Reading Ferrante

It might seem odd to use the word rapturous to describe a reaction to a piece of literary criticism, but I can’t think of a better one to account for the pleasure I felt reading “The Function of Pettiness at the Present Time.” The essay was possibly the only criticism of the Neapolitan novels that captured (could, I now think, ever capture) my experience of living with—and within—those four volumes.

Sarah Blackwood and Sarah Mesle nail it for me when they ask: “What if you know something about a text that you can only share at great cost, or simply don’t want to share?” What if what you know has to do with a friendship so like Lila and Lenù’s in its intensity that the novel seems to explain what went wrong in the friendship, theirs and, as I’ll say, mine.

There is for me something uncanny about the language of Blackwood and Mesle’s reading, something uncannily close to the story of my friendship with Naomi Schor, a passionate relationship that has nothing to do, in our case, as Jewish middle-class girls from New York, with social mobility; but a great deal to do with pettiness, or rather the “narrative force of small details.” This connection is more than intimate on several levels, not least because Naomi’s most important book is her 1987 Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine, in which she magisterially links the detail to gender in a discourse quite different from that of the pettiness piece, but to the same point: “The detail does not occupy a conceptual space beyond the laws of sexual difference: the detail is gendered and doubly gendered as feminine.”

I’ve been working for a ridiculously long time on a memoir about my friendships with three women who died in the first decade of the twenty-first century. One of the reasons for my embarrassing slowness has to do with figuring out really how to get at what happens in friendship, some friendships, and especially my friendship with Naomi. My Brilliant Friend illuminated my difficulty by its example; and ultimately, clarified by the brilliance of the pettiness essay, will give me a way out, a way to understand why this was the most formative friendship of my life, and finish the damn book, already.

Detail of a detail of the cover of Reading in Detail.

Rules of Engagement

After a very long summer break I finally feel up to putting a toe in the murky social media water where my blog perforce resides. There’s so much about life online that has become painful to my geezer incarnation that I can’t indulge without massive ambivalence.  On the other hand….

Right now I’m looking out my window at some pretty murky water weaving through the reedy marshes of a coastal island. I’m not exactly playing hooky since CUNY does not schedule classes on Jewish holidays. It feels like hooky though, and fortunately the thought of being eaten by alligators has moved me at last to sit down at my computer for more than email.

I do not usually dwell on alligators in the days surrounding Rosh Hashanah.

nancygatorsFrom the treatment of alligators (don’t feed them) to university matters may seem like a stretch, but it’s led me irresistibly to highlight the article in Monday’s New York Times (still the main source of irritation, hence inspiration for me) about a young woman at Columbia, Emma Sulkowitz,  who has conceived a brilliant piece of performance art. She created the piece to protest a rape she endured on the campus and that has not, in her account, been taken seriously. Under the many rules of engagement  the artist has created for herself, “Carry That Weight” entails dragging a mattress across the campus without asking for help. Roberta Smith comments: “It is so simple: A woman with a mattress, refusing to keep her violation private, carrying with her a stark reminder of where it took place.”

Depressing as the prevalence of sexual assaults on college campuses across the United States continues to be, it is also exhilarating to witness a woman artist daring to demand her right to be heard in public―confronting the silence that so often rules, especially in private universities. Yes, we remember―to what end?: the personal is the political.

I can’t resist: the Sunday New York Times Magazine (all articles devoted to men) revisits the devastatingly ironic  ways in which Gary Hart (for those old enough to remember) learned that lesson.

And shana tova.

Faces in a Crowd

On my way to work this morning, winding my way through the crowded streets of the garment district, I looked up to see three New York City policeman mounted on horseback.

It’s not as though I’d never seen mounted police before, but it was startling on this brilliant and freezing morning to come upon three of them poised for action. What could be happening? As I turned the corner, the reason for their presence was revealed: several streets of advertisements for the Super Bowl—people lined up at various booths, stamping their feet with the cold.


I found myself thinking how amazing it was that hordes—and this was just the beginning—hordes (mainly of men in down coats) were hanging out participating in some kind of pre-game mystery, possibly shopping for souvenirs (of the event that had not yet taken place). It wasn’t amazing that they were participating in what appeared to be a ritual. That was predictable. What struck me was how you can feel utterly disconnected from what appears to be a large segment of the human race. In this case of American men gathering—or pre-gathering—for a major national activity. Football. I had a moment of utter clarity: this is something that could never, never touch me. It was a comforting feeling. I spend a lot of time dithering about doing this or that, the relative advantages/disadvantages of going here, there, buying this, that. In the morning sunlight I felt gloriously detached. No way I belonged on Super Bowl boulevard, newly created for the event.

