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. . .