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Posts Tagged ‘Elena Ferrante’


Abbreviated subtitle in Italian translates as Youth


Abbreviated subtitle in Italian translates as Middle Time

Friends and readers,

It’s been five months since I wrote my second blog on Elena Ferrante’s work: in February I wrote about the issue of her choice to remain anonymous (now pseudonymous), a few of her novellas, her supposed child’s picture book, and the first of her quartet of Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend, and the 8 part film adaptation of the book that was shown on HBO. Its abbreviated three subtitles translate into Prologue, Childhood and Adolescence. (My first blog was me being stunned by her Days of Abandonment, about which beyond what I could get from the book itself I knew nothing at all.) Since then I’ve read the second and third volume of this quartet as I think the whole group are intended as a retelling of the life of a woman in a fascist European society for and about woman by a compelling truth-telling self-consciously female novelist of our era.

One of the ways this is mainsteamed book and has been able to capture a large audience as Ferrante’s powerful novellas have not: like Sense and Sensibility, where the point of view is Elinor’s and Marianne is the one we watch, so here the point of view is Lenu remembering and so everything is softened, seen from afar or guessed at based on these notebooks that Lenu has dropped in the river. In the second and middle book Lenu (rightly for safety and some fulfillment of her gifts) buys into the same middle class life Nino manages to establish a better place in (on his own right, not through marriage). This also has the effect of not having to show us the pain, humiliation, difficulty that Lenu too has with her manners, lack of clothes, who she has to kowtow to. The earlier novels gave us Lila’s kind of experience raw and angry or nightmarish; or (The Il figlia oscura, the Lost Daughter), a quiet interlude of a Lenu kind of character at the beach contemplating the fraught experience from afar but only talking of what is happening now — as she steals a doll say, or marks papers. Imagine Sense and Sensibility from Marianne’s point of view. That is Ferrante’s novellas. Ferrante permitted herself to write an introduction to an edition of Sense and Sensibility, so important is this book to her; so too, apparently, Alcott’s Little Women.


From an add for the film adaptation of My Brilliant Friend


A still from Andrew Davies’s Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility: he has framed the talk so that we concentrate on Elinor’s taking in of what Marianne has to say; Austen’s book and all the films are from Elinor’s POV

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The Story of a New Name begins and ends in medias res. My Brilliant Friend ended with Lila’s wedding, and Stefano’s first betrayal of some promises he made to her. The storyline itself begins with their “honeymoon” where we get as graphic and disillusioned an account of forced graphic sex (Stefano continually beats Lila who appears to dislike sex — justifiably) as I’ve ever read. Lenu (Elena Greco) has dropped out of school so confused and frightened is she by how she is treated at Lila’s wedding, her mother’s behavior to her, what she doesn’t see as the result of hard study, and only gradually is she being brought back to study by Lila who buys her books (Lenu’s parents have no money for books or clothes for her, or even a private space) and gives Lenu a room of her own to study in within the elegant large apartment Lila has to live in as Stefano’s wife. Then Lenu attracts a mentor while Lila begins to thrive as a businesswoman for the Caracci and Solari groceries and shoestores: both displease their relatives, Lenu for seemingly doing nothing that will lead to money or the world’s respect, Lila for not getting pregnant and then having miscarriages (she is 17).

Lila is taken to a modern doctor and oh did this resonate with me. Room filled with customers, everyone in awe of this man. From Lila’s point of view, he gets to invade her with his metal instruments. She feels violated. And he says (I have heard a male doctor say this of me after examining me): “it’s all there” in this satisfied voice. I don’t know why I didn’t report him to Kaiser, but suspect it was because he was a black doctor (I’m really honest here) and was worried I wouldn’t be believed and be thought racist. There you go. But after that I never went to any male gynecologist ever. When I was 16 I was taken to just such a prestigious place and was violated similarly — or felt so. And given this “down from the throne advice” in this disdainful manner. I think the same things go on today in the US – clearly they go on in Italy. I never went to a male gynecologist in the British national health but remember the woman I got contraception from also treated me with a lack of respect because at the time I was not married.

This is the youth of these young women. What stands out? All sorts of passionate incidents where the underlying values of the society are exposed in the most raw ways. Early in Lila’s married life how important are having expensive things and much money. The acceptance of the infliction of violence upon women by men in the women’s families. I was struck by how Lila ignorantly insists on going to a party with Lenu to which Lenu’s mentor has invited Lenu and Lila doesn’t realize until afterwards how she cannot and never will fit in again. How I bonded with her.

