Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet is complete with The Story of the Lost Child,making it possible to see the whole structure, which reveals itself in layers like Naples itself, where former cityscapes are buried by time, political violence, and natural disasters. Reading this final volume, it’s easy to forget that the first book, My Brilliant Friend, frames the entire work as a mystery—aside from the much-discussed secrecy of Ferrante, who uses a pen name, allows no photographs, and, with few exceptions, will only be interviewed via email or telephone. With this volume, Ferrante reminds us again that a question of authorship is embedded into the narrative—who is telling this story? Lila or Elena?
Isn’t it wonderful that so many people are upset about Go Set A Watchman? I am not being sarcastic. Think about it: one of the most talked about events in the summer of 2015 is the publication of a book. Harper Lee’s old friend, Truman Capote (the model for Dill in To Kill A Mockingbird), would probably have had something snarky to say about it. The author herself remains silent, as she largely has since her first book—the only one until now—was published in 1960.
Go Set A Watchman is not a great book. We see Harper Lee, who was in her early 30s when she wrote it, before she fully found her voice and getting in her own way more times than not as she struggled to write her first novel. I agree with her original editor at Lippincott (now HarperCollins) who judged that this one wasn’t ready, but saw enough potential in Lee’s writing to think that it could form the scaffolding for a stronger book. But in some ways Go Set a Watchman is the more ambitious novel. Lee reached far in this first attempt to come to terms with her childhood in racist, segregated Alabama of the 1950s.
How to depict human suffering, especially that of children? This question is at the heart of Joseph Kertes’s haunting novel,The Afterlife of Stars, which tells the story of a family fleeing the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary to crush the anti-Communist revolution from the point of view of young Robert Beck, 9.8 years old but “born old,” as his Parisian aunt tells him when she meets him for the first time. Kertes, like Robert, escaped with his family across Europe and eventually settled in Canada, though he was only five at the time. Kertes, whose previous novel, Gratitude, won both the National (U.S.) and Canadian Jewish Book Awards, might have written a memoir, but writing a novel allowed him to tell this story in a lyric, dreamlike prose. This may have been the best way for this author to convey in a literary, adult voice such an early trauma.
Reading Blake Bailey’s memoir of his deranged brother, The Splendid Things We Planned, I kept thinking of a line from the epigraph Bailey quotes from Joe Gould’s Secret, Joseph Mitchell’s portrait of another troubled soul: “You can hate a person with all your heart and soul and still long for that person.” Bailey is the author of acclaimed literary biographies of John Cheever, Richard Yates, and Charles Jackson, all of whom wrote about the desperation behind mid-century American prosperity. This memoir shows that Bailey knows that terrain from personal experience. He opens with a heart-stopping scene of his young parents standing on the roof of a building at New York University in the early 1960s, holding their colicky, howling infant and trying to decide whether to jump together or toss the baby. This turns out to be one of those half-true jokes parents tell on themselves, normally, once their children are thriving. This child never thrived, and Bailey’s family would spend the rest of this child’s life pushed to the edge by his behavior.
When I arrived at Woodbourne prison for that first intake procedure I was surprised to find a certain level of relaxation. Maybe what I mean is not relaxation, but a kind of small town banter that was easy to slip into with the guard who checked me through the metal detector as I set it off again and again. He reassured me he was not going to make me take my shirt off, though the fact that it was fastened with snaps instead of buttons was causing the problem. I told him that I was wearing a T-shirt underneath if it was necessary to remove the outer garment. Harmless flirtation, or maybe just everyday humanity. Whatever you call it, I was not expecting to find it at Woodbourne.
I have been painting chairs this summer. It is my second summer visiting my boyfriend at his country house in the Catskills, though it’s not only my boyfriend’s house. The house belongs to him and his wife. I am here because his wife is dead. She passed away two and a half years ago, and her death sometimes feels as blunt and brutal as the undeniable fact that the phrase “passed away” is trying to soften. I didn’t know her, but she was a powerful woman who died too young and left behind an adolescent son and a husband of twenty years.