The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

 It is with a mixture of relief, admiration and sadness that I come to the end of the fourth book in the author’s series of novels about contemporary life in Naples, and Italy in general. This last volume is long, intense, full of emotion – some might say too full of too much emotion – and takes the reader on a veritable roller-coaster of events. The narrative focuses primarily on the personal – the loves, betrayals, jealousies of the main characters—as well as those of the many incidental characters. But it also refers to the general, political and social situation in Italy as a whole. All this sometimes leaves the reader catching her breath, or gasping in surprise, at the wealth of detail, intensity of intimate emotions, and intellectual honesty with which every scene is depicted.

In addition, the writer (and presumably also the translator, Ann Goldstein) writes in an admirably articulate way. This could, if one were critical, be condemned as overly wordy, and ‘succinct’ is not a word that comes to mind in describing this and the other three books in the series, but the wordiness builds up to create an intensely detailed account of the lives, loves and loathings of the myriad characters who people the world we are drawn into when reading this book. Not all the characters are equally likeable, and many, if not most, of them are flawed in one way or another, but that only adds to the sense of reality and identification that the reader experiences.

To describe the plot would make it seem banal. The main characters fall in love, get married, have children, betray – and are betrayed by – their partners and friends, almost ad infinitum. The vagaries, quirks and foibles of both adults and children are described in great detail, with insights that will raise an echo in many readers’ minds as well as occasionally causing eyebrows to be raised in surprise, shock and even dismay. The detailed accounts of pregnancy and delivery, of infancy and childhood, relations between siblings and between parents and their offspring are often startling in their brutal honesty, sometimes tender to the point of being cloying, but always ring true to form. It is, of course, the relationships between the adult characters that are the main crux of the book.The tragedy hinted at in the book’s title is as devastating and all-consuming as anything I’ve ever read, and one cannot help identifying with the mother whose child is lost, even though she is not always portrayed sympathetically.

Underlying the various individual lives are the social and political currents and events that churn through twentieth-century Italy as a whole, so that the book’s focus moves away from the tiny neighbourhood in Naples where the first books are set to a much wider canvas. Here, too, emotions are rampant and nothing that takes place, whether locally or nationally, is irrelevant to the torrent of events, emotions and ideas that pour out of this book.

But above all, at least for this particular reader, the author’s honesty and openness about the dilemmas and decisions confronting her as a writer had a particular impact. Very few writers are prepared to share with their readers the vortex of mutually contradictory considerations involved in writing about individuals and societies or to face up to the reactions, and often opprobrium, that her writing arouses in those nearest and dearest to her.

So, from many points of view, this book succeeds in creating a credible world peopled by living, breathing individuals with whom the reader can identify and in whose lives we can share. That, after all, is the purpose of fiction, and in this Elena Ferrante has undoubtedly succeeded beyond all expectations.

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Music: The Path to Progress

Not long ago I was privileged to attend a concert in a private home given by young musicians who are students at Jerusalem’s Hassadna Music Conservatory. Together with the rest of the audience, I was greatly impressed by their professional standard and aplomb. Some of the musicians were of Ethiopian background and displayed admirable technical skill and musicality, performing complex works – both classical and jazz – for a variety of instruments, playing  individually and in small ensembles.

The Hassadna Music Conservatory was founded in 1973 in the belief that all children are entitled to benefit from being able to enjoy music, and that the way to help children from deprived and underprivileged backgrounds to advance is through music,. The idea was to make musical education available to all children, irrespective of their physical or mental ability, socio-economic level, ethnicity or religious affiliation.

Now, forty years later, the institution is firmly established and has trained numbers of leading Israeli musicians. After many years of being housed in accommodation that was not always best suited to its task, the Conservatory is currently in the process of building its own dedicated structure. Since its inception the institution has employed first-rate musicians as its teaching staff, enabling youngsters from diverse backgrounds to benefit from an education that would otherwise be unavailable to them.

While I was preparing material for this article my cleaner, who is of Ethiopian origin, noticed the page with a picture of some of the pupils on my desk. He pointed to an Ethiopian youngster holding an oboe and said: “I know him. He’s the son of a friend of mine. He travels all over the world now.” Just one more illustration of the connection between the different groups living in Jerusalem and the Conservatory’s contribution to this.

