Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Ferrante Roundtable at Rutgers

On March 28 I had the opportunity to participate in a roundtable sponsosred by Rutgers Italian Graduate society. I learned a lot from the other panelists and from the graduate students, and especially enjoyed meeting the graduate students. Each panelist saw Ferrante through her own lens. One panelist focused on architectural history as a window into Ferrante. I found this a little strange but she probably saw my insistence of the Neapolitan novels as political novels as a misguided interpretation.

To my surprise, despite evidence mounting over the years that Domenico Starnone was one of the writers behind the pseudonym of Elena Ferrante, one panelist claimed that anyone who thought the translator Anita Raja was writing in collaboration with her husband Domenico Starnone was guilty of sexism. By that definition, I would be a sexist.

Surely, there are reasons other than sexism for coming to the conclusion that Starnone was involved in writing the books attributed to Ferrante. This reminded me of the kinds of rhetoric all too common in political circles—inflammatory charges made without any consideration of the evidence. And the evidence is compelling.

When I first encountered Ferrante, I was one of the people convinced that Ferrante's novels were written by a woman. There were just too many intimate details of life in a female body. However, after Claudio Gatti’s well-documented claim that Ferrante was Anita Raja, possibly working in collaboration with her husband Domenico Starnone, I could no longer ignore the mounting evidence that Starnone was involved in the creation of works attributed to Ferrante.

Not only did four groups of analysts using different text analysis programs independently came to the same conclusion that Starnone was in all likelihood the principal author of Ferrante’s novels, but the three of Starnone’s novels that have been translated into English provide considerable support for Starnone’s role. (See chapter 2 of my book In Search of Elena Ferrante for my argument s regarding Starnone’s authorship and the really interesting questions it raises about gender and authorship.)

In a recent Atlantic article, Rachel Donadio provides convincing evidence for Starnone’s s involvement in the works attributed to Elena Ferrante but she goes beyond identifying Starnone as co-author to explore questions about the nature of authorship and commonly held assumptions about gender and literature. Donadio analyzed Starnone’s 2011 novel Autobiografia Erotica di Aristide Gambía published the same year that My Brilliant Friend appeared in Italian. Donadio describes it as a “dizzying meditation on whether men can convincingly write about women and women about men." “Elena Ferrante” actually appears as a character in Autobiografia Erotica and the narrator Aristide Gambía decides he no longer wants to write about aging men: instead he will explore women’s lives, and “the battle … to become a new woman.”

Given the evidence suggesting that Starnone had a role in the works attributed to Ferrante, I cannot help but wonder what makes people (including highly educated academics) stubbornly cling to their positions and refuse to consider evidence that might undermine their beliefs. This is not so different from what is happening now in the political arena where often evidence counts for very little and impassioned belief trumps all.

I asked a friend, a professor of European history and culture if she could explain the panelists’ refusal to consider possibilities other than sole authorship by a woman writer. My friend’s response—“probably a simplistic form of feminism."That would be ironic because feminist theory has moved far beyond a binary approach to gender and acknowledges gender fluidity. Ferrante herself in her many interviews, returns again and again to the idea of collaborative authorship and the belief that “a good writer—male or female—can imitate the two sexes with equal effectiveness. There are allusions to both gender bending and collaborative authorship scattered throughout Ferrante’s work, almost as if she is providing clues to the authorship of her novels—similar to the many clues embedded in Starnone’s works.


Ferrante’s publishers may fear that if a male author is acknowledged as the co-author of Ferrante’s books, many of Ferrante’s readers will be disappointed, may feel deceived and book sales will plummet. My guess is that many readers will be intrigued by the collaboration of a man and woman on books that so powerfully explore gender roles. Many second wave feminists have (in some cases reluctantly) moved beyond the idea that there is an authentic female voice that can be recognized as such. Queer theory and intersectional feminism have emphasized the fluidity of gender and undermined the notion of a stable female identity.

Perhaps Starnone and Raja are uncomfortable about what might be viewed as a web of lies rather than the artful creation of the literary person of Elena Ferrante. Or perhaps they worry that interest in their dual authorship would in some way detract from serious interest in the texts. However, since thanks to Gatti’s investigations and the text analysis software identifying Starnone as the likely co-author, there seems to be little to be gained from denying what is widely known. And readers would certainly benefit from the translations of Starnone’s works, which might follow from acknowledging his role in the creation of the Neapolitan Quartet.

The impassioned denial that a man could have any role in the creation of Ferrante’s novels is just no longer tenable.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

City’s Commission for Women holds 3rd annual summit


At the 3rd Annual summit of the Philadelphia Commission for Women (from left): Executive Director of Commission for Women, Jovida Hill, Commissioner Lexi White and Commissioner Lisa Holgash from Mt. Airy. (Photo by Joanna McClinton)


The Philadelphia Commission for Women held its 3rd Annual Summit for Women and Girls at La Salle University on Friday, March 15. The commission was created by an amendment to the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter, initiated by Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown and passed by the voters in 2015.

The commission is comprised of 10 people appointed by the mayor and 17 appointed by each member of City Council. Its missionsis to make recommendations that advance gender equality to the mayor, City Council and public policy makers.

Organized around the theme, “Our Voices … Our Power,” the summit included sessions on health and wellness, financial literacy, self-esteem and leadership development. The first plenary session was well-received by a largely young and enthusiastic audience with speakers LaTosha Brown of the Black Voters Matter Fund, Gisele Baretto Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s Second Lady, and Rep. Elizabeth Fiedle of Pennsylvania’s 184th District.

Fetterman’s description of growing up as an undocumented immigrant was particularly moving. She was told by her mother not to draw attention to herself, to be as invisible as possible – in sharp contrast to LaTosha Brown’s and Elizabeth Fiedler’s message to the young girls in the audience to raise their voices and aim high.

A major theme of the conference was the shocking racial disparity in maternal and infant mortality, an issue that the Philadelphia Commission for Women has worked to bring to the attention of policy makers and the general public. In a breakout session, “The Reality of Maternal Mortality,” Rep. Morgan Cephas,(192nd District) said the state’s health care system was not meeting the needs of women of color, noting that the high proportion of African-American maternal and infant deaths cuts across socioeconomic lines. Philadelphia’s 8th District Councilperson Cindy Bass has introduced a resolution to hold hearings on this issue at Philadelphia City Council.

