My Neapolitan Novel Moment

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Wedding photos at Torregaveta beach

In Elena Ferrante’s second Neapolitan novel “The Story of a New Name,” Torregaveta makes an appearance when one of the characters tells her husband she wants to go to the beach with her small son, and her husband, who no longer loves her, tells her to take a bus to Torregaveta.

The bus ride starts from a Naples train station one stop removed from the main train station; the dead end last stop with rows of worn graffitied regional trains parked side by side almost in the dark. The seats in these regional trains are metal and miniature like cable car seats making them hood on the outside but dainty and refined on the inside. Once you leave Naples, the Naples-Torregaveta bus ride is almost entirely along the coast, like the Almalfi Coast route but less winding and less steep. This bus ride requires almost no attention from the bus driver, who frequently had his eyes off the road.

While I was stranded there for 20 minutes, I saw three different wedding groups having their photos taken and as the novel relates, it was not a Capri crowd. From a distance, I saw a little girl in a white dress constantly fluffing a bride’s gown. It was the best image I took in Naples, during my last few hours there. At the time, the only reference I had was to the book cover of the first novel, which I had not yet read, and so I had no idea the location would also signify something in the novel. What’s even more weird is that I had entertained the idea of being a mother with a child on this bus and wondered what it would be like.

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Ladies Like These: Danler’s Sweetbitter

Stephanie-Danler
Image lifted from alphasixty

This story was a strange one, weird like fate. In the beginning, Danler’s language injected me with Twitter-mania, that her writing voice had been kept so pure, so untouched by the standard New York Times style although I knew she had gotten an MFA. She was The Paris Review. It was like Gertrude Stein telling Hemingway, you can be a journalist or a writer but you can’t be both. It was like de Botton explaining how Proust’s writing made familiar objects, familiar feelings and tropes seem new again. It was everything I identified with fine writing.

Words came in triplets, and it was all Kerouac but this time, a palate for drugs, sex and wine… Gaumenfreude. Her writing was Kerouac holy but like the protagonist carrying a copy of his book, hard to stomach till the end. It starts with Kerouac but it doesn’t end that way. On the Road was written into the surface text, so you knew that wasn’t where the Real story was. The Real story alluded to another book.

In the beginning, I was living the protagonist, the girl who “came here in a car like everybody else,” I could just see her head popping out the window as she crossed George Washington Bridge, I know mine did. This girl spent Thanksgiving watching The Godfather and eating Thai food just like I did at that age.

Then Danler introduces you to a world where the service workers are noble and their knowledge of food and life are aristocratic. It was love at first sight, everything was. Noble grapes. At this moment, the protagonist was as educated/ developed as a single-celled amoeba all of 22, all bounce and potential, latching onto the knowledge that one older woman could give her… about wine, life and the art of paying attention.

The boy between them was a Kierkegaard grad school drop out with polaroids of Berlin and Morocco.

By the end of the novel, I realized I was actually the antagonist, the 36-year-old senior server (without her man-slave or power) but nonetheless, having also constructed my own prison that was not the best restaurant in New York City but Berlin, writing a blog no one reads and going on about an art world I was not apart of yet. For all the girls that start the journey, just like everyone else, there must be tons of women antagonists just like this senior server (wearing Clark Kent glasses with frizzy hair and red lipstick), just like me, not entering the “circle of marriage, children, acquisitions, retirement funds.” Where do all these ladies go? They go to Sicily… homage to The Godfather and as her story shows, they take care of each other- shaping destinies, teaching or by being your favorite guest.

“Her poems that no one read, her apartment that she could never leave, her expertise so niche it was skeletal. She hadn’t made a choice. Someone else had.” Danler

Disillusionment had hit… the Sweetbitter.

Et in Arcadia Ego

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“But I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city” (32 Waugh) Brideshead Revisited

Modern Romance: The Importance of Being Text

Modern Romance

“I think Tinder is a great thing,” says Helen Fisher, an anthropologist who studies dating. “All Tinder is doing is giving you someone to look at that’s in the neighborhood. Then you let the human brain with his brilliant little algorithm tick, tick, tick off what you’re looking for.”