The Conservatory now numbers 700 pupils aged from three to eighteen, representing the full range of Jerusalem’s religious, national and economic diversity. The staff comprises one hundred professionals, some of them born in Israel, others immigrants from various countries. They include concert artists, chamber musicians, established composers and members of Israel’s leading orchestras. Together they provide the careful guidance necessary to bring out the best in the gifted students, enabling them to achieve excellence and international acclaim.

In the framework of its pre-music track, the Conservatory undertakes an outreach programme for children in kindergarten and elementary school, seeking to expose very young children to the fundamentals of music – rhythmic movement, dance, singing and improvisation – as well as enabling them to experiment with a variety of instruments. The Conservatory has also introduced a programme called ‘Bridges of Light’ which offers youngsters with disabilities or special needs a course of study that is adapted to their abilities. All these children learn piano, and some also learn voice, as well as participating in activities with the rest of the students. The project has won national and international renown as one of the most successful programmes for children with special needs.

In fact, the Shalva Choir, consisting of children with special needs, was a leading contender for inclusion as Israel’s entry for the forthcoming Eurovision contest, to be held in Tel-Aviv, but eventually withdrew as some of its members are observant Jews and could not perform on Shabbat.

Many of Hassadna’s students have won prizes in Israeli and international competitions, and have been awarded scholarships to continue with their musical studies. Several have received the status of ‘Distinguished Musician’ from the IDF, enabling them to pursue their muical education while undertaking military service. The Conservatory’s orchestral ensembles have performed at music festivals in the USA and throughout Europe, winning prizes at several of them.

(This article first appeared in the March edition of the AJR Journal)

Two Colleges in Galilee

An acquaintance connected with the UK’s UIJA (United Israel Jewish Appeal) suggested that I write an article about the Western Galilee College for the AJR Journal (Association of Jewish Refugees), for which I write a monthly column entitled ‘Letter from Israel.’ The college, situated just outside the ancient city of Acre (Akko) in the north of Israel, was happy to set up a meeting for me with members of the administration and some of the students involved in special outreach projects, and so on a sunny winter’s day my OH and I set out on the two-hour drive to the north, passing emerald-green fields, pastures and hills that had benefited from this year’s bountiful rains.

After our meeting in Akko our personal inclination took us across the verdant countryside to another college, the Kinneret Academic College, which is situated in eastern Galilee and is where our grandson Gil is currently studying for his B.Sc. in Energy Engineering. After trying courses in Civil Engineering at other institutions, Gil settled for the innovative degree course in Energy Engineering that has recently been established at the Kinneret Academic College.

Gil had arranged an interview with the President of the college, Professor Shimon Gepstein, who has retired from his post as Professor of Biology at the Haifa Technion. The Kinneret college is certainly worthy of an article of its own, and I hope that in the not-too-distant future I’ll be able to write a report that does that institution justice.

In our meeting Professor Gepstein told us that many of the academic staff at the college are in fact retired academics from other institutions, and in this day and age it is important to find useful employment for people who are experts in their field and are eager to impart knowledge to the younger generation of students.

It was thrilling to be shown around the campus by Gil, and especially to visit its magnificent library (listed as one of the ten most beautiful buildings in Israel). It would be hard to find a setting more enchanting than the vista overlooking the Lake of Galilee. The college library, which was inaugurated in 2010, is built with windows that set off the view to perfection while letting in the light that irradiates the building’s open, wood-lined interior. Sponge mattresses have been placed along one interior wall on some of the wide wooden steps inside the building that go up to the top level, enabling students to take a rest when studying gets too much for them. If only I’d had something like that when I was at university! The ultra-modern library contains many thousands of volumes as well as an array of computers providing access to virtually all the academic research being conducted anywhere in the world.

