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Part Three

By Karen Hornick

This installment of Hornick's ongoing essay (see
Part Two here
) considers how serializing generates powerful effects in the Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, the fourth and final of which will be published in English in September of this year.

Taken collectively, the Neapolitan Novels of Elena Ferrante comprise a single story about the relationship and separate experiences of two best friends, Lila and Elena (the narrator, also called "Lenù"), from childhood in the 1950’s through their 60’s or 70’s. Despite a framing device that enables us to know that Elena, the narrator, is reconstructing the story of their lives on the basis of the memory of things she retains well into her sixties or beyond, the narrative is chronological: childhood in the 1950’s is followed by young adulthood in the 1960’s, and so on.

The storytelling is thus too linear for those critics who have compared Ferrante to the far more Proustian (and circle-chasing) Karl Ove Knausgaard—but I suspect many readers will get through to the end of the Neapolitan Novels but not so far with the Knausgaard books. Ferrante’s writing is not about "each cornflake" and the story follows lines of changing fortune, not cycles of endless returns to earlier times. People seem to enjoy reading these books, even though their pleasure makes some readers nervous. They complain that the books move too quickly, that too much happens with too little attention to surface, language, or day-to-day feeling, that they conform too closely to the themes and situations of “chick lit” (see, for example, Dayna Tortorici’s recent essay in n+1)—that they are in some sense cheesy. To condense my response to those who praise these books but worry that their “conventional” and “fabricated” devices relegate them to a category Tortorici refers to as the “pleasure genres”, the Neapolitan Novels (like most novels, I would have thought) generate emotional responses because of form, not despite it.

The most obvious formal element of these novels is their length. The cumulative effect of reading all of them, in all their plentitude and magnitude—because of their plenitude and magnitude—can be extremely powerful, in part because they test the limits of readerly memory which, as time goes on, tends to mix observation with fantasy, fact with interpretation. Some of these events linger in the memory but many of them are quickly told in such a way that we are almost encouraged to forget them—if only to be cruelly reminded of them later. The final scene of the first volume My Brilliant Friend, for example, produced from my throat an involuntary noise somewhere on the spectrum between screaming and gasping.

That scene concludes a section of the novels that carry the subtitle “Adolescence: The Story of the Shoes.” It occurs at the wedding of Lila. Lenù notices that Lila has “become as pale as when she was a child, whiter than her wedding dress.” Lenù follows Lila’s gaze and sees the bride herself glaring at a particular man wearing a particular pair of shoes. The book ends there, with no action beyond this chain of looks—a woman sees another woman seeing a man wearing a particular pair of shoes. In isolation this may seem a mundane event, but to read it in context is to experience Ferrante's narrative technique at full force, and few story beats in the first three volumes can match the power of this particular moment.

Those shoes represent an enormous personal and institutional betrayal, the stink of a fundamental injustice, and their appearance at this moment leaves us eager for the future but puzzled about our interpretation of the past. My Brilliant Friend ends, in other words, with a cliffhanger, but I detect no accompanying reek of the ormaggio that generally emanates from that much patronized plot device. I found myself desperately interested in what would happen next, but in some ways much more preoccupied with what had slipped my observation or memory, with why I didn’t see this one coming. It might have been the return of the repressed or the arrival of the ‘always already’ or maybe just a lousy memory on my part, but I should not have overlooked or forgotten all the clues in the book that these shoes would arrive when they did, and carry the meanings they carry at that moment. What a chump you are, I said to myself, what an idiot. Bitten by patriarchy yet again; suckered in by the devious institutional power structure that lurks behind all the delusion that we are self-determining, able to protect ourselves from oppressive, humiliating custom.

The twisted effect of this particular device at the end of the first novel is a backward propulsion. But it doesn’t work through literal flashback (although there are clues in this passage that encourage us to remember past events). Rather, the sheer shock of this event forces one to rethink (and in my case) reinterpret the meaning of everything I felt and thought about what was happening. The impact of a single moment can emanate, not from what we have remembered, but from what we have overlooked or forgotten. In that final scene, very little happens; the impact of this moment derives from what the reader is made to suddenly, painfully remember—which is what Ferrante has also made the reader forget.

The strongest feeling I had at the end of the “Story of the Shoes” was surprise, and it led me towards reinterpretation—of the text itself, yes, but more significantly of my own way of reading, of a path I pursued with some artful misdirection from the author. What happened to me was “strong misreading”, which happens when the reader is lulled into misinterpretation only to be, as Stanley Fish put it, “surprised by sin.” Fish was talking about another big epic narrative, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and I’m not sure I ever understood his point until I realized that I had been cajoled by the novelist into an initial reading of the story of Lila and Lenù as a pair of survivors, winners, conquerors. How wrong was that first interpretation of events? I went back and re-read the book to make sense of the ending and found all sorts of things I should have remembered but chose not to remember or overlooked—and the more I think about this, the more I think Ferrante wanted me to forget a lot of sins.

