Saturday, May 30, 2020

God is Red: A Native View of Religion by Vine Deloria Jr.

American Indians and other tribal peoples did not take this path in interpreting revelations and religious experiences. The structure of their religious traditions is taken directly from the world around them, from their relationships with other forms of life. Context is therefore all-important for both practice and the understanding of reality. The places where revelations were experienced and remembered and set aside as locations where, through rituals and ceremonials, the people could one again communicate with the spirits. Thousands of years of occupancy on their lands taught tribal peoples the sacred landscapes for which they were responsible and gradually the structure of ceremonial reality became clear. It was not what people believed to be true that was important but what they experienced as true. Hence revelation was seen as a continuous process of adjustment to the natural surroundings and not as a specific message valid for all times and places.

Vine Deloria's influential comparison of Native American religions and Western Christianity begins by making a really fundamental and thoughtful distinction between religions of space and religions of time. Christianity, in Deloria's description, is a time-obsessed religion, articulated as a historical progress beginning with creation, moving through the fall, the crucifixion, and looking forward to Christ's return. Native American religions, on the other hand, are largely religions of space: they describe a particular relationship between a community and a place, and for their ceremonies to be fully articulated they cannot be severed from the place they describe.

God is Red is perhaps harsher than any book I've ever read toward Christianity. It's Christianity's time-orientation, Deloria says, that has made it the engine of colonialism and imperialism: the forced conversion of indigenous people is part of God's temporal design, and their subjugation a sign of progress toward Christianity's ultimate eschatological goals. Furthermore, that time-orientation has led Christianity to believe that its message is universal, and cut it off from its context as a religion particular to a community in the Ancient Near East.

It's hard to disagree with Deloria's sober assessment of Christianity as a force in the world. Most of the social ills of the past millennium, at least, are tied up with Christianity: imperialism, colonialism, slavery, racism, you name it. How can you argue with someone who looks at the state of the world and decides Christianity has failed it? The only real response to this, I think, is to note that there is a version of Christianity practiced throughout the Global South that is directly opposed to these forces. Deloria would say, well, where are these Christians in history? But that's the nature of power--it's visible in ways the powerless simply aren't. But you can hardly quibble with Deloria here; if more people in North America, at least, were honest assessors of the state of things, more people would probably see it his way than mine.

What I actually wanted more of from God is Red was a systematic, positive case for Native religions, but to the extent that Deloria does this, it's dwarfed by the criticisms of Western Christianity by at least two to one. That's in the nature of Deloria's argument, perhaps: because the indigenous religions of the Americas are community-oriented, it makes little sense to advocate for them; these religions have no missionaries and admit no converts. Native religion, Deloria says, flies in the face of our Eurocentric notions of what a religion even is: not a system of beliefs but a lived national, tribal, or communitarian experience. It's not enough to put a dreamcatcher in your window, or step into a sweat lodge. While that's certainly correct, Deloria leaves a lot of really pressing questions unaddressed, I think. For example, it seems clear that sacred Native spaces across the Americas need protecting because they are so crucial--and in some cases, equivalent--with Native religions. But how can a religion like that ever survive in an increasingly global world? If Christianity is to be abandoned in favor of religions that are national or ethnic in character, how can White Americans do this without resorting to literal white nationalism?

The weirdest thing about God is Red is that Deloria spends much of the book advocating for pseudoscience. The roots of Middle Eastern religions, he speculates, are probably ancient aliens, and the events of the Old Testament are probably reflections of ancient cosmic disasters. In this he relies on the work of Immanuel Velikovsky, a notorious but popular crackpot, one of those guys whose dismissal by fields of real scientists becomes part of his own legend. But in a weird way, Deloria's need to find Christianity's historical roots seems to me like a desire to make it cohere to the role he's assigned it, and to square his frustration with the ways in which Christianity can actually be ahistorical. Mostly, the attention to bad science undermines what's most captivating and thoughtful about the book: its vigorous defense of a religious outlook that's been ignored, undermined, and systematically oppressed for hundreds of years.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum

It's just a silly fairy tale that says hotel chambermaids spy through keyholes. Hotel chambermaids have no interest whatsoever in the people behind the keyholes. Hotel chambermaids have a lot to do and are tired out, and they are all a little disillusioned, and besides they are entirely occupied with their own affairs. Nobody bothers about anybody else in a big hotel. Everybody is alone with himself in this great pub that Doctor Otternschlag not inaptly compared with life in general. Everyone lives behind double doors and has no companion but his reflection in the mirror or his shadow on the wall. People brush past one another in the passages, say good morning or good evening in the Lounge, sometimes even enter into a brief conversation painfully raked together out of the barren topics of the day. A glance at another doesn't go as far up as the eyes. It stops at his clothes. Perhaps it happens that a dance in the Yellow Pavilion brings two bodies into contact. Perhaps someone steals out of his room into another's. That is all. Behind it lies an abyss of loneliness.

Remember hotels? They were strange places: little approximations of home, crowded with people. In the ones I remember best every room opened onto a hallway overlooking a tremendous corridor, so you could look down and see all the other guests walking about. They were designed to give you the impression that all kinds of human interactions might take place there, though they rarely did; for the most part, even if you dined in the restaurant or went to the overpriced bar, you ended up keeping to yourself.

Vicki Baum's Grand Hotel is a story about several strangers at Berlin's fanciest hotel who really do end up colliding, in a way, and changing each other's lives. There's Doctor Otternschlag, a World War I doctor whose face is half-ravaged by an enemy shell; Herr Preysing, a middle manager at a linen company desperate to salvage a big merger; Grusinskaya, a still-beautiful but sort of washed up ballet dancer whose inability to excite audiences drives her to thoughts of suicide; Baron Gaigern, a dashing burglar who has designs on Grusinskaya's pearls, and then herself; and Otto Kringelein, a low level functionary in Preysing's linen company who has just discovered he has only weeks to live, and has decided to cash in everything he owns and live his final moments in style.

Though the cynical, morose Otternschlag is the hotel's--and the novel's--conscience, it's Kringelein who is the novel's heart. Poor and working class, he's come to the Grand Hotel because he knows Preysing frequents it, and although he hates Preysing for what he represents, he also represents Kringelein's only model for what it means to really live: to spend money like a comfortable bureaucrat. First Otternschlag, then Gaigern try to show Kringelein a good time--although Gaigern has his designs on Kringelein's money--and little by little he does begin, at last, to live. He rides in a speeding automobile; he flies in a plane; he watches a boxing match--but most importantly, he finds the courage at last to tell of Preysing, the petit bourgeois manager who doesn't even recognize him in the hallway. The Grand Hotel is the dream of the fruits of labor, and only when it's been exposed can Kringelein actually seize what makes him live: a measure of independence from the soul-crushing constraints of capitalist exploitation.

