Acts of quarantine

Here is an extra spoiler-filled Byatt/Ferrante-off that nobody asked for.

It is unsatisfying to me that the (largely excellent) My Brilliant Friend adaptation gives Antonio short shrift, to the detriment of the characterisation of Lenù. On screen, Antonio is played for cringes. Lenù becomes a passive recipient of the semi-wanted attentions of an over-eager bumbler, who makes shallow jabs at the grooming of his rival, the cool intellectual, Nino. But in the novel, Lenù is actively, if ineptly, manipulative. When Antonio appears after school it is at her request, in order to rub Nino’s face in it. Moreover, it is she who asks that they attend Lila’s wedding as a pair, and because Antonio reasonably takes this as a willingness to socially cement their relationship, he goes into debt to get a new suit—an expense which the show presents as a spontaneous vanity. These changes rob the relationship, and consequently Lenù, of considerable complexity.

Critically, the television series also downplays their mutual physical chemistry. This seems a small matter in the first book alone, but their connection presents a significant comment on sexuality in the wider arc of the four novels. Aside from the creepy elder Sarratore (who is an awful bag of shit), to the best of my recollection only Antonio is strongly presented as offering a woman sexual satisfaction. (For the most part, the books’ descriptions of sex echo Lila’s: “Fucking is overrated.”) In this respect, Antonio is specifically contrasted favourably against Lenù’s other, highly intellectual, middle/upper-class partners, even as union with him represents the danger of being trapped in her origins. Only with Antonio, a man of the neighbourhood—and only after social climbing renders Lenù utterly outside the power of the neighbourhood—do we see in any detail an honest and non-threatening consummation of mutual desire. As is often the case, the neighbourhood is both a source of vitality, as well as inhospitable to it.

I find it fascinating to juxtapose this against (what else) the early loves of Frederica Potter, and her philosophy of “lamination”. Frederica’s compulsive drive to keep everything separate—love, sex, affection, thinking, reading, home—her need to hold all experiences at an analytical distance—is her safeguard against being swallowed whole by local domesticity. For both Ferrante’s and Byatt’s young women, there is a kind of satisficing going on, with their hunger for things that come into conflict—for status, for independence, for knowledge, including sexual knowledge. A major part of how they handle this problem is to quarantine sexual exploration from emotional vulnerability, in defiance of societal (and perhaps also readerly) expectations.

In Frederica’s case, this centres, perhaps counterintuitively, in the character of Alexander. Alexander begins in many respects as a Nino-esque figure, embodying a quiet cultural and intellectual glamour, and inspiring painful desire of an impossibly compound nature: Alexander is sex, he is writing and reading, he is romance, he is social advancement, he is intellectual worth, he is clever company, he is metropolitan escape from Blesford and kitchens and curates. Yet when he is finally within reach, the very completeness of Frederica’s devotion to him repels her. Any possibility of total intimacy is a trap, here signalled by the appearance of the trimmings of domesticity, the chops she can’t cook. She runs away in favour of a lower-stakes, almost clinical—laminated—tryst with the reassuringly unexciting Wilkie.

There are curious parallels between the consensual sexual encounters that both Lenù and Frederica hold at the greatest distance. Both take place outdoors, with older men of extremely peripheral relevance to their lives. Both men seem at first to be safely left behind as private biographical footnotes, until the moment of the women’s first public artistic triumphs, when they reappear in a strange mixture of comedy and threat. Ed, the “traveller in dolls” whom Frederica meets on a bus, comes pushing through the crowd after she performs in Alexander’s play, and has to be hastily evaded. Lenù, cannier and in more control in many ways, successfully transforms her own incident into literary material, and finds her work at the receiving end of a bitter review from the man in question.

