Friday, September 9, 2016

My Brilliant Friend Readalong, The Prologue: Importance of the Frame. . .

I've chosen four-and-a-bit pages to begin our Readalong with, reserving this post for a discussion of the Prologue. This small "assignment" isn't suggested simply to give you time to catch up after the long weekend, but also, as I've written before (scroll down about halfway), because I think this framing device casts an important light on the overall narrative. In fact, when I tried listening to the BBC radioplay of My Brilliant Friend, I was annoyed enough at the effacement of the narrator's role that I quickly lost interest (despite the peculiar enchantment of hearing those little Neapolitan girls speak in their English accents).

What's the big deal? Well, so much is revealed in the Prologue that we would do well to keep in mind as we read. For starters, the opening pages make it very clear that the entire narrative is filtered through the memory of a woman at a particular stage of life, and that the story is being told a very specific reason. Beginning the novel with those little girls would have been a completely different choice on Ferrante's part, allowing us to follow their story more innocently, with less bias, less expectation. Instead, we meet them knowing already that one of them will decide, at 66, to disappear completely, eliminating all traces of her life, to her son's supposed dismay, and to the anger of the friend her actions goad into writing their story.

I should confess here that my interest in the way lives get narrativised in fiction began at least as far back as a grad school class. The prof, who was known for her scholarship on "the metaphysical detective story," used to repeat a formulation summarising a particular kind of novel whose narrator mourned the loss of a hero. In this "elegiac romance," my prof pointed out (using the term coined by another scholar, Kenneth Bruffee), the narrator might just as well have said, "I'm telling you a story about him which is really a story about Me." 

So even before we enter the novel proper -- the story which is supposed to be about "My Brilliant Friend" (and it's worth considering that translator Ann Goldstein must have spent some time replacing the "geniale" of the Italian title L'Amica Geniale with "brilliant") -- perhaps we could pause to wonder: What does a narrator reveal about herself if, in claiming to write a story about the life she's shared with her friend, she also tells us that she's "really angry" and that she begins writing determined to  " "see who wins this time."

Perhaps you could let us know, in the comments below, what you learn about Elena (whose name, we'll learn a bit later, has a diminuitive counterpart similar to the one she gives Raffaella) from the Prologue. As well, what clues or puzzles get set up in these few pages -- what do you become curious about already? Many of you, of course, have already read well into the rest of the novel, have perhaps even finished it and even the rest of the tetralogy. Still, it might be worth thinking about the way the narrating writer disposes us to receive her version of events by framing it in a certain context from the outset.

For example: what does Elena's treatment of Rino tell us?
What claims does Elena make that we have only her word for?
And even, perhaps, Why should you trust Elena, in her story-telling? Do you? Or are you at least willing to suspend disbelief or suspicion and let the story unfold?
And further: Even if you find Elena reliable enough, as a narrator, doesn't she herself warn you, at the end of the Prologue, that memory may get in the way? There are, after all, something like sixty years between the scene of the Writing Present and that of the Written Past we turn to in the section called "Childhood" which follows the Prologue.
As well as alerting us that memory might (surely!) fail, Elena earlier qualifies a claim that she "know[s Lila/Raffaella] well" by adding, parenthetically that "at least I think I know her." Readers must keep in mind that much as she's in control of her narrative, Elena is not an omniscient narrator.; she can't read Lila's mind.

That's enough to get us started, don't you think?  

27 comments:

  1. The prologue has already hooked me to the story. Elena appears a decisive woman who clearly dislikes Lilas son. Love the way she sets about the son getting him to search the house for evidence. A 'no nonsense woman' is the picture I get of her. Although 60 or years have elapsed I get the sense that her memory will serve well. I love the frisson that comes from the comment about playing the game. Sounds like her relationship with Lila is going to be an interesting one! Barbara

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    1. Yes! Could Lila's son BE any more clueless?? I am eager to read how he turned out that way.

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    2. This is great! Like a book club meeting, so that I'm going to relax about needing to facilitate and let you readers develop the conversation amongst yourselves some of the time.