In another breakout session, Feminista Jones, author of “Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists are Changing the World from Tweets to the Streets,” also drew attention to racial disparities in infant and maternal deaths as one of the many reasons black women have every right to be angry.

Despite persistent problems, however, many speakers also emphasized there was much to celebrate, with more women serving in elected office than ever before and, as the session “Never Too Young to Break Barriers” demonstrated, young women have become leaders in sports, education and community service.

The Summit concluded with an inspirational speech from City Councilperson Blondell Reynolds Brown, who will be retiring at the end of her term. She emphasized that “women who lead must make it a practice to mentor at least one promising one young woman they can coach and prepare to accept the torch.”

From the executive director of the Philadelphia Commission for Women, Jovida Hill: “It’s gratifying to be able to provide a platform for the city’s women and girls in an environment of encouragement, enlightenment and empowerment. We broke our own record this year, with more than 100 girls from schools and mentoring programs across the city. That the summit grows with each year tells us that there is a thirst for this opportunity for women and girls to come together to uplift one another.”

This article first appeared in the Chestnut Hill Local

Monday, February 25, 2019

Rachel Donadio's search for Elena Ferrante leads to Autobiografia Erotica di Aristide Gambía


Rachel Donadio nails it. In a recent Atlantic article, she provides convincing evidence for Domenico’s involvement in the works attributed to Elena Ferrante but goes beyond identifying Starnone as co-author to explore questions about the nature of authorship and commonly held assumptions about gender and literature.

When I first read Ferrante's novels, I was convinced they were written by a woman. There were just too many intimate details of life in a female body. However, after Claudio Gatti’s well-documented revelation that Ferrante was Anita Raja, possibly working in collaboration with her husband Domenico Starnone, I could no longer ignore the mounting evidence that Starnone was involved in the creation of works attributed to Ferrante. Four groups of analysts using different text analysis programs independently came to the same conclusion that Starnone was in all likelihood the principal author of Ferrante’s novels. Furthermore, references to collaborative authorship abound in the Neapolitan Quartet and in Ferrante’s many interviews collected in Frantumaglia.

When writing my book, In Search of Elena Ferrante, I turned to Starnone’s novels for further clues as to his contribution to Ferrante’s novels; however, unlike Donadio I was limited to those books translated into English. I found many stylistic and thematic similarities to Ferrante. First Execution ,like the Neapolitan novels, explores the ethical implications of political violence. Starnone’s Ties is strikingly similar to Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment; both novels begin with a man abandoning his wife and children for a much younger woman, leaving his wife distraught, angry and unwilling to accept her husband’s betrayal.

Starnone's Trick has thematic similarities to Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Like Elena Greco, Daniele Mallarico, the narrator of Trick, longed to escape Naples and his difficult family; like Elena, through education and talent he managed to do so. Several of the details of working class life recalled by Mallarico in Trick are reminiscent of descriptions of Elena’s family dealing with the difficulties of a large family living in a relatively small space. Elena at times speculates on what she might have become if she hadn’t had the strength to leave Naples, and what the far more talented Lila might have become if her family, like Elena’s, had allowed her to continue her education. Similarly, the elderly artist in Trick becomes obsessed with the roads not taken.

These similarities between Starnone’s works and those attributed to Ferrante strengthened the case for his co-authorship. However, I believed that if I could read Starnone’s novels which had not been translated into English, I would have an even stronger case.

My hunch was confirmed when I read Rachel Donadio’s article. She analyzed Starnone’s 2011 novel Autobiografia Erotica di Aristide Gambía published the same year that My Brilliant Friend appeared in Italian. Donadio describes it as a “dizzying meditation on whether men can convincingly write about women and women about men." “Elena Ferrante” actually appears as a character in Autobiografia Erotica and the narrator Aristide Gambía decides he no longer wants to write about aging men: instead he will explore women’s lives, and “the battle … to become a new woman.”

I found Donadio’s analysis somewhat hard to follow but that may be a reflection on her source—she describes the novel as “Starnone at his most intricately metafictional… about as easy to summarize as an M. C. Escher print is to describe.”

Both in Autobiografia Erotica as in his novels Trick and Ties, Starnone leaves many clues about his relationship to the fictional Elena Ferrante. It certainly seems like he wants to be found out. The decision to publish under the pseudonym of Elena Ferrante was made over two decades ago, before Ferrante became an international sensation. Could Starnone at this point in his life want recognition for his contribution towards the creation of the fictional character Elena Ferrante and her powerful novels? Starnone has apparently published fourteen works of fiction, eleven of which have not been translated into English, and which I would very much like to read. If Starnone were publicly identified as the co-author of the Neapolitan Quartet, I expect some of these books would be translated and made available to the English speaking reader.





Friday, February 22, 2019

Milan:The Northern Italy Diaries, part V

Milan Cathedral

Milan was a surprise—both a pleasant and unpleasant surprise. We had visited Milan in the 1980s and I remembered it as a grimy city in desperate need of a clean up. Well, at some point between then and now the cleanup occurred and Milan sparkles. According to our hotel staff, the city got a makeover in 2015 when it hosted the World Expo. The cathedral is now gleaming white.

Now for the unpleasant surprise. Milan is one of –perhaps the most--expensive cities we have visited. Although we regretted not spending more time in Turin and Genoa, were happy not to have done so in Milan. That said, I would advise any traveller to Northern Italy to spend a few days in Milan. The Brera Museum alone is worth one full day. When we visited the Brera in 1980, we were astonished at how few people were there in this world class museum. We had its amazing collection almost to ourselves.

Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio, 1606 at the Brera


That’s no longer the case, but the number of tourists is not oppressive as it is in Italy’s other major museums. The Brera has had a major make over with a beautiful courtyard and attractive restaurant. Courtyard at the Brera

Another highlight for me was my visit to the Milan Women's Bookstore- a must stop for any feminist visitor to Milan.