Later that day, in the early evening, after teaching my first class of the semester, I got on the F train with a young colleague, headed for Brooklyn. I’m not sure I’ve ever taken the F train, but it appeared to be the quickest way to get to an event in Dumbo: a book party sponsored by PEN for new members and new books. Since my book was a new book, and since I was a member, I absolutely wanted to be there. After all, how often would I have a new book? And how much time and effort had I already invested in getting the book into the world? It would be a shame to miss the occasion. And how great was PEN?

My friend and I arrived at the bookstore—the Powerhouse Arena. It was an astoundingly large space for books—nothing like it in Manhattan, huge, spacious—and by the time we had hiked several long blocks in the freezing cold from the subway stop, we were happy to join the packed crowd in the store.

Naturally, my first concern was seeing whether my book was there. It was!

I was happy to see the book displayed. I was thrilled to be included in just the kind of event I want to be part of: the polar opposite of the Super Bowl.


But here’s the thing. I looked around at the many faces of fellow writers, thinking surely I would know, encounter, or at least recognize someone. But as we wandered through the the vast and noisy aisles, gazing at the books on offer, it soon became clear that while all those familiar faces looked familiar, they in fact were not. Without my friend by my side, I would have stood in a corner feeling completely ridiculous—and utterly lonely. The music was loud, the crowd was young, “cool,” and I felt as much an outsider as I had contemplating the crowds excited by the Super Bowl.

On the cab ride back to Manhattan, as we looked at the fabulous views of bridges and skyscrapers, I couldn’t help wondering why I had wanted so badly to be there. That’s not quite it. I know why I wanted to be there. The hard part was admitting that being there, like having my book out in the world, wasn’t really enough. I wanted a kind of belonging that for me never means being part of a crowd.

I always knew I’d never be at home in the world of football fanatics. I hadn’t quite realized just how out of place I would feel in a literary gathering.

The Shame of Self-Promotion

On the cover of this week’s issue of The Economist, an intriguing headline reads: “Why women should boast more.” I took the hook.

I don’t read The Economist on a regular basis, but its writers often bring an interesting angle to their reporting. In this case, the article ponders a subject close to my heart, the place of of women in academia. Why is it that in most fields, not just science and engineering, “male professors” in the “higher echelons” seem to outnumber “females by nearly four to one.”

There have been several explanations put forward to account for the disparity―most famously Larry Summers’ incendiary remarks in 2005 at Harvard about the innate differences between male and female brains.


Footnote: It seems that the President shares Summers’ belief in his own superiority, and that this will lead Obama once again to miss a golden opportunity to appoint a highly qualified woman.

OK. Back to the why are there more men in upper echelon positions, as if we had ever left it.
Or, what is “more” and what is “enough”?
Professor Barbara Walter, at the University of California, San Diego, has proposed a new theory: that “female academics are not pushy enough.” Not pushy enough turns out to mean that they do not, as their male counterparts do, “routinely cite their own previous work when they publish a paper.” Citation―an easily quantifiable marker of importance―counts heavily in the decisions made by appointment committees, and therefore favors male promotion. Exactly why this gender difference in the matter of citation exists remains to be analyzed but Walter’s research evidence suggests that “women see self-citation as a form of self-promotion, and thus look down on it. Men see it the same way, but draw different conclusions.”

Do women frown on self-promotion? Is what’s true in academia also true in the literary world? In my entirely unscientific survey I’ve tried to think of whether I’ve ever received an email from a male writer apologizing in the subject line for his “shameless self-promotion.” Whereas the phrase “shameless self-promotion” has appeared in almost every email message I’ve received over the past few years from women writers apologizing in advance for sharing the news of their book publication, or any public recognition of their accomplishments. I understand the rhetorical gesture without difficulty, and I am sure that I have used the phrase myself in the past. How can you do what you have to do as a writer―promote yourself since your publisher won’t (unless you are John Grisham or E.L. James)–if you don’t beg forgiveness for intruding on your friends and colleagues in order to borrow a few seconds of their precious attention? It would be embarrassing, wouldn’t it, to act as if you didn’t realize that you were indulging in shameless self-promotion, and not just sharing your good news.

Or is shameless self-promotion just a variant of what Sheryl Sandburg means by “leaning in?” Maybe if women shamelessly self-promoted more often, they wouldn’t have to call it shameless self-promotion. Self-promotion would not feel shameful.

