Writers and Lovers Lily King

The hatchet falls on... Writers & Lovers

The news of an upcoming Italian translation of "Writers & Lovers" by Lily King, brought back the memories of the terrible day and a half I spent reading this novel (and also a few reflections on the criteria on which Italian publishers chose what to translate and not to translate, but let's not well on that... for now).

My quite strongly negative opinion on this novel seems to clash with the many 5 star comments on web platforms (e.g.: Goodreads), therefore, for a while I thought I just hadn't understood the deep meaning that Lily King wanted to convey with her writing. Then, fortunately, in July, the Times Literary Supplement published a review that shared most of my negative thoughts (by Evelyn Toynton), and I finally felt understood.

Now, the following review will contain a number of spoilers: therefore, if you really really want to read "Writers & Lovers" you might want to stop here. If you want to save yourselves a rather pathetic experience, please feel free to carry on.

When I bought this book in early 2020 I should have known that a fancy title and a nice cover were going to be misleading...

Writers and Lovers Lily King
The book cover of Writers & Lovers, by Lily King. Photo credit: Winky Lewis

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Stephen Fry, the 100th Lego Classicist

Stephen Fry, the 100th Lego Classicist

Yet another great announcement for the classicists who love LEGO. The well-known Australian historical archivist Liam D. Jensen, AKA The Lego Classicist, is informing us about the revealing of the 100th entry in this rich and precious collection of classicists.

This time, the coveted acknowledgment will go to the world-famous British star Stephen Fry.

Fry has starred in theatre plays, full length pictures and TV series; besides, all throughout his career he's been a film director and scriptwriter, a TV host, a journalist and a book author.

An important part of his writing activities is indeed focused on the subject of mythology; we had the honour of interviewing Stephen Fry on this occasion.

Stephen Fry LEGO Classicist
Stephen Fry, the 100th LEGO Classicist

You wrote many books on the subject of myth. Where does this interest start, and what inspires you?

Mythology, but specifically Greek myth, gripped me from the first. I had liked fairy stories well enough when young, as most children do, but I sensed straight away that myths were somehow different, they came from a different place, they could be “taken to be true” in a certain kind of way that was stronger than fantasy. I think it was the personalities in Greek myth that so beguiled me. Without being conscious in any way of what myth is – where it comes from, who thought the stories up – I think it was clear to me that they had a truth and a depth too them that was more imperishable and somehow more important than, for example, Snow White and Rapunzel on the one hand, or the Hobbit and Narnia on the other. I have no wild objection to author-created fantasy worlds, but they could never reach me the way stories of myth could and still do.

What does it mean for Stephen Fry to popularize and/or retell a subject?

Goodness, I am not sure. I suppose in my wildest moments of self-belief and optimism I might hope that I combined enough of an ability to animate and entertain with enough authority and knowledge too - such a combination allowing people simultaneously to enjoy what I write but also to feel in some sense enriched by the confidence that they were (perhaps for the first time, or at least for a long time) drawing from the same narrative waters that so many generations of our ancestors had drawn. I get such pleasure when people tell me that they finally felt able to connect dots between — for example — Apollo and Hermes or the Titans and the Olympians, or that they feel familiar with characters whose names had often seemed remote and forbidding, Clytemnestra, say or Antigone. What once had been rather academic sounding names were at last knowable. Most of all, I hope to have taken away the scent of chalk dust and the stuffy school room...

 

The cover of the book Troy: Our Greatest Story Retold - Stephen Fry's Greek Myth, Penguin Books (2020)

How have your studies on English literature influenced your choices and your activities?

It’s impossible to say: I suspect that the traces of a lifetime’s love of reading will have left their mark in all kinds of ways that I cannot necessarily know or define. I think that a sense of irony (by which I mean something more than mocking irony, sarcasm or a sense of cosmic irony) is crucial to full human social development. An ironic mind is one that understand how to adopt another point of view, how to substitute (like a kind of social algebra) different ways of thinking, how to lay the patterns from one form of discourse on another (I know that doesn’t sound very clear, but I hope you get what I mean). The opposite of a ironising mind is a literalist mind, a dangerous and all too common presence in our world as larger and larger proportions of society rise in the world in new generations, sadly it seems unequipped with the ability to think ironically (such an ability presupposes the gift to think logically and imaginatively for you cannot be an ironist without a rigid sense of logic coupled with the ability to penetrate the knowledge and experience of others). My friend Matt D’Ancona put it very well when writing about another friend, the late Christopher Hitchens: “The struggle for a free intelligence has always been a struggle between the ironic and the literal mind … unlike rigid ideology and fundamentalism, irony – saying one thing while meaning another – helps us to recognise complexity, paradox, nuance and absurdity.” And nothing, I would suggest, allows for this facility more than an exposure to literature and drama.

