It took me a while to start reading this book, or rather, this series of four books also called “the Neapolitan tetralogy”. I had heard about it the first time around 2009, of course, when it became a surprising best-seller all over the world. But I was a bit suspicious of it, maybe even a bit prejudiced. First, because it was a “best-seller”, and second because it was written by a woman. Not because I don’t like women writers in general, but because the themes that they tend to be more interested in (love, relationships, female psychology) tend to interest me less than other themes…

But I was, of course, wrong. The books are actually very well-written and engaging, what one would call “page-turners”. They might even a bit soap operish, but in a good way: lots of drama and surprising twists, and usually very easy to read.

One possible problem of the book, although I am not sure if it is necessarily a problem, is that the character of the friend, Lila or Lina, is (for me, at least) so much more interesting than that of the narrator and protagonist. But during a lot of the time the story focuses more on “Elena” and her mundane problems with her family, her lovers, her writing career, etc, while Lina sort of disappears into the background.

Also Elena, contrary to Lina, does not seem to be the type of character that is always particularly very perceptive about her own reality: she is convinced that she’s a “good mother” when she takes extremely dubious decisions, or is sure that her relationships are “going well” when the opposite is quite clear.

Of course, as the story progresses, one feels more and more (and especially in the last part) that Lina, more than just a character, works really more as a sort of “dark alter ego” of the author, or as a symbol related to the city of Naples, an unstoppable force that somehow embodies the energies of the city.

And Naples, or more specifically its poor periphery (an unnamed “rione” or neighbourhood) where the two friends grew up is perhaps the main “character” of the series. Even if the protagonist Elena also wanders through Pisa, Rome, Florence and other parts of the world, the focus is always in the “rione”, which Lina never leaves.

The Naples that the story shows is a quite violent and sometimes very depressing environment. It is very different from what you may read or see in Eduardo de Filippo’s Neapolitan plays, for example. De Filippo also shows poverty, drama and occasionally violence, but he is almost always humorous and focuses more on the humanity of the characters, even when they are poor or desperate or make bad decisions. But Elena’s Neapolitans almost totally lack humor, and most characters, even when “friends”, have very harsh or complicated relationships with one another. There is not one family relationship or friendship in the book that seems to work even remotely well; everybody seem to be constantly fighting or trying to get their way with each other, or changing from friend to enemy on a whim; even Lina’s and Elena’s “friendship” is full of misunderstandings and aggressions.

Another observation: even though the book constantly mentions the “Neapolitan dialect”, it has very little of it. It mostly uses the standard Italian language for all of the dialogs (I’ve read the book in Italian; this wouldn’t apply to the translation), and maybe just a few local expressions (‘zoccola’ or slut is one that appears quite often). Now, if you’re even just a bit familiar with the Neapolitan dialect, you can see that it can be very colourful and characteristic, even if it can become impossible to understand, even for Italians (for an example, check the aforementioned plays by Eduardo De Fiippo, or the work of Neapolitan actor/director Massimo Troisi.) So while I understand why the author chose not to use it, sometimes it seems that it could give more life to the speech of at least some of the characters, who wouldn’t speak in formal Italian anyway. I don’t know; it’s a minor thing, and does not compromise the book.

I could go on, but I don’t want to give any spoilers. If you have the chance, read the book, it’s worth it. There is also a recent series based on it, but I didn’t watch it, and don’t plan to (I have my own image of the characters and I feel that the visuals chosen for the series might ruin it).

P. S. “Elena Ferrante” (not to be confused with “Elena Greco” which is the character of the book) is a pseudonym, and it is not clear who the real author is, as she has not come forward officially. Some say that she is actually the translator Anita Raja, which could or could not be true. Does it matter? Does it change the book in any way? I don’t think so. She has a new book now that just came out, not related to the tetralogy (“La vita bugiarda degli adulti”); I haven’t read it and not sure I will.

When you get to a certain age, which can vary according to the person’s temperament, you start to live more in the past than in the present, if only because you have more years of “past” behind you that you will likely have a “future” in front of you. Of course, being mostly a melancholic (see previous post about the temperaments), I tended even in my youth to focus more on the past than in the future (Pascal observed that humans rarely focus in the present, but either in the past or in the future).

But one thing that happens, I think to everyone, independently of their temperament, is the cementing of their musical taste, at least in what refers to pop music, and the preference for the music of the past, or more exactly of their youth.

For instance, nowadays I tend to listen mostly to classical music, but, if not, to rock/pop from the 60s, 70s and 80s. I know very little about, and have even less interest, in current pop music. The little I’ve heard of it seems awful, vulgar and stupid, but of course, I am not the target audience.

