Sunday, October 23, 2016

Our Ferrante ReadAlong Continues, Chapters 21-30 of "Story of the Shoes"

It seems to me that in this section we start to see these adolescents, nearing adulthood,  beginning to sort out ways to exercise some agency, to try to make a difference, to change their communities and the systems that control them, even if they scarcely have any models for how they might do so. As Elena recounts Lila thinking, Stefano, for example, "wanted to try to get out of the before." It's a naïve hope, perhaps, but also a bold one, and it captures the imagination of the young crowd enough that they join in his plan for New Year's Eve of wanting to clear away the past.

Yet it's in the middle of this decisive move, this erasing of the acrimony between the Pelusos and the Caraccis (never mind that they only unite to strengthen their enmity against the Solaras!), that Elena sees that her potential boyfriends are all "waiting for their war of men" and don't even pay attention to Lila, never mind Lenù. And while one local prejudice might be overcome, Lenù links the fighting represented by the fireworks to long-past civil wars such as the ones "between Romulus and Remus, between Marius and Silla, between Caesar and Pompey." In other words, as much as Stefano might want to get out of the "before," the weight of history is not so easily lifted.

At a time when hormones are pushing the young women toward the young men, then, the young women are simultaneously seeing their childhood friends -- and for Lila, horrifyingly, her beloved brother Rino, in full testosterone-fueled combat. As "males whose bodies gave off a heat hotter than the fires in the sky."

And from the moment of this recognition on, Lila sinks into depression, and when she rallies, it's only to think of ways to make money, and that only for the sole goal of "fix[ing] Rino's head." Yet Rino's desire for money as a means to power and independence gets in the way, and he pushes against his father's own lifetime of frustated desire to the point of an explosion in the family which Lila can't find any way out of other than apparently accepting a traditional domestic role for the time being.

Yet she's certainly not ready to accept the traditional female role of wife, which she's apparently approaching even at the early age of 14, and she turns down Pasquale's attentions and then, shockingly, Marcello's. Elena, the adult writer, admits that she "felt a pang" on learning this, on seeing that Lila had become, in her teen-aged eyes, a "woman capable of making anyone bend to her will." The adult Elena has also just described Lila's inability to change her father's mind about the shoes, however, so we should keep in mind that fourteen-year-olds don't always see the world as it is.

Lenù does see the danger in Lila's insult to Marcello, however, especially when she finds that Lila, who never gossips, has told everyone about refusing Marcello's proposal.  And I would say that the next several chapters make it very clear how far Lila is from being able to make anyone bend to her will. Neither she nor any of the other girls are able to stop the horrifying fight that ensues when the group of friends on a Saturday night passeggiata in town, where they encounter young people who seem "absolutely different from us," so different that Lenù and Lila's group is not even "perceptible" -- a "humiliaating difference."

In the moment of that fight's beginning, Lila wears "an expression of disbelief, as if a thousand fragments of our life. . . were composing an image that was finally clear," and the fight culminates with the Solara brothers' help which is, albeit saving their friends from certain harm, a terrifying help marked by "a cold ferocity that [Elena] hope[s] never to see again in my life" -- and note, she's saying this in her 60s, not as a naīvely shocked young woman. Still, at the time, Lenù is not as attuned to the potential dangers as Lila is, but Lila has more reason to be so attuned -- Marcello Solara, she begins to realise, is not going to be so easy to refuse. If you're planning to go on (and honestly, how will you resist after this 1st volume?!) you might pay careful attention here, because so much of the series is built around Lila's determination to refuse this man and his (and his family's) determination to have her.

Meanwhile, however, as Lila worries that there might be "something wrong with me" because "I make people do the wrong thing" -- and how deeply entrenched is that notion in so many cultures, in Christianity certainly, and before that Judaism, Eve being forever blamed for tempting poor hapless Adam -- Lenù is torn between her responsibilities to her friend and her justified excitement about spending a few weeks at the seaside.

Surely we're not going to begrudge her that, even if she reproaches herself for it. As I continue to repeat, she's only 14! And although she doesn't realise it yet, her taking this step out of the community is at least as significant a step toward erasing some of the "before" -- and certainly a more effective one, in the long run -- as is Stefano's fireworks party. Maestra Oliviero, as the single educated woman in the community, battling as best she can to pull at least one of her young female charges out of their poverty, has a big emotional investment in pushing Lenù toward the seaside, toward a vision of a new life Beyond. But so does Elena's mother, apparently, and while we might have expected more resistance from the family, she even makes her daughter a bathing suit.

I suspect some of you will disagree with me and think that Lenù could somehow have been a better friend, have stayed home to support Lila in refusing Marcello's proposal. I can only feel sympathy that a young woman who has worked so hard for another possibility in life should have to feel so divided, so guilty, over accepting such a huge opportunity.

Already, it's clear that she's feeling such division over her ties to her mother and to her teacher. The latter strikes Lenù as acting in loco parentis even as her "real" mother the "one with the injured leg and the wandering eye" is right there but treated as if she "were only a disposable living being and as such not to be taken into consideration."  Interesting how closely this perception echoes Lenù's awareness that the young people in the piazza in Naples treat her group as "not perceptible" or "not interesting." In the last paragraphs of Chapter 29, Elena, narrating, seems to recognise her mother's care for her -- she doesn't call it "love" but she notes that her mother is fearful for her, and even asks an old sailor to watch out for her during the crossing.

