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?