We spent our last day taking a trip to Lake Como. I love the Italian lake district and couldn't resist one last glimpse:

Friday, February 15, 2019

Genoa: The Northern Italy Diaries, part IV

Genoa like Turin is an open air architectural museum, but with a very different feel. There is no French influence as in Turin; Genoa is very much an Italian city—in some ways reminiscent of Naples. Both are port cities built on steep hills with a rich architectural heritage; however unlike Naples, in Genoa for the most part the baroque buildings are in good shape and the city is clean with very little trash and graffiti.

Unfortunately, we both got sick for a few days—Rick with some kind of virus, me with what I think was food poisoning. However, we tried not to let it keep us from enjoying the city, but it did slow us down. Fortunately, the central historic district is very compact, with the spectacular squares, cathedral, museums all within easy walking distance.

In Genoa we stayed in another NH collection hotel,NH Marina, and although it lacks the charm of the small boutique hotels we used to seek out, it had all the creature comforts we now require and the staff was wonderful. When I became violently ill, they came immediately to clean up the mess, change sheets etc. It came on quickly and passed quickly and was no doubt food poisoning. I’m now a bit wary of picturesque little trattorias in the historic districts of European cities and I will be much less likely to order shellfish in one of these charming little restaurants.

NH Marina is in the Porto Antico district, right on the water. I rarely pass up the opportunity to stay by a body of water. Porto Antico

And since Porto Antico is a short walk to the Centro Historico, we had easy access to the cultural attractions without the urban congestion. It was just a five minute walk from our hotel into the outer fringe of the Centro Historico. Cathedral inthe Centro Historico

Unlike the grand squares and impressive architecture of the area around the cathedral, the outer fringe is a medieval warren of narrow lanes, arcades, and picturesque restaurants. I recommend SOHO, an attractive restaurant with very good food at reasonable prices and friendly staff—assuming you are willing to put up with slow service. So many Italian restaurants appear to be understaffed. We ate twice at Soho, excellent food and no food poisoning

The food poisoning set us back and unfortunately, we didn’t make it to the Museo di Palazzo Reale, but on our last day in Genoa, despite the rain, we did manage to see the palazzos of the via Garibaldi, considered by Michelin to be the most beautiful street in Italy. I can see calling it the most architecturally impressive street in Italy, but for me beautiful for has to include greenery. On the Via Garibaldi, the greenery was all in the interior courtyards.
Interior courtyard, Via Garibaldi
Also, two of the palazzos on the Via Garibaldi, Palazzo Rosso and Palazzo Blanco, have been turned into art museums—a consolation for not getting to the Museo di Palazzo Reale.

We had one truly magical day taking a train along the astonishingly beautiful Ligurian coast (the Italian Riviera). The Ligurian coast has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site—and for good reason. We stopped in the town of Portofino, once a sleepy fishing village, now a tourist mecca, but still charming.


We’d also like to see Genoa again some day, but as with Turin, it’s not likely to happen.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Turin, an open air architectural museum:Northern Italy Diaries, part III


Turin Cathedral

Turin was a surprise. Because of its association with Fiat and the auto industry, I expected a grim industrial city and was unprepared for its architectural riches, the legacy of the French Savoy dynasty which moved its capital from Chambéry to Turin in 1563. The French influence is very much in evidence both in the beautifully restored Baroque buildings in Turin's historic center and the spectacular piazzas. Piazza Castello with Palazzo Reale

Turin’s San Carlo with its twin churches is considered one of the most beautiful piazzas in Italy. I’d rank it number two, right after San Marco. twin churches of Piazza di San Carlo

Turin rightly boasts of being a city of museums, and we regret not having had more time for the museums. We spent much of our time walking around the city and only managed the first floor of the Sabauda Art Museum and the Museum of Resistance, Deportation, War, Rights and Liberty,which describes its mission as “communicating the history and memory of the values of the Resistance.” Rick thought the exhibits were badly organized, and that may be the case, but the recordings of personal testimony by surviving resistance fighters and holocaust survivors was compelling.

I couldn’t leave Turn without a brief visit to The Egyptian Museum,the oldest museum in the world dedicated entirely to Egyptian culture . It was unfortunately a very brief visit but I did get some sense of the vast scope of the collection.Anyone with a serious interest in Egyptian art should put Turin on their must see list.

We wish we had given more time to Turin and would like to return someday, but at this stage in our lives that is probably not going to happen.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Hotel Trauma in Turin: Northern Italy Diaries, part II

Hotel Carlina in Turin

Turin was even better than I had expected—an open air architectural museum. However, we had one really frightening experience at the Hotel Carlina, part of a chain of hotels, the N-H collection.

When we were younger, we searched for charming relatively low cost small hotels. An experience in Berlin in 2011 caused us to rethink our choice of hotels. We booked a suite at what was a highly recommended boutique hotel-- every bit as charming as advertised, but our room was a 6th floor walk-up and had no air-conditioning , no internet access, no laundry service. At that point we were down to our last clean clothes. The hotel staff suggested we lug our laundry to a laundromat—not exactly how we wanted to spend our few days in Berlin. We quickly found another hotel that lacked the charm but had an elevator, air-conditioning, internet access, and laundry service. Since then we’ve become wary of charming boutique hotels.

We decided on one of N-H collection hotels in Turin because we knew we could count on a good bed, reliable elevator and internet access, a laundry service, a decent restaurant , bar and good breakfast. If we got sick, we’d have a pleasant place to hang out. If we needed help there would be staff who could provide it—in short everything elderly travelers need to be comfortable.

The NH-Carlina in Turin had all of the above and was housed in a former monastery. But no matter how well you plan, stuff happens. We were awakened in the middle of the night by a loud piercing siren and the message: “This is an emergency; you must evacuate immediately.” There was no indication what the problem was—very scary.

The hotel guests were all outside—some who heeded the command to leave immediately were in their bathrobes. We managed to get dressed and grab our wallets and passports. In future hotel stays I will keep all medications together in one bag located near my pocketbook with wallet and passports.

We learned the problem was a breakdown in the hot water system which had caused major flooding—not a bomb as many of us feared. The hotel staff told us the hotel would be closed and we had no idea when we would be allowed back in to get our belongings. The entrance to the stairs was blocked by armed firefighters, but I somehow managed to convince the one woman firefighter to let me get Rick’s medications and she accompanied me up the flooded staircase to get them.

