Some thoughts on Elena Ferrante: the long and the short of it

elena ferrante event
Daniela Petracco of Europa Editions (standing) introduces, from left to right: Joanna Walsh, Catherine Taylor and myself. Photo courtesy Richard Skinner

Last night I was at Foxed Books in West London for the London launch for Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third in her ‘Neapolitan novels’ – a projected sequence of four books telling the intense, dialectical relationship between two women over, thus far, thirty years. What with Ferrante being a non-public author, it was up to others to do the promotional duties, and I was asked to join Joanna Walsh, who chaired, and Catherine Taylor to read from and discuss her work.

Walsh has written on Ferrante for the Guardian, while Taylor and I both reviewed the new book, she for The Telegraph and I for The Independent. It was a great evening, with what I hope was an interesting discussion, both for those that already knew Ferrante’s writing and those that didn’t, and some incisive comments from the floor.

As might be hoped, most of the talk was less about the enigmatic Ferrante herself, as about the books. As a critic, I have to say, it is a joy to be able to talk about the writer without the sense that they are listening in, and might stalk up to you at another launch, months hence, and throw a glass of wine in your face. (If it’s true, as the hints would have it, that Ferrante’s decision to absent herself from the public gaze is at least partly down to constitutional shyness, then I guess she doesn’t read her reviews.) Ferrante, so far as the critic is concerned, may as well be dead. Or, as the final two lines of one of her novels read:

Deeply moved, I murmured:
“I’m dead, but I’m fine.”

One theme that recurred over the evening, and that I think worth reiterating, is the highly specific Italian-ness of her books: the overwhelming, overweening importance of family; and, one circle further out from that, of ‘the neighbourhood’. These are facets of the Neapolitan novels that simply couldn’t be successfully transplanted to any other setting, not even really to, say Italian New York. And yet there is nothing foreign about them. The effect on the characters’ lives of ‘family’ and ‘neighbourhood’ in Ferrante’s books is at once universally recognisable and highly localised.

In preparation for the talk I read the two Ferrante books that I hadn’t read before (and, in fact, re-read another, The Days of Abandonment), and this drilled home for me one other aspect of her oeuvre, thus far, that is worth mentioning. Continue reading

Gone in the blink of an eye: Elizabeth Bowen’s contingent realism

I’m reading Elizabeth Bowen for the first time and finding it a slow-going but exhilarating experience – perhaps the closest comparison, in terms of necessary application to the page, is Javier Marías, someone else who won’t be rushed, whose paragraphs flow like dark syrup, not clear water.

One of the things that has most struck me – and that is very different from Marías – is the utter contingency of Bowen’s descriptions. Things are always shown in the light of the moment, not with any definiteness; so much so that you’d almost think that, were you to glance away from the page, and back again, the words on it would have changed, with the movement of a cloud across the sun, or the bough of a tree across a window.

As such, she is working very much against received ideas of ‘realism’ in prose writing, against what Henry James called “solidity of specification”. There is no solidity here; everything is always on the point of dissolution – and this sense of unreality is surely no accident; Bowen extends it to her characters:

The sun had been going down while tea had been going on, its chemically yellowing light intensifying the boundary trees. Reflections, cast across the lawn into the lounge, gave the glossy thinness of celluloid to indoor shadow. Stella pressed her thumb against the edge of the table to assure herself this was a moment she was living through – as in the moment before a faint she seemed to be looking at everything down a darkening telescope. Having brought the scene back again into focus by staring at window-reflections in the glaze of the teapot, she dared look again at Robert, seated across the table, between his nephew and niece.

Obviously the syntax is a brake on understanding; Bowen seems fusty and old-fashioned in her sentences, leaping back over Virginia Woolf towards the likes of James, even when what is been broached in those sentences – the sheer ephemerality of self-consciousness – is as modern as anything by Woolf. Stella (the main character of The Heat of the Day) has to steady herself by looking at the reflections of the windows caught in the glaze of the teapot before she can dare to look at her lover. Why ‘dare’? Well, because she’s scared that when she looks for him, where he sat only a moment before, he will have disappeared, sparked out of existence. Continue reading

Today’s sermon: Sex and death – an excavated fragment

Sex and death. Death and sex. Firstly, let us pick as our guide through this collection someone who has experienced both things. Who would ask a virgin about sex? So why ask anyone but a corpse about death? And no one too recently departed, either. The less familiar with the works considered, the more intriguing their commentary is likely to be. We live in a world where sex is a commonplace, death a social faux pas. Let us go back, back, to when death was public, and sex a more private affair.

I found this fragment on my computer, in the storage folder where I keep my book reviews and associated writing. I was searching for something else, and it popped up. The file is titled ‘Sex and death’. It is dated 13 October 2003. I’ve got no idea what it was intended for. What ‘collection’? A prose anthology? Poetry? Patricia Duncker’s story collection Seven Tales of Sex and Death was published in that year, but I don’t think I had read that then. And in any case the reference to ‘works considered’ implies it’s something other than this.

Memory is obsessive-selective self-narration. The rest is work for archaeologists.

Start with a death: Szabó and Murdoch and the death scene opener

I’m just reading Magda Szabó’s Iza’s Ballad, which opens with a death: Vincent, father and husband, has cancer, and his last hours are spent drifting in and out of consciousness in a clinic in Budapest. He dies with the first chapter: peacefully, with his wife holding one hand and a nurse, pretending to be his daughter, the other. I haven’t yet read further – it seems that his death is the premise for the rest of the novel: how Ettie, his widow, chooses to go on with her life without him – but it’s an affecting opening for a novel.