Grand Hotel struck me as the obverse of Borumil Hrabal's I Served the King of England, which focuses on service industry workers, rather than consumers, in the same period of European history. Baum gives brief, but sharp, images of the various porters and chambermaids who live in constancy while the revolving doors of the hotel turn, but mostly it's interested in the possibility that the hotel presents for change. Each of her protagonists, she notes toward the end, leaves the hotel in a condition opposite to the one in which they entered--Grusinskaya rejuvenated, Preysing humiliated, Kringelein ennobled. On the other hand Doctor Otternschlag, who asks every day at the desk whether a letter has arrived for him, never leaves. But the Grand Hotel is a place where lives are transformed, and as such its an interesting symbol for the Weimar Republic in which its set, whose transformation--Baum couldn't have known when she wrote it--turned pretty sour indeed. Leaving that aside, the novel, like the hotel, is filled with captivating and empathetic human lives that play out their little dramas, and then depart.

Monday, May 25, 2020

My Life in CIA by Harry Mathews

I'd known what she would say, and I hated hearing her say it. At 41 I still longed to be thought of as open and good, to seem wonderfully transparent (and transparently wonderful, no doubt). It hurt to be thought of as a spook. Not because by that time it had become shameful but because it was simply wrong.

I had gone through something like this already. Many people in Paris "knew" I was gay, because for years I used to dine several times a week with my best friend, and he was gay. QED. I didn't disapprove of homosexuality, on the contrary; but how could people see me for whoever I was if they made such a basic mistake?

My Life in CIA is Harry Mathews' memoir, ostensibly, of a period in his life in which people believed he was an American intelligence agent working in Paris. God only knows if the real Mathews ever experienced anything like this, but if he did, it certainly didn't play out the way it happens in the novel, though its verisimilitude is bolstered with real friends of Mathews' like the French writer Georges Perec. As Mathews tells it, the rumor came out of his time spent in Laos with a friend who was an American ambassador there, and at first he claims that it caused him shame and consternation, until a friend recommended that he lean into it and make a game out of it.

For Mathews, who was associated with the formalist French literary school Oulipo, complicated "games" are what life and literature are all about, and he goes about this game in a particularly Oulipo way. Recognizing that any real CIA agent would have a job, he starts an ersatz travel company; his first job is to give a speech to group of men who have "travel-stress dyslexia" that make catching planes and trains difficult. He suggests only traveling at times that are palindromes, seeding his explanations with train times to remote Siberian nuclear sites--train times, palindromes, that's the Oulipo stuff, though here it seems rather tame compared to the complex wordplay of a novel like The Sinking of Odradek Stadium.

Anyone can see where My Life in CIA is headed, the same place that a couple dozen more straight-faced books and films head, too: Mathews gets mixed up with the real CIA, real Communists, real right-wing agitators, and eventually gets in over his head. The setup promises hijinks, and delivers: at one point Mathews is rolled up nude in a priceless Persian rug and delivered by coincidence to a banquet of violent right-wingers. At the dinner they discover he's a poet and make him play silly poetry games that force him, quite gleefully, to rhyme "jonquil" with "tronquil." It's extremely goofy. Right after that he makes love to a little person.

Women and sex are another element of the game here: Mathews' depiction of himself is a sort of James Bond-like womanizer, irresistible to women. The little person is one, but there are a half dozen other women clamoring for him, too; and three of them are named Marie-Claude. One of them, who induces Mathews into the mysteries of touchless tantric sex, has the hilarious name of "Marie-Claude Quintelpreaux," which is a very good COINTELPRO joke that I felt very smug for getting. The joke Mathews plays on himself is that, even though he has the seductive quality of a good literary spy, every single attempt made at actual fucking in the book is interrupted. That's how you end up naked in a rug.

At the heart of My Life in CIA are questions of identity: if enough people say Mathews is CIA, could that make him actually CIA? The novel is set during in the early 70's, in the hangover left by the 60's counterculture and by Vietnam, and the CIA is up to no good, getting mixed up, among other things, with Pinochet's coup d'etat in Chile. Though Mathews isn't really a CIA agent, the rise of Pinochet makes him feel guiltily implicated, and the real life bounty on his head threatens to collapse his false identity and the real one.

My Life in CIA is a lot of fun, but something about it made me feel like it could never be as fun for the reader as it is for Mathews, or maybe for poor mixed-up George Perec. There's promise in Mathews' desire to play with his own real world identity, to blur the lines of novel and memoir, but it's not like he's someone whose public persona ever mattered much in the first place, so as a postmodern experience the novel falls a little flat. But I enjoyed it all the same.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer

What did I come here for? Why did I walk, in the spring, along a mile of pavement? Do I want a bed rest, a barbecue, a clock like a plate or a satin stole or a pepper mill or a dozen Irish linen tea towels, printed, most beautifully, with the months of the year? April brings the primrose sweet, scatters daisies at our feet. I am beginning to cry. I stand in the bloody great linen department and cry and cry quite soundlessly, sprinkling the stiff cloths with extraordinarly large tears. Oh, what has happened to you, Mrs. Enterprise, dear? Are your productions limited, your trusts faithless, and what of the company you keep? Think of all those lovely children, dear, and don't cry as the world turns round holding you on its shoulder like a mouse.

We take for granted, I think, the idea that a purely domestic life can be stifling for women. The idea has its opposers and malcontents, who are powerful and numerous, and in practice we still reject it in a thousand ways, but at the very least no one is surprised to hear someone articulate the idea that a life consisting of only childbirth and child-raising could not be enough for a woman. Penelope Mortimer's The Pumpkin Eater seems at once like a message from another world, where such thoughts were so inconceivable as to be inarticulable--but there are moments, too, where it feels like a message from just yesterday.

The novel opens with the narrator, known only as "Mrs. Armitage," talking to a psychiatrist about her home life, as they try to get at the root of her depression. She is on her third marriage and her umpteenth child; there are so many children, in fact, that Mortimer never tells us how many, describing them as a barely individuated mob of wants, needs, and complications. Her husband, a successful screenwriter, is an inveterate cheat, and her accounts of his evasions and cruelties are beyond infuriating. Mrs. Armitage is articulate, even poetic--this is a novel with at least three or four perfect sentences, which is saying a lot, I think--but vacillating and abstract; though it is clear her malaise is the result of the strangling nature of a woman's family life there are no summative speeches or a-ha epiphanies that let her, or us, understand its precise workings. Her husband Jake--he gets a first name--is also vacillating and abstract, but in a way that casts the burden on her to understand. Her sadness is her own to justify, but so are his roving affections.