Finally after several hours we were allowed back into the hotel, told to pack quickly and leave the hotel as soon as possible; the hotel got us rooms in their sister hotel the San Stefano. We actually liked the less expensive, simpler San Stefano better than the Carlina with it’s gorgeous courtyard and rooftop terrace. The Carlina was a more impressive building, but the San Stefano had larger more comfortable rooms and I recommend it as a very good value.

All’s well that ends well, but unfortunately the change of hotels cost some of our precious time in Turin, an open air architectural museum.

More to come on the architectural riches of Turin.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Women’s March at a Crossroads

In January 2017, and again in 2018, millions of women worldwide poured into the streets of to protest the election of Donald Trump. The Women’s March belongs to all those grassroots women who marched for gender justice/racial justice and to the local organizers, who fundraised, secured permits, and planned the events. Their energy and commitment had much to do with the number of women who ran and won in the 2018 elections.

Beginning as a Facebook post and driven largely by social media, the Women’s March demonstrated the power of social media to quickly mobilize large numbers of people. We are now seeing the limits of a social media driven mobilization. When conflicts arise, there exist no agreed upon mechanisms for resolving them and for holding leadership accountable. Although a non-profit Women’s March Inc. emerged from the initial march, it was not a membership organization with the power to set the agenda and elect board members and officers.

Long smoldering conflicts in the organization broke out into the open in February 2018 when two of the co-chairs were prominent attendees at Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s Saviours’ Day event. Many supporters of the Women’s March saw the relationship with a notorious misogynist, homophobe and anti-Semite as a disqualifier for leadership of a movement committed to gender justice and the elimination of all forms of bigotry and discrimination. Co-chair Tamika Mallory’s widely publicized praise of Farrakhan, as well as the failure to include Jewish women in the March’s unity principles, led to calls for the co-chairs to resign.

The co-chairs responded to the outcry by including Jewish women in their unity principles, adding three Jewish women (including one trans and two black Jewish women) to their steering committee and by putting out a statement condemning anti-Semitism. For some, the statement rang hollow given Mallory’s continued refusal to disavow Farrakhan.

Questions were also asked about the co-chairs’ management of the more than $2 million raised through contributions and sales of merchandise emblazoned with the Women’s March logo. Women’s March Inc. is currently trying to trademark the name Women’s March and is being sued by four local Women’s March organizations, which have argued that it can’t trademark a movement. Given these controversies, it’s no surprise that the 2019 march attracted far fewer participants than previous years and saw a dramatic drop in the number of sponsors as well as competing marches in several major cities.

The Philadelphia March(es)

The conflicts on the national level played out in Philadelphia with two competing marches held at the same time: Philly Women Rally, which was unaffiliated with national Women’s March Inc. and Women’s March Pennsylvania, which was connected to the national Women’s March.

The Philly Women Rally at Eakins Oval was the larger event with participants numbering in the thousands and many elected officials among the speakers, including Mayor Jim Kenney, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, newly elected congresswomen Madeleine Dean, Mary Gay Scanlon and Chrissy Houlahan and Jovida Hill, Director of the Philadelphia Commission for Women, who gave a rousing speech drawing on the words of Sojourner Truth: “She told us that if women want more rights than they got, why don’t they just take them?”

Women’s March Pennsylvania, which rallied at Love Park, was considerably smaller with participants numbering in the hundreds. From all reports, however, the speeches were dynamic and the audience was energized. Among the speakers were city council candidates Sherrie Cohen and Melissa Robbins, Yaya Rivera of the Northwest Indivisible Reproductive Justice Working Group and Nina Ahmad, former Deputy Mayor for Public Engagement and candidate for Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor.

“To me, it was not a matter of choosing one event over the other but more about being given a seat at the table,” Rivera said. “It is important for me to share my personal experiences and reasons to why I fight for Title X funding and reproductive rights/justice.”

Ahmad celebrated the election of women of color to seats in the House of Representatives, and the impact of the Me Too movement. Her message to sexual predators was, “Be very afraid – we are coming to hold you accountable.”

Feminist organizations grappled with the issue of which march to recommend to their members. The Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) voted to support the march hosted by Philly Women Rally because, according to CLUW President Danielle Newsome, “We’ve built an institutional relationship over the last three years and respect that they hire union women to build and work the stage. We hope that in the future there can be one unified march in Philadelphia.”

According to Lynne Jacobs, President of the Philadelphia Council of Jewish Women, the Philadelphia Council followed the recommendation of their national organization to support local marches not affiliated with the national Women’s March Inc., and thus supported Philly Women Rally.

Philadelphia NOW decided to encourage its members to participate, but declined to endorse either march. “Some members chose to go to one over the other, but most of us decided we should attend parts of both to support all women,” said NOW President Krishna Rami.

It was a difficult decision for many feminist groups and for individual women trying to decide which march to attend or even if they should attend at all.

“Up until Saturday morning, I was truly ambivalent about marching,” said Mindy Brown, of Northwest Indivisible and a committeeperson in the 9th Ward. “But I decided not showing up would mean giving in to the other side, who’d feast on the stories of internal divisions and lower numbers. The fissures are real and painful, and we can’t sweep them under the rug. But maybe this tension can be an opportunity for us to work on solutions. For me, the Philly March has never been about the national leadership. It’s been about the grassroots. I was glad I went in the end. It felt like younger people had really come out in a lot bigger numbers. They were spontaneously dancing, singing and coming up with amazing, inspiring messages. It gave me hope!”

I heard variations on Brown’s comment from quite a few participants who also noted the number of young women involved and insisted that the march belonged to the grassroots women who built local and regional marches across the country.

Another common theme was disappointment that there were two marches and frustration that the two groups could not come together. “I was disappointed at the paltry turnout for these events,” said Mt. Airy activist Susan Schewel. “I think a lot of people stayed away because they did not know which event to attend. Even though I read what was available about how we ended up with two rallies, (and even a third that I learned of later) it just did not make sense. I wish that the organizers had managed to combine their efforts beforehand. I hope next year Philly has one strong march and rally with diverse voices represented.”