Aziz Ansari’s “Modern Romance” investigates many things but foremost and also the most entertaining is his study of pre-romantic texts. He finds sadly many, even though both parties were initially interested, fell into the graveyard of unrealized dates. The main reasons for their demise are the following:

1. The busy game: while you have to play the busy game, sometimes the game spins out of control and one member or both can no longer tell if the unavailability is due to interest or lack of interest or both parties just give up due to exhaustion… (if our schedules were not meant to be how could we be)

2. Word choice: to an almost frightening degree, word choice plays a crucial role in continuing the conversation… a badly chosen word giving off the wrong subtext can take you out of the game

3. Unable to ask the girl out: many texts just circle around nothingness… like Aziz’s example of how one guy just couldn’t ask the girl out so they kept texting about the best laundry detergent

From my own life here is a pun that got away involving donuts and the subtext of “foodie:”

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Meet my New Years Berliners: Eggnog and Champagne

January 1st, 2016 on Tinder

Genao: What are up to this afternoon?

Me: I haven’t decided yet, what are you doing?

Genao: Cooking, you’re welcome to come over.

Me: Are you a foodie? (subtext: buying time and keeping things kosher)

Genao: I don’t like that word but I love food. I watch Chef’s Table on Netflix. (subtext: I don’t like you but I love sex)

Me: Food enthusiast, food lover, food snob (subtext: being annoying and thinking Netflix is available in Berlin?)

Genao: I don’t believe in putting great expectations on food. (subtext: sex doesn’t always have to mean something)

Me: So you would buy grocery store pesto? (subtext: how much can you deviate from the best?… as I know he is from Genao, where they invented pesto genovese)

Genao: I’m not a snob against people who buy grocery store pesto. I would try everything just the once to see how it tastes. (subtext: You’re not really my type but I like to try everything once)

Me: What are you planning to cook? (subtext: no comment to your comment and changing subject)

Genao: I think I’ll make Cotechino.

Me: What is that? (subtext: that sounds Chinese)

Genao (with image of Cotechino): It looks disgusting but its delicious. Its a traditional Italian New Years dish. (subtext: I’m losing my patience)

Me: Did you have any Berliners last night? (subtext: shocked at how awful the image looked and speaking of New Years foods… Berliners are traditional New Years Eve donuts in Berlin)

Genao: What do you mean by that? (subtext: are you insulting and making fun of me?)

Me: (realizing I made a hurtful pun unknowingly) I mean the traditional New Years Eve donuts, I had two last night. (subtext: wow the explanation sounds even worse)

How does this story end? Although I contemplated how I could eat the Cotechino and run, the exchange ended up in the graveyard of unrealized dates. R.I.P.

The Course of Life on “Ecke Weserstrasse”

Course of love

I first discovered Alain de Botton’s “Essays in Love” at 22 and still young enough to keep tabs on when writers wrote what. de Botton was 23 so I felt hypothetically, I had a year. (victim of the arrogance of youth) Since then, he has written on every single subject I ever wanted to write about – status, architecture, Proust, travel, work, airports – and now back to love (not to mention his School of Life). In his new novel “The Course of Love,” he provides what has been lacking in the art of love stories, how to understand the transition from passionate love (Romanticism/ Before marriage) to companionate love (Enlightened Romantic Pessimism / Many years after marriage) and the strong role that psychology plays in being able to tolerate each other’s “crazy.” That in the future, the main thing we will want to know about a potential partner is “How crazy are you?”

The only way for couples to perpetually exist in a state of magical enthusiasm is to die at the height of that feeling, this is one of the first things we learn from Romeo and Juliet. de Botton reveals that during the lifespan of a marriage, we all realize we married the wrong person. Instead of finding a soulmate, what we in fact decided on and found was a particular kind of suffering to spend the rest of our lives dealing with. Not until we realize this, can we really enjoy/understand/practice the institution of marriage and be more accepting and kinder to our chosen form of misery.

The biggest culprit in misaligning everyone’s general understanding of love and its discontents lies heavily in the hands of representation in literature, love songs, and the movies. If only we had more movies and books about the separation of sex and love at times, the helpless infant living within us all, and how normal it is to just be bored most of the time, then maybe there would be less failed marriages and more people reaching the heights of companionate love (happening sometime in our golden years). Love starts not with the finding but after the marriage.

