From dazzling biographies to fantastic fantasy and wry observation, the years graphic books would make great Christmas presents
When I began writing about graphic novels a decade ago, I remember worrying slightly about the supply line: would I really be able to find a good one to review every month? And it was tricky, sometimes. But what a difference 10 years has made. Im now in the awful business of running a beauty pageant: I have too many darlings, not too few. This year, especially, has been a bumper one. Memoirs, novels, biographies, reissued classics: if there isnt something to suit everyone on the bulging list that follows, Ill eat my copy of Persepolis.
First, memoir. It seems sometimes to be taking over, and this is as true in the world of graphic books as elsewhere in literature. Regular readers will know that I was waiting anxiously for the second volume of The Arab of the Future (Two Roads 18.99), Riad Sattoufs series of comics about his childhood in France and the Middle East, and when it arrived, it did not disappoint. But aAnyway, a reminder: its truly great. Picking up the story in 1984, when Riad is six, the Sattoufs are now back in Ter Maaleh, Syria, a situation that seems not to be making any of them very happy. Funny, dark and occasionally revelatory, this and its predecessor are my graphic memoirs of the year.
With Bright Lights, Big City, the novelist established himself as the chronicler of New Yorks hedonistic 80s elite. Thirty years and four marriages later, he is still fascinated by wealth and Donald Trump though his friendship with Bret Easton Ellis is flagging …
It is more than 30 years since Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerneys first and most famous novel was published, and everything and nothing has changed. The 61-year-old still lives in Manhattan, in apenthouse a few blocks from one of his first addresses in New York. (In the early 1980s, the rent on his Bowery apartment was $375 a month. A night at the Bowery Hotel, where McInerney stayed last week while his air conditioning was being fixed, is $425). He doesnt snort cocaine in club bathrooms any more, but when hes in the city, he still goes out every night. And he retains a charm perennially described as boyish but that strikes me, today, as something more tentative, a state ofmild bafflement that seems poised between hopefulness and the ever-present threat of disappointment.
The most unwavering aspect of McInerneys life, at least as it pertains to his public image as a novelist, is his identification with the upper echelons of New York society, an affiliation that has earned him a reputation over the years as a social butterfly. McInerney is the first to say of his own experience: It became alittle unrepresentative. Successful novelist is not an everyman category, and to add, somewhat ruefully, that unlike the protagonist of his latest novel, Bright, Precious Days, who struggles to raise kids in New York on a publishing salary, when McInerneys own children were born, I was actually pretty flush.
The novelists divorce from Helen Bransford, his third wife and his childrens mother, wiped him out financially, but his fourth wife, Anne Hearst, is an heiress and a certified member of the Upper East Side social crowd, the ins and outs of which continue to preoccupy his work. In light of all this, I had expected to find someone a little mannered, a touch absurd in the Tom Wolfe style. Instead, this morning, McInerney is guileless to a degree that makes me feel vaguely anxious for him.
Bright, Precious Days is the third novel in a series, after Brightness Falls and The Good Life, and chronicles the lives of Russell and Corrine Calloway, who came to New York in the 1980s chasing a literary dream and woke to find themselves, at 50, in a small apartment with two children, one bathroom and no money for summer plans. McInerney calls this the life not lived; had he not become a successful writer, he would in all likelihood have become an editor like Russell Calloway, one of the stretched middle classes in a city increasingly hostile to anyone not on or married to a banking salary. Theyre lucky and privileged in some ways, hesays. But in other ways most 50-year-old parents would like to have some space and multiple bathrooms. These are the kind of sacrifices people make to stay in Manhattan. Is the price of being a New Yorker worth it?
This question and the assumptions underpinning it are, as with the focus of so much of McInerneys work, vulnerable to a charge of so what?. The Calloways, who live above their means and knock around town with hedge fund managers and billionaires, might move out of the city to a perfectly good life elsewhere. That they cant bring themselves to go not even to the suburbs, but merely uptown to Harlem is not a drama with wide-ranging appeal. Meanwhile, their creators view from the penthouse can come across, in these times, as a little unseemly. Beyond the exigencies of the story, the rich matter, says McInerney, because, I think as a writer its certainly interesting to observe them. And I think not enough people do. These people have a huge influence on the way that we all live. And I do think these [hedge fund] guys are usually either figures of satire or weird wish fulfilment girly romance-novel fantasy. But more often theyre objects of derision.
There is an assumption of philistinism, I say.
Exactly. And sometimes its justified. I had dinner with a friend of mine last night whos a Wall Street guy, and hes on the board of the Whitney Museum, hes the major patron of the Roundabout Theatre. Hes involved in so many cultural and charitable activities I admire that. I know him because hes a wine collector. I make fun of wine collectors; some of them are philistines. But I dont know. I try to keep an open mind.