Mrs. Armitage has everything a woman is supposed to want: a husband, money, children. A woman sees her picture in the newspaper with all her children, and writes to her, begging her to solve a discontent that is nearly identical to her own. Mrs. Armitage imagines writing back:

Dear Mrs. Evans, my friend. Dear Ms. Evans, for God's sake come and teach me how to live. It's not that I've forgotten. It's that I never knew. A womb isn't all that important. It's only the seat of life, something that drags the moon down from the sky like a kite and draws the sea in and out, in and out, the world's breathing. At school the word "womb" used to make them snigger. Women aren't important.

The Pumpkin Eater is a hard sell: I can think of a dozen novels that tell similar stories in ways that are mostly dreary and realistic. Even Joan Silber's terrific Household Words struggles, I think, to make these narrative seem fresh, even as they remain badly needed. But The Pumpkin Eater dazzles because of its weirder symbolic elements: the nameless children, for one, and a glass tower that she and her husband have been building in the English countryside. For most of the novel it stands as a symbol for a life just out of their reach, a life that will be possible after the next child, or after her sterilization and no more children. In the end she ends up, after a final breakdown, escaping there alone, only to watch from a window as, like Macbeth sieged in his castle, her horde of children walks over the hill to come and claim her. It's tragic, frightening, dispiriting; the whole book is a cry of despair without any kind of political program or hope of resolution.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

A Mixture of Frailties by Robertson Davies

"The terrible truth is that feeling really does have to be learned. It comes spontaneously when one is in love, or when somebody important dies; but people like you and me--interpretive artists--have to learn also to recapture those feelings, and transform them into something we can offer the world in our performances. You know what Heine says--and if you don't I won't scold you: 'Out of my great sorrows I make little songs.' Well--we all do that. And what we make out of the feelings life brings us is something a little different, something not quite so shattering but very much more polished and perhaps also more poignant, than the feelings themselves. Your jealousy--it hurts now, but if you are as good an artist as I begin to think you are, you'll never have to guess at what jealousy means again, when you meet it with music."

A Mixture of Frailties is the third book in Davies' Salterton trilogy, and it's so tenuously connected to those others, it sort of seems like a cheat: it begins with the death of the mother of Solly Bridgetower--who's the protagonist of Leaven of Malice, if not also the ensemble novel Tempest-Tost--who leaves Solly and his wife Veronica a substantial trust which they cannot use until Veronica bears a son. The "dead hand" of Solly's mother decrees that, until that happens, all the money will be used to finance the artistic education of a local girl in Europe. The trustees scramble to find the right beneficiary, settling with some hurry and trepidation on a girl named Monica Gall, who is a singer in a local evangelical choir. Monica is sent to Europe to become a polished singer--but mostly to satisfy the cumbersome demands of the trust--and A Mixture of Frailties is the story of her growth as an artist and a person while in London.

A Mixture of Frailties has all those qualities which make a Davies novel seem so antiquated, but in a good way, like intellectual comfort food. Every character is an artistic genius, and everyone seems to have a readymade speech about the importance of art or music or high culture, and they never flub the quotations. Part of what makes A Mixture of Frailties so anachronistic in particular is that it really does believe in the value of high culture, of opera and classical music and all that. Monica's musical guide, the composer Benedict Domdaniel, sends her not just to voice lessons but to French lessons, Spanish lessons, musical culture and history lessons, and through this process of refinement Monica learns to connect with her own moral sense, and extricate it from the earnest but simple evangelicalism of her Canadian mother and father. (This is one of those Canadian books where the cultural gap between Britain and the "Dominions" is very important.) Music, as articulated by Domdaniel and others, offers a way of meeting and understanding one's feelings and transforming them into moral judgment. It's through music that Monica must meet her feelings of inadequacy and her raging love for her cultural teacher, Giles Revelstoke.

Giles is the chaotic element in the novel, Davies' version of a dissolute musical genius. (Who is the archetype I'm trying to think of here? There must be a musical equivalent, but what Giles reminds me of most is the brilliant, selfish, womanizing Percy Shelley.) Monica falls in love with him, even though he treats her like dirt, and justifies it to herself by acknowledging with a newly developed clarity that he's treating her like dirt. She filches from the trust to fund his groundbreaking opera, The Golden Asse. The golden ass, of course is not Giles, who is an ass, but Monica, who undergoes her own transformation over the course of the novel. The problem is, of course, that when you change and succeed other people want to take credit, and Giles lashes out cruelly at Monica as his own creation. Though a brilliant composer, Giles is wrong: music, as Domdaniel supposes, has only given Monica the ability to be herself.

Funnily, A Mixture of Frailties doesn't quite have the same balance between the serious and comic that the other two novels in the trilogy do. It seems more of a piece, honestly, with the Deptford novels, which are also about Canadians exploring Europe, developing their own sensibility for high culture and religious mystery. But like all Davies' novels, it's a highly satisfying book, sensible enough to offer a story of spiritual and moral growth but also a climax of gothic, plotty proportions, like the showstopping number at the end of an opera.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Deacon King Kong by James McBride

He could smell it, feel it coming, and it was big, whatever it was.  The Cause was changing, he could see the transformation everywhere. It was 1969; the New York Mets, once the laughingstock of Major League Baseball, would win the World Series in a week.  America had landed a man on the moon in July, and the Cause was falling apart.  1969.  I’m gonna call it, he thought bitterly.  This is the year the Cause falls to bits.  He could see the disintegration:  old black tenants who had come to New York from the South decades ago were retiring or moving out to Queens; the loveable old drunks, bums, shoplifters, prostitutes, low-level harmless habitual criminals who had once brought him laughs and even solace in his long days as a patrolman and detective, were going, going, and soon to be gone, moving away, dying, disappearing, locked up.   Young girls who had once waved at him had matured into unwed drug-addict mothers. A few had fallen into prostitution.  Kids who used to joke with him on the way home from school as he patrolled in his car, pulling out trombones from instrument cases and blasting horrible music at his cruiser as it rolled past while he laughed, had vanished – the city was cutting music from the schools someone said.  Kids who had once bragged about their baseball games had become sullen and silent, the baseball fields empty.  Just about every young kid who had once waved now walked the other way when his cruiser appeared.

Deacon King Kong is a darkly comic and romantic tale of life in a New York Housing project fifty years ago.  It is alternately grim and laugh-out-loud funny, looking back at some golden age that the reader understands may not have existed.  Its tone is generally nostalgic – which never yields realism.  However, McBride seems to want to grant the poor of this project the same gloss in looking back that the rest of America is allowed.  At the same time, as seen in the passage above, there is a consistently dark foreboding – we look back nostalgically at this time because it is ending and things are about to get much worse.

