Annotations: Chilean Poet

Thoughts.

There is something incredibly refreshing about a novel that does not concern itself with beginnings and endings, a novel that so resoundingly eschews “plot.” And, of course, I imagine Zambra’s response to this observation would be something like: poetry is plotless, as is life; plot is the fictitious construction of the novelist (which, curiously, begs the question: does Zambra consider himself a novelist?). Whatever Zambra is—whichever artificial genre the market shoehorns Chilean Poet into—the prose is great. I would have spent hundreds of pages more meandering with Gonzalo and Vicente.

Favorite words.

He didn’t want to look at her that way, and yet, at the same time, a certain sense of authority emerged in his head, as if sleeping with someone, or having slept with them, meant you acquired the right to look coldly at their body.

People say that’s what happiness is—when you don’t feel like you should be somewhere else, or be someone else. A different person. Someone younger, older. Someone better. It’s a perfect and impossible idea, but still …

She was incapable of sleeping without pills, but sometimes she decided not to take them so she could remember what she was like, who she really was, like a nearsighted person who decides to leave her glasses on the night table and feel her way through the whole day.

Annotations: The Appointment

Favorite words.

But we never mourned. If anything we performed a new version of ourselves, hysterically non-racist in any direction and negating difference wherever possible. Suddenly there were just Germans, no Jews, no guest workers, no others. And yet we never granted them the status of human beings again, or let them interfere with our take of the story, down to that ugly heap of stones they put up in Berlin to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. Have you seen that, Dr. Seligman? I mean, seriously, who wants to be remembered like that? Who wants to be remembered at the receiving end of violence?

… I have not reached the point yet where I find satisfaction in letting my father down. I reached that point years ago with my mother, but with a mother it makes hardly any difference. It’s not like you will ever be free from her love, from that animal-like affection that would follow its children to the darkest of dens. The kind of love that finds excuses for Marc Dutroux and Harold Shipman. It’s like the slime my mother covered me in before forcing me into this world, and the idea that I was once part of her flesh still fills me with dread. Her love was always too much, too embarrassing, too indiscreet. A father’s love can’t be compared to that. There’s an element of choice in it—it’s something you can win and, of course, something you can lose.

I told him about how I sometimes follow strangers. I don’t remember how I came up with the idea, but I guess something fascinated me about how much power you can gain by overstepping those small boundaries. Most people would be terrified if you suddenly stared in through their windows, and that’s not even illegal—just like following them is mostly within the law. I just think that most perversions are born out of a sense of insignificance, Dr. Seligman. And telling Jason all about them was like a fun way to try them out, another way of leaving myself behind. And it’s quite easy to follow someone.

… it’s one of my many flaws, Dr. Seligman, that I cannot imagine other people’s unhappiness. I felt so violated by society all my life that I refused those people who lived by its rules the right to be unhappy. I always wanted them to smile themselves to death for supporting those institutions and limitations that had made everything so difficult for me, for thinking that as long as you tick all the boxes and follow all the rules, flowers will be growing out of your ass until the end of time. I didn’t want them to be allowed to talk about their pain, I wanted them to suffer from their own stupidity …

But the body others see is never the body we see …

Annotations: Drowning Practice

Thoughts.

I am not an “event” person. Birthdays, weddings, holidays—even weekends: I’m not up for whatever it is you’re planning. There’s too much anticipation. The delivery on return is always subpar, and the experience of the actual day is never as good as you’d hoped. I’m of the opinion that the best days are always ordinary Tuesdays.

In that spirit, I also hate twist endings. Or endings presaged by too much hype or mystery. The monster at the end of the book is never as terrifying as you imagined (except, of course, for in The Monster at the End of This Book). So, I had my qualms going into Mike Meginnis’ Drowning Practice. The premise is this:

One night, everyone on Earth has the same dream—a dream of being guided to a watery death by a loved one on November 1. When they wake up, most people agree: after Halloween, the world will end.

The novel asks: What matters given impending apocalypse?

For all 400 pages of Drowning Practice, I dreaded the end of the story, even as I fell in love with the characters. Meginnis set himself up for failure from page 1 with a this-will-be-climactic premise. Would the world actually end? Would it end the way the dreamers dreamt it would? Would it feel like an apocalypse? Would Mott and Lyd survive? Would the “why” of the end of the world be answered?