Gil had also arranged for us to stay overnight in the guest house of Kibbutz Degania Bet, one of the first kibbutzim to be established in Israel, and we were accommodated in a comfortable room that was as spacious and well-equipped as any fancy hotel anywhere in the world. For dinner we had booked a table at the kibbutz restaurant named 1910 (the year the kibbutz was founded). Contrary to traditional kibbutz communal dining, this was a very elegant establishment with a menu based largely on the most exquisite Italian cuisine. For Gil and me it was a culinary delight, although my OH had difficulties finding a meal without cheese or cream that met his dietary requirements.

The time we spent with Gil was extremely enjoyable, including the nice things said to us about him by some of his colleagues and associates in the kibbutz and the college, where he works on a part-time basis.

As we drove home we felt elated at the thought that Gil is about to embark on a career in a field that is at the forefront of one the most pressing concerns of our modern world, one that is assuming ever-increasing importance. As the world finally wakes up to the fact that the subject of energy is one that will continue to preoccupy humankind in order to guarantee our future and that of our planet, it is becoming increasingly important to apply our minds and capabilities to overcoming the problems we are facing. I salute the Kinneret Academic College for focusing on one of the most crucial topics of our time.

 

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

 

The third of Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan Novels gives us a picture of Elena the chief protagonist as a mature – or almost mature – adult, who has completed her studies and graduated from the college in Pisa where she was awarded a scholarship that enabled her to study. She has a relationship with Pietro Airota, a brilliant young academic and the son of a distinguished scholar in Milan, and becomes engaged to him. Upon completing her studies Elena feels impelled to sit down and write, and the novel she produces in a short space of time is passed on to a publisher by her future mother-in-law, Adele, is published and achieves considerable success.

Defying her family’s traditions and wishes, the couple have a small wedding with only a civil ceremony, but Elena is surprised to find that Pietro’s parents have organized a grand reception in their home in Milan. However, the encounter between Pietro and Elena’s family in Naples goes well, and despite Elena’s misgivings they all seem to take a liking to one another.

Throughout the book, Elena is haunted by memories of her erstwhile relationship with Lina, a.k.a. Lila, her friend, and on impulse she goes to track her down in the modest apartment where she is living with her childhood admirer, Enzo, and her son from her failed marriage to Stefano Caracci. Lila, once the darling of the neighbourhood where the two girls grew up, is now employed in a sausage factory, where she is obliged to do menial work that is detrimental to her health and is exposed to sexual harassment by other workers and her boss.

Meanwhile Elena settles down to the comfortable life of a bourgeois housewife and mother married to an up-and-coming albeit boring academic. She goes on book tours and is surprised to find Nino, the young man whom she once idolized, speaking in her favour her at one of those meetings. Nino is now a respected academic, but is also periphelly involved in the political opposition that was ravaging Italy at the time. Elena finds herself drawn into the political and feminist movement, although remains aloof from activism. She does, however, write newspaper articles on the subject. She finds out that Lila is also drawn into quasi-revolutionary activity and gets into trouble with the authorities for writing a leaflet about conditions in the sausage factory.

As the years pass Elena is concerned with looking after her two little girls but feels frustrated at not being able to settle down to writing. She begins to interest herself in feminist matters, and eventually produces a booklet on the subject. Lila and Enzo have become computer programmers, and move back to the neighbourhood in Naples where they grew up, but are now prosperous. Altogether, as in the previous books in the series, there is too much agonizing, anguish and angst for my taste.

Elena grows increasingly dissatisfied with her life, and is overjoyed when Pietro brings Nino home for dinner one evening. One thing leads to another, of course, and Elena and Nino end up sleeping together, discovering that they have always really loved one another. Ultimately, Elena leaves her husband for Nino, and goes with him to attend a conference in Nanterre, France.

And that is where volume no. 3 ends. Let’s hope that the fourth and final volume ties all the ends together neatly and brings everything to a happy conclusion (though I doubt it).

Friendship

Elena Ferrante’s novels about her childhood in a run-down Naples neighbourhood and her life subsequently focus to a great extent on her friendship with Lina, a.k.a. Lila, the girl who dominated her life as a child and to some extent as an adult, too. The character of Lina is portrayed as a mixture of angel and demon, someone of great intelligence but also with a destructive and vengeful nature. The relationship between the two girls is one of love-hate and mutual fascination.