What lies ahead?

Only time will tell how the current conflict in the women’s movement will play out. While concerned about the conflicts, Mt. Airy social justice activist Antje Mattheus said that some conflict should be expected in building that movement.

“We are setting ourselves up for failure if we assume that we can reproduce the success – in terms of attendance and broad alliances – of the 2017 worldwide Women’s March and call it a movement,” she said. “A march is an action. In 2017 it was a very large action, but a march is not a movement.
The ‘cracks’ – lower attendance, simultaneous marches, infighting among leaders, disunity between racial and religious groups – which we now see are normal in social movement development and should be expected because the work to achieve a united movement has not been done. Movement building, especially on the level desired by 2017 Women’s March organizers and attendees, takes much time and dedication.”

This article appeared in the Chestnut Hill Local,

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Northern Italy Diaries, part I

Town Square in Mestre

I usually post our travel notes right after a trip. This last trip we returned to fall clean up, election work, and publicity for my book In Search of Elena Ferrante. The travel notes got lost in the shuffle. Fading memories are a downside of posting months after a vacation. What remains are a few highlights—the best and the worst of the trip.

Travel is getting harder, for sure. It’s much more difficult to get an upgrade. So-called premium seats in economy were uncomfortable; I can’t imagine how bad the non-premium seats must be.

Last year we flew SAS to Scandinavia. The premium economy seats were so good, we didn’t feel any need for an upgrade. We thought about going to Denmark this year—in part for the pleasures of SAS—but the lure of Italy was too powerful.

We have never been to Northwestern Italy, so we decided it was time to see this region, while we're still capable of international travel. Since there are no longer direct flights from Philly to Milan, we flew into Venice, but since we’ve already been to Venice four times we decided to pass on going into the city. Getting in and out of Venice is not easy and with more and more cruise ships stopping in Venice, the crowds are unbearable.

We used to be capable of getting off a transatlantic flight and immediately hopping onto a train for 3 or 4 hours, but sadly that’s no longer the case. So we decided to spend the first night in Mestre (essentially a suburb of Venice) and take the train to Turin the next day. It turned out to be a good decision as we found a wonderful hotel, the Villa Barbarich. The restaurant was probably the best value we’ve ever had in Italy. restaurant at the Villa Barbarich

There’s not a whole lot to do in Mestre but we weren’t up to doing much more than unwind. However, there is a beautiful town square—evidence that Mestre was once a wealthy town. We hung out there for a few hours sipping (in my case) Campari, (in Rick’s) Fernet Branca.

The next day we dealt with the challenges of train travel. If the elevators are working, it’s manageable. If they’re not--and this time the elevator to the platform was not--it was a struggle. Fortunately there was someone who could help us. One of the great pleasures of traveling in Italy is the Italian people who are almost without exception kind and helpful, especially to old folks.

At this stage in life getting our luggage into the overhead bin is impossible and unlike planes, there are no attendants to help. Our way of dealing with this is to always get business class—it doesn’t cost that much more than economy—and get there early so we can put our luggage in the small space allotted for luggage that doesn’t fit into the bins. Granted if we could only learn to travel super light, this would be less of a problem.

Aside from the luggage problem, I like train travel. The train from Mestre to Turin isn’t a scenic spectacular, but there were some glimpses of Lake Garda and the seats are so much more comfortable than those ever shrinking economy class airline seats.

Next stop, Turin.

Monday, December 31, 2018

My article on "HBO’s My Brilliant Friend adds to Ferrante original" published in the Chestnut Hill Local





I’ve been in the grip of Ferrante Fever since 2013, have read all Ferrante’s novels at least three times and have written a book, “In Search of Elena Ferrante,” to help me better understand why these books have had such a hold on my imagination and on the imaginations of millions of readers worldwide. Given this history, I expected to be hypercritical of the new film version “My Brilliant Friend” on HBO, but loved it and am eagerly looking forward to season 2.

Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels trace the lifelong friendship of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, born a month apart in a working-class neighborhood in Naples in 1944. The film begins with Lila’s disappearance and Elena’s attempt to recapture her friend by recording everything she can remember.

What only a novel can do:

The film is faithful to the novel although (except for the occasional voiceover) we do not have Elena’s narrative voice, her complicated, often contradictory thoughts, or her deeply felt but sometimes barely understood emotions. Although the HBO series is a successful adaptation, it has not shaken my belief that great novelists, and I include Ferrante in this category, provide access to the interior lives of fictional characters in a way film cannot. Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet reminds us of what only literature can do.

Elena presents one face to the world — the impression of a “good girl” — while often seething with resentment and jealousy that she cannot fully acknowledge. Elena thought that Lila was still ahead of her in everything, “as if she were going to a secret school.”

In the novel, Ferrante writes that Elena admitted that in some hidden part of herself she looked forward to attending a school where Lila would never enter, where without competition from Lila she would be the best student, and that she might sometimes tell Lila about her experiences, boasting about her success.

Elena’s complicated feelings about her friend and rival do not fully emerge in the film — in part due to the difficulties of finding visual equivalents for conflicting emotions, and possibly also because the screenwriters did not want to delve too deeply into the dark side of Elena, assuming that the television audience would want a more likeable Elena than we have in the novel.

There are other indications that the screenwriters wanted to make Elena a more consistently likeable character. Elena is capable of callousness such as her treatment of her first boyfriend Antonio, whom she uses and disposes of with casual cruelty. In the novel Elena takes the initiative and asks Antonio to accompany her to Lila’s wedding — “not to leave me alone, and maybe always to dance with me.” Antonio interpreted the invitation as evidence of Elena’s serious interest in him; he went into debt to buy a new suit for the wedding, an expenditure he could ill afford.

In the film, it is Antonio who takes the initiative and asks Elena if he can accompany her. Perhaps the screenwriters wanted to downplay the extent to which Elena was responsible for using Antonio. At the wedding she appeared oblivious to his feelings, humiliating him by ignoring him at the wedding reception, instead spending time with the young man she really loved, Nino Sarratore. Although Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet is generally thought to be about men’s mistreatment of women, the roles are sometimes reversed, with Elena callously using Antonio.

