Post45 Merve: "The frame narrative offers us both an ingenious recap of My Brilliant Friend and a tantalizing reveal: there is a fictional ur-text that precedes the novel we hold in our hands."
Date: Jul 20 2015
Dear Katherine, Sarah, and Jill:
As it happens I am on my way back from New Haven, where I ate lunch at a cafe next to two older women with light purple hair and excellent posture; two women so absorbed in their discussion of The Story of a New Name, they didn't realize I was listening.
"I couldn't stop reading," one confessed to the other. Quietly at first, and then with mounting excitement, she began rocking back and forth in her chair as she recalled to her friend the novel's many plot twists. "When Stefano hits Lila ... ! When she miscarries ... ! When she sleeps with Nino ... ! When he gets her pregnant ... ! When she leaves Stefano the first time ... ! When she leaves him again for good ... !"
Her friend nodded and murmured, "Such drama in this one. Such drama."
Perhaps it's only natural that these ladies who lunch should gravitate to Lila's story line over Lenù's. After all, hers is by far the more sensational of the two: an unhappy marriage, a summer affair, a child possibly born out of wedlock, the descent back into poverty. Lenù, by contrast, is an excellent student, marries into a respectable academic family, and writes a successful novella about losing her virginity one night in Ischia—all well and good, but not exactly edge-of-your-seat drama.
The imbalance between the story lines marks a departure from the first novel. ("Such drama in this one. Such drama.") Whereas, in My Brilliant Friend, Lila and Lenù shared enough to keep their narratives of childhood hinged to one another, in The Story of a New Name, the divergence of their adult lives raises the problem of genre. Why tell two such distinct stories within one novel? How can Lila's ferocious commitment to "playing for all or nothing," chasing the ups and downs of love lost and found and violently shattered, coexist alongside Lenù's reluctance to be "drawn beyond the limits" of what is appropriate?
I think we can find an answer to these questions in the frame narrative of The Story of a New Name. It is different from the frame narrative that opens My Brilliant Friend—one which takes place not in the present moment of writing, but in the spring of 1966, at a time when "our relationship was terrible," Lenù confesses. Lila has entrusted Lenù with a box containing her personal notebooks, and although she has asked Lenù not to read them, Lenù does anyway. What she finds is a biographical account of Lila's life to date: her childhood suffering, excitement, and fury as the youngest member of the Cerullo family; her adolescent satisfaction at becoming Signora Carracci, wife of the wealthy grocer; and her subsequent desire to shed her oppressive new name and find love with Nino Sarratore.
The frame narrative offers us both an ingenious recap of My Brilliant Friend and a tantalizing reveal: there is a fictional ur-text that precedes the novel we hold in our hands. Its author is not Lenù, it's Lila, and by all accounts, including Lenù's own, it is the better version of the story we have been reading all along. "Her words were very beautiful," Lenù writes of Lila's notebooks. "Mine are only a summary." Lila's narration emanates the "same force of seduction that Lila had given off since she was a child." Her descriptions of social life are thrilling, hypnotizing, humiliating; her history as an multilingual autodidact is enshrined in dozens of Latin, Greek, and English translation exercises. The pages are littered with isolated words in dialect, in Italian, and conversations about books and films and Communism transcribed directly from life. There are even small drawings of "twisted trees, humped, smoking mountains, grim faces." We might think of Lila's notebook as an irrepressible paean to what Bahktin once called "novelness"—a keen sense of language as dialogic, alive, and ever-shifting; revolutionary even.
And yet, for Lenù, Lila's compulsion to treat "every person or thing with ruthless accuracy" is unbearable. For Lila is not just a beautiful writer. She is a "natural" writer: a writer whose prose betrays no "artifice" and spares no one, not even Lenù, in her descriptions. "What to say of the liberty she had taken with me, with what I had said, with what I thought, with the people I loved, with my very physical appearance," Lenù laments. "She had fixed moments that were decisive for her without worrying about anything or anyone." So exasperated, Lenù commits an act of symbolic murder. One evening, she takes the box of notebooks to the Solferino Bridge and pushes them over the edge, "as if it were her, Lila in person, plummeting, with her thoughts, words, the malice with which she struck back at anyone, the way she appropriated me, as she did every person or thing or event or thought that touched her."
We are encouraged by Lenù to see Lila's exacting prose as an ethical violation of her subjects, the ultimate sin a writer can commit. But it's hard not to interpret Lenù's homicidal projection as petty, snide, and self-rationalizing; something akin to what one mean girl might do if she read about herself in another mean girl's burn book.
Indeed, once Lenù erases Lila's words, she sets out to write over them, to tell her version of everything contained in Lila's notebooks. But to compete with Lila, it isn't enough that Lenù tell Lila's story—that she recreate the "tempestuous happiness" that one finds in "novels, films, and comic strips ... a furious confusion of evil and good that had befallen her and not me." She must tell her own story, too. Like Lila's notebooks, which contain "everything" in Naples, Lenù's rewriting of these notebooks will also contain multitudes: well-plotted sexual intrigue, but also descriptions of the neighborhood, an account of her education, existential ruminations on humankind's place in the universe, and so much more. And all the while, she will insist that none of what she has produced—none of her dazzling, compulsively readable prose—measures up to Lila's now unrecoverable literary labors.
This is a very old authorial trick. Create a fictional-text-within-a-fictional-text as the horizon of aesthetic sublimity to which the novel you are reading will aspire to, but which it will inevitably fall short of. Many of the novels that I would describe as narratively seductive (If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, The Master and Margarita, Atonement, Written on the Body) bait their readers with this promise and always leave their readers wanting more. But Lila's erasure by Lenù completely forecloses the possibility of us ever encountering the text behind the text we are reading. Its not just that Lenù's erasure of Lila is so cruel, so complete, so annoyingly self-deprecating; its that Lila's writing is displaced so forcefully by Lenù's words, making recovery a pipe dream. Now the only way we can get to Lila is through Lenù. Is this the model of female solidarity we were hoping for?
But more importantly, who cares about solidarity? I don't mean this in the sense that solidarity isn't an important issue for us to debate. I mean it in the sense that we—me, you three, others like us—have been well trained as left-leaning academics to sniff out the bread crumbs of radical feminist thought that Ferrante has scattered throughout her novels. But those violet haired ladies at lunch? I think they're just in it for the drama; the sheer thrill of how the events and emotions in The Story of a New Name build up, one on top of the other, only to topple over on the next page. Maybe, in this way, they get closer than we can to the spirit of Lila's notebooks. And maybe that's okay too.