Sunday, November 27, 2016

This Ferrante fan is not in love with Frantumaglia

As a passionate lover of Elena Ferrante’s novels, I am sorry to report that I am not in love with Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey, a collection of Ferrante’s letters, essays, interviews, and material deleted from her early novels. A shapeless repetitive compilation, Frantumaglia is more like a scrapbook than a book. The intriguing title which Ferrante defines as her mother's word for “a disquiet not otherwise definable... a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain” does not bear much relationship to the book which is mostly a series of explanations, rationales for Ferrante’s work.

I find it surprising that Ferrante, the author of such intricately structured books as the Neapolitan Quartet, would want to put her name to something as shapeless as Frantumaglia. Ferrante’s publisher apparently suggested the idea for Frantumaglia, intended as a response to the “healthy desire on the party of your readers…to know you better.”

I might have had a somewhat more positive reaction if I had read Frantumaglia before Claudio Gatti’s well-documented claim that Ferrante was Anita Raja, who, unlike Ferrante, did not grow up in an impoverished Neapolitan neighborhood but rather left Naples at the age of three and lived in middle class comfort in Rome. Presumably, Raja had ready access to the educational opportunities that Ferrante’s characters struggled to obtain.

Throughout Frantumaglia there are numerous references to Ferrante growing up in Naples—including references to childhood fears of growing up in a violent neighborhood and her relationship with her mother, who spoke the Neapolitan dialect and worked as a dressmaker. Ferrante described Naples as “a space containing all my primary childhood, adolescent, and early adult experiences.” Ferrante’s publishers apparently encouraged this. One of the first letters includes a reference to Sandra Ferri’s request that Ferrante contribute to a book she was editing about growing up in Naples.

From what I have read in many reviews and blog posts, most of Ferrante’s devoted readers are not bothered by this deception and tend to view the falsely claimed Neapolitan background of Ferrante/Raja as a literary device. However at the same time, they tend to see the wide-ranging reflections in Frantumaglia as the genuine beliefs of the author, presumably Anita Raja. But if some sections of Frantumaglia are fiction, how can we be sure the rest is not?

Also, Ferrante claims over and over again that her books should stand for themselves, that there is no need of any explanation/information beyond the text. However the very existence of Frantumaglia undermines that claim. As Michiko Kakutani observed in her New York Times review:

It’s a padded, often self-indulgent volume that undermines her stated belief that “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.” In fact, this book is a 384-page repudiation of her assertion that the text is “a self-sufficient body, which has in itself, in its makeup, all the questions and all the answers.”
…the sheer volume of interviews here, the author’s often self-dramatizing discussions of her life (or that of the character of the so-called Elena Ferrante), and the very decision to assemble this book seem to fly in the face of her declaration that writing should have “an autonomous space, far from the demands of the media and the marketplace.”

However despite its repetitiveness, there are some fascinating sections in Frantumaglia--in particular a long passage that Ferrante decided to delete from Days of Abandonment, a harrowing tale of a woman abandoned by her husband. The novel focuses on Olga’s suffering. The deleted section describes Olga’s flirtations with other men: “Over the years my occasions for little flirtations multiplied. When they began I suffered less from my duties as a wife and mother who no longer worked.” The most serious relationship was with one of her husband’s associates. Olga aggressively pursues him: “If he had wanted to make love I would have done it. If he had asked me to leave Mario and the children, I wouldn’t have hesitated.”

Many of Ferrante’s readers have viewed Days of Abandonment as a feminist cri de coeur from a woman wronged. The deleted section complicates the narrative and at least to some extent undermines sympathy for Olga. When an interviewer suggested that Ferrante’s male characters are part of a pattern in Italian literature in which men are cowards and scoundrels, Ferrante replies: “In my intentions, Mario, Olga’s husband, is neither cowardly nor a scoundrel. He’s just a man who has stopped loving the woman he lives with and comes up against the impossibility of breaking that bond without humiliating her, without hurting her.”

