Friday, March 22, 2019

Elena Ferrante – ‘My Brilliant Friend’

For obscure reasons [Signor Peluso] attributed his ruin to Don Achille. He charged him with having taken by stealth, as if his shadowy body were a magnet, all the tools for his carpentry work, which made the shop useless. He accused him of having taken the shop itself, and transformed it into a grocery store. For years I imagined the pliers, the saw, the tongs, the hammer, the vise, and thousands and thousands of nails sucked up like a swarm of metal into the matter that made Don Achille. For years I saw his body – a coarse body, heavy with a mixture of materials – emitting in a swarm salami, provolone, mortadella, lard, and prosciutto. (p. 36)
This, the most visually arresting moment early on in My Brilliant Friend, made me wonder if it would go in a magical realist direction, but no, it is very specifically tied to the imagination of a young girl who has been told a cautionary tale and taken it too literally. Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo live a rich imaginative life together, through their dolls, which they play with in the courtyard of the block of flats where they live, together with most of the other characters in the novel. This is ‘the neighbourhood,’ somewhere is suburban Naples in the late 1950s. Lila pushes Elena’s doll through a ground-level window, Elena follows suit, and they make their way to the basement to retrieve them, convinced that the monster Don Achille lies in wait. He doesn’t get the chance to become a real monster, making an early exit, but it’s clear that his reputation comes from his power, which comes from organised crime, so people are afraid of him. When he’s gone, the Solaras are the most powerful family in the neighbourhood: they own the local bar, and the two adult sons drive around in a Fiat 1100, picking on people younger than they are, and in at least one instance indulging in sexual abuse. There is a high degree of acceptance of this behaviour, for instance from Elena’s parents:
They hated Don Achille and were afraid of the Solaras. But they overlooked it and went to spend money both at Don Achille’s son’s, and at the Solaras’, and sent us, too. And they voted for the Fascists, for the monarchists, as the Solaras wanted them to. And they thought that what had happened before was past and, in order to live quietly, they placed a stone on top of it, and so, without knowing it, they continued it, they were immersed in the things of before, and we kept them inside us, too. (p. 163)
All this deference to grocers and barmen? Well, the neighbourhood is a small, tightly bound world. The Solaras and the Carraccis (Don Achille’s family) control the supply of food and drink, and the (commercial) public spaces. To begin with, it seems that Elena and Lila, both prodigies at primary school, are going to escape by intellectual means, but while Elena goes to middle and then high school, Lila is kept at home, and gradually abandons her early studiousness (more intense and alive than Elena’s), learning to live in the world instead of through books. She is pursued obsessively by Marcello Solara, who invites himself to dinner at her house several times a week, insinuating himself by his undisputed social power, his bullying entitlement: even after she has rejected him one-on-one, he persists, as he knows her parents won’t want to risk trouble, and in fact would welcome into their family someone wealthy, and able to help their business, which is a small shoe shop. Lila outflanks him by starting a relationship with someone of nearly equal power, Stefano Carracci. She accepts the logic of the neighbourhood, and learns to use it to her advantage. The cost of investing herself fully into her situation is her intellectual self, which she feels deeply, but is determined to leave behind, as Elena discovers when she approaches her for help with an anti-religious article she has written:
        [Lila] circled a sentence and moved it with a wavy line to the top of the page.
        ‘Can I recopy it for you on to another page?’
        ‘I’ll do it.’
        ‘No, let me do it.’
        It took a while to recopy. When she gave me back the notebook, she said, ‘You’re very clever, of course they always give you ten.’
        I felt that there was no irony, it was a real compliment. Then she added with sudden harshness:
        ‘I don’t want to read anything else that you write.’
        ‘Why?’
        She thought about it.
        ‘Because it hurts me,’ and she struck her forehead with her hand and burst out laughing. (pp. 300-1)
Lila is the more headstrong, the more curious, the more self-possessed of the two friends, but by the end of the book she is about to settle down into domesticity, and it is Elena who is full of possibilities and uncertainties.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Robert Forster – ‘Grant & I: Inside and Outside The Go-Betweens’