As for my latest shameful promotion of recent work, please visit my self-named website

Three Shades of Black

NancyblackshadesSummer Black, of course. No New Yorker needs persuading about wearing black in the summer―is there any other color?―but apparently London women need help, or at least encouragement to believe that black is still the new black. Hence the reassurance by style mavens that it’s more than OK to dress all in black this summer, despite the heat wave (a blip compared to New York weather), and despite all the advice to go floral and, well, summery. To wear black is to aim for “cool girl Scandinavian.” I have no idea what the “cool girl Scandavian” look is (the sartorial version of Scandanavian noir?), but there is plenty of black in London.

A recent trip with a visiting American teenager to Harrods had lots of black on display. (The fabled store is now owned by the father of Dodi, the boyfriend of Princess Diana, who died with her sixteen years ago; there’s a memorial shrine to the couple on the lowest floor of the store)

But the black that caught more than my eye was the number of women dressed entirely in black, shopping.

burkasIt was hard for me not to stare as I tried to try to make sense of the contrast between these women covered head to toe in black, with only a slit for their eyes, and the display of gorgeous luxury items for which the store is famous. What, I wondered, were they shopping for? And what were they wearing under the burkas (or burqas as it’s often spelled here)? In London burkas and headscarves are omnipresent and, for the time being at least, the fact of women covering their faces is not moving forward as a political issue. It has, however, been raised by conservatives.

The same is not true in France, where the question of the scarf (le voile) and face covering is a hotly debated and fiercely argued question.

burka2In France the rationale for banning the wearing of the headscarf is part of the secularist legislation banning all “ostentatious” religious symbols from the cross to the yarmulke–and the anti-headscarf position is largely supported by many well-known French feminists. But given all the other political and economic issues associated with the large Muslim population in France, the question of the headscarf is rarely just a matter of opinion. It has become a lightning rod for protest, often accompanied by violence on both sides―protesters and police.

In the summer of 2003 I was in London for the astounding heat wave that caused many deaths here and in Europe. I found myself more than puzzled, horrified really, to see many Muslim families in Kensington Gardens where the men were sitting on the grass in open-necked shirtsleeves, and the women tented in black tending to the children running around freely.

Surely, the acceptance of cultural difference has its limits? Or am I just depressingly Western?

“New-Wave Feminists,” starring Jane Austen

I’ve long been enamored of new-wave movies since they changed my life, and so it was a treat to see feminists referred to as “new wavers” in a spirit of excitement. A lot has been going on this summer by activists of feminism’s fourth wave. For one thing, due to campaigning by feminist activists, the Bank of England announced that the face of Jane Austen would appear on the next ten-pound note. No small achievement.


And crossing the channel for a moment, it was reported a couple of weeks ago that the Femen leader was to be the face of France’s iconic Marianne: a new postage stamp designed to mark François Hollande’s presidency.

But, back to England, and not just stamps.

I’m not sure how many lions it takes to make a pride, but there’s a pride of feminist journalists reporting in the Guardian and a great deal of attention to feminist issues, from the mass rally in Hyde Park to mark the 100th anniversary of the suffragettes’ action in 1913 to the Jane Austen story, to the battle against the display of what’s called “lads’ mags” in a large grocery chain. (A typical title: “Nuts and Zoo”).

Oddly, or perhaps predictably, the avowedly feminist triumph of getting Jane Austen’s face on the ten-pound note produced an unpleasant, and even violent series of misogynist reactions posted on social media.

Elizabeth Criado-Perez, the brave young activist who led the campaign to have Austen’s face on the note, was attacked and threatened with rape on Twitter. Various conversations about an effective response have ensued guaranteeing that this individual case will not go the way of anecdote. Rather, this specific attack has led to a widespread conversation about the kind of harassmentthat has repeatedly been taking place across the Internet.

Even the distinguished classicist Mary Beard has entered the fray, “naming and shaming” an Internet “troll” who mocked her on Twitter. This feels like the beginning of a serious debate here about what’s been dubbed “anti-social media.

janeaustenI almost forgot. Jane Austen is also making news because of the recent installation of a larger than life Mr. Darcy (a k a Colin Firth) emerging from the Serpentine in a wet shirt as a publicity stunt to promote a new tv channel’s production of yet another film version of Pride and Prejudice. It seems that the lake scene is the scene from the novel (or would that be the movie?) most Austen fans like best.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Hadley Freeman’s primer for how “not to be a dick on the internet,” belated advice to Anthony Weiner, pro-actively, how to fight back against internet abuse.