Without spoiling anything, I will say this: Meginnis nailed it. This ending is one of the best I’ve read—satisfying and imaginative and way better than an ordinary Tuesday.

Favorite words.

“It must be nice to care about nature.”

“I’ve tried, several times,” said Mott. “And I can’t. But you’re right. The canyon is nice.”

“It isn’t nice,” said Lyd. “That’s what I like about it.”

“It’s … indifferent?”

“I’m not sure that’s right, either. People are indifferent, the land isn’t. It’s not even land, it’s just us, looking at the earth that makes it real.”

“Sometimes it seems like you both think that novels are the only beautiful things in the world. That’s not the case. Everybody else doesn’t secretly wish they could do what you do.”

Currently: April 27, 2022

Reading

  • Drowning Practice by Mike Meginnis
  • Shit Cassandra Saw by Gwen E. Kirby
  • She Is Haunted by Paige Clark
  • True Heart Intuitive Tarot by Rachel True
  • The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

Listening

Stuck On

Annotations: The Story of the Lost Child (The Neapolitan Novels #4)

Thoughts.

I’m still putting together my thoughts about the final installment in Ferrante’s tetralogy. I loved it. Not as much as the second and third installments. More than I love most books I read. Ferrante’s genius is in her ability to capture the minute in a landscape of expansive scope. In her ability to paint an entire life—decades—with intense attention to detail that, because of its complete lack of artifice, never leaves the viewer-cum-reader fatigued.

Is it a perfect novel? No. I wanted more, for example, from the lost child thread. Tina’s disappearance left a hole—but I didn’t feel like Ferrante explored its depth or the quality of its darkness as much as she might have.

Is it an almost perfect novel? Yes, I think so.

I also loved Judith Shulevitz’s thoughts on Ferrante’s style in her Atlantic review: The Hypnotic Genius of Elena Ferrante. “Emotional chiaroscuro” is exactly right.

Favorite words.

To be adult is to disappear, is to learn to hide to the point of vanishing.

Currently: April 15, 2022

Reading

  • The Story of the Lost Child (The Neapolitan Novels #4) by Elena Ferrante
  • Shit Cassandra Saw by Gwen E. Kirby
  • She Is Haunted by Paige Clark
  • True Heart Intuitive Tarot by Rachel True
  • The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

Listening

Stuck On

  • Ann Goldstein. This is really just an extension of my Elena Ferrante obsession. But Ann is interesting, too. I attended a virtual event featuring her last week and was surprised to discover she didn’t learn to speak/read Italian until she was almost 40. Lesson: It’s never too late. For those interested, recording below:

Annotations: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (The Neapolitan Novels #3)

Thoughts.

Each Neapolitan Novel is better than the last. In the third installment, I was particularly struck by Ferrante’s ability to capture dissatisfaction. The lived experience of it, off the page, is obviously disagreeable—and yet Ferrante’s communication of it is the opposite: thrilling and dynamic and wholly absorbing. Similarly, the complexity of Elena’s and Lila’s psychology is nothing short of masterful. Neither woman is formulaically constructed and yet I could accurately describe both as “ordinary.” Their personalities are so lush, so fully realized, and – most importantly – so believable that I think of them in my thoughts as people (versus characters). Both women’s stories are remarkable—though again, not because they contain remarkable material. They are remarkable only in Ferrante’s telling of them. The Neapolitan Novels are the most developed character studies I’ve ever read, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is especially deserving of literary praise. That said, the most salient feature of Ferrante’s writing is, to my mind, not its technical perfection. Instead, Ferrante’s achievement is accessibility. Her capacity to check the “craft” and “entertainment” boxes simultaneously is, to use the word a final time, remarkable.

Favorite words.

You’re a writer. You write about love. Everything that happens to us feeds the imagination and helps us to create. Let me be near you—it’s something you’ll be able to write about. [A compelling pickup line if I ever heard one.]

Become. It was a verb that had always obsessed me … I wanted to become, even though I had never known what. And I had become, that was certain, but without an object, without a real passion, without a determined ambition.

Annotations: The Story of a New Name (The Neapolitan Novels #2)

Thoughts.

