Monday, September 12, 2016

Our Readalong Continues -- "Childhood" Complicated in Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend

With all the demands of moving, I must admit that I wished I hadn't committed to a Monday post on those first ten (short, admittedly) chapters of the "Childhood" section of Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend.  But when I began rereading those pages Sunday afternoon,  the regrets slid away as I was quickly absorbed by the dense narrative. Scribbling in the margins, underlining, muttering to myself, I confirmed my suspicion that this novel would amply repay a closer study than I was able to give it on a greedily speedy first reading.

As many of you are reading this for the first time, I will assume that there might be some readers turning the pages as greedily as I did, although some of you will be more measured, more observant, even more analytical. Most of you will have been mesmerised by the relationship developing between these two little girls during their seventh to ninth or tenth years, and you will have traced a story of their interest in and rivalry with each other through various classroom and schoolyard and neighbourhood interactions until they climb those fearful steps to Don Achille's home, presumably in an attempt to retrieve their dolls, lost through Lila's bold act and Lenū's pale and defiant imitation. Depending on your age and where you grew up and your personality and your individual experience, you may find much or little to relate to in the way the narrator tells us about her childhood perception of her classmate and, eventually, friend. You might wish to share your thoughts about this in the comments below. . . 

If you're really careful about understanding character relationships from the outset, when you read, you might have been making mental notes, perhaps even notes in the margins or inside the book covers or in a separate notebook, about who's who in Elena's community, sorting out the hierarchies of the neighbourhood and the school. You might have kept track of whose husband died, and why, and which two wives fought over another husband, and which boys were involved in the scholastic competition and who threw which rock and wounded whom. For my part, I'll admit that the first time through, not yet having a context for the significance of these individual names, I focussed more on a sense of the community as a whole and trusted that if individuals became significant, I'd figure them out as I went along. This indeed turned out to be the case, but it's surprisingly satisfying to go back again and say "Ah, there's Enzo already. And Nino. Hmmm, so the seeds were there, but not necessarily as I might have predicted." That's all I'll say for now -- I promised to be careful about spoilers. 

I know that the first time through I was already struck by the poverty of the neighbourhood -- and not just a physical poverty, but a poverty of hope, of possibility, of room for aesthetic appreciation, of any reason to lift up eyes in any particular direction. That existed only in the classroom, and even then, in very limited ways. Or perhaps there was hope. The carpenter must have hoped, once, in his gambling, before he lost his tools, his shop, his pride in his livelihood, one by one, to Don Achille. We can't see back through any of the mothers to the hope they might have had before marriage and a quick succession of pregnancies, but I will concede that perhaps Elena's mother still has some hope, manifest in her occasional eruptions at her husband that he has to do something because she can't go on like this. Maestra Oliviero still hopes for students who will demonstrate her superiority as a teacher, particularly over the male teachers.

But in the opening pages already, our narrator Elena makes it clear that poverty prevails, and that while there might be a way out through scholarship -- as seen in the fairly limited example of Maestra Oliviero -- this is curtailed even beyond the class constrictions by the clearly delineated expectations of gender. All in the community defer to Don Achille, whose shadowy powers are clearly linked to violence and probable criminality; while the adults grumble about and warn against him, no one dares challenge him, and by Grade Two, Lila and Lenù know that any competition against Achille's son must be negotiated carefully. We will find out before long how broad and deep runs Achille's power over the community, but these first chapters already establish that the current is not a new one. There is a history of violence, of terror, that the girls have imbibed without ever being able to ascertain the details -- in writing about this, the narrator suggests the balance between what is and is not said, or even more, what can and cannot be said, in a primarily oral culture.

And to me, it's so significant that Elena, the writing narrator of the girls' shared story, has emphasised her Writing Self in the prologue, and now focuses considerable attention on the girls' move into literacy from their primarily oral culture. Maestra Oliviero quickly intuits that Lila's mother is illiterate; we will soon suspect that she's not the only non-reader in the neighbourhood. And there is much emphasis in these first chapters on what is acquired through oral knowledge.  I'm thinking, for example, of the incident in which Lila's father apologizes to Don Achille "without ever saying what he was apologizing for." The adult Elena tells us that she "didn't see it" or at least doesn't remember it, "but it was said that the apologies were made aloud, and in such a way that everyone could hear."

