- Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock —David Margolick
- A Spool of Blue Thread —Anne Tyler
- Lives in Writing —David Lodge
- The Story of a New Name —Elena Ferrante
- Fifty Shades of Grey —E L James
- This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage —Ann Patchett
- My Brilliant Friend —Elena Ferrante
- Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys —Viv Albertine
- Leaving the Atocha Station —Ben Lerner
- This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage —Ann Patchett
The last time I wrote for these pages, I tried to interest you in several books that were both abstruse and astonishingly insular: a memoir by an English politician you’ve never heard of, a book about Arsenal’s record-breaking 2003–04 season, a spoof autobiography of a cartoon soccer player, and so on. To cut a long story short, Words Have Been Had, and, reluctantly, I have had to resort to discussing books that you have either read or have some interest in reading at some point in the future. Disappointing, I know, but I haven’t given up the fight—rest assured that this column will eventually return to shining a dim light into crannies you have absolutely no desire to investigate. And, for the record, I think the Polysyllabic Spree, the nine desperately ambitious but vegetarian media mavens who run the Believer, are wrong, anyway: I could write about Elena Ferrante every month for a thousand years, and we still wouldn’t reel in the Directioners or the Swifties we’re apparently trying to interest now. And it’s not just Ferrante, I suspect—they’re uninterested in any modern European fiction in translation. But that’s the Spree for you, whose belief in the transformative power of literature is touching.
I am not the only one who has made links between Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard. (I have done it in my head, and I have done it here, in this column, in the previous sentence.) A writer in the Guardian did it, and a writer in the New Republic, and another writer did it in an email while expressing her enthusiasm for Ferrante’s Brilliant Friend trilogy. There are some obvious comparisons. Both have embarked on ambitious multi-novel projects that seem, at least, to contain elements of autobiography… Except, of course, that once you have begun that sentence (and it’s hard to avoid it, if you want to talk about Knausgaard and Ferrante in the same paragraph), you’re lost. Knausgaard’s books are dizzyingly, sometimes exasperatingly detailed autobiography—we know that because it’s clear in every line that he’s writing about himself, and because if you spend two minutes googling you discover that he’s writing about real people and real events. Ferrante, however, we know nothing about. We don’t know her real name, and she has never given an in-person interview promoting her books. We can only guess that the central relationship between Elena and Lila has some kind of autobiographical element. We are, therefore, comparing a singular work of autobiography with a possibly autobiographical novel—something I suspect we might not be bothering to do if the writers concerned were from the United Kingdom or the United States. Let’s face it: Ferrante and Knausgaard belong to the genre of “multivolume works by foreign people.” I am constantly embarrassed by the tiny amount of translated literature I read in any given year; I’m guessing none at all, two years out of three. Well, maybe other people feel a little ashamed, too, which is why, when two people—one male, one female; one from Norway, one from Naples—produce books that against all odds find some kind of toe-hold in the English-speaking world, they become a movement.
Whether Ferrante is writing autobiographically or not seems beside the point to me, a pub argument, if Ferrante readers ever go to the pub. (I’m a Ferrante reader, and I do go to the pub, sometimes, but so far I haven’t found anyone in the pub to argue with, at least about Ferrante matters. They talk all kinds of crap about everything else.) My Brilliant Friend is constructed as a novel, and works as a novel: the first sixteen years of the characters’ lives are shaped and edited; their world is populated by teeming, wriggling, occasionally ugly life. The lexicon that’s typically and dispiritingly dragged out to describe fiction by women is redundant here. There’s a snap and a snarl to Ferrante’s writing that prevent even the most determined patronizers from mentioning the d-word: domesticity meant something else entirely in postwar Naples, not least because if you shut the door on poverty and violence, then all you were doing was trapping it inside your own front room, where it swirled round and round until it choked you. “We lived in a world in which children and adults were often wounded, blood flowed from the wounds, they festered, and sometimes people died,” Ferrante writes, before providing a litany of fatal accidents and deadly diseases. People died from tetanus, or croup, or TB, or they were crushed under rubble, or they fell from a scaffolding, or they were blown up by an old wartime bomb. I love Anne Tyler, but you don’t read her in the hope of a high body count. No wonder Elena and Lila spend so much time wandering the streets; no wonder school is such a big deal.
My Brilliant Friend covers roughly the same time span as Boyhood, and maybe Linklater’s great film provides a more instructive comparison than Knausgaard’s books. Life isn’t straightforward for Mason in the movie, and there’s an incipient threat of violence from a procession of dodgy stepdads, but he ends up, as contemporary first-world teenagers so often do, stoned at college. Postwar Naples, however, did not belong to the first world. The girls are sixteen at the end of the first volume, and the final scenes in the book describe Lila’s wedding. Maybe I should have warned you about spoilers, but how else did you think My Brilliant Friend could have ended?
There’s more bracing female spikiness in Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys, hereinafter referred to as (Clothes, Music, Boys)3. Viv Albertine is a smart, thoughtful, and occasionally anguished musician, the former guitarist for the Slits, the spikiest of female bands, and her book is a memoir about growing up in London in the 1970s, about British punk rock, and, finally, about motherhood, middle age, and creativity. It’s an unusual, careful, lovable, occasionally maddening, and always compelling book, the sort of thing you find yourself chatting back at, and the first half brought back a whole rush of half-buried teenage memories.