Deacon King Kong tells the story of Sportcoat, or Deacon Cuffy Lambkin – an alcoholic ne’er do well who lives in The Cause Houses (which are modelled very loosely on the Red Hook Houses that McBride grew up in and documented more realistically in his memoir The Color of Water) – as he attempts to reconcile with his late wife, help his church survive and redeem a local baseball phenom who has turned from pitching prospect to heroin dealer.  The key action, the event that the novel will rotate around takes place in the first paragraph:  Sportcoat’s shooting of Deems Clemens, the pitcher-turned-dealer, in broad daylight in front of a dozen witnesses.  Like much of the novel, this scene is comic:  Sportcoat is too drunk to shoot straight or remember shooting at all; the undercover cop who witnesses the shooting chooses to maintain his cover at the risk of Deems’ life, and – after shooting Deems in the ear – Sportcoat wrestles the wounded man to the ground in a move that simulates anal sex to those watching.  

Much of the comedy is that broad.  Sportcoat refuses to go into hiding because he doesn’t remember the shooting.  The police have trouble tracking down Sportcoat because he and his friend Hot Sausage have been using the same driver’s license on alternate weeks for years.  The hit man sent to get revenge on Sportcoat runs into a variety of Three-Stooges-like physical obstacles (he is hit by a flying brandy bottle and accidentally electrocuted, both injuries coming as he is about to get his man).  Sportcoat’s attempts to deal with the fallout of the shooting are repeatedly waylaid by his drinking.  

However, the final portrait is nuanced and loving rather than simply comic. Throughout the novel – starting in that first paragraph as he prepares to shoot Deems – Sportcoat is attempting to reconcile with his late wife Hettie, who committed suicide recently by walking into the harbor.  She appears to Sportcoat as a ghost and they continue arguments they have been having for thirty years.  The initial shooting is not simply comic.  For one thing, it is meant to redeem Deems, a former baseball phenom with a real shot at the pros, by stopping his shameful practice of dealing heroin.  It takes Sportcoat most of the novel to realize that he would rather see Deems dead than give up baseball for drugs – and that becomes a key realization in both their redemptions.  The shooting also interferes with the plan of one evil black drug lord to take over the territory of another evil white drug dealer – so it seems to stall the future that is bearing down on the Cause.  

Other characters are as romantic and lovingly portrayed as Sportcoat:  Potts, an honest white cop hoping to retire in a few weeks; The Elephant, a connected Italian gangster with a heart of gold, Hot Sausage, Sportcoat’s friend who works for the Housing Authority and is the only one who can keep electricity flowing in the dilapidated buildings; and Sister Gee, a key figure in the  the congregation of the Five Ways Church.  As I said, nicknames abound.  Sister Gee is the most well-developed female character.  Women in this world are the force of stability.  The Cause has survived until 1969, and will survive past the horrors to come, because these women will never give up and will survive.   In addition to the ramifications of the shooting, there is a subplot regarding recovery of a stolen art object – the Venus of Willendorf, an ancient fertility symbol that is actually in the museum of natural history in Vienna.

There is no one in this world who is purely good – everyone drinks too much or gambles too much or, paradoxically perhaps, prays too much for their own good.  However, there are a few characters who are purely evil.  The plot wanders over thirty years from the end of World War II to this moment when serious drugs are wreaking havoc in the old neighborhood.

McBride’s sympathy is for that old world – the black families that have roots in the South and the old Italians who have roots in the docks.  He casually portrays the wasteland left behind when the docks closed and destroys the notion that the north was some sort of promised land for African Americans coming up from Jim Crow without every getting specifically political.  This novel is a kind of comedic version of Clause Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land.  Everyone in The Cause is a hustler of some sort – working multiple jobs, often in a gray area between legal and illegal, but that hustling has allowed a kind of simple prosperity.  Everyone is poor, but there is little in the way of actual deprivation.  For example, here has been a monthly distribution of cheese – not the welfare cheese of later years, but of some kind of (unnamed) delicious, Italian, “White man’s” cheese – that has gone on for decades and while the plot reveals the original source of this bounty, the cheese should have stopped years ago and never has.  And there is plenty to drink.   Hot Sausage makes a bootleg whiskey known as King Kong and the book’s title is a reference to Sportcoat’s love of that drink.

However, there are dark forebodings everywhere.  Hard drugs have come to the Cause and with them the violence of drug dealers.  My understanding of the history of crime in NYC (admittedly incomplete) would suggest that the actual introduction of heroin to housing projects would have happened some 20 years earlier than 1969, but it is the before and after sense of a hinge moment that is important here.  The fiscal crisis is bearing down.  The old dock jobs are disappearing.  Crime is getting worse.  The Elephant is an old-time gangster – he stole without bothering anybody, refused to deal drugs, took care of his mother and avoided racial antagonisms.  The younger gangsters fighting for his territory are closer to psychopaths and their crews are fiercely competitive and violent (though sometimes comically so) while they threaten to chase church members from the valuable social real estate in the project’s central plaza.  

In the end, many of these old-timers decide that it is time to move on.  Sergeant Potts retires to Staten Island – and Sister Gee is last seen visiting him. The Elephant gets married and takes over a bagel bakery in the Bronx.  Deems returns to baseball. The church is saved.  Perhaps most importantly, Sportcoat realizes how much time he has wasted being drunk, sobers up and finally listens to his late wife, then  walks into the harbor to be with her.  This final act may seem like a suicide in my retelling, but in McBride’s hands it is a singular form of redemption, portrayed to make us realize what we lost as that generation passed on.

I have visited Red Hook and the Red Hook Houses regularly for years.  Few places in NY are better for seeing the results of deindustrialization as the rotting piers and warehouses are in many cases still rotting.  It is a neighborhood that was not given much time to recover from the crack epidemic before facing the ruinous forces of gentrification – with Hurricane Sandy coming in between.  There is great resilience there and the portrait of people hustling to do a little better than survive seems accurate.  The reality of the neighborhood may not be as funny as McBride has portrayed it, but even tough neighborhoods deserve the gloss of nostalgia now and then.

Monday, May 18, 2020

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

Who was she, the "I," that had loved? And Henry, who and what was he? A physical presence, threatened by time and death, and therefore the dearer for that factual menace? Or was his physical presence merely the palpable projection, the symbol, of something which might justly be called himself? Hidden away under the symbol of their corporeality, both in him and in her, doubtless lurked something which was themselves. But that self was hard to get at; obscured by the too familiar trappings of voice, name, appearance, occupation, circumstance, even the fleeting perception of self became blunted or confused. And there were many selves. She could never be the same self with him as when she was alone; and even that solitary self which she pursued, shifted, changed, melted away as she approached it, she could never drive it into a dark corner, and there, like a robber in the night, hold it by the throat against the wall, the hard core of self chased into a blind alley of refuge.