Film has its advantages:

The film does not portray the complexity of Elena’s inner life, but almost in compensation gives us a more vivid portrait of Lila. I found the film version of an increasingly desperate Lila resisting Marcello Solara’s advances more powerful than the corresponding section in the book, where everything we see of Lila is refracted through Elena’s memory. Although the voiceover from time to time reminds us we are witnessing the recollections of Elena, a mature woman, in the film we see Lila as a character in her own right, with a greater force and immediacy than in the novel.

In response to a Guardian interviewer who asked Ferrante if she would ever be tempted to let Lila tell her own story, Ferrante insisted that the Quartet “can only be Elena’s tale: outside that tale [Lila] would probably be unable to define herself.” In the film Lila does exist outside Elena’s tale, and in Gaia Girace’s haunting performance, the teenage Lila dominates the film.

In the film, the power of facial expressions often compensates for the lack of Elena’s narration. In the scene in the novel where the Solaras harassed Elena and Lila, Marcello Solara recovered Elena’s bracelet, which had broken when she pulled away from him. He looked not at Elena but at Lila, suggesting his interest in Lila: “It was to her that he said, ‘I’m sorry.’” In the film we also see the play of complicated emotions as Marcello stares at Lila holding a knife to his throat: fear, fascination, sexual attraction. The soundtrack reinforces the sense that we are looking at a man who is beginning to fall in love.

Also, thanks to her wonderfully expressive face, Dora Romano’s Maestra Oliviero emerges as a far more interesting character than Elena perceives. In the novel Maestra Oliviero sometimes verges close to caricature. However, Romano creates a complex, sometimes sympathetic character passionately devoted to those few students she believes have exceptional promise and no doubt doing incalculable damage to those she dismisses as dunces. She recognizes Lila’s genius and is devastated that Lila cannot continue her education.

There is one powerful scene with Maestra Oliviero that is not in the book. She delivers a feminist rallying cry urging the girls in her class to seize opportunity to do better than the boys. Granted this is implicit in Ferrante’s account: “Maestra Oliviero especially enjoyed taking us to classes where the girl students and women teachers could not be humiliated so much as the males.” I enjoyed the screenwriters’ choice to turn this into a feminist pep talk.

Another area where film may have an advantage is the creation of a social world. Critics have generally praised the authenticity of the sets noting that the Italian producers had painstakingly recreated the neighborhood in a 20,000-square-meter set in Caserta, a town near Naples.

Certainly the all-pervasive violence has a greater impact in a film. Seeing someone savagely beaten has a greater immediacy and power than a verbal description of violence. Much of the action is driven by the endless cycle of violence: a consequence of the male characters’ insatiable need to avenge every insult. Stefano Carracci, the prosperous grocer Lila marries, surprises everyone by inviting the Pelusos, the family of the man he believes murdered his father, to his New Year’s Eve party, thereby rejecting the revenge ethic so deeply ingrained in the culture of the neighborhood. I found the scene in the film, with old enemies gathered at the house of the Carracci family to celebrate the New Year together, far more moving than the corresponding scene in the novel.

Ensemble scenes such as the New Year’s Eve party were generally more effective in the film. This was certainly the case with the New Year’s Eve battle, waged by the young men of the neighborhood, armed with firecrackers and explosives. One ancient quarrel had been resolved, but another was burning brightly. Stefano Carracci and his former enemy Pasquale Peluso were on one side and the Solaras and their allies on the other. The scene is beautifully choreographed ending when the brutal Solaras, angry at being outdone by Carracci and his new allies, started firing real bullets.

The wedding scene is the ultimate ensemble piece in the film. Elena experiences the wedding as a turning point in her relationship with Lila and also as a measure of her estrangement from the world of the neighborhood. Elena had become acutely aware of her alienation from the boys she had grown up with. She was accustomed to their violent behavior and rough language, but as she advanced from middle school to high school, she followed a path completely unknown to them.

Both Elena and her mother had assimilated Maestra Oliviero’s message that Elena should keep her distance from these young men. At Lila’s wedding reception, Elena’s mother insisted that she stay away from Antonio, a neighborhood boy who had fallen in love with her, telling her daughter that her parents were not paying for her education in order to have her fall in love with a mere auto mechanic.

The wedding reception filled Elea with horror. She recalled when Maestra Oliviero asked her if she knew what “the plebs” were and she now understood what she hadn’t fully grasped years ago: “The plebs were us.” In the novel Elena elaborates: “The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts The plebs were my mother, who had drunk wine and now was leaning against my father’s shoulder, while he, serious, laughed, his mouth gaping, at the sexual allusions of the metal dealer.” Elena had internalized much of Maestra Oliviero’s class prejudice and now saw her family and friends through Maestra Oliviero’s eyes.

Although Elena views the wedding guests with horror, the viewer sees what Elena misses–the vitality and capacity for enjoyment that characterizes Neapolitan working class life. It’s not all gloom and violence. Film cannot so easily simultaneously portray the drama of the wedding and Elena’s ruminations about what the wedding means to her.

The film has added to my appreciation of the novel; however, I have one major complaint. I found middle-aged Donato Sarratore’s sexual assault of 15-year-old Elena during a summer vacation in Ischia more disturbing in the film than in the novel. Elena is taken by surprise by Donato, did not resist him, and appears immobilized. The film’s soundtrack, more appropriate to a romantic scene than to a sexual assault, is jarring. For Elena, the experience was a mixture of repulsion and the stirring of sexual desire. Confused and ashamed, Elena flees the island early in the morning the next day; she told no one about the experience.

In an interview with Vulture, Director Saverio Costanzo explained his choice of a romantic soundtrack as a backdrop for a scene of sexual violence, saying he “didn’t want the scene to be realistic and therefore intolerable to the viewer,” so he decided to use “a soft piano tune.”

I think Costanzo’s concern for the viewer is misplaced here. The soundtrack has the impact of minimizing the reality of sexual assault.

There has been much discussion of which version is better, the book or the film, but that may be the wrong question. Each version provides different pleasures and insights, taking full advantage of the resources of fiction or of film.