Rather, the remembering narrator of the Neapolitan Novels is determined to keep the past in the past, and the ultimate effect doesn’t pull us endlessly back to a single version of originating events but pushes us outward to an understanding of co-existing narratives and indeterminate conclusions. We might be tempted to read these novels, then, as post-modernist—and Lila suggests as much, near the end of Volume III, when she says, “Each of us narrates our life as it suits us.” But in the eyes of Lenú the narrator, Lila’s skepticism is more personal than philosophical, and the general tendency of the story suggests that while personal memoirs may be ineluctably subjective, a transcendently objective material history is occurring, one that can’t be permanently denied. In other words, this is not the same thing as the device used by Proust and borrowed by Knausgaard, the drama of a memory-fueled voyage into the past that collapses time within a single consciousness. There is more than solipsism in Ferrante’s world.

Ferrante’s novels suggest that a voyage backward alters the meaning of the present, but doesn’t alter the present or become the present. We need a present separate from the past because the past was pretty horrible, but this is no simple “trauma memory” situation. Incessant remembering can be a privilege or a curse. As Nietzsche said, “If you can’t forget, you can never be happy.” For Italian women in the generation of the author and her characters, to remember fully is either a curse to be avoided or a hazardous luxury. Ferrante, Lenù, and Lila can’t afford not to worry about what will come next but there will be no next without some creative and positive repression.

“I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence,” says the narrator near the beginning of the first novel. If “nostalgia” is an act of creative reformulation in which bad things are written out of existence, of forced forgetting, this narrator’s relationship to the past somehow forces the reader to look for the moments of strength and survival and agency, not those which deny and oppress. One result of this is that instead of a story of innocent survivors we get one in which major characters actively participate in the making of misery. From the very beginning, children are not outside the social structures that brutalize them. They have fledgling agency but bear no moral responsibility when they are poorly treated, and yet they can knowingly and willfully bring on attack.

It is always unpleasant to be reminded that children too are violent, and learn early how to provoke violence in others so as to effect gratification of a desire. Several of Lenù’s key memories of Lila reveal this. In one early sequence Lila lures Lenù into a walk to the sea that culminates, not in their first view of the ocean, but into punishment for leaving the neighborhood. That punishment comes to Lenù but she perceives Lila, the instigator, as having arranged everything so that Lenù’s parents would pull her out of the school that Lila herself deserves to attend.

Lenù tells another story in which this pattern is more overt, although the object of Lila’s manipulation is more obscure. We are told that Fernando, Lila’s father, “when she didn’t provoke him, “was a kind, sympathetic man, a hard worker.” But Lila does provoke him, one day, when Lenù stands outside Lila’s house, yelling in to the house to try to save Lila from her father’s “rage” which “fed on itself,” but Lila, “she—I heard her—kept on insulting her father”:

We were ten, soon we would be eleven. I was filling out, Lila remained small and thin, she was light and delicate. Suddenly the shouting stopped and a few seconds later my friend flew out the window, passed over my head, and landed on the asphalt behind me.

I was stunned. Fernando looked out, still screaming horrible threats at his daughter. He had thrown her like a thing. (BF, 82)

Lila suffers a broken arm from this treatment, but her initial response, the one the narrator presents as more immediately important, is stoic and even boastful. Lila struggles physically to lift herself from the ground but she bears an “amused grimace” and claims, “’I haven’t hurt myself.’” Of course she didn’t—her father did.

Lila’s being “thrown like a thing” may remind readers of the moment, pages earlier, when the girls throw each others’ dolls irretrievably through a grate into their neighbor’s basement. She and Lenù, at this point, are indeed mere things in the hands of fathers who throw children from windows and brothers who threaten sisters when they attract the attention of other boys on the stradone. The uncomfortable stress on her willingness to bring violence to herself comes across as another form of agency, however distorted. If, on my first reading, I couldn’t quite register all of the ways in which Lenù and Lila were being deformed by external conditions, it was because they see themselves more as soldiers than victims. Lila is treated as a thing but she is never, ever a thing to Elena or to us.