More generally, all the intricate knowledge Elena offers about the relationships between her neighbours has been gleaned by listening. And to characterise what she was listening to as gossip seems unfair because the knowledge about their community seems integral to their survival. The paragraph about what had happened "in the dark ages" of "Before" -- i.e. before the girls were born, when something had apparently happened in which Don Achille "revealed himself in all his monstrous nature -- and the paragraph which follows it support that argument, as well as illustrating Elena's claim that her childhood was full of violence. As much as she might want to adopt the nicer manners of the teachers or priest, "they were not suited to our neighbourhood, even if you were a girl."

Let me pause for a moment here and consider how much I can write, how much you'll have time to read, here today. I'll confess that after my year away from academic writing, there's a part of me that is being pulled back in through this re-reading, and you might be surprised to see how many notes I've made so far. But I don't have time to write an essay on this section, nor is that what we're all here for. So perhaps I can just suggest a few topics for consideration and trust to your comments to flesh out the discussion. Just a few. . . I'll number them. . . You'll see. . . 

1) I could, for example, spend some time considering the gender roles so distinctly articulated. The mothers, old by thirty, worn-down by poverty and multiple pregnancies, and with the added insult of being despised by their daughters for whom they represent only a depressing future. The fathers embedded in a patriarchy which holds them under Don Achilles' power but allows them to beat their wives and children. A world in which a six or seven-year old girl already knows how to wield her blond curls and sweet smile to mitigate against her cleverness.

2) Also worth some attention is the specific socio-economic and historic reality of Naples in this period not so long after the war. The gas masks lurking in basements, the bombs lingering, ready to be exploded at the touch of an unwary child. "Our world was like that, full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection."

3) The "folk wisdom" of this still primarily oral culture as manifest in that brief litany of Elena's of "things that seemed normal" that you could die of.

4) This one I could easily write a whole other post on, but I'll sketch out my observations here and then turn the mic over to you. My closing point concerns Elena's control of the narrative, a control I've already remarked on in discussing the Prologue. Most obviously, you'll see Elena herself drawing your attention to her narrative role in frequent comments about the difficulty she has with some aspects of the narrative or about the significance of something she's saying.  When she writes about something she saw in Lila's face that "is still hard to define, so for now I'll put it like this," she reminds us that she's the one in charge of the story (and if we're wise readers, we should take this as a caution). Similarly, after Nino's defeat in the classroom competition, Elena writes that she saw "something that saddened me: not an inability, not even surrender, but, I would say today, a collapse." As much as the narrative pulls us in, as readers, to the childhood scene being described, the adult Elena, writing, insists on disrupting that transparency and pulls us back to the filtering that is happening back at the computer keyboard on which she's composing her rebuttal to Lila's disappearance.

An extension of this, more subtle perhaps, but also more pervasive, is in the way Elena plays masterfully with the ever flexible relationship between story and plot. She begins the section on "Childhood" by wielding a narrator's privilege, declaratively establishing the moment when the girls' friendship began -- the pages following offer many other moments during the previous two or three years that other writers or story-tellers might have chosen as the friendship's birth. The barest form of the story she describes might be that Two Little Girls Met, One Threw the Other's Doll into a Dangerous Place, They go to Retrieve It. But the plotting is elaborate, and it keeps the reader on her toes with its disrupted chronology and the demands it makes on us to understand implied causation. We might begin to wonder where Lila would have begun the narrative. . . . And is it worth wondering whether her disappearance is highlighted rather than contended by Elena's absolute control over what the reader learns. . .

Anyway, that's probably enough to get a discussion going, although I'm far, far from having shared all my marginalia with you, the underlined passages, the pencilled exclamations . . . But one of our daughters is coming for dinner, with her two little ones, and she's just texted that they're nearly here. So over to you, and we'll chat more about these chapters via the comments. 

Oh, and I'll try to post on the remaining "Childhood" chapters by Friday, but possibly Saturday depending on how the week goes. 

29 comments:

  1. First of all, please don't feel pressured to post at a particular time! I feel as if I'm getting a graduate-level literature seminar for free! To comment on some of your observations, I found the description of the growing friendship between the two girls SO apt, as I can still remember the parallel play that often occurred at that age, before beginning to play together. And I would have been Elena, the timid one, terrified to approach Don Achilles, but determined to keep up with my friend. The parts I've found difficult are the rampant domestic abuse and the patriarchy of that era, particularly between siblings. The idea of having to wait on or obey my brother makes me bristle! And finally, I'm reading on my iPad, so it's not easy to "flip back" to the family trees at the beginning, so I've decided just not to worry about exactly how some of the more minor folks are related. Thanks again for guiding the discussion!