I have been struck by Ferrante’s understanding of the way both her male and female characters are prisoners of gender, their lives constrained by the expectations of a deeply sexist society. However, I dismissed the rumors that her books could have been written by a man or in collaboration with a man. There were just too many intimate details of life in a female body.

When Claudio Gatti wrote his article claiming to have proven that Ferrante was Anita Raja, he also left open the possibility of collaboration with her husband Domenico Starnone. Interestingly, most of Ferrante’s devoted readers have ignored this claim and focused on what they saw as Gatti’s unmasking of her, frequently describing it in terms of sexual violation. Almost without exception they directed their outrage at the unmasking and seemed ready to accept the misrepresentation of Ferrante/Raja’s class background as a fictional device.

However, given all the protestations that only a woman could have written such an authentic account of female experience, I don’t think most of Ferrante’s readers would be as willing to accept the possibility that the books were written in collaboration with Starnone, or that Starnone might have been the principal author. I was one of those once passionately claimed that Ferrante’s books had to be written by a woman. Now I am not so sure.

After analyzing Ferrante’s books with text analysis software, a group of physicists and mathematicians at La Sapienza University in Rome concluded that there was a “high probability” that Starnone was the principal author. Also, the powerfully rendered portrait of growing up in deep poverty in 1950’s Naples feels like it was written from first hand experience. Raja did not have this direct experience but Starnone, like the fictional Ferrante, was the son of a seamstress and did spend his childhood in Naples, thus lending further support to the contention that Starnone was Raja’s collaborator.

The controversies about the authorship of Ferrante’s novels has left me questioning many of my assumptions about literature—including the idea that great literature must be the work of one mind, one visionary genius. Recent Shakespeare scholarship suggests that a work of genius can be a collaborative effort. Using computerized tools to analyze texts, the New Oxford Shakespeare ’s team of international scholars have concluded that Henry VI, Parts One, Two and Three are among as many as 17 plays that they now believe contain writing by other people.

In some sense all works of art are collaborative and Ferrante in Frantumaglia makes this point: “And yet there is no work that is not the result of tradition, of many skills of a sort of collective intelligence.” References to joint authorship exist within the books themselves. In the Neapolitan Quartet Lila and Elena dream of writing a novel together and Elena credits Lila as the inspiration for much of her writing. What Elena refers to as the “joys of shared creation” is a major theme throughout the Neapolitan quartet.

I was struck in reading Frantumaglia that much of the writing was very different from that that of the novels—much more abstract, more academic. Michiko Kakutani has noted that Ferrante’s “self-conscious and stilted statements [in Frantumaglia] stand in stark contrast to the visceral immediacy of Ms. Ferrante’s novels.” Of course, changes in style do not necessarily mean two authors. I don’t expect we will ever know the extent to which Starnone had a hand in this; the publishers certainly have a stake in the image of Ferrante as a powerful woman writer.

Although there would certainly be many Ferrante fans who would be deeply disappointed to learn that the books were not solely the work of a woman, there would probably be others intrigued by the collaboration of a man and woman on books that so powerfully explore issues of gender. But in the last analysis what does it matter? The books are truly wonderful whoever wrote them.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

I'm having a really hard time accepting the reality of Trump's victory

My husband and I postponed an October vacation until after the election because I didn’t think I could focus on the trip with the election unresolved. So we planned to leave on Nov. 9 and thought that we would be celebrating a Clinton victory.

The trip to Italy (more on that later) really helped us get through the first few days of total shock and horror. We had the beauty of Rome and Naples to distract us. It was relatively easy to forget the Trump victory during the past 2 weeks—especially in Naples where it was almost impossible to find English language newspapers.

Now we are back and there are no more wonderful distractions. This reminds me of of 1980. I never believed a Reagan victory was possible and certainly did not expect the Republicans to regain the Senate with racists like Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, and John Tower heading powerful committees.