Henry Holland, Lord Slane, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Viceroy of India, has died. His vain and mercenary children, themselves quite old, are slavering about the possibility of inheriting his jewels and fretting about where his widow, Lady Slane will go. To their surprise and consternation she rejects their eminently reasonable proposal--to rotate between their households, like the seasons. She's decided, not reasonably, to live on her own in a house in the neighborhood of Hampstead she fell in love with decades ago.

In her new house at Hampstead, Deborah Holland, Lady Slane, lives with the company of other superannuated people: the cantankerous owner of the property Gervase Bucktrout, a humble carpenter named Mr. Gosheron, and a hermit-like art collector, FitzGeorge, who fell in love with her seventy years ago in India, and has now returned to resume a friendship that never really could be kindled. She forbids her great-grandchildren from visiting; she only wants the old, those who understand what she might be going through in her old age, taking on a final measure of independence at the end of her life, reflecting on the way her life has gone.

Lady Slane's life is, though marked by prestige, an exceedingly ordinary life. Though she once dreamed of being an artist, she repressed her own desires for the political ambitions of her husband, whom she married out of expectation. Sackville-West makes it clear that Lady Slane did love her husband and her children, but that this love has never been enough to fully overcome the way that English society is designed to subjugate women: "He merely killed you," FitzGeorge says to Lady Slane about her husband, "that's all. Men do kill women. Most women enjoy being killed; so I am told."

In a long dreamy midsection, Lady Slane imagines herself walking beside the girl she once was, wondering what her life might have become if she had been able to nurture that dream of being an artist. (It seems that she never even got a chance to put brush to paint--she may have been a gifted painter and maybe not, but Sackville-West wants us to see that she never even got past the seed of a dream!) Lady Slane is the embodiment of Virginia Woolf's thesis about women need a "room of one's own," and no wonder: Sackville-West and Woolf had a longstanding romance; Woolf based the protagonist of Orlando on her. Lady Slane hasn't been tortured or miserable, but who knows what she might have become if allowed?

It's no good for Sackville-West to be associated with Woolf; though her novels outsold Woolf's in their lifetime, Woolf's genius will always outshine Sackville-West's talent. Which is a shame, because All Passion Spent is a good novel, perceptive and funny, presenting both psychological complexity (in the reflections of Lady Slane) and broad social comedy (in the vapid selfish banter of her children). It seems tempting to see in its mere existence a confirmation of Lady Slane's experience: Sackville-West and Woolf both managed to wrench an artist's life away from the pressures of expectation, and while Woolf clearly proved to be the genius, there is a remarkable quality to the feat itself.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal

For thirty-five years now I've been in wastepaper, and it's my love story. For thirty-five years I've been compacting wastepaper and books, smearing myself with letters until I've come to look like my encyclopedias--and a good three tons of them I've compacted over the years. I am a jug filled with water both magic and plain; I have only to lean over and a stream of beautiful thoughts flows out of me. My education has been so unwitting I can't quite tell which of my thoughts come from me and which from books, but that's how I've stayed attuned to myself and the world around me for the past thirty-five years. Because when I read, I don't really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.

The narrator of Bohumil Hrabal's slim meditative novel Too Loud a Solitude has been working for thirty-five years us, as he tells us at the beginning of each chapter, in wastepaper. His job is to take old books and documents deposited through a hole in the ceiling of his cellar shop and crush them into bales for disposal. When he finds an old book, he reads through it first, perhaps taking it home, or perhaps placing it at the heart of a certain bale like a seed of precious unattended knowledge. Though he is a laborer, he's become infused with all the things he has read: Schopenhauer, the Talmud, Erasmus, Nietzsche. These things are not just contained within him, but are him--he is a "jug filled with water both magic and plain," in that lovely image.

Too Loud a Solitude is only 100 pages long, but it has the same kind of picaresque and unconnected quality as Hrabal's novel I Served the King of England. The episodes, remembered or immediate, have a precious and absurdist quality: there's the professor who digs through the wastepaper who thinks the wastepaper man, Hanta, is a different person when he sees him in the square from when he sees them in the cellar; the great bale-crusher Hanta contemplates in fear, John Henry like, that it will replace him. One of my favorite of Hanta's memory is about an old girlfriend who just, for some reason, can not stop accidentally appearing in public with errant poop on her ribbons or her shoes. A sweeter version of that story is about a beautiful Gypsy girl who appears on Hanta's doorstep and moves in without speaking, and who is eventually taken away and destroyed by Nazis.

In I Served the King of England, Nazism is a surprise; it happens to the narrator suddenly and perplexingly as perhaps it happened to Europe. Here, it's little more than subtext, but it frames Hanta's character in an intriguing way, I think. Is the destruction of Hanta's beloved works in the wastepaper baler meant to parallel the Nazi predilection for book burning? Is Hanta perhaps an image of the intellectual human spirit in which ideas thrive, even when books are destroyed? There is something, too, in the obvious contrast between Hanta's working class identity and his absorption of these great works, a collapse of our expectations about the working and intellectual classes. Hanta dreams that Jesus and Lao-Tzu are haunting his cellar; they become figures of the progressus ad futurum and the regressus ad originem, the march to the future and the return to the past. How do these competing conceptions of time and futurity capture the schizophrenia of Europe in the 20th century? I think there's a lot lurking beneath the surface here.

Too Loud a Solitude is one of those books that dismisses expectations about genre: is it realist or absurdist? Comedy or tragedy? A novel or a story? I always admire the confidence in books like this, that don't want to be anything than what they are. The worst thing you can say about Too Loud a Solitude, I think, is that it's over too soon.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Topeka School: A Novel: Lerner, Ben: 9780374277789: ...