You can find a similar message/ problem in Episode 3 of “Ecke Weserstraße” which I most applaud is so much better than the first two episodes. Here we have a group of young, urban, creative, internationals living in the coolest area of Berlin but their lives just don’t live up to the blogs, movies, drugged experiences and pop culture representations of what a cool life should be. Most of the time, they’re just bored, broke, and subliminally conscious that their way of existence is not sustainable (fireworks… no sparklers). If what fucked up Madame Bovary’s understanding of marriage was too many romance novels, in “Ecke Weserstraße” it comes from checking out too many travel blogs of couples documenting their romantic nomad getaways. (The girlfriend was so believable) Real jobs are boring and at times ridiculous so much so you just want to send off a Snapchat letter of resignation or make paper airplanes. As if life couldn’t get any worse, the hottest place to live now is Echo Park (like Berlin from the 90s or more Berlin than Berlin) as conveyed by a German to another German in stilted English.

Ironically, while watching this episode on YouTube as two of the flatmates portrayed a montage of a Berlin summer romance, I realized after all these years living in Berlin I never had a Berlin summer romance… but then I realized no, my life is not a YouTube episode, I will just be waiting in lines for gelato and trying to avoid the sun.

“Past Lives” came between us in “A Little Life”

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While reading Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life,” I was constantly listening to Børns’ “Past Lives” and found the language of the lyrics manifesting itself into my life and into my reading of Yanagihara’s latest novel. I found a way to inject words like moons, ancient, the sun into conversations and I couldn’t help but see there was a deep similarity between the two besides their titles.

The sound was current but the words were as old and worn as those used by medieval troubadours. Like a string of keywords sewn together into a nonsensical love story, the song called upon “the moon, the stars, the sons, and the daughters,” it evoked “diamond sparrow, my moonlit majesty,” the conscious and the unconscious as it played with time and space recalling past lives, ancient kingdoms, time, waiting and of course destiny. Børns’ song about love started before time and will last until the end of time while existing everywhere, a love found in the mist of the eternal return.

Yanagihara does something similar yet contained. She recycles familiar stories and tropes just like Børns into a rendition of nowness. In her view, life and love are stories repeating themselves (not just evoked by words) but it is also mundane, formed mainly in childhood. Its golden moments are the unseen quiet ones when you’re not looking but hopefully someone else is there to capture it for you (like an artist, like her). She tells a drawn-out adult fairy tale like a Korean drama, making you anticipate and wonder things like: so who is coming to Thanksgiving this year, having already spent ten Thanksgiving dinners with the characters. In a 700 plus page novel, Thanksgiving gets mentioned 43 times. It is this repetition of normal traditions that has you reading till the end of the novel. You’re too invested to bid an early farewell or skip a long-winded experience of an emotion.

There is a house in the forest, the magical promise of turning sweet 16, human monsters, friendship and career dreams. But in this novel, Tinderella is now a Jude St Francis, someone “post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity, post-past” but still an orphan with an abusive, exploited history marred in poverty but given the gift of a brilliant mind. The fairy tale trapping is just the gilded house Jude gets to live in, a safe haven from the big bad hyenas that chase him in his dreams. However, it is his work as a corporate litigator, a really bad-ass one (which allows him to afford the gilded cage), his friends and his newly adopted family which provides the only balm for his wounds.

To the would-be writer In Cold Blood

Google image search of Babe Paley... whose bad blood friendship was the last thing on his mind before death
Google image search of Babe Paley… whose bad blood friendship was the last thing on Capote’s mind before his death

The poor would-be writer who told this to Truman Capote when he was beginning his research for In Cold Blood: “Most of my ideas for stories, I get them out of the newspaper -you know.?” The story walked into this English teacher’s front door but he ended up becoming a paragraph in someone else’s non-fiction novel. Capote does give the English teacher one thing, that he at least looks literary, kind of like a young Ernest Hemingway, married with children out in Kansas and not Paris.

My favorite German philosophy professor would often like to explain why most people never write that novel or pen that poem. (“50 to 60% of educated Americans believe themselves to be poets!” Pippin) As long as it stays inside them, the person would never have to acknowledge the truth – that his poem/novel actually sucks. According to Nietzsche via Pippin, all the ideas that we have of ourselves are unknown truths and only what we release into the world can tell us who we really are.