Still, Elena remembers so many years later, even as she's aware of her mother's concern for her, she is happy -- if terrified also -- to be "leaving home. . . by sea [such that] The large body of my mother--along with the neighbourhood, and Lila's troubles--grew distant, and vanished."

And just as Elena has noted earlier when her group of friends go into town that it "was like crossing a border," we see that she's crossed a border here as well. She begins Chapter 30 with a simple, two-word sentence, "I blossomed." Honestly, I love this chapter, the openness we see being introduced into Elena's life. I can imagine what it would have taken for her to go the beach alone, to wear a swimsuit in public for the first time after an upbringing such as hers, the courage it would have taken to wade out to her depth in the sea --- and then her recognition that she can swim already, her recovered vision of her mother's early care. I'm not sure she could ever have been able to see her mother that way without the necessary distance the seaside gave her.

And her awareness, as our narrating senior, that she learned here, for the first time a pleasure that was often repeated throughout her life, "the joy of the new."

And her lack of homesickness, except for missing Lila. Her fear that her own life's "intensity and importance" was dependent on, or linked to, Lila's presence in her life. I don't, as some of you seem to, find her parasitic in this fear. Rather, I'm aware of the isolation a young woman had to suffer at that time and place to move beyond it. She shouldn't have had to choose, but there's little question of her fate if she hadn't, and we would have had no story, I suspect, as she would have been absorbed into the community, another woman bitterly raising a houseful of children, resenting her husband while completely dependent on him.

And one more paragraph beginning with a conjunction, if you don't mind. . . . When I was in Berlin, I kept seeing the word "Kunst," and trying to remember what it meant. "Art," it finally came to me, and immediately on its heels, the word "kunstlerroman." This last word denotes a literary genre that might be summed up by James Joyce's title "The portrait of the artist as a young man." A more particular form of the bildungsroman, a kunstlerroman is a novel which tells of the growth of an artist (until the last half of the 20th century, almost exclusively male) to maturity. As soon as I clicked from remembering that Kunst meant Art to thinking of the kunstlerrroman, it was only another quick brain-click to begin thinking about Ferrante's Neapolitan series as an example of this genre.

After all, we began the novel with a recognition that Elena wields the power of the pen, and we know that the girls have both dreamt of becoming writers. I won't tell you too much of what happens in the subsequent volumes, but you might imagine that Elena's commitment is eventually rewarded. I'm going to suggest that thinking about the series this way might encourage us to think about whether we would expect a developing young male artist to turn away from his drive to education and art/writing to attend to a friend. Pretty clearly, there have been many such writers and artists and musicians and actors throughout the centuries whose horrid social behaviour we excuse because of their talent. But from her earliest awareness, even Elena herself has judged her achievements against her social behaviour and too often found herself wanting.

I'll stop here, and continue next post with chapters 31-40 -- and we'll be able to discuss the "bombshell" that her landlady inadvertently drops at the end of Chapter 30. . .  For now, I welcome your comments about chapters 21-30 -- and don't feel I'm going to be such an apologist for Elena that I don't want to hear your objections to my reading. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Reading Enroute -- Trains, Planes, and Hotel Rooms . . .

Settled in Bordeaux now, and I'm hoping to get back to a more regular blogging practice, but we'll see... I've read the next ten chapters of Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend for our ReadAlong, and I'm putting that post together, but I thought you might like to know what else I've been reading on trains and planes.

Before I left Vancouver, I'd hurried through a big fat book I'd been looking forward to, Annie Proulx's Barkskins, Honestly, I wanted to love this (because, Annie Proulx) but I found it simply too obviously tendentious. Indeed, occasionally I would read some interesting anecdote about one of the many characters parading down the centuries of this historical survey of America's capitalist exploitation of its forests and wonder why the writer had bothered. The characters were so obviously working to convey a message to the reader that any attempt to flesh them out a bit more seemed wasted.  Such a brilliant writer and there were numerous passages that exemplified that, but there was also heavy-handed delivery of information to readers that made me despair about the value of fiction.
Dissenting opinions? I'd love to hear them, but you'll have a tough job convincing me. . .

Also, in the last few weeks before I left, I was trying to finish Elena Ferrante's La Figlia Oscura, which I'd optimistically taken out of the library - in Italian! the English translation out with some other borrower at the time. I only managed about 40 pages of this (in Italian) before I had to return it to the library after I'd exhausted the three renewal periods allowed -- painstaking translation, so slow and with so much recourse to Google translator for words I don't know, but still, satisfying. Interesting for me to see how similar the tone is to that of Ferrante's narrator in My Brilliant Friend, and there are some sentences/paragraphs that the latter novel repeats very closely -- the mother, for example, who wants to impress on her daughter a fear of the sea; the narrating mother who feels immensely liberated from her young-adult daughters' extended absence after their move to the US.

