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. . .