It feels terrible to admit this, but I never got on with Grant’s contribution to the final Go-Betweens album, Oceans Apart. My first impression, which stuck, was that his songs were empty, prettified confections (which was maddening, as Robert’s were all brilliant). His ego, kept in check on the other two post-comeback LPs by the modest, as-live sound, inflated like a soft balloon in the vacuum of Mark Wallis’ ornate production, which failed to come close to his work on 16 Lovers Lane. This impression built on an idea of Grant as humourless and conceited, thinking of himself as a rock star, as opposed to Robert, who always had his tongue in his cheek. Then he died. What bad timing: the man who wrote incredible songs like ‘Bye Bye Pride’ and ‘Apology Accepted’, left the world with this nonsense? And why was the consensus all the other way: that he died when his life and his art were at a high point? I didn’t understand. This book is a good counter to that way of thinking. I’m unlikely to change my mind about the Oceans Apart songs, but the story Robert tells about Grant shows how fragile he was, and gives reasons for the bluster that you’d have to have a heart of stone not to forgive.

Here’s an early description of Grant at university, where the pair first met:
Outside, the world was whirring, people were doing things, conducting business. His contribution: reclining in bed in the early afternoon […] reading the latest edition of Film Comment. […] He seemed remarkably unattached from the start; his connection to the world, I was to discover, was through the things he loved, even as they disconnected him further from the world around him. (p. 29)
Nothing too tragic there, you’d have thought, and Forster says something similar of himself, imagining returning from tour with a suitcase full of books and records: ‘Well-stocked seclusion – my favourite position in life’ (p. 236). But where he settles down in later life, marries and starts a family, McLennan almost always lives in shared accommodation, a perpetual student without the discipline of study. His first serious relationship came quite late, with bandmate Amanda Brown, and the big trauma of his life was her leaving him on being sacked from the band, a consequence he had not foreseen. He spent years trying to get her back. He didn’t have the worldliness to think through the consequences, or to deal with the fallout. (Forster: ‘I wanted to say, You’re the innocent one. You’re the one left in the house crying’ (p. 219)). So he drank, and he acted the rock star. It seems likely that what could come across as arrogance was a defence mechanism, because he didn’t know how to deal with the world. And then, too, there is Forster’s bleak assessment of the underlying reason for Grant’s heart attack, and the careless living which led to it: ‘the sour condition of Grant’s soul’ (p. 330). How on earth can that be squared with his ecstatic reaction to hearing ‘Finding You’ for the first time?

Forster doesn’t let the tragedy of the end dominate the book. It’s a detailed and fair assessment of The Go-Betweens’ career, filled with period detail and wry comment. Like this thumbnail sketch when Grant moved flat:
The landlord was known as the Man with the Movable Wig, who upon discovering you were a musician would insist on playing you Switched-on Bach. (p. 82)
Or this summary of 20 years in the political wilderness for his home state of Queensland:
Like most politicians who preach God, Joh [Bjelke-Petersen] had tolerated shonky business deals, had no regard for the environment, and naturally no interest in the arts. (pp. 243-4)
On the music, he judges Before Hollywood, Liberty Belle, 16 Lovers Lane, The Friends of Rachel Worth and Oceans Apart as good records, the other albums wanting. The account of the session for Tallulah’s singles is particularly dispiriting:
With costs high and deposit paid, the best we could do was slink off to a backroom and rehearse the B sides, to be called out one by one over the next four days, like witnesses at a murder trial, and feed our parts into an unremarkable churn that were to be our singles. (p. 174)
The tug between pop potential and the actual sound of the band is one that led to some awful recording decisions, starting with 1984’s Spring Hill Fair, where the drumming which held together Before Hollywood was substituted for drum machines, and the piecemeal approach Forster describes above (I love drum machines, but they aren’t Lindy Morrison). The to-ing and fro-ing between record labels, for which the band could have been named, had they known in advance, was part of the reason for this, as was the era in which they lived, which was in thrall to recording technology (the multi-track, the sequencer) in a way which ours, curiously, isn’t. Although the catalogue is uneven for this reason, it’s interesting, too: there is always jeopardy, the possibility of being dropped by the label giving a hunger to proceedings. When this happened to Forster after his solo LP Warm Nights in 1996, he relocated to Germany with his wife, and he reflects:
As I strode the medieval alleyways in the cold, pull-the-collar-up weather, a new persona was born. Self-preserving, forgotten, withered, proud, discarded – glorious emotions, for how you imagine yourself to be is as important as talent when writing songs. (p. 276)

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