Before going, Lenu becomes intensely anxious over — in just the ways I would. What shall I wear? she has no money either. How shall I appear? what say? her problem is not solved by Lila offering to come with her. Lila does dress right (blouse and skirt, nice ones with heels) but does not at all fit in. It’s a devastating lesson for Lila which we see only from the outside. Lenu fits in because she is known for her good work and people talk to her of it (like I remember people talking to me of my blogs). On the way home Lila is malicious and does all she can to hurt Lenu: we have seen Lila walks around with bruises from that husband of hers, who himself had hoped to be let in. How they have no idea.

While there Lenu learns that Nino is being published in much more prestigious journals than her mentor: this is the kind of thing that now passes Lila by. The title of the book points us to how the story line of the book is the depiction of the life of Lila (Raffaella Cerullo) as long as she stays married to Stefano Carracci.

The storyline has them then both going to Ischia, because the doctor recommended rest and relaxation — but with Lila’s mother, Nunzia, as chaperon and guard-dog and sister-in-law, Pinuccia Caracci who has married Lila’s brother, Rino, and become spiteful under his mistreatment of her and Lenu as Lila’s paid servant. It is there the two girls re-meet Nino and fall in love with him. Lila and Pinuccia are utterly subject to their husband’s weekend visits (sex is demanded continually when the men want it).

About 3/4s the way through the novel Lila does the astonishingly brave act of leaving Stefano in the early stages of an ecstatic love affair with Nino Sarratore; he tires quickly of her, partly based on her working class manners which will prevent him from going on with his middle class academic-writer career, and she is rescued from destitution first by the faithful Pasquale Peluso (now a construction worker and communist), and then (becoming his live-in but not sex partner) Enzo Scanno (a peddlar of fruit and vegetables who under Lila’s influence studies mathematics, engineering, computer science. She has had a baby and believes it to be Nino’s — who takes no interest whatsoever in this boy. She lives in squalor because Enzo and Pasquale make very little money. All three become involved in violent working class politics against the fascist regime.

At the same time interwoven in by Lenu (Elena Greco) as the central narrator, is Lenu’s life as college student, her very hard work, and then (having been noticed and picked up by an important female mentor, a professor Galiani), first experience as a published novelist, and political journalist (very briefly). It seems that in this era it is very difficult for any woman to sustain a money-paying position in university. Both girls have by the end of the novel had at least two lovers — Lenu moves from an engagement with a neighborhood working class boy, Antonio, to a potentially high academic, Franco Mario. Lenu has learned the manners of the middling to upper class and has been betrayed by Nino twice: after he stood up for her novel at the close of My Brilliant Friend, he again thwarts her publication in one of the journals he writes for; he choses Lila over her without letting her know this until Lila exposes everything by flight; meanwhile he has gotten another girl pregnant and ignored girl and child. By the end of the book Lenu has become bethrothed to a male academic student, Pietro Airota, whose family connections, especially his mother, Adele, just about guarantee him a lucrative career in university. he is a kindly unaggressive man attracted to her body and mind.

The framing of this book must not be left out. My Brilliant Friend began with the disappearance of the 66 year old Lila. The Story of a New Name begins with Lila again near present time (in her sixties), who we are told is no longer close to Lenu, giving Lenu a large metal box with 8 — need I say precious – notebooks of her life story in it. Fat important unrepeatable diaries. After reading them, Lenu dumps them in a river. I had to stand up, walk about and then sit down for a while before I could take that cruel an act in. Since Alcott’s Little Women is again alluded to in this book let e say I thought about thow Jo could recreate a novel after Amy destroyed the manuscript. No one can re-create 8 volumes of daily & nightly record-keeping. Towards the end of the book Lenu recurs to this diary and says the suddenly inserted narrative she has of Lila’s life with Stefano after she went back to him briefly after Nino left her and now her life with Enzo comes from there. I should say the book is crudely put together at times.

I like this part where we learn of her studying, her trying to pass exams, finally the books she read, one young man she gets involved with and they fuck. But she says that she and Lila somehow came together in the old intense way and now she must tell of how wrong she was about what was going on. We are told how she surprised people by bringing together unexpected books, themes, characters, What is not surprising is Lila carries on with a torrid mad affair with Nino — reminding me of the 18th century Paul and Virginie only this time there is a husband. But in her notebooks (which we know after the first sequence Lenu unforgivably has dumped into the sea) what Lila exulted in was not so much the sex as what they read and talked about

Nor should I omit the art — or lack of it. Ferrante’s book is not polished and smooth, and unlike say Austen (whom Ferrante appears to admire and regard as a predecessor) Ferrante does not try to imitate the passing of time so as to give us a sense of long time for years passing and short time for quick events; she will leap suddenly forward and then turn back to tell what she had not brought in before. The Italian itself is far more demotic than the register for elegant concise English Ann Goldstein uses. At the same time unlike My Brilliant Friend where very few of the characters become alive and distinctive beyond our two heroines, by the end of this novel all the major players in Lenu and Lila’s life have become complex living presences.