I hate rap and hip hop, which seems to be the most popular genre today, and I am not the greatest fan of electronic music either, with a few exceptions. Rock, for all practical purposes, seems to be basically dead. I mean, the era of the great rock bands finished in the 90s, really. If I think of the country where I grew up, Brazil, there were many great rock bands in the 80s and 90s (Legião Urbana, Ira!, Capital Inicial, Camisa de Vênus). A few of them, following the example of the geriatric Rolling Stones, are still active, but there are basically no new rock bands that are very popular. Most of what is popular are variants of synth pop or hip hop, usually extremely vulgar (i.e. what’s called “funk” in Rio).

Of course, even if there were great rock bands today, I probably wouldn’t listen to them, since Youtube and similar services basically allow anyone to find any song that they used to listen in their youth.

One of those songs, which I listened recently for the first time after decades, was a song by the Brazilian band Camisa de Vênus (which is a poetic name for condom – “Venus’s shirt” – but of course I didn’t know that when I was 13 and the song came out). It was popular in the 80s, and had a chorus like this: “Lena veja o que o tempo faz / com as pessoas que não querem perder o gás”, which could be translated literally as “Lena, see what time does / to those who don’t want to lose their gas”, but meaning really people who don’t want to lose their youth, but end up looking like pathetic middle-agers pretending to be still young and thinking that the things they enjoy and know are still cool, etc.

I don’t think I had this problem, because I wasn’t cool even when I was young… Nor did I care to, very much. Youth is fickle and superficial. Nelson Rodrigues, a famous Brazilian journalist and writer, once was asked what was the best advice he could give to the young, and he said: “Get old .” And that’s what they all did.

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The photographs below (the photographs of photographs) were taken at a shop window in Altenburg, Germany, a few weeks ago. I don’t now what’s the context of the pictures, but I found interesting the juxtaposition of the images of the group of ladies dressed all the same way with aprons (workers in a factory?) with the vintage erotic photograph. The pictures seem to be from the beginning of the 20th century and of course all those people are long dead now.

It was said that certain primitive tribes of the Pacific didn’t like their photographs taken because they believed that “photographs can capture your soul”. Maybe they were right about that… There is something eery about mirror-like images that freeze your aspect in time and can last even beyond your earthly life. But of course, in those initial times of photography (early 20th century), taking a picture was a special event, you didn’t take one every day or every hour to post online as we do now. But what to think of the thousands of images that each of us now will leave for posterity, or at least to the limbo of the digital realm in the “Cloud”…?

I am writing a longer article for publication elsewhere about the “four temperaments”, but for now, this brief introduction will have to do.

The classic theory, coming from the Greeks, was that there were four basic personal temperaments: choleric, sanguine, melancholic and phlegmatic. They were related to the “four humors”: blood, yellow bile, black bile, phlegm.

While the biological aspect of the four humours has lost relevancy, I don’t think that the “four temperaments” did. In fact, recent personality theories are pretty much in agreement with the basic division, except that they are more complicated and call them something else (INTP, INJP, etc), or “The Big Five” personality types.

I don’t know, the old system seems much more intuitive. Also, four makes numerically and symbolically more sense than five or other larger numbers — and it makes it much easier to organize them in a square matrix, such as this one.

The Sanguine personality type is described primarily as being highly talkative, enthusiastic, active, social, and a bit superficial. Quick and shallow excitability – they always look for something new and keep changing their point of view).

The Choleric tend to be more extroverted, independent, decisive, goal-oriented, and ambitious, but also violent, vengeful, and short-tempered. Quick, but long-lasting excitability. They react rapidly and with energy to stimulus.

The Melancholic are introverted, analytical and detail-oriented. Deep thinkers and feelers, creative, but also reserved, indecisive, fearful and often anxious. Slow and deep excitability. They don’t react immediately, but impressions last long and can mark them deeply.

The Phlegmatic individuals tend to be relaxed, peaceful, quiet, and easy-going; they like mostly to eat and sleep and are not anxious at all, but also not so extroverted or filled with lofty ideals. Slow and shallow excitability. They forget things easily and don’t get worked up by most stuff.

A good and more detailed description of each type can be found here. For those too lazy or too phlegmatic to look into it, Wikipedia has the basic info.

According to the classification, I would obviously be a melancholic (although the system allows for a combination of types, so I could have elements of others, too). Melancholics are associated with autumn, with the Earth element, with the color blue (or black), with cold and dry qualities, with introversion and emotional instability, and with “black bile” (the bodily humor). Tendency to insomnia, dark dreams, pessimism, rheumatism. Also generally thin — body type is ectomorph. (More about the health aspects here).

