What highlights tells us

We read for various reasons. Sometimes, when wrung out, I read to de-stress. In the last two years I’ve turned to Georges Simenon for this reason. Better than alcohol or drugs. But in this time I have also been reading other authors, some of whom would doubtless be considered more literary. One of those has been Elena Ferrante.

I am in the habit of highlighting sections of particular interest, sometimes for what is being said (the thought-content, for example), sometimes out of interest in the author’s craft (scene-setting, characterisation).  And it has struck me when looking over these highlights, that I have found more of note in Simenon than Ferrante.

As my old physics teacher used to say, Is this significant?

Being older now, my reply would be that everything is significant, the trick being to determine what that significance might be. In this case, I plainly find Simenon more interesting. But that may say more about me than either of the authors in question. When I say This book is interesting I really mean I find this book interesting, the subject changing from the book to the reader.

As he deals with his characters and how they relate, Simenon often generalises from their behaviour. In the four books staring with My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante deals at much greater length with her characters, but keeps to the particular more than Simenon and generalises from them less. This is made more noticeable by the fact that these books are much longer than Simenon’s. But I am not an academic and cannot support any of this with statistical analysis.

Sighs of relief all round.

But it often happens that when something springs to the eye in Ferrante, it has usually attracted many. It is not only in the world of antiques that rarity value counts. Here is an example from the second book, The Story of a New Name:

There are moments when we resort to senseless formulations and advance absurd claims to hide straightforward feelings. Today I know that in other circumstances, after some resistance, I would have given in to Bruno’s advances. I wasn’t attracted to him, certainly, but I hadn’t been especially attracted to Antonio, either. One becomes affectionate toward men slowly, whether they coincide or not with whomever in the various phases of life we have taken as the model of a man.

Why are such passages relatively rare in Ferrante’s work? In Chapter 28 of The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil might have an answer to this question he can never have heard.

Unfortunately the healing power of thought seems to be the same faculty that diminishes the personal sense of experience.

Ferrante sets great store in recounting personal experiences and may feel that analysing them too much will weaken them.



5 thoughts on “What highlights tells us

  1. Of course it’s significant! Even if only for you personally. I highlight in my e-books and put sticky notes in the paper ones. Some refer to blog post ideas, some are actual blog research and some are favourite passages. In War and Peace I have different colour highlights for different characters 😀

    • Like you, I highlight using ebooks,. I used to highlight in physical copies too, but when I wanted to quote, my technique (holding the book in one hand and picking out letters with the other) didn’t impress me much. Your way of handling War and Peace strikes me as being excellent. It may even be an example of what some refer to as para-linguistic markers!

      • With a book like War and Peace it is certainly handy to have a e-book so that you can easily search the contents. I’ll have to look up para-linguistics markers.

  2. Hmm, I struggle with Ferrante – I disliked the (standalone story) The Lost daughter so deeply that I never quite finished it. Later I was mesmerised by the first of the Neapolitan quartet, My Brilliant Friend. I have only read one Simenon, The Blue Room, and that got me thinking. I wouldn’t turn to either author to de-stress. I’m reading Gareth Williams Unravelling the Double Helix – the lost heroes of DNA – fascinating and unexpected.

  3. I haven’t read the Lost Daughter. In struggle with Ferrante too. I like Simenon because the violence occurs off-stage and it’s all about what goes on in the mind.

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