And a dramatic one: opening a book with a death has a way of sitting the reader up straight, putting them on alert. Death and the changes it effects are not things to be worked towards, that will be visible on the horizon, as we approach; they are the cold lake we find ourselves pushed into the moment we open the first page.

It made me wonder about other books that open with deaths: not with the death that has just happened (cf The Outsider, “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.”), but one that must be faced. There must be others.

But the one that sprang immediately to mind was Iris Murdoch’s Nun and Soldiers, which has as its opening scene a dialogue between Guy, who is dying, him too, from cancer, and ‘the Count’ (not really a Count, but a Polish émigré, and a great friend, almost a disciple, of Guy). Here is the first page:


‘Yes?’ said the Count.

The dying man shifted on the bed, rolling his head rhythmically to and fro in a way that had become habitual only in the last few days. Pain?

The Count was standing at the window. He never sat down now in Guy’s presence. He had been more familiar once, though Guy had always been a sort of king in his life: his model, his teacher, his best friend, his standard, his judge; but most especially something royal. Now another and a greater king was present in the room.

‘He was a sort of amateur, really.’

‘Yes,’ said the Count. He was puzzled by Guy’s sudden desire to belittle a thinker whom he had formerly admired. Perhaps he needed to feel that Wittgenstein too would not survive.

‘A naive and touching belief in the power of pure thought. And that man imagined we would never reach the moon.’

‘Yes.’ The Count had often talked of abstract matters with Guy, but in the past they had talked of so much else, they had even gossiped. Now there were few topics left. Their conversation had become refined and chilled until nothing personal remained between them. Love? There could be no expression of it now, any gesture of affection would be a gross error of taste. It was a matter of behaving correctly until the end. The awful egoism of the dying.

Continue reading

Unspeakable behaviour, of the very best kind: Ten fictional artists

“Tell me this,” says a character in Don DeLillo’s novel, Falling Man: “What kind of painter is allowed to behave more unspeakably, figurative or abstract?”

It would be easy enough to rack up examples on both sides, from fiction, no less than from real life. Novelists love artists as characters, after all. If books furnish a room, then artists furnish a novel – with their artworks, and their antics. You might say they are the perfect writer’s avatar: analogue, clown and straw man rolled into one. Their created work is so much more describable than prose, their creative act too. And they get to have models, some of them, to go to bed with.

My novel, Randall, is, in intention, an satirical and elegiac alternative history of Young British Artists and art world in general, and while writing it I’ve naturally collected a menagerie of other fictional artists, sometimes badly behaved, sometimes not, but all exemplary in the way they dramatize an aspect of human nature that is, by definition, out there.

fictional artists crop

The Horse’s Mouth, by Joyce Carey Continue reading

‘Randall': Randall, Randall, Randall…

Well, it’s been launched, and now it’s in the shops. Here’s what Foyles say, and you couldn’t ask for a better sell that than, could you?


Also up today is Q&A I did with Female First website. And I wrote a guest post for The Literary Sofa on setting my book in the art world.

And reviews are starting to appear: this one from the profane and anonymous BookCunt (so I’ll never get to thank her!) and another, with a pleasingly thorough unpacking of the art world aspects of the book, at The Literateur.

Its first print review came in The Sunday Telegraph, where Toby Lictig called it “both absurd and eerily believable… Gibbs’s novel is more than mischief: as with all the best lampoons, it dissects things that really matter and have gone awry.” (read full review)


‘Randall': Launch and treasure hunt

In a wonderful and utterly meaningless synchronicity, I hit my 100th post on this blog just as I launch my debut novel, Randall, published by the indie darlings of the UK literary scene, Galley Beggar Press.

Photo by Kit Caless, Influx Press
Photo by Kit Caless, Influx Press

We launched the book on the Tamesis Dock, a delightful boat-pub on the Albert Embankment. The book’s not officially published until 19 June, but there was the small matter of a World Cup to avoid.

The evening was a blast – thank you to everyone who came – and I had a good opportunity to realise that it’s been nearly thirty years since I’ve seriously given my signature some serious practice.

I occupied myself during the day by laying a treasure trail of sorts around London, leaving specially inscribed copies of the book at auspicious spots, as in offering to the departed ghosts of the YBAs. Here they are: Continue reading

Today’s sermon: In praise of the fave writer’s least good book

I’ve been enjoying the #bookaday posts on Twitter – originated by The Borough Press, and good for them for coming up with a genuinely fun, community-spirited project that – important, this – has a natural life span, and so won’t get stale.

But I was surprised to find people actually shying away from the Day 4 Challenge: “Least favourite book by favourite author” , because I thought it was a brilliant question. One, because it’s teasingly cruel, delivering a slap and a kiss in the same breath, if that’s not a horrendously mixed metaphor (it is), but also because it might be a question you’ve never actually consciously asked yourself. I know I hadn’t.

We so often think about our favourite things – favourite author, favourite author’s best book – whereas negatives are more general and nebulous: don’t like, end of.

And picking a least favourite book by a favourite author is a very good way of establishing what it is about them that we actually do like and admire. It can teach us something not only about them as a writer, but about us as a reader. Looking through the #bookaday tweets for today, each entry tells me two things about the tweeter. That’s a very neat and efficient way of learning about someone, and of expressing yourself. I like it. Continue reading


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