Elena Ferrante and Lying Parents

I read Elena Ferrante’s “The Lying Life of Adults” last Fall, though, in truth, I completed it just after the New Year. In a vacuum, it was pretty fun, if not a life-affecting experience. At the same time, it was somewhat disappointing as my first introduction to her given the level of buzz I’ve heard over recent years.

I guess it’s a coming of age story in Naples, Italy, which by itself is a little weird since I think the target audience is adults. That misalignment made me a little uncomfortable, as though I was intruding into the world of youth. A story like this is usually bound to a not particularly illuminating start and end – youth is jarred by life and is a more contemplative person with self agency by the end. What are the forks the road in between? Who are the characters on the way? Are they scarecrows stuck in the fields or are they traveling their own journeys? While there are literal changes in the lives of the Ferrante’s characters, they still end up feeling like the dummies on poles.

The plot and elements are not particularly memorable. A few days after I finished it, I realized that I had already forgotten how it ended (with Sex). The story is about a teenage daughter of two academic parents who live in a ‘respectable’ part of Naples. The father, Andrea, is estranged from his family who also live in Naples, but in the low-class area. The plot follows Gianni as she becomes immersed in the low-class part of her family as her parent’s marriage and that of their best friends collapse with the emergence of what appears to be everyone having had affairs and romances with each other. The first of those dominoes appears at the time that Gianni is first getting acquainted with Vittoria – the volcanic, estranged sister of Andrea. Gianni finds that the reason for her father’s estrangement from his sister is tied to his stepping in to end an affair she was having with a married man. Each revelation moves the plot along but sometimes it felt as though Ferrante just populated characters and mathematically figured out all the possible crossings and set them up as road markers for Gianni.

The characters, on the other hand, are interesting if not taken to be deeper than vignettes and while they are not all likable, it’s enjoyable following them. Maybe a bit like a soap opera, with similar depth.

Ideas and aspects of the book that stuck out to me:

The nature of ‘Academicized’ Families

The academic sensibility if not formal job of Gianni’s father bumps into a number of situations and on reflection, it’s not clear to me if Ferrante is trying to get at a deeper connection of ‘lying’ and the long history of suspicious toward academics as being vaguely hypocritical or obscuring real world truths behind pretension. The four adults from whose lives sends Gianni on journey – her parents and their best (married) friends, are linked by very vague academic/political ties. Their interactions are seen second-hand to be either in service of political study or having sex with one another. To Gianni, the latter ends up being the more central part of their identity than the former. Given Gianni’s lackluster prospects as a scholar, it’s a perspective that is maybe not so surprising and by the end of the book she is quicker to intuit dimensions in people (like her own lust) that go beyond the ability to speak in a pretty manner.

Exhibitionism of School and your performance

School plays a sporadic but not insignificant role for Gianni with at least three consequential aspects in Gianni’s story. It plays out as the setting for which her parents assess pride or shame over who Gianni is for them, it is a setting where Gianni can play out and experiment with bucking the system, and it is a small mirror into the social piece of her life where one’s visibility others is very important. This latter aspect is connected to secrecy in that it is a microcosm of that for which we use secrecy to protect ourselves.

To hide or not?

Naturally, the title being explicit about ‘secrets’, a recurring event is the revelation of a secret. Usually those are secrets about sexual relationships but not exclusively. Gianni’s parents feel a need to keep her academic struggles secret, for example. Gianni wrestles with whether and how to keep details of the visits to her Aunt as secrets from her parents. What is interesting to me is that I think there is a more complex story here about Gianni’s relationship to these secrets. It is not only the adults that have them, but they enter into her life as another manifestation of what it means to grow up where secrets are devices that might serve a purpose – self-protection against prejudices for example. That’s not a direction or a complexity that Ferrante chooses to go into and I suspect that the intent with the book is to fall for the view of secrets as simply that companion to hypocrisy which I think is the actual villain for the author.

Supporting casts

That chunk of the book between a jolt and the flight from the cocoon features a landscape populated with many other people, few of which have a role beyond pushing Gianni in her evolution. She has her best friends, she has her Aunt, she has the rich jerk and his friend. There is the family of the man her Aunt slept with, and her eventual first desire of love. I’m surprised she didn’t find room for the ghost of her Aunt’s paramour. In retrospect, many of these seem to be somewhat too obvious as ways to express her dilemmas.

Bald Sisters

I went with my spouse to see a play at the Steppenwolf Theater downtown. As we reminded ourselves, it’s an example of what we like and why we wanted to live where we do. That the play was really good was adding frosting to a pleasure that didn’t need that part.

