Saturday, November 12, 2016

Ferrante ReadAlong -- Turning Points?

Edited to add: Thanks so much to Lisa for linking to this post and welcome to any visitors from Amid Privilege's reading post. Although I've just written the last post in this Readalong, you're very welcome to join the conversation. Depending where you are in your own reading of My Brilliant Friend, you might want to begin with the first Readalong post here, and you can find the entire series by clicking on the "readalong" label at the bottom of this post. And just because the Readalong is posted now, please don't consider it "over" -- I look forward to any comments you wish to add.

First, thanks to Dottoressa (long-time reader and generous commentator here) for pointing me to this article on Ferrante's Naples by journalist Irene Casselli who grew up in that city. I suspect other readers might find it an interesting complement to My Brilliant Friend.  And stay tuned. . . I may be able to give an up-close-and-personal report on Naples myself before too long. . .

Next, to apologise (yet again) for the slow pace of this ReadAlong. If I'd thought the project through more carefully before attempting it, I might have realised how much it could be hampered by the reality of traveling. As it is, while too slow to be effective for many of you, especially if you're galloping through the novel your first time, the postings have provided a useful discipline for my second reading, and your comments have enriched my appreciation of the novel. Overall, the experiment has been worthwhile for me -- Perhaps you'll chime in and tell me what, if anything, has worked for you, and whether you think it might be worth attempting another ReadAlong next year.

And third, let's talk about Chapters 31 to 40 -- I think that I'm going to try to compress the last chapters of the book (from 41 through to the end) into one final post, so that I'm done before I head back home at the beginning of December. But these ten chapters ahead of me right now definitely demand a post of their own.

I have to admit, though, that it's tempting to skip past these chapters. Just as we've seen Elena blossom into another, happier version of herself at Ischia, away from the community that reflected back only a limited vision, some of that community intrudes and we see her stepping back into its tangled web.  Reading these chapters, knowing Elena's potential but seeing how much of her energy and her self-worth she stakes in Nino Sarratore returning her interest (obsession? adoration? surely it's not yet love as the Nino she sees is one she's constructed from dreams), I think as I have watching bright young teen girls, nieces, friends' daughters, my daughters -- She's only one bad boyfriend from becoming a doctor, or a writer, or a president. . . .

The revelation she shares with Lila about Donato Sarratore's inscription promiscuity should have dialled down Elena's propensity for romance, but again, she's 14! Soon, she's caught  between her fascination with Sarratore Senior (such an indulgent, engaging, fun father to his family, willing to include her in the good times) and his unappreciative, recalcitrant son, Nino, of the dark, handsome, silent allure... Especially knowing what will come later in this four-volume series (tetralogy is such an awkward word, no?), I couldn't help be particularly attentive to Lenù's efforts to engage and attract Nino. I also couldn't help trying to push past her adult self's controlled, reportorial tone to discern the feelings generated by her retrospective analysis.

Imagine if Lenù had been able to speak of both her infatuation, and of her frustration with its target, with someone who already had her adult self's experience with a certain type of man, one who wanted a woman to be audience, perhaps even muse, but not to occupy the speaker's role for long. What might any of us tell our younger selves, looking back now to some of the heartthrobs we imagined as soulmates, only to discover, slowly and often too late, their narcissism? How many of us recognised something when we read this passage: Since I wanted him to be aware of my intelligence I endeavored to interrupt him, to say what I thought, but it was difficult, he seemed content with my presence only if I was silently listening, which I quickly resigned myself to doing.  And see how quickly Lenù returned to her self-deprecation, sure that Nino said things that I could never have thought -- although she qualifies that claim (at the time? now, as the narrating adult?) by noting that at least she couldn't have said those things with the same assurance. . . in a strong, engaging Italian.

May I interrupt myself here to suggest that if this were a Book Club, and I were the host, perhaps I'd pop into the kitchen right now to grab a tray of goodies to go with the wine. While I'm gone, you might carry on the discussion. Possible topics: Nino's obvious (?) use of Lenù as a way to pursue an interest in Lila; Nino's indifference, in comparison to the other young men of Lenù's acquaintance, to other male interest in her and in Marisa; Nino's hatred of his father; Lenù's too-innocent admiration of Sarratore. . . 

Oh, and I'm back, just because I heard you speaking about the last topic, and I wanted to point out that young Lenù was astute enough, even in her innocence, to note that Sarratore Senior"never opened a book" despite being a published poet. But she kept silent out of fear that she might "spoil[] the great esteem he had for me. This silence, a dangerous habit cultivated early.

And -- spoiler alert! -- I have to point out Nino's manifesto, his oath that he "will devote [his] life. . . to trying not to resemble [his father]." Why do I call this a spoiler art? Well, let's just say that you may find this statement becomes retroactively ironic. . . .

In these ten chapters, however, most significant for me, especially on rereading, is what happens in Lenù's room, the assault by Donato Sarratore. The assault not only marks her forever, but it pushes her back to her community as the only escape possible, and as a place where Lila's drama demands all the spotlights while Lenù buries her own horrors under layers of silence and disgust with herself. So innocent that, as her 60-something self writes to us, "however unlikely it may seem today, as long as I could remember until that night I had never given myself pleasure, I didn't know about it, to feel it surprised me." And how honest of that adult self to write now, that she said and did nothing not only because she "was terrified by that behavior, by the horror it created" but also because of "the pleasure" she "nevertheless felt" -- which pleasure also engendered the terror.