I also had to return Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost to the library before I was done with it, but what I read was enough to reset some of my attitudes to traveling. Or better, perhaps, it reinforced attitudes I'd allowed to drop back into latency.  A must-read, though, that already has inspired me to think about relinquishing the tight hold on my iPhone and the access to Google maps, getting lost in moderate ways, at least, not just in travel, but perhaps in more of life as well. Much food for thought, and I'll definitely return to this one.

Then for the plane, and for those nights back in the hotel room in Rome, on my own, a couple of good mystery novels: You might remember that I'm still lucky enough to be working my way through Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti mysteries, learning about Venice as I do, planning to visit someday.  The latest title for me was Fatal Remedies which further develops the rich relationship between Brunetti and his academic, feminist, firebrand of a wife. No complacency in their marriage, but love and much keeping each other on their toes. In this volume, she makes him furious, but by the end, they come around to see each other's point of view. So many mystery novels present detectives unable to sustain relationships; it's intriguing to consider the possibility it might be otherwise.

But  Jussi Adler-Olsen's Detective Carl Morck is one who doesn't do so well with personal relationships.  A Conspiracy of Faith is the 3rd in the Scandinavian Department Q mysteries, and while the serial killer phenomenon might be getting tired, overdone, to many, farfetched even -- and I don't mean Adler-Olsen's, particularly, but the concept in general -- the character development is strong here. This is particularly so between Morck and his mysterious Syrian assistant Assad, but also with the, er, erratic clerical/administrative staff in the department.  Apparently, three novels in this series have been made into film. Has anyone seen these? (I should add that if you're looking for a "cosy," these are not your mystery novels. Plenty of graphic violence, some gruesome, some grotesque, but this is oddly mixed with the comic. Dark humour abounds.

After sinking into the weird escape that mystery novels are for me (I can't understand why I would want to escape to such a universe, but perhaps the satisfaction of puzzles being solved?), I generally try to redeem myself by reading something more "worthwhile," something with more substantive content. This time, I turned to a memoir recommended by a friend which I was thrilled to find available as an e-book through the Vancouver Public Library -- even better, I was allowed to access the book despite being out of the country. Yes, there is the downside that I won't have my own copy of a book I suspect I'll want to go back to, but the ease of downloading -- for free! -- such high-quality reading while travelling is an absolute boon.
Okay, then, who's the author? what's the title?  Susan Faludi's In the Darkroom. So good, this memoir of Pulitzer prize-winning journalist/feminist Faludi about her rapprochement, as she moves into her middle years, with her father after his astonishing transition, via surgery at an advanced age to Stefanie, a woman (he fakes documentation to be able to do this -- in fact, as the memoir details, his life is marked, perhaps even directed, by his skill at faking),. Almost as astonishing is that after having survived the Holocaust as a Budapest Jew (and, by the way, having rescued his parents by impersonating a Nazi soldier -- at barely 18!!), her father chooses to live his last several decades there. So much about this memoir that illuminates so many dark corners -- the ugly persistence of anti-Semitism in Hungary; the strange struggle between Hungarian nationality and Jewish identity in her father; the troubled history of sex-change operations and the Trans community's historical struggle with strict gender binaries, its worrisome (for Faludi) understanding of what it means to be a woman. Fascinating, fascinating memoir -- highly recommended! I could write so much more about this book, and if you're in a book club, it would fuel a marvelous discussion. Seriously, grab this one! (and if you don't believe me, or you'd like a longer review that my quick-and-dirty, read this

And then I turned back to the mystery genre. Well, how could I resist? The VPL emailed to tell me a book I'd put a Hold on was now available: Carol O'Connell, Blind Sight, the just-released latest title in a series I love.  If you don't know this series featuring Kathleen Mallory, a New York detective with a traumatic childhood and an arguably sociopathic personality, you're in for a treat.  Not too much is added here to our knowledge of Mallory, except that we see glimpses of rare empathy, with children not surprisingly. And there's a young blind boy in a predicament which, if you're old enough, might recall Audrey Hepburn's role in Wait Until Dark. Amped up exponentially by the age factor! You'll see. . .

So there you have it. What I've been reading while I wasn't re-reading and posting about Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend. What about you? Especially if you're a reader who's felt excluded by my current focus on the ReadAlong, here's a chance to chime in and tell us what books are stacked by your nightstand (or on your desk or on your kitchen table or in your purse, or perhaps all of the above!).  And if you've been ReadingAlong with us, but cheating on the side, you can 'fess up now as well. And I'll get back to Ferrante next post.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Ferrante ReadAlong, The Plot Thickens. . .

As I begin re-reading Chapter 11 of "The Story about the Shoes," the section of Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend recounting the girls' adolescence, I see the easy temptation to think poorly of Lenù for her constant competition with Lila while, at the same time, she seems to depend on Lila for inspiration. Speaking to Lila about Donato Sorratore's declaration of love for Melina in a book he's actually written and had published, Lenù is impressed by having a painful reality of Sorratore's move (his thoughtlessness and cowardice in raising Melina's hopes; the cost of his romantic gesture being borne by that woman) pointed out to her by her friend. "What wonderful conversations," she thought, noting how well Lila could arrange facts to give them significance, tension -- and she realises that once she is aware of Lila's ability, she begins to see how she could do the same. . . and she does, easily, she claims.

