A mixed bag: books I’ve read lately

Today I’m going to try something new: not a full post on a particular book, but brief reviews of books I’ve read in the past month. None of them, for me, warrant a full review, apart from the Finch Memoir Prize 2015, Schools of Fish, by Alan Sampson; I reviewed this in my last blog of June 13th, as a worthy winner of the prize. My list today is: Ross Poldark  by Winston Graham; My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante; and Persuasion by Jane Austen (a re-read).   ross-poldarkRoss Poldark is the first novel in a huge family saga set in Cornwall in the 1780s, focusing on Ross Poldark and his wife Demelza. Winston Graham (whom I confess I’d never heard of until I started to watch the new BBC series) was the author of more than 40 novels, and the Poldark series is now in its third recreation as television drama. The central character, Ross, in the new BBC production, has been hailed as sexier than Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. I don’t disagree. But as for the book, he doesn’t stand out (no pun intended) as much as Demelza, the abused waif whom he rescues from a beating by her drunken father, takes on as a kitchen maid, and marries when she is of age. Love comes slowly for Ross; he is seduced by her, who adores and hero worships him, and he gradually realises that she is rough cut diamond, a feisty, loyal, loving, happy, winsome girl of superior intelligence and wit, who quickly blooms into a wild English rose, without losing any of her natural honesty and down-to-earthness. It is a true Pygmalion story, though Ross is not really the architect of her transformation. She transforms herself through her desire to be a worthy wife and partner for him, to be able to hold her own among the aristocracy of the community, and yet does not lose touch with her origins, a child of the earth. She makes mistakes, not least when she becomes a conspirator of the heart with Ross’s cousin Verity, a plain, hard-working young woman whom no-one expects to marry, but who falls in love with a sea captain with a dark past. Demelza’s part in bringing the lovers together splits the family apart and is the catalyst for Ross’s estrangement from Verity’s brother Francis, who happens to have married Ross’s first love, Elizabeth, while Ross was away fighting in the American Civil War. Around the ups and downs, jealousies and betrayals, loves and losses of the Poldark family is woven another story, that of the tin mines in Cornwall. It is hard times; many of the mines are abandoned, the price of tin has fallen, and Ross’s estate is derelict. Against all odds, he decides to resurrect one of the family mines. The trials and obstacles of this enterprise occupy a large part of the book, and I confess I found this story less interesting than the central romance. Ross has less affinity with his own class than with the working people, and of course his marriage puts him even more offside with his own relations and their circle. He shares what he has with his workers and their families, and protects them as much as he can from the bad treatment and the poverty they are subject to. So in many ways this book is in the genre of great 19th century novelists like Dickens, Zola and Balzac, who wrote realistic novels portraying individual lives framed by the struggle of the classes and the inhumanities and injustices of society. For me, the writing does not have the force and calibre of these novelists, it is more middle of the road, but nevertheless very readable, and the characters are vivid and convincing. I have ordered the next book in the Poldark series, titled Demelza, from the library.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante is translated from Italian by Anna Goldstein (published in English in 2011). urlThis is a book I find hard to describe, and although it’s only about three weeks ago that I read it, I’m pushed to summarise the plot. The first and most interesting thing about this book is that the author has become a sensation on the international literary scene, because of the quality of the writing, but even more because the author has kept her anonymity. Beyond that she grew up in Naples, has lived for periods outside Naples, has a Classics degree, teaches and is a mother, she is unknown. My Brilliant Friend is the first of a trilogy. The narrator, Elena, recalls her Neapolitan childhood and school days in the 1950s; a time and place of ignorance, violence, gangs, cruelty and gossip. Elena admires and tries to emulate Lila, whom she meets in first grade. Lila is described as “that terrible, dazzling girl”, and everyone is afraid of her. Gradually they become friends; Elena does not lose her honesty and innate gentleness, and Lila does not modulate her fierce and uncompromising nature, but they are loyal to each other in a fashion, while Elena is secretly devoted to Lila, even obsessed with her. Lila is the more gifted of the two, but her family does not support her going on to high school, and she gives in and takes on the role of family helpmeet and worker in her father’s shoemaking business. She blossoms into a very beautiful young woman, and marries a local boy from a wealthy family at 16. Elena, on the other hand, is allowed to go on to high school with a scholarship, and what she misses in brilliance, she makes up for in discipline, and becomes a star pupil. That’s a rough outline of a complex book which is close to stream of consciousness in the way it is told, in that one scene melts into another and there is much reflection on the friendship and on her attractions to a particular boy who is at least as bright as she is and more radical in his thinking. But really, it is Lila she loves most, and Lila, like the radical boy, is beyond her reach. At best I can say this is an interesting and intriguing book but it didn’t grip me and make me want to see what happens after the end of the story. It gave me a window into an unfamiliar world, but I felt very much an outsider to it; perhaps this reflects how Elena felt, a misfit, longing to get outside the confines of this narrow world, trapped in it by her childhood, seeing education as her escape. Whereas Lila, the wild one, remains trapped. I will read the sequels. If you want to know more about Ferrante’s work, there is a comprehensive review in the New York Times.

