I’m glad I kept going with Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy. I wasn’t bowled over by My Brilliant Friend: I described myself as interested but not emotionally gripped. To some extent, I felt the same about The Story of a New Name, but now I’m more interested: having spent this much more time with the characters, I’ve caught the “I want to know how this all turns out” bug.
This second book takes the central characters, friends (and antagonists) Elena and Lila, through the first phases of their lives as young adults. For Lila, this means through the years of her marriage to Stefano Carracci. There’s a literal but also a symbolic way in which her transformation into “Signora Carracci” is the source of the novel’s title: it’s the story of her experiences as a young married woman, but also the story of her ceaseless struggle to retain control of her identity. A crucial sequence involves her remaking an enlargement of her wedding photo — made to use as a promotional image for the shoe line she has helped create. When she’s finished with it, Elena realizes, Lila has managed “to erase herself”:
With the black paper, with the green and purple circles that Lila drew around certain parts of her body, with the blood-red lines with which she sliced and said she was slicing it, she completed her own self-destruction in an image, presented to the eyes of all in the space bought by the Solaras to display and sell her shoes.
This act of paradoxically simultaneous construction and destruction is characteristic of Lila’s energy, which seems always to be at once positive and dangerous. Somehow she is more fiercely herself the more she rejects, repels, or opposes attempts to name her or in any way fix who she is. Later, watching Lila deliberately slicing at the bonds of her stifling and violent marriage, Elena remembers “what she had done to the wedding-dress photograph” and thinks that now “she is behaving in the same way . . . with the very person of Signora Carracci,” trying “to tear off her condition of wife.” Later still, when Lila has left her husband and imagines that she is starting over, “she was again fascinated . . . by erasing herself.”
In contrast, over the same period Elena is resolutely creating herself, determined to “live for myself only”:
In the past there had been Lila, a continuous happy detour into surprising lands. Now everything I was I wanted to get from myself.
Elena ended My Brilliant Friend despairing that she might never find a way out of the grimly claustrophobic neighborhood of her childhood, and her path is certainly not a straight or easy one. Even as she moves on from high school to college, she feels she cannot escape her upbringing, which — through her accent as well as her ignorance of more sophisticated mores — marks her as a misfit in the more cosmopolitan circles she enters:
I arrived at the university very timid and awkward. I immediately recognized that I spoke a bookish Italian that at times was almost absurd . . . I began to struggle to correct myself. I knew almost nothing about etiquette, I spoke in a loud voice, I chewed noisily; I became aware of other people’s embarrassment and tried to restrain myself.
Gradually, she learns to speak and act like someone who belongs, particularly by downplaying the very intellectual abilities that made her move possible in the first place: “by never appearing arrogant, by being ironic about my ignorance, by pretending to be surprised at my good results.” She becomes a promising student, gets involved with a well-to-do but militantly Communist boyfriend who takes her to Paris and thus expands her mental horizons as well as her literal ones. Then she takes another step: she begins to write about her life, in a novel, which is immediately accepted for publication. Elena feels, understandably, “very pleased with myself.” Surely this proves that she has an identity of her own, one that will carry her away from her past. But this, too, is not so simple, for no sooner has she written herself into her new existence than she comes across an old manuscript of Lila’s, a story called “The Blue Fairy” that Elena had admired so devotedly as a child. On Lila’s behalf, she had given the story to their teacher, her mentor, Maestra Oliviero, who had never returned it. But there it is among her papers, the pages “full of her wonderful, goods, very goods.” Elena rereads “The Blue Fairy” and discovers that once again, her life and Lila’s are entangled:
Lila’s childish pages were the secret heart of my book. Anyone who wanted to know what gave it warmth and what the origin was of the strong but invisible thread that joined the sentences would have had to go back to that child’s packet, ten notebook pages, the rusty pin, the brightly colored cover, the title, and not even a signature.
No signature: again, Lila has cut herself out, but Elena can no longer imagine that she is the sole author of her own identity.
The interplay of their two characters and stories is intricately developed, and Lila is a fuller presence here because a significant section of Elena’s narrative draws on Lila’s notebooks to present events more or less from her point of view. The emotional intensity of their lives is probably the quality of the novels that strikes me the most . . . and yet, as before, I’m not myself emotionally gripped. The prose itself has a somewhat flat affect: this may be the effect of the translation, of course, but I’m almost tempted to call it plodding: one thing after another is recounted, with no conspicuous change in register. I’ve been reading some of the reviews I linked to last time, trying to see what I’m missing. James Wood’s description of My Brilliant Friend is disconcertingly unlike my own experience of the book: he calls it “beautiful and delicate,” for instance, when I would have said it is ruthless and raw; he calls it “amiably peopled” and thus makes me wonder if he met the same people in it that I did (find me one “amiable” character!); he talks about the “joy in the book not easily found in [Ferrante's] earlier work.” If My Brilliant Friend is joyful by comparison, I’m not sure I’m up to reading the earlier books! Catherine Morris’s discussion in the TLS comes much closer to what I thought about the novels, and she helped me appreciate what she calls Ferrante’s “forensic attention to psychological states.” But she likes the flat writing style more than I do: “Scenes of high emotion . . . are all the more powerful for being simply rendered.” Morris praises Ferrante’s “doggedness in unearthing – and fearlessness in articulating – thoughts that usually remain unspoken.” Ivan Kreilkamp’s essay on Ferrante in the LARB is called “A Rage That Had No End.” I wonder if the critical enthusiasm for these novels is connected to the current anxiety about niceness in female characters: is anger the new obligation of the “serious” woman writer, or the new touchstone for critics of women’s writing? Claire Messud’s much-hyped The Woman Upstairs was also all anger, all the time: I found it tedious, and also not all that innovative (Charlotte Brontë was doing anger a long time ago, after all).
That said, I’ve spoken out myself in favor of books, writers, and characters who are interesting: that isn’t everything I look for in a novel, but it’s a lot (and a lot better than boring, that’s for sure). When the third volume in the triology comes out, I’ll definitely read it.