Saturday, October 8, 2016

Ferrante ReadAlong, The Plot Thickens. . .

As I begin re-reading Chapter 11 of "The Story about the Shoes," the section of Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend recounting the girls' adolescence, I see the easy temptation to think poorly of Lenù for her constant competition with Lila while, at the same time, she seems to depend on Lila for inspiration. Speaking to Lila about Donato Sorratore's declaration of love for Melina in a book he's actually written and had published, Lenù is impressed by having a painful reality of Sorratore's move (his thoughtlessness and cowardice in raising Melina's hopes; the cost of his romantic gesture being borne by that woman) pointed out to her by her friend. "What wonderful conversations," she thought, noting how well Lila could arrange facts to give them significance, tension -- and she realises that once she is aware of Lila's ability, she begins to see how she could do the same. . . and she does, easily, she claims.

It's very tempting, I say, to think in binaries here, and to see Lenù thus as some kind of parasite, at worst, or a copycat, or perhaps a poor friend simply in the way she keeps some distance in her observations.  But I'm inclined to cut Elena some slack. After all, she was only fourteen or so at the time, and she was so isolated in her community in terms of places to look for intellectual stimulation for women -- yes, Maestra Oliviero was one possibility, but she would have only limited appeal during the years when hormones exercised their vigorous influence. (Besides which, there were considerable limitations on her access to Maestra Oliviero's company.)

And yes, in the confusion of realising that Pasquale has only been using her to get closer to Lila, in the frustration of seeing Lila's commitment to her shoe project take time from the intellectual discussions she so cherished, hungered for, was deprived of everywhere else, she blurts out her news about high school, wants Lila to recognise that "she couldn't do without me, as I couldn't do without her." And as a weak counter, Lila, with "the expression of someone at a loss," can only tell Lenù that her period finally arrived.

But tempted as I am to judge Elena harshly for feeling, and acting out of, envy and jealousy, I also admire her willingness to recount and analyse her adolescent behaviour so honestly.  Again, we see evidence of the filtering she can exercise as a narrating writer. She says, near the end of Chapter 11 "It seemed to me--articulated in words of today. . . " and I think how easily she could have expunged her own callowness. Instead, she dares to tell us some nasty truths about her adolescent friendship and thus allows us, perhaps, to admit some truths about our own.

Some readers may assume at first that the friendship is one-sided, that Lenù brings nothing to Lila while Lila is the one who offers strength, the street savvy to rescue Lenù from the Solaras boy-men, for example. But when Lenù has the marvelous opportunity to visit Naples city centre with her father, the "boundaries of the neighbourhood" beginning to fade for her, finally, she stores up everything she sees with the idea of telling Lila all about it. When she gets home, and does so, she is met with an apparent lack of curiosity which she works to persuade herself isn't malicious, that Lila "simply had her own train of thought that was fed on concrete things."

One of those concrete things is the dance parties the adolescents begin to join in the community, and one day, practising their steps (Lenù has discovered she likes to dance, whereas for Lila it's a skill that must be mastered), Lila's brother comments on their lack of a gramophone. This gives Lila the opportunity to reveal something: she's begun studying Greek on her own. "Would she always do the things I was supposed to do, before and better," Lenù wonders. She sees that Lila "eluded me when I followed her and meanwhile stayed close on my heels in order to pass me by." So it seems clear that both girls are inspired -- or egged on, rather? -- by the other. What seems sad to me, and what I think the novel does a brilliant job of showing, is that rather than knowing they could collaborate to lift each other up and beyond the limitations of the neighbourhood, they instead get caught up in an unhealthy competition.

So much has been written in feminist theory about the cost to women of the patriarchal systems that grant women subjectivity primarily, even only, as sexual objects in the gaze of men, about the ways that limited subjectivity works to ensure our competitiveness with each other even as we ultimately become substitutes for one another. I won't revisit that theory here, but the collective insights of such work over the past decades could well be brought to bear, and made manifest, in the last two paragraphs of Chapter 15, as Lenù watches the males watching Lila dance, and realises that they "were seeing more than I was." And that this realisation is twinned with Lenù's "permanent sense of inadequacy and shame" which she hoped would pass but which, in fact, only intensified.

Chapter 16, though. Wow! this is where the rubber really hits the road. The intensity of the males' desire for Lila, for, as the adult Elena writes it, "the figure of a fourteen-year-old girl" culminates in an explosive scene where the various powers of the community are revealed. I would say this is where the elements of the novel are put in action by the catalytic dance with Marcello, but in his rage afterward, Pasquale outlines how long those elements have already been in gear, just waiting, it seems, to catch up the next generation.

