In these fraught times with so much talk of borders, walls and divisions, it feels more important than ever to read widely. As someone who basically grew up in a bookstore, I have made it my lifelong goal to do this. However, when I reflect on my reading habits, I am struck by just how overrepresented Anglophone writers are in the list of books that I have read.
According to Goodreads, I read sixty-two books last year and just nine of those were books that had originally been published in a language other than English. While that figure is quite low, it still pales in comparison to the national US average. In the US, just 3% of the books sold across the country are works in translation. This number is considerably higher in Europe. However, it remains the case that certain voices are grossly overrepresented. This is why I have decided to challenge myself to read books from each of the 28 EU member states over the course of this year and share with you my musings and recommendations.
Since I am currently studying in Strasbourg, I thought it apt to start with some French literature. I will shy away from discussing the classics that you have all probably already heard of and would like to offer you four recommendations of contemporary works that have been translated into English.Continue reading “A Literary Tour of Europe: France”→
Elena Ferrante is an elusive figure. She is an enigma to the literary world, and a mystery that needs solving to some in the journalistic. To me, she is an artist. An artist in the real sense of the word. A person who embraces the artistic way of living to the extent of embodying it. The American writer Elbert Hubbard once wrote that, “Art is not a thing – it is a way of life”. Likewise, Elena Ferrante is not a thing. She is many things. She is a fever (#FerranteFever), leader of a modern tribe, a hero, among other things. Perhaps, most importantly, she is a way. A way to freedom. How do we discover this way? It’s quite simple. We travel along with her on the journey.
The Italian author was born in the literary world in 1992 with the publication of her first novel Troubling Love. She was a shy girl at first, who lacked confidence in her own abilities, and wasn’t quite sure of the impact she would have. In a letter to her publisher, Ferrante expressed her doubts by writing: “I will say to you clearly: if Troubling Love does not have, in itself, thread enough to weave, well, it means that you and I were mistaken; if, on the other hand, it does, the thread will be woven where it can be, and we will have only to thank the readers for their patience in taking it by the end and pulling”. Nonetheless, she did hold one firm belief – that “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors”. It was her conviction in this belief that enabled her to accept herself for who she was – although a recluse in the eyes of others, a writer with stories to tell in her own. When asked about what she intended to do in order to publicize her novel, the author wrote to her publisher:“I do not intend to do anything for Troubling Love, anything that might involve the public engagement of me personally. I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it… I won’t participate in discussions and conferences, if I’m invited. I won’t go and accept prizes, if any are awarded to me. I will never promote the book, especially on television, not in Italy or, as the case may be, abroad. I will be interviewed only in writing, but I would prefer to limit even that to the indispensable minimum”.
In the years that followed, Ferrante published her most famous works, which are commonly referred to as the ‘Neapolitan’ novels. These books are set in a poor, yet vibrant neighborhood in Naples, and explore the lives of its many inhabitants – especially the friendship that brews over several decades between two key characters: Elena and Lila. The series announced the author’s arrival in the literary world, but Elena Ferrante was still missing. Despite ‘The Story of the Lost Child’ (the last book of the series) getting nominated for the Man Booker International Prize (2016), the writer showed absolutely no interest in the award. She continues to embody what Lord Krishna describes as the ‘Spirit of Yoga’ in the Bhagavad Gita (the Hindu ‘Book of Revelation’) – the one, who acts “with no desire for success, no anxiety about failure, indifferent to results, he burns up his actions in the fire of wisdom. Surrendering all thoughts of outcome, unperturbed, self-reliant, he does nothing at all, even when fully engaged in actions”.
Today, the author is an omnipotent figure in the literary world. With the dual publication of ‘Frantumaglia – A Writer’s Journey’ and her book for children ‘Beach at Night’ earlier this year, the author seems to be here, there, and everywhere. She’s at bookstores in the US, in films in Italy, and in newspapers and on the internet (obviously). Even then, she is nowhere really. Except, in our hearts and minds, as a writer pushing the boundaries of what it means to be an artist by leading a self-effacing life. A life that we can only imagine, and hope to plot.
And plot we should. For Ferrante has shown us time and again that she is not a dot, but a series of them. She is a line that traces an artist’s consciousness. If the first dot represents a moment of doubt in the writer’s journey, the second one represents faith in the nature of the divine. Miracles are most often attributed to God, because their makers are usually unknown. Having experienced the miracles of other anonymous writers herself, Ferrante’s single-minded intention to become this unknown produces the third dot. This dot is representative of the wisdom of action. Without need for fame or publicity, Ferrante’s works are built on honesty and integrity that speak to our souls. They become voices that one can hear in the deepest recesses of their own being. The media frenzy to unmask Ferrante’s real identity, to me, is only indicative of our desire to know this voice more truly. But alas, it cannot be heard in the clamour of the marketplace. Our restlessness only results in the marking of the fourth dot of Ferrante’s consciousness – a deadening silence in response to the chaos. The voice disappears only to make us acutely aware of the void within. It forces us into sincere self-reflection, and guides us along the path to freedom.
If you feel like giving up on the whole “plotting Ferrante” business at this point, it’s understandable. But I would urge you not to. Instead, embrace the mystery that she is. Become part of it. Live it. And pay attention. Every now and then, the real Ferrante re-surfaces to remind us who she is – a person who is obsessive and passionate about words and stories; a non-conformist, who thrives on anonymity and solitude, and to remind us who she is not – almost everything we want her to be. Follow these clues or ‘frantumaglia’ (fragments) in her own words. Because no matter who you are, and what you do, you can lay claim to your own freedom by invoking Ferrante’s spirit.
Memory is a fickle thing. One second you think you can recall, and the next you’re absolutely dazed and confused.
But, this one I remember.
It’s from a long, long time ago.
We used to live in the capital in those days.
The street we lived on was on elevated ground. And just beyond the other side of the street, there was a slope that led downwards to an outgrowth of sorts.
One hot summer day, after lunch, I must’ve sneaked out of the house (I say so because I don’t actually remember sneaking out, but can only recall returning back home, leading to the very reasonable possibility that I must’ve, indeed, sneaked out in the first place). And by sneaking out, I mean just stepping out of the gate and walking across to the other side of the road. It was a big deal for a two-year old: just me, on my own, ready to face the world.
My first taste of freedom. I was hypnotized by it, just floating around in its mesmerizing haze. Life, in that instant, was good.
Once on the other side, standing on the edge of that slope, about 20 feet away, I saw a stray dog lurking down below. Like almost everything at that age, it was fascinating; every new sight, every new smell, and every new feeling had to be explored. Now, on any other day, I would’ve just stood there and lurked around a bit myself, but this was no ordinary day. I was feeling invincible.
So, I picked up a stone, and threw it at the stray. It landed inches from its feet.