Tuesday, 10 December 2019

First person singular: Ferrante and Tokarczuk

Here are two novels in which the narrators are so careful with their words that the response must be terse too - and elliptical, too, in order to avoid any spoilers.

The Lost Daughter is the last of Elena Ferrante's (relatively) early works I've read this year, since I finished the great Neapolitan quartet in hospital in early January and then moved on to the most haunting of the early three, The Days of Abandonment.

I was quick to buy a copy of Olga Tokarczuk's 2009 masterpiece Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead not after she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but because I'd read that demiTory weirdo Rory Stewart had remarked on seeing someone reading it on the tube, and, clearly knowing nothing of its reputation, objected to the odd title (so much for being well briefed).

The title comes from Blake, one of the leitmotif preoccupations of animal-loving hillside dweller Mrs. 'don't call me Janina' Dusjecsko. You're drawn into her singular way of seeing things from the very first page, and even inclined to think that many of her views must be those of the author. Until... and that's about as far as I can go here, It reads so compellingly, too, in the translation of Antonia Lloyd-Jones, who's also rendered into very lucid English Artur Domosławski's superlative biography of fellow more-than-journalist Ryszard Kapuściński, which I'm halfway through at the moment.

There's also not too much I should say about The Lost Daughter, except that it contains many of the same preoccupations as Lenù's in the tetralogy. You can't help wondering if Ferrante has kept her real identity secret because of how much she personally may have invested in her memorable tale-tellers. Here the essence is a beachscape with a mother, young daughter and doll, and how those elements trigger the narrator's memories and obsessions. How else can I describe it but as great, serious literature?

Meanwhile, the saga of Lenù and Lila continues to haunt; having reviewed the National Theatre's compromised but theatrically effective zip through the whole story for The Arts Desk, I ordered up Saverio Costanzo's TV series based on the first volume, My Brilliant Friend (the others, apparently, are to be serialised too). One episode watched so far is enough to realise that this is visual narrative right under the skin of its subject. The casting of the children, is perfect, much as I imagined them.

Linn Ullmann's Unquiet is a very different case from Ferrante's works. Ullmann calls it a novel, but it is in fact a candid, unsparing portrait of her relationship with her father, Ingmar Bergman, and to a certain extent of that with her mother, Liv. In total contrast to a dreadful, sensationalist Swedish TV documentary about the master which I gave up on halfway through - not least because the tacky music was at odds with the film clips, though chiefly because its structure was unsound, its speculations dodgy - this is a portrait told with love but also a disarming honesty, catching angles of a filial relationship in which magic plays a greater part than disenchantment. I guess the selection, the honing, is what makes it novelistic. And like all great novels, it raises more questions than it answers.

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