And when Lila finishes her unusual bout of tears, she gets to the point, wanting to understand the outside, larger forces that turn her neighbourhood into something of a puppet show -- a puppet show marked by "the sum of all the crimes that human beings have committed and commit." While Lila is forced to eschew further formal education, she makes her community something of a classroom, while augmenting it with what she's able to study independently, loosely following Lenù's curriculum.

Significant that she fixes on the story of Dido, who compromised her powerful role as queen when she fell in love with Aeneas. Lila understands the importance of holding herself back from the male advances, although she uses the energy from those advances in dubious ways. Again, I remind myself how very young these girls are. Despite her youth, however, Lila is determined to understand their place in the world around them, to understand how what came before is written already in their blood, as Lenù summarises it.

And I find this one of the most powerful paragraphs of this section -- indeed, of the novel, perhaps even of the quartet -- the paragraph in which Elena recognises that Pasquale has given Lila enough information that she can now try to order into significance, complementing what he tells her with library research.
So she gave concrete motives, ordinary faces to the air of abstract apprehension that as children we had breathed in the neighbourhood. Fascism, Nazism, the war, the Allies, the monarchy, the republic--she turned them into streets, houses, faces, Don Achille and the black market, Alfredo Peluso the Communist, the Camorrist grandfather of the Solaras, the father, Silvio, a worse Fascist than Marcello and Michele, and her father, Fernando the shoemaker, and my father, all--all--in her eyes stained to the marrow by shadowy crimes, all hardened criminals or acquiescent accomplices, all bought for practically nothing.
Let me close this post -- finally! -- by noting how cleverly and circuitously Elena brings us back, finally, to the New Year's Eve party with which "The Story of the Shoes" began. Go back and look, if you can spare a minute, at the move from Chapter 1 to Chapter 2, when it seems as if we're done with the episode of the party and the fireworks and Lila's dissolving margins, although our narrator has promised that she will return later to explain the ritual involved in the firework. In fact, reread the description of Lila's experience -- as recounted to Lenù much later -- and you might think about how terrifying it must have been, having worked to impose order on the chaotic information she's gleaned about her community, to see "the outline of the world" broken down into a "demonstrat[ion of] its terrifying nature."

From a structural analysis perspective, I'm fascinated by how that moment we get a brief glimpse of in Chapter 1 -- illuminated, in that Chapter, mainly by disclosures Lila made to Elena many years later -- is put in a much, much larger context by the twenty chapters that come between it and the ensuing reference to that New Year's Eve. It's worth thinking about what this narrative approach says about the relation between what we see and what's happening behind the scenes. As well, we might think about why that New Year's Eve was pivotal enough for Elena that she's organised "The Story of the Shoes" around it.

Enough for now, and I'm travelling a bit over the next few days, meeting up with Pater after two weeks apart. But I will have Wifi along the way, and I will enjoy reading your comments and thinking through any complications you raise or insights you offer or objections you shout ;-)

And I'm going to take the book along and see how soon I can post something about the next ten chapters. I suspect my pace is far too slow for you, but honestly, given that I'm travelling, I'm reading and writing as fast as I can! (although I must admit that I've got some other reading going on behind the scenes -- I'll tell you about that soon as well, and feel free to tell me what you might have on your bedside stand or kitchen table or wherever you like to stash your #AmReading pile. . .

A plus tard. . .

18 comments:

  1. A few hours after rereading these chapters, I was listening to a CBC article linking the current practice of incarcerating blacks in the US to the former practice of lynching them, and was struck by the author's insistence on a direct line. His insistence that the main difference was merely one of inside vs outside. Echoes of lines I'd underlined in Chapter 17 and 18 came to mind. Lenu's comment that Lila now began "to link one thing to another in a chain that tightened around you on all sides", as opposed to the previous generation who had "placed a stone on top of it". And I remembered the shock when Black Lives Matter pointed out racism existed even in Canada, even in a community that itself had been victimized. And then the racist taunts at a recent Blue Jays game. And the rising level of hate speech throughout the Western world. As the scales fall from Lila's eyes, "she looked as if she had woken up". Can't help hoping a few more of us have also.

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    1. What an intriguing -- and trenchant, really -- connection you make here, Belle. Yes! Lila seems determined to raise her consciousness, to try to understand the governing ideology she's caught up in, and hers is an inspiring example -- although it costs her so, doesn't it?!

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  2. At this point I think that Lila realises that she is not going to leave the neighbourhood, nor can she change the vested interests of the various political and criminal organisations, nor will she write her own novel, but she could and will create a new neighbourhood, where she in a way will create her own story. She will use her alpha female position in order to manipulate her cast to do what she wants. However she under estimates, or does not understand yet that emotions cannot be controlled all of the time.

