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One Last Thing About Elena Ferrante

What’s left to say about Elena Ferrante, a writer her rabid readers can’t stop talking about? Ever since Ann Goldstein translated her Neapolitan novels (the first three in the series—My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay—are out and the fourth is expected in September), American readers ranging from essayists Meghan O’Rourke and James Wood to anyone with the hashtag #FerranteFever have joined Ferrante’s Italian fans to make the internet hum with praise and questions. The Neapolitan novels chronicle the full lifespan of the friendship between Elena Greco and the mercurial Lila Cerullo, which Ferrante gives a centrality and an intimacy usually granted only to romantic entanglements. She describes their evolving relations—first as girls, then as women—in propulsive, run-on sentences that reveal a deep subjectivity, which Elena as narrator continually second-guesses and complicates. Ferrante never shies away from the uglier aspects of closeness, the jealousies and inevitable comparisons one makes with an adored friend. Inexorably linked to this tale of female friendship, however, are the stories of the men in Elena and Lila’s very different lives, and the question of whether it’s possible for women to escape having their fortunes, minds and personalities shaped by men. The Camorra-dominated Neapolitan suburb where the girls grow up is like a complex male character in its own right, casting a shadow wherever the women go. And beyond the neighborhood, Ferrante very naturally explores the intellectual movements fomenting in Italy in the 1960s. Napoli-Inset Picture postcard of Naples c. 1960. The city Ferrante writes about isn’t nearly so serene. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia In many ways, Ferrante’s Neapolitan series employs the techniques of the greatest 19th-century literature, recontexualizing both the psychological novel and Tolstoyan realist fiction amidst post-war labor movements and the rise of feminism. Ferrante brings to life not only her two protagonists, but a neighborhood cast that’s Dickensian in scope, summoning nuance to each portrait. As if that were not enough to win attention, Ferrante’s biography is a tantalizing mystery; the novelist has insisted on keeping her identity from the public eye. “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t,” Ferrante declared in a 1991 letter to her editor. This anonymity, which she calls a “space of absolute creative freedom,” has acted as an additional frame for her celebrated works, much in the way 19th-century novels often begin with throat-clearing introductions that explain the manuscript’s provenance. Elena_Ferrante_bookshop_sideBut in all this FerranteFever, something has gone unaddressed and unquestioned, and today I write to correct it. I’m talking about a certain misperception, represented in a blurb on every copy of the Neapolitan novels that suggests Ferrante writes as “if Jane Austen got angry.” Let’s look at the first part of this statement: that Ferrante is like Austen. It’s true that both authors write novels concerned with women. But is that all Austen really is? Or can we agree that, beyond being a woman who writes for women, a few other things are notable about Austen’s work: her English settings among the landed gentry; her comic, ironic plots; her biting criticism of the late-18th-century sentimental novel that many mistake her books for. In any case, none of these connotations carry over to Ferrante, meaning the writer of the blurb uses Jane Austen merely as a synonym for authoress. The world Ferrante writes about is no drawing room—it’s a mean, hardscrabble arena. Which brings me to the “got angry” part of the statement. Setting aside its tone deafness in a society that discounts and dismisses women perceived to be angry, the blurb seems to conflate subject matter with temperament. It’s like insisting that someone who writes about war must be violent. Maybe for some readers the mystery of authorship makes it possible to confuse Ferrante with the characters and situations she depicts. Not that she doesn’t grant the occasional interview: In The New York Times last December, Ferrante gently corrected the record—she is not anonymous, she simply chooses to be absent. And in the most recent issue of The Paris Review, she once again spoke as herself. “As a girl—12, 13 years old—I was absolutely certain that a good book had to have a man as its hero, and that depressed me.” She went on, And now all has been said. Photo courtesy of Everett