Stephen Fry LEGO Classicist
Stephen Fry, the 100th LEGO Classicist

In your book Heroes: Mortal and Monsters, Quests and Adventures, you wrote again about classical mythology, and of vices and virtues of the Gods. How do you imagine a fictitious Olympus?

Well, I am sorry to have to break it to you, but an Olympus peopled by quarrelling and fractious gods is a fiction. When you climb Mount Olympus in Greece you will find nothing but a very cold, damp, cloudy and rocky empty space. No gods there at all. The idea that there ever were gods there is … well, if not fictitious then mythical. We can think about what we mean by the difference. A fiction is fabricated by an individual mind, or occasionally a group of collaborating minds. A myth is fabricated by a whole society. Myths can be called, as Joseph Campbell did, “public dreams” or, if you prefer Carl Jung’s phrase, they are expressions of a “collective unconscious”. The collective unconscious of the Greeks, in my view, is so appealing because it understands that if the world is majestic, beautiful, awe-inspiring, noble and beautiful (as it clearly is) then the gods must be all those things …. BUT, the Greeks also knew that if the world is brutal, cruel, capricious, unjust, ugly and savage then the gods must be all those things too. Therefore, for the first time in human story-telling, the Greek pantheon is presented as one of personalities who are several things at once: mean but beautiful, cruel but fair, noble but capricious, etc etc etc. In other words, unlike so many other mythic cycles, the Greek one is filled with the ambiguities, inconsistencies and multiplicities of character that we find in our real lives. The very complexity, paradox, nuance and absurdity that I mentioned earlier. They are the first mythic cycle in our human history to have been shaped and reshaped by poets and dramatists to become a perfect blend of the religious, the literary, the dramatic, the visionary, the comic and the symbolic. They are, I think one can say therefore, a work of art.

The cover of the book Heroes. The myths of the Ancient Greek heroes retold, by Stephen Fry, Penguin Books (2019)

Stephen Fry will be the 100th Lego Classicist, did you know the project already?

I had heard of it, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I might be the Lego Centenarian.

Stephen Fry LEGO Classicist
Liam D. Jensen and Alessandra Randazzo talking about the 100th LEGO Classicist

All Lego Classicist pictures courtesy Liam D. Jensen, The Lego Classicist.


Actress Anne Enright

Actress by Anne Enright: between biography, autobiography, fiction and autofiction.

The exquisite pen of Anne Enright, one of the most talented Irish writers, strikes again thanks to her latest literary enterprise, the novel Actress.

Actress is not simply an objectively “good novel”, in a canonic way – because of the undeniable elegance of the writing and because of the story which, though flowing nicely, requires an attentive reading – but is also and most importantly an interesting novel in the light of the dense and sophisticated experimentation the author did on the literary genre. Anne Enright has indeed wisely merged fiction, autofiction, biography, autobiography, memoir, and essay writing in one engaging and well-balanced literary pastiche.

The actress in the title is the protagonist of the novel and mother of the co-protagonist, who is the narrator of this story. Therefore, a first intersection appears to happen between the voice who tells the story and the person who acts in those stories. Katherine O’Dell, a star of Irish theatre (and not only) in the post-war Ireland, lives a life of torments that inevitably end up mirroring themselves in the life of her daughter Norah – just a mistake, but very much loved. Norah is also a writer, who chooses only late in her life to dedicate her energies to the narration of her mother’s life, as a consequence of some appalling attempts from other journalists and writers, morbidly interested in the indecent details of Katherine’s love life. This story is fiction, but it is rather easy for a reader to forget, after a few pages, that Katherine O’Dell never existed and never was a great actress, and that Norah non is not Anne Enright. The novel is written in a style which is more similar to autofiction than it it is to a biographical account. What makes it even more outstanding is that Norah, in unraveling the events of her mother’s biography, ends up digging deeply into her own personal one, making it the core of her narration, at least as much as Katherine’s life. All this is then made even more unique by the unusual choice of narrating the whole story in the second person: Norah is writing to her husband, one of the characters in this double (auto)biography.

