Tag Archives: friendship

A Book by Its Cover

I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad. Life was like that, that’s all”
—Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (37)

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I attended a symposium in January in which the head of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA—an excellent resource if you don’t know of it) mentioned a book that he had loved (and had had to wait for as there was an over two-hundred person hold on it at his Boston library). I found the book in my library’s consortium, but also had to wait about a month and a half for it. I had already just gotten involved in another book, so when I got the notification that it was waiting for me, I retrieved the book immediately but was then warned that I had to return it in two weeks time due to other holds—I was a bit panicked and so read it right away.

The story takes place in Naples in a poor neighborhood and is narrated by Elena Greco concerning her friend, and her friendship with, Lila Cerullo. It is a really interesting book. Superficially it is a page turner of typical Italian melodrama. And yet there is more. First of all, it is a book about female friendship, which (as far as literary themes in the western “canon” go) is a johnny-come-lately of  a genre (jane, I suppose). For hundreds of years we got female characters who were mothers, sisters, lovers/wives, or daughters, but unlike the well-mined exploration of man-to-man friendships, the domain of female friendships was inaccessible (or perhaps uninteresting) to predominantly male writers. So, that aspect alone, which is richly examined in Ferrante’s first of 4(?) in the series, is quite wonderful.

What, instead, did [Lila] and Stefano have in mind, where did they think they were living? They were behaving in a way that wasn’t familiar even in the poems that I studied in school, in novels I read. I was puzzled. They weren’t reacting to the insults, even the truly intolerable insult that the Solaras were making (273).

The other really lovely subtlety of the novel is the interplay between the poverty of the neighborhood and education. Elena and Lila are both—well, in a word—brilliant, and Ferrante shows the development of their intellects and the struggles which ensue with a thorough beauty. I ended up, in my state of panic, reading the book in two days flat. But that may also be a function of the easy (which I do not mean disparagingly) prose and Ferrante’s ability to suck her readers in. In fact, although I knew going in that it was the first in a series, I have to admit I was a bit annoyed at the forcefulness of the serialization: I feel that I have to read the next book in order to finish the story and that can, and for me does, feel manipulative. But, as I enjoyed reading it, it is not perhaps too burdensome of a manipulation.

Here is my main serious complaint: I really hate the cover. I am glad to be done reading it so that I can be done having to look at the hideous thing. It is tacky and expresses nothing of the depth the novel offers: friendship, humanity, quotidian struggle, familial pressure, coming-of-age, prejudices, and culture. Instead it looks something like what the book is in danger of being misunderstood as: a made for TV melodrama mini-series. I have spent time in Naples (although the above photo of two of my children is in Rome it expresses the visual beauty of the country) I went back and looked at some photos I had taken Italy and Naples. The inner city is sensual and striking and I can not understand why the cover to this novel is so cheesy given the resources. This may be a small matter to some people, but I would argue that it is not. Whether one fully realizes it or not, these things matter. If you are asking me to read a book of some 350 pages, you would be wise to make me want to first hold that book in my hands.

 

 

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The Path of Sympathy

“But you’re capable of dying for an idea; one can see that right away. Well, personally, I’ve seen enough of people who die for an idea. I don’t believe in heroism; I know it’s easy and I’ve learned it can be murderous. What interests me is living and dying for what one loves.” 
—Albert Camus, The Plague (162).

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Last week I was talking to a friend who lives as far away from me as is possible while still sharing the planet. We got to talking about Camus and he asked if I had read The Plague. I hadn’t. He said, “Do read it. It is why we must see eachother again.” The Plague is about exile and separation, it is about the resignation of despair, the banality of evil, and the capacity for endurance, but at its heart there is also: friendship.

“But, you know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man” (255).

The story, told by a slowly revealed narrator, is related in a kind of detached expository manner. With the help of a detailed diary kept by a man named  Tarrou, the hellish months of the plague-stricken town Oran are calmly related. The story is neither unnecessarily ghoulish nor gory. After all, everyone knows that plague is ghoulish and gory. The question Camus seems to want to ask is: is it any worse than the plague, the inner plague, that infects humanity?

One the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being  that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill (131).

