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?

19 comments:

  1. Chapter 16...or to borrow your phrasing, Mater, 'Two Little Girls go for a Long Walk'. I have read this again and again. As I was reading the book the first time I kept sneaking back and looking at these pages. 'I felt far from everything and everyone, and distance - I discovered for the first time - extinguished in me every tie and every worry...' I knew why I identified with this at the time, because I was so, so, happy about the start of my retirement and the fact that I had just floated out the door without a single regret or look back. All of which is an attempt to say that sometimes the most meaningful things just land in front of you. (I had a bit more here about the continuing joy in this but have deleted due to fear of karmic retribution.)

    Something I noticed this round which relates to Elena's perspective of the story...her mother came looking for her to walk her to the party. She must have thought it an honour for her daughter to be invited to the teacher's home, and clearly had been thinking about this event and watching the weather. So not evil, just a mum worn down by it all.

    I have never been able to figure out the time lapse between the loss of the dolls and the confrontation of Don Achille (whose wife calls him Achi. One of my favourite details.). It seems the dolls go into the cellar in second grade but the climb up the stairs happens near the time of the exams, several years later. Can that be right?

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    1. I love your first paragraph here -- I remember feeling that freedom when I was on my own one day in London, at 14. . . I can see the resonance it would have at the cusp of retirement (and chuckle at the fear of karmic retribution).
      Elena says, at the outset of chapter 2, that the dolls had been thrown into the cellar "Not too long before -- ten days, a month" although she then demurs than time is hard to measure at that age. But it seems clear from the beginning of Chapter 10 that all the various actions described (the academic competition, the duel with the boys and the rocks) preceded the throwing of the dolls, so that has to have happened closer to fourth or fifth grade, right? Which does seem at odds with the first description of them playing (in the second chapter) when they seem younger than that -- perhaps a function of their odd mixture of innocence and experience. . .

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  2. What struck me at the end of chapter 13 was the statement that, not only does Lila go beyond limits without consequences, but, even better, those she defies are compelled against their will to praise this girl with her "excesses of virtuosity". That "compelled" raised a red flag. Chief among the compelled was the principal who was responsible for making her the most hated child in the school. With a little help from Maestra Oliviero. These two, using the students as pawns, re-enact the battle of the sexes twice annually. At the end of chapter 15, the principal finally wins by cheating, thereby humiliating both the female teacher for her semi-annual defiance, and the 3 warrior girls who have beaten all the boys to date, The teacher, who, after learning Lila would not be going on in school,has been passively sapping the girl's vitality by ignoring her, now actively attacks her with a tongue-lashing. And Lila of the scathing tongue, who shrugged off physical beatings including a broken arm, is finally wounded by the verbal abuse with which women often fight one another. Still one can understand the teacher's helpless anger and frustration as she sees yet another generation of girls shackled. She appears to have devoted her life to proving girls are intellectually equal to boys.

    Most chilling was the closing paragraph; "The principal remained silent." By whatever means necessary, girls in this society will learn to keep their heads down and accept male dominance.

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    1. Yes! Your summary/analysis emphasises how well Elena exposes the role of the school system in keeping or putting girls in their place. There are ways to move ahead via scholarship but they require playing by certain rules and Lila doesn't, or can't.

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  3. Something that strikes me as a catalyst for Elena's attachment to Lila and at the heart of the novel, is Elena's fear of emulating her mothers life. She sees her mother bitterness at her lot in life, perhaps recognises the thwarted potential and senses her own fate will be similar. In Lila she sees another way of behaving that can perhaps lead to escape, another kind of life.
    Lilibet

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    1. Catalyst is a great word to describe the effect Lila has upon Elena. Without the sparring and challenge that Lila sets , Elena slumps back into mediocrity. She knows that Lila spurs her on to achieve higher grades. I hadn't thought about the influence of her mother, but the harsh way she describes her, it is clear that Lila is helping to lift her from the same fate as her mother.

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    2. Yes, and Lila-as-catalyst recalls the way God speaks of the devil's role in the bet with Mephistopheles over Faust. . . Not that I want to be so reductive as to equate Lila with the devil.

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    3. No I don't see Lila as devil either. She is highly intelligent in a society where conforming, to rules imposed by both Church and State, is a defensive strategy and clever girls can be a liability not just to themselves but to the community. Lila is manipulative but I don't think she malicious. She sees something of herself in Elena, and a bulwark against the loneliness of being different. When Lila works with her father, I think she is testing herself, trying to narrow her ambition, but of course it is not enough for her. She and Elena are using each other.
      Lilibet

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  4. Brilliant Lila was banned to continue her education,Elena was (not so happy) supported
    Lila was to help her mother at home,to her father in the workshop ,and altough he was proud of her mastership with numbers and her inteligence,too much learning,in his opinion,was a waste for a girl-they were supposed to marry and educated wife with air of reading books was not something he has in his mind for his daughter. Lila was even banned to posses a book.
    Something like that would be the ultimate punishment for me-not to be alowed to read was like not to be alowed to breathe,so I could be very sorry for her.
    She has to reinvent herself,she has to continue to make stories and to try to believe to them....and in a way it has to deal with "dissolving margins" later in the book
    The journey to the sea,beside Lila's secret and conscious attempt to spoil Elena's future education , confirms my theory about Lila as the catalyst in other people's lives,especially for Elena. Lila involuntary opened the door to the world outside the neighbourhood for Elena (and her eyes about Lila's plots)
    I have to end with mothers:
    Stuck in poverty,everyday's chores,multiple pregnancies,often beaten by their husbands,they had to deal with visible disdain from their daughters
    Elena's relationship with her mother is complex and complicated-mother reffered to her as "superfluous in her life"-how horrible! But was conceiving Elena perhaps the reason for the marriage with her father,the porter? Instead of some better combination? Was it something connected with her disease?
    Elena's greatest fear was to become like her mother,mother she loathed and was ashamed of,to lead life like her....
    Reading "Little Women"(and I agree that it was one of the most important moments)....it was the book that speaked for girls all around the world,it was one of my favourites,too
    Dottoressa