It's very tempting, I say, to think in binaries here, and to see Lenù thus as some kind of parasite, at worst, or a copycat, or perhaps a poor friend simply in the way she keeps some distance in her observations.  But I'm inclined to cut Elena some slack. After all, she was only fourteen or so at the time, and she was so isolated in her community in terms of places to look for intellectual stimulation for women -- yes, Maestra Oliviero was one possibility, but she would have only limited appeal during the years when hormones exercised their vigorous influence. (Besides which, there were considerable limitations on her access to Maestra Oliviero's company.)

And yes, in the confusion of realising that Pasquale has only been using her to get closer to Lila, in the frustration of seeing Lila's commitment to her shoe project take time from the intellectual discussions she so cherished, hungered for, was deprived of everywhere else, she blurts out her news about high school, wants Lila to recognise that "she couldn't do without me, as I couldn't do without her." And as a weak counter, Lila, with "the expression of someone at a loss," can only tell Lenù that her period finally arrived.

But tempted as I am to judge Elena harshly for feeling, and acting out of, envy and jealousy, I also admire her willingness to recount and analyse her adolescent behaviour so honestly.  Again, we see evidence of the filtering she can exercise as a narrating writer. She says, near the end of Chapter 11 "It seemed to me--articulated in words of today. . . " and I think how easily she could have expunged her own callowness. Instead, she dares to tell us some nasty truths about her adolescent friendship and thus allows us, perhaps, to admit some truths about our own.

Some readers may assume at first that the friendship is one-sided, that Lenù brings nothing to Lila while Lila is the one who offers strength, the street savvy to rescue Lenù from the Solaras boy-men, for example. But when Lenù has the marvelous opportunity to visit Naples city centre with her father, the "boundaries of the neighbourhood" beginning to fade for her, finally, she stores up everything she sees with the idea of telling Lila all about it. When she gets home, and does so, she is met with an apparent lack of curiosity which she works to persuade herself isn't malicious, that Lila "simply had her own train of thought that was fed on concrete things."

One of those concrete things is the dance parties the adolescents begin to join in the community, and one day, practising their steps (Lenù has discovered she likes to dance, whereas for Lila it's a skill that must be mastered), Lila's brother comments on their lack of a gramophone. This gives Lila the opportunity to reveal something: she's begun studying Greek on her own. "Would she always do the things I was supposed to do, before and better," Lenù wonders. She sees that Lila "eluded me when I followed her and meanwhile stayed close on my heels in order to pass me by." So it seems clear that both girls are inspired -- or egged on, rather? -- by the other. What seems sad to me, and what I think the novel does a brilliant job of showing, is that rather than knowing they could collaborate to lift each other up and beyond the limitations of the neighbourhood, they instead get caught up in an unhealthy competition.

So much has been written in feminist theory about the cost to women of the patriarchal systems that grant women subjectivity primarily, even only, as sexual objects in the gaze of men, about the ways that limited subjectivity works to ensure our competitiveness with each other even as we ultimately become substitutes for one another. I won't revisit that theory here, but the collective insights of such work over the past decades could well be brought to bear, and made manifest, in the last two paragraphs of Chapter 15, as Lenù watches the males watching Lila dance, and realises that they "were seeing more than I was." And that this realisation is twinned with Lenù's "permanent sense of inadequacy and shame" which she hoped would pass but which, in fact, only intensified.

Chapter 16, though. Wow! this is where the rubber really hits the road. The intensity of the males' desire for Lila, for, as the adult Elena writes it, "the figure of a fourteen-year-old girl" culminates in an explosive scene where the various powers of the community are revealed. I would say this is where the elements of the novel are put in action by the catalytic dance with Marcello, but in his rage afterward, Pasquale outlines how long those elements have already been in gear, just waiting, it seems, to catch up the next generation.

And when Lila finishes her unusual bout of tears, she gets to the point, wanting to understand the outside, larger forces that turn her neighbourhood into something of a puppet show -- a puppet show marked by "the sum of all the crimes that human beings have committed and commit." While Lila is forced to eschew further formal education, she makes her community something of a classroom, while augmenting it with what she's able to study independently, loosely following Lenù's curriculum.

Significant that she fixes on the story of Dido, who compromised her powerful role as queen when she fell in love with Aeneas. Lila understands the importance of holding herself back from the male advances, although she uses the energy from those advances in dubious ways. Again, I remind myself how very young these girls are. Despite her youth, however, Lila is determined to understand their place in the world around them, to understand how what came before is written already in their blood, as Lenù summarises it.

And I find this one of the most powerful paragraphs of this section -- indeed, of the novel, perhaps even of the quartet -- the paragraph in which Elena recognises that Pasquale has given Lila enough information that she can now try to order into significance, complementing what he tells her with library research.
So she gave concrete motives, ordinary faces to the air of abstract apprehension that as children we had breathed in the neighbourhood. Fascism, Nazism, the war, the Allies, the monarchy, the republic--she turned them into streets, houses, faces, Don Achille and the black market, Alfredo Peluso the Communist, the Camorrist grandfather of the Solaras, the father, Silvio, a worse Fascist than Marcello and Michele, and her father, Fernando the shoemaker, and my father, all--all--in her eyes stained to the marrow by shadowy crimes, all hardened criminals or acquiescent accomplices, all bought for practically nothing.
Let me close this post -- finally! -- by noting how cleverly and circuitously Elena brings us back, finally, to the New Year's Eve party with which "The Story of the Shoes" began. Go back and look, if you can spare a minute, at the move from Chapter 1 to Chapter 2, when it seems as if we're done with the episode of the party and the fireworks and Lila's dissolving margins, although our narrator has promised that she will return later to explain the ritual involved in the firework. In fact, reread the description of Lila's experience -- as recounted to Lenù much later -- and you might think about how terrifying it must have been, having worked to impose order on the chaotic information she's gleaned about her community, to see "the outline of the world" broken down into a "demonstrat[ion of] its terrifying nature."