The play, ‘Bald Sisters’, was a good one – maybe not the best I’ve ever seen (not sure which one qualifies there – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Bird on a Wire?), but really good and brought multiple tears to my eyes. I’m not a very overt, explicitly emotional person, but plays are the art form that can do that to me. I don’t know if it’s the physical connection to actors as humans right there or maybe the exposed emotions seem to come from a much less scripted place than in cinema, so the rawness ‘feels real’. A little like the best of live music shows compared to studio bands.

The play tells about a family of Cambodian-Americans, with references to their story and stories around leaving Cambodia during the bloody years of the Khmer Rouge. The characters are something of ‘types’ that represent pieces of many of the parts that afflict any and many immigrant stories which in themselves also sometimes are part of contending with changes that modernity brings to immigrant and non-immigrant alike. There are problems and love around traditional parts of life that connect us with those that came before us: prayers and thoughts and food and song all play parts in this. A lovely part of the play is its incorporation of a character who is connected to the Syrian crises and diaspora. While the character is clearly the most minor of the four in the performance, he has some touching scenes such as his recitation/chant of a Muslim prayer for the dead (and other occasions as he tells us).

Again among the pieces of these lives that bounces among refugees from anywhere are the stories of how the (essentially) matriarch came to be with her two daughters, one a motherless child foundering in a refugee camp, the other born by her mother pregnant in her days fleeing the country after her husband died. Those seeds color the lives even as they occurred at an age so young as to make the fallout that much harder to understand. At one point, one sister talks about a ‘heavy smog’ that lies on her, in part because of the complete inability to know how to incorporate it into her life.

Then there is the collision between modernity and what came before. I tend to think of this as something that is cast in starkest relief in America, a country where acceleration to the future and that contrast with the past leaves friction as painful as sandpaper on skin. I think the play had to have this be a piece of the play, but on reflection, I tend to think it did a decent job at not taking it gratuitously. The younger sister has the tropes of youthful rebellion, including a shaved head – she is one of the ‘bald sisters’ after all – and her sometimes inarticulateness, even if well done, feeds into that. On the other hand, she’s the one who grasps for missing depths that tradition provides. Well, maybe not tradition, per se, but their tradition.

And that tradition might have been part of the role given to a character in itself: while Seith/Saif’s Muslim heritage is nicely a part here, there are parts of the Asian experience here that matter specifically on their own. Karaoke, meditation, the idea that Asian women are inherently ‘cute’ (n.b.: I’m married to an Asian woman). It’s tempered a bit by a plot contrivance around how to deal with dead bodies, yet a richness of who we are and the weakness in how our ability to fend off problems is unavoidable gives way to a witness to a certain grace in those parts of our lives that we all deal with.

Liberal Arts, Progeny, and Ego

I think a little bit about the ‘type’ of knowing things which I enjoy. I know that I’ve had a sort of traditional enjoyment and ability around math (obviously as an erstwhile relatively successful physicist for a while), but I love thinking and I love ideas that span the humanities too.

Not infrequently I tell the story that as a physics student (undergraduate) my favorite class in college was a first year literature course. This was the early 1980’s. But the way it was taught was so broad but could capture a way of thinking about literature that I had never appreciated very well. I was a pretty avid reader but this was something different. The class touched on Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Bible. The professor took a literature-centered and philosophical perspective on the latter which used the book of Job as the means to express a universal problem: why do bad things happen to good people and how the Old Testament is actually an ‘Eastern’ meditation on the topic. Just a great set of discussions and thinking.

There are other examples of this in my life as I tell it to myself, but two aspects of it make me think about it. First, the excitement about the breadth of thought that comes from a ‘Liberal Arts’ education. That’s coupled tightly in my thinking these days with one of my children who has such an education. I struggle to find the right words to tell her how good that education is because it guarantees you a journey without telling you the map. At the same time, she is a person who takes for granted the importance and strength she brings to that path. Given a success, she’ll want to focus and perseverate on the woe brought on by where she hasn’t been immediately successful.

I wonder if that isn’t a foggy mirror of myself, my intention to not be avid or successful in a solely narrow sense but to expand myself as interested in a broader sense. Is that a need, maybe egotistical, to express that I’m good at everything? That’s one way to see it.

I just finished reading “Life Between the Tides” by Adam Nicolson, about the cold coast of Scotland and its natural life. Finding and reading something you pick up with total serendipity is really fun if you are blessed for it to be a good read. In this case it was really good – not flawless, but really good. The writer and his artist friend document, talk about, draw and photograph life in the contexts of 3 different artificial tidal pools he creates between the period right before to just after the pandemic. Each one is a little more ambitious in size and also has a variation in location. The last one is very nearly a pool nearly enmeshed with the actual ocean itself, while the first is the size of a laundry basket and seems to be just brushing the ocean.