This led me to give some thought to my own experience of friendship, both as a child and as an adult. In childhood one’s friends play an important role as regards both one’s self-image and one’s sense of confidence. Until I was about ten years old my family lived in an impoverished part of London (which has since been gentrified) and my next-door neighbour was a girl of my own age, Jeannie. What was unusual for those days, soon after WWII, was the fact that she came from a large family and was the third of six siblings. We both spoke English, but she spoke as the local Cockneys did, whereas I spoke what I assume was the English I learned at school and from my parents (and the radio). Her family was Christian and mine was Jewish, and although my parents were refugees from Germany we two little girls were happy to skip rope and play ball together in the street outside our house or in our garden. Jeannie was smart and knew about all kinds of things that were alien to me, but despite the cultural gulf between us we understood one another and enjoyed one another’s company. My world became darker when her family was finally awarded a council house in another part of London and moved away. We visited one another desultorily after that, but the distance made such visits few and far between, and eventually they stopped. It never occurred to us to write to one another, and so over the years we have lost contact.

When I went to grammar school at the age of eleven I found a new friend, Diana, and we were very close throughout the six years of our school career. We came from similar backgrounds, lived just two stops away from one another on the tube (on what was then the Bakerloo line and is now the Jubilee line), and would go to our respective homes together, and then spend hours on the phone to one another. We went to different universities, and when Diana got married at a very young age (almost like Lila in Ferrante’s book) our lives diverged radically. We both moved to Israel later, but to different parts of the country and in different circumstances. When the Six-Day War broke out in June 1967 Diana was in England visiting her family, and decided to remain there. Our lives diverged but we remained in contact through snail mail. It was always a red-letter day for me when an envelope in Diana’s unmistakable handwriting arrived in our letterbox. But life took over, gradually the letters became fewer and eventually stopped. Today we don’t even communicate by email. But when either of us visited the country where the other one was living we would see each other, although the closeness of earlier times was never recaptured. We still remain very fond of one another, however (at least I am of her).

The friends we acquire in adult life tend to assume a less prominent role in one’s consciousness, and although I feel I do have some very good and close women friends with whom I can share the things that concern me, the intimacy of one’s childhood and youth cannot be recaptured. Maybe that’s just an indication that I’m finally growing up, but without those friends I know my life would be impoverished.

 

Jours Parisiens (Parisian Days) by Banine

This book (published [in French] by Gris Banal in 1990) is the sequel to the memoir the author wrote a few years earlier about her childhood and youth in Azerbaijan, and which ends with her flight to Paris and desertion of the husband she was forced to marry while still in her teens. I reviewed her previous book, ‘Jours Caucasiens,’ a few months ago, and it, too, was lent to me by my kind next-door neighbor.

Banine’s delight at finally finding herself in Paris, the city of her dreams, and joy in being reunited with her sisters and father is soon superseded by the need to work in order to support herself. The jewels and precious objects the family had been able to salvage when their wealth was confiscated by the Soviets were all sold off to pay the rent and buy food, so that now each member had to make his or her own way in life.

The author describes the existence of the thousands, if not millions, of refugees from Russia and the Soviet satellites who found refuge in Paris after the Revolution. The detailed analysis of this new diaspora portrays a sad picture of displaced persons forced to leave their home and struggle to make ends meet, after having lived in comfort if not luxury. Many of them had no professional training and were quite unequipped for life in a modern city. Russian night-clubs sprang up throughout Paris, and former members of the Russian military and aristocracy found themselves eking out an existence as dancers, singers, or circus entertainers. The fact that there were some forty thousand Russian taxi-drivers in Paris is testament to the dire situation in which many found themselves. Some of them were former officers and soldiers in the White Army, which had been defeated by the Bolsheviks. Among the latter, I might add on a personal note, was Viktor Savinkov, the man who later met and married my aunt, Ilse van Son, and thus became my uncle. His brother, Boris Savinkov, whom I did not know, was persuaded by the Soviet authorities to return to Russia, and met his death at their hands.

