Saturday 30 April 2016

Reading by turns Elena Ferrante My Brilliant Friend and Italo Svevo As a man grows older on a savage April afternoon, January and May blowing out of the northwest onto the same field, young birch leaves catching the light, Ferrante savage too, cold and angry, ruthless with herself and her past in Naples, she has to find her own fluid, flat and engaging style, she has to have a pen name since she is literally writing herself into existence: full disclosure, total data. And she's furious. Controlled. Determined. Sometimes amazed, like the first time she sees the sea (aged twelve or so). You don't remember this much unless you're furious. Every knowledge is a knowledge won and recorded.

Svevo, the bourgeois in Trieste half a century earlier, constructs his his love life over and over; he's not angry he's anxious and he has a code of behaviour, a dubious ethics that marries well with literature. They are made for each other. The status is quo and the beloved is an angel and a whore.

I feel uneasy with both writers; I want my tales more skeletal. My Brilliant Friend has something of the books you stare at while waiting in the queue at the Post Office: 'My mother sold me for a box of matches', except the fury is scrupulous and poignant. Elena Ferrante is in high demand throughout the branches of Cork County Library. Took me four months to get it, my first library book in decades. Inside the laminated plastic paperback I'm aware of other readers' marks as they've read while drinking tea or eating risotto. My A level french teacher said she never took books out of the library because you might find other people's hairs between the pages.

Svevo, on the other hand, is hardly read at all now. Nothing between his pages except that old Penguin vanilla smell. He is very old male, self-owning, impassioned (within the codes of his day, which are made to increase passion) and sexist (other codes also made to increase passion). Elena Ferrante is very female, very Karl Ove Knausgaard, relentless: nothing will escape, I will spare no blood, I need to structure this, the shoe must fit I will be plain and you will listen, you have lived through your version of this but you haven't got around to finding your own fluid and engaging style.

If I interrupted a reading of Svevo to see what Ferrante was like, it was because Svevo was getting relentless too, fluid and engaging in an earlier way, jostling his inamorata and his sister, his friends and his standing in Trieste into position and getting older in the process.

Anger or anxiety. The choice is yours.

Do I read all these narratives in order to cut them short, in order to irritate myself back into poetry?

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