Unexpectedly Nunzia is one of these. She emerges for the first time as a woman with a brain and a heart. She hardly ever leaves the house — so shy — but she loves being there and does walk out to the beach. She says how Lila should have gone to school and be going now but they hadn’t the money and her husband wouldn’t hear of it. She says they are far too young to be married. She likes Lenu — but we know were she alerted to what’s really happening on the island of Ischia (Nino’s affair with Lila, his pretended love for Lenu, and Pinuccia’s having an affair with Nino’s friend, Bruno), Nunzia would tell their husbands (paradoxically out of fear she backs the patriarchy that has destroyed her life’s chances, become the girls’ enemy.

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The irony of the title, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is there is no leaving. Don’t kid yourself. You cannot escape the all encompassing mindset filth of the corrupt deteriorating world of 21st century Italy.

As the third novel of the quartet opens, Lila and Lenu are walking through the old neighborhood together. Lila is now living in her parents’ old apartment with her son, for now clearly identified as Nino’s. So her child has not a moron for a parent. Lenu is about to married to Pietro Airota, his mother Adele, has become her mentor, but because she did not go to the right university, she has a lower level teaching job and until she marries lives with her parents – not enough money. Lila has lost whatever conventional beauty she had, her thin hair is white, her face lined from exhaustion and worry, she is bitter. Lenu fights fat. As they walk they come across a horrifying corpse, it’s the remains of a suicide, one of the girls familiar from the previous novel, her face and body ruined, her mind devastated — it reminds me of Troubled Love, which is about the suicide of the heroine’s mother and the heroine’s attempt to cope with burying her.

We gradually move back to the scene we left off at where Nino had stood defending Lenu’s book, and now Ferrante makes this believable because she adds all the nasty politics of real university life. I have not read such a raw depiction of this milieu and from a lower class woman’s point of view (fringe person) before. I find such writing down of truth exhilarating. She includes the perniciousness of fights over theory (sexual and class oriented). She’s very good at how the language is used to exclude and protect, intimidate anyone not using it as inferior (stupid). Lila has not gotten to the first base to understand quite how she is shut out and why — or even that to help Enzo it is not enough that he should understand skills and content.

After Lenu dramatizes her fiancee’s meeting with her parent and his parents with hers, we see that Pietro is a man with considerable social gifts; I begin to get nervous because nonetheless the wedding is put off again; now his mother insists on using her influenced to get them a lovely apartment inexpensively in the part of Florence where high cultural people reside and an interesting life may be had. I fear Lenu will not marry him. Then we switch to Lila whose tragic hard story — not that she sees it quite that way — Lenu feels we must know — it’s happening at the same time

What I want to report is both girls are often sexually harassed. We get so many casual scenes of these male academics, old and younger, trying to get into bed or use Lenu. It rings so true. Similary in the horrible sausage factory Lila is assailed by the boss and others. Lila tries to soothe Enzo and Pasquale Peluso (who remains with her in effect as a loving friend) by saying she fends them off or they have stopped. But it’s not so. The book is so true to life — yet I want to say that for myself after my wretched teenagehood, when I went out to work by then married to Jim I was never so assailed. I’d catch a male looking at me, but no approach. I begin to wonder if I was ugly — or, what I do think, is I was so traumatized by what had happened to me as a teenager that I let off signals to the males in these universities, offices &c that this is the last thing in the world I’d want.

The narrative has switched to tell Lila’s story from her point of view as if we had an omniscient narrator — but we don’t. This is part of the book’s rawness. Lila’s life has become unbearably desolating: from the hard wretched work in the factory, the terrible conditions, how she right away understands that when she feeds information to the union, they have no idea how to act effectively. Her relationship with Enzo is troubled: he cannot understand that she wants no sex with anyone. When the book opens she is neglected looking,here we felt that she has developed a murmur in her heart so stressful is her inward existence …

Suddenly (as I wrote) Ferrante switches back to Lenu living with Pietro. In spurts going back and forth, she marries him and says she remembers nothing. So we get no description. In a couple of paragraphs she has a baby girl and insists on breast-feeding at first it goes well but quickly the child is biting, wailing and both just miserable. The mother-in-law moves in but Lenu remains fixated, she does not clean of keep the house. Her writing degenerates, no spirit in it. Ferrante is exploring motherhood again and trying to show how a mother can seem a monster but can’t get herself quite to pull this off clearly and sophisticatedly.