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    1. Thanks for understanding, and I'm glad you're finding the posts worthwhile. The exaggerated sexism and attendant abuse of that day is painful, absolutely, but I can trace commonalities across the ocean and continent, even though my childhood was a decade later than Ferrante's narrator's.

      Interesting comment about the iPad reading (I read this the first time in e-format as well, so didn't flip back either). I'd meant to take stock of the various formats in which readers are experiencing MBF

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  2. It is definitely an oral society we are being introduced to. Literacy only plays a part in the relations with the outside world (school, probably state institutions etc.) but not in the interactions within the neighborhood. All knowledge about the past is also passed on orally, and it is not surprising that children as keen and perceptive as the two protagonists pick up a lot of information without really noticing or later being able to identify their sources.
    This local society seems to be determined by all sorts of power relations – between men and women, parents and children, older and younger siblings, and between neighbours of more or less influence and “wealth”. I suspect that the Camorra, i.e. the local Mafia is playing a part here, and this may be the basis for the fear that Don Achille inspires in everybody. Which takes us back to the “oral society” in a way, because one of the Mafia’s laws is the “omertá”, which means not to talk in order to not betray any secrets to the outside world.
    I find it interesting that Don Achille, in the children’s eyes, is portrayed as a monster, so bad that you can neither understand him nor argue with him. But Lila, the “bad” girl, confronts him. Where does this put her on our good-bad continuum?
    I should tell you that as a young girl I had a fleeting glimpse of Elena’s and Lila’s world: I was spending the holidays on the island of Ischia in the Gulf of Naples with my family. We regularly met a Neapolitan family on the beach, and my parents started to talk to them. In one of these conversations they said that on our way back we should take a look at the “real” Naples and explained to us where to go (somewhere behind the University, if I remember correctly). So we did, and going down some stairs and turning a corner we found ourselves in a different world. At first glimpse it all looked very picturesque, with the washing strung across the streets and old ladies in black sitting on the doorsteps, but pretty soon we felt an atmosphere of aggression and hopelessness surrounding us. It was obvious that we were not welcome at all. People were watching us without answering our “buona sera” and at one point a group of little boys jumped at my father, screaming “mister, mister” and grabbed at his pockets. He was able to brush them off and we retreated as fast as possible. I still wonder what that Neapolitan gentleman in Ischia had in mind when he sent us there.

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    1. I'm glad you mention the Camorra -- I'd meant to, but the post was going on and on. . .

      Something I wanted to add about the oral society of the girls' childhood and the emphasis on emerging literacy: In his Disappearance of Childhood, media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman argues that childhood as we have known it in Eurocentric societies of the past several hundred years is a cultural construct made possible through the post-Gutenberg easy access to print material (and the concomitant possibility of sequestering certain knowledges away from children until they can read).

      Fascinating experience you had visiting Naples in your own childhood, and rather frightening -- I wonder with you what your "friend" was thinking in sending you there. You may recognise your former holiday spot when Elena eventually visits it -- I don't think that's too much of a spoiler...

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    2. It is great that Eleonore visited Ischia,no? We would hear a lot about it from you later,I hope :-)
      D.

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  3. Eleonore,your story add a new dimension-I visited Naples for a couple of days some forty years ago-everything I remembered was an unsecure athmosphere,together with beautiful light and sights.
    Everything (for now) is happening in a very small,well connected but not cherished ,community. Ties and relationships are there,everyone knows "who's who" and it seems that nothing is going to change. The neighbourhood is full of violence,material,emotional and intelectual poverty,with some secret ties.
    To survive,you had to show no fear (but to show obedience when needed),to obey non-written rules,find your gang to protect and be protected. It was dangerous to be special,to expire (even in kind of protected zone as was school). Generosity,kind manners,gentle spirit were considered as weakness. Gender roles were established and were to follow.
    It is interesting how Lila,the fearless,the bad one,the warrior and the most clever ,wanted to conquer the neighbourhood,while Elena,hard working one, wanted to get the scholarship and get out.
    Through her hard work,Elena was not a threat,while nonchalant,brilliant Lila ,with "her quickness of mind....like a lethal bite",was indeed.
    The start of the friendship with throwing and fetching the dolls from the cellar,as well as "visit" to Don Achille,seems to me as a kind of initiation,where roles were set:Lila as the leader,and Elena,along with her decision to held back her despair,as the follower. Yes,one has to ask what was in Lila that made her so fearless,acting with absolute determination?
    This time,school competition was fascinating to me-a lot of things were revealed that I didn't realize clearly the first time reading,especially related to Nino Sarratore!
    It actually set the whole scene for the later developments!
    I agree with Tricia,don't feel any pressure!
    Dottoressa