So poignant to me that she thought, in the immediate aftermath, that she "finally had a story to tell that Lila could not match" although she immediately realises "that the disgust I felt for Sarratore and the revulsion that I had toward myself would keep me from saying anything." In fact, she writes, "this is the first time I've sought words for that unexpected end to my vacation." Note that even as she seeks words, she doesn't clearly name what happened, substituting "unexpected end to my vacation" for "sexual assault by a trusted and admired adult."

The five following chapters develop actions set in place already, with Lila seeming to manipulate the men who want to control her. Her machinations seem to have borne fruit by the end of Chapter 40, although there's clearly still a potential threat from the Solaras. But I, unfortunately, have a plane to catch later today, so I'll leave you to tease out some of the implications here or to debate the wisdom of Lila's strategy or the likelihood it will work out well for her. Or perhaps that seems less important to you than Elena's revelation, the lonely pain and shame of that secret, guarded for fifty-some years...

For the moment, though, please excuse me as I clear away the dishes, go pack up my suitcase. Feel free to finish your glass of wine, linger and chat among yourselves. We're old friends here at this Book Club, right, and my home/blog is yours. . . 


14 comments:


  1. Love reading your blog(s)! I've been listening to the series and am on book 4. So fascinating, the long-term relationship between the women, and the various relationships with men, over time and life choices and paths taken and not. My Bookclub (Vancouver-based) will discuss in March!

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    1. Glad to have you here, BiscottiMaker. I'm sure that will be a lively bookclub meeting (and in my city, cool!)

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  2. Do you think that "bookish", uncertain girls often fail to "see the signs" that are more apparent to their more "worldly" counterparts? Nino, as Lenù perceives him, is a fantasy. It is sad that Lenù is so completely in awe of Sarratorre and of Nino that she underestimates her own worth. I'm on my way this morning to pick up my latest reserves at the library. Have a good flight to???

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    1. Oh yes, I might think that . . . You and I need to have a talk one of these days, when I'm back home ;-) Bookworms unite!

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  3. Ischia! I ordered a pizza Ischia on my last night in Paris and mentioned to my husband that "so much" had happened at Ischia and he was puzzled as he knows I've never been there. I found myself returning there, however, throughout the course of the books. nyreader

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    1. Ha! It's so very true, isn't it, that our literary travels create scenes and memories to rival the "real thing." (and what, pray tell, are the toppings for a Pizza Ischia?)

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    2. Toppings the same as for any Neapolitan style pie but the dough is from a sourdough starter, or so I was told.

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  4. I feel so sorry for both Elena and Lila. They had to deal with more than serious situations alone-and they are soooo young !
    Elena was very lucky to be able to continue education ,and in the middle of ,more than deserved, vacation (when she was-mostly- happy,well treated,feeling beautiful,in love.....with Nino,character I didn't like at all,but could understand her infatuation ) she is sexual assaulted by Nino's father,sluggish,false "model husband and father",who attacks helpless prey,widows and young girls.
    Lila- "was setting in motion an earthquake worse than when she threw the inksoaked bits of paper...she threw things off balance just to see if she put them back in some other way"-,always trying to escape,always choosing the wrong path,thinking it was right! Such a waste-of brilliant inteligence,of beauty,of possibilities......
    And Ferrante's sentences,description,register.....
    Re-reading this book I feel like a little girl watching puppet play,whispering: " Don't do that...don't take this way.....he is a villain....be careful..."
    Dottoressa

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    1. Dottoressa, I agree with all you say here, but I'm especially caught by your comment that you felt like calling out warnings throughout. You said that this happened on re-reading, that you felt like a little girls watching a puppet play. But now I'm trying to remember how much of this I felt the first time 'round, not calling out warnings as a child might, but knowing from my "wise older woman"'s perspective what was likely to go wrong.... I feel aligned both with the children Elena writes of and with the adult writer she becomes by the time she puts down her narrative on paper.

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  5. Wow!!! You lucky girl,you are in the centre of Ferrante's universe,aren't you?
    Can't wait to hear your impressions!
    D.

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    1. Just for six hours -- I think you've said before that you've visited Naples, am I right? It's powerfully vibrant, makes an impression, for sure. I will try to share impressions before too long.

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    2. Yes,it was long ago. Vibrant,colourful,full of people,light,sounds,music,smells.....hard to forget!
      D.

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  6. As you are aware I no longer have the book so I now rely on my memory. I find that I have no physical description of the boys/men in my mind! Am I right? Does Elena Ferrante give very little physical description of her characters? I remember thinking on finishing the fourth book that it would make a good TV series because of the small cast of characters throughout I wonder if this is because it is difficult for the reader to visualise the characters.
    Lenu admits that she did many things without conviction -' I always felt slightly detached from my action'. This is my lingering impression of Lenu throughout the book.

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