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    1. Jenny,I agree with you-it was the only choice for Lila when she had realized that she's the one to stay-she wanted to conquer and change the neighbourhood and Elena wanted to change herself and to find her place in the world
      Dottoressa

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    2. I'm curious, Jenny: when you call Lila an "alpha female," do you mean she has dominance over the other females? Surely not over males, right? Do you expect that she will be able to make huge changes in the neighbourhood, or do you think that she will be checked very quickly by those much bigger forces she's able to visualise?

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    3. 'The Alpha Female is a strong, majestic female. She can often be intimidating to those around her and isn't afraid to ask for what she wants. She's killing it in her career and has a solid group of friends to rely on. There's nothing quite as brilliant as a woman with confidence and ambition.
      This quote sums it up for me precisely.
      Lila needs to use her talents, yes she will meet challenges because life itself is unpredictable but she is a fighter not a follower.

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  3. Lila is a highly divisive figure,with a couple of very hard milestones,with times of silence,solitudine(seclusions),time taken to reinvent herself.
    Pasquale was the first and Solara brothers second to follow,who discover seductive femme fatale rising in Lila.
    The episode with Lila,Elena and the knife, lead Marcello and Michele to see Lila in a completely different light. They even apologized (what was considered in the neighbourhood the highest form of humiliation)
    Elena is,beside beeing the hard worker,highly intelligent,she realizes that Lila could conquer what she decide to fight for,if only showing to Elena, that she could be better (in Greek,Latin,English....),seducing....
    I agree with you that the two of them are like an island in the sea of uneducated and brutal neighbourhood.
    Elena ,as a writer, seem to be brutally honest and sincere (but is she really? We know what she wanted us to know-and here is why I don't want to know who Ferrante really is,because it could spoil Elena to me as well as Ferrante herself as a person),about herself,as well as the others.
    The second tipping point to Elena (the first one was Sarratore's book),was when, spending the only day in her life with her father,the doors to the beautiful world outside the neighbourhood were open for her. She tried to keep all the splendour in her mind to share it with Lila,who was anchored to the reality of the neighbourhood,not interested in spaces she hadn't opportunity to go. How sad....
    After the Gigliola's mother's party, where all the young men were mesmerized with Lila's magnetic appeal ,and in the whirlwind of events,masks had fallen and past revealed: Nazi Fascist,monarchist,black market,camorra...
    Pasquale's answer to Lila had moved and altered her-all people,things and acts had different meaning- and "dissolving margins" states were more often there
    Dottoressa

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    1. Having read all four volumes, as have you, it's hard not to be swayed by knowing what Lila's supposed "femme fatale" status brings her in life. And I keep wanting to shout out "She's only 14"!!! I mean, I've raised three daughters, I've spent some time with Fourteen!! And from the way Ferrante writes about daughters, in this series and elsewhere, I think she might as well. . . and perhaps there's something to think about, in how ready we are to link that still immature sexuality with power, even when we range it against all those bigger forces, those reins held in the hands of whichever Patriarchy.

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  4. I don't see their friendship as one-sided and might go so far as to say they feed off one another. And they are like an island! And I have just deleted a longish rant that seemed on rereading to be a spoiler...so will save it for the right time.
    For the last while, I haven't wanted to like or dislike the characters in what I'm reading (I consider this a message from my mind/body, the same way I occasionally have a craving for bitter greens). That could be why I have enjoyed Ferrante so much. It's so interesting and thought-provoking, but doesn't drag me through an emotional quagmire. Have been having a first go at espionage and other than that sticking with mostly non-fiction. I still have Paris 1919 on the go and am trying to make it last. I am looking for a European history book(s) that will take me from post 1789 French Revolution to early 20th century. Any suggestions?

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    1. Darn, I would have liked to see that long rant -- I, too, dislike being held back by consideration of spoiler potential. If I were in the classroom still, I'd be able to say it was all fair game, since students should have done the reading, but, of course, that doesn't work with a read-along, and I'm not a teacher here. . . . Still, in many ways, while this format of reading together is fun, it's limiting as I think these chapters need to be considered against what comes later. So I guess I just have to follow your example and save those thoughts.
      As to your second paragraph -- Yes!! I get so frustrated at this notion that we need to like characters or, as my students often used to say, find them "relatable" (that last word, a relatively recent usage, is a pet peeve of mine). I would argue that at least some of Literature/Art's point is to expose us to/make us think about positions that are different from our own, to people we might not relate to, in our day-to-day environments, might actively dislike.

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  5. Georgia,are you looking for non-fiction or some novels?
    It is hard to me to be completely objective and not to like or dislike even subconsciously some characters,but I'm still trying
    Just finished Eileen by Ottessa Mosfegh,well-it was some training of this kind
    D.

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    1. D, I'm looking for non-fiction. I should go to the library and look for something I guess.

