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. . .


  1. Funny to see that you've marked the same sentences as me,about one of the tipping points in Elena's adolescence,when she realized that wishes could come true-ordinary person she has known in the reality, like Donato Sarratore,could write and publish a book.
    Real life,love,things she knew,could be an inspiration for a book.
    Beside this,Elena has noticed that " Lila started to change not only phisically but in the way she expresses herself-injecting words and reality with energy (!!!))"
    It has inspired Elena to do the same
    When Rino and Lila entrusted Elena with the secret about shoe-making,she realized that she needed Lila more than Lila needed her(as I commented before), and as her point ,she revealed her secret about going to high school and learning Greek as well as Latin. Lila became stunned , and as a counter attack,told Elena about her period.
    Maestra Oliviera's advice about not loosing time with Pasquale (or any other boy from neighbourhood) was well meant,because love bonds could prevent Elena from leaving.
    We girls,here in Croatia,were lucky,because it was very imporant in school,to be clever. We were all encouraged to learn,to read,to prepare ourselves for the same positions as the boys.
    Of course,outside the school,it was important to be pretty,too-but there was no such a social pressing about popularity-I didn't feel it. We didn't have Queens or Kings of the ball or whatever !
    It was important to be developed early,to be an adult,to have breasts and girls,like everywhere ,like to boast!
    I am sad about revealing Ferrante's identity -I really think that writers have the right to remain anonymous,if they wish so. And there is a kind of magic and mistery about the book alone

  2. Yes, absolutely agree about Maestra Oliviero -- no matter how clever a girl is, a boyfriend can be a huge stumbling block, no matter how good he is.
    And yes, you were very lucky, as was I with parents who really emphasised the value of education. But there was considerable social pressure at high school with very clear hierarchies. . . and for girls, while smarts counted, looks seemed to be tantamount.
    and glad you agree re Ferrante's identity. Writers of her calibre give us so much already. Certainly, they don't owe us their personal lives.

  3. I may return with some comments on chapters 11 through 20 but wanted to document my thoughts about Ferrante's identity before they leave me.

    I don't want to know more about her! As you say, M, all I want from her is what she is willing to give me, freely. And so far, that feels like a lot.

    The other part, my second thought, is the discussion of identity/anonymity in the context of the blogging world...especially the commenters. We reveal our thoughts and back and forth...we don't always know each others' names, where we live, what we look doesn't diminish our discussion, I don't think...

    1. Such an interesting angle to add, Georgia -- we tend to fetishise whatever we think of as "identity," but you're right that not having that about each other here, at least, I don't feel as if the discussion is diminished at all.

  4. I'm still fascinated by Elena and Lila's relationship and how Elena almost feeds off Lila. I'm reminded of the stories my mother told me of her first period in the mid 1930s. Like Elena her mother hadn't warned her. She was attending a concert at the Albert hall, went to the loo and thought she was about to die. When she got home her mother gave her strips of sheeting and told her to get on with it. A whole different era. To make amends she filled me in with all I needed to know at a very early age. I then had to wait until I was 15 to put this information to good use. I definitely felt left behind and very immature. Something tells me lilas intellect didn't worry about such things. B

    1. So your mother's world was a broader one that Elena's, even a couple of decades earlier (the concert, Albert Hall), but the experience was similar. And even though she eased you in more thoughtfully to the sorority, you share something of that sense of comparison so many adolescent girls are subjected to. We might hope Lila escapes this, but note that it's the only thing she can fling at Lenu's announcement re high school. . .

  5. Elena Ferrante exposed! Typical journalistic meaness. I quite like the idea of Ferrante being a man. It would explain why there is no gentleness in the story, I know it is based in Naples but I find that to be missing in the story as a whole. Lenu is learning that it pays to be in the slipstream of someone else, she has to physically study hard but she also benefits from others without giving anything in return. I feel so sorry for Lila, such a clever child denied further education and desperately trying to use that intelligence in meaningful ways. 

    1. I've honestly very little curiosity about Ferrante's gender, but I would say that her work clears space for recognising that some women are not as nurturing or "gentle" as you put it.
      And is it completely true that Lenu gives nothing in return? Isn't her open wanting, her searching, her hoping, her willingness to follow something? I'm rather loath, I must say, to condemn such a young girl. To me, it seems more appropriate to recognise the systemic limitations both girls face, the various ways they manage to construct possibilities around and through and against a patriarchal, conservative, very stratified society.

    2. 1am fascinated by how truly subjective reading can be. I seem to have a completely different perspective on the story so far. I do not like the character of Lenu. For me she acts the way that she thinks will get her admired and liked. That type of character can be seen throughout history don't you agree?

    3. Honestly, I don't see how it could be anything else, Jenny. We bring so much of what we find in a text along with is. I tend to suspend judgement longer in assessing characters, perhaps, but I wouldn't ever argue Lenu's particularly likeable. You might admire her before you're done, though. Or maybe not...

  6. Elena Ferrante exposed! Typical journalistic meaness. I quite like the idea of Ferrante being a man. It would explain why there is no gentleness in the story, I know it is based in Naples but I find that to be missing in the story as a whole. Lenu is learning that it pays to be in the slipstream of someone else, she has to physically study hard but she also benefits from others without giving anything in return. I feel so sorry for Lila, such a clever child denied further education and desperately trying to use that intelligence in meaningful ways. 

  7. Sorry this appears twice, blame it on my Ipad!

  8. It is interesting to me how much Elena and Lila still need each other. Elena is not necessarily happy to see how much she needs Lila, and it is her story for the telling after all, so not surprising that it seems one sided. She seems to gloss over how much Lila needs her, and how little she reciprocates here. But I am not saying she does not reciprocate, but she seems to slip by. There is a difference here then, in their views of the world, of what they notice, and what they miss, probably based on how easy or difficult it is to slip through the different challenges that life presents each of them. And they have different challenges.

    It is interesting to me that Lenu's mother urges her to study on her own to retake the exam, and that Lila helps her. A twist on the earlier story, where Lila wanted to study on her own, but had no assistance, and no one to stand up for her to pay to take the exam. Does Lenu even recognize the parallels and the dichotomy? Supposedly so since she tells the story, but she leaves it open to interpretation.

    It is painful to see Lila's plight in this period, including the dropping out of whatever lesser school she has been sent to, which in and of itself is completely understandable. She has so much potential and yet it is walled in at every turn.

  9. Yes, it is painful. Imagine how many bright children. . . .so much potential wasted...
    And even at that class, that level of socio-economic expectations, the constraints of that Camorra-controlled neighbourhood, the difference that just a modicum of adult support could make, the tiny shifts possible. . .