From a structural analysis perspective, I'm fascinated by how that moment we get a brief glimpse of in Chapter 1 -- illuminated, in that Chapter, mainly by disclosures Lila made to Elena many years later -- is put in a much, much larger context by the twenty chapters that come between it and the ensuing reference to that New Year's Eve. It's worth thinking about what this narrative approach says about the relation between what we see and what's happening behind the scenes. As well, we might think about why that New Year's Eve was pivotal enough for Elena that she's organised "The Story of the Shoes" around it.

Enough for now, and I'm travelling a bit over the next few days, meeting up with Pater after two weeks apart. But I will have Wifi along the way, and I will enjoy reading your comments and thinking through any complications you raise or insights you offer or objections you shout ;-)

And I'm going to take the book along and see how soon I can post something about the next ten chapters. I suspect my pace is far too slow for you, but honestly, given that I'm travelling, I'm reading and writing as fast as I can! (although I must admit that I've got some other reading going on behind the scenes -- I'll tell you about that soon as well, and feel free to tell me what you might have on your bedside stand or kitchen table or wherever you like to stash your #AmReading pile. . .

A plus tard. . .

Monday, October 3, 2016

Ferrante Read-Along, Getting Back on Track, Shoe Story, Chapters 1-10

Now that I'm settled in our temporary home in Bordeaux, where I don't feel the same need I did in Rome to get out of a hotel room and gobble up the city, I'll see what I can do to get this ReadAlong up to speed again. We started so brilliantly, didn't we?!

I suppose you will all have noted the recent news about the "unmasking" of Ferrante's identity. I find the refusal to accord the writer the privacy she requested appalling and disrespectful. Without knowing (or, really, caring) who she "really" is, I found the novels rich, wonderful, a world in themselves, and I have no need to know more about the women who wrote them. Enough for me to focus on the writer within the pages, on that Elena.

So let's turn to that that Elena, in the chapters recalling her own adolescence, and Lila's. In our last ReadAlong post, we chatted about how little guidance these girls had as their bodies changed -- and as those changes, in turn, changed the way the world perceived them, shifted their relationships with all around them.  Many of us were luckier than they, and, at the very least, remember receiving information delivered in some kind of Guidance or Personal Hygiene or LifeSkills class at school -- the boys in the class sent down the hall to another room for their own embarrassing session.

But that's to focus on the difference Elena and Lila experience, growing up in an impoverished neighbourhood just before the explosion of ubiquitous modern communications media such as film, radio, and television, when knowledge could still be carefully guarded and doled out by the adults who held it. It seems to me that there is also much that female readers can identify with, across generation and class and culture, and this begins with the "How I got my first period" meme. Each of us, I suspect, has that narrative still within us and has, perhaps, shared it with others. Male readers might read this passage with curiosity or, instead, with recognition of what they've been told by sisters, partners, friends. But we women will read this more viscerally.

Personally, as a young girl who was late to puberty but precocious academically (I skipped a grade, so was a year younger than my classmates), I knew of girls who began menstruating in Grade 6 (at 11), but my first period arrived when I was alone in Scotland, visiting my uncle, a Jesuit priest. I was 14,  just finished Grade 9,  so the awkwardness of dealing with the "problem" so far from home, no female help, was mitigated by my huge relief at finally catching up, at being "normal," at not having to keep my secret any longer. So I relate quite intensely to Elena's account of the girls' competition over this.

Similarly, as much as Elena's tangled relationship with Lila seems peculiarly complicated -- Lila exercising on Lenù a force "like a demanding ghost," as E tells us -- we might also be able to relate to a strange intensity in the way we evaluated our female peers at that age, using them to explore possibilities, to find models for negotiating this strange passage from childhood to adulthood. Perhaps this is less so now that there are so many more public models available, but I suspect there will still be Carmelas and Lilas and Elenas and Gigliolas watching each other for clues about how to behave.

And, of course, that behaviour was, and is, too often aimed at garnering -- or staving off -- male attention. Elena imagines what Lila would do when she has to contend with Gino's harassment over her new breasts -- her solution would be comic if it weren't so horridly, obviously, naïvely compromising. Poor young girl. But at least she has a model that allows her to feel some agency, a sense of control.

We could discuss at length the emerging politics between the genders, the flirtations, the ultimatums, the fixations -- so much of the energies of this age funnelled into channels monitored solely by hormones. But to get ahead, academically, Maestra Oliviero tells her, she must not waste her time with boys (well, specifically with Pasquale, because of his class/trade association, but one suspects she might find reasons against other suitors also).  And generally, this section focuses repeatedly on the choice between being clever or being pretty, a choice that many of us can also relate to, a division that has regularly been imposed on women throughout history, a division that's difficult to refuse.

