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. . .