Last but far from least is Jane Austen’s Persuasion. persuasion This book needs no introduction; it is perhaps the most read of Austen’s novels after Pride and Prejudice, and has been made into films. It was Austen’s last novel, completed a year before she died at the age of 41. Everyone knows that Austen remained a spinster, and it is tempting to see this story as wish fulfilment. The heroine, Anne Elliot, is the youngest of three daughters, and though possessed of superior ‘elegance of mind and sweetness of character’ was ‘nobody with either father or sister: her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way— she was only Anne.’  The intervention of a family friend prevents her from marrying the man she falls in love with at the age of 19, and for eight years she lives a lonely life, longing for what she has lost, and being a dutiful daughter and sister. When the novel starts, she is 27, a shadow of her former bloom and beauty. I’m sure most of you know the plot, so I won’t summarise it. I just want to say that for me, Anne is one of Austen’s strongest and most convincing heroines. When Anne’s former lover, Captain Wentworth, returns from years at sea with a fortune, he finds her much changed, and appears to be playing the field, looking for a likely wife. After many twists and turns, he overhears her talking to another captain, a mutual friend, about love and marriage. Re-reading this climactic scene, I realised that she is my favourite Austin heroine. She utters words which mark her for me as a proto-feminist. Trapped as she is in a hierarchical world where title and connections and money mean more than love and loyalty and kindness, she holds her own in a vigorous argument with Captain Harville ( a friend of Wentworth’s, who is sitting at a nearby table, ostensibly writing a letter). In a conversation about a mutual friend, a man who is fairly recently widowed and has fallen in love again, Anne maintains that women are more constant than men.

Man is more robust than woman, but he is not longer-lived; which exactly explains my view of the nature of their attachments. … Men have had every advantage over us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything. … All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one; you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or hope is gone.

There is a rich context to this defence of woman’s constancy, both in past events and in the present scene. Captain Wentworth, the eavesdropper, the silent witness, finally acknowledges to himself that he has not stopped loving Anne, and that she is superior to any other woman he knows; that she is the very model of constancy and character that he seeks. The rest unfolds as it always done in Austen’s novels, with the marriage summarised in the final chapter; as she says, ‘Who can be in doubt of what followed?’

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13 responses to “A mixed bag: books I’ve read lately

  1. Re My Brilliant Friend, I forgot to say that I think it is autobiographical, since the narrator has the same Christian name as her author, and we know that Ferrante grew up in Naples. Her brilliant school career and immersion in Greek and Latin fit with Ferrante’s other profession of teaching Classics. I confess this is an incentive for me to read the sequels!
    And soon I will write a review of Anne of Green Gables, which I forgot to add to the list above. I reread it for the first time since I was a child, and loved it just as much, but differently.

  2. Nice idea Christina to do a post like this. I watched Poldark but I don’t plan to read them. I remember though that my grandmother loved the Poldark novels back in the 1970s.

    Of course I love Persuasion. Like all Austen novels it is so rich in things to explore/talk about. I went to a festival recently where there was a paper on this novel. The speaker suggested that Austen was setting up the navy as a special sort of community in which women and me worked side by side (like Admiral and Mrs Croft), where men were not scared of expressing their tender feelings and women were willing to take physical risks and go on boats with their men. Was Austen suggesting this as the way society should go?

    • Thank you, Whispering Gums. Your reported interpretation of Persuasion is interesting. Certainly Admiral and Mrs Croft stand out against the effete characters of Anne’s father and sisters, and the stultifying snobbishness and classism of provincial society at that time. They are devoted to each other, in love still after many years together, and live the life they want to live without pretension. It does seem to be an alternative world they come from, and I imagine it wasn’t usual for a woman to go to sea with her man then. Whether Anne will do this remains unknown; but then Captain Wentworth has already made his fortune, so he may choose not to go to sea, at least so often. I think it remains an alternative world, obviously not accessible for most women.

