Some Books I Read in 2015

Ursula K. Le Guin, photo by Marian Wood KolischSome Books I Read in 2015

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Elena Ferrante’s Naples Quartet.

I’ve read only the first two books. Found the first absorbing, fascinating, and a terrific study of urban class and gender structure – the social anthropology novel at its best. The second somewhat more predictable but still satisfying, especially the last half. But at the very end of it, the Worthless Prick suddenly pops up again. Oh, no! Is all the interest, all the promise of the protagonists – of the novel itself – to be thrown away on the women-adoring-a-jerk story, the love-as-addiction story? Again? I’ve gone on that nowhere trip with a novel way too often. I’m not signing on for this one. Maybe I’ll come back to the third and fourth volumes after a while. Maybe not.

Meanwhile I keep wondering why the mysteriously elusive Elena Ferrante is so mysteriously elusive. Because being mysteriously elusive is great PR, well, sure. But there’s another possibility. The psychological study of two minds, a relationship between two girls growing into women, while brilliant, is entirely in terms originated by and therefore acceptable to men (the central focus of a woman’s life is a man; women can’t and don’t trust other women). The intense competitiveness of the two girls is perfectly plausible, but as the main element of a friendship between women it ceased to convince me; mere rivalry seldom plays the part in women’s lives that it does in many men’s. And then, Lina is such a classic male-dream-woman, the eternal Carmen, magnetically sexy, fiery, holding herself apart from other women but eagerly abasing herself to the male animal…. Women of course write about such women, and often, but seldom at this level of sophistication.

Anyhow, for what it‘s worth, I’m laying no bets on the gender of the coy author.

Jane Smiley’s Trilogy of Novels, The Last Hundred Years

A year per chapter, for a century, starting in 1920 on an Iowa farm. I started the first volume, Some Luck, directly after reading Ferrante. The culture shock was awful – an old cart horse after a Maserati. Plod, plod, plod, a chapter a year…. Queer insights into the mind of a baby. Discussions of the problems of running a farm. Prose of the “transparent” kind that it’s easier and trendier to dismiss than to write. All very ordinary. Yet the wit flashes; the humor is as dry and subversive as that of a Native American. By about 1932, I’d plodded on into pure enjoyment, and a growing admiration sometimes bordering on awe.

Smiley’s courage is as great as her ambition. She flouts the mandarin demands of post-modernity and cares nothing for the limitations and snobberies of literary sophistication. She doesn’t need another Pulitzer, after all. She has a story to tell, and tells it the way it has to be told. It’s Realism, and all it implies – “ordinary” people and occupations and preoccupations – but it’s something else, too, undefinable implications that reach beyond the evidence of realism and beyond the past and present into pure imagination. The scope of the three volumes, as they follow the fortunes of the children on and off the farm, from coast to coast and on into the twenty-first century, is enormous, but the emotional intensities and depths of the story are entirely, often heart-breakingly, personal.

I have never read a book like this.

Yet I long to make comparisons. Jane Austen, for fair-minded, acute, and funny representation of the minds and manners of a certain period in a certain country. Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for the handling of those two subjects, and for understanding family relationships. Mark Twain and H.L. Davis, for genial acceptance of the endless variety of weirdness of character that flourishes in all Western America. John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, for an ultimately tragic vision of a country determined to destroy its very earth and all the life and hope that can be born of it.

I’ve written sarcastically about the search for “The Great American Novel.” As far as I’m concerned, the search is over. This one will do just fine.

Homer, The Iliad.

I read a review in the TLS, with some quotations, of this translation by Peter Green, and immediately ordered a copy.

Green doesn’t try to reproduce the Homeric hexameter in English (impossible for several reasons) but approximates it with a line of 12 to 17 syllables, 5 or 6 of them stressed. To my ear this works very well as narrative poetry, with excellent flexibility, an unforced music, and a long, rolling beat that carries the story relentlessly forward. It begs to be read and heard aloud.

He’s trying to give us the meaning through the sound, writing for the ear as the way to the mind. The result is uneven, but for me it carries far more power, authority, and beauty than any of the current standard translations (Lattimore, Fitzgerald, Fagles). I feel that I’m hearing Homer, at last, for the first time.

At least half of the Iliad is simply boring to me – the endless battle scenes, the killer boys with their killer toys. Bang bang you’re dead. Homer’s skill is peerless at giving us at least an illusion of variety while telling the same damn thing over and over and over; but it’s no use. I‘m up there on the walls of Troy with the Trojan women, praying to the gods to let the men finish the slaughter, be done, get over it, STOP IT! And all go home/come home safe and sound! Knowing all along that poor crazy Cassandra is right, and they never will.

I’m also unable to like or admire the hero of the epic, Achilles. I’ve tried and tried, but can’t see much but a spoilt, sullen, adolescent bully. I’m sorry for the kid, because there are clear signs that he could grow out of it, grow up into a man, and he won’t get time to. But that lack of time, after all, was his own choice.

My hero is the big loser, the husband and father, the grown-up. Hector is a mensch.

I always detested Helen, but either she comes out quite differently in this translation or my viewpoint has changed with age. Of course she’s as trustworthy as a rattlesnake; but she’s not a babe, not an airhead. She’s a woman getting passed around by men and making the best of it. She knows how fragile her glamor is. And so what she really thinks, and really wants, and really is, nobody is ever going to know. Not even Homer.

Peter Green teaches in the United States; his Iliad is published by the University of California Press. (If you’re interested, please order it from U.C. or an independent bookseller, not from amazon dot com.) I just hope he is working very hard and fast on translating the Odyssey so that I can live to read it.