by Beatrice Conselyea

Mar 27, 2015

A True Genius: John Kennedy Toole

Every list of Funniest Books Ever includes A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Most reviews echo the praise of The New Republic: “It will make you laugh out loud till your belly aches and your eyes water.” Yet since the novel’s 1980 publication, all attempts by Hollywood to film this comic masterpiece have failed. Zach Galifianakis is the latest star rumored to play Dunces protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly, New Orleans’s strange, cranky favorite son. Director Steven Soderbergh, who walked away from his own Dunces movie, isn’t optimistic. “I think it’s cursed,” he has said. “That project has got bad mojo on it.” The novel A Confederacy of Dunces began its life in 1963, on a borrowed typewriter in an Army barracks while Sergeant John Kennedy Toole was stationed in Puerto Rico. Returning home to New Orleans, Toole gave the manuscript to his mother, Thelma, who proclaimed, “It’s a masterpiece, son.” Toole sent the manuscript to only one publisher, Simon & Schuster, where it caught the eye of Jean Ann Jollett, assistant to editor Robert Gottlieb (who would go on to edit The New Yorker). Jollett wrote to Toole, “I laughed, chortled, collapsed my way through Confederacy,” before passing along the manuscript to her boss. Toole wasn’t prepared for Gottlieb’s blunt editorial comments, however—especially ones like “It isn’t really about anything.” Toole and Gottlieb exchanged notes on the book for two years but, as Cory MacLauchlin writes in his absorbing Toole biography, Butterfly in the Typewriter, the author was “at a loss as to how to edit his novel without destroying it.” In 1965, defeated and despondent, Toole put his manuscript into a box that rested on a cedar armoire. The box sat unopened for eight years. Confederacy_of_Dunces_medAfter packing away his life’s work, Toole slipped into depression and paranoia. The breaking point came after a brutal argument with his mother. Toole quit his teaching job, emptied his savings account and disappeared for 64 days. His body was found in his car on a lonely dirt road outside Biloxi, Mississippi, on March 26, 1969. He was only 31. Thelma Toole, who destroyed her son’s suicide note, was determined to share his genius with the world. She submitted the Dunces manuscript to dozens of publishers and was later quoted as saying that with each rejection she “died a little.” In 1976 she convinced Walker Percy, National Book Award–winning author of The Moviegoer, to champion her son’s novel, and in 1980 LSU Press wrote to Thelma, “We are very surprised that the book has not long since been published, but we are indeed pleased that we will be the ones able to do it.” Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. In his introduction to Dunces, Walker Percy praised “Ignatius Reilly, without progenitor in any literature I know of—slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.” And Thelma Toole became a media darling; in every interview and on every television appearance, she praised her genius son. A movie version of Dunces has never moved beyond the development stage. John Belushi, the first actor under consideration to play the portly antihero Ignatius, died of a drug overdose days before he was to meet with the project’s producers. Comedians John Candy and Chris Farley both suffered untimely deaths (1994 and 1997, respectively) before their own productions could begin. Fellow heavyweights John Goodman, Josh Mostel and Jack Black were also ready to wear the green hunting cap Ignatius favors, but then Fortune’s wheel spun downward again. Director John Waters, who’d wanted to film Dunces with drag queen Divine as the star, has wondered, “How can a movie ever live up to that book?” A 2004 version starring Will Ferrell probably came closest to being filmed, but it also fell apart. Ferrell called the Dunces adaptation “the movie everyone in Hollywood wants to make but no one wants to finance.” Then, of course, there was Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, which made filming in New Orleans impossible. As Ignatius himself might wail about his most fragile body part, Oh, my pyloric valve! But perhaps Hollywood is trying to make the wrong Dunces movie. Pictures of Toole (see above) show a man who looks very much like Jack Black; rather than filming what seems to be an unfilmable novel, isn’t the more compelling story one about the author’s own life, death and rebirth through art? Photo courtesy of Wikimedia  