If the Neapolitan Novels themselves aren’t entirely revolutionary, on the other hand, we might say they do record a revolution. My first reading—the creative misreading, the one that tricked me into believing Lenù and Lila could conquer male supremacy within a single generation—was clearly a far more optimistic one and tended to regard the ancient, traditional patriarchal culture of Italy as significant in the story because it was crumbling around the characters’ tiny feet. Inspired by their cleverness and the rewards and encouragement they receive at school, and stuck by the moment when the six-year-old Lila takes Lenù’s hand on a quest to retrieve their thrown-away dolls, I was in love with my assumption that together they would thrive and advance out of poverty and patriarchal oppression into a new world, one sometimes horrific but often exhilaratingly progressive. I read through Ferrante anticipating the girls’ lives would improve, materially anyway, because I sensed (or the modern Italian imaginary supplied) signs of the coming Italian Economic Miracle, Italian feminism, anarchy and Autonomia, the technology economy, the pill and reproductive rights. From the singular perspective of women’s rights it would be difficult to interpret that history as anything other than a fairly decisive triumph. Despite the book’s intense focus on a small neighborhood and, even as it widens out geographically, into a society in which everyone somehow stills knows everyone else, the presence of an enormous historical change is constantly felt.

In the second half of the 20th century, as Mussolini and Rossellini gave way to Berlusconi and Armani, major changes within the church and state and economy vastly improved the lives of many Italian women. Few girls born in the time and place of Ferrante’s protagonists faced the particular kind of patriarchal restriction their mothers and ostensibly all preceding generations of women had faced. More than the other important “autobiographical” serial novelists of our day, Elena Ferrante puts to use a number of 19th century narrative techniques that, I have argued above, serve the nature of the story she wants to tell and the story she perhaps had to tell as a white, Western woman born into a particular historical moment. This moment fostered, for the first time in history, the participation of women at the highest level of economic, political, and cultural life.

Her stories cover a period in which it was possible, perhaps for the first time in modern Western history, to make women into central protagonists who bear the kind of ambitions and self-defeating propensities, face the same kind of obstacles, and enjoy many of the personal freedoms grasped by the 19th century Balzacian or Dickensian male hero. Thus, the Neapolitan Novels may amount to the first major treatment of female protagonists as deeply flawed and full of bad faith as the male protagonists of the 19th Century. Now women, too, could take advantage of the new social mobility men assumed in the 19th century, but with it came the bad conscience of Great Expectations. In the Neapolitan Novels, girls and women seduce and allow themselves to be seduced by inappropriate and “bad” men, become famous for writing books, lead and inspire labor movements, and dole out physical and emotional abuse before, during, and after they receive it. Ferrante’s heroines behave, in short, with a level of freedom and authority that makes them characters in a kind of fiction that could not have been taken as “realistic” before World War II; when they are bad, they are bad within a new freedom that masks a broader but no less real set of restrictions. Tolstoy wanted to hold Anna Karenina morally responsible for her adultery but in the end couldn’t quite do it—the deck was stacked against her from the get-go. This is not quite the case for Ferrante’s women. Indeed, Volume III ends with a Tolstoyan act on the part of one of the two protagonists; Volume IV will presumably determine what vengeance, if any, will fall upon her.

Though they have much in common with the protagonists of other feminist series—Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs or Doris Lessing’s “Children of Violence” series, for instance—Lila and Lenù, like the novels in which they appear, are free of philosophical ambitions and, for all their engagement with modern Italian politics, the Neapolitan Novels don’t align with any identifiable ideology. Its characters are angry, but not with the kind of genetic resentment that, Virginia Woolf argued in the 1930’s, necessarily limited women who would try to express their view of truth through poetic forms. It’s not at all clear yet, to me and probably to Ferrante herself, whether all this newfound privilege will last or continue to grow—and vestiges of patriarchy continue to haunt us, as we see in the appearance of those shoes on the last page of My Brilliant Friend.

While it’s possible the final installment may pull another reversal and make their classically comic tale one a tragic one, in what we English-readers have seen so far the story of Lenù and Lila takes place in an increasingly post-patriarchal world. Sharing much with post-colonial literature, the Neapolitan Novels might best be approached with concepts developed by the best critics and historians of the 19th Century. In trying to explain the complexity of narrative art in relation to the ever-greater and more fluid complexity of social class and culture in the rise and fall of industrialization, Mary Poovey employed the estimable phrase “uneven development,” and Raymond Williams described a cultural history whose dynamics he could only articulate through his concept of emergent and residual “structures of feeling.”

Similarly, “The Story of the Shoes” reminds us that both personal and collective progress and stultification can co-exist over the course of a life. A certain kind of sub rosa political structure continues to govern their lives, but this will not stop Ferrante from telling the story of late-twentieth-century women as anything other than an often euphoric tale marking their entrée into the world of free thought and choice that has become more and more available to many, if not all, women in the post-WWII West. Sexism and patriarchal assumptions continue to restrict Ferrante’s characters well into the decade they’ve reached by the end of the third volume. But those restrictions, like those of class that confuse and affect the destiny of Dickens’s characters, are no longer all-encompassing and global. These books tell the story of those who live in a world in which patriarchy is no longer the ocean. Now it’s merely the shark.

Speaking of sharks … those creatures that must keep moving in order to live … in the next installment I consider Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle.


From August, 2015

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