      • Thanks Christina … I understand that Mrs Croft was not an exception, that women did go on the husband’s ships though not usually during battle. It did happen though that they did sometimes find themselves on a boat during battles and would work then, as nurses, as cannon feeders (cannon monkey?).

        I think too that many of the critics see in Persuasion Austen envisaging life after the aristocracy, life when what we call the middle classes were expecting more. The suggestion is that she saw the Navy’s moral code, and social and domestic values, as a model for this post-aristocratic life. You may know that two of her brothers were naval officers, both rising high in the officer orders, one becoming Rear Admiral (I think). I understand that in the Navy careers were built more on merit, though influence of others went a long way, while in the Army commissions were still regularly bought. (As Darcy did I think for Wickham).

      • Interesting. It is a rare glimpse of a different world, though still a patriarchal one. Interesting, too, that Anne sees it through a window of other people’s lives. We are left wondering if she will enter it herself.

      • Yes, still patriarchal, but I think Jane Austen did have a vision for something different for women and men.

  3. I’ve just spent a month in Italy half of that in Sicily. Palermo in particular reminded me of Naples – edgy, scummy in places and with streets full of kids like the main characters in Ferrante’s book. I loved it. The relationship between the two girls was intriguing. One apparently infatuated and dominated by the power of the other and yet she’s the one who seems to emerge into a more independent adult. The images around the shoe maker’s shop were fascinating. I’m keen to read the others as well. In Sicily I’ve been reading “the Leopard” by Lampadusa. I would never have discovered this book if I hadn’t been searching for a read while in situ. What a revelation. He writes so beautifully and with such insight into his characters. I’m glad I found him. My next will be Italo Svavo’s book “Zeno’s Conscience.”. I’d never heard of him either until James Joyce in Trieste led me to him. He was a funny man and I suspect the book will be full of wry humour.

    • HI Steve. How interesting! You’re right, Lila’s development seems to be arrested somehow, she seems to get trapped in the enclosed, dead end culture of the slum. Her beauty, her eccentric nature and her marriage into a wealthy family, to a handsome, powerful man, mark her out from the crowd, whereas Elena remains an outsider — the observer/the storyteller, aka, I think, the author. I’m sure that to someone like you who knows something of that world, it would come to life on the pages, with its sprawling cast (whom I could’t keep track of; a lot of remained just names to me).I haven’t read The Leopard since I was very young; must revisit it. Thanks for your insights.

  4. I agree with your assessment of Ferrante. She came to me highly recommended and although I found the story reasonably interesting, I found it disengaging and alienating and I think that was because of the stylistic devices and interventions she uses. I was not inspired to read the rest of the books in the trilogy because I found the writing/translation a bit pedestrian.
    Warm regards, Rashida

    • Thanks Rashida! So often I have this experience when I read a book that has had rave reviews and/or won literary awards. I’m having a similar struggle with Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser, which (I”m half way through) is far too long and frankly, hard work, and I’m very aware of the author manipulating the story and the characters. At least Jane Austen is upfront and forthright in her authorial voice; she doesn’t hide behind her characters. So I”m glad you found My Brilliant Friend alienating too. I need to feel engaged with the characters, to believe in them, which I do in Austen’s characters.

      • Absolutely agree with that. Yes, Jane Austen’s arched eyebrow and authorial presence is so completely her own and her opinions such a delight, I’m always carried away. I’ve been resisting Questions of Travel because her previous novel The Lost Dog left me completely underwhelmed and I don’t like being manipulated either. I will trust your judgement as I think we are similar readers and give ‘Questions..’ a miss. I’m currently reading The Ever After of Ashwin Rao by Padma Vishwanathan and so far finding it fascinating. xx

      • You put it so well; I love her ‘arched eyebrow’ too; so acid, so steeped in deep human values of intelligent love, humour, respect, with a keen-eyed, feminist vision, in a time when women’s voices were subdued and constricted by the conventions of patriarchy and class snobbery. Interesting you had a similar response to de Kretser’s earlier novel, which also has had rave reviews. Sometimes I think I”m on another planet from literary judges and reviewers. And yes, we are similar readers. I will follow up on The Ever After, thank you.

  5. Pingback: Neapolitan Quartet | Writing Lives

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