I know I’m given to idealizing places where I do not live, and god knows there’s plenty of sexism and misogyny alive and well in the UK, but I confess it is a restorative experience to read a newspaper column that refers to “fourth-wave” feminism as if it were something real, interesting, and potentially effective.

What will I do when I’m back with the Times?

Can we forgive them? Jews in the news.

Back in New York for a few days, and reading the Times (on paper, of course), I’m reminded how publicly Jewish a city New York is―compared, say, to London or Paris, the only other cities I know well, where Jews and Jewishness do not (except for Israel and Palestine) make news.

In Monday’s paper, Anthony Weiner on the road to public forgiveness was the subject of a longish piece, “Courting Group of Voters With a Strict Moral Code, Weiner Faces a Challenge.” 

The article frames a striking photograph of Weiner, sitting at a long table in profile, wearing a yarmulke, looking like a slightly overgrown, penitent Bar Mitzvah boy, surrounded by at least ten black-hatted, payes-wearing, bearded rabbis solemnly debating his political future. Oy, not only has he exposed his crotch (almost) on the internet, his (betrayed) wife is not Jewish! A difficult case.

To my astonishment, I learn, Weiner is doing well in the polls, but the votes (and moral approval) of the ultra-Orthodox would solidify his lead. A woman, “an Orthodox Jew accompanying her mother to [a senior] center,” summarized the more “forgiving” view: “What he did was harmless. It wasn’t like it was embezzlement. Let’s forgive the guy.” If “we” could forgive Clinton and move on, why punish Anthony Weiner? Especially if he has been helpful in the past to the “community.”

“A Question of Forgiving” is the title of a column in Sunday’s Metropolitan section about Eliot Spitzer and his run for city comptroller (in a self-financed campaign). Spitzer is asking for “forgiveness,” he has said in public, in order to qualify for the position. The column compares his situation with that of Norman Mailer who ran for mayor nine years after pleading guilty to stabbing his wife at a party. In that case, it seems, even feminists (!) forgave him since Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem advised him on the campaign because they believed in his vision for “urban revitalization.” So since they were able to “compartmentalize”―set aside their dislike of his personal behavior, shouldn’t the rest of us be ready to look past Spitzer’s indiscretions and admire his vision of a less powerful Wall Street?

As a Jew, I mainly feel embarrassment that these two quite ridiculous, hubristic Jewish men are the topic of so much serious attention, and might even have a chance to display their arrogant personalities in an official capacity. But beyond that is my feminist memory of how Geraldine Ferraro was treated in her role as the first woman nominated for national office. Ferraro was vilified for the dodgy financial schemes of her husband, and then hounded for her position on abortion because of her Catholic identity. This gutsy woman could not get a break.

The analogy isn’t perfect, I realize, but there is something to it: why do “we” find it so easy to excuse men for their…imperfections, but impossible to forgive a woman (think Hillary and her cookies)?

Anthony Trollope pondered these questions in Can You Forgive Her, one of his arguably feminist novels. Check it out if you want a satisfyingly long summer read.

Plus ça change, or are women people?

“Murray ends the 77-year wait for British win.” Ooops.

wadeThe headline misses the fact that Virginia Wade won Wimbledon in 1977. But she won in women’s singles. Feminist writer Chloe Angyal tweeted the now much retweeted egregious omission: “Murray is indeed the first Brit to win Wimbledon in 77 years unless you think women are people.” In other words, the only win that seems to have counted was the winner of the men’s singles. To specify gender presumably would have messed up the over the top celebration and its perceived significance: nothing less than a knighthood for this man.

It was impossible to be in England, during Wimbledon, as I’ve been for the past month and miss the fact that Andy Murray was the first British winner of men’s singles match since 1936, when the winner was Fred Perry. But that’s not how the story was told, since to specify men’s singles would have meant remembering Virginia Wade and women’s tennis more generally. Although television and journalism coverage paid attention to women’s tennis with a decent number of stories, the acknowledgment of the gender difference was belated. Three other women won women’s singles after Wade did. But who else would care whether women were people? Feminists, presumably, but are we people?

I love how Virginia Wade and the Queen are both wearing pink!

Never can say good-bye….

I’m back home after 33 days of if not total bliss, daily doses of beauty on the Italian riviera, the part known as the “levante.” We all know the drill of return: everything is so real. And in New York everything is not only real but more real: loud, dirty, unforgiving. Even if I can force myself to acknowledge some good aspects to being home―a performing washer/dryer (that dries socks in minutes, not hours), a stellar printer/scanner (with long enough memory to print a whole manuscript in one go)―more pieces of clothing than the ones you’d been wearing (and washing) for 33 days. The list is not long, though, at least not for me, not this time. Oh, let’s see: drinking morning tea in bed―a forbidden pleasure at the Fondazione. Watching movies at night on tv in bed (ditto). Reading The Times on paper (had to make do with the recycled news of the  Herald Tribune.) I guess I could come up with a few more if I really tried.