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    1. D, I tried to reply yesterday from my phone but it is not here! Lila is a warrior and fearless, but she is without armour and shield, don't you think?

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    2. yes,indeed. She has to invent stories and things to protect herself or she fails. Imagine what must be in her core? She have to beat her fears with stubborness and dauntlessness
      And "dissolving margins" episodes? There is always some duality in her, no?
      D

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    3. Dottoressa, I like the clear contrast you set up when you speak of Lila being the one to conquer the neighbourhood and Elena simply to get out of it -- although, of course, most of our readers won't know this yet. . .
      Have to agree with both you and Georgia, though -- both women are more complicated than they might seem, and it's tough to separate them clearly into categories. And yes, Georgia, Lila is so raw. . .

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  4. I am finding it very difficult not to spoil for first time readers...so will just contribute some thoughts on reading this for the second time.

    On the first read I became fixated on finding evidence (which I certainly did) to support my theory that Ferrante always writes about the question of identity in the context of others i.e. how much of who I am is because of my parents/children/partner/friend and am I whole without him/her/them?
    This time, I'm focused on Elena's reliability as a narrator and the degree to which we shape our memories. Earlier books (I think especially Troubling Love/L'Amore Molesto)refer to the protagonist 'forgetting' parts of her history or having memories proven incorrect.

    This is so much fun! Please don't worry about the frequency or timeliness of your posts though...we'll be here, hangin' out, reading...

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    1. Georgia,I so appreciate your insights-so,you make me think related to your theories-yes,it is indeed!
      D.

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    2. I, too, appreciate your insights, especially as you've read Ferrante's backlist. There are so many different ways to read these books, and I can easily imagine rereading them many times to find a different novel on each reading.
      That question of identity and how much it's shaped by others' influence, by context, is so central. . .

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  5. What struck me as I began reading was that the opening paragraph felt like an ascent into hell. No childhood innocence in this world; even the dolls were not happy here, having absorbed by osmosis the terrors of daily life. As young as they were, the girls knew not to trust the light in their world, imagining the dark corners they couldn't see but knew were there. The only colours mentioned---black, bluish, violet, rust, red,yellowish---are the colours of violence and bruises.
    Despite this being Naples, there is no sunshine here, only the "violet light",as the girls leave the bluish light of the courtyard to climb the dark stairway to the darker mouth of the ogre's door, armed only with the only weapon/gift the narrator can imagine a fairy godmother giving: a rusty safety pin which in fact is used for self-harm as the girls form a blood bond to "expose ourselves to fear and interrogate it".

    It is also interesting, given your fascinating Postman comment, to realize that Lila read at age three; she seems to have left childhood earlier than Lenu. Even her doll's dress is ugly yellowish, as if the doll was old compared to Lenu's plastic beauty in blue.

    And a final note on Lenu's relationship with her mother, whose damaged voluptuous body repulsed her daughter. Pretty strong visceral response for a 6 year old! This statement follows her comment that she liked pleasing everyone,except her mother. Her mother, awake often in the night, is described as having a right eye that "you never knew where her [it] was looking". This suggests to me that her mother saw through her daughter's submissive disguise and it angered her. Lena, on the other hand, realizes the eternal threat of her mother's crippled life and seeks to outrun in by keeping pace with "that terrible, dazzling girl".



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    1. I agree, Belle, this is not a society that can afford protected childhoods. Experience quickly shooes innocence out the door.
      I appreciate your attention to colours -- that imagery certainly emphasises violence, and it's true that there's little sense of being in the Meditteranean of any tourist brochures. And that safety pin, in your reading. . . shivers!
      I like very much your extension of my reference to Postman. Interesting that she managed (and was motivated) to hide her reading ability from all around her for several years. Might she have preferred to stay in childhood? Might her inability to do so have something to do with her throwing Elena's doll into that frightful cellar?
      As for her comments about her mother, again, no romanticisation of childhood or the mother-child bond, is there? And visceral, yes, plus so very Gothic (in keeping with your references to fairy-tales). Surely some of this reaction is the adult narrator projecting onto her 6-year-old self. Or not...