Quarantine is a strategy for a rigged world. Marriage, the ultimate running-together of things, simply doesn’t work for the women of these books. Not for Stephanie Potter or Lila Cerullo, with their romantic visions of package deals of love, sex and meaning. Not for Frederica, gambling somewhat incoherently on maintaining emotional and social independence with a sufficiently alien man. Not for Lenù, compromising on social ascension with an inconsiderate sexual damp squib. I’m glad she gets to enjoy Antonio after making it out the other side, and I hope the television series stays true to that, at least, when the time comes around.

You were all right

Despite some earlier ambivalence toward Elena Ferrante, I finally took the billion and a half recommendations to read the Neapolitan novels, and have just stumbled, reeling, off the exhilarating ride that is MY BRILLIANT FRIEND. I will need to get onto the other three books pronto, and I’m sure I will have many more thoughts when I’m done. But I wanted to pause for a remark occasioned by the comparison by John Freeman included among the praise quotes in my copy: “Imagine if Jane Austen got angry.” In fact the parallel that struck me more forcefully, if one really must insist on grounding everything in analogies to works by Anglo authors (note: one need not), is “Imagine if A.S. Byatt weren’t so snobby.” I couldn’t help recalling, as I ate this book up, that other gorgeous, labyrinthine quartet on gender, literature, domesticity, sexuality, tradition and violence–the Frederica Potter books.

Both first volumes begin in the 1950s (with the first appearance of television in the neighbourhood an event of some interest); both trace in sumptuous detail and with great psychological penetration the divergent lives of young people in a close-knit neighbourhood; both centre on young women’s intellectual ambitions and the threats that thwart them; both are rigorously critical but humanistic at heart; and both climax in weddings with varying elements of farce, and, in Ferrante’s case, horror. From what I’ve read so far, Ferrante is a more consistent and disciplined writer–sticking to comparisons between the first volumes for now (avoiding the painful subject of A WHISTLING WOMAN), though I love Byatt in an almost foundational way, I have to admit that the Marcus Potter subplot in THE VIRGIN IN THE GARDEN is not always entirely readable. Ferrante is also, and powerfully, much more attuned to matters of class. While Byatt sometimes gestures in this direction, it’s not really a matter of interest in the Potter books for her as much as it is in THE CHILDREN’S BOOK.

It is hard to overstate the significance of this comparison for me. The Frederica Potter books are, not to put too fine a point on it, like some kind of personal religion. It was on closing the pages of STILL LIFE that I knew I would write A CERTAIN EXPOSURE. I am enormously excited about what the rest of this series is going to do to my head.

Small Worlds: Northern Lights

I’m in the middle of revisiting His Dark Materials, which I absolutely adored when I first read it. This time around, having just finished NORTHERN LIGHTS, I continue to be awed by its imaginative grandeur and its daring, as well as its willingness to inject a kind of wildness and philosophy which is striking to find in a series of children’s books.

But it is impossible for me now not to notice how little time Pullman has for women.

For sure, there are key female characters, notably, of course Lyra. And they are compelling, though still half in the clutches of stereotype: it is rather wearying how Mrs Coulter’s villainy, contemptibility and femininity are all represented as pretty much the same thing. Ma Costa is a powerful presence but—as you might guess from her name—her main role is simply to be maternal. Even Serafina Pekkala can’t quite escape lavish attention to her physical beauty and how much witches love men.

My main complaint, though, isn’t about how the women and girls in the book are portrayed, so much as how needlessly all-male settings recur with dismaying regularity. Why does Jordan College have to be so wholly uncritically portrayed as excluding women? Why (except in the sex-segregated Bolvangar) must all of Lyra’s child friends be boys? Why, among the armoured bears, does “bear” mean male bear, with “she-bear” marking the (silent, passive) exception?

This dynamic undermines the portrayal even the important female characters, whose male daemons get approximately a billion times more airtime than any of the female daemons of the male humans. Contrast the enormous attention given to Mrs Coulter’s golden monkey, the vast amount of dialogue and acts of significance given to Serafina Pekkala’s grey goose, compared to the dumb animal presence of Lord Asriel’s snow leopard or Lee Scoresby’s hare.