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels are literary quicksand. I am convinced there is no way to dip in and dip out. These novels are lengthy—My Brilliant Friend is over 300 pages, The Story of a New Name is nearly 500—and yet, I’m not even considering reading something else. (And it’s worth noting that I have, I am not exaggerating, 27 books checked out from the library right now.) The idea of waiting to find out what happens next is unbearable—the final lines of New Name are quite possibly the best cliffhanger I’ve read since I was nine years old and finishing The Goblet of Fire by flashlight under my bedroom comforter.

Favorite words.

If nothing could save us, not money, not a male body, and not even studying, we might as well destroy everything immediately.

She deserved Nino, in other words, because she thought that to love him meant to try to have him, not to hope that he would want her.

I recognized in them, father and daughter, what I had never had and, I now knew, would always lack. What was it? I wasn’t able to say precisely. The training, perhaps, to feel that the questions of the world were deeply connected to me. The capacity to feel them as crucial, and not purely as information to display at an exam in view of a good grade. A mental conformation that didn’t reduce everything to my own individual battle, to the effort to be successful.

Currently: April 4, 2022

Reading

  • Shit Cassandra Saw by Gwen E. Kirby
  • The Story of a New Name (The Neapolitan Novels #2) by Elena Ferrante
  • She Is Haunted by Paige Clark
  • True Heart Intuitive Tarot by Rachel True
  • The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

Listening

Stuck On

  • Elena Ferrante. I’m late to the party, as usual, but currently deep into a Ferrante binge; on the second Neapolitan installment, and also loved The Lost Daughter (my review: “amazing”; my mother’s review: “depressing”)
  • Japanese Breakfast’s scrambled egg Red Carpet dress

Annotations: My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels #1)

Thoughts.

As much as I fancy eccentric taste and being glamorously out of sync with my contemporaries, on the heels of My Brilliant Friend (the novel) and The Lost Daughter (the film), it turns out I love Elena Ferrante. Just like everyone else.

The prose in My Brilliant Friend is unmentionable. This is a comment meant as praise. Ferrante is not experimental, not on a sentence-level and not on a novel-level. The premise is straightforward: this is a story about friendship; the characters are working class; the timeline is linear. The concerns are quotidian: money, wealth, dating, sex, neighborhood politics, education, growing up, finding your voice. In one scene, Elena (the narrator) is praised in class for an academic essay:

And only as I listened did I realize what I had tried to do in those months whenever I had to write: to free myself from artificial tones, from sentences that were too rigid; to try for a fluid and engaging style like Lila’s in the Ischia letter. When I heard my words in the teacher’s voice, with Professor Galiani listening and silently nodding agreement, I realized that I had succeeded. Naturally, it wasn’t Lila’s way of writing, it was mine. And it seemed to my teachers something truly out of the ordinary.

It’s difficult to put your finger on what exactly Ferrante is achieving—and how—but the words that come to mind are “solid,” “direct,” “spare.” Ferrante doesn’t need flourishes. Flourishes would distract from what matters. Like Elena’s, Ferrante’s prose is simple—it isn’t trying to be anything other than what it is. Ferrante isn’t trying to play or challenge or reinvent the wheel. She is only trying to tell a story—and in doing so authentically, an ordinary story becomes something more. It becomes beautiful.

My only criticism is that the pacing at the beginning of the novel is a bit slow. For the first 50 pages or so, I considered reading something else. That said, I tend not to love narratives told from a child’s point of view—and as soon as Elena and Lila left childhood for adolescence, I was riveted. Which is to say: I suspect my ambivalence about the novel’s beginning is a me problem, rather than a Ferrante problem.

I wasn’t sure when I started My Brilliant Friend if I intended to read the entire quartet. When I finished the first installment last night, “if” became a question of “when.” I knew I would definitely read all four novels, but I wondered if I should refrain from reading them all at once … maybe it’s better to break up such a long sequence with other books, i.e., literary palate cleansers? Today, after eight-plus hours in a Ferrante-free world, I’ve made my decision. I’ll be bingeing until further notice.

Favorite words.

I was secretly convinced that I would truly exist only at the moment when my signature, Elena Greco, appeared in print. [Because I am not-so-secretly convinced of the same.]