Sunday, October 23, 2016

Our Ferrante ReadAlong Continues, Chapters 21-30 of "Story of the Shoes"

It seems to me that in this section we start to see these adolescents, nearing adulthood,  beginning to sort out ways to exercise some agency, to try to make a difference, to change their communities and the systems that control them, even if they scarcely have any models for how they might do so. As Elena recounts Lila thinking, Stefano, for example, "wanted to try to get out of the before." It's a naïve hope, perhaps, but also a bold one, and it captures the imagination of the young crowd enough that they join in his plan for New Year's Eve of wanting to clear away the past.

Yet it's in the middle of this decisive move, this erasing of the acrimony between the Pelusos and the Caraccis (never mind that they only unite to strengthen their enmity against the Solaras!), that Elena sees that her potential boyfriends are all "waiting for their war of men" and don't even pay attention to Lila, never mind Lenù. And while one local prejudice might be overcome, Lenù links the fighting represented by the fireworks to long-past civil wars such as the ones "between Romulus and Remus, between Marius and Silla, between Caesar and Pompey." In other words, as much as Stefano might want to get out of the "before," the weight of history is not so easily lifted.

At a time when hormones are pushing the young women toward the young men, then, the young women are simultaneously seeing their childhood friends -- and for Lila, horrifyingly, her beloved brother Rino, in full testosterone-fueled combat. As "males whose bodies gave off a heat hotter than the fires in the sky."

And from the moment of this recognition on, Lila sinks into depression, and when she rallies, it's only to think of ways to make money, and that only for the sole goal of "fix[ing] Rino's head." Yet Rino's desire for money as a means to power and independence gets in the way, and he pushes against his father's own lifetime of frustated desire to the point of an explosion in the family which Lila can't find any way out of other than apparently accepting a traditional domestic role for the time being.

Yet she's certainly not ready to accept the traditional female role of wife, which she's apparently approaching even at the early age of 14, and she turns down Pasquale's attentions and then, shockingly, Marcello's. Elena, the adult writer, admits that she "felt a pang" on learning this, on seeing that Lila had become, in her teen-aged eyes, a "woman capable of making anyone bend to her will." The adult Elena has also just described Lila's inability to change her father's mind about the shoes, however, so we should keep in mind that fourteen-year-olds don't always see the world as it is.

Lenù does see the danger in Lila's insult to Marcello, however, especially when she finds that Lila, who never gossips, has told everyone about refusing Marcello's proposal.  And I would say that the next several chapters make it very clear how far Lila is from being able to make anyone bend to her will. Neither she nor any of the other girls are able to stop the horrifying fight that ensues when the group of friends on a Saturday night passeggiata in town, where they encounter young people who seem "absolutely different from us," so different that Lenù and Lila's group is not even "perceptible" -- a "humiliaating difference."

In the moment of that fight's beginning, Lila wears "an expression of disbelief, as if a thousand fragments of our life. . . were composing an image that was finally clear," and the fight culminates with the Solara brothers' help which is, albeit saving their friends from certain harm, a terrifying help marked by "a cold ferocity that [Elena] hope[s] never to see again in my life" -- and note, she's saying this in her 60s, not as a naīvely shocked young woman. Still, at the time, Lenù is not as attuned to the potential dangers as Lila is, but Lila has more reason to be so attuned -- Marcello Solara, she begins to realise, is not going to be so easy to refuse. If you're planning to go on (and honestly, how will you resist after this 1st volume?!) you might pay careful attention here, because so much of the series is built around Lila's determination to refuse this man and his (and his family's) determination to have her.

Meanwhile, however, as Lila worries that there might be "something wrong with me" because "I make people do the wrong thing" -- and how deeply entrenched is that notion in so many cultures, in Christianity certainly, and before that Judaism, Eve being forever blamed for tempting poor hapless Adam -- Lenù is torn between her responsibilities to her friend and her justified excitement about spending a few weeks at the seaside.

Surely we're not going to begrudge her that, even if she reproaches herself for it. As I continue to repeat, she's only 14! And although she doesn't realise it yet, her taking this step out of the community is at least as significant a step toward erasing some of the "before" -- and certainly a more effective one, in the long run -- as is Stefano's fireworks party. Maestra Oliviero, as the single educated woman in the community, battling as best she can to pull at least one of her young female charges out of their poverty, has a big emotional investment in pushing Lenù toward the seaside, toward a vision of a new life Beyond. But so does Elena's mother, apparently, and while we might have expected more resistance from the family, she even makes her daughter a bathing suit.

I suspect some of you will disagree with me and think that Lenù could somehow have been a better friend, have stayed home to support Lila in refusing Marcello's proposal. I can only feel sympathy that a young woman who has worked so hard for another possibility in life should have to feel so divided, so guilty, over accepting such a huge opportunity.