The most frustrating example of all, for me, is when the gyptians discuss their rescue mission to the North. A woman in the meeting actually raises an objection to the intention to exclude women, and offers suggestions of how women might be useful (even assuming a firmly gendered division of labour). John Faa says he’ll consider it, and in the next chapter we learn merely that he has decided against, with no real justification. One can’t help but think this represents Pullman’s own approach: noticing that his own book was sexist, giving it about two seconds’ thought, and then shrugging and getting on with (male) things. It lends a strange and arbitrary smallness to a work which is otherwise so vast in its ambitions and achievements.

AHIMSA by Supriya Kelkar

Over the course of several weeks, I read AHIMSA by Supriya Kelkar to the kiddo. It follows the adventures of Anjali, a ten-year-old girl in 1940s India. When Anjali’s mother joins Gandhi’s freedom movement, her entire family’s lives are changed.

The plot is enormously satisfying, and roams over complex social territory – not just colonialism, but class and caste injustice, and Hindu-Muslim communal tensions – in a very accessible, organic and humane way, through the ordinary interactions between family members, neighbours, classmates and other members of the community. It is idealistic but not (I think) pat.

The characters are immediate and alive. Even the least sympathetic figures, whom one might be tempted to caricature – the racist British colonial officer, the crotchety and prejudiced old uncle, the Pretty Mean Girl rival – have the opportunity to surprise the reader. I particularly enjoyed Mohan, the Dalit boy who combines hard-bitten cynicism with a sort of impossible romantic streak; who is both (justly) exasperated and yet not unmoved by Anjali’s sometimes-clueless upper-caste idealism.

Kelkar, a screenwriter by background, produces fine dialogue and often has very vivid and lively visual staging for each scene (though this occasionally expresses itself in what feels to me like a slightly workmanlike excess of long gerund phrases).

Would especially recommend for kids, but it’s a pretty good read for adults too.

Reader (colour pencil)

Reader (colour pencil)

I realise the lamp leaves something (…quite a lot) to be desired. But I’m happy with this because: (i) it is one of the most faithfully executed pictures I’ve tried to draw solely from imagination; (ii) I’ve been attempting some variant or another of this scene for a year; and (iii) my initial thinking about geometry and light played out as I intended it to do.

The Underground Railroad / The Hate U Give

I’ve recently finished reading two novels about anti-black racism in the US context: alternate-historical THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead and best-selling YA volume THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas. I’d highly recommend both.

They are very different in tone – where Whitehead is formal or even majestic (though without being fussy), Thomas is all sarcastic first-person teenager, replete with sweary onomatopoeia, Harry Potter references and characters arguing about Tumblr. But they both offer important windows into a still-ongoing history of hellish violence and the extraordinary experiences of people who have been brought down by or else forged on through it. These are worth understanding both for their own sake, and because of what they can tell us about the country that continues to hold the power of violence over all of us on this planet. And they are also just cracking good reads.

Frogs, toads and despots

Some months ago we were gifted a book of FROG AND TOAD stories, pitched as helping emergent readers. I had never encountered this series before. I was very struck by how the author, Arnold Lobel, working within the constraints of very simple vocabulary, short sentences and sentence repetition, and using simple but evocative illustrations, created a surprising depth of characterisation and feeling. His stories are brief but highly memorable portraits of two distinctive individuals with differing outlooks but a deeply complementary friendship. (I am, for the record, Toad.)

Recently I looked Lobel up and discovered that he was a gay USAmerican man who had lived most of his life in the closet, coming out to his wife and children after a long time, eventually dying of AIDS. The beautiful snapshots of connection found in his fiction were, it’s been speculated, testimonials to his experiences of homosexual tenderness. His feelings were denied ordinary expression and sublimated into extraordinary work.


Lately I’ve been absorbed in Peter Pomerantsev’s NOTHING IS TRUE AND EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE, an account of the contortions and confusions of media and political thought under Putin. It is both horribly, fascinatingly weird and also (for Singapore’s liberals and democrats) a little familiar.

