Friday, December 16, 2016

Ferrante ReadAlong -- Trying to Wrap This Up, Impossibly. . . .

Okay, here goes. After beginning this ReadAlong perhaps too precipitously back in September, I'm keen now to finish before Christmas. I've enjoyed the opportunity to consider the novel more carefully and have been gratified by how much your observations have opened the text for me and, I hope, for all of us. Were I to host another ReadAlong, I'd make some changes to the structure and process, but overall, despite the many, many hours it's taken (over too many months, I suspect, to keep you all in the loop) I'm declaring the experiment a qualified success.

But the wind-up is going to be much less elegant than I might have hoped, and we'll close with enough questions, surely, to justify yet another reading, or at least a thumbing back through the pages.

Sexuality, for example. Had I more time, I'd trawl back through the chapters for every reference to the girls' awareness of the sexuality in the adult lives around them, and then of the gradual development of their own sexuality -- as sexual subjects and sexual objects both. Would you agree with my saying that Lenù, even writing as Elena in later life, doesn't know much about Lila's sexuality? She uses her as a measuring stick against which to gauge the changes in her own body during adolescence, pleased to begin menstruating before Lila but then puzzled and even dismayed to see Lila's delayed development boosting her yet again, in Lenù's eyes, into the lead, Lila's sexual allure eclipsing Lenù's accomplishments. Lenù sees that Lila becomes a deceptively powerful sexual object for the boys and men in their lives, but there is no sense in the narrative of Lila as a sexual subject.

And as Elena reviews her early years, it's clear that she puzzled over her own sexuality, both as an object of desire and as a young woman exploring the possibility of intimate physical pleasure (always with the hovering spectre of "the mothers," of women aged out by the apparent consequences of a sexual life). Obviously, the abuse by Sarratore Senior constitutes a very significant moment in Elena's sexual life. What I'd love to talk to you about over a glass or two of wine is the impossibility, for Lenù, of ever divulging this experience to anyone, even to Lila (and for me, this forms an interesting parallel with Lila's delayed disclosure of her dissociative episodes -- in her narrative, Elena emphasises both phenomena as not being revealed until years later).

While the girls were able to offer each other an intellectual, sometimes emotional, companionship that otherwise didn't exist in their community, they remained isolated in their experience of their sexuality.  The curiosity and (limited) pleasure that Lenù finds in the (limited) experimentation she indulges in with Antonio becomes shameful to her when she finds that despite their engagement, their access to privacy, a bed in their future home, Lila hasn't allowed Stefano such liberties, nor does he want to take advantage of those liberties before marriage.  This precludes the possibility, then, of Lenù discussing the potential pleasures of sex with the only candidate for such a conversation.

And what to make of the long passage in which Elena, as a woman in her 60s writing her friend back from disappearance into visibility, describes Lila, naked, as she was immediately after calling Lenù her "brilliant friend," telling her she had to keep studying, to be "the best of all, boys and girls." It's an extraordinary passage, one in which Lenù sees Lila naked for the first time as she helps her bathe and then helps her into her wedding dress.  If we were at a book club gathering, wine glass in hand, I might ask to read these several paragraphs out loud, so powerful are they.  First, they're introduced by Elena's declaration of the "embarrassment" she now recognises as "the embarrassment of gazing with pleasure at her body" hours before she is "disfigured" by her new husband.

But that paragraph quickly turns from "today" to "at the time," and the turn is marked by a switch from first-person voice to second-person. She claims a "tumultuous sensation of necessary awkwardness" speaks of being in "a state" of "turmoil," of "violent emotion that overwhelms." The word "turmoil" is repeated, in contrast with the "undisturbed innocence of the one who" causes it. She recreates the lingering journey of her gaze in a litany of precisely adjectived body parts, and she concludes with the recollected frustration of having "to act as if it's nothing, when instead everything is there, present, in the poor dim room, amid the worn furniture, on the uneven, water-stained floor, and your heart is agitated, your veins inflamed" (313).

Of course, this passage invites speculation about Elena having latent lesbian desire. Perhaps. Perhaps many of us did, in adolescence. But my own reading habits (critical methodologies having been honed, disciplined, by years of academic training, I will admit) preclude going terribly far with this speculation. Primarily, it seems reductive to me, and I'm not at all sure it contributes much understanding to either the novel or the series as a whole. What is clear from this passage is that Elena is telling us something about what she has learned to do with her feelings, particularly about those concerning intimate aspects of her physical and emotional life. As she writes, "I had a confusion of feelings and thoughts: embrace her, weep with her, kiss her, pull her hair, laugh, pretend to sexual experience and instruct her in a learned voice, distancing her with words just at the moment of greatest closeness." But in Lenù's estimation at the time, none of these responses were possible. Desperately, "it suddenly seemed to me that the only remedy against the pain I was feeling. . . .was to find a corner secluded enough so that Antonio could do to me, at the same time, the exact same thing."

Obviously, even in these few pages, we have so much to consider. But also, in these last chapters, there is Maestra Oliviero's rejection of "Cerullo" as the teacher now calls her, when she deigns to recognise her at all. Lila never understands the Maestra's denial of her, but the teacher has earlier told Lenù that the "beauty of mind" her friend had from childhood had "ended up in her face, in her breasts, in her thighs, in her ass, places where it soon fades and it will be as if she had never had it." Harsh as these words are, Maestra Oliviero outlines effectively the dangers to any bright girl of trusting to, even enjoying, her physical and/or sexual beauty. Perhaps girls and women in higher classes, in different neighbourhoods, might escape some of these consequences, but Lenù's path, her teacher wants her to understand, is the more tangled one, that of "the plebs" (329).