Mt. Airy resident Karen Bojar is a regular contributor to the Local. Her book “In Search of Elena Ferrante” is available on Amazon.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

My take on the 8th episode of the HBO series My Brilliant Friend



This episode is a powerful portrayal of Lila’s story. Her courage and self-possession can make the viewer easily forget she is only sixteen years old. We see her growing anxiety about her engagement to Stefano, her increasing awareness that she is about to foreclose options in life through an early marriage, and on the day of her wedding, her realization that she had made a terrible mistake.

The episode is less successful with Elena’s story, revealing the limitations of film which cannot easily simultaneously portray the drama of the wedding and Elena’s ruminations about what the wedding means to her. Elena experiences the wedding as a turning point in her relationship with Lila and also as a measure of her estrangement from the world of the neighborhood. Elena had become acutely aware of her alienation from the boys of the neighborhood. She had grown up with them, was accustomed to their violent behavior and rough language, but as she advanced from middle school to high school, she had been following every day a path completely unknown to them.

Elena’s mother had assimilated Maestra Oliviero’s message that Elena should keep her distance from these young men. At Lila’s wedding reception, Elena’s mother insisted that she stay away from Antonio, a neighborhood boy who had fallen in love with her, telling her daughter that her parents were not paying for her education in order to have her fall in love with a mere auto mechanic.

In the novel Elena took the initiative and asked Antonio to accompany her to Lila’s wedding—“not to leave me alone, and maybe always to dance with me.” Antonio interpreted the invitation as evidence of Elena’s serious interest in him; he went into debt to buy a new suit for the wedding—an expenditure he could ill afford.

In the film it is Antonio who takes the initiative and asks Elena if he can accompany her. Perhaps the screenwriters wanted to downplay the extent to which Elena was responsible for using Antonio. At the wedding she appeared oblivious to his feelings, humiliating him by ignoring him at the wedding reception, instead spending time with the young man she really loved—Nino Sarratore. Although Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet is generally thought to be about men’s mistreatment of women, the roles are sometimes reversed, with Elena callously using Antonio.

The wedding reception filled Elena with horror. She recalled when Maestra Oliviero asked her if she knew what “the plebs” were and she now understood what she hadn’t fully grasped years ago: “The plebs were us.” In the novel she elaborates: “The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts. The plebs were my mother, who had drunk wine and now was leaning against my father’s shoulder, while he, serious, laughed, his mouth gaping, at the sexual allusions of the metal dealer.” Elena had internalized much of Maestra Oliviero’s class prejudice and now saw her family and friends through Maestra Oliviero’s eyes.

The film leaves the viewer with unforgettable visual images of the wedding, but the novel presents both the drama of the wedding and Elena’s troubled, complicated reactions. I’m happy to have the experience of both film and novel versions of My Brilliant Friend.

Monday, December 10, 2018

My take on the 7th episode of the HBO series My Brilliant Friend




Both Elena and Lila get in involved with a man for the wrong reasons. In Lila’s case she becomes engaged to Stefano Caracci, a prosperous grocer, thinking this is her only a way out of an engagement to Marcello Solara.

When Lila asked Stefano if he was really different, Stefano replied, that was his intention. However, well aware of the difficulty of breaking with the mores of the neighborhood, he admitted that he didn’t know if he could keep his promise.

When Marcello Solara, furious that Lila had chosen Stefano over him, spread obscene rumors about Lila, Stefano and Lila decided to reject revenge and rise above the values of the neighborhood; they would act as if the Solaras did not exist. Stefano did not defend the honor of his fiancée, Lila ignored the slander, and the Solaras continued to spread lies. Elena did not understand what was happening. She found the Solaras’ behavior more comprehensible, more consistent with the world in which they had grown up than Stefano and Lila’s refusal to seek revenge.

Desperate to keep pace with Lila who is now engaged to Stefano, Elena becomes involved with a mechanic Antonio Capuccio. The film, like the novel, conveys the frustrations of adolescent sexuality in a sexually repressed culture. Elena felt strong sexual stirrings with her first boyfriend, Antonio, although her reasons for getting involved with him had more to do with her desire to keep up with Lila than for any deep emotional connection she had for Antonio.

Elena has affection for Antonio and enjoys their sexual intimacies, but is in love with Nino. Antonio is falling ever more deeply in love with Elena who apparently has no moral qualms about stringing him along. The film—up to this point--tends to portray Elena as “the good girl” and downplays her self-absorption and capacity for cruelty.

Friday, December 7, 2018

My take on the 6th episode of the HBO series My Brilliant Friend

Elena takes her first trip outside of Naples, with the drab streets of the neighborhood replaced by the brilliant colors of Ischia. My guess is this episode will increase tourism to Ischia.

The episode highlights what will become a major theme of the Neapolitan Quartet—the damage done by deceptively charming sexual predators, like Donato Sarratore—totally selfish and unconcerned about the impact of their behavior on the women they seduce.

Donato’s son Nino delivers a damning indictment of his father, telling Elena that he was Melina’s lover although he knew she was an emotionally fragile woman: “Out of vanity he would hurt anyone and never feel responsible. Since he is convinced that he makes everyone happy, he thinks that everything is forgiven him. He goes to mass every Sunday…he is always considerate of my mother. But he betrays her continually. He’s a hypocrite, he makes me sick.”

Ironically Nino will surpass his father as an incorrigible womanizer. Since Ferrante gives us no sense of Nino’s interior life we have no insight into his transformation from a young man appalled by his father’s behavior to a far worse womanizer than his father.

When Donato learns that Elena is a student at a classical high school, his interest in her picks up. Donato’s wife Lidia notes his interest in Elena and is clearly disturbed by it. Lidia’s reaction is not in the novel where we see only what Elena sees. This is an instance where film has the advantage by conveying through facial expressions, what Elena doesn’t see.

Elena is taken by surprise by Donato’s sexual assault, which I found more disturbing in the film than in the novel. Generally, visual images of violence and sexual assault when portrayed in film are more powerful than when described in a novel. Fifteen-year-old Elena did not resist Donato and appears immobilized. The film’s soundtrack, more appropriate to a romantic scene than to a sexual assault—is jarring. For Elena, the experience was a mixture of repulsion and the stirring of sexual desire. Confused and ashamed, Elena flees the island early in the morning the next day; she told no one about the experience.

