers: everyone on my Goodreads friends list who has read My Brilliant Friend has given it at least four stars, and (almost) everyone else has it on their to-read list.
In spite of those overwhelming recommendations, I was very hesitant to pick it up myself, precisely because of the reasons it was universally lauded for, namely the realism of its depiction of life in postwar Naples and the authenticity of the narrative voice. Both of those concepts I consider highly problematical (which won’t come as a surprise for any regular reader of this blog): modernism has taught us that simple representational realism simply does not work how it is supposed to (cf. Brecht’s saying that “less than ever does the mere reflection of reality reveal anything about reality. A photo of the Krupp factory or the AEG tells us almost nothing about these institutions.”) and one of the things to take away from postmodernism is the lesson that authenticity is a literary effect, achieved by literary means like any other, and thus always and inevitably deeply inauthentic.
As in previous cases, it was Leander reading it and posting about it on her blog which got me to change my mind, or at least weakened my resistance sufficiently to give My Brilliant Friend a try.As it turned out, the book was nowhere near the kind of naive confessional writing I was afraid it might be, and instead does not pretend to any immediacy, but, while not exactly pushing the borders of the novel form, is well aware of being literature and constantly reflects on its status a work of language and as fiction. This is established right from the beginning: My Brilliant Friend starts with a frame narrative which does several things: it sets a very concrete situation in which the following novel (and, indeed, novels – we will catch up with this initial narrative only in the fourth volume of the series) is being written, thus making the writing itself a subject and reminding readers that the events described are seen from a certain perspective, the perspective of someone who may not always be reliable and who as her own motives of writing what she does in the way she does.
The frame narrative also introduces what will gradually reveal itself as one of the central themes of the Neapolitan Novels: the conflicting desires of Elena / Lena and Raffaela / Lila – the former tries to conserve herself and the world around her, fix them, define them, while the latter attempts to erase both herself and the order of things, make things fluid, indeterminate, ever-changing. It will be no surprise then that it is Lena who narrates the story, and that the goal of her narration is to catch in writing what constitutes the essence of the enigmatic Lila – something which – as really becomes clear quite early on – she can in the end only fail to do, despite all her efforts at describing, defining her, Lila continues to elude Lena’s authorial grasp.
The novel proper then starts out with describing the childhood of the narrator and her friend in Naples during the fifties.This is the period where the two are closest, and while they both come from lower-class families and there is a thin but quite visible thread of poverty and violence running along in the background, overall it seems a time of happiness for both of them. But even that happiness is not quite unadulterated, as becomes most clear in an almost emblematic scene where the two girls try to leave the quarter of the city they live in, resulting in a very intense passage where they wander through a street tunnel and then re-emerge in the light of unfamiliar, frightening surroundings: their bliss, this seems to say, is owed mostly to ignorance of the wider world outside the charmed and familiar circle of their childhood.
That ignorance starts to fade in the novel’s second part, concerning itself with the girls’ adolescence – the world surrounding the girls takes on more distinct features, and more often than not they are threatening. Also, they begin to grow apart, Lila becoming the “brilliant friend” of the title, with Lena never quite able to catch up with her, no matter how much effort she puts into it. As the reader already knows from the framing narrative, this marks the essential trait of Lila and Lena’s friendship and will not really change even when they have both grown old – it is, in fact, the driving force behind Lena’s narrative which forms this novel.
This second part also brings into sharp focus what will be the central theme for the whole series of novels (and of which I’ll write some more a propos the second novel), namely what it means to be a woman in Italy during the second half of the twentieth century. In retrospect, after having read all four novels, I have to say that My Brilliant Friend really offers only a glimpse of what the series is about, and definitely should not be considered stand-alone but as the first part of a longer work whose promise it foreshadows but does not quite fulfill yet....more
I am increasingly of the opinion that we are experiencing a renaissance of the SFF genre; a renaissance that was spearheaded a few years ago by authorI am increasingly of the opinion that we are experiencing a renaissance of the SFF genre; a renaissance that was spearheaded a few years ago by authors like Elizabeth Bear, Jo Walton, Catherynne Valente and Susanna Clarke (to name but a few) and has led to a great number of fascinating authors popping up in recent years, authors like (to name but a few more) Hanna Rajaniemi, Genevieve Valentine, Nina Allan, Ann Leckie, Kameron Hurley, Octavia Cade, N.K. Jemisin.