Does Lila know this as well? Does she suspect her own way is misguided? Certainly, she is shaken by the teacher's response to her visit and asks, in its aftermath, while preparing to dress for her wedding, whether she's making a mistake. How sincere is she in calling Lenù her "brilliant friend"? How much might she hope that, trying two different paths, one of them might make it -- and hence, it's necessary to push Lenù onward and out...

Oh, I'm so hoping you're going to leap in with observation and insight and argument that will prolong and deepen our understanding and enjoyment of this brilliant first volume in this important series. As for me, I really have to wind down. . . I've spent another hour just now, adding to this post, and it's time to be done with it, to get back to the lists.

Possible items still needing commentary:
- Lenù finally succeeds in writing something in a voice she feels good about: "Naturally it wasn't Lila's way of writing, it was mine. And it seemed to my teachers something truly out of the ordinary" (2760
- increasingly, Lenù's success at school separates her from her community. Lila included, this community wants her to succeed, is proud of her academic achievement, pushes her toward it, but is not at all interested in indulging her intellectual interests in conversation.
- connected with this, the disappearance (an early foreshadowing) of "the Lila who had written" the letter. The earlier "Cerullo was as if immolated" and "we had suddenly ended up in two different worlds" -- And the very sad binary of possibilities this suggests, with Lenù as "a sloppy disheveled, spectacled girl bent over tattered books that gave off a moldy odor" and Lila "on Stefano's arm in the clothes of an actress or a princess, her hair styled like a diva's" [but note here that even though she's consigned to the less attractive side of the binary, Elena depicts herself here as having a certain integrity of self whereas Lila wears the clothes of another Role, has hair styled "like" that of a performer. . .
-- the threat from the Solaras (the shoe store might catch fire easily) in response to Lila's rejection of Marcello -- and, of course, the violent hierarchy the community lives under
-- the shocking revelation of Stefano's apparent betrayal
-- and finally, Nino's rejection of literature, his dismissal of the possibility of tilting against windmills in Naples, where such an act is "only wasted courage." And Nino's character in general. . . .
-- Lenù's recognition of her mother's contradictory nature, and her parallel recognition that she "was indissolubly welded" to her, "to her body, the alienness that was expanding inside me." Oddly, it's Lila's wedding that brings her this perception, her understanding that she has always looked to Lila to "learn how to escape my mother" and that now that Lila has chosen to remain "chained" to her mother's world, Lenù is left "completely alone"

Okay, that's it from me now. I was about to write that this completes my hosting of this ReadAlong of Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend, but of course it doesn't do that at all. Now I have the happy task of reading and responding to your comments. Of course, you're all neck-deep in Christmas and seasonal preparations as well, but I hope you will find time to leave a word or two at some point. And feel free to add comments to any of our previous conversations on earlier chapters.

Finally, a great big Thank You for all your contributions to this experiment of mine. I've enjoyed our collaboration very much.


  1. I might be wrong,but I imagine that Neighbourhood in Naples of fifties last century,was double tongued: there were a lot of sexual allusions,dirty jokes or "parolacce" ("dirty words"),but sex was something you can't talk about,even with your best friend (and parents didn't talk with children,to explain some normal things like menstruation)
    In such an environment,our girls had to be very confused,about what to do,what to feel,how to react,I'm afraid ,even what to expect and how to react on the first wedding night (or maybe before)
    Elena was very young when a serial seducer ( like Sarratore Senior-what a sluggish man!) took advantage on her-it must be confusing,feeling shame,feeling dirty,feeling guilty....and keep it to herself

    1. I don't think you're wrong. And for me, this connects with what I mentioned many Readalong posts ago about that border between an oral culture and a print (or later media) culture -- to sequester sexual knowledge in an oral culture required silencing as well as the kind of coded language you describe. And not having language to talk about sexuality denied children and women power over their bodies and accommodated abuse. Shame and Guilt -- powerful enforcers of a Status Quo, aren't they?!

  2. hmmm...a series of novels set on the very edge of a volcano; maybe the references to simmering sexuality are not too well-hidden?

    a great big Thank You back to you too for conducting this online experiment!


    1. Ha! Yes, especially when we think of the eruption Elena goes on to detail in the volumes to follow, that eruption of feminism across Europe and North America. . .
      You're very welcome! Thank you for contributing despite your other commitments.

  3. My dip into Frantumaglia gave me the word that describes what has been on my mind: solitary. They are so everything...could Elena's reaction to the preparations for the wedding be the sudden shock of intimacy? A somewhat watered-down version of the rant that has been building: there are no helpful or supportive people anywhere in this world (I include all 4 volumes). Everyone ultimately disappoints. No comfortable friends, no dear caring aunts, no sweet, uncomplicated love. Bleak.

    This has been fun! My only concern is the battle I have with myself to resist the urge to write a paper on each section, and to just talk! In my own voice! As though we were all sitting together (in Venice, this is, on a warm bright day, sun sparkling on the water, at a large table with room for those who come and go, wine and cicheti...Mater, when you, emboldened by wine, stand to read your piece, our waiter will cry 'Brava!') :)

    1. It's true, isn't it? There's little comfort to be found anywhere in that universe...Nor much pleasure, really, other than the illusory -- and temporary -- ones of romantic love.
      I have to say that your vision of us sitting together in Venice -- and Dottoressa will fly over to join us! -- might be my favourite blog comment of 2016! I begin plotting . . . it really should happen ;-)

    2. Yes, "the sudden shock of intimacy", of viewing the female body objectively, as a beautiful work of art, not subjectively as something to be used to draw the male glance or hidden to avoid the male glance.

  4. I like Venice as our ReadAlong meeting point, Georgia! It would be such fun! Who knows....?
    Yes,solitudine and solitaria/solitary are right words,I agree
    Happy Holidays to you and all here