Lenu’s younger sister goes to live with Marcello Solaro, much older than she, a thug, fascist, and there has been no marriage. Lenu rushes with family and husband back to Naples to try to stop this relationship and finds she cannot. She is treated with envy and a sense of alienation and a false respect as is her husband. She has tried to have real communication with Lila but Lila remains at a distance, half mocking and we learn that along with her great prowess as a programmer she has something to do with the people who run around shooting politicians — from the side of the radical left.

I am puzzled with Lenu she is treated — there is so little respect with such a pretense of respect. She is forced into visiting her sister, and then finds a party set up and an insistence she and her husband and her children stay with the sister instead of escaping to a hotel.

Lila’s part of the novel (also Pasquale) are a series of newspaper reports (in effect) of who murdered who, who destroyed whose legs, face, business.

The last quarter: “life goes on.” The details told about Lenu’s life especially mirror those we find as central to the lives of her heroines in other of her novels. In The Lost Daughter, the woman who has left her husband, gotten a job teaching (in a college of some sort) has had two daughters who sided with the father. Lenu now has two daughters: Adele and Elsa, and she has not been getting along with Pietro for all sorts of reasons for quite some time. At one point Again Lila unloads her son, now called Gennaro, on Lenu one summer and Lenu is really expected to take this child on because Lila is busy with her spectacular managing and pre-computerizing of companies. Lenu does balk and finally send the boy back (he is a Stefano) but she is breaking an understood demand

Just about all the characters who came alive at the end of the second volume are part of her story and there is a frightening acknowledged class war going on with people who are socialists murdering the fascists after the fascists have murdered or imprisoned them. Pasquale and Nadia (Galiani’s daughter) are part of this. So too Lila is a participant on the side. Grim horrible working conditions and poverty are part of this.

In the last part Nino insinuates himself into the home of Pietro and Lenu, and after first seducing Pietro to become a best friend, Nino insults and alienates him, and simply takes Lenu as a lover. Against the anger, will power, hurt of Eleanora, Nino’s dull uneducated but rich wife, Nino is leaving with Elena. She just drops, or abandons her two daughters; by leaving Pietro in this way Elena’s publications (the product of Pietro’s mother’s influence, and the influence of his sister) are in danger. Nino too is casting aside many of his relationships that he needs as a successful professor.

At first I felt that wrongly Ferrante was on the side of Lenu as striking out for whatever gives her joy, leads her to write. She has long been bored by Pietro, but the parallel with what Nino did to Lila at the opening of the book is so explicit. We are told Lenu and Nino especially are dazzled by this mad relationship of frantic love making; he is leading her into the same act as he led Lila, but we know he left Lila one month later.. Said he couldn’t stand her or it, and many years later bad mouthed Lila to the point of scorning her way of giving herself sexually to him. He is promiscuous; cared nothing for Gennaro (turned out he is Stefano’s son but that’s not why Nino didn’t care); he has another son he pays no attention to. A page before the end Lila calls to tell of yet more political murders and when Lenu tells Lila what she is going to do Lila vehemently reproaches her for leaving her good husband, home, educational position. Has she learned nothing from what Nino did to Lila (she was rescued by Pasquale and Enzo from the brutality of Stefano)?

For myself I found Lenu’s behavior to Pietro ugly and so utterly selfish — so he seems dull and cautious; she uses him and abuses him emotionally. She grows angry at him when he will not countenance students who are violent revolutionaries and wants to turn them over to police. Ferrante leaves tones and nuances that suggest the stance towards Lenu’s behavior she expects Is Lenu is utterly unfair to her husband here. His mother and sister are also doing all they can at this juncture to publish a third book she has written. Will they carry on?

Lenu is also deserting her daughters – in the earlier novella, The lost daughter, there are two daughters and one like Dede (Lenu’s older daughter) who sides with Pietro though longs for her mother to stay. Lenu goes on about how she is now leaving, not staying but in fact she is repeating the ruthless behavior of everyone around her. The third book ends in the maddened muddle the second book ended with, only this time it’s Lenu fleeing with Nino, who we now is not worth it. His father was a better man in many ways: he stayed with his wife, supported his family well, took them on holidays to Ischia.