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

The man-child, descendant of the jester and village idiot and John Clare, the poet roaming the countryside after enclosure.  The persistence of the mind of childhood – its plenitude and purposelessness – into the sexually mature body, which has succumbed to historical time, must log its hours.  The man-child represented a farcical form of freedom, magical thinking against the increasingly administered life of the young adult.  The teller of fantastic stories.  Almost every object in the man-child’s world reflected this suspension between realms:  his alcohol that was also soda, his weapons that were toys, how he might trade you two paper dollars for one of silver, valuing not credit so much as shine.  He had trouble managing his height or facial hair and when he injured actual children while demonstrating a wrestling move (clothesline, facehammer, DDT), it was a case of his “not knowing his own strength.”  He must, to fit the type, be not only male, but also white and able-bodied:  the perverted form of the empire’s privileged subject.  If he were a woman or a racialized or otherwise othered body, he would be in immediate mortal danger from sexual predators and police.  It was his similarity to the dominant that rendered him pathetic and a provocation:  the man-child was almost fit for school or work or service, could almost get his license, finally discard the dirt bike; too close to the norms to prove them by his difference, the real men – who are themselves in fact perpetual boys, since America is adolescence without end – had to differentiate themselves with violence…

Like his previous novel, 10:04The Topeka School is barely a novel, and like that previous book, that is not necessarily a criticism.  It narrates incidents in the life of a single family – Jonathan, and Jane – who work in a famous psychoanalytic institute in Topeka known simply as The Foundation – and their son Adam.  While the chapters are not in chronological order, they add up to the story of Adam’s coming of age – from a severe concussion when he is 11 through his high school social life, his career as a champion debater and on to his relationship and marriage to Natalia and his role as father to their two children.  Along the way, Jane befriends Sima,  another analyst, then loses that friendship when she becomes a best-selling author while Jonathan has an affair with Sima that nearly destroys the marriage.  To call this a plot is stretching the conventional definition of that term as the incidents are generally related by the various characters (the chapters have different narrators) after the fact.  These are psychologists and the precocious child of psychologists and their main activity is in analyzing themselves, often in the language of psychology.  The narratives are merely evidence of the analysis that interests them.

To the extent that there is an overarching plot, it concerns Darren, a learning-disabled teenager who had been teased and abused by his peers for years and is now being invited to participate in the round of late-senior-year parties for reasons that are cruel, ironic and kind in mixed degrees that Darren himself is unable to parse. Darren will turn every slight into evidence of inclusion in the group and, hungry for approval, act out the fantasies and tensions of the group in an act of violence that is disturbing even though it is thoroughly foreshadowed before it occurs.  Adam and Darren represent a pair of foils to each other as Adam is so celebrated for his intellect but struggles with his won equations of machismo and violence, pride and shame.

All of this narrative is at the service of a series of related themes that almost turn the text into an essay.  The thesis of this essay – that America’s political and social breakdown can be found in linguistic breakdowns that began a generation ago – is hammered home with relative frequency.  The variety of breakdowns in language is impressive:  Adam get’s concussive amnesia in a skateboard accident, he excels in one type of debate in which the point is to speak so quickly no one can follow your argument and in another in which the pretense of sincerity and truth are the keys to victory; he loses his ability to speak coherently at moments of key tension – as do Jonathan, Jane and Darren; his grandfather has not spoken in years – perhaps it is dementia, perhaps something else; his elderly cousin suffers from dementia and walks around her nursing home thinking she is the doctor and consulting with nurses and patients in a Russian none of them understands; the privileged white boys of his high school practice rapping in imitation of their black urban heroes while aping the body language they think of as hip hop and he and Jane have a cute childhood game that involves purposely misremembering the words of a nonsense poem.

Much of this breakdown in language is related to the breakdown in male roles.  The boys in Adam’s high school are unaccountably violent and there is more than one scene in which small violations of macho codes are punished with horrific beatings.  It is this impulse to balance your insecurities with violence that dooms Darren and one feels Adam skating along the edge of such violence throughout the text.  In the final chapter Adam has moved to NY and become a successful poet.  He is married to a Puerto Rican activist (whose brief affair while they were in college nearly cost him his sanity in an earlier chapter) and the father of two girls.  The narrative here centers on two encounters he has with bullying adults – one a finance type who won’t control his child in the playground and who successfully goads Adam into violence and the other a police officer who ludicrously picks on Adam’s daughter during a pro-immigration demonstration.  The incidents serve to let us know that the problems with communication among males relying on macho tropes to get through their day is no longer just an adolescent problem, but is now an adult problem.  There are references to Trump and the resurgence of white supremacy here that seem to locate the success of the current administration in the locker rooms (and debate stages) of Tacoma, Kansas.

While Jane is a major voice in the novel, she is analytically interesting but practically ineffectual.  She is victim of Adam’s belligerence and Jonathan’s betrayal.  There are few other female characters of note.  In the first chapter, Adam’s unnamed girlfriend takes a strong, if passive-aggressive stand against mansplaining, but the Amber who is dating him later in the novel (and seems to be the same person) is mostly a silent sexual partner.  His wife Natalia is deftly painted as strong, independent and outspoken in a few short lines, but the action leaves her behind pretty quickly – even as we suspect she is the future Lerner is hoping to nourish.  

There are gorgeous sentences throughout.  Lerner seems never to have encountered a vocabulary word he did not love, but here they give him a powerful tool way to analyze the inner thoughts of psychoanalysts using their own words.  In the passage above, Darren is de-humanized by the intellectual framework he is placed in, and that happens through out the novel with other characters.  However, those passages are often balanced by deeply felt moments when the same characters are fully human and deeply flawed.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

I had seen myself as a man in the hand of the Name--serving the king chosen to lead his people in this Land. But what kind of god could will this baseness, this treachery? What kind of nation could rise under such a leader? If David was a man after this god's own heart, as my inner voice had told me often and again, what kind of black-hearted deity held me in his grip?

King David is one of the Biblical era's most interesting characters. As Geraldine Brooks notes in her afterword to The Secret Chord, her novel of David's life, he's the first person in history for whom we have a recorded life from birth to death. Speaking from my own Christian perspective, David is remembered as the Psalmist--the composer of the beautiful songs that make up the book of Psalms. The other side of David--the warrior king, the rebel against Saul, the rebelled-against by his own son Absalom, the seducer of Bathsheba and killer of her husband Uriah--I remember mostly from Sunday School stories that never seemed as important or worth remembering as an adult.

But Brooks, whose reputation is one of the premier modern fiction writers of Jewish themes, brings back that complicated picture of David. Her David is not only complex, most of the time he just seems like a big piece of shit. The novel is told by the prophet Natan (an un-Anglicized version, as most of the names here are, of "Nathan"), one of David's closest advisors and the mouthpiece of the Jewish God, or "the Name," who has put David on the throne, and whom David has tasked with writing his autobiography. As Nathan tells it, David begins as a Jewish hero (the slayer of the Plishtim Goliath) beloved, then suspected, by King Shaul, who chases him into the desert and forces bloody conflict. David becomes a hero and a king by defeating Shaul, but the choices needed to bring the tribes of Israel together are bloody ones.