But to return to Banine (who peppers her narrative with expressions of this kind); we find that despite her own sense of not meeting Parisien standards of beauty, she is employed as a mannequin or model by the fashion houses of the city, and is able to support herself on the meagre salary she receives. She describes the other models she encounters, deriding their obsessive concern with money, lovers and sex. Her life consists of a mixture of the luxurious clothes she is required to put on in order to parade before wealthy customers (whom she hates) and the miserable living conditions she is forced to endure.

Her life takes a turn for the better with the arrival in Paris of her cousin, Gulnar, with whom she had played as a child. Gulnar is pretty and vivacious and has a wealthy lover, enabling her to rent a large apartment and bring Banine to live with her. The life of the two young women is dominated by Gulnar’s affairs, the relations with the various young and not-so-young men who appear and disappear, the parties they attend and the night-clubs they frequent. One of Banine’s sisters has married a painter, and so we are given a glimpse into the bohemian life of Paris in the 1920s, many of the artists being themselves Russian emigrés. Gulnar and Banine benefit from the platonic friendship of Jerome, a very knowledgeable young man who instructs them in literature and cultural matters, takes them to the races and introduces them to interesting people, among them the man who eventually becomes Banine’s lover.

The book ends with Gulnar’s marriage to a wealthy American and departure for the USA, leaving Banine lonely and miserable until she decides to find consolation in writing.

 

The Second Generation Syndrome

 Growing up in postwar London I never heard the term ‘Second Generation,’ nor was I aware of it until many years later. In Israel at some point in the 1960s or 1970s there was a discussion, possibly even an argument, as to whether people who had fled Europe before, during or even after the Second World War could be considered Holocaust survivors if they had not actually been incarcerated in a concentration camp. Once that debate was settled, anyone whose life had started somewhere in Europe or Russia (or even North Africa in some cases) and had been obliged to wander as a result of Nazi persecution was officially defined as a Holocaust survivor. Their offspring became known as the Second Generation.

My parents were refugees from Germany, and although they – thankfully – did not experience a concentration camp themselves, their lives were completely disrupted and they experienced terrible personal loss as a result of Nazi persecution. Nonetheless they, like their friends and acquaintances, went on to live active and productive lives, and as a child I was not aware of the dark cloud that must have overshadowed their life. It was not until much later that I learned that both my parents had experienced Kristallnacht, and that my mother would often cry out and  scream in her sleep.

As a child I was very conscious of the fact that my parents spoke English with a foreign accent. Since I must have been a very nasty child, I remembering laughing at them with my sisters for that. In that respect, however, I felt that my parents were no different from most of their friends and associates, many of whom were themselves refugees. Some of their friends’ children were my friends, and we all found it perfectly normal for our parents to speak with a foreign accent. What did bother me as a child, however, was the absence of a grandparent, and I managed to persuade one of my father’s elderly cousins to let me call her ‘Auntie Grannie.’

I went to a Jewish primary school, an all-girls’ grammar school and belonged to a Zionist youth movement. I mixed with young people like myself, some of whose parents were born in England and others who were not, but it never occurred to me to ask about their parents’ origins. It’s true that most of my friends at school and university were Jewish, but I prided myself on also having friends of the non-Jewish persuasion.

When I realised that I was a member of the second generation, namely, that I belonged to a group that I hadn’t known existed, I acquired a new sense of identity, which I gladly accepted. I found that in many ways it defined who I was, and it led me to explore this situation in articles as well as in my first two novels. In fact, by now my awareness of what my parents and that whole generation went through has come to inform much of my thinking and writing. I have even been accused of allowing it to dominate my consciousness excessively. I suppose that there is more than a grain of truth in that, but I am happy to accept it as an intrinsic aspect of my being.

We Survived the Great Freeze

 

All the talk of the Polar Vortex hitting the Midwest of the USA reminds me of the year my family and I spent in Nebraska, the funnily-shaped State bang in the middle of the country. People are saying that there hasn’t been a freeze like that for a generation. That’s exactly when we were there.