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Victoria Crowe, November Window (a 21st century woman artist)

Last thoughts for now:

The Lila story suffers from continual spectacular idealization: we are really expected to believe she at home conquers pre-computer machines and teaches Enzo to and they are offered super-high salaries to make whole companies efficient. I just don’t believe it. Ferrante has persisted in this idea that this girl is a genius and can do anything if she sets her mind to it — only lacks upper class manners, ways, and an academic style. Lila for example liked the second novel or appeared to but hadn’t the language to say why (or so she said).

Concrete circumstances are significant. Lenu does not get a job teaching at a university. I am startled by this as Professor Galiani is a woman — so women taught in upper level schools. It could be that in the 1960s or 70s women were still very rare in universities but Lenu does not say this. Her husband has a high position as a professor in Florence. Instead her choices are stay home and immerse herself in domesticity or get her mother or mother-in-law to do this while she writes a book or articles for magazines. It seems almost common, nothing out of the ordinary for these grandmothers to leave their lives and in effect work for Lenu. A third choice is what? none is given beyond that she makes Pietro socialize and becomes the center of a networking academic world as a faculty wife and one book author.

She’s deeply dissatisfied at times by this life but the lurching element makes jumps and sometimes she is satisfied. She writes a second novel which is never published because her mother-in-law detests it as does her husband. It mirrors the radical leftist politics at the time. Is not a romance at all. They say it’s crude and vulgar. She takes the content from stories Lila tells her of what’s happening in Naples and to some of her old friends. Her articles are also rejected — she says they are no good but doesn’t quite say why.

I know by our era there are many or as many women academics as males in Italian universities but my experience has shown me they are usually of very upper class background. Without that you end up a person with a vocation, teaching adult ed, teaching in lower schools, writing for various magazines but rarely without another full time job. There are not enough paid positions in universities in Italy to begin to provide real jobs for a wide range of people teaching. Ferrante may want her story to be universal or of general application but often it is rooted in Italian norms and customs.

The over-all scheme of the three books is to expose to us the horrors of patriarchy and class-inflected capitalism. All the men ruthless, beating their wives, everyone twisted. A fascist society no one gets to leave from – when Lenu went to live in Florence she found herself in a society very like the one she grew up in in Naples; the richer quarters of Naples are not much different in culture and attitude from the poorer.  It is still crude as the use of irony is not clear; there is a lack of proportion in the parts, some ought to be developed slower and others contradictory.


Another cover illustration — the book read aloud on CDs

I can see why the key book remains Alcott’s Little Woman, and also Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (the double heroine), but want also to remark (as part of the general anti-intellectualism of Italian culture in general) that Ferrante is another novelist unwilling to cite other important Italian books and authors. Does she fear being too bookish? And she does not cite her modern predecessors.  Where for example is Elsa Morante? Natalie Ginzsburg? Grazia Deledda? Christa Wolff. I wish she were franker, used her real name. It would be a great help in understanding her books if she could be brave enough to withstand what will probably at first be resentful reproach.

So I end where I began my very first and second blogs: the problem of the author’s stance and identity (as bound together).

Ellen

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Friends and readers,

I’ve put off writing another blog on Ferrante since my first so long ago on her Days of Abandonment, I fear I’m too late to join in on the controversy that exploded in 2016 about her supposed anonymity, but here goes — in brief.

Not bothering to disguise a vicious attack on this author, Claudio Gatti made a strong case that she was Anita Raja, known publicly thus far for her sympathetic translations of Christa Wolf (which she has written about), and then proceeded to do all he could to characterize her as a liar, someone trying to attract attention, and insinuate her husband, the Neapolitan writer Domenico Starnone, may have “helped” write her novels (see Alexandra Schwartz of the New Yorker, “The Unmasking of Elena Ferrante”). Reviewers and critics, especially when women, defended her right to be anonymous ferociously (Jeannette Winterson}: it was an attack on her as a woman writer; others said they couldn’t care less who the writer is, and it made no difference to know accurately the life or about the character of an author insofar as this is possible. People became mystic over how the mystery added to the books deepened them. Some said the novels are nothing but chick-lit, or they are the usual tired sentimental stories about women as victims. Look at the covers; in a more nuanced ways, objections were made to the paradigm of the abject, half-mad vulnerable heroine (Days of Abandonment), the raw language and anger (Troubling Love), the repetition of a very few motifs over and over (it was suggested this is common with a certain kind of woman’s novel).