And, of course, Nnedi Okorafor, who has written several novels for children, adolescents and adults and gained some fame (and award nominations) with her novel Who Fears Death in 2010. While I’ve had my eyes on here for a while, Binti was not really what I had planned reading first; but I happened to stumble across it on Amazon, and as I liked the cover and it was comparatively cheap, and as it was also rather short (it’s part of the new line of novellas Tor.com is releasing, a project that looks very promising so far), I found I had bought and read it almost without noticing.
Well, not really, because it is hard to imagine how one would read Binti without noticing because it is such a vivid and colourful affair. It may be YA, as the protagonist is a teenager, the basic plot fairly simple and the ending just a bit too pat and frictionless (this the only real issue I had with the novella), but while I tend to be somewhat about that particular non-genre, in this case I did not care because Binti is just so irresistibly brilliant and utterly, jaw-droppingly awesome in the way it manages to apparently effortlessly to turn such a simple story into such dazzling a fireworks of language and ideas. And yes, I’m aware that I’m gushing, but that seems like the only adequate response to this novella which has such a freshness and transmits such enthusiasm that one could think Nnedi Okorafor had just invented the whole SF genre all on her own. I’d have to go back to the early novels of Samuel R. Delany to think of other works that left similarly exuberant.
And Okorafor’s writing does indeed share some traits with Delany’s – there is the colourful language, which may not be quite as metaphor-drenched as Delany’s but of a similar vividness; there is the incredible amount of original SFnal ideas both of them are throwing around like they possessed a never-emptying cornucopia of them; there is the multiple layering of their tales, which Delany often achieved by making his plots echo Greek mythology while Okorafor uses African myths and tradition (the Himba people Binti belongs to actually do exist, and they do use otjize) to add a resonance beyond the immediate story. But most of all, what both authors share is their sheer exuberance, the delight they take in their writing and their inventiveness and the joy they transmit to the reader. Not to be misunderstood – both Delany and Okorafor are quite unique in the way they write, and it would be impossible to mistake one for the other – Nnedi Okorofar is emphatically not anyone’s epigone but very much her own woman. And Binti will most certainly not be the last thing of her I have read. As it is both cheap and a short read, I strongly urge you to go out, buy and read it right away – trust me, you will thank me for it....more
One thing I like and admire about John Le Carré’s work is that he is not content to rest on his (by this, his tenth published novel, considerable) lauOne thing I like and admire about John Le Carré’s work is that he is not content to rest on his (by this, his tenth published novel, considerable) laurels, but time and again ventures out of his comfort zones into unexplored territory. The departure in The Little Drummer Girl is not quite as radical as it was in The Naive and Sentimental Lover where he left the thriller genre completely, but here we find him moving away not only from his protagonist George Smiley but also the Cold War setting where he seemed to have found his narrative home and instead turn his writerly attention to the Israeli-Palestine conflict instead.
Another thing I like and admire about John Le Carré’s novels (of which I have read ten now, mostly in chronological order; unfortunately my reading Smiley’s People fell in the middle of a writing slump, though, so there is no review by me on that) and in fact what I consider his main importance and greatest impact as a writer is the way he uses genre plots to tell a completely different story from the one he appears to be telling. He is often praised for his realism, and while I suppose his deptiction of the world of spies and spooks as one of intrigue and bureaucracy comes closer to what is actually going on in secret service than Ian Fleming’s James Bond, I do not think that realism is what makes him such an outstanding author. What fascinates me most about his novels are the things going on underneath the surface of the plot, whole caverns of glittering metaphor and dazzling allegories which Le Carré both hides and reveals by sleight of hand, making me think of him as the stage magician among British 20th century authors. Or maybe more a juggler than a magician (a title that, for various reasons, might be more appropriate to Christopher Priest – another author who manages to strike surprising literary sparks from genre flint) in the way he keeps not only a complicated, intrigue-filled plot in the air but also deep, fascinating character studies and the above mentioned allegorical sub-texts with apparent ease and only very rarely dropping anything.