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  2. Oh boy. By the time of the prologue Elena has hardened into an 'Elena Ferrante' woman...so no, I don't trust her, she doesn't intend me to, she has built her story to suit herself and is willing to tell it. So I will listen...

    And I would love to sit with a glass, make that a bottle, of something and talk about the Alice Brittan article you linked to last post. Ha...I might have to force someone I know in real life to read seven books, then an article, then ply them with food and drink to listen to me ramble...

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    1. Yep! You and I read Elena similarly. And like you, I find her an entertaining and interesting story-teller, at least, if quite possibly a self-serving one, so I'm happy enough to follow her story.
      Oh, wouldn't that be great?! Isn't that article worth an hour or two. I do miss some aspects of my scholarly life, the proximity of people who didn't even need to be plied with food and drink to talk about this stuff. . . Good luck with your search! ;-) (You could always just hop a plane -- we'll get Dottoressa to fly in and join us!)

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    2. Perhaps when we finish the book we can talk about the article? I'm happy with the wine!

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    3. Oh,yes,thank you-Dottoressa (that's me) could even bring the wine :-)
      D.

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  3. The Epigraph alerts us to a battle between good and evil. The Prologue tells us that Elena and Lila are old friends of over sixty years. Lila's forty year old waster of a son has reported his mother as missing. Three decades ago Lila told Elena that she wanted to disappear without a trace and it would appear that she finally has achieved that ambition. Sometimes Elena refers to Lila with pleasure and then with scorn. The spiteful fact that she decides to tell their story means that she wants to thwart Lila's total disappearance. Elena is not to be trusted until we learn more about what happened to Lila thirty years before. Reading through the early childhood section I believe that Lila could suffer from Asperger's Syndrome.

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    1. For me, the epigraph suggests that good and evil are not so easily divided. I really like what Eleanor says about the Goethe quotation at the previous post.
      You've picked up on the rivalry between the two and also the very mixed feelings this friendship evokes in Elena -- won't it be interesting to meet Lila and begin to see the other side.

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    2. Lila really is a very complex personality-maybe she learned very early,even subconsciously(as with the reading) that this attitude will help her to survive in her family and in the cruel world around her-it was like the armour to protect her
      Dottoressa

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    3. A good point, Dottoressa -- it's not a world that nurtures a gentle personality!

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  4. Am I the only reader who pondered, however briefly, that the girls were actually one person?

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    1. Oh wonderful! I never wondered that, myself, and I doubt that speculation could be sustained very long, but yes, in some ways, I think it's worth considering Elena (whose nickname is LenĂ¹) and Lila as something of a composite of a bright woman growing up in a time and place inimical to such a creature . . . Anyone else thought about this?

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    2. No because I had heard the audio version first! However an 'imaginary friend' would have added a twist. We are all a mix of emotions and desires, do we lead an imaginary life in our minds?

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    3. Might make sense why one of them had to disappear!

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  5. I find the prologue rather contradictory. On the one hand we are told that all we are going to read are Elena’s memories, and we know how human memory works, omitting and inventing and reconstructing things. We also realize that there are strong feelings involved on the part of the narrator. On the other hand we hear that she is writing all this in order to spite her friend’s intention to disappear. So we can assume that she wants to tell as much as she possibly can.
    Being a social scientist at heart, I always tend to look for the impact of the material and social background on the attitudes and actions of a person, even in a novel. So I wonder if Elena’s apparent harshness towards Lila and her useless son may not be directed really against the violence, poverty and squalor they all came from. As opposed to Lila, Elena seems to have been able to escape to Turin. If we assume that the two of them are really only one, maybe Lila is the reality and Elena the dream? (Just joking!)