Have I ever told you what a weird country I grew up in? Nineteen seventies England wasn’t quite 1950s Naples, but it was halfway there, a cold, dysfunctional country frequently plunged into wintry darkness by power shortages and labor disputes. There were huge pitched battles between the police and striking union workers, and football fans fought everywhere, in the streets and railway stations as well as in the stadiums. The top rate of income tax was 98 percent, the pubs closed at 11 p.m., the BBC broadcast a program called The Black and White Minstrel Show, in which white entertainers performed blacked up, until 1978. You may think this column is full of questionable values and lamentably primitive social attitudes, but you have to understand where I came from: any Briton of my age who doesn’t greet you with a grunt and a bottle over the head is a walking miracle.
Viv Albertine is a couple of years older than me; I remember watching people like her at the first gigs I ever attended, and wondering how I would ever get to meet people like that. As (Clothes, Music, Boys)3 makes clear, however, there weren’t many people like that. Albertine is very much a product of her time—her combination of fearlessness, art-school attitude, left-wing politics, and the paradoxically negative can-do punk spirit that comes from a peculiarly British boredom could really have been found only then and there.
As the book progresses, Albertine’s singularity becomes more and more marked. In the first third, she’s knocking around with kindred spirits—her band-mates; her boyfriend, Mick Jones of the Clash; Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious. By the end she’s playing solo gigs in grotty South Coast pubs, after a spell offstage while she brings up her daughter single-handedly. Solo, single… This isn’t a book about loneliness, because too much happens, with too many people, but there is a haunting, reflective tone to it that you really don’t find in too many music memoirs.
There are drugs in this book, and rock and roll, obviously, but there isn’t very much sex, and what there is reminded me of just how nonerotic English punk rock was. It wasn’t just the heroin, which has never done much for anyone’s sex life, or the venereal diseases; it was the sheer pungency of the punk body. Sid Vicious wets the bed while Albertine is sharing it with him, and an abortive attempt to give Johnny Rotten a blow job prompts an entirely unapologetic little homily on the state of the 1970s sexual organ: “I expect it to smell different down there and to be dark and hairy. Maybe even a bit crispy if you haven’t been home for a few days… I may not have given a blow job before, but I know what smegma is… I’ve seen it on almost every knob I’ve ever encountered.” I loved punk rock with a passion, but I loved Abandoned Luncheonette, too. I don’t know anything about the thoroughness of the Hall and Oates bathroom regime, but to me it was the sound of clean people. This is a terrific book, though, even if my prissiness caused the odd bit of nose wrinkling. I can hear the voice of my country in it, the voice I recognize, anyway. It’s not a voice that is captured in literature very often. And (Clothes, Music, Boys)3 is constantly surprising, too, There’s suddenly an impenetrable relationship with Vincent Gallo, and then a starring role in an art movie. Viv Albertine is still making it all up as she goes along, just as she did back then.
Ann Patchett’s hugely enjoyable essay collection, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, isn’t quite the opposite of Viv Albertine’s book, but any collection that falls under that title is likely to contain evidence of a different sensibility. There are lots of bits and bobs in here—an account of the author’s passion for opera, a travel piece about driving around in a Winnebago, and so on, all of them written for magazines over the years. And Patchett’s writing is such a wonderful thing, as crisp and tart as a green apple, that one is never less than contented reading it. But what makes this book unmissable are the longer, more substantial, more personal pieces. “The Getaway Car,” about Patchett’s early career, should—and, I suspect, will—be read by every aspiring writer. “The Sacrament of Divorce” is about Patchett’s failed first marriage, and the title story is about the unlikely success of her second: Karl VanDevender, Patchett’s mother’s boss, was forty-six, and recently divorced, when the thirty-year-old Patchett met him. His divorce had come as a surprise to him: “I wondered if any divorce ever really came as a complete surprise, and if it did, well, that was probably your answer as to why someone was divorcing you.” Dr. VanDevender, it becomes clear, is determined to get married again as soon as possible, and such is his daytime-soap-style eligibility (good manners, handsome, a good job), there is no end of potential candidates. The tale of how the skeptical Patchett becomes the successful applicant even though she has no apparent interest in the job is both convincing and delightful.
I wanted to argue with her on occasion, just as I wanted to argue with Viv Albertine. Or maybe it’s Russell Banks, one of Patchett’s fiction teachers at the University of Iowa, whom I wanted to argue with, although Patchett quotes him approvingly in “The Getaway Car”: “You have to ask yourself if you want to write great literature or great television,” he tells her, and the implication is that there’s a right answer. (I wonder whether any teachers of fiction would say this now, post–Wire and Mad Men and Breaking Bad. They probably still think it, but they might keep the thought to themselves.) The funny thing is that these days there’s much more critical consensus about TV than there is about literature. Nobody ever knows whether they’ve written a great novel, and the chances are that if they have, nobody would read it, anyway. Write a great TV series, however, and you’ll be showered in awards, great reviews, and piles of money. They seem pretty good indicators to me.
I’m afraid I let you and myself down and read a book by a white male this month, too. Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station is a super-smart first novel that won the Believer Book Award, although nobody told me. The Spree must have announced the news on one of the pages of the magazine I don’t read, that is, one of the pages I didn’t write. Anyway, they got that much right, at least. Novels as clever as this are rarely funny—usually they are merely witty—but Lerner’s hapless, idle, out-of-his-depth American poet abroad, with his disastrously haphazard approach to his work and his hopeless, vague attempts to speak and understand Spanish, is a proper comic creation. If you follow current events closely, then you may remember the eponymous station in Madrid, and you will know that Lerner’s novel cannot only be funny. There is a chance, however, that the name means nothing to you, or that you have forgotten its significance. I don’t know which of the two applies to me, but one of them does, and the shocking events described toward the end caught me by surprise. (Leaving the Atocha Station makes an interesting companion piece to James Hynes’s Next, another Believer Award winner.) I began this column fretting about my insularity and/or ignorance, and I end it feeling the same way. Is it too late for a New Year’s resolution?