by Colin J. Warnock

Mar 26, 2015

Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance: Premiere Season

The Paul Taylor Dance Company has changed its name to Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance. But it’s no mere matter of semantics; the new moniker represents a monumental identity shift. Established in 1954 solely to showcase the work of Paul Taylor—arguably America’s greatest living choreographer—this month, for the first time, the company is incorporating landmark works by other prominent modern-dance choreographers into its annual New York season. The troupe will become a repository for the preservation and presentation of modern masterworks. Traditionally, modern-dance companies are built around the oeuvre of a single choreographer and spotlight dancers specifically trained in that choreographer’s movement style. This practice reflects the art form’s historical emphasis on individualized movement vocabulary rather than on the manipulation of a common lexicon, such as that shared by ballet companies. Taylor’s unparalleled reputation as a dance-maker rests on the startling variety and brilliant crafting of the 142 dances he choreographed over 60 years. His works run the gamut from heady, profound commentaries on human nature and socially conscious political works, to lighthearted comedies and formal pure-movement studies. Yet the pieces Taylor made within the last five years are his simplest and least remarkable. PaulTaylor-CompanyB-Inset Taylor’s “Company B.” Photo courtesy of Paul B. Goode But what do companies do when their dance-maker dies or, in the case of Taylor, 84, is no longer creating works of his previous high caliber? When Martha Graham died, her company suffered fallout from legal battles over the rights to her work and, in trying to establish its new identity, began commissioning works by contemporary choreographers inspired by Graham’s signature solo, “Lamentations.” Merce Cunningham left strict instructions that when he died his troupe would embark on a two-year world tour and then permanently disband. Paul_Taylor_connects_sideTaylor’s plan—which will also involve commissioning new works by contemporary choreographers—is kicking off with a three-week season at Lincoln Center, offering all-Taylor programs as well as mixed bills featuring Taylor works alongside a performance by a guest company. The guests are the Limón Dance Company performing Doris Humphrey’s “Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor,” from 1938, and Shen Wei Dance Arts in Shen Wei’s 2003 “Rite of Spring.” Watching a pure evening of Taylor works has for years been one of the great pleasures of New York in March. So, the question is: Do the guest performances muddy or magnify this joy? I'd say they enrich it, by bringing historical perspective. Opening with a magnificent tableau, “Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor” provided a perfect starting point for a troupe setting out to honor the history of modern dance. With its spare aesthetic, clarity of shape and emphasis on ensemble work, it reminds viewers of what made this dance genre look so strikingly modern in the first place. Humphrey’s economy of movement beautifully paves the way for Taylor’s extraordinary displays of how much can be said with basic, pedestrian moves. PaulTaylor-SeaLark-Inset Taylor’s “Sea Lark.” Photo courtesy of Whitney Browne An exciting formalistic interpretation of the famous Stravinsky score, the Shen Wei piece showed both the distance modern dance has traveled in its deconstructions of music-movement relationships, and how indisputably music remains a companion and inspiration for compelling modern choreography. The piece sharpens our awareness of Taylor’s astute musical choices and helps us notice how effectively Taylor’s movement fits with the many sorts of sounds to which he has set his dances—everything from the Andrews Sisters to Bach, Piazzolla and loon calls. PaulTaylor-PiazzollaCaldera-Inset Taylor’s “Piazzolla Caldera.” Photo courtesy of Paul B. Goode I say hooray for Taylor’s new initiative. Presenting his works in programs that illuminate the history of modern dance for new viewers and a promise to nurture the art form’s continuing evolution is a win-win-win. Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance appears at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center through March 29. Feature photo courtesy of Paul B. Goode

by Lisa Jo Sagolla

Mar 25, 2015

Rules, Rules, Rules: or, How I Learned to Love Having to Sign Here, and Here, and Initial There

Last month the NBA on TNT crew was discussing advanced statistics and their role in evaluating basketball. Ever opinionated, Charles Barkley announced, “I’ve always believed analytics were crap. They’re just some crap that some people who are really smart made up to try to get in the game ’cause they had no talent.” In an era of increasingly refined metrics, when sports executives delve deeper into the data to find an edge, Barkley had planted his Luddite flag. Barkley’s argument may seem regressive, but it’s indicative of our general distrust for organizational hierarchy and decision-making. In his new collection of essays, The Utopia of Rules, David Graeber (pictured) examines our love-hate relationship with bureaucracy. Like many of us, Graeber wonders whether we’re actually becoming better organized or just devoting more and more time to filling out of forms. His writing is both academically dense and sprinkled with references to pop culture, allowing many different kinds of readers to access his way of thinking. Utopia_of_Rules_largeIn the second essay in the book, “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit,” Graeber asks a question similar to one I raised in a piece about Back to the Future Part II—namely, despite several decades’ worth of futuristic science fiction, why have we not yet invented flying cars, teleportation or even a simple hoverboard? As you may expect, Graeber lays the blame for stagnation at the feet of bureaucracy. Specifically, he argues that the ever-increasing committee time, paperwork and run-of-the-mill drudgery we put scientists through discourages out-of-the-box thinking. As a result, our top research scientists routinely come up with ideas that are simple rehashes of things that already work. As one physicist claims, “Original ideas are the kiss of death for a proposal, because they have not yet been proved to work.” Bureaucracy in its ideal form is a perfect meritocracy. But, while waiting in one line to get a form in order to wait in another line at the DMV, I think we can all agree that the ideal is a long way from reality. And yet, it seems to me that attacking bureaucracy in the year 2015 may be a quixotic gesture. Just as Barkley rages against the way an increasing majority of sports teams do business, our complaints are but droplets in a sea of paperwork. I remember being surprised at the amount of forms I had to fill out when starting a teaching job. The secretary looked at my pile, smiled wryly and said, “Welcome to the New York City Department of Education.” Graeber softens the blow when discussing the development of language, perhaps because it hinges on breaking the rules. Despite our best efforts to follow proper grammar and syntax, there’s not a language on record that hasn’t changed immensely over the course of just a few decades. Even with my red pen dutifully marking every foul on student papers, I know that no amount of bureaucratic rule will stem the tide of language evolution. So next time you’re filling out a useless form, take solace that this is just a beta version of the amazing, cutting-edge form you’ll be filling out sometime in the near future. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

by Austin Murphy-Park

Mar 24, 2015