But I thought I should try harder.

So I made an experiment. Instead of the gorgeous passeggiata along the Mediterranean, now consigned to memory, I took my daily walk on the Promenade along―well, parallel to―the Hudson River, on the Upper West Side where I live. I decided to take my camera as I did daily in Italy and see whether I could focus my eyes on pieces of beauty in the streets, enough to cheer me up. I pretended I was visiting the city as an enthusiastic tourist, instead of a lifelong, grouchy New Yorker.

I made a first stop walking down the hill to the community gardens at 91st Street and Riverside Drive, where spring was edging its way into existence.


Then took a shot of the river with a freighter in the mid-ground―recalling the freighters that sat on the horizon of the Mediterranean waiting to dock in Genoa. That didn’t quite work, mainly because of New Jersey’s dreary architecture in the background.


I looked for another angle but was defeated by the highway. Lordly as the Hudson is, it was not going to give me sublime.

I left the park and wandering home, I was surprised to see a plaque on the wall at 160 Riverside Drive that I had never noticed, in honor of Brooks Atkinson, the drama critic for the New York Times. I even remember reading his columns when I was growing up.


And a few steps farther, on the same block, 88th Street between Riverside and West End Avenue, a plaque to Babe Ruth. They seemed new. I couldn’t have been more surprised.

So I walked up to 94th street to compare with a much larger tribute to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, that’s been up there for a while.

Could New York be on its way to becoming London and recognizing its writers and artists? Rumor has it that our own building is going to have a plaque in memory of the painter Barnett Newman.

My excursion cheered me up slightly, but I can’t help feeling that this neighborhood tour, whatever its charms, will not console me for my sense of paradise lost.

photo (8)


Paradise almost lost….

In a few days we will be leaving our beautiful temporary home, where even on stormy days the seascape that surrounds us is sublime.

2002-12-31 23.00.00-43Now, after what seemed like endless cold and rainy weather, the sun is out, and everything is in bloom. The beauty of the landscape is almost unbelievable, especially the view from our bedroom window where the horizon of Golfo Paradiso is framed and crisscrossed by the bending boughs of parasol pines.

It will, I fear, be excruciating to return to New York, where the usual noise and grime will be accentuated by the scaffolding that was wrapping our building when we left a few weeks ago. Sigh.

Meanwhile, I’ve been collecting last signs by which to remember our time here:

Another love-inspired example of graffiti, this time in English, carved on a thick cactus leaf on the path we took between two of the villages of the Cinque Terre, Monterosso and Vernazza. So we say that we have seen the “due terre” and from a staggering height. I thought the walk would never end, as I clung on to whatever vines, fences, rocks, and the occasional bannister available. We were by far the oldest people taking the path, and that fact was not comforting; nor were the signs warning us of falling rocks.

2002-12-31 23.00.00-34
“Nel blu dipinto di blu”: irresistible reprise from ‘Volare’ (only people over a certain age will recognize the music and the words from the late 1950s)

It’s all about blue.

2002-12-31 23.00.00-8

I realized on one  excursion that a favorite scarf matched the sea, as well as the color of the railings and the benches It’s also the color of my new website―so many variants of teal.

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Even a blue kayak:

The town itself –walls, shutters, roofs–is color coordinated in warm earth tones, but the rules of décor do not seem to apply to laundry:

2013-03-20 12.26.06

Was everything perfect then? Nostalgia will make it so.

But that would be too simple. In addition to the proliferation of dog poop (see earlier posts), there are cigarette butts everywhere, as well as discarded cigarette packs:


The warning label reads on one side: Smoking gravely damages you and those around you, and on the other: Smoking causes deadly lung cancer.

The messages, alas, seem to have no effect. People smoke everywhere outside where smoking is permitted. The fact that the packs contain 10 cigarettes makes them especially appealing to the young: notably the pre-teenagers…who think, as we did when young, that smoking is cool.

The government has not succeeded in banning the tempting packs.

(Too bad the packs come in a lovely a shade of blue…)

It would be churlish, however, to end on a…blue note.
A few days ago, on a trip to a Genoa marketplace (we bought pesto and porcini), we saw this

2002-12-31 23.00.00-54

strange sight: a levitating monk.

Any ideas of how it’s done?