Anne Enright
Anne Enright (2008). Picture by Hpschaefer, CC BY 3.0

At times, the writing style appears almost journalistic, if not academic: some of the events of which Katherine is the protagonist are news stories and are told accordingly (in particular, her aggression to a colleague, which was all over many newspapers); others appear told through an academic filter, a scholarly filter, the filter of a historian, interested in what the great actress represented for Irish theatre in a specific historical moment. At other times, instead, Norah’s humanity outclasses the somewhat aseptic necessity of providing an objective and impartial account that biographies often require. Norah cannot resist her need for analysis and auto-analysis. Therefore, she builds a reflection on herself, on the events of her life, the life of a child cast away, of a teenager surrounded by her mother’s friends and lovers, of a young college student discovering and practicing sex in a Catholic and bigot Ireland but also in a family without taboos (Katherine never represses and never hides), of a woman tormented by her love for her mother and future husband, and from the difficulty of not having a father and nor the chance to discover who he was. At the same time, through the pages, another reflection takes place: one on her mother’s choices, on her morals, on the reasons for her eccentric behaviour, on her role and on her skills as a parent. Crucial are finally Norah’s accounts of the History in which she’s involved, the “civil war” in the ’70s, which she narrates through her personal experience of the conflicts.

Actress is a dense and compact book, well-orchestrated and full of reflections. Reflections on parenthood, childhood, adolescence, adult age; reflections on love, sexuality, morals, habits, costumes; reflections on solitude, on recklessness and responsibility; on jealousy, envy, admiration; reflections on theatre, on playing a role on a stage and in life. But above all, Actress is a book that is not afraid to reinvent a genre or more genres, of experimenting with narrative voices, with the concept of protagonists, with styles.

Actress Anne Enright
The cover of the book by Anne Enright, Actress. A Novel, published by W. W. Norton

premi letterari inclusività diversità literary prizes inclusivity diversity fiction

From Booker to Strega: diversity and inclusivity in literary prizes

As I was reading, a few weeks ago, the names in the Booker Prize 2020 shortlist, I was caught by a fleeting yet well-defined thought: how depressing can it be to make a comparison between this shortlist and those of the most prestigious Italian prizes for fiction?

premi letterari inclusività diversità
Literary prizes, inclusivity, diversity. Picture by Roberta Berardi


The answer is quite simple: very depressing. Not because the literary quality of those English novels which ended up being finalists for the Booker Prize is necessarily higher than the quality those written in Italian and selected by the committees of the Strega and Campiello prizes– I haven’t read them all, I wouldn’t know how to judge – but for the disturbing dominance, in Italian prizes, of the writing phenotype of the “white male”.
Italy saw some mild turbulence in the debate on this topic, when Valeria Parrella, the only woman in the Strega shortlist, reacted in an understandably resented way, when, during her interview on the award ceremony, had to sadly realise that a debate on the relationship between the #MeToo movement and literature would happen between two men: “e lei ne vuole parlare con Augias? Auguri!” (“and you want to discuss that with Augias [editor's note: a man]? Good luck!”, said Parrella to the journalist, manifesting a resentment which would be easily shared by many female writers, or simply many women.

Valeria Parrella’s resentment deserves to be charged with further significance if we look at the names of the finalists in the three abovementioned prizes.

For the Strega, all six writer were white and five out of six were men. The longlist was not more encouraging, if we think that besides Valeria Parrella, there were only two more women, Marta Barone e Silvia Ballestra. For the Campiello, the situation was quite similar: once again, all writers were white, and only one was a woman. Moreover, she was not even a novelist. We are talking about Patrizia Cavalli, an undoubtedly illustrious author, but in truth a poet attempting to turn to prose only now, at a later stage of her career, almost as a form of self-celebration. The Booker Prize, instead, among its six finalists, presents four people of colour of which only one is a man. The longlist was equally widely populated with talented women.