      It is hard to stay at a distance from the characters but I especially don't like it when the author tries to impose some emotion upon the reader. Maybe I want to be made to think, not feel?

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    2. Ah, this is interesting -- you mean something different in your irritation with the notion of liking a character. Hmmm, I'll have to think about this. I would say that I often align with a narrating character's perspective temporarily, even while part of me tracks and probably judges that character's behaviour. But I definitely end up liking or disliking characters. I'd love to chat more about this and to see some examples of your feeling that the author is attempting to make you feel something that you're wanting to resist.

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    3. Hmmm, I am thinking too...I have jumbled several things together. I prefer my characters in shades
      of grey, please, 'relatable' not a requirement. In all my Ferrante reading I don't think I have ever 'liked' a character. And the stories...they don't really make me cry, or laugh, but I think about them, and yes, definitely feel things, but they're not maybe the same feelings as other readers and not Ferrante's goal in writing, I'm sure. Ah, so maybe not 'comedies' or 'tragedies'? More thinking required.

      I won't forget my rant but will save it for the end. :)

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  6. In this section it strikes me that there are no real role models for these girls, only each other, and they both support and compete with each other for they know nothing else. It is sad really, but it is also apparent that they will be each commanding although in different arenas. I'm not sure they fully understand that what means yet. How could they? They are only 14.

    I am also fascinated by how they mirror and complement each other, whether in actually or by design of the writer to make a particular point, I don't yet discern. Interesting.

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    1. Exactly so, Mardel. I look back at my own adolescence and sometimes think about how few female role models there were for me--how much more the case that was for these two -- and for the other girls in their community, for that matter.
      Yes, there is some kind of symbiosis, almost, isn't there? or is one rather the foil of the other. . .

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  7. Right from the start it seemed to me that Lila has a very keen sense for power structures some of which she seems to accept (or even bend to her purposes), others she challenges and some she tries to ignore. So it is not surprising to me that as an adolescent she begins to question these structures. That is the age when most young people try to know about their parents’ past and uncover what they take to be their parents’ secrets. And much more so in a place like post-fascist Italy where the parental generation had a lot to hide and where society was based on the tacit agreement to cover up all crimes committed in the past.
    As for the relations between the sexes and the inherent violence I was reminded of this photograph I saw some time ago in a friend’s house:
    http://images.google.de/imgres?imgurl=http%3A%2F%2Fimgc.allpostersimages.com%2Fimages%2FP-473-488-90%2F87%2F8766%2FUQCT300Z%2Fposters%2Fruth-orkin-american-girl-in-italy-1951.jpg&imgrefurl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.allposters.co.uk%2F-sp%2FAmerican-Girl-in-Italy-1951-Posters_i13158125_.htm&h=315&w=473&tbnid=8U0n0lxpUSfa0M%3A&docid=-4DEGDJ0lSKZzM&ei=dvIFWJbgK4Lzas6RtagK&tbm=isch&client=firefox-b&iact=rc&uact=3&dur=360&page=0&start=0&ndsp=27&ved=0ahUKEwiW88_3i-TPAhWCuRoKHc5IDaUQMwgcKAAwAA&bih=733&biw=1536
    I could almost put names on all these young men: Pasquale, Nino, Antonio… Although I have to add that it was taken in Florence, not Naples, and that the “American girl” later said she did not feel harassed at all and all the men had been perfectly polite…
    http://images.google.de/imgres?imgurl=http%3A%2F%2Fmedia4.s-nbcnews.com%2Fj%2FMSNBC%2FComponents%2FSlideshows%2F_production%2Fss-110817-Ruth-Orkin%2Fss-110917-Ruth-Orkin-American-Girl-in-Italy.grid-8x2.jpg&imgrefurl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.today.com%2Fid%2F44182286%2Fns%2Ftoday-today_news%2Ft%2Fsubject-american-girl-italy-photo-speaks-out%2F&h=438&w=640&tbnid=nyUJdtz1Pxl0vM%3A&docid=xol5ikG1QFC_5M&ei=dvIFWJbgK4Lzas6RtagK&tbm=isch&client=firefox-b&iact=rc&uact=3&dur=988&page=0&start=0&ndsp=27&ved=0ahUKEwiW88_3i-TPAhWCuRoKHc5IDaUQMwglKAkwCQ&bih=733&biw=1536

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    1. I've seen this striking photo before, but didn't think of it in terms of this novel until you linked to it here. Yes, you really could put names from our characters onto these faces -- and despite what the American photographer and friend claim, I think there's an energy that could be violent, exciting as it might have been to those two young travellers who can easily move back out of the community -- not so easy for our two. It's also interesting to think about the huge gap between the life experience and possibilities those American women had -- Lila might have that spirit and confidence and intelligence but she will never make it out of Naples....

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