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    1. Dottoressa, your comment somehow made it suddenly clear to me that the girls grow up in the absence of stories other than oral ones (and those oral ones mostly seem to be drawn from the community's fairly immediate, often recent history -- scandals, legends, speculations). When I was the age of these girls, I had been borrowing books from the library for years and I'd seen a number of movies as well on large-screen and on our home television. Story-making must have been so important for them. . .
      And your point about Elena's conception having limited her mother's life is interesting and seems very possible. Whether it was true or not, it's certainly true that Elena doesn't benefit much from maternal guidance -- although at times you glimpse that her mother feels more for her than Elena seems to recognise.
      I'd love to hear more about why Little Women seemed so significant to you. What did it say, all the way across an ocean and in such a different socio-political reality?

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    2. My mother and father both liked to read,so there were books in the house. It would seem funny here ,but I think that it could be applied to a lot of us here together with you- I subconsciously learned to read very,very early (following letters in picture-books my mother has read for me and I wanted to hear them over and over again) I've read a lot of all kind of books and they were often age inappropriate. I started with Zane Grey and Karl May (the German author who wrote about Wild West too- and where my favourite heroes were Indians )before school (we were beginning with 7 years) and adored Wild West stories and heroes,....so ,what was here not to love: big family,sisters (I am an only child), lot of great emotions,adventure,tears,romance,love,young stubborn girl who wanted to make choices for herself and be independent-yes ,she was my favourite :-)-,America...some things are blurred now and I couldn't remember was it from K. Hepburn's film or the book.....
      So,I suppose that Jo was their role model,too, and maybe, ironically ,that would remain truth for Elena (but it is another story)
      D.

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  5. Elena as cause of her mother's entrapment via pregnancy. Yes, she is the oldest and that would account for their mutual dislike. And perhaps Elena's subsequent need to please.

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  6. These next  chapters highlight for me that not only does Lenu hate her mother she also has little love or affection for anyone else. She complains that she was beaten for nothing as the girls failed to get to the sea.  Whereas Lila does care and love others. Look how she excuses her father even though he has thrown her out of the window, she cares for Melina and Carmela. I like to think that Lila turned back from the journey because she didn't want Lenu to lose her chance of further education. Lila is always Lila but Lenu is a chameleon.

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    1. I'm not sure I believe that Lenu hates her mother, but there is undeniably a barrier. I will admit that my own relationship with my mother was a tough one, and I don't think I, or Elena, were the only women of that generation to find the mother-daughter bond complicated, guilt-ridden even.
      And I'm not sure I can see a clearcut difference between the two girls' ability to care and love for others. If I ever did at this stage of the novel, it was challenged very quickly. But it's true that Lila makes excuses for her father and finds good in her family.
      As for complaining about being beaten for nothing, is Elena not complaining about the fruitlessness of the trip rather than the just-ness of the punishment. I took her to mean that she wishes she'd got more bang for the beating buck. Her complaint is aimed at Lila's inexplicable (at first) turning back rather than at the parental wrath, which she surely knew was inevitable.

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  7. I am enjoying this discussion- it mirrors my own thoughts. I recently read "Marmee and Louisa:the Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott" by Eva LaPlante, which adds more background to "Little Women". The Alcotts were at the mercy of their father, who was supported by Louisa's writings. Louisa and her mother - once thought of as a passive influence, brought out by LaPlante's research as a more active voice, with the story of the father's incompetence brought to the front. LaPlamte is a relative of Louisa, and had acess to hidden documents.
    I found resonance in the girls loving Little Women- those strong, capable, willful, young females, with a strong but gentle mother- no irons thrown here. Did Elena see Lila as another Jo? In the end, Jo gets her wishes- success as s writer and a loving husband. And, of course, the girls loved the idea of making money from writing, which Louisa did.

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    1. This is a thoughtful addition to our conversation, Megs, and makes the inclusion of Little Women in MBF even more relevant and significant. Of course, the March family, poor though they might have been, had the "luxury" of their "shabby-genteel" education, manners, values, etc., to ground and guide them. That alone must have fascinated the two young Neapolitan girls, never mind the possibility of girls speaking out, of making money from their writing.

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  8. Interesting discussion of Little Women...the Marches actively and openly loved each other. I read the book again and again although I didn't really identify with the characters. I don't have sisters and their relationships were fascinating. They also has 'fairy godparents' in the forms of Aunt March and old Mr Laurence who may have been crusty but would not have let them starve.

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    1. You must have been struck by the fascination shared by Lila and Elena and yourself with the March family -- from very different perspectives and for different reasons. And yes, a notable difference in the warmth that mitigated the "little women"'s poverty. . .

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  9. I'm late to this discussion, and you've already moved on. I've been struck by Lila and I relate to her far more readily than Elena at this age. I grow very angry that she is thwarted rather than supported, although I understand that the risks of helping her are very great. It makes me sad, still, because even in this country today I see young people, and especially girls, but underprivileged boys as well, who are kept in their place, and who are often disruptive because they are so very bright, and they have no options but to challenge. I am aware this is only one aspect of what is being written here, but it is what really resonates with me at the moment. I do see that the author is effectively setting the stage for what is to come, and effectively foreshadowing, playing with fact and timing, to give a sense that things are not necessarily what they may seem.

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