The capacity to murder one another for whatever well-thought-out logic, law, or Supreme decree is the truly disturbing plague. All others are mere “natural” microbes doing their thing, running their course. At least with microbes the evidence of their malfeasance is indisputable. Or one likes to hope. Camus does spend the first third of the novel describing the inertia of the human mind when faced with unpleasant evidence. Our confirmation bias runs strongly in both directions towards good or bad—it’s an addiction to being right, I suppose…but I digress…

True, one could always refuse to face this disagreeable fact, shut one’s eyes to it, or thrust it out of mind, but there is a terrible cogency in the self-evident; ultimately it breaks down all defense (172).

Pockets of the virulent inner-form of plague pop up with unsurprising and depressing frequency. The history books and current news are bursting with examples. In Camus’ tale, the microbial plague stripes away much of what keeps societies occupied and largely sedated: the petty dogmas and concerns of daily life.  The friendship between Dr. Rieux and the stranger to town, Tarrou, reveals the profound beauty of friendship and simply joys, but also the un-heroic yet, human response of sympathy to others. The ties of love that bind us and make us terrifyingly vulnerable to a world in which microbes and other natural events wreck havoc, are are also what give us its deepest pleasures.

Perhaps I am being optimistic, but it seems to me we have made some small advancements as far as recognizing and dealing with “natural” menances. Very small perhaps. But in comparison to acknowledging what Camus was really talking about—the inner plague—there is no contest. And it’s wearying.

I know I have no place in the world of today; once I’d definitely refused to kill, I doomed myself to an exile that can never end. […] All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences (253-54).

Love serves nothing if it cannot serve each other. Friendships are unique in that they describe a love that is not based on birth or affiliation. That is the kind of love, expanded, which shows the way of sympathy to all of our fellow humans. Let’s follow it.

*Title from p. 254

** A Vintage Books Publication, translated from the French by Stuart Gilbert

 

Survival is Temporary

Considerate la vostra semenza
fatti non foste vivre come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.

— Dante, quoted by Wallace Stegner, Crossing To Safety (256)

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As is my general habit, I didn’t read the paratext which accompanied The Modern Library edition of Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. But my eye caught, somewhere amongst the ancillary pages, on the word “rectitude.” I didn’t think too much on it as I devoured the lugubrious tale of friendship and marriages, but now, having finished my second Stegner novel, (Angle of Repose this past summer: read and adored) the word hangs heavily in the cold January air around me.

“Consider your birthright,” we told each other when fatigued or laziness threatened to slow our hungry slurping of culture. “Think who you are. You were not made to live like brutes, but to pursue virtue and knowledge.” Very high toned. We all hitched our wagons to the highest stars we could find (256).

Stegner’s genius, I think, is in the way that he melds high aristocratic intellect with a sort of Western American grit. It is subtly and beautifully rendered. In Crossing to Safety the story is told by Larry, a reasonably successful writer married to Sally. The book is the story of their friendship with married couple Charity and Sid. It is told with powerful intimacy, and yet there is that rectitude in Stegner’s style that can’t pretend, or debase, the privacy of people’s interior lives. What he creates is a story that ends up feeling like one’s own experience of life. It feels completely natural and real. Stegner’s use of language is remarkable. In a single sentence he adds layers to his characters until, it felt to me, as though they were right there, looking onto the page too, from the next seat over.

A big ringing laugh, as if parturition, which sometimes brought the clammy sweat of apprehension to Sally and me, were the most fun since Run Sheep Run (23).

The realism is pristinely maintained by a membrane of respect for the impossibility of ever knowing or feeling anything with absolute clarity and the futility of gratuitous detail.

The tension between chaos and order courses, every moment, through our pulsing fingertips. Stegner seems to have in his mind a firm understanding of that tension. He has no interest in sorting out the good from the bad, there is only the whole. The excruciation of a character like Charity is that she nearly has the energy to force life into some kind of order. The looker-ons can only stand by and watch, in pain, at her useless undertaking.

