“Olive Kitteridge,” by Elisabeth Strout
Can I start my comments quoting Leonardo Sciascia? In his book “Il teatro della memoria – La sentenza memorabile,” Sciascia speaks about Pirandello and the famous case of the Smemorato di Collegno (the man who lost his memory, the forgetful man of the hospital of Collegno). Sciascia quotes the “Essais” by Montaigne and suggests that the courts—in particular cases—can adopt an ad hoc formula of a sentence, which says, “The court didn’t understand anything about this cause.” An honest formula to indicate the impossibility of a judgement: some matters cannot be resolved in a court (of law).
I thought of Sciascia because I didn’t understand—I don’t understand actually—whether “Olive Kitteridge” by Elisabeth Strout is a good book or not.
Now Elisabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 thanks to this work that is a sort of novel composed by a group of 13 short stories. Crosby, a small town in Maine, is the scene. Olive Kitteridge, a middle-aged woman not particularly nice —or rather, often unlovable—is the red line, the common character among all the short stories. OK, some of them are good indeed, worth of consideration, interesting. But the whole is ambiguous. There is a good construction, an enviable and innovative structure, a fluent writing craft, but the final taste is of an unresolved provincialism. Elisabeth Strout tried to move from the particular—Crosby—to the universal, and all the reviews speak about this result as if she was a great writer like Faulkner, Hemingway, and Steinbeck, and her book was a saga like “Gone with the wind” and “Of Mice and Men.”
To me—humbly speaking—“Olive Kitteridge” smells of narrow-mindedness, of negligible stories of a flat province. The conflict between Olive and her daughter in law—for instance, choosing a good chapter—though demonstrates an acute sensibility, OK, seems only a variation of a well-known cliché.
I read the book again, and my confusion improved. Is this work worth of a Pulitzer Prize?
Comparing it with “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” by Junot Diaz, Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel in 2008, the gap appears abyssal.
In “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” there is history—the fascinating and frightening history of the Dominican Republic, the ghost-haunted motherland of the protagonist—religion, culture, and an immigrant-family saga for people who don’t read immigrant-family sagas, as critic Lev Grossman said. It is a book astoundingly great and deep, especially in the first part that for me is a masterpiece, and in its new, catching writing craft: lots of flash words and razzle-dazzle talk, lots of body language on the sentences, lots of David Foster Wallace-esque footnotes and asides.
In “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” you deal with a high level of creativity, a splendid work of research, unforgettable characters, and a great plot—I repeat, especially in the first part; the second one is less effective. The personal stories mix with history and the horizons are always wide and complex.
In comparison, “Olive Kitteridge” seems to me closed in a claustrophobic scene without history, culture, or spirituality—not to speak about religion that doesn’t exist, and is rejected. It seems a mousetrap activated by a basic women magazine-like psychology. You can imagine a group of old ladies who sip their tea and gossip in a rainy afternoon, in a rainy Maine. The stories concern their neighbours. The farthest horizon, the edge of the world is sometimes Portland, sometimes California.
Where is the great American novel that enriched our youth and culture?
However, crowds of critics applauded this work.
Why the Pulitzer? The only answer I can dare is that “Olive Kitteridge” copies the exact status of a relevant part of the present readers: impatient, unable to follow a wide plot and understand other countries and civilizations, allergic to the breath of history and culture, focused on domestic duties and close gossips. A depressed reader, desperately in search of a new identity. In the past, the American world was the glorious Far West and the cowboys, then the World War and the invincible marines, transversally the showbiz of Hollywood and Broadway, and now—maybe—the flat, retired American province, Olive’s world.
If the target I delineated is correct, “Olive Kitteridge” is a masterpiece—and unluckily there isn’t space for the great American novel we are all waiting for.
Thus, I thought of Sciascia and Montaigne and their “The court didn’t understand anything about this cause (book).” In summer, it can happen, sorry.