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Monday, December 14, 2015

Who is Elena Ferrante and Why Have I Just Now Found Out About Her?

I feel no nostalgia for my 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, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.
-Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend

In my last post I talked a lot about nostalgia. And I keep thinking about it. We often look back on our childhoods with fondness, but we express it by focusing on the goods that were available to purchase and consume at the time. There must be some deep chemical response to desiring and getting toys, games, books, and tapes that creates brain pathways. Listen, I’m not a brain surgeon, and while I certainly have a firmer grasp on foreign policy than one, I don’t know why we are how we are.

What I can say is that one need only to post a picture of a toy that existed when we were young and it will spread across the internet like the one time in Junior High when the rumor spread that I hadn’t hit puberty yet: inexplicable and kind of creepy.

What strikes me as particularly weird is how we seem to be so nostalgic for terrible things. I remember riding around in the back of my friend’s pickup truck when we would leave the high school campus for lunch. We’d lie down in the back to avoid police, essentially one wrong turn or drunk driver away from being a tragic memory for our graduating class when those three kids who nobody really knew but seemed nice enough I guess were thrown across four lanes of traffic. Our parents recount going on long car trips while being stacked in the back of the station wagon like sardines. Their only comfort being a solitary lick of a horehound lollypop and the soothing sounds of FDR on the wireless, declaring war.

Those were the good old days, I guess. Things were simpler. More moms grieved the death of their babies, but that’s a small price to pay for the fond memories we have of riding on the hoods of cars while our irresponsible older friend who should know better took tight turns and sent us rolling across a parking lot and then subsequently passing out at the sight of our own blood. I mean, we were fine, and that’s the thing that matters.

But now it’s nanny nation, you guys. We’re being told by big government that we should put our children in car seats as soon as they are born. They won’t even let us take our new baby home from the hospital without one! It’s almost like they see that brand new infant not as a cute little pet that we can’t wait to start posting on the social medias, but as a potential emergency room case and drain on resources within minutes, maybe even seconds, of letting it into our care.

Why, I remember when a man could punch his wife and the neighbors knew to mind their own business! When football players were actually allowed to play football, instead of all this namby-pamby oh-dear-you’re-going-to-be-senile-at-age-36-boo-hoo talk we hear now. If you didn’t want your life to be shortened on a football field you shouldn’t have let your dad try to live all of his spoiled dreams through you, is all I have to say about that. I mean nowadays in Obama’s America if a young girl is raped, she’s actually encouraged to report her rapist, even if it means he won’t be able to go on a mission! It’s like we’re telling young women that their lives are as important as a man’s. Can you imagine how dangerous that is?

Why, people are saying now that being sad is a disease! Can you even? I can not even. I know that “scientists” in “lab coats” are telling us that there’s “evidence” that there are “chemicals” in our “brains” that regulate “mood,” but I know from the bottom of my heart that people would be happy if they just stopped sinning. Why, look at Jesus! Just pulling out a random scripture we’ll see that “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” Well. Obviously that’s a mistranslation because I believe every word of the Bible except for the parts I don’t agree with politically.

Anyway this concludes the broad straw-man satire of this post.

The reason I loved, loved, loved My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante is because, like in that first line, she is brutally honest about childhood. Nobody knows anything about Ferrante. She’s considered the most important contemporary author in Italy and as far as I know nobody has even met her. But my goodness is her writing interesting.
They were more severely infected than the men, because while men were always getting furious, they calmed down in the end; women, who appeared to be silent, acquiescent, when they were angry flew into a rage that had no end.

Ferrante’s tiny, poor community outside of Naples feels completely authentic. The way Ferrante tells the story of two girls, Elena and Lila, growing up is frankly astonishing. When they’re young, there is only their neighborhood, and there are dangers. A local man who is despised by the community is thought by the girls to turn into a shadow at night and steal their dolls. As they grow older, you feel the community enlarging along with their awareness of it. Imaginary dangers are replaced with the more concrete. As they develop into young women, every interaction takes on a sinister tone and can be frightening and loaded with implications.

Elena and Lila learn the history of the people in the neighborhood, tracing back the sources of old feuds and tragedy. They witness new ones. There is no point when Ferrante sugar-coats the experience, she never talks down to her characters as children. Never tries to paint an idyllic childhood. It’s just so impressive. Ferrante must have some kind of memory of childhood the rest of us can’t tap into, to view an entire life so clearly.

I can’t remember the last time I’ve been affected by a book like this.

Here’s where I try to put a button on this whole thing. I started with some personal observations and ended with a brief book review. It’s nice to have a format.

Look, I don’t want to make people feel bad. I get it. I get why we pine for earlier days that seem simpler but in fact were just as complicated. It’s crappy that kids look at iPads instead of out the window on long drives and we think we’re blowing it. We want our kids to have our childhood but what I’m saying is that we’re lucky we got through it, just like every generation of children is lucky they got through the meat grinder of human existence throughout history.

Here’s my take on today: it’s a good time to be a kid if you’re weird. You can draw dragons and play Magic or Pokemon during recess and you won’t get punched probably. That’s different from even when I was a kid. It’s a good time to be a kid if you have behavior disorders, or autism, or a wheelchair. There are people there for you that weren’t there 50 years ago. It’s a good time for kids with diseases that are now curable. If you’re black, or fresh from Mexico, or a little girl who likes science, or a little boy who likes ballet, or you don’t think you fit in the body you were given for whatever reason, there has never been a better time to be a kid.

It’s scary but it’s always scary. Today my kids have drills to deal with a shooter in the school; it makes me sick to think about it. When I was young I think I developed an ulcer fearing an earthquake because I’d been told all of the ways in which our school was not earthquake safe. There were bomb shelters at my school from when my parents went there and were under the constant perceived shadow of nuclear attack. Before then children had friends die of polio and tuberculosis. Before then maybe there were cave bear attacks at school, I don’t know.

Outlaw cave bears!
"Yeah, but if we make cave bears criminal only criminals will have cave bears."
I'm just saying give your kids a break. Give yourselves a break. Give a delicious Kit Kat a break (this post has been sponsored by Kit Kat.)