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Thread: Ferrante, Cather, Westover, and Bellow

  1. #1
    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    Jan 2007
    Eugene, OR

    Ferrante, Cather, Westover, and Bellow

    I've been on a two week camping trip, during which I read some of famous books. Here are my reactions:

    The Story of a New Name
    by Elena Ferrante.

    This is the second novel in Ferrante's “Naples” series. I read the first when I traveled to Italy in October. The story involves a fictional memoir, centered around the relationship of two working class girls. One finishes high school and heads off to the University (the narrator); the other gets married at 17 (a common occurrence in the working class Naples of 1970). Lila (the “brilliant friend” and young bride) is prettier and (even) smarter than the more intellectually accomplished narrator, who wants to emulate her. However, she is also volatile and touchy. Book 2 is even better than book one, as the girls grow up and have involved romances. Ferrante (famous for using a pen name and keeping her identity a secret even as her novels became best sellers) has outstanding insight into how her characters think and act.

    One quibble: on the cover of my copy, one blurb states, “Imagine if Jane Austen got angry and you'll have some idea of how explosive these works are.” The novels are nothing like Jane Austen's – they remind me more of Tolstoy's, passionate and insightful instead of humorous, ironic and insightful. It annoys me when a critic compares an author to Jane Austen simply (as far as I can tell) because they are both women. It's sexist.

    My Antonia by Willa Cather

    This is supposedly a semi-autobiographical novel narrated by a young boy who moves from Virginia to Nebraska when his parents die in the 1890s. Cather made the same move, at the same age, although she was a girl (albeit a masculine one). Antonia is a Czech girl 2 years older than the narrator who lives nearby. The novel recounts their relationship as children and adults. Jim (the narrator) is scholarly and of a higher social class than Antonia (and the other farmers of the novel). The novel follows the children as they move to town, and the contrast between rural (nature) and urban (civilized) is emphasized.

    When she gets a job in town, Antonia pals around with Lena and Tiny, all three attractive girls. IN keeping with the theme of nature vs. culture, Antonia ends up as a farmer, Lena as a seamstress, and Tiny gets rich in the Klondike gold rush. Jim (studying the classics at the University) surely notices mythic resonances: the fecundity of the earth is associated with Antonia (who has eleven children), Lena (weaving was one of the early cultural arts) and Tiny (gold comes from the earth, but is cold and not alive) are associated with other seminal human endeavors.

    In one scene, Jim takes Lena to “Les Dames aux Camille”, in which some of the music from La Traviata is inserted. The music reminds the reader to look for themes and variations in the novel (obvious in the music of the opera). In addition, some of the scenes in the book seem obviously based on classic Western Landscape Paintings – a technique I haven't noticed before in literature (some movies have used this technique effectively). It's a very good book.

    Educated by Tara Westover – This memoir of a girl who grows up in a fringe-Mormon family that claims to home school their children (but doesn't) is a page turner. Tara manages to end up getting a PhD. In history from Cambridge, and may (or may not) have escaped her harrowing family life in the end. You can't go home again (literally in Westover's case), but you can't fully escape home, either.

    I'm not done with “The Adventures of Augie March” yet, Ekhim. I”m about 2/3 of the way through. The only other Bellow novel I've read is “Henderson the Rain King”, and Augie is similar to that, although less outlandish and adventurous. It's the story of a Jewish boy growing up in Chicago during the 1920s and 30s, which is fun for me because that's my home town. He's a mensch, which involves him in repeated romantic difficulties because he likes every woman he meets (and they like him, too). He has adventures (like Henderson) almost by chance,rather than by seeking them out. I'll post again when I finish.

  2. #2
    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    Jan 2007
    Eugene, OR
    I almost forgot: I also read "Maurice" by E.M. Forster. "Maurice" (pronounced "Morris", I think, in England) is Forster's novel about gay love. It was written in 1914, but wasn't published until 1971. It's not as good as the other Forster novels I admire (Room with A View, Passage to India, Howard's End). One of Maurice's lovers goes to the other side (marries), and claims that he is no longer attracted to men, just to women. This would seem to defy modern gay orthodoxy, although it appears to have been the case with Alexander the Great and Mallory (of Everest fame). I think some English Public School boys dabbled in gay sex, and then became heterosexual once women were more available.

    The novel has a (supposedly) happy ending (Maurice runs off with a working class lover), which is the reason it couldn't be published for so many years. According to the introduction, novels about gay sex that ended in suicide, jail, or heartbreak would have been more acceptable. There's nothing wrong with "Maurice", it just isn't up to snuff for Forster, and Maurice's final lover is undeveloped as a character.

  3. #3
    The Gnu Normal Pompey Bum's Avatar
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    Oct 2014
    Uncanny Valley
    Thanks Ecurb. My Antonia was the third book of a trilogy linked thematically but not the continuation of a single narrative (I think--I've never read them). The first was O Pioneers, which has an excellent reputation. Let me add for the sake of my brother and sister cheapskates that a number of Cather and Forster's novels (including My Antonia and Maurice but not O Pioneets or Passage to India) are free to download at Project Gutenberg.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 05-08-2019 at 12:33 PM. Reason: See above.
    And this from a man in a bunny suit.

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