We spent the academic year of 1983-4 in Nebraska and were completely unprepared for its hot, humid climate when we first arrived in September. It reminded us of Tel-Aviv, though without the benefit of the cooling sea breeze. However, that didn’t last very long. The winter came upon us very suddenly and harshly right after Thanksgiving (mid-November), when overnight the temperature dropped to below freezing, there were heavy and continuous snowfalls, with their concomitant icy roads and sidewalks (in England we call the sidewalk the pavement, which is the word for the road in the USA, and this of course gave rise to a lot of confusion when doing our driving test until we managed to get the terminology sorted out).

We were told to equip ourselves with snow tyres and a heavy-duty battery for our car, though driving was still a risky business. The car had to be inside our garage at night, as leaving it out at the side of the road was prohibited and would also have meant it would have been impossible to start it the next day. I have managed to dig out some of the letters I sent from there to my family in Israel at the time, and was happy to read that while my husband and sons were clearing the snow from our driveway with special snow shovels they were able to help various drivers who had got stuck in the road.

Another priority was to acquire warm clothing, starting with thermal underwear (long-johns) for every member of the family, and appropriately warm coats, hats, scarves,gloves, and boots —  no small expense for a family of five living on a miserly university salary. Face masks were also required, though were soon discarded as they left the nose and mouth exposed, which seemed to defeat the purpose. It was still possible for my husband to drive the children to school (unless school was cancelled on the especially cold days, as the roads were impassable and the car-parks where high-school pupils left their cars were still blocked by snow and ice). Then there was the ‘wind-chill’ factor, which brought temps that were already well below freezing to minus twenty or thirty degrees — something we had never encountered before (and hope to never experience again).

The case of our youngest son was different as his elementary school was just a five-minute walk from our house. On the short walk home his hands and the backs of his knees froze and became painful, but at least the house was well-insulated and warm, so he could thaw out at home. I was shocked, one morning when the school nurse phoned me to say that Eitan (Ethan in America) had arrived at school in a bad state, his fingers frozen even though he was wearing warm gloves, and that she had had to ‘defrost’ them by putting them in cold (!) water. Yes, that’s how one defrosts frozen fingers. You live and learn.

I remember venturing out from time to time, on foot as I was too scared to drive on the slippery roads, just for the short trip to the local grocery store. Walking past piles of dirty and slushy snow along the sides of the roads I remember pulling my scarf up over my mouth and nose as breathing in the icy air was physically painful. Icicles adorned the trees and roofs, and the one consolation was that Eitan and Ariel could earn a few dollars digging driveways and paths for elderly neighbours.

The snow showed no signs of melting for months on end. The municipality’s snow-clearing budget ran out, and so no roads other than the few main thoroughfares were cleared. If there was a little sunshine in the daytime it would melt the snow and ice, but the freezing night-time temps meant that everything froze over again, making walking and driving even more treacherous than before.

Like the current Polar Vortex, the great freeze we experienced was due to the fact that there are no mountains to impede the flow of icy air from the Arctic in the winter. The same applies in reverse to the heat from the Gulf of Mexico in the summer.

The climate of the Midwest is not for sissies.

A Night at the Opera

 “I don’t know how you can go to an opera,” my grown-up nephew said. “A play, OK; a movie, fine. But opera?”

“It’s a show. It’s fun,” I replied. “There’s music, movement, action, drama, costumes. It’s like a kids’ show for grown-ups.”

But after spending a night with Richard Strauss’s ‘Salome’ at the Tel-Aviv Opera I’m beginning to see my nephew’s point. There were costumes, yes. We had lust, sex and violence, which are all well and good in their place. But music? I’m not too sure about that.

I’m familiar with some of Strauss’s orchestral music (Til Eulenspiegel, Don Quixote, Thus Spake Zarathustra), and even with his very beautiful ‘Last Songs.’ But apart from the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ near the end of the opera, there was very little in it that could be defined as tuneful. Sure, the orchestral parts were pleasant, and well played by the Rishon Letzion orchestra, but the vocal parts were very difficult to enjoy if not downright painful to the ear.