But what do we have? What are we left with? While Charity wants to write the book nice and neat, Stegner sneaks in the truth through Larry. We can’t do it. All we can do is offer each other mere letters, in the hope that we can build an “alphabet of gratitude” (326). No matter the peripeteia we all must endure, love stays. We are all just trying to survive, knowing that it is only temporary, but the alphabet is what gives understanding: a heavy heart is really, simply, a full heart, and that is always better than an empty one. It is our shared, good alphabet that leads to the wonder and permanence of love— in all its many forms.

 

 

Heartache’s Élan

There is nothing more tiresome, is there, than to answer in cold blood a letter that has been written in emotion, but you know you needn’t (10, 24th Nov. 1918).

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If one thing can be said about Dorothy Bussy, it is that she is a woman of emotion. Selected Letters of  André Gide and Dorothy Bussy recounts the thirty year span of their correspondence, begun over her work as his chief translator into English and which began late in their lives, in their fifties! Their undeniably passionate, mutual yet skewed love, and devotion to their friendship is mesmerizing, heartbreaking, but inspiring too.

Dear Gide,
I always feel in such a fearful panic after I have sent you a letter. I want to go and drown myself. Such intolerable stuff I write you. I can’t imagine how you bear it. Shameless it seems to me after it has gone, and worse than shameless–stupid–often not true. Can you tell what is true and what is false? I suppose you can. I suppose that is why you put up with me and why I always find the courage to begin again. Because in reality I’m not ashamed of the essential part–the part that is true. No. I’m proud of it (52, 16th Aug ’20).

She was in love with him, but alas, one can not feel what they don’t feel, and Gide did not return that sort of feeling. They were both married, and Gide had homesexual lovers and other heterosexual lovers as well (of more particular heartbreak for Bussy) and yet, he writes to her a day after her letter above:

Very Dear Friend,
Your letters send my heart and mind into corkscrews spirals–but delightfully (55, 17th Aug. ’20).

The relationship is rich in its intellectual depth, and wonderously complex regarding what it means to love someone. Where she loves body and soul, Gide can only offer his soul and wonders if that is not superior:

I cannot convince myself that what I feel for you in my heart is not really better than what you are looking for –and stronger, more constant, more serious (121, 9 April ’28).

And yet it is something of a constant torment to them both. The letters are historically, culturally, and intellectually fascinating. But it is Bussy that is truly remarkable. Her love, which she is aware is considered a humiliation, (and she battles those feelings in herself) she also understands to be the most authentic force of her life. She writes again and again about her inability to suppress her feelings. Her inability to be anything but completely nakedly honest with Gide. Why shouldn’t she? Most people don’t allow themselves to love so intensely. On his part, he writes again and again to her, beseeching her to write, to continuing writing her way. Sometimes with nothing to say, he writes only that he must write her. His words are achingly beautiful:

I read your letter of the 8th; that little swallow of pure friendship refreshes the soul (173,  12 Jan ’37)

I devoured this book. I have correspondences of my own, heartbreaks, and vigorous exchanges with people I love, and I am aware that letter writing is not so fashionable in this day and age, but there is something freeing and deeply enrichening to me in the practice, (even in email form, mine more often than not adhere to the long format letter length exchanges of former days..) which is perhaps why I was compelled to read this book.

My only disappointment was the inclusion in the epilogue  of a third party’s take on the letters. Gide’s friend Martin du Gard had certain papers in reference to “Madame Simon Bussy” and he added his own thoughts. He wrote of Bussy’s “delusion” and recalled Gide “avoid[ing] her, flee[ing] from her” noting that Gide’s love was only compassionate – to me, a condescending word in this context. Oh, how my heart burned in indignation at his take on the matter!

This morning you were very near to me, your check on mine, your lips so near to mine. But no, I did not dare. That must be reserved for dreams. They have sometimes come.
Good night my very dear.
Tear this into a thousand pieces & drop it into the sea.
Yr. D (210, 29 April ’42)

Five months later Gide, responding to her accusation that he didn’t read her letters, writes, “It goes without saying that I miscalculated, but you immediately accuse me of not reading your letters carefully…Shame! How mean! I read and reread your letters; there is even one (simply dated ‘Wednesday evening’) that I always carry with me.

The letter to which he refers is the above account of her dreaming about him….