No wonder, then, that Lenù is captivated by news of Sorratore's book, inscribed to Melina, who inspired many of its poems. Hearing this news on the same day Pasquale pays her romantic attention suggests rich possibilities for her future which combine academic/career possibilities with romance: "perhaps I, by going to that difficult school called high school, fortified by the love of Pasquale, could write [a book] myself, as Sarratore had done."

And in the next sentence, she compares her possible future with Lila's potential "shoe designs and her shoe factory," hoping that perhaps Elena will be the one to "become rich" first.

There. I'm caught up with Chapters 1-10 of "The Story of the Shoes" now, although I haven't mentioned the introduction of "communism" as part of an emerging thread, nor have I spoken of the intense satisfaction she feels when she and Lila really connect intellectually, nor of the significance of the book titles offered as prizes. . . .

But that will do, I hope, and we'll move to Chapters 10-20-- let's see if I can post something about those by the end of the week.  And if your comment on this post on the first 10 chapters includes comments on those next 10, so much the better. . .

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Administrative Details -- an addition

Just a quick post to say that I've updated the previous post with some more of my thoughts on reading the first ten chapters of the section "The Story of the Shoes." It seemed better to make the addition there, so that all my comments about those chapters along with those of readers could stay together.  

Monday, September 26, 2016

Ferrante Read-along, Adolescence, Postponed . . .

Goodness, What was I thinking?
You, perhaps, knowing I was to fly somewhere this past Sunday, that I was embarking on ten weeks' travel, wondered how I'd ever manage to post on ten more chapters. I was wilfully optimistic and woefully unrealistic.

But even as I adjust to jetlag here in Rome, I'm plotting ways to write a few words about the first ten chapters in the section covering Elena's and Lila's adolescence. As I've been rereading, I've been so aware of how little guidance they had as they experienced the strange and wondrous and often terrifying changes to their bodies and negotiated newly delineated relationships between the genders. Perhaps you might jump in here to help me out as I try to carve a few hours' reading and writing time out of my limited days in Rome (and no, sadly, I don't think I'll try to manage a trip to Naples of the five I have here this trip).

I always welcome your comments here, but they would be particularly welcome now when I've probably bitten off more than I can chew. That said, I promise I will be back soon with an observation or two. Thanks for your understanding and patience meanwhile.

EDITED TO ADD: I wasn't sure of the best way to do this, but if I start a new post, we'll have my thoughts and your comments on these ten chapters in two different places, and I'd prefer to keep them together.  Thank you so much for jumping in and getting the conversation started -- more than that, really, as you've opened up most of the important topics this volume introduces.

Now let's see what I can add, and again, I'm sorry, but I will just set out my observations moving chapter by chapter, rather than finding time to organise my points into a more coherent whole Please excuse...
 In the first chapter of this section, "The Story of the Shoes," I'm once again drawn to note the narrative style -- The adult Elena is careful to point out that the term "dissolving margins" isn't her own, but one that Lila always used. Besides once again alerting us to her narrative control in this way, she also performs some interesting sleight-of-hand, folding one story inside another. She's describing the end of 1958, New Year's Eve, the beginning of 1959, but it turns out that Elena is reconstructing the evening from Lila's account offered to her "years late. . . in November 1980." But it gets more complicated when we read that Lila first used that term in November 1980, but by the time Elena is writing her narrative, it has become a term that Lila "always used." This telescoping of narratives all happens in the opening paragraph -- rather a virtuoso display, really. And then in the second paragraph of this chapter, the adult Elena again asserts her control, interrupting her reportage to say that she "will explain [Lila's role in the New Year's ritual] later.

There is so much temptation to speculate about what a present-day psychiatrist might make of Lila's condition. My response, instead, is to see the truth in Lila's dissolving margins. I think of what psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan speaks of as one of the stages an infant passes through moving toward subjectivity -- "the body in bits and pieces," not yet perceiving herself as an autonomous, coherent, being. I think of some of what Slavoj Zizek has written about madness, suicide, as reasonable response to a society that demands too high a price for subjectivity within it. I guess I'm wondering if we see Lila's inchoate intuition that the society she's growing into offers only limited subjectivity to women, and at such a cost.

And I think, also, of the novel as bildungsroman, a novel that traditionally offered a narrative of a young person's education, building, toward healthy eventual integration into society. Traditionally, however, the "young person" was male. Much feminist ink has been spilled over the limitations of literature to represent women after they had either married or died, generally still young, and it might be worth thinking about how powerfully Ferrante's novel responds to that limited tradition, tracing women's lives into their seventh decade, and also implicating the society that "builds" them of having made unreasonable demands. Some have used the term misbildungsroman to describe novels that detail the impossibility of being educated and healthily integrated into a society that is both damaged and damaging to its subjects -- Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum is the stand-out example for me. And in some ways, I see the work Ferrante does here in the same vein.