Already, it's clear that she's feeling such division over her ties to her mother and to her teacher. The latter strikes Lenù as acting in loco parentis even as her "real" mother the "one with the injured leg and the wandering eye" is right there but treated as if she "were only a disposable living being and as such not to be taken into consideration."  Interesting how closely this perception echoes Lenù's awareness that the young people in the piazza in Naples treat her group as "not perceptible" or "not interesting." In the last paragraphs of Chapter 29, Elena, narrating, seems to recognise her mother's care for her -- she doesn't call it "love" but she notes that her mother is fearful for her, and even asks an old sailor to watch out for her during the crossing.

Still, Elena remembers so many years later, even as she's aware of her mother's concern for her, she is happy -- if terrified also -- to be "leaving home. . . by sea [such that] The large body of my mother--along with the neighbourhood, and Lila's troubles--grew distant, and vanished."

And just as Elena has noted earlier when her group of friends go into town that it "was like crossing a border," we see that she's crossed a border here as well. She begins Chapter 30 with a simple, two-word sentence, "I blossomed." Honestly, I love this chapter, the openness we see being introduced into Elena's life. I can imagine what it would have taken for her to go the beach alone, to wear a swimsuit in public for the first time after an upbringing such as hers, the courage it would have taken to wade out to her depth in the sea --- and then her recognition that she can swim already, her recovered vision of her mother's early care. I'm not sure she could ever have been able to see her mother that way without the necessary distance the seaside gave her.

And her awareness, as our narrating senior, that she learned here, for the first time a pleasure that was often repeated throughout her life, "the joy of the new."

And her lack of homesickness, except for missing Lila. Her fear that her own life's "intensity and importance" was dependent on, or linked to, Lila's presence in her life. I don't, as some of you seem to, find her parasitic in this fear. Rather, I'm aware of the isolation a young woman had to suffer at that time and place to move beyond it. She shouldn't have had to choose, but there's little question of her fate if she hadn't, and we would have had no story, I suspect, as she would have been absorbed into the community, another woman bitterly raising a houseful of children, resenting her husband while completely dependent on him.

And one more paragraph beginning with a conjunction, if you don't mind. . . . When I was in Berlin, I kept seeing the word "Kunst," and trying to remember what it meant. "Art," it finally came to me, and immediately on its heels, the word "kunstlerroman." This last word denotes a literary genre that might be summed up by James Joyce's title "The portrait of the artist as a young man." A more particular form of the bildungsroman, a kunstlerroman is a novel which tells of the growth of an artist (until the last half of the 20th century, almost exclusively male) to maturity. As soon as I clicked from remembering that Kunst meant Art to thinking of the kunstlerrroman, it was only another quick brain-click to begin thinking about Ferrante's Neapolitan series as an example of this genre.

After all, we began the novel with a recognition that Elena wields the power of the pen, and we know that the girls have both dreamt of becoming writers. I won't tell you too much of what happens in the subsequent volumes, but you might imagine that Elena's commitment is eventually rewarded. I'm going to suggest that thinking about the series this way might encourage us to think about whether we would expect a developing young male artist to turn away from his drive to education and art/writing to attend to a friend. Pretty clearly, there have been many such writers and artists and musicians and actors throughout the centuries whose horrid social behaviour we excuse because of their talent. But from her earliest awareness, even Elena herself has judged her achievements against her social behaviour and too often found herself wanting.

I'll stop here, and continue next post with chapters 31-40 -- and we'll be able to discuss the "bombshell" that her landlady inadvertently drops at the end of Chapter 30. . .  For now, I welcome your comments about chapters 21-30 -- and don't feel I'm going to be such an apologist for Elena that I don't want to hear your objections to my reading. 


  1. I found Lenù's sense of release when she arrived on the island wonderful too. The feeling that she had escaped her shackled life for this idyllic place. When she is given the news that she can stay on Ischia by Maestra Oliviero she says she feels like her mother. Interestingly her description of her real mother vanishing as she sets out on the ferry, as if wiping away her normal life. Her disbelief in her mother telling her she had taught her to swim.
    Her comments about how she loved everything even the mundane. Interesting how she writes to Lila every day bragging about how good things are. Typical young teenager taunting I think. And yes the bombshell at the end of chapter 30!

    1. Can you imagine the freedom she must have felt? Rhetorical question, obviously, but you can almost hear chains dropping, veils falling. . .
      Yes, I think the daily account is thoughtless and there's a sense of taunting, but we also know it arises because she needs Lila's validation still . . . and, of course, as I know from just having traveled on my own for a short time, there's the desire to share our new experiences with someone who might appreciate them as we do, and Lila's the closest possibility for Lenù. . . for now. . .

  2. Lenu needs no apologist; she "urgently needed reinforcements of attention and admiration", not to be
    congratulated for her persistence, her diligence, her discipline. She also knows that in this town she "left no mark" while Lila "left her imprint". How Lila wields that power is not Lenu's responsibility. Lenu must save herself.

    I was reminded of a profile of the artist Niki de Saint Phalle in the New Yorker last spring, where she explains why she had to abandon her children to pursue life as an artist, something no woman could do without incurring harsh judgment. But do we even think of male artists as
    fathers with family duties? Do we judge Picasso for abandoning his kids? And Lenu is only 14...