It was no wonder at all to me that he loved her, and I felt deeply sorry that his feelings (that strange chemical reaction) differed from hers. But all the same. I found her a brilliant force of love and feeling. If that is humiliating, then so be it. Should she have humiliated herself by revealing all? Yes. By God Yes. What else is there?

Not a saint–not a boy–just your hopeless and yet not altogether unhappy

Lover
D.B. (74, July ’21)

*edited by Richard Tedeschi, Oxford University Press.

En Plein Air

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The Nun’s Quarter on a sunny day

One day in the sun
in a near two-year run
cold rainy and blue.
What’s done is done
below a roiling fountain
of all that never came through.
To always be shunned
by those called loved ones
leads to a heart withdrew.
Alone with the stun
the life of a nun
dreaming of what wouldn’t ensue.
And so I’ve begun
a life redone
Adieu to all that I rue.
The nun’s quarters repose
is gratefully closed,
And for that, I’ll always thank you.

JA/2013  for King Richard, the Lady and Knight

Some Sweet Today

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Pennies on the dollar
mind and time sold cheap,
I always told my babies
your worth is yours to keep.

When it came to look within,
the scold that would deplete
blithely piled on cruel
complications, often incomplete

Somewhere from within
a voice was smothered deep,
yet forced a new direction,
t’was said- a reckless leap

My heart flayed in all directions,
reached for  hand to meet
Lo, despite devaluations
scores of succor there to reap

Soothing doubts by proving,
a worth that can defeat
What seems to be ascending
is a new day- and it’s sweet

JA/2013

The Goddesses We Meet

St_Augustines_Ramsgate_Mildred“My God, this is fabulous.” I held up the heavy beaded gown. Rows of shimmering glass, the elegant tiny rectangular pink beads tightly lining the tan fabric undulated as the weight pulled my arm down. Staring in awe we simultaneously imagined her in the dress, once regally adorned.

Draping the long disused garment over my arm, I carried it and the other blouses and slacks, all carefully pressed and hung, back up the stairs. Squeezing past the motorized chair that carried her decaying body up and down, I bounded up the steps: steps that before the chair was installed, she had had to crawl up as her bones cruelly disintegrated. Scanning her bedroom I’d look for anything I could quickly do to help her now that we had organized her clothes. The bed was undone, easy for me to fix. The piles of towels on the matching twin bed were  a simple thing to organize into neat stacks of ascending order. I felt the quiet thrill of purpose as I folded.

I carefully pulled her stockings onto her feet and helped her get her shoes on. She dragged her body with excruciating effort towards the door. In the time she took to get there I would briskly straighten up the kitchen, wash the cups in the sink, and wipe down the coffee machine. Until every movement had to be carefully weighed and considered she had kept a house of perfect cleanliness and order. Now she sat in her chair as the dust bunnies mocked her. We laughed at her mental war with them together, and when she was not looking I gathered them up and threw them away. I could do that for her.

She took me to lunch and we laughed some more. She had stories to tell: sharp, compassionate and dead funny. That which had the memory of magnificence had become a source of unimaginable pain- but she laughed at the rearrangement of hairs from her body to her face, the leftover glory of her breasts that no longer appeared anywhere near her chest. We were like two school girls with the giggles. She ate meatloaf and laughed at me because I always ordered the BLT.

Aware of the cost of every step she took I’d take two or three, trying my best to correct the math: zipping in front of her, moving things out of her way, holding doors,  her walker, her purse. All the stupid little things I could do for her, and she embarrassed me with her gratitude.

By her admission, her heaping  measure of the pain life so generously offers came mostly at the end. We talked about suffering, love, death and God. She was not afraid of any subject. We allowed each other to feel the force of our personal miseries without pity. It could always be worse we told each other, sometimes with a laugh. Because it can.

I know what she looked like, sitting uncomfortably in her chair, woozy from her battle to find relief. I never knew her any other way. But when I picture her, the photograph on the sideboard that I passed each day as I left  is what I see in my mind.

There she stands, next to her adored husband: perfect eyebrows, tall proud figure and bright eyes. I see what she truly was. She was a goddess.
Rest, sweet woman, in peace.