But I'm thinking off the cuff here, throwing out ideas without as much evidence as I would prefer. Perhaps that's okay considering our purposes here. It's significant to me, at any rate, that both of Lila's perceptions concern males who have power over her, and violence (although at that time, she hadn't expected anything but support and kindness from her brother). Also significant that she "had perceived for the first time unknown entities that broke down the outline of the world and demonstrated its terrifying nature." Given all the forces that govern their lives, yet are generally invisible to them, I'm not sure Lila's affliction isn't at least in part an enhanced, and difficult, acuity.

Obviously, there's so much else to discuss in these ten chapters, but rather than hold us all up waiting for me to post while I'm sauntering around Rome in search of the best gelato (not really -- I just keep going back to FataMorgana every day!), I'm going to click "Publish" on this, and add as I can, and I invite you to do the same in the comments below.  I'll be back here as soon as possible, adding more on these first ten chapters of this section and moving through the next ten. . .

Monday, September 19, 2016

Ferrante ReadAlong Continues: Childhood, My Brilliant Friend

I'd love to keep the excuse-making to a minimum, but I will tell you that Pater and I enjoyed a long bike ride on Friday; I spent a glorious day with a friend visiting from out of town, Saturday; and today (I'm writing this late Sunday afternoon, but will post Monday morning) was not only the morning for my weekly long run, but we'd also committed to taking a certain red-headed three-year-old to her pre-ballet class. Delightful activities all, but all time and energy-consuming.

And life will stay busy for the foreseeable future: Two little ones will spend the day here tomorrow, and we'll hang out with them again on Tuesday for a while; mid-week I head to the island for a couple of days, visiting a wee one and her parents in one city, then driving to another to visit friends and get my hair styled.

So while I don't want to make excuses, I'm going to have to be realistic.  Much as I'd like to aim at reasonably polished prose shaped into something like an essay format,  I might end up settling for something closer to a series of observations. . . Let's see what happens in this space over the next hour or two. When Pater rings the dinner bell, I might have to say this post is done like dinner as well.

Beginning at Chapter 11,  I'm fascinated to see Elena describe an "enduring malaise" she suffered in the years beyond the dolls being thrown in the basement, herself having "believed everything she [Lila] told me." What particularly fascinates me is that the malaise sounds similar to the "dissolving margins" Lila suffers throughout her lifetime (yes, I'm drawing on knowledge from my previous reading of the novel, but you'll find this out for yourself very soon). At this point, of course, the malaise reflects that plethora of unpredictable changes to our bodies that adolescence encompasses, but still, it's interesting to me that it will soon be echoed in the novel in Lila's affliction.

Also in Chapter 11,  I can give you the benefit of my earlier reading of all four novels to say: Pay attention to Nino Sarratore's declaration. . . . on a second reading, I can't help think how significant it is that the iron that flies out of a window at the decamping Sarratores nearly -- but only "very nearly" killed him. I'll say no more about that. . .

In Chapter 13, we see how clearly the children's paths are set by the beginning of adolescence, so that Enzo is already working with his parents, quitting school by fifth grade, despite being so good at doing sums in his head. And Lila and Elena starkly illustrate the limited power even the academically gifted have to lift themselves out of the neighbourhood. Yet even with her parents (her father, to be more accurate, since "Nunzia couldn't yield, she didn't have permission from her husband") blocking her way so emphatically, Lila persists in hoping.  When Elena describes her belief in Lila's assertion that she will take the admissions test anyway, I can't help wondering if this is what she wants to learn from Lila, this ability to ignore prohibitions. She speaks of Lila being "the strongest of us girls" stronger than some of the boys, than her brother, than the parents, than all the adults, in fact, even teachers and carabinieri.  Despite her apparent fragility, Elena recounts, Lila "knew how to go beyond the limit without ever truly suffering the consequences."

By the time she's writing this narrative, of course, Elena knows full well that Lila has suffered consequences, but she's speaking of her belief as a nine or ten-year-old girl in a world that seems full of limitations. What a model Lila must have been!

Chapter 14. Finally, we go up those stairs we first stepped onto at the novel's opening. We could have a very satisfying discussion about how and why Elena has teased us so, why she started on those stairs but took all the detours she did, for that's part of a novelist's toolbox, of course, the plotting, the structure, the sequencing. Why did she tell us what she told us when she did?  But I'll leave that for now (Pater's started some veggie-chopping action in the next room; the countdown to dinner is getting serious). Chapter 14 shows the girls breaking through some local mythology to meet Don Achille (so bold! hard to imagine myself at that age, knocking on the door of someone with such a profile in the community).

In this chapter, I want to applaud this little girl, Lila, who can stand up firmly to a man they've been warned against, a man who terrifies all the neighbours. I love that he is "bewildered" by her effrontery, and somehow, this effrontery results in Elena seeing him as "an ordinary person, a little short, a little bald."

Also worth noting, to me at least, is the emphasis once again on the distance between speaking in dialect and speaking "in Italian." Don Achille uses the latter to his wife to say something Elena doesn't understand, and Elena uses the latter as she says goodbye, signalling respect, I imagine, but also perhaps demonstrating her nascent sense of possible distance from the community's hierarchy?
(I will also just note that if I were ever to teach this novel in a literature class, I'd necessarily begin with some quick summary of Naples' political history vis-à-vis Italy, the relation with the Church, with the Risorgimento. After all, by the time of the girls' childhood, Italy has only existed (as a unified political state) for little more than seventy years, barely a lifetime.)