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  6. I found it intriguing that Elena only noticed Lila at school in the beginning because she was bad. All the other children were naughty but she was the worst and so stood out. The whole play of violence throughout the early chapters links with the total feeling of claustrophobia emanating from the DDT ridden tenement buildings. There is one intriguing section where they go to explore through a tunnel the outside world. They don't stay too long because of the storm pushing them back.
    Another intriguing comment is about the small animals that came from nowhere and infecting the women more than the men making them bad tempered and violent. Is this a child's understanding of PMT!
    I love the way we find out about Lila's manipulation of her skills. How she holds back information in order to gain the upper hand. E.g. The duel with Enzo. Throughout we sense that Lila always has the upper hand with her skills and knowledge much to Elana's annoyance. B

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    1. First of all, yes, that DDT -- I know people Elena's age who remember playing in its spray behind mosquito-killing trucks. . . such a marker of an era. And that pestilence everywhere -- perhaps you might connect it with the female hormonal cycle, but it's also true that the women were confined to the domestic space that would always be a battleground against an array of disease-carrying creatures.
      And to come back to your opening comment, yes, Lila intrigues Elena because of her willingness to break rules. What hope that might have offered in a society that policed roles so constantly. (And note, as Eleanor pointed out earlier, that the word "cattiva," translated as bad from the original Italian, is a word with many nuances, although I'd nod to Goldstein's movement between the two languages, obviously.

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    2. And sorry, I should have spelled Eleonore's name correctly.

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  7. The idea that the girls are immersed in an oral environment is one that I had not thought much about but it is helping me to think about the way they were able (or willing or not) to code switch with dialect etc. depending upon the environment or audience they were in.

    nyreader

    p.s. my long anecodote about a concerned waiter in a pizzeria in naples telling my family to hurry back to the train station because we seem like "nice people" was eaten by my browser but i think it illuminates that, as recently as 10 years ago, the visceral feel in naples was still one of dread?

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    1. Yes! That code-switching becomes very impressive, doesn't it, and we already see references to it in these opening chapters. (also fascinating that poor Enzo's impressive abilities stay locked in dialect and the schoolroom doesn't seem to have any way to nurture or reward them).
      Disappointed that we lost your anecdote to cyberspace, but it makes a very interesting contrast to Eleonore's, your Neapolitan contact sending you away from danger, hers seeming to have directed her family toward it.

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  8. A child myself in the 1940s I recognise the setting. Their parents probably were involved in the war in some way and of course there would be the old rivalries of communists against fascists, as well as camorrists, so naturally poverty, dereliction, fear and anger abounded, hence Lila's 'Before'. The one thing that I missed in the narrative was the presence of grandparents, the extended family and the church. We are not told why Lena's mother had a bad leg and eye. The children would have listened to conversations and drawn their own conclusions from what they heard.
    Lila's father publically apologised to Don Achille because Lila had beaten Alfonso in the test at school. Enzo was beaten although he had been forced to show his own mathematically ability against Lila, not Alfonso.
    I think that Elena portrays herself with false modesty against Lila, but they remind me of the tortoise and the hare. Lila with her quickness and Lena with her steady studying.
    In my childhood there was still the assumption that girls got married and then stayed at home to bring up the children. You only needed to continue with studies if you were going to be spinster. In my grammar school all mistresses were unmarried. Men were the money makers women made the home. Feminism hadn't reached us then, so probably not for them.

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    1. I also wondered about the absence of grandparents and the church.

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    2. I was just thinking about it- it is usually more common to connect (after the WWII )description of the "neighbourhood " and its customs,traditions and oral culture with undeveloped villages than with suburban areas of a big city (and I am not talking about our or yours villages where traditions could be established to protect people,family values,nice behaviour...Although feminism hadn't reached them, women were not beaten on a daily basis
      Dottoressa

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    3. As we move further into the novel, we will have a few more glimpses of the Church and its culture, but you'll see that . . . well, no, I'll let you read...
      I also think it's worth noting that this isn't just life in the '40s in Italy, but life in a very poor neighbourhood, tightly controlled by a social hierarchy.
      Elena's litany of "things that could kill you" suggests that longevity is rare. As D points out, there's a big difference between the oral culture of an undeveloped village living out longstanding traditions and the disrupted post-industrial culture on the margins of a big city.
      We will begin to see some of the supposedly liberating theories (marxism, feminism, etc.) seeping into the life Elena reaches out toward through her scholarship, but this will remain a luxury in the tenement neighbourhood she starts out from.

