Post45: My Brilliant Friend: Katherine, June 23: "It was that old feeling, the excitement of having a mind to which another mind is speaking from the page."
Date: Jun 23 2015
Dear Sarah, Jill, and Merve,
I devoured these books the first time, the way I remember devouring books as a kid, the way Lila does, according to Lenù. It was that old feeling, the excitement of having a mind to which another mind is speaking from the page. Rereading them has been remarkably slow—and not just because Sarah encouraged it. Part of me is trying and failing to memorize the sentences, which build rapidly, and by association—comma, clause, comma, clause—like the inveterately booming, inveterately corrupt city of Naples. The next part is trying to decipher what has happened here, how this book was made, why I have forced it on every woman I care about with little more than a lame jacket copy summary. Italy. Friendship. Their whole life. No wonder so many of those women looked at me with blank hopefulness, wishing I would say something intelligent, give them a good reason, or even just a few more words.
"Just trust me," I have to tell them, inadequately. "You'll love it." And the fact is, everyone does.
Mostly, I think, because it is a book about deciphering that which is present and has always been around us: life, these people, our parents and neighbors, the world into which we are born, our maddening friends. It's all there already, our material, we just have to put it in order. So, in going back to the beginning, for the slow, searching reread, I can't help but think about the arrangement of this material—the order in which Lenù, who is writing it, presents it to us, which seems to be the order in which it presents itself to her.
I say seems because of course the writing is labored over, as all literature is. But in these novels, Ferrante accomplishes what Lenù attributes to Lila, that is, the effortlessness of voice:
"Lila was able to speak through writing; unlike me when I wrote, unlike Sarratore in his articles and poems, unlike even many writers I had read and was reading, she expressed herself in sentences that were well constructed, and without error, even though she had stopped going to school, but—further—she left no trace of effort, you weren't aware of the artifice of the written word (226-7)."
It's an odd claim coming from Lenù, who is, however much influenced by Lila, the one writing in just this way. But what is a writer if not a jealous, self-loathing creature who sees the world from her own narrow point of view? (Like Jill, I'm Team Lenù. Can you tell?)
Part of this effortlessness, no doubt, has something to do with authorial speed. Ferrante has said she wrote these novels very quickly, "as if under dictation,"1 and that seems right to me. They proceed, diary-like, as though life has already been lived, and Lenù is just getting the events down. We devour them on first read because they demand it. The food just keeps on coming.
On second read, we take a little time to decipher. The life we are reading is both a remembered life and a recorded life, that of a contemporary Torinese in her sixties, looking back on a working-class girlhood in Naples. The episodes recounted, from Melina's madness to Don Achille's murder, from to Lenù's first period to Lila's wedding, are the seismic events of that life, the moments that pulse most intensely on the narrative map. They are the moments that, in light of everything that has happened to Lenù, to Lila, and in the world, the adult Lenù deems worth recording.
She has selected them, as every writer does, for a variety of reasons. Some adhere to our conventional understanding of key moments in a lifetime or a Kunstlerroman. Others have a certain personal intensity: The Kind of Thing You Remember. Still others are early clues to the world beyond the present tense experience of childhood. They reveal in glimpses, much as the world is revealed to a growing child, the post-war neighborhood, Naples, and Italy, into which both Lenù and Lila were born.
This is where I think the artifice of the written word performs its most beguiling work. It seems as though Lenù is just telling us how it was, how it happened, how she felt—a chronological regurgitation of everything she remembers in an effort to figure it all out. But this narrative seeks a many-fingered truth—emotional, social, historical, political—that's too complicated to fall into place without some major authorial orchestration. How else could the structures of power be intuited in early childhood chills, enacted in grade school jealousies, and revealed to the (literally) myopic eyes of a nervous teenage nerd? Lenù keeps insisting that she didn't understand many events, that in fact she has never deciphered certain things, her narrative voice somehow the confused child and the awakening adolescent and the embittered adult all at once. But for all her limits, she's the one telling us everything. She's the one who's put it all together already, in this particular way, as it seemed or occurred to her. If Ferrante wrote these novels quickly, it's only because she knew exactly what she was doing.
"I liked to discover connections like that, especially if they concerned Lila," Lenù admits of herself at fifteen. "I traced lines between moments and events distant from one another, I established convergences and divergences" (256). She could just as easily be talking about her sixtysomething self, the author of this novel. Personally, I'd love to talk more about that self, and all of Lenù's overlapping selves, including her brilliant friend Lila: what they know, what they're wrong about, what they're honest about, how they lie.