The Little Drummer Girl seems to split Le Carré’s reading public in those that think it one of his worst and those that consider it one of his best; interestingly, there appears to not much middle ground between the two positions. To not keep in anyone in suspension (I’m sure you’re all holding your breath right now) – I’m among the latter, and find myself having great difficulties to understand why this brilliant novel has attracted so much fervent dislike. One reason for it is probably precisely the novel’s unfamiliar setting, and I suspect that another might be another area where Le Carré here leaves his comfort zone, namely by making a female character the protagonist of this novel.
There is a persistent opinion that Le Carré cannot write female characters – something I personally think he conclusively refuted with Maria Ostrokova in Smiley’s People and now does again with Charlie, the titular protagonist of The Little Drummer Girl. One does sense the effort he put into getting the female perspective right (in fact, one maybe senses it just a bit too much – I am certain that for this novel Le Carré researched the female experience just as thoroughly and meticulously as he did the Isreali-Palestinian conflict) and I think he largely succeeded, making her one of his most fascinating characters and her increasingly despairing descent into confusion about what her real feelings are and who she really is both compelling and harrowing to read.
Even with those differences from most of his previous work, The Little Drummer Girl is on one, and the most immediately accessible, level a story of espionage; and that the opposing sides are not Great Britain and the Soviet Union but rather Israel and Palestine serves only to make ethical matters even more gray and doubtful – in Cold War stories, however much they might show morals as irretrievably muddled, there still is a firm underlying certainty that capitalism and freedom is preferable to communism and dictatorship. Nothing of the kind in this conflict – Le Carré takes great pain to present arguments for and against both sides of the conflict, to show the suffering as well as the ruthlessness of both Israelis and Palestinians. Readers who before reading The Little Drummer Girl were inclined towards one side or the other might find that – at least if they keep an open mind – by the end of the novel they have lost many of their certainties regarding it.
This is certainly what happens to Charlie, except in a much more radical way. She is emphatically left-wing and pro-Palestinian at the novel’s beginning; but she is also an actress, and from the start there is a slight but pervasive doubt whether her political convictions are truly felt or just a role she assumes. While there is a multitude of characters and viewpoints, Charlie is clearly at the centre of the novel: the whole plot revolves ultimately around her, she is both seduced and seducer, victim to as well as spinner of the intrigues that drive the novel forward. But in a way that centre is empty, or rather indeterminate, a kind of epistemological smear.
Charlie is an actress, so her identity is somewhat uncertain to start with, always dissolving into the roles she plays or has played, which she in turn makes vivid by infusing them with her own personality. She falls in love during a vacation in Greece, unaware that the man she finds herself attracted to is a member of the Israeli secret service which has plans for her. She is to help finding a Palestinian terrorist the Israeli are after, by posing as the fictitious lover of his brother. But while Charlie never met the brother, and the story is a hence a fake, she has met and fallen in love with the Israeli agent who poses as said brother, and hence the story is true. I do not want to go into too much detail here to not spoil the deft and clever ways in which Le Carré spins his intrigues, but it soon becomes obvious that the true focus of The Little Drummer Girl is (not really surprisingly) not so much te espionage story but rather the way the reality and fiction spin around each other in dizzying tempo until they blur into each other and finally become pretty much indistinguishable. Between her fictitious lover and her real one, her political convictions and the acts of espionage that directly contradict those, between her memories and the fake documents of her life the Israeli secret services produces Charlie finds it harder and not only to distinguish between outside reality and fiction but feels any certainties about her inner life slipping away from her, too, until she know hardly any more what she really feels and who she really is.