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    1. There is so much contradiction in the prologue, isn't there? and throughout the novel. . .
      And the social context is so significant in this novel -- particularly worth bringing some of the powerful feminist lenses to bear: they show us the ways that women are culturally trained from childhood to be in a certain competition with each other as objects of the patriarchy (and patriarchy is so obvious in this society)

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  6. Referencing on the discussion between Brittan and her commenters- her books are both universal and local,because in a very little community of Naples suburb,and later in Italy,there are so many universal truths,emotions and decisions.
    If we are playing with Lila/Elena personality I would vote for Elena as the dream :-)
    Reading for the second time,Lila becomes more and more catalyst,accelerator in a play/life,where thing happens and people tend to be better if they are good,or more mean if they are bad (or sometimes go from one category to the other)
    I just finished Ian McEwan's The Childrens Act (superb,Sue from HIgh Heels recommendation) and there is a sentence that I could connect with "Lila is missing":
    "The girl I know at school had anorexia 3 years ago....Her dream was of wasting away to nothing-like a dried leaf in the wind -was what she said,just fading gently into death "
    Dottoressa

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    1. Yes, I see the regional and the universal both in these novels -- part of their strength, right?
      Again, thinking of feminist lenses (and anorexia being something women are more susceptible to, I believe), disappearance might be the only possibility for a woman like Lila -- her personality isn't one society as it is/was then can permit or make much room for. Interesting connection you've made...

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  7. In choosing this epigraph, where God sends a "devil", a creative, exciting force, to wake man up from his "unqualified repose", his inclination to passivity,
    I think the narrator warns the reader not to view Elena/Lila through the lens of conventional morality. What seems bad may be inseparable from what is good. Lila seems to be that "devil" for the narrator;on the first page, we are told that she is "never sleepy" and later learn that she has irritated (excited?) Elena to the point where she deliberately broke the connection. Elena was warned three decades ago that Lila wanted to leave. Despite the fact that she deliberately threw out everything that connected them, she initially tries to blame Lila for this ("Is it possible that in all those years she left me nothing of herself") before admitting the worse sin ("I didn't want to keep anything of her").. By the end of the prologue, the anger driving her to write seems to be motivated by a need to be in charge of their story, i.e., decide who leaves the story when.

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    1. Having read further I'm tempted to agree with you. It's all about who is in charge and Elena very much wants to be I feel.

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    2. Yes, well said, Belle. The only thing I might add is that we might distinguish between Ferrante and her narrator -- I read the epigraph as if Ferrante chose it -- whether before or after she wrote this entire fiction of a Narrator/Writer. In light of all the ink spilled over Ferrante's "mysterious identity" and the possible autobiographical elements of the novels, this distinction becomes even more interesting, no?

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    3. Yes. I never meant to confuse writer /narrator. Just too lazy to search out the accent for Lenu!

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    4. Don't blame you! I do love the iApproach to accents right at the keyboard

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  8. I am late to the discussion, having just started tonight. I was involved in another book. I have not read the article you linked to as I don't want it to influence my reading of the book; nor have I read ahead, which is my intention (although I may break down and read ahead in time).

    The Epigraph speaks of the dichotomy between good and evil and also hints that it is not the duality we initially suppose. I assume this was added later, but, reading it first, it informs our reading.

    I am not sure I trust Elena in the prologue, and I am not sure one is intended to trust her, hence the entire backstory of the missing Lila and the self-absorbed and inept son. I also read the title as being somewhat edged with sarcasm "brilliant" both as a compliment but with a backhanded edge, which all feeds into the non-dual relationship of good and evil from the epilogue and the entire sense that the story is not what it seems. Elena's introduction of her intention also feeds that sarcastic interpretation, or at least the implication that love/hate, sarcasm/honesty, or good/evil, are complexly overlapping in human experience. And then, there are the implications of memory itself, no matter how sharp, always being tempered by experience and intention.

    I am intrigued. And although I did not think of it, the idea of Lila/Elena being one person has interesting possibilities, and fits into the inconsistencies in the framing of the prologue.

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    1. Late but worth waiting for, Mardel. Without reading that article, you've arrived quickly on your own at an awareness to beware of simple binaries in reading the novel. No need to assign Elena or Lila a role to quickly.
      You share my mistrust of Elena's narrative control, but perhaps also my admiration for her skills and her willingness to look back, analytically, to risk exposing her own truths as she traces others.
      Quite a hook for a simple prologue, isn't it?!

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