If about racial issues, someone might be naive and object that in Italy most writers are in fact white, on gender issues Italy seems to have no excuses. Contemporary Italian fiction has a panorama abounding in women, with a long- or short-lived career. Female writers with talent and original ideas.
The problem seems to occur with similar practices also in other realities of continental Europe: in France, the Goncourt prize has currently only four women out of fifteen in the longlist.

It appears that anglophone prizes, on the contrary, have decided to invest on the principles of diversity and inclusivity, making sure that their selection mirrors the actuality of the society literature represents. The choices of the Booker committee are well matched with those of the American National Book Award, whose longlist is extremely variegated both in terms of genders and of writers’ cultural backgrounds. Needless to remind that the Pulitzer prize for fiction this year was assigned for the second time to Colson Whitehead, a black writer.

It’s easy to brand these choices as banal and comfortable publicity moves. It is undeniable that they are political choices, but their necessity in undeniable in this historical moment. They act as signals, as messages aimed at a mentality change, which is not only desirable but also compelling. They are signals that must arrive from those who hold the power in publishing and media in general. Signals that other countries, like Italy, persists to give only in a fictitious form, relegating them to a surface level, when to a the duty and the honour to debate female literature is given to a man, in the reassuring certainty that the problem of being politically correct can now be filed, and that we can finally go back - without too many subtleties – to awarding the prize to a male writer.


Pulitzer Prize 2020

The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2020: when literature precedes history

The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2020: Great American Novels, Black Lives Matter, archetypes and stereotypes

The almost proverbial longtime obsession that American writers have always shown to have for writing the “Great American Novel” (an expression canonised by Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel) seems to have found its perfect embodiment in the finalist trio of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Let’s be honest: not all past Pulitzer winners — let alone just finalists — have managed to contribute to the history of American literature, but this year, the year of Apocalypse apparently, our judges have provided us with a remarkable specimen of thriving American fictional prose.

 

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The 2020 #Pulitzer Prize-winning books are: 1. Fiction "The Nickel Boys," by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday) @DoubledayBooks A spare and devastating exploration of abuse at a reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida that is ultimately a powerful tale of human perseverance, dignity and redemption. . 2. History Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America, by W. Caleb McDaniel (Oxford University Press) @OxUniPress. A masterfully researched meditation on reparations based on the remarkable story of a 19th-century woman who survived kidnapping and re-enslavement to sue her captor. . 3. Biography Sontag: Her Life and Work, by Benjamin Moser @BenjaminFMoser (Ecco) @EccoBooks. An authoritatively constructed work told with pathos and grace, that captures the writer’s genius and humanity alongside her addictions, sexual ambiguities and volatile enthusiasms. . 4. Poetry The Tradition, by Jericho Brown @JerichoBrown1 (@Copper_Canyon_Press) A collection of masterful lyrics that combine delicacy with historical urgency in their loving evocation of bodies vulnerable to hostility and violence. . 5. General Nonfiction The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care, by Anne Boyer (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux). An elegant and unforgettable narrative about the brutality of illness and the capitalism of cancer care in America. . 6. General Nonfiction The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, by Greg Grandin (Metropolitan Books) A sweeping and beautifully written book that probes the American myth of boundless expansion and provides a compelling context for thinking about the current political moment. (Moved by the Board from the History category.) . #PulitzerPrizes #Pulitzer #Journalism #Arts #Books #Writers #Playwrights #Bookstagram #Drama #amreading #amwriting

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The victory of The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead (for the second time awarded with the prize, after his triumph in 2017 with The Underground Railroad) could not be more timely: only 21 days before the murder of George Floyd, which initiated the ongoing history-changing wave of protests of the Black Lives Matter movement, on May 4th 2020, a novel whose story revolves around white violence against black boys in an American reformatory, deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize. A prophecy? A foreshadow of things to come? Or perhaps just a signal, a symptom of the growing need for awareness on a social — and ultimately historical — issue that had been simmering just beneath the surface for way too long.

This is not simply an honest, profound, and well-timed novel on the condition of black people in the US. It is — I will be excused the redundancy from now on — a Great American Novel.

I quote from the Wikipedia page for GAN: “The term Great American Novel (GAN) refers to a canonical novel that is thought to capture the spirit of American life. It is generally regarded as being written by an American and dealing in some way with the question of America's national character. The Great American Novel is considered America's equivalent of the national epic.