The story of Salome asking King Herod for the head of John the Baptist on a silver salver as her reward for dancing for him was taken from the Apocrypha and turned into a play by Oscar Wilde. He wrote the original text in French, but Strauss took the German translation as the basis for his opera. According to the story, Salome’s mother, Herodias, was married to Herod, who in turn lusted after Salome, who herself lusted after John the Baptist, and thus all kinds of dark currents swirl around on the stage and in the music.

The orchestration is rich and emotive, as is customary with Strauss, but the solo parts tend to devolve into mutual haranguing and screeching, whether between Salome and her mother, or both of them and Herod, with nothing in the way of harmony or beauty to be found in any of the characters or the music Strauss has written for them. As for Salome’s famous Dance of the Seven Veils, which is supposed to be a kind of erotic display, possibly ending with full frontal nudity (I had been looking forward to that) turned out to consist of some very tame gyrations, performed mainly by several apparently a-sexual or bi-sexual attendants of Salome assuming animalistic postures. At this point the music was the best part of the show.

The opera ends with Salome kissing the Baptist’s severed head, something which is obviously intended to arouse disgust, and in this the production succeeded. An additional final flourish consisted of having Salome’s white robe stained with the blood that had dripped from the decapitated body. At least that added a splash of colour to an otherwise drab stage.

The production we saw, directed by prominent Israeli actor Itai Tiran, was imaginative and somber, as befits the subject-matter, but who wants to spend an evening being depressed, demoralized and tortured? Not me, for sure.

At least the next opera in our subscription series is Verdi’s ‘A Masked Ball.’ I know that the story also has its melodramatic side, but at least one can expect the music to be more melodic, and the staging to contain something more colourful than various shades of black and grey.

‘The Story of a New Name. Book 2: Youth’ by Elena Ferrante

 

 

The second book in the series known as The Neapolitan Novels, takes Elena, the narrator and chief protagonist, and her friend Lila, through their turbulent teenage years. The scene at the conclusion of the previous novel, Lila’s wedding to a local businessman, already contains a hint that the marriage will not be a harmonious union, and this does indeed turn out to be the case.

The tempestuous wedding night and subsequent ‘honeymoon,’ the physical violence inflicted by the frustrated bridegroom on his young wife, and the verbal violence with which she retaliates, all add up to convey a sense of unhappiness and mutual dissatisfaction. The young woman’s failure to become pregnant is another source of disappointment for the bridegroom and his family, and in order to overcome this obstacle it is suggested that she should go on holiday to the nearby island of Ischia, in the company of her mother, sister-in-law, and the narrator herself.

The seaside vacation only leads to further complications, when Nino, the fellow-student with whom Elena is in love, turns up, accompanied by a friend, and he and Lila find themselves attracted to one another, eventually embarking on a torrid affair. Elena feels obliged to conceal her own emotional involvement and despair, and even to help her friend hide her actions from her husband, who comes to stay with them at the weekends. What could have been considered the normal teenage emotional turmoil of the two young women in other circumstances turns into a potentially disastrous and destructive dicing with danger in the emotional and physical rough and tumble of Neapolitan life.

The situation is further complicated by Elena’s sense of disgust at the attentions of an older man, the father of the student she is in love with, but allows him to deflower her one night on the beach. Nonetheless, she is able to concentrate on her studies at school, completes her education successfully and is granted a scholarship to attend university in Pisa. There she meets young people her own age who come from cultured backgrounds very unlike her own, and she learns to behave and talk in a manner that befits her new surroundings.

At university she devotes herself to her studies and returns to Naples only rarely, feeling ever more alienated from her roots in the neighbourhood and her family. She learns from time to time of the vicissitudes of Lila’s life, the child she bears claiming that it is her lover’s and not her husband’s, the break-up of her marriage, her short-lived attempt to move in together with her lover, and eventual desertion of her husband, accomplished with the aid of a childhood friend, Enzo, who loves her but does not impose himself on her.

At the book’s conclusion we find that Elena is engaged to the son of a professor, has gained her degree but still feels unsure of herself. She has written a novel that has just been published, and is giving a talk about it. Among the audience she recognizes Nino, the student she once loved. She has also managed to track down Lila, her old friend, who now works in a sausage factory, is struggling to earn a living but is happy with Enzo. Together Lila and Enzo study computer programming at night.