It doesn’t seem to be possible to change your temperament, although you can train or educate yourself to reduce its most negative aspects.

I will shortly publish a longer article about all this, probably in our own magazine that is coming up.

Still thinking about languages and their differences, I was recently reminded that, while English is a Germanic language, and this is reflected in its structure, about 60% of its vocabulary has Latin origin, mostly through French. So that’s why it feels (to me) much more familiar than, say, German or Norwegian, and why I have learned English relatively easily, while I still struggle to pronounce a coherent sentence in German.

This is likely also the reason — together with its relatively easy grammar, and of course its economic importance — for its success and global spread. It is like a bridge between Romance and Germanic languages, or Southern and Northern Europe.

That double source from its words is also what gives it a lot of variety, and why it has become one of the greatest literary languages, rivalling only with French and perhaps Italian. French and Italian sound perhaps more melodious, but English has some other qualities that make it more versatile.

I talked about Jorge Luis Borges before, and Borges was, not only a great fan of the current English language (he once said he learned it before Spanish), but also a student of Old English or Anglo-Saxon, which is much more clearly Germanic than current English, before the influence of Norman (i.e. French) – and therefore, much harder.

A few days ago (August 24th) marked 121 years since the birth of Jorge Luis Borges. I am currently researching a bit about his life, as one of my future projects would be to write a new book about Argentinean literature.

Of course, a lot has been written about Borges, and I’ve read a lot of it. My father is a great fan of Borges and we had all his books at home, plus many other books about him.

And yet, there are always some new things that you can discover about someone, especially in the case of a writer of such importance. One of the things I didn’t know so much about was the period of his youth and the several literary projects during his early 20s, which included a mural magazine called Prisma.

I am also rereading quite a lot of his work. Not only the short stories, but also some essays (although of course, for Borges there is not always a difference between both).

It is always better to read him in Spanish, if you can understand the language, but if not, there are quite a few translations to choose from. Which one is the best? It’s difficult to say. I prefer the earliest ones, but here there’s a more detailed article describing some of the differences in each version, as well as a discussion of Borges’ work with Norman Di Giovanni, the only translator with whom he directly collaborated.

Here there’s one of his last interviews, the day of his 85th birthday, still in Argentina (he would die less than two years later, in Geneva). He seems pretty cheerful.

English is not my native language. I write, or at least try to write in it because I’ve been living in anglo countries for many years, and because it has become a sort of universal language these days. But I never seem to master it completely, its mysterious core somehow always evades me; and I think the reason is that its logic and cadence are so different from what seems more natural to me.

I grew up speaking Spanish and Portuguese. Later I learned Italian and French (although my French could still improve). Latin or romance languages feel more musical, more normal. I like to read in Italian especially, perhaps it would be my favourite language, with French second.

English has some advantages. One of them is the extremely large vocabulary, shorter words and a relatively easy grammar (compared to, say, German or slavic languages). But other aspects of it, such as spelling and pronunciation, make much less sense. But I think the main difference is in the little things. Like the lack of diminutives: in Spanish you would say “casita”, in Italian “casetta”, in English you’d have to say “little house”. It’s just not the same thing.

Of course it has other advantages and its own kind of beauty and a certain flexibility that you won’t find in romance languages. I think the real problem, for me, is

There is a theory that language, and in particular the language of our childhood, determine or at least shape our thoughts. There is a certain truth to it, as ideas come also from the means to express them, or, rather, they are interdependent: you need words to express ideas, and you need concepts or ideas to form words. According to what is called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, our experience of the world is based on the structure of the language we habitually use. According to Whorf, the formulation of ideas and thoughts is not a rational independent process but is determined by the particular grammar and vocabulary of the language in which these ideas are expressed. The world is organized and made sense of through language.

I don’t know; maybe there’s something to it, n’est ce pas? ¿No lo crees? E se non è vero, è bene trovato.

There is a lot of discussion about vaccines these days, particularly because fo the “corona” phenomenon. Personally, while I am not an “anti-vaxxer”, I tend to dislike taking vaccines, taking medicines, going to the doctor, etc. I suppose that, instead of being hypochondriac, I am actually a little bit iatrophobic. So I tend to avoid all kind of medical procedures if I can. But of course even I can accept that medicine and in particular modern medicine can be very useful sometimes…

Now there is a big discussion about possible side effects of vaccines, especially in light of the “corona” phenomenon. Of course, since a vaccine is basically an attenuated virus, it can cause side effects, at least in a minority of the population. Also, many vaccines contain thimerosal as a preservative, which is an organic compound that includes mercury, which, as we all know, can not be discharged by the body and is usually not very healthy. And the link between vaccination and a recent increase in autism has not been, as far as I know, completely debunked.