McInerney is, famously, a wine collector himself and his enthusiasm for his billionaire chums on the scene is so artless, it feels a little grudging to hold it against him. Nonetheless, a few months ago, his old friend Bret Easton Ellis took McInerney to task, telling the Sunday Times that their friendship had cooled because Easton Ellis wasnt rich enough for McInerney.
The supposed exposure of the much-feted novelists true identity has caused a lot of outrage this week. From Jane Austen to Banksy, countless artists have tried to stay in the shadows, but it only makes people want to know more
Some all-too-anonymous writers will look at this weeks exposure of the millionaire literary superstar Elena Ferrante and find that sympathy does not come out of them without a fight. Others will see a private artists freedom ruined for ever and weep for her. For writers, thats the trouble with being anonymous. It is difficult to be the right amount.
To bring you up to speed: Elena Ferrante is the nom de plume of an Italian writer (or at least a writer of Italian) whose true identity has been a mystery since her (or his) first novel, Troubling Love, was published in 1991. Until recently the mystery was confined to Italy, where various writers, translators and publishers have been proposed as possible Ferrantes. In the past three years, however, she has become a mythic figure all over the world following the success her Neapolitan novels, about two clever women who grow up poor in postwar Naples.
Then, last Sunday, the Italian investigative journalist Claudio Gatti published a new theory. By studying public real estate records, he found that a couple connected to Ferrantes Italian publisher, Edizione E/O, had bought an expensive apartment in Rome in 2000, then another one this summer. Gatti also has documents from an anonymous source that he says show inexplicably large payments from the publisher to one member of the couple, more or less at the time you would expect Ferrante to be getting her big international royalties, and more or less in the right proportions as her sales increased. No one so far has seriously suggested he is wrong. No one likes him, either.
Claudio Gatti says he has solved one of modern literatures biggest mysteries but fans criticise his report as an intrusion
It is, arguably, the biggest mystery in modern literature: the true identity of novelist Elena Ferrante. But when one of Italys investigative journalists claimed to have unmasked her on Sunday, the response of many in the literary world was to ask why he had felt the need to do so.
Writing for the New York Review of Books and Il Sole 24 Ore, journalist Claudio Gatti said he had been able to identify the author of My Brilliant Friend and the rest of the highly acclaimed Neapolitan series as a Rome-based translator who once helped run a publishing imprint of Italian writers.
But her publisher and high-profile authors asked why Gatti had acted the way he did. Sandro Ferri, Ferrantes publisher and one of the few people who is known to know her identity, said he was appalled by the attempt to unmask a woman who has purposely steered clear of the limelight and has always said that she only wanted to write books.
We just think that this kind of journalism is disgusting, he told the Guardian. Searching in the wallet of a writer who has just decided not to be public.
Readers called the alleged scoop an intrusion into the life of one of the worlds most influential female writers. Some were afraid it would stop Ferrante from ever writing again, saying the story had been driven by the ego of the reporter and the New York Review of Books.
Some said there were far more worthy targets of investigative journalism.
Jojo Moyes, the British author who wrote Me Before You, said the issue boiled down to something very simple: that Ferrante may have had good reason to write under a pseudonym.
Gattis conclusion was based on his review of payments that were allegedly made by Ferrantes publisher, Edizione E/O, which Gatti said showed that the main financial beneficiary of Ferrantes extraordinary success was Anita Raja.
Rajas name will be familiar to those who have long followed the speculation over Ferrantes identity, as it has been raised in ruminative Italian press reports for years never with any solid evidence.
In his piece, Gatti pointed to Italian real estate records that allegedly showed Raja and her husband, Domenico Starnone, buying multimillion euro properties in Rome around the time that Ferrante became an international sensation.
Gatti reported that neither Raja nor Starnone had responded to repeated requests for comment.
In response to the criticism, Gatti said Ferrante was arguably the most well-known Italian figure in the world, and that there was a legitimate right for readers to know … as they have made her such a superstar.
He said Ferrante and her publishers acknowledged as much when they agreed to publish a autobiographical work called Frantumaglia, which Gatti said was full of untruths about Ferrantes personal story.
In it, Ferrante points to a quote from Italo Calvino: Ask me what you want to know, but I wont tell you the truth, of that you can be sure, saying she liked the passage.
I believe that by announcing that she would lie on her own autobiographical essay, Ferrante has in a way relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown, Gatti told the Guardian in an email.
Indeed, she and her publisher seemed not only to have fed public interest in her true identity but to have challenged critics and journalists to go behind the lies. She told us that she finds them healthy. As a journalist, I dont. In fact it is my job to expose them.
While dozens of articles have been written over the years speculating about Ferrantes true identity, Ferrante has always zealously guarded her anonymity, saying it gives her the protection she needs to write in the sometimes brutally honest style that millions of people have been drawn to.
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