The difference was that in 1980 I was 36 years old and had the energy to fight back. Now my energy is waning. I had decided I was going to step back a bit from political activity. After all those years of activism, I thought I had earned a rest. But now I think progressives need all hands on deck—-even aging, wrinkled hands.

I expect it’s going to be a grim Thanksgiving at my sisters’ house tomorrow. At least there won't be any Trump voters around the Thanksgiving table.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Why I’m voting against raising the retirement age for Pennsylvania judges

There are many good reason to oppose raising the judicial retirement age. From the Inquirer editorial urging citizens to "Vote 'no' on misleading ballot question raising judges' retirement age."
The affront to democracy that comes to voters in the form of a ballot question that would extend the retirement age for elderly Pennsylvania judges should be voted down to send a clear message to its partisan authors.

The integrity of the democratic process is threatened when voters are given misleading information. That this matter has been decided by judges who have a stake in it further taints their decision.

Also, see a very clear explanation of the judicial retirement age ballot question from my fellow ADA board member, Jim Moss posted here

The deceitful wording is not the only reason I oppose the ballot measure. From my article Why I’m voting against raising the retirement age for Pennsylvania judges"published in the Chestnut Hill Local in December 2015 in the wake of the porngate/hategate email scandals:

I never thought so many judges and prosecutors, including state Supreme Court justices, would routinely exchange vicious racist, misogynistic and homophobic emails. Yes, I know that many white men resent the gains that women and people of color have made in recent decades, but I never expected anything this ugly from those entrusted to administer justice. It’s even more of a shock that they felt safe doing this.

This scandal will no doubt lead some voters to reject the proposal on the 2016 primary ballot to raise the retirement age for judges from 70 to 75. I can certainly understand the desire to clean house.

But there’s another more urgent reason to reject this proposal. The cohort of judges now reaching 70 are much more likely to be white, male and heterosexual than the pool of potential judges, now in their 30’s and 40’s. (It’s only relatively recently that open LGBTQ candidates have run for and won judicial seats.)

If the retirement age is raised, there is real danger that we will delay the transformation of the judiciary into something more closely resembling what America now looks like. Maintaining the current retirement age is not a solution to the current lack of diversity on the Bench, but at least it doesn’t contribute to the problem.

A recent report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) documents the lack of judicial diversity: “In many states, the judges do not look like the defendants and plaintiffs who stand in front of them… that glaring lack of diversity calls into question the overall fairness of our justice system.”

The CAP report argues that if we are to have a diverse judiciary reflecting our increasingly diverse citizenry, we must reduce the influence of money in the judicial selection process. The report recommends reforms, such as public financing in states that continue to elect judges.

The report further argues that “merit selection (a system of appointing judges in which a commission chooses a list of potential nominees based on their qualifications) can be an effective tool for achieving diversity, when the process is structured to take diversity into account.” Although a 2009 American Judicature Society study found that states with merit selection had more diverse supreme courts, the CAP report cautions that some merit selection systems have not resulted in a diverse judiciary: “Even when diversity is mandated at certain points in the process, lawmakers in some states have ignored the mandate.”

It is unlikely that in Pennsylvania we will have public financing of judicial elections or merit selection anytime soon, so while we fight for substantive reform, let’s not exacerbate the problem by freezing in place the current judiciary by raising the retirement age.

I’ll grant that there are some fine 70-year old judges who could make a contribution for another five years and that mandatory retirement can be viewed as unfair to these individuals. Yes, maybe some of them, as Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts Program director Suzanne Almeida has argued, get better with age. According to Almeida, “Judging is one of those jobs that the longer you do it the better you get.” Well, maybe with some, but I doubt that judges like Supreme Court Justice Michael Eakin are getting better with each passing year.

We must base our decisions about mandatory retirement on what is good for society as a whole rather that what may be in the interest of a particular individual. Moreover, with the judiciary, mandatory retirement is not just about creating job opportunities for the young but about a justice system which reflects the diversity of citizenry. This matters.