As for Chapter 15, I'd love to hear from those of you who have read Little Women more recently than I have or who know it better.  All I can say here for now is that the choice of book bought with Don Achille's money is obviously significant in the novel's exploration of possibilities for girls growing to womanhood in post-war Naples. Looking for possibilities beyond those their mothers represent, the children's novel was clearly talismanic for Lila in particular -- and again, we could have a whole separate discussion about the roles that existed for women in fiction of the day (and, for that matter, for decades to come, really).  Stories about women's lives rarely bothered to imagine them beyond marriage or premature, often romantic, death.  At least Little Women postulated some agency, if very much wrapped up with virtue, domesticity, and romance.

But beyond the characters in Little Women, the girls were also captivated by knowing that a woman had written the book and somehow -- and I think this is an important turning point for them -- they "began to link school to wealth." Lila, in fact, writes a novel, but when Elena tries to champion it for her, showing it to Maestra Oliviero, she confronts a troubling, confusing attitude (which, it has to be admitted, she does nothing to challenge). Another turning point, perhaps, in the girls' relationship, and one where Elena begins to wonder if she should do as Oliviero suggests and begin to think of herself and abandon a friendship that might hold her back.

And at this point, we have yet another potential pivot, a significant event which sees the girls defying the restrictions that govern them and setting out for the beach. In Chapter 16, I've underlined the phrase describing the girls' awareness of their neighbourhood's perimeter, beyond which there's a mountain whose higher peak "was called Vesuvius and was a volcano." Her younger self was apparently oblivious to the iconic status of this scene, a function of the reality that they had been "trained by [their] schoolbooks to speak with great skill about what [they] had never seen" dismissing any potential importance of the local.

Another sentence I've underlined in this chapter is Elena's remark that "When I think of the pleasure of being free, I think of the start of that day. . . . I felt joyfully open to the unknown." It's a rich, exuberant, detail-filled passage, capturing the symbiosis, no, more, the synergy, of the two young girls defying the rules designed to keep them in place. But while she holds Lila's hand, lends her strength, Elena quickly reveals her dependency, her own abdication of responsibility. In her words, "I felt as if [Lila] had everything in her head ordered in such a way that the world around us would never be able to create disorder. I abandoned myself happily."

Hmmmmm. . . .I continue to remind myself how young they both were, how brave, how vulnerable, how naive, etc. But Elena's attribution of power to Lila troubles me, particularly as she suggests that Lila may have planned the entire episode so that Elena wouldn't be able to continue her schooling. I do remember some of the machinations of that age, but these calculations (the ones Elena suspects Lila might have made and Elena's own tentative analysis of Lila's actions) seem both sophisticated and unlikely and naive all at once.  Most convincing,  for me, in the entire chapter, is the closing line, the adult Elena wondering whether Lila could have wanted both that Elena be punished and that she not be. . . . In fact, of course, it's Lila who suffers the most painful consequences of the day, despite Elena's earlier claim that Lila never paid a price for her defiances.

Chapter 17 (I'm hurrying now -- good smells are beginning to emanate from the kitchen, and storm clouds are gathering above the terrace garden where I'm typing these words). . . This line, when Lila is "suffering" and Elena doesn't "like her sorrow. I preferred her when she was different from me, distant from my anxieties. And the uneasiness that the discovery of her fragility brought me was transformed by secret pathways into a need of my own to be superior."

And Chapter 18, the chapter which closes out the section, "Childhood," is all about fathers, the powers they held, the powers that governed them, and the vicissitudes that they could suffer. So that "Fathers could [break their daughter's arm] and [do] other things to impudent girls," but that they are also subject to feeling sorry for their violence, that they suffer the loss of hope, that they suffer "losses, by alcohol, by debts, by deadlines, by beatings, and at the first inopportune word they beat their families, a chain of wrongs that generated wrongs."

And then Don Achille is murdered. Besides the stunning upset this meant to the community's hierarchy, I'm struck by the details with which Lila repeatedly describes the scene. Some of these details seem to be gleaned from the neighbourhood's grapevine, but Lila builds on these, imagining the scene ever more precisely, even describing the murderer as female (intriguingly, Elena suggests that Lila does so in order that it be "easier for [Lila] to identify with her."

Not only is Don Achille's patriarchal power erased in Chapter 18, but the carpenter, Signor Peluso, is dragged away from his family by the carabinieri. And this is where the section ends, with Elena's claim that this removal is "the most terrible thing we witnessed in the course of our childhood."

Okay, here's where I had to leave off yesterday evening, so that Pater and I could enjoy our meal together and catch up on the weekend's events with each other. I'm writing now early Monday morning, writing quickly before I need to get ready for the arrival of a three-year-old and her toddler brother. They'll be here for most of the day, and there will neither be time to write while they're here nor energy left to write once they're gone. So I'm going to call this "Enough to get started," and ask you to add observations or question or argue with mine or let me know if you agree. I'll check back when I get a moment, but meanwhile, feel free to chat among yourselves. 

And shall we try for another ten chapters by the end of the week?