It feels good to be reading again. I’ve done exceptionally poorly on the books front this year so far, largely because I find it hard to have more than one book going at a time, and for ages I’d been stuck on Marlon James’ A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS. I finally gave up somewhere around 150 pages in. I can sort of see why it’s reckoned good, but I just didn’t want to deal any longer with the reptition, the lack of forward momentum and the numbing brutality – which kept putting me in mind, perhaps unfairly, of the ‘wot u starin at’ send-up Edward St Aubyn created in LOST FOR WORDS. I’m sure some unflattering inferences can be drawn from the fact that I went from struggling with James’ mode of violence to finding delicious relief in revisiting the sterile bitchiness of the world of Patrick Melrose, but it is what it is.

The Gene: An Intimate History

I am greatly enjoying Siddhartha Mukherjee’s THE GENE: AN INTIMATE HISTORY, a fat, satisfying, humane tour of scientific history, ranging (so far, in the first 90 pages or so) through territories as widely flung as Mendel’s pea gardens and the constitutional rulings of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr; hitting notes as far apart as corny references to ‘Hotel California’ and elegant musings on hereditary illnesses within the author’s own family. Gorgeous and world-expanding.

Sorcerers and physics

I’ve been on a bit of a genre binge lately: there was the Walton, and then Zen Cho’s SORCERER TO THE CROWN, which I ultimately found both absorbing and unsatisfying, for many of the reasons laid out in this excellent blog post and comments thread. The beginning was rather too mannered for my tastes: the mysteries were set up in a way that seemed to show too transparently the strings behind the puppetry, and the whole atmosphere lent itself too much to glib comparisons to JONATHAN STRANGE (at points feeling almost like fanfiction). But once Mak Genggang and Prunella Gentleman came onto the scene it all came much more alive – though I never did find the magic as convincing as the social satire.

I’m now inching through Ken Liu’s English translation of THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM, which also has at times a strange clash of tones and registers. There’s the subject matter of Cold War US pulp SF (which was, I’ll have you know, basically the highlight of my preteen life) and sometimes even the strange abrupt characterisations of that genre; blended with the depth and interest that always (for me) accompanies the depiction of real totalitarianism; and then the fantastical-historical computer game exploration of hard physics problems that I can only, due to the limited horizons of my reading, associate strongly with Greg Egan. The last is so weirdly compelling that today, at a work meeting, I found myself suggesting that we might dehydrate a project and then reanimate it with water under more hospitable conditions. These creeping metaphors.

The Just City

I’ve absolutely adored some of what Jo Walton has written, but after the disappointment of MY REAL CHILDREN, I approached THE JUST CITY with trepidation. And while it had originality and humour, and much of its middle section was ambitious and absorbing, I found the denouement – and its implications about the central conflict of the story – a huge letdown. I thought there were immensely interesting conflicts being layered through the key characters – the three viewpoint characters as well as the incipient antagonists, Kebes and Ikaros – but those did not ultimately mature, and in fact Kebes was transformed, unjustly and wastefully into a kind of bathetic caricature of male possessiveness and destructive vengefulness. (Like Gale Hawthorne in THE HUNGER GAMES with all unsympathetic characteristics dialled up to eleven.) There seemed to be so much promise for the carefully laid booby traps for the city (the slave children, the workers, the Noble Lie) to unfold organically and ensnare it in its own logic; but instead it all detonated on the single trigger of Sokrates’ revelations, which arose as abruptly as some gloating villain monologue, and indeed relied on Athene unaccountably (after several hundred pages of barely-there development) assuming that kind of inscrutably villainous role.

I can, however, wholeheartedly recommend Balli Kaur Jaswal’s SUGARBREAD, which I had the very greatly privilege of reading as an advance review copy, and of blurbing. (Thusly: “SUGARBREAD is a warm and wry portrait of childhood, in all its intensity and its confusions, and a deeply satisfying exploration of prejudice, conscience, loyalty and reconciliation.”)