It seems like an old story: what is the barrier between our desire for power and our desire to use power for justice? How far is too far in the service of what we call a greater good? These are, if you'll allow me to say so, Game of Thrones questions, and if you squint, a lot of the head-rolling and sword-stabbing of The Secret Chord recalls those books. But David's iniquities don't stop with the necessary, as symbolized by his actions toward Batsheva, whom he lusts for after seeing her bathing on her roof, and her husband Uriah, whom David sends to his death to cover up his misdeed. There is no greater good in this scenario, only David's lust, weakness, and cruelty. This horrible act is repeated among David's sons, like Amnon, who rapes his own sister Tamar, and Avshalom, who rebels against David through his own desire for power--gruesome sins that serve only the most base human instincts.

OK, that's a little Game of Thrones-y too. But the interesting thing here is that, while David is punished sorely by the Name for what he does to Batsheva, God never removes his anointing, or his favor, from David. There's a familiarity to this for me; I had always heard the story of David and Bathsheba as an illustration of how God uses flawed people. But David isn't just flawed; Brooks' account reminds us that David can actually be monstrous, and yet the Name works through him even still, with the result that David's wise son Shlomo (Solomon) becomes the King of Israel.

One thing I liked about The Secret Chord is that much of its focus is on the women whose voices are largely absent in the Bible's account of David's life. Batsheva is one of these, who tells Natan pointedly that what David did to her was a rape. But in writing David's biography, Natan uncovers woman after woman who has been misused not just by David, but by the patriarchal demands of the Jewish political state. There's David's first wife Mikahl, forgotten, remarried, and then reclaimed from her loving husband to wither and suffer in a remote room of the palace. There's Tamar, raped and disfigured by Amnon. Even when not subject to physical abuse, women here find themselves little more than pawns in bloody male games. Combined with the novel's insistence on David's anointing, there's a forebidding and difficult tension here.

A shallow reading might be something like, yes, abuse is bad, but we must ignore it so that our political ends are met. (You can come to your own conclusions about whether that's an ideology on the table in this, the Year of Our Lord 2020.) A better reading might say something about the reality of sin and its violent consequences, and to force us to recognize what a radical thing we say when we say that God forgives, or absolves, or that God has a "plan for us."

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman

And here she was, an old woman now, living and hoping, keeping faith, afraid of evil, full of anxiety for the living and an equal concern for the dead; here she was, looking at the ruins of her home, admiring the spring sky without knowing she was admiring it, wondering why the future of those she loved was so obscure and the past so full of mistakes, not realizing that this very obscurity and unhappiness concealed a strange hope and clarity, not realizing that in the depths of her soul she already knew the meaning of both her own life and the lives of her nearest and dearest, not realizing that even though neither she herself nor any of them could tell what was in store, even though they all knew only too well that at times like these no man can forge his own happiness and that fate alone has the power to pardon and chastise, to raise up to glory and to plunge into need, to reduce a man to labour-camp dust, nevertheless neither fate, nor history, nor the anger of the State, nor the glory or infamy of battle has any power to affect those who call themselves human beings. No, whatever life holds in store--hard-won glory, poverty, and despair, or death in a labour camp--they will live as human beings and die as human beings, the same as those who have already perished; and in this alone lies man's eternal and bitter victory over all the grandiose and inhuman forces that ever have been or ever will be...

First of all, I want to point out that Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate is almost 900 pages long. Truly, reading it, meeting its daunting challenge, made me feel a little like the heroes of the Battle of Stalingrad, that five-month siege against Russian forces by the Germans that is the background of Grossman's epic novel. I'm not saying I'm as heroic as they were in tackling this novel; I'm just saying I know a little know what it must have been like.

OK, kidding aside: Life and Fate is one of those novels that really earns the word "epic," and not just for its length, but its scope: Grossman's novel weaves together a couple dozen storylines about Russians during the Battle of Stalingrad, some of which are about the tank commanders, fighter pilots, commissars, and private grunts who are on the front lines of the battle, but also the stories of many other "ordinary" folks whose lives have been caught in the upheaval not just of war but of the process of collectivization and Stalinization that has transformed Russia since the Revolution. At the heart of the novel is the Shaposhnikov family: Zhenya, torn between her love for a general in Stalin's army and her duty to her ex-husband, soon to be denounced and thrown into prison; Lyudmila, whose son Tolya dies early in the fighting, leaving her heartbroken and hopeless; and especially Viktor, Lyudmila's husband and a renowned physicist who finds himself embroiled in political conflicts that batter his pride and his conscience. (And about ten other Shaposhnikovs and relatives, too.)

It's tempting to say that Life and Fate captures the breadth of a historical moment. That's true, one of the novel's great gifts is that it manages to cast a wide net over Stalingrad, and present a convincing portrait of the spirit of the country. But you can easily imagine how a project like this turns into propaganda, or jingoism, and in fact, the introduction by translator Robert Chandlers suggests that Grossman's previous 900-page juggernaut, Stalingrad, was exactly that. But there's something more subversive about Life and Fate, which is as dubious about Stalinization as it is about Nazism. Both Fascism and Totalitarianism are inhuman ideologies, systems which reduce the individual to a function of the State. The method and practice of Life and Fate, by contrast, is humanistic: only by giving a hundred portraits of individual people, rather than a mass representation of the spirit of the people in the Soviet style, can the dignity and importance of the human being be preserved in the face of the 20th century.

The conflict between the individual and the state is exemplified in Viktor, who apparently is something of a self-portrait. In exile from Moscow--everyone has escaped the capital, which has been besieged by fighting--he's made the discovery of his life. (Grossman, knowledgeable about particle physics, manages to make this discovery seem convincing without giving any particulars.) It should be a moment of triumph for Viktor, but his superiors are suddenly seized by the idea that Viktor's theories contradict a socialist understanding of the physical world, and should therefore be verboten. Viktor stubbornly believes that physical reality ought to dictate ideology and not vice versa, but this is not an acceptable belief in Stalinist Russia, and Viktor's inability to play along may have dangerous consequences, as it did for several imprisoned and executed scientists under Stalin.

One thing I liked about Viktor's character is that he's not a very good person: he's irascible, resentful, proud; he's even in love with his best friend's wife. But his inability to say what is expected of him is also a virtue; Viktor is incapable of subjecting his humanity to the whims of the state. In a twist late in the novel, Viktor receives a phone call from Stalin himself, who seems to have decided Viktor's discoveries are worthwhile. (Apparently Stalin, like Bill Murray, was known for these kind of unexpected intrusions into the lives of ordinary people.) But Viktor's ordeal isn't over: later, he's asked to sign a denunciation that he knows will lead to the imprisonment and execution of two other scientists. Even when the State favors you, it still sees you as an extension of itself.

