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Friday, 22 April 2016

Elena Ferrante: Entertaining and Intelligent

picture by Ruth Orkin

I started reading Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels last year. These are some of the most entertaining, page-turning books I have ever read. I love them as so many people do. But they're not just entertaining. They have depth, they have intelligence, they have a sense of authenticity about them. And despite the difficulty of the subject matter, they are somehow joyful. They have energy and dynamism and personality.

The novels tell the stories of the narrator Elena and her childhood friend Lila as they grow up in Naples. They are stories in which Lina and he friend go from being girls to becoming women, girlfriends,  lovers, wives, mothers.

In the Neapolitan Novels they are all the time subjected to the pressures to be someone they are not (the girlfriend, the wife, the lover, the mother), The community around them, the different worlds they inhabit, their husbands, their families, the institutions they are part of all smother them in different ways.

It's as John Berger says in Ways of Seeing - the bit where he says

“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another....'

But Ferrante does  much more than that. It's the History of Art, the Male Gaze, the Family Gaze, the Academic Gaze all wrapped up in one. And that makes it sound distant and cold. But it's not distant and cold because it's not written for our intellectual consideration, it's written for our pleasure. But the intellectual consideration comes free. It is pleasurable and it is intelligent and it tells the story directly through concrete experiences, emotions and everyday lives. This is from the My Brilliant Friend, the first volume in the quartet.

'For no obvious reason, I began to look closely at the women on the stradone. Suddenly it seemed to me that I had lived with a sort of limited gaze; as if my focus had been only on us girls…. That day, instead, I saw clearly the mothers of the old neighbourhood. They were nervous, they were acquiescent. They were silent, with tight lips and stooping shoulders… Extremely thin, with hollow eyes and cheeks, or with broad behinds, swollen ankles, heavy chests, they lugged shopping bags and small children…They had been consumed by the bodies of husbands, fathers, brothers… When did that transformation begin? With housework? With pregnancies? With beatings?'

So that is what the series is about, the transformations of life. And despite the grimness of the subject matter, the casual violence, the domestic abuse, the sorrow and the fear and the resentment, the books are still somehow uplifting. They create a world that is three dimensional, a world where you care for Lina and the people she cares for. It's intelligent and it's beautiful to read. It improves your mind and it improves your soul. It is all about pleasure.

Reading Elena Ferrante made me consider this picture that I had to look at over Christmas. I had to look at it because it was advertising perfume for Dolce and Gabbana and it was everywhere. I had no choice in the matter. I couldn't choose not to look at it because it was there all the time. It was an act of visual abuse. It was forced upon me.

Why does it annoy me so? Because it's by Dolce and Gabbana for a start, that doesn't help. So there's simple prejudice. But there's also all that quasi-Italianicity, or is it Sicilianicity.

You get it in the old couple who are sitting at the back. There's the flat cap, the waistcoat, the lace table cloth, the moustache.

And they're all at the dinner table in a sitting room, laughing and smiling so you know it's a happy family.

Then there's Scarlet Johannsson sitting there with Matthew McConaughey . I have no idea what either of those are doing in the picture (I know, I've seen the film which is dreadful. Imagine if it was full feature length. Nobody would come out of it alive. We'd all slit our wrists in the first five minutes. It's that bad. Not like the Chanel surfing one. That was nice. Made me want to surf!).

Matthew Broderick kind of looks like he's part of the family. He's got a suit and facial hair and he's not as recognisable as Scarlet Johannson who is a thing unto herself - is she visiting on his behalf, is he the son of the family, or have the older couple got two Hollywood stars visiting all at the same time, just by coincidence.

And actually, I don't really care. It's neither smart nor beautiful. There is nothing in the picture that has enough depth to make me care. In fact, all the depth has been removed. I bet the old man and woman have loads going on in their life (are they D or G's mum and dad. Is that it?), but you don't get a glimmer of it from this picture.

So the picture fails. Except of course it doesn't. It's a complete success and replicates a Disneyfied view of Italianness that Dolce and Gabbana specialise in; a shimmery, slippery, surface view,  Downton Abbey gone Meditteranean with pastoral peasant characteristics. And it glories in its superficiality. It's supposed to.

And I'm happy with that. I like simple pictures, I like the basic. But this picture, though wilfully simple, is not basic. It's ridiculously complex, wrapped up in its own conceit, its own deceit.

And the problem is when I'm reading Elena Ferrante, which is simple, but not wilfully simple, and is in no way wrapped up in its own conceit, it elevates me to a higher plane, a plane on which Scarlett Johannson and Matthew Broderick just become embarrassing.

That's the danger of seeing something really good; whether it be literature, photography, or film. It's the opposite of a vaccination. It reduces your immune system to the base and the trite. You lose your tolerance of the mediocre or the worse-than-mediocre.

But that's a good thing. Right.

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