In an interview with Vulture, Director Saverio Costanzo explained his choice of a romantic soundtrack as a backdrop for a scene of sexual violence:
Saying he “felt such a sense of horror” about Donato’s actions, Costanzo added that he “didn’t want the scene to be realistic and therefore intolerable to the viewer. We decided to use a soft piano tune in contrast with the violence to allow Elena’s surprise to emerge in addition to her horror.”

I think Costanzo’s concern for the viewer is misplaced here. The soundtrack has the impact of minimizing the reality of sexual assault. This is the first directorial choice that I found seriously problematic.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

My take on the 5th episode of the HBO series My Brilliant Friend


Elena and Lila’s lives continue to diverge. Elena is venturing out into the wider world while Lila becomes increasingly enmeshed in the world of the neighborhood. Lila’s brother Rino was humiliated by his lack of money and desperate to become economically successful. Consumed by envy of the Solaras, lords of the neighborhood who disrespected him, Rino became obsessed with the idea of becoming rich by opening a factory to make the shoes Lila had designed. When his father rejected the idea, Rino went on a rampage, frightening his mother, other family members and the neighbors. He overturned furniture, broke plates, and swore he would kill himself rather than work in his father’s shoe shop for a pittance.

Rino’s response to dashed dreams of upward mobility and to class-based insult was to resort to physical violence. For women, poverty may have severely limited their options but did not diminish their sense of themselves as women; for men, poverty threatened their very identity as men. Rino’s anger and insecurity leads him to attack a young man from one of the wealthy Neapolitan neighborhoods, leading to a vicious beating by the young man’s friends armed with sticks, and then rescued by the Solaras armed with iron bars.

Both Lila and Rino were trapped by violence and poverty, but Lila was also facing the threat of marriage to Marcello Solara, scion of the neighborhood’s organized crime family. Her parents saw this marriage as way of improving the economic prospects of the Cerullo family and her father threatened dire consequeences if she refused Marcello.

I found the film version of an increasingly desperate Lila resisting Marcello’s advances more powerful than the corresponding section in the book, where everything we see of Lila is refracted through Elena’s memory--her struggle to understand her friendship with Lila and the conflicting emotions she experiences, deep attachment laced with rivalry and jealousy. Although the voiceover from time to time reminds us we are witnessing the recollections of a mature woman, for the most part in the film we see Lila as a character in her own right, with a greater force and immediacy than in the novel.

In response to a Guardian interviewer who asked Ferrante if she would ever be tempted to let Lila tell her own story, Ferrante insisted that the Quartet “can only be Elena’s tale: outside that tale [Lila] would probably be unable to define herself.” In the film Lila does exist outside Elena’s tale and in Gaia Girace’s haunting performance dominates the film.

Dora Romano’s Maestra Oliviera also exists outside Elena’s tale and emerges as a far more interesting character than Elena perceives. So the bottom-line: the book is not better than the film—nor vice-versa. Each version provides different pleasures and insights.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

My take on the 4th episode of the HBO series My Brilliant Friend




Episode 4 is certainly the dramatic high point of the series to date with two of the most compelling scenes—the dance party and the New Year’s Eve party. When I first read My Brilliant Friend, I remember thinking that if the novel were ever adapted for film, these two (along with the wedding scene) would be key scenes; they seemed written for adaptation as a screenplay.

The dance party at Gigliola’s house showcases Lila’s transformation into a beautiful, sexually alluring teenager with all the young men from the neighborhood vying for her attention. Lila has developed a passion for dancing which, like everything else she undertakes, she does extremely well. Elena watches glumly on the sidelines, realizing that Lila has far surpassed her in beauty and sexual attractiveness as she has surpassed her in intelligence and academic performance.

The party ends on a sour note as the Solaras demand that Gigliola’s mother ask Pasquale to leave ostensibly because his father was accused of murdering the father of other guests, the Carracci family, but more likely because Marcello Solara perceived Pasquale as a rival for Lila’s attention.

The Solaras are trying to stoke the tensions/ old hostilities in the neighborhood, just as Stefano Carracci surprises everyone by rejecting the revenge ethic so deeply ingrained in the culture of the neighborhood and inviting the Pelusos to his New Year’s Eve party. Stefano grew up in a world where insults must be avenged; in the first episode we see a teenage Stefano assaulting Lila for besting his brother Alfonso in a scholastic competition. Given his background, Stefano’s transformation is remarkable.

Reluctantly Pasquale agrees to accept Stefano’s invitation and on New Year’s Eve the old enemies gathered at the house of the Caracci family to celebrate the New Year together, with Stefano being especially kind to Signora Peluso, first filling his mother’s glass with spumante and then the glass of Signora Peluso.

One ancient quarrel was resolved but another was burning brightly. The young men of the neighborhood engaged in their New Year’s Eve battle, armed with firecrackers and explosives. The Caraccis and their former enemies, the Pelusos, were on one side and the Solaras and their allies on the other. The scene is beautifully choreographed ending when the brutal Solaras, angry at being out done by the Caraccis and their new allies, started firing real bullets.

Lila’s response to the episode reveals the emotional fragility that coexists with the steely resolve she so often displays. She appears to have a kind of mental breakdown—what she refers to as “dissolving margins.” The extreme anxiety appears to be connected to her worry about her brother who has become obsessed with the goal of becoming rich.

Lila’s intellectual ability has up to now been focused on languages and literature; she now turns her considerable intelligence to understanding the social conditions responsible for her family’s poverty. She turns first to Pasquale for an understanding of the rule of the fascists, then World War II, the near destruction of Naples in the Allied bombing, the post-war black market in their neighborhood and the growing influence of the Camorra crime syndicate. In Ferrante’s memorable prose, Lila saw the whole neighborhood complicit in these atrocities—-“Fernando the shoemaker, and my father, all—all—in her eyes stained to the marrow by shadowy crimes, all hardened criminals or acquiescent accomplices, all bought for practically nothing.”

Ferrante has done a brilliant job interweaving the political history with the characters’ personal lives and Costanzo has managed to do this as well in the film-- a medium that lends itself less easily to this integration of personal stories with the historical drama.