Sunday, July 15, 2018


My article on the direction of the Democratic Party which appeared in the July 12 Chestnut Hill Local:

Not so long ago many progressives had little interest in working within what they saw as a hopelessly compromised, ineffective Democratic Party. Now, thanks to Trump’s victory, progressive organizations are increasingly turning to electoral politics and trying to build a base within the Democratic Party

Progressive groups have contributed to some surprising recent victories – such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s win in NYC. Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) provided the ground troops for her defeat of a long-term incumbent thought to have been invincible.

Closer to home, Elizabeth Fiedler’s knock-out victory in South Philadelphia owed much to the efforts of Reclaim Philadelphia, an organization formed by veterans of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Members of progressive groups are increasingly bringing their energy and values to the Philadelphia Democratic Party – most dramatically in Reclaim’s takeover of the 1st and 2nd Wards in South Philadelphia.

This trend towards closer connections between progressive organizations and the Democratic Party can also be seen in Northwest Philadelphia. Mindy Brown was one of the founders of Indivisible NW Philly (INWP), formed after the November 2106 election to organize resistance to the Trump presidency. Brown did not see much activity on the part of the local Democratic Party to combat the Trump agenda, so when Steve Masters, the committeeperson in her division and fellow INWP member, asked her if she would like to fill a vacant committeeperson seat, Brown decided to pitch in.

In her committeeperson role, Brown has been knocking on doors, “getting a conversation going and hearing from voters about what matters to them.” She has gotten people in her division involved in INWP’s “Red to Blue” group and in Turn PA Blue.

“Some of these folks have become super-volunteers,” Brown said, “supporting candidates at the local level, canvassing out in DelCo, showing up for post-carding events at the High Point Cafe, and generally doing the work that needs to be done. It’s pretty inspiring.”

Neighborhood Networks steering committee member Margaret Lenzi also believes that to achieve progressive goals in Philadelphia “we need a Democratic Party that is up to the task – that will get the vote out and elect good Democrats up and down the ballot.”

To that end, Neighborhood Networks along with other progressive organizations recruited progressive activists to revitalize the party from within by running for committeeperson positions. According to Lenzi, NN has long advocated both an inside and outside strategy for changing the direction of the Democratic Party.

“Now we’re gratified to see the inside strategy gain steam as the wave of new activists, especially people of color and women, have stepped forward to grasp the reins of power,” she said.

The involvement of progressive activists within the Democratic Party has not always been welcomed by traditional party activists, who fear that an increasingly left-of-center party will not be in a position to win general elections. However, progressives argue that the energy they bring and the policy positions they advocate are essential to revitalize the party. Some see themselves as the left-wing equivalent of the Tea Party, determined to push the Democratic Party to the left as the Tea Party yanked the Republican Party further to the right.

This tension between centrist and progressive wings of the Democratic Party is playing out both nationally and locally in a context where the major political parties have the allegiance of a declining share of voters, as growing numbers of voters register as independents.

The diminished clout of the two major parties is part of a broader trend as Thomas Friedman pointed out in a recent New York Times column: “The big mainstream political parties across the industrialized world are all blowing up at once. It’s quite extraordinary.”

The Nov. 18 election should give us a better idea of the relative strength of the major parties and the extent to which progressives have indeed established a base within the Democratic Party.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

I have finally finished my book In Search of Elena Ferrante


I have finally finished my book In Search of Elena Ferrante; final proofs and index have been sent to McFarland Press. I greatly enjoyed doing the research and writing the book—the proofreading and indexing, not so much.

When you sign a contract with a traditional publisher, you relinquish control of the title, the cover and the price. I’m happy with the cover photo and the title, but I sure wish the price were lower. I intend to ask my friends to a request that their library order my book, now available for pre-order on Amazon, rather than ask them to buy a copy. They should spend their money on Ferrante’s novels rather than my book.

I wrote this book to help me unlock the secrets of Elena Ferrante’s power, to better understand why these books have had such a hold on my imagination and that of millions of readers worldwide. I was introduced to Ferrante by James Woods’ January 2013 New Yorker article, which made a compelling case for Ferrante. I was not disappointed. Since then I’ve read all her books at least three times.

When I searched for material about Ferrante, I found countless reviews, essays, and blog posts but only two full-length studies. I searched without success for a comprehensive study of Ferrante that would explore the complicated interweaving of thematic strands, including analysis of the political dimension, an aspect of Ferrante’s work largely ignored by reviewers. Finally, I decided to try to write the book I wanted to read.

In Search of Elena Ferrante explores the international reaction to Ferrante, dubbed “Ferrante Fever,” the controversy surrounding Ferrante’s decision to write under a pseudonym, and the special challenges posed by a work in translation. I draw on the many insights Ann Goldstein has provided into the process of translating Ferrante’s work, along with her sense of the themes and preoccupations of the elusive author. Furthermore, Ferrante, in numerous interviews conducted solely through letters and email, has provided a running commentary on her work. I cannot recall another instance when readers have had the benefit of both the author’s and translator’s insights into the creative process.

Reviewers have generally ignored the political dimension of the Neapolitan novels and have focused primarily on Ferrante’s exploration of personal relationships, in particular female friendship. However, the Neapolitan Quartet is very much a political text. Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet is deeply political in that the characters’ personal histories are interwoven with the larger social drama although there is no easily extractable political philosophy. Ferrante has intertwined the political and personal strands so effectively that the political debate never feels intrusive, with the characters’ political beliefs emerging organically from their circumstances and personalities.

Although many readers have seen the Neapolitan Quartet as a searing portrait of man’s inhumanity towards women, I argue that Ferrante’s portrayal of gender roles is far more nuanced, with some of her male characters taking tentative steps towards gender equality. Ferrante portrays both her male and female characters as prisoners of gender, their lives constrained by the expectations of a deeply sexist society. Ferrante portrays a world in which gender roles are changing, with at least some of her male characters a part of that change.

I explore the responses to Ferrante’s decision to remain anonymous and the passionate insistence of her devoted fans that the author must be a woman. Then along came journalist 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. Most of Ferrante’s readers appeared not to be disturbed by this discrepancy and tended to view the falsely claimed Neapolitan background of Ferrante as a literary device.

Many Ferrante fans expressed relief that at least Gatti identified a woman as the author; however, Gatti left open the possibility of collaboration with Raja’s husband, Domenico Starnone . When I first read about the identification of Starnone as the probable author (or co-author), I dismissed it out of hand. I had made up my mind that it was impossible that a man could have written any part of this deeply felt account of female experience; there were just too many intimate details of life in a female body. I am no longer convinced this is the case and can no longer discount the mounting evidence pointing to Starnone’s authorship, including as of this writing four separate teams of linguists whose text analysis software has pointed to Starnone as the principal author, as well as echoes of Ferrante’s work in Starnone’s recently published novels

Certainly many of Ferrante’s fans would be deeply disappointed to learn that the books were not solely the work of a woman, but there are surely others intrigued by the collaboration of a man and woman on books that so powerfully explore issues of gender. The whole experience has challenged some of my assumptions about literature—principally that there is such a thing as an authentic female voice that can be recognized as such. As Ferrante herself has said in her collection of interviews and letters, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, “A good writer, male or female can imitate the two sexes with equal effectiveness.” So does all this matter?

I question whether we will read the novels differently if we know that the author is not a woman drawing on her own experience of class and gender discrimination. In my recent re-reading of the Neapolitan novels, I forgot all about Anita Raja, Domenico Starnone and Claudio Gatti and became once again totally immersed in the world of Lila and Elena. This is what counts.