He conveys the wonder of naturalism at its best and touches on that fascination with getting a tour and view into alien lives that none-the-less have logic and patterns to them that have an evident ‘sense’. We meet cloning and dueling anemones, Queen shrimp, and hierarchies of sea weed along the way. I could spend (and did) a long time reading and wondering at any kind of nature. In that sense I guess it wasn’t totally serendipitous to have picked it up.

The ‘twist’ added by the book is how it mixes in various aspects of human life that have some parallel with the particular topic from nature touched on by different chapters. Thus, he weaves in medieval local Scottish history in with a chapter that is engaged with an island that is just submerged most of the time. He brings up philosophy and philosophers along the way, offering a defense of some(Heraclitus) who are apparently of of fashion and ones I’d never heard of (Iris Murdoch) but who fascinated me. I thought at times he tried too hard to see a relationship between what he saw in nature and where his mind went in human affairs, but didn’t deter from the overall pleasantness of the read.

Late Night with Art Bell and the Death Penalty and Not Covid

A Saturday night, my spouse is out (helping one of our young adult kids). I’m listening to an old Art Bell broadcast dealing with the Death Penalty. It’s of interest to me, not just because of the topic, but thinking to some hints in chats with my kids of just how much existential threats and the like they have to deal with. It brings me back to thinking about the ’90s’, a time of goofy, non-historic weirdness. I mean there were bad things of course, but not of the ‘caliber’ that the 21st century has brought us.

If I were a better writer, or a writer with more time, or both, then I think there is something there, linking 1990s and todays crap and the Death Penalty and, though I didn’t address it earlier, Peggy Noonan and abortion. I still feel so small on many things in life.

3 Drafts

It’s been over a year since I’ve written on this site. Looking at leftovers, I have 3 drafts that I never posted. I wonder what the value is in those. I’ll look at them – it feels like those times when I am aware of books that are collections of correspondence for historical figures and I am amazed that they might make interesting reading in themselves. A recent review of such for Robert Frost was so well written it made me want to revisit his works and maybe dive into that book. A new type of literary work which I’ve never explored. Time enough for surprises I guess.

Pandemic and Moral Panic Writ Small

I have really disliked what I’ve seen about myself during the Pandemic. I wonder how much of it is that, being alone with oneself more often, one sees or spends more time self-reflecting. When we are with one another, as much time is spent vollying back reactions-spoken or unspoken, as a stranger or familiarly – as there is initiating the activity. It seems like part of my inner life is filling in for both roles. What I’ve seen is how often I think poorly or am mean in my thoughts towards others and maybe a little more time fealing sorry for myself.

I walk down streets and people coming into ‘my space’ annoy me. I’m eager to put my annoyance on display. If a runner is coming down the sidewalk, I turn around (especially if I have my dog) so I can appear to have not noticed them coming on me and I can then glance up and back away, shaking my head at the obvious immoral and rude behavior on their part. I feel the same at grocery stores. I put myself into a moral panic about what others are doing and want to be the one being in obvious consternation. I think it indirectly is an act of putting myself ‘above’ others. And I hate it.

Happiness and Love

When I first really came to know my spouse, we were both in a bit of a dark time in our lives. We were neighbors in an apartment complex in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A lot of our dating and getting to know each other had a slight overcast of reflection on life as the young adults we had been and some uncertainty about what it all meant. I recall a recurrent daydream that would come to me in those days where I felt like she and I were two young abandoned kids in a ruined city, destroyed by some war or cataclysm that was not understandable to us – it just provided a backdrop. As kids, we played, somewhat innocent of something more serious than we had the capacity or interest to care about.

In the past couple years, one of the things that I have struggled with is matching up what I see as my giving to her and wanting more back from her. I’ve thought about it from a lot of angles. In my worst moments, I find myself expressing the intention that she really doesn’t ‘love me’. I think of the material things I do for her. I think of the still barely faded, gut-wrenching physical attraction I have for her. I think of how readily and eagerly I go where she wants to go. I have abandoned much of things and places which I value. I struggle to match up these with something similar from her that I could tie to a visible sentiment of love.

There are other moments lately where I think I sense the outline of some broader truth that I’m missing. Or maybe another truth. In those early days of seeing each other, I emphasized to her that I didn’t want a mirror. I was looking or wanting others – other thoughts, other feels, other looks – which by being not me were a way of assuring me I wasn’t alone. I was lonely. I wanted to live in places where there were lots of (other) people. Now in a more mature part of our lives, I wonder if I’ve missed a little of my own sensitivity to ‘other’. I wonder if her being very obviously happy with our life is in itself something bigger that she gives back to me that I haven’t appreciated.