But the more worrying recent phenomenon is the push, famously by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but also by others, of the “RNA vaccines“. While they do not “alter your DNA” as some argue (although DNA vaccines might), they work in a different way from normal vaccines, making your own organism produce a pathogen. Now, this may not be as scary as it sounds, but its experimental and radical concept seems a bit dangerous, and given that they have not even been tested in large scale in humans, the idea of using one to treat millions of people for “COVID” causes certain concern.

Of course, I should say that I am in general a bit skeptical of the whole “corona” phenomenon, and particularly of the sometimes excessively authoritarian lockdown measures that have destroyed many economies and livelihoods, as well as completely atomized even more social life, not always with an apparent need (I mean, I understand that certain measures needed to be taken by the authorities, but I am not sure if this global lockdown for so long and with such huge effects was worth its worse consequences; also there were so many conflicting regulations, from using to not using masks, and some silly ones, such as telling people to use masks outdoors, or inside your car, as many still do, which seems a bit pointless.) But that’s another story, for another day…

But since this is basically a blog about literature, I would like to conclude by mentioning a few (fiction) books that deal with this issue. The classic “War of the Worlds”, by H. G. Wells, can perhaps be seen as a propaganda for vaccination or immunization (as the powerful and technologically superior Martians are eventually killed by Earth pathogens to which they have no defence).

“The Decameron” also famously takes place during the plague in Italy, and Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year”, which is nor a real journal but a novel, is also interesting. More recently, “Blindness” by José Saramago and “Anna” by Niccolò Ammaniti, are modern takes on very specific pandemics. The movie “La Jetée“, by Chris Marker, is a classic science fiction short about pandemics worth watching (it inspired the more well-known, but less interesting, “Twelve Monkeys”).

But specifically about vaccines, I don’t remember anything right now except H. P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West, Reanimator“, which doesn’t seem to have a particularly benevolent view of doctors, medicine and such…

Evil Doctor trying out new RNA vaccine on his female victim.

This is Altenburg, which I visited some time ago. It means “old fort” in German. A strange city. In demographic decline since the 1980s, it lost 40% of its population since then, and people still seem to be leaving. Currently it has 33,000 people, down from 56,000 in 1988 (data from Wiki). And it shows.

There are lots of empty, abandoned buildings, some almost falling apart. Even the castle, which is actually quite nice, is in bad disrepair, which is strange for Germany, as they usually take good care of their touristic sites. Then again, I didn’t see many people visiting it when I was there — though that could be because of “corona”.

The main square downtown, with the curch at the end of the street, is quite pretty, very “German”, and while not crowded it had quite a few people in its bars and cafes, despite “corona” still going on. But turn a corner and you will already see a lot of abandoned and decaying buildings.

This seems to be a problem in many regions of the former Eastern Germany, which emptied out after the end of Communism (although, to be honest, some towns started to decay even before the fall of the Wall).

On the other hand, bigger towns in the region, such as Leipzig and Dresden, seem to be in renewal mode and have currently a growing young population, some of whom are escaping from “dead” towns such as Altenburg, or from the growingly more expensive rents in Berlin.

Still, its a pity, as Altenburg seems a quiet nice little place. Aesthetically, it looks much more pleasant than several other more bustling cities around, such as Chemnitz, Zwickau, etc., which look more industrial and are in general less visually interesting.

A building needing renovation in Altenburg.
The town square.
Castle grounds. Some buildings here are also in disrepair.
Castle tower – it’s pretty high. Looks like Rapunzel’s tower.

Most people are happy to own a cat or a dog, or perhaps a goldfish, but some prefer other more unusual creatures. Here there’s an article I just published elsewhere that talks about a few writers and artists who had a taste for exotic or unusual pets, most of which I did not mention in the boo “Our Pets and Us“.

Frida Kahlo with Granizo.

Our first Contrarium book, “Our Pets and Us: The Evolution of a Relationship”, is now available for purchase at Amazon or in our own online shop (cheaper price, but only Paypal accepted).

It is a short illustrated book (170 pages) about the history of the relationship of humans with pets (mostly cats and dogs, but we also discuss other animals), from the beginning of domestication to current trends.

Each chapter focuses on a specific theme or historical period, discussing the most varied subjects such as the fate of pets during the French and Russian revolutions, the use of pets in the space race, how the use of dogs as guides for the blind started, the association of cats with witches in the Middle Ages, and many other fascinating curiosities.

It’s a good book for anyone interested in history — or in pets, which I guess would include most of us. It’s also a nice gift for friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, mothers, fathers, grandfathers, in-laws, etc.

Please buy it! It costs less than a package of dog or cat food.