11 January 2016



Some Books I Read in 2015 — 9 Comments

  1. Thank you! You’ve put your finger on why the Ferrante novel bothered me, though everyone around me sang its praises. (Didn’t make it past the first.) I should have seen why it was bothering me in the much same way that Henry James’ women bothered me.

    • I had the same reaction to Ferrante’s work. Her Italian prose is striking mostly for the forceful dialect her characters speak – I am in awe at the translator who managed to capture its spirit. I have also read “The days of abandonment” by the same author, who seems obsessed with the notion that all that really counts in a woman’s life is a/her man. I concur in not being sure the author is a woman.

  2. Goodness, I completely disagree with all of you. I rarely read so-called “realistic” novels, but I am completely captivated by these. And I, for one, will be very surprised if Ferrante turns out to be male.

    The thing that captivated me from the beginning was the way she writes from the point of view of her characters at their age in the story. So, for example, Lena and Lila do not really understand the workings of the Camorra or the fascists when they are young, though these things affect their lives. As they grow older, they are constantly struggling with their intelligence and the things that are expected of them — including that they will marry and including that love is considered all-encompassing.

    The second book takes place in the 1960s. I find it completely plausible that a bright young woman in that period would become obsessed with a bright young man (even though he’s not as bright as she is and even though he is, as Ursula says, a worthless prick). What more could a woman want than a man who seems to respect her brain and who is smart and challenges her thinking (even when he doesn’t)? From our perspective now, it seems laughable, but I was certainly guilty of hoping that a bright man would acknowledge my existence and brains instead of focusing on the girls in my high school class who were better at being pretty than I was. (No one ever did, which is probably a blessing.)

    I have faith that Lena will eventually discover that Nino is not worth all the energy she has invested in him. (I haven’t read the third and fourth books yet, so it’s possible that Ferrante will disappoint me, but I hope not.) After all, we know he’s a worthless prick because she wrote him that way. I don’t think we’re just reading between the lines.

    Timmi Duchamp has said that these books address class superbly, and I think that is also true. The notes on the class differences — so pronounced in dialect terms (so sorry I can’t read Italian and see those distinctions directly) — has made me more aware of just what privilege comes with different layers of not just money, but family history.

    It would be interesting to know if male writers from the manly school of letters like these books. I wouldn’t expect them to. My sweetheart likes them a lot, but then he’s a feminist, reads lots of women authors, and has little patience with alpha maleness, so I don’t think he’s a good example.

  3. Others find a great deal more than this in the Ferrante novels:

    [ ” “Her portrayal of Naples isn’t just a postcard — it’s a mosaic of strong, disruptive emotions,” Ms. Siniscalchi said of the books. “She gives an excellent description of all the opportunities lost by every single generation in the south of Italy. When I finished the last book, I cried.” ” ]


    [ ” As Elena and Lila advance from girlhood to middle age, they face an era of tumultuous social upheaval — radical feminism, 1968 demonstrations, friends who dabble in militant Communism — and their youthful hope eventually turns to disillusionment. “I’ve felt the same way — guilty, self-critical,” Annamaria Palermo, a professor at the University of Naples “L’Orientale,” told me. We were in her airy apartment, surrounded by book-lined walls, terra-cotta tile floors, and large windows framing views of the Gulf of Naples. “In 1968, we had so many feelings of power. I was sure we would change everything.” ” ]


    [ ” In the books, Elena and Lila’s battle against the Camorra, the inescapable local Mafia, is their life’s mission, their greatest conflict, depicted as a hopeless, grinding struggle. “The Camorra is part of our history,” said Ms. Siniscalchi, my guide. “It dates to the 17th century. Today, it’s even been linked to the central government. To grow up in Naples is an everyday fight.” ” ]


    [ ” I thought of a scene in the series’ third book, “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” when Elena takes a solitary walk through Naples at dawn, reflecting upon the city’s landscape and its influence on her entire identity. “Who knows what feeling I would have had about Naples, about myself, if I had waked every morning not in my neighborhood but in one of those buildings along the shore,” she muses. ” ]

  4. I like your characterisation of the Iliad – I can’t take it seriously enough, with all the Bronze Age heroism going on. I always preferred Hector to Achilles. It’s interesting to read your review after reading ‘Lavinia’, which I loved. You made me rethink pious Aeneas, who I wrote off forty years ago as a twit.

  5. I continue to vote for John Dos Passos, his USA trilogy. I’ve never read anything more purely American. The structure of the novels blazed new trails. His characters were memorable. His prose kept me nailed to the story.

  6. I’ve been a TA in several college classes in which we read the Illiad, and the professors always have a hard time trying to explain to the students why our cultural idea of Achilles is as a brave strong heroic guy when the actual story of Achilles depicts him as a whiny self-absorbed temper-tantrum-throwing brat who bursts into floods of tears at every new real or perceived insult. You can try to appeal to cultural differences, but it’s a tough sell.

    What made me able to appreciate the Iliad was reading Simone Weil’s essay “Poem of Force” about the Iliad. I used to interpret the Iliad as heroizing its heroes and endorsing their values, but their heroes seemed stupid and their values seemed stupid, so that didn’t do much for me. But Weil sees the Iliad as just as an impartial but compassionate depiction of a pattern that humans are inevitably caught up in, in which case Achilles is not really the protagonist but just another victim of this force. Reading it through Weil’s lens, I get a lot more out of it.

  7. Dear Ursula, I am so impressed with the twist on scrabble. Can’t wait to try it. Also, you have an outing tomorrow in Portland. We live in Tumwater and the idea is tantalizing. We have been in the the Western Shore novels and enjoying them thoroughly. I love to guess what philosophical or psychological theme you are exploring in your works. If I can get away you shall meet me unless its a mob.

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