Other praised the books strongly, showed how deep and nuanced each of the texts, how the Neapolitan novels were only pretending to be large depictions of a social world: Ye a the same time a depiction of a violent still fascist corrupt order; all agree elusive, with Ferrante’s abiding interest the inner life of women (Lidija Haas, TLS: “Closet Conservative or Radical Feminist?” — no longer available to the public).


Anita Raja

When the dust settled, we were still left with the troubling reality that Ferrante’s Frantumaglia, which she presented as truly autobiographical, is from a concrete standpoint, knowingly untrue in places; recent contradictions where she seems to want to be recognized (an introduction to Austen’s Sense and Sensibility where she said she was strongly influenced by Austen’s doppelganger and novels in general), and worse yet, continued repetition in respectable books that Ferrante’s texts could be written by her husband (Karen Bojaar who seems not to know that female friendship is a common topic for women writers).

I, for one, am glad to know who she is so as to throw light on her literary world, outlook, and also gladdened by her refusal to commercialize her life (I believe her as I notice many ordinary commentators do not), sell her books, alienation from the capitalist values of her society, value for privacy. Yet her attempts to shield herself and protest the norms and values of our violent patriarchal society have backfired; critics like James Wood read her all wrong because they want to de-gender her texts

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Ann Goldstein who also translates Primo Levi

Now for her novels in translation and in the original Italian:

Put me in the camp of those who find true genius in her novels; who think she wrote them unaided by a husband, find in them the strengths of the best l’ecriture-femme (so she belongs to traditions of women’s texts, read Rebecca Falkoff), and am (alone may be) enchanted to think she translated Wolf’s great anti-war essays Cassandra, her autobiography, her touching historical fantasy set in the later 18th century, No Place on Earth into Italian. Yes they have some flaws: they are not intended to be Tolstoy-like depictions of society that finally neutral but the social order analysed and felt on the pulses of her heroines in the different stages of their lives.  I love reading Italian and have three of Ferrante’s books in the original Italian. I find Ann Goldstein’s to be good translations : she captures the elegance more than the raw but she gets enough there an has her own elusive tone too. When you think you are reading Primo Levi in the most recent English editions, you are reading Goldstein’s translated English.


La figlia Oscura

Since being so riveted by Days of Abandonment, I’ve read Troubling Love (a raw, bitter expose of the life of her mother, a woman continually beaten by her husband, taking revenge out on the daughter until the daughter escaped), The Lost Daughter aka La Filia oscura (quiet elegiac, a woman academic now divorced comes with her student papers to a beach after her daughters have chosen to stay with the father, fantasizes and steals a young girl’s doll) and The Beach at Night (a nightmare vision disguised as a child’s book), and some of the essays in Frantumaglia (brilliant political analysis of fascism in Italy, explications of her books and her stance for alienation).


The Beach at Night

A truly terrifying book. Masquerading as a children’s story, it is a kind of prose poem where a doll is left behind on a beach in favor of a kitten the child has been given a present of. The doll gets covered with sand, is treated badly by a Mean Beach Attendant, ends up laying next to a dead beetle with his feet up (shades of Kafka’s metamorphosis, is set on fire at one point, then doused with water, come near drowning. She is abandoned, deserted, motherless. I cannot imagine anyone giving this book to a child, European or not. I remember when by mistake (or not knowing) I bought the first Barbar book for Laura; she was traumatized by the sudden death of the mother elephant, shot wantonly and without warning by a hunter. It took hours for her to calm down. This is a distillation of Ferrante’s deeply powerful novellas before & her Quartet.

To conclude at where I am in my Ferrante reading just now:  at last after having listened to My Brilliant Friend as translated by Goldstein read aloud, and watched avidly a couple of times all eight episodes of the recent HBO film, I’ve read this first book of the quartet slowly — as lovingly as I once read Elsa Morante’s Historia so feel I am qualified to speak, though I’ve not much to say: it’s a novel centered on a doppelganger (like Austen’s Sense and Sensibility) where the tragic heroine is Lila (Raffaele, and her counterpart, the luckier (because sent to school and then allowed to find an identity where she can try to fulfill her gifts an individual), Lenu (Elena).

As I read I recognized analogous events and experiences and thoughts and feelings to those I experienced as a girl-child growing up in the working class southeast Bronx and then Richmond Hill High School in Queens (both NYC). While at first I was turned off by Lila’s temptation to get back at the world through malice, wild anger, spite, withdrawal, even revenge on her friend, gradually I recognized the source for all this as the source I had known that turned me into an isolated teenager. Lenu too I recognized myself in. I had — as have so many girls — even read Little Women over and over and recently discovered so did other girls who now women I count as among my friends. So I became deeply invested in the book.