The book cover of The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2020

The Nickel Boys, though not canonically “epic” with its 215 pages, does indeed capture in a robust way the spirit of contemporary American life. Despite the fictional character of this novel, older and recent history has proved that the events narrated in Whitehead’s last book — the brutality of the violent and multiform abuse against (even young) black people — are facts that permeate everyday American (and not only) society and corrode its foundations. The question of black lives is, therefore, a question of America’s national character, and Whitehead’s powerful writing immortalises it in a way that few other writers (and I’m thinking of Toni Morrison above all) have been able to do so far: this is a profoundly personal, single, individual story that has the strength to turn itself into the archetype of a universal human condition of suffering, abuse, violence, and discrimination. Creating archetypes is indeed what good writing should normally bet able to do, whereas mediocre writing fills its pages with fragile and dull stereotypes. This is why, if one of the two winners of the Man Booker Prize 2019, Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo, merely offers us a rather banal tracking shot of poorly written cliches (stereotypes, precisely!) on black women (and does not, therefore, portray a reality a reader can fully grasp), Whitehead, on the contrary, creates a fictional world that, in its uniqueness, makes the real world aware of its flaws, and resonates with archetypical strength. This is how it becomes epic too, and most resolutely deserves the title of Great American Novel.

What further enriches the literary scenario of this year’s Pulitzer Prize is the incontestable truth that the other two contenders also notably had all the characteristics of great American novels.

The book cover of The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

The Topeka School, by Ben Lerner, is a refined and sophisticated novel depicting a certain bourgeois cross-section of American society: the protagonists are a family of psychotherapists, whose young son is a champion of public debate. The narration is polyphonic not only thanks to the multitude of voices (mother, father, son), but also to the author’s choice of alternating the first and third-person speech. The narrative technique is wise, as the secretly hidden story of a boy called Darren — that touches tangentially yet significantly the lives of the protagonists — unwinds throughout the chapters without being ever explicitly told. This is potentially a great American novel, not only because it is beautifully written and masterfully orchestrated, but also because it tackles tactfully a number of hot themes of contemporary American society. Public speech and eloquence — persuasion and its danger —, above all, feminism, mental health and psychotherapy, but also and quite remarkably the critical role of education. This pastiche of themes could have easily risked creating yet another collection of stereotypical cliches, but Ben Lerner appears to know better than this, and chooses to give his novel a vigorous framework within which these problems interact naturally and vividly, and therefore can aim at universality.

The book cover of The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Finally, we have The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett, perhaps the most traditional of the three novels: a family saga. The plot, somehow a modern and harsh rewriting of the fairytale of Cinderella, is that of two siblings (a brother and a sister, of whom the brother narrates the story), who are, on the one hand, the victims of the tragic destiny of their family (abandoned by their mother, kicked out from their family house by the second wife of their late father), and, on the other hand, the victims of their own violent obsession for the Dutch House. The house is the sumptuous place where they grew up — the materialisation of their father’s American dream, the dream of an ambitious and stubborn man, decided to substantiate his scaling of the social ladder through the possession of a dream house, the same house that will lead his wife to folly and escape.

The obsession of the two protagonists for the house will accompany them until old age and death, and will be inherited by future generations. If the plot is fundamentally simple, the feeling it conveys is undoubtedly epic: a blind, insistent, stubborn search for the evidence of the actuality of the past; a desperate chase of roots; a morbid yet rational attachment to the material possession — the house — which provided those roots; the physical and tangible component of memory.

By narrating these sentiments, universal yet so strongly connotated as typically American (isn’t in the big house, after all, the American dream?), Ann Patchett builds an epic novel, whose emotional strength is at times excruciating, whose simplicity describes folly, torment, resignation, family love, and a vast plethora of human emotions and actions. This is, in sum, a great (and in this case also traditional, though universal) American novel.

Ultimately, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2020 amazes for its foresight and for the brilliance of choices, but most remarkably teaches how literature, at times, precedes history, how the big human and social questions often surface on the written page before action takes place. How great American novels (and hopefully great universal novels) can be a driving force to action and thought.

Pulitzer Prize 2020
Colson Whitehead, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction 2020. Picture by Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0