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    4. There are, I think, many types of "churches" and in post-war Naples, another institution became the moral arbiter. nyreader

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    5. The fathers all had jobs! Some had shops so they did earn a living! I.e. they were not the really poor who had no work and
      Apart from the gambler who lost his shop did support their families. There is always the danger in reading with todays norms and mores to periods in history

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    6. Yes indeed, nyreader, and the church of criminality was tacitly supported by the order-restoring Allied forces in the post-war years, right?
      And true enough, Jenny, this isn't the most excruciating level of poverty. But then where do you go from this point?

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  9. Mater, a lurker here... I read the series in January, and unfortunately no longer have the first book with me. But would like to participate where my memory serves me.
    As far as point #4, it seems like the device of 'pulling back to the present' is a way of adding a more objective voice to the narrative. I didn't find this jarring, as it just reminded me that we're in the story or a story. But I did find it occasionally irritating that Ferrante still remained vague (i.e. what exactly does she mean by a collapse on the part of Nico? Falling apart because he failed? A collapse that would inform his life?).
    As far as #1, it seems that what is interesting about Lila is that she refuses to conform to her role. She fights, she's proud of her intelligence, etc. Whereas most women act subversively to wield power (isn't twirling their hair a way of wielding power rather than just mitigating intelligence?), Lila acts overtly. I thought the way the two girls attempt to wield power one of the most interesting aspects of the book.
    Thanks for raising some great questions!
    RP

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  10. Very pleased to have your "lurker's comments" here, RP, but now you're in danger of losing lurker status ;-)
    Your comment re my #4: You say, "we're in the story or a story" -- and I think there's an important difference between definite and indefinite article. Surely, Elena is making a claim that she's telling "the" story, but by letting us see that she's the one writing it, we must know that it's only "a story."
    Ah yes, Nico. . . we'll see how important he is to the story, and might think back later to that early collapse, as she characterises it. She can't help view events of childhood through the filter she's constructed over a lifetime, is all I will say for the moment.
    Yes! Lila offers the possibility of resistance.
    Finally, you're welcome, and thank you for responding to the questions and adding to our collective thinking about the novel.

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  11. I am struck in the opening chapters of childhood about how much this is Elena's story, the Elena who leaves Naples and goes to Turin, as we are told in the prologue, as opposed to Lila, who we know does not leave Naples. The purple colors, the dark corners, the fear of darkness, death and violence, all seem to relate to the narrator's portrait of herself as the fearful child, the one who wanted to get away. I am not questioning her view of her childhood, or even that it was not a poor, violent, and dangerous society; I merely note that we do not actually know that this is how Lila saw this same place, and these same people. There are hints throughout that it is not Lila's view, and perhaps that the narrator did not understand this, and although she may have come to understand this later, for now that knowledge is best kept hidden. It strikes me that Elena is a fearful child, and she has latched onto Lila, hoping Lila will lead her out. Lila however does not look like a child interested in leaving, but rather in mastering. That Lila is probably remarkably intelligent is obvious, and she is driven to lead or excel, but I don't think that she sees excelling as leaving. I think she doesn't make much of the fact that she can read, not because it is a sign of weakness, but because although she is driven to master everything, it is not a skill that is overtly usefully to her in her quest (but may be a good tool to keep hidden in her arsenal), in much the same way she understand the rules enough to know that she cannot best Alphonso Caracci, but at the same time she must show that she is his equal. Lila is setting the terms, and she is dangerous. Elena is not dangerous, she is out of the contest early (although she does not tell us why or how), which is in keeping with her need to please everyone, a path of weakness and a dangerous one for a girl who does not want to end up like her mother. I suspect the difficulty with the mother arises from this very tension, and that the mother is aware that Elena's need to please can get her in deep trouble, but is not yet certain if she has the strength to overcome it. This may figure again later in the story.

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