Review Essay: A Dying Art

Sydney Review of Books, November 25 2020

Dear Reader,

If I were a participant in The Ferrante Letters, I would open with an anecdote.

Last night I watched Pasolini’s 1961 film Accattone, an unrelentingly grim portrait of Rome’s down-and-outs. In a world of lazy pimps and wretched women, where violence is mundane, the keenest thugs hail from Naples. ‘Don’t take us for Italians, we Neapolitans are special,’ says a bruiser to a sad-eyed streetwalker, before beating her close to death to make some forgotten point about loyalty and betrayal.

This would lead into my take on violence and class and ethnicity in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels: of how rarely we see violent male worlds through women’s eyes, not least those women who drag themselves out of the muck.

Perhaps at some point I’d zoom out to paint my own sad portrait. Here I am in my highly flammable dressing gown, making coffee with the $7.50 kettle I bought from K-Mart, before I sit down each morning and struggle to write. I’d describe the flimsy plastic, the utilitarian shape, the dull click of the switch. Hopefully I’ve made clear that this is a kettle that isn’t made with futurity in mind: it is a daily reminder of uncertainty and impermanence and turpitude. Here comes the meta-commentary on trying to think critically about criticism, a centripetal circle-jerk, while the world around you implodes. Would I eventually confess to you that I bought this kettle after the Russell Hobbs Heritage Vogue was repossessed by the son of a real estate agent who inherited his father’s proprietary bent, and if I did confess this, then what would be my motivation? To signal I had already spent too much of the year thinking about the violence of men before I began thinking about Ferrante, or Pasolini, or a collective of female scholars writing back against the masculinist rhetoric of the academy? Does my confession carry any weight when on the news the bodies keep piling up and the fascists create louder diversions and I don’t want to create false equivalencies because one violence cannot be exchanged for another but in the perpetual scroll they’re all beginning to blur?

Why would I tell you any of this? Does stripping bare the scene of criticism add anything of value to the text we appraise? Am I telling you that perhaps, in my sorry state, unable to distinguish here from there, my ideas can’t be trusted? Am I explaining why I sound like a person who has lost faith? Or am I hereby solemnly rejecting a notion of public criticism that pretends to be bodiless: without a race or a gender or a weary heart?

Dear Reader, I’ve barely begun and already I’m exhausting us both.

A Dying Art