Much of Life and Fate takes place in prisons or prison camps. There's the state prison in Moscow where Zhenya's ex-husband is imprisoned. There is a fenced-in Jewish ghetto in Poland, where Viktor's mother is imprisoned, and the letter she manages to have smuggled out to him is one of the novel's most effective and evocative moments:

They say that children are our own future, but how can one say that of these children? They aren't going to be come musicians, cobblers, or tailors. Last night I saw very clearly how this whole noisy world of bearded, anxious fathers and querulous grandmothers who bake honey-cakes and goose-necks--this whole world of marriage customs, proverbial sayings and Sabbaths will disappear for ever under the earth. After the war life will begin to stir once again, but we won't be here, we will have vanished--just as the Aztecs once vanished.

 There are Siberian gulags and German concentration camps. In true humanist fashion, Grossman gives us the stories of the German soldiers who are tasked to build the gas chambers, and the guards who operate it. The description of Sofya, a Jewish woman, and David, a young unattended boy she "adopts" during their transport to Auschwitz, during their last moments in the gas chamber is one of the most effective Holocaust narratives I've ever encountered in a culture that craves Holocaust narratives. In such a large book, the small details stand out: intuiting something he cannot articulate, David throws away a butterfly chrysalis he has found before being herded into the gas chamber, thinking, "Live!" The great machinery of death is unable to stop this impulse.

What's remarkable about these sections is the clear-eyed way they tackle the similarities and differences between Hitler's regime and that of Stalin, whose assault on Jews in the Soviet Union continued for decades after the fall of Nazi Germany. You couldn't call it equivocating; Life and Fate is clear in its belief that the good guys won at Stalingrad, and that the Nazi concentration camp system was unique in its genocidal fanaticism. But it's also unsparing toward the horrors of Stalinist collectivization, antisemitism, and political oppression, toward the political prison and the gulag. These are the enemy of the individual, and though they are powerful, the individual cannot be stamped out.

There's something in Life and Fate that feels outdated, though much needed and too easily discarded. It's a novel about the human spirit, written before that phrase was coopted and neutered by 21st century forces; it's like a message from a postwar past in which the phrase the "human spirit" actually meant something. It's a reminder to be guarded against forces which are anti-human, which--I regret to inform you--remain sadly in abundance.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Neapolitan Novels, Book Three ...

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay  
Book Three of the Neapolitan Cycle by Elena Ferrante

I sometimes imagined what my life and Lila’s would have been if we had both taken the test for admission to middle school and then high school , if together we had studied to get our degree elbow to elbow, allied, a perfect couple, the sum of intellectual energies, of the pleasures of understanding and the imagination,  We would have written together, we would have been authors together, we would have drawn power from each other we would have fought shoulder to shoulder because what was ours was inimitably ours.  The solitude of women’s minds is regrettable, I said to myself.  It’s a waste to be separated from each other, without procedures, without tradition.

When we last saw Elena and Lina, they had come to occupy very different worlds.  Out of college and increasingly comfortable in the world of Italy’s bourgeoise intellectuals, Elena had written a heavily autobiographical novel.  Lina had abandoned her toxic husband, Stefano, for the man both women have treated like the holy grail of romance, Nino, only to be abandoned by him.  In her typically self-destructive principals, she had gone off with her son to live an independent working-class life working in a local sausage factory.  

In Book Three they seem certain to remain apart as Lina’s desperate life is increasingly invisible, while Elena’s novel - controversial and not universally revered – has nonetheless made her the most famous and successful person to come out of the neighborhood.  They are, of course, brought back together when Elena – through Nina, daughter of her old teacher and part of Italy’s educated left-wing – is drawn into writing about the labor movement and uses Lina’s factory (secretly owned by the local Mafiosi, Michele Solara) and some of Lina’s writing in an article that gains her new notoriety and draws them both into the violence of late 1960s Italian politics.  

This bit of reunion does not last long as Elena moves to Florence and marries Pietro, a mild-mannered academic, while Lina continues her life in the sausage factory.  It is clear that Elena’s marriage is too logical and passionless to last.  It immediately falls into family routines as two quick pregnancies overwhelm Elena and she abandons her intellectual life to that of a harried mother and housewife.  More surprisingly, Lina has been studying computer programming with her live-in partner, Enzo and leaves the sausage factory for increasingly lucrative positions as a systems manager, the last one working for Michele Solara, who has declared his love and admiration for her.

Elena’s marriage is disrupted first by the arrival of Nina and her boyfriend who have been drawn into the radical, violent fringe and disdain her and Pietro’s safe academic lifestyle.  It is further disrupted by the reappearance of Nino, now friends and colleagues with Pietro, who encourages Elena to begin writing again.  Elena writes a new book – a feminist essay on the ways that men create women – and begins an affair with Nino.  They tell their families and run away to France, only after Lila has reappeared asking Elena to babysit her son Gennaro for the summer.  

Elena and Lila’s relationship continues the same pattern of competition and codependence, with Elena periodically swearing off her friend and then becoming re-entwined with her.  Lina fades away, makes dramatic breaks that take her out of the old neighborhood, but then reemerges more entangled with their childhood companions than ever before.  Along the way they debate and reflect on the nature of womanhood, sex, love, family and independence.  

The historical context is increasingly specific:  we see the 1968 Paris student riots, the controversies of the Vietnam War, the consciousness raising phase of the feminist movement and the emergence of the Red Brigades.  This has become a startling document on the changing roles of women in the second half of the Twentieth Century.   It is made deeper and more masterful by Ferrante’s creative ability to show off Lila’s consciousness while maintain Elena’s position as narrator.  This becomes trickier in this volume as Lila burned all her diaries at the end of Book 2.  It is through Elena’s use of Lila’s ranting about the labor conditions in the factory and later the arrival of the telephone as a common mode of communication that Lila’s voice maintains its importance.  

The class divide that was introduced and which I expected would only widen in previous volumes has been muddied and muted by Lila’s mastery of computers and Elena’s fall into housewifery.  The emotional roles have also been reversed – Lina is no longer the emotionally impulsive one whom Elena preaches to about rational calm.  It is impressive that this last switch (to Elena as passionate impulsive and Lina as voice of reason) is made so seamlessly and completely in the last 50 pages of what is now a thousand page story.  

There were times towards the end when I skimmed – usually the sections where Elena is declaring that either Lina is a terrible influence who has grown too far apart and must be cut her out of her life all together or that Lina is the one person who really understands her soul and who she must stay in contact with forever.  That tennis match is wearing thin for me.  But I will miss these women and the various characters that wander around them for a few weeks, until I start Book 4.