L’amica geniale (Italian title emphasizes the girls’ deep congeniality)

The awfulness of Lenu’s mother, the successful attempts of her teacher to rescue her, the experiences of the girls in the streets dominated by sexually and socially anxious-domineering males, what parties and schools are like, but above and especially the girls’ responses to one another amid all this take us through the childhood and young puberty of a girl. The sexual experiences Lenu has on the beach with Donato Sarratore, the older man who takes advantage of her after her luxurious and intellectually awakening summer at Ischia (she reads much of the time, learns not to be ashamed of her body, to swim too, falls in love with the intellectual Nino) re-taught me about my own. The climax of the book is a fireworks display on a roof after a dance where the each of the personalities and values of the different characters are exposed as they take a turn into young adulthood.

Since the common cover of My Brilliant Friend is now this stereotypical bridal gown and wedding party seen from the back, let me emphasize this: at its close the book mounts an uncompromising attack on everything having to do with a wedding, every hypocrisy, and how its meaning far from giving a girl access to a new wonderful life, cuts her off utterly from herself, and can be the first step in a life-long imprisonment.

Ferrante’s book is about how social life attempts to destroy, or repress or distort the best that was in one young woman innately and distorts the life of another) or she truly doesn’t mean us to care about these other characters as she, like Lila, silently cannot stand their norms and values.

A couple of incidents where I felt so moved and the film adaptation tried to capture. Unexpectedly (to Lenu), Lila wants Maestra Oliviero to come to her wedding. From the point of view of Lenu and probably everyone in the world Lila has done nothing to catch the woman teacher’s attention, compel her liking or respect, yet how badly she wants her to come. When she comes to the door, although Lenu has given us enough to feel Oliviero does remember Lila (because she says she dislikes her) she is very cruel, says you are not “Cerullo” I don’t know you, don’t want to come.

I identified and understood wholly how Lila could be crushed. In my life analogous incident have happened to me where in my mind I so admired someone for their intellect or position in a school and thought (naively) they valued me and was taught that no, unless you obey the world’s rules and do something to make yourself valued the world gives prizes too, you maybe insulted, cut off. I had some hard lessons in high school this way. Lenu is right to say Oliviero is “a mean old lady,” but we are given to know she would be miserable at such a wedding too. Lila might not see this.

I don’t know what a “speech master” is at an Italian wedding but guess it is a important function of announcing the people who speak. (These speeches are more than half phony and I wish the custom had not grown up recently.) Stefano, Lila’s bethrothed insists it shall be the chief crook of the neighborhood, the Solaro father, Silvio. At that Lila also breaks off the wedding altogether after all that has been done. Only Lenu can get her to change her mind, “seduce” her is how Lenu puts it. So she is acting as a Satan — the argument that persuades or seems to is they must not judge their generation by the older people, and Stefano is different. But from the dialogue we see Lila is sensing she is making the worst mistake she can. Stefano she says loves her “only when I don’t put real money at risk.” That’s important — money comes first. Lenu says she is able to rebel momentarily as she did in school as the authority of a religious teacher, but she caved, and what would happen to Lila if she returned to “the pale ponytailed Lila, with the narrowed eyes of a bird of prey, in her tattered dress.” She is admired by all now in her Jackie Kennedy icon look with dark glasses. During the (tellingly) long but boring ceremony Lenu knows her mother thinks Lila is doing infinitely better because at 16 she owns a flat, has this refrigerator and so on.


Lenu and Nino (walking together in school)

Everyone so overdressed, the only person not is Nino (who we are to have identified as the one true partner for Lenu apart from Pasquale who, fool in this wya, preferred Lila for her looks not her mind). But is he true to himself either dressed in such dishevelment? He comes so his mother overdressed can come; somehow she is slightly disgraced because her husband is blamed for the profoundly distressed Melina. Lila’s parents look well for the first time Lenu ever saw: the father’s Randolph Scott face (so many connotations there) and the mother all in blue. Note she kept away from most of the fraught conflicts. But one she invites: inward. She asks if her essay has been published, but discovers it was not included. Like Lila, she is a girl, comes from the wrong family or school, so it will take a lot more than the school certificate to gain a place in a community she might hope to fulfill part of herself in.

In that dress as Lenu dresses Lila she feels Lila is “the body of a dead woman.” what are they going to all this trouble for: so at night the young man can ram his penis into this 16 year old and perhaps ruin her beauty with a pregnancy.