    1. Yes! This is very much how I feel. I've never felt such a pull toward a creative-intellectual life that I could turn away from my own children, but I've admired the work of male artists who have done precisely that. And the age. The age is a big argument for me. . .

  3. I need to fess up and say that I have read all four books and that they now have been returned to the library. Therefore I can only comment from memory and your observations Mater.
    The books are fiction not an autobiography by Elena Ferrante. The Elena who is the narrator of these series is supposedly writing Lila's story but it reads more like Lenu's story. Characters in Fiction have to be believable, hence likeable or not, otherwise we wouldn't bother to read the book. One has to allow for different time period settings  and understand fully the background as it was then not through our modern views. In a catholic country morals and sexual behaviour were very important and male members of a family would guard their unmarried daughters and sisters.  As the neighbourhood males their females from outsiders.
    My recollection of these chapters is of Lenu's blossoming from her summer holiday, until the incident of Nino's father. It brought back memories of my own adolescence and of feeling self conscious of my appearance and whether I was attractive to the opposite sex. That I think is why these books are a success they make us think about our own lives.

    1. Yes, so much about these novels trigger connections with our own past as girls and women. I haven't yet spoken to men who have read them -- I'll have to encourage my husband to, once I'm ready to let go of this volume again -- meanwhile, he's working through Knausgaard, so it might be a while...

  4. I agree, Jenny, it's the story of Elena/Lenu in the context of her relationship with Lila. Ferrante's choice to name her protagonist Elena, the same name she publishes under, is interesting.

    The relationship between the girls is interesting. I often tend to feel more sympathetic toward Lenu, because I don't think it's easy to be second best, despite the fact that Lila seems to drive her desire to succeed. She also recognizes (at least in hindsight) what's missing in Lila...her ability to know when to pull back, or to sense danger...or something...

    1. Yes, I would say I align myself much more with Lenu. However much we might question her version of events, she at least offers one and she appears self-reflexive, thoughtful, and often very vulnerable. Lila, on the other hand, seems nearly opaque -- it's nearly impossible to imagine her opening up to us, to sharing her feelings, her thoughts.

  5. The Bildungsroman indeed!
    As children,Lila and Rino were united,trying to protect each other in their family and "rione"(neighbourhood). They believed that they would be always here for the other. Growing up,they paths split although Rino still thinks that his sister,if she only would ,could make the money-with her designs,her vigor,their dreams about shoes factory (but things were not so easy as they imagined) -or even as the beauty who will marry money.
    Lila believed that her brother would always be there for her,to protect her against "before",to be on her side!
    Her disappointment when she realized his real personality and position among the others at New Year's Eve was overwhelming and has led her to depression(she always retires and takes a break after great milestones-good or bad-in her life)-she had to think about how to make money and "fix" Rino and their lives,I agree
    Crossing the borders of the neighbourhood during their passeggiata,Elena was astonished how different girls and women,living in the same city as they,were. It put boys in bad mood and girls "felt uneasy and yet invisible"-the fight and drive home in Solara's car revealed a lot of things. Who doesn't obey family (or Family) rules,has to be punished.
    I am so sorry that Elena felt guilty for leaving and betraying Lila while spending a few weeks at Ischia,but I agree with you and bella- " Lila left her imprint" in neighbourhood,she was established as "femme fatale" at 14 -Elena had to find her path and make her prints somewhere else. But,what a new,beautiful world she did find,nice,gentle,caring people,civility,freedom,sea,sun... happiness,"the joy of the new"...let's stay here for now
    And I believe that a lot of Elena's mother behaviour comes from "fear of the new" for her daughter.
    Irene Caselli identifies neighbourhood as "Rione Luccatti",famous as dangerous and controlled by camorra,part of Naples

    1. Thanks so much for mentioning Casselli's comments on the neighbourhood. I found the article you're referring to, and I'll add it to the next post--I think other readers would find it interesting. (meanwhile, if anyone else is looking for it, just Google "Irene Casselli Ferrante" and you should see the article, which appears to have appeared in The Atlantic first.

  6. Hello from Edinburgh!

    Sorry that my prediction of being unable to contribute much has proven to be true but thought that I would share that when I was in the Luxembourg Gardens, on the Paris leg of my trip, I saw several young women reading the Neopolitan novels. In other news, I had the opportunity to review Frantumaglia for the professional journal that cannot be named and found it to be...underwhelming. What could compete with the novels?


    1. I'm sorry too -- I suspect you would have had much to add to our conversation, but life does get in the way ;-)
      Oh, for the nerve to take photographs of such park readers -- can you imagine the series? Those covers are practically made for the Luxembourg Gardens, no?
      I hadn't even heard that Frantumaglia was published, but now I imagine I'll end up borrowing a library copy to read, eventually -- I still need to get through the backlist. Those slim early books compress so much of what gets fleshed out into the Neapolitan series, it seems to me...
      But I'd tend to agree that we have it all in the novels and I don't feel I need to glean more about the "real" Elena.