It’s a shade of truth that I can see as a blind spot for me. I’ve convinced myself over time to think that ‘one should want a good life, not necessarily a happy one’. I put that sentiment in quotes because it has become almost a religious little mantra for me. In the same way medieval people might look for little sayings and prayers for protection, I think there’s a part of me that says it as a protection against the worry that I won’t have happiness or, being more forgiving, that happiness is such a shallow thing that I am ensuring something deeper that I can trust I’ll strive for without quite reaching. How else to reconcile with existential fears of infinity?

I didn’t want to end this post on that thought, it seems way to self-centered in a way that goes against my real emotion in writing this which was about seeing the good that is my spouse being happiness and what that gives back to me.

Green Leaves, Pear Leaves, and Communities of Leaves

I’m sure most of us are spending time doing things which have come to be habits and which weren’t habits before the pandemic. I spend a lot more time sitting on our deck (3rd floor of a town home) and so I watch the trees grow and fade with time. A little more specifically, I guess I pay attention to the growth and fading of the leaves.

I’ve always liked paying attention to them, even in pre-pandemic times. Some of that comes from a childhood with a lot of time spent being outside ‘in the weeds’ as we would say. I was also quite addicted to Tolkein and he certainly paid attention to trees and the land throughout his stories. Trees and landscapes would literally be figures.

There are two trees which come very close to our deck. One is a Gingko and one is a deciduous of a type I’m not sure – a Basswood? It’s odd in that it has leaves whose stems come from the center of the leaf rather than an apex. As I’ve written before, the end of summer brings colors which show the Basswood having aged to a dark and dry green while the Gingko stays closer to its bright, light green throughout the summer. Now as October readies most trees to fade and drop, the Basswood has turned a yellowish which reminds me of some ripe pears. The ones which are a pale green when not ripe and fade to the yellow as they go soft and then too soft.

I was pondering the Basswood yesterday and how the leaves are always ultimately connected to one another as in a connected graph and it comes to my mind that clusters of leaves form a community and I realize that I come to think of the leaves as denizens and the bulk of the tree as that which connect them. I know that the whole is the real thing, so why do I give an identity to the most ephemeral part of it?


A very happy event came to me this week. The local bookstore (The Book Table) started getting periodicals again. I think I’ve alluded in the past to my enjoyment of well written book reviews and how The New York Review of Books is the pinnacle of this art form. When the pandemic descended, the bookstore dealt with it for a time by allowing one to order online and then go to the back door to receive your purchases – a little like a 1930’s speakeasy type of thing. Sadly, it turned out that they would not make periodicals like the NYRB available. Maybe receiving those deliveries was too much of a manual process like getting newspapers delivered.

The Book Table had started allowing people to go into the store when Summer came. I’ve tried pretty hard to not go into places that I don’t need to and I stuck to my backdoor access instead – and we used it; I’ve bought a couple books and our daughters asked for a few which my spouse and I were happy to buy. This past week, we went to pick up a book I had bought (Man’s Fate, Andre Malreaux. I’m sure I’ll write on that at some point, very much a favorite which I’ve reread many times). This time though, I went into the store. That was interesting in itself – a bookstore is necessarily a tactile place. You browse, touch, flip pages, read – just like going to a food store or farmer’s market. Prominent signs made clear the need to use the omnipresent hand sanitizers. Despite the daily or hourly chatter of this or that implication of the pandemic, it had not sunk in with me the particular challenge for a place like the bookstore. I took a pretty cautious approach, joyously noted the NYRB and took a copy from the back of the stack.

The first article was a review of a new book from Elena Ferrante by Elaine Blaire. I knew of Ferrante by name but haven’t read anything of hers. It was a great review. One of the nuggets in it was a paragraph on how Ferrante’s characters who write or reflect or meditate are dealing with the challenge of how does one organize the jumble of thoughts that run through your head and memories and shape them into something. I am not doing it justice right now, but it was written well enough that I reflected on how it has a similarity to aspects of my own life – whether written or otherwise. In physics, there’s a notion which is conveyed in the idea of entropy that organization has information inherent in it which is not always directly related to the objects being organized. Not surprising really but it interests me.

At the same time, this idea conflicts with other ideas around how to run a life. Sometimes when I think of the depth and discipline I need to learn about things I want to do or need to do, I start down the path of thinking that I need to organize for the future; I will do X for this period of time on days A and B. But I reflexively recoil almost immediately. It might be a result of getting older, but I feel like the flexibility I retain by not deciding ahead of time exactly what I will do and when is more important to life and to doing things than the rigidity of an organized plan. Is there room for the apparent chaos in waiting to the last moment to decide what to do? I’m not sure.