A deeper incident which does not appear to crush Lila at the time is that these shoes she and her brother made so lovingly are not sellable – no one will buy them. They are dream shoes of young children wishing to have upper class stigmata on their clothes. No one in the neighborhood has the money; outside the neighborhood they make uncomfortable and they will not buy them. Stefano won Lila because he put all this money into the shop and now we see ahead that Rino who seems to be all important for real in Lila’s life will be a failure. Note that he was allowed to beat her

What will become of me, says Lila to Lenu. The answer is you will be destroyed — we see that in the opening chapters of the book where in older age she is vanishing in an attempt to escape a no-good son.

This is an extraordinary women’s book; it’s not recognized for what it is because it’s not explicit in the way Christa Wolff’s are — which books Ferrante translated.

Diane Reynolds wrote to WomenWriters@groups.io about this ending as follows:

The tragedy is that Lila has no other real options but to marry this awful man. The way the teacher rejects her reinforces that. Lenu does act the role of Satan—but what else is there for her friend? What Ferrante makes so relentlessly clear is that Lila would have been destroyed to if she had returned to the self in the tattered dress. The neighborhood/neighbors would have destroyed her. This is great literature because Ferrante shows us step by step that Lila is doomed—as doomed as Oedipus. It’s deeply poignant too. The friendship is remarkable—the one thing Lila has that is pure or as pure as anything can be in that world. I was so moved by the scene—which I did not take as sexual at all—when Lila has Lenu bathe her. She wants her friend as witness to what she was bodily before she is destroyed—she knows she is going to be destroyed by the marriage as much as any soldier going into a doomed battle. And yet the shock is that it happens faster than she imagined—at the wedding

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She has been involved in the film adaptation and it helps as an interpreter of her 4 novels: I’ll begin with Episode 2 (I won’t go through them all): The Money — and high brutal violence at the core of this world. Done in a muted black-and-white, it is in color but they are so muted. To give the impression of heat, chalk, lack of any beauty anywhere …. No trees, nothing to soften, make any beauty, or refreshment for the eyes.

I took the title to refer to how money is controlling much of the behavior we see. While the teacher feels that Lila’s family can afford just as surely (or just as little) to send her on to middle school as Lenu’s parents do, the money while an excuse is real. These people are poverty-stricken and the wretchedness of their existence comes from money, lack of it. The whole milieu reminds me of the southeast Bronx, where I grew up, circa 1950, only the patriarchy is so much more overt, fierce, the women more desperate and/or angry and taking out their misery on those they can prey upon or feel envy for: Lenu’s mother is awful and I for one am glad this portrait was not softened. In the book it explains some of Ferrante’s early deeply disquieted and troubled books: Troubled Love, the Lost Child. I wonder what was Ferrante’s relationship with her mother (and now her daughters – but that’s these other books and later in this series, the second). Lila’s mother is guilty but she is herself in accord with her husband, except when he throws the Lila out of the window.

What I like is it is a portrait of two girlhoods shared. Not like that movie this summer which gave a boyhood acted out by a girl with a mother there for disguise. Girls do let one boss another and Lila is the dominating one. she says let’s throw the dolls down the basement, now let’s see Achille, and then hide the money. I feared they would lose it and would not have give in to Llla then. The buying of Little Women is an allusions: girls’ book! we are told about girls growing up. I went back to the book and yes it’s Little Women all right: in the movie the Italian is back-translated into Alcott’s English. I have a copy of Little Women in Italian which I picked when in Italy in 1994 with Jim and my daughters — on a stall. It must be a popular book — well circulated. I was touched at how they read and reread — that’s what I did.

I would not have given in to Lila to walk to the sea – -I might not be a dominating girl in a relationship but I won’t be dominated. Still the whole sequence gave us a breath of fresh air, Suddenly the movie opened up. The houses are sets, and now we were on location somewhere. Alas Lila was trying to hurt Lena: she knew they couldn’t get there and hoped to get the girl in trouble. She succeeded. So spite. She is trying to one up Lenu so write a story, the blue Fairy. I feel for her because she does never have a chance to get out of this rotten culture. School here is seen as a central lifeline to a better world.

The episode was coherent, held together by the girls’ inner world together and their trajectory — and it began and ended on Achille, killed at the end, perhaps by a woman.

Yes high brutal violence is at the core of this society. And money. When the group finally is old enough to walk in Naples, they find they are outsiders, with not enough money to buy a meal in a restaurant.

For further episodes see comments: 3, Metamorphosis; 5, The Island; 7, The Engaged Ones.

Ellen

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