All of this is orchestrated by Le Carré in a manner that not only keeps the reader engaged but also involves him to some part – the great number of narrative points of view, the large personnel and the opaque intrigues, small details like that most characters in this novel have more than one name add up to keep readers not only on the edges of their seats but also themselves on the edge of confusion and while that confusion obviously never becomes as existential as Charlie’s, it does make it palpable to some degree, hopefully pushing readers to give some thought about the matters of reality and identity The Little Drummer Girl chiefly is about underneath its surface – as well as about the way those matters relate back into the political conflict which fuels the surface the plot (and of course they do relate back, in a multitude of ways)....more
I am not sure whether Denton Welch ever was widely read, but these days he seems to be mostly forgotten; most people (like myself, until recently) proI am not sure whether Denton Welch ever was widely read, but these days he seems to be mostly forgotten; most people (like myself, until recently) probably only know him by way of William Burroughs who called him an influence and dedicated The Place of Dead Roads to him. Welch died young (at Age 33 in 1948) and only wrote three novels of which Maiden Voyage is the first. Small British publisher Galley Beggar Press gratefully has re-released all three of them as affordable (if somewhat sloppily proofread) e-books and this is how Denton Welch ended up being more than a vaguely familiar name to me and became an author I have actually read – and, as it turned out, enjoyed rather a lot.
Maiden Voyage is a comparatively slim novel and a rather strange one. It is either a novel passing itself off as autobiography or autobiography masquerading as novel, or, most likely, a bit of both. Which was not all that unusual even though back in 1943 when the novel was first published nobody had heard of auto-fiction yet. What does make Maiden Voyage stand out is first all of its language, the way Welch observes and describes people, objects and landscapes – he has an infallible eye for the significant detail, capturing everything his gaze comes to rest on just so and then rendering it in a languid, dreamy way which drapes it in an aura of the fantastical.
Welch’s sentences are short and to the point, but possess a certain unearthly quality, a faint but persistent sense of irreality: There is a hallucinatory atmosphere pervading all of this novel, almost as if the narrator was running a fever that does not quite make it to the surface but still informs and distorts all of his perceptions, the effect reminding me somewhat of a gentle, mild-mannered Raskolnikov.
While it is a more (virtual) 264 pages long, Maiden Voyage feels like a much longer novel – not because it felt boring (which it emphatically did not) but because there is so much in it, such an immense wealth of observation and perception. I assume that the novel is based on journal entries which have been polished until they attained their peculiar, eerie shine and then placed into a rudimentary narrative framework whose sole purpose is to show them off to best effect. In consequence, not much really happens in the novel (the adolescent protagonist – called, of course “Denton” – making a rather clumsy attempt to run from school, then spending some time in Shanghai is pretty much the extent of the plot, if you even want to call it that) but I never felt the lack as I was strolling from precious miniature to striking vignette, as the glittering array of finely wrought showpieces kept my interest alive throughout.
Maiden Voyage is a novel which eschews anything grand and ostentatious, instead opting for the minute and seemingly insignificant, the small, tiny things which so often go by unnoticed. While the narrator’s feverishness imbues everything with an air of unreality, it also enhances his receptiveness, makes him more susceptible to even the slightest sensory impressions (and as different as the reading experience for both authors is, there is a certain resemblance to Marcel Proust concealed in this fever-induced hyper-sensitivity). Relinquishing his full attention to apparently trivial and trifling things and incidents, the narrator’s heightened perception traces their shape and texture to finally catch in each of them just that detail which makes them shine, solidifying their impact by rarefying their reality as he holds it up for our inspection bathed in the light of his febrile imagination – turns them into something magical for our wonder and delight....more
Fool's Assassin ended with quite a cliffhanger, and Fool’s Quest, the second volume in Robin Hobb's trilogy Fitz and the Fool, picks up immediatelyFool's Assassin ended with quite a cliffhanger, and Fool’s Quest, the second volume in Robin Hobb's trilogy Fitz and the Fool, picks up immediately after that, at least on Fitz’ side. It lets readers hang for a bit longer until they find out how Bee is faring, and in fact we generally get a lot less of Bee than we did in the previous novel. Some readers will likely be glad to hear that as they did not like her much and were irritated at a second voice intruding in a Fitz novel, but for my part I rather like her parts of the story both in Fool’s Assassin and in Fool’s Quest – in the last volume it provided a fascinating shift of perspective to see Fitz from a different perspective as he appears to others rather than how he views himself, and in general I think she is a very interesting in her own right – and, considering she also is a White Prophet, her chapters are likely the closest we are ever going to get to an inside view on the way the Fool views the world.
In a reversal of the first novel, we get less of Bee and more of the Fool this time (and this reversal is mirrored in the way the Fool, though mostly absent in Fool’s Assassin, is much thought of and talked about; the same thing happens with Bee in the Fool’s Quest which makes me thing that it is actually an intentional structuring element, making the first two novels in the trilogy echo each other), but it is not quite the Fool we know – he is a broken man when the novel opens, blind and terrified and apparently dying. The moments between Fitz and the ailing Fool are among the most touching Hobb has written and were cause for me reaching for tissues on more than one occasion. And it is not only the Fool who has changed – even more than in Fool’s Assassin it becomes clear to what degree Fitz has changed too, becoming a much maturer man than he was in The Tawny Man, not even to mention the early Farseer trilogy. This reflects somewhat in the speed of the novel itself – just as Fitz is no longer someone who rushes headlong into things but takes time to plan and prepare, so the novel starts out slowly, taking its time to describe to describe the gradual re-approaching between Fitz and the Fool as well as Fitz settling down in Buckkeep.
There is a very strong sense of time passed here – somewhat paradoxically, particularly if you have read the earlier novels about Fitz not too long ago and still remember most of the details -, the amount of characters making a reappearance is staggering and gives the reader (if not necessary Fitz himself who can still be pretty thick on occasion with all his hard-earned maturity) a feeling for everything Fitz has accomplished in his life, culminating in a scene which is bound to have a huge emotional impact on every long-time reader of the series (yes, more groping for tissues on my part).
Starting about halfway through the novel (which is quite massive, with almost 800 pages) things begin to speed up and build towards a dramatic climax which then is followed by a kind of epilogue with even more familiar faces showing up (mostly from The Liveship Traders and the Rain Wild Chronicles this time), and Fool’s Quest ends on a double cliffhanger (the only thing that seriously annoyed me about the novel because I can’t stand cliffhangers and think there should be a law against them).
I do not want to go deeply into matters here as the novel is a fairly recent release and I wish to avoid spoilers but it should at least be mentioned that there is a strong thematic current running through Fool’s Quest, strong enough, in fact, to occasionally threaten to sweep the novel away and drag it under. That is theme is violence – something which is of course all-pervasive in Epic Fantasy, but I don’t think there are many novels in the genre which have given the subject such a thorough and conscious treatment as Fool’s Quest. Both Fitz and the Fool have been victims torture and it has scarred both of them for life – internally much more than externally, in the way they seek to impose violence upon others in turn. Hobb shows how often physical power makes right and paints gut-wrenching scenes of what it means to be subject to that power, most notably in the way women are constantly exposed to male aggression. She does get somewhat heavy-handed on occasion (in particular in her treatment of rape) but overall I think the novel very impressive in that it takes something which is often just taken for granted in Epic Fantasy, namely the way it tends to show violence as the solution to every problem, examines it closely and puts its ubiquity into question. In the process of that examination I thought she did come dangerously close to appear to advocate vigilante justice in a couple of places, but I think those passages are more about showing how violence perpetuates itself in everyone it touches, generating destructive impulses even in its victims who end up calling for more violence and more people to be hurt.
On previous occasion I have been suspecting that Robin Hobb is not that much interested in traditional Epic Fantasy any more – in Fool’s Quest, I think she has found a way to channel her misgivings about the genre and turn them creatively into an Epic Fantasy novel which is also a perspicacious criticism of Epic Fantasy. Needless to say, I’m eagerly anticipating the final volume of the trilogy which can’t be released soon enough for me (and not just because of the bloody cliffhangers)....more
The third book of V.S. Naipaul on India, written 26 years after the first one in 1962 and 13 after the second in 1975, again shifts its writing premisThe third book of V.S. Naipaul on India, written 26 years after the first one in 1962 and 13 after the second in 1975, again shifts its writing premises and tackles its subject with a distinctly different approach from the other two books: While those had held up India to some kind of standard and measured it against that (the reality usually falling spectacularly short), India: A Milltion Mutinies Now attempts to take India entirely on its own terms, to not present it as viewed from the distance of an observer or analyst but to let it speak for itself, in its own words. And quite literally so: Most of this book consists of interviews Naipaul led with a large variety of people he met while travelling. There still are passages of anecdotes and descriptions like in An Area of Darkness or of analysis like in India: A Wounded Civilization. V.S. Naipaul, but the bulk of of India: A Milltion Mutinies Now simply consists of people talking to Naipaul.
And of course it is not as simple as that: Immediacy is something hard to achieve and Naipaul, being the perceptive and scrupulous writer that he is, knows that very well, never forgetting to remind us that most of the interviews he presents us with have been filtered through translation. He constantly mentions and name-drops his translators until one gets the feeling that he is surrounded by them like a shark by pilot fish. Or maybe rather a turtle than a shark, for as has been often remarked, India: A Million Mutinies Now is not as biting in its criticism as the earlier books, seems even mellow in comparison. Personally, though, I think that first appearances are a bit deceptive here – a lot of this seeming mellowness is owed to the basic decision of presenting India and its people in their own words, and Naipaul hence chosing to let his interview partners destroy themselves rather than taking them apart by his commentary. He frequently shows that he can be as trenchant and incisive (not to mention nasty) as ever; and one cannot help but wonder whether the hopeful view of India’s future is really his or that of the people he interviews. Naipaul certainly perceives India in 1988 as a country in unrest and motion (the “million mutinies” of the title), seething with conflict and potentialities, but for my part I would be hesitant to say just how optimistic he really is about where this may lead for India’s future.
In any case, this is also is the by far longest of the three books, and at the same the most tightly structured: Each of its parts has its emphasis an a particular group or juxtaposition of groups (Sena, brahmin / anti-brahmin, scientists, boxwallah / Maoists, Sikh) each of which is located in a particular region centered around a city (Bombay, Goa, Bangalore, Madras, Calcutta, Chandigarh). And the latter is not just contingent, but touches an essential of those groups and the people that speak for them in this book – India: A Million Mutinies Now is as much a book about space as it is about people. About real as well as symbolical space and particularly the ways in which they intersect, as in the case of the high Sena official who prefers living in a small worker’s tenement because it puts him in contact with other people while a bourgeois apartment leaves him isolated. Again and again Naipaul emphasises the way architecture and spatial environment shape and influence social space, the people who live in an area, and again and again Naipaul returns to the cramped living conditions, many people sharing a small space, something that can be both a blessing and a curse: “He would show both places to me later from the roof terrace: the drama of small spaces and short distances, the settings themselves always accessible afterwards, never really out of sight, and perhaps for this reason cleansed (like stage sets) of the emotions they had once held.” The Indian people are defined by the spaces they grew up and live in, whether they confine themselves within them, try to break free of them or attempt to change them.
All of this fits together so very neatly that it immediately raises suspicion, and I believe is intended to: Paradoxically, this most experience-saturated and immediate of Naipaul’s books on India is also the most literary; and just by the way he has arranged his material, the author never lets us forget that this is not a simple reporting of facts but has been filtered and transformed into a work of art – the formal equivalent to the cloud of translators surrounding Naipaul on his forages into Indian life, both indicating a distance between Naipaul (and the reader) and his material, Entfremdung as well as Verfremdung, alienation both as being a stranger in a strange land as well as literary distancing technique.
In the final chapter of the book, Naipaul becomes his own tourist attraction when he returns to the hotel in Kashmir where he stayed for several months in 1962 and which he wrote about extensively in An Area of Darkness. His second visit is both nostalgic and merciless, the sepia colouring of memory never quite glossing over the continued disparagement of the people he encounters, nor the keen awareness of his own ridiculousness in these surroundings, among those people If this was a novel, it would be a metafictional twist, but with this being a travel book one has to wonder if there might be such a thing as meta-non-fiction and whether Naipaul may not have invented it. Whatever you want to call it, it marks the brilliant conclusion to a brilliant trilogy of travel books which deserve to be read as such even if one has no interest for their subject matter....more