Post45 Katherine: "Despite the pain of competition and unknowability that you three have so cleverly pointed out, these acts of solidarity allow us to feel that this is on balance a "good" relationship, based on mutual regard and shared hopes."
Date: Jul 1 2015
Dear Brilliant Friends,
Can I just say what a pleasure it's been to write in solidarity with you three? Not that I thought we'd pull hair, like all those Neapolitan women Lenù is trying to escape, but it was possible we'd really hate each others' readings. Yes, I know, there’s still time for that—but until then, I'm going to keep thinking of us as collaborators and co-authors, riffing on each others' ideas until the summer ends.
I wrote last time about pacing, but I left out one curious line: Lenù's insistence, in such a fast book, that "I was a slow reader, I still am" (68). She offers this as an admission of weakness, but to know Lenù, a classic Virgo, is to know that it’s probably also a humble brag. It's as though she's cautioning us to resist her own narrative speed, another of the book's many lies. Whatever her meaning, I'm now thinking of this slow burn project as a way of standing in solidarity, not just with each other, but also with her.
Solidarity is a significant theme in these novels, both personally and politically. I assume we'll talk more about the political variety when we get to the second and third volumes, and, building on Merve’s argument, the extent to which political anger motivates Lila (such a Leo). My Brilliant Friend hints at this with Lila's epiphany, as expressed by Lenù, that "there are no gestures, words, or sighs that do not contain the sum of all the crimes that human beings have committed and commit"—Walter Benjamin's documents of civilization have nothing on gestures, words, and sighs (154).
So while Communism is certainly in the ether of this Neapolitan childhood, for the most part, My Brilliant Friend concerns itself with personal solidarity: Lenù's role in brokering Stefano's hand for Lila, Lila's tutoring of Lenù in Greek. Such gestures secure a friendship. Despite the pain of competition and unknowability that you three have so cleverly pointed out, these acts of solidarity allow us to feel that this is on balance a "good" relationship, based on mutual regard and shared hopes. We root for Lenù and Lila to stick together, whatever the costs.
But stick together in what? In some perfect childhood moment? In some shared imagined future? Lenù certainly wants to have it both ways:
We were twelve years old, but we walked along the hot streets of the neighborhood, amid the dust and the flies that the occasional old trucks stirred up as they passed, like two old ladies taking the measure of lives of disappointment, clinging tightly to each other. No one understood us, only we two—I thought—understood one another… There was something unbearable in the things, in the people, in the buildings, in the streets that, only if you reinvented it all, as in a game, became acceptable. The essential, however, was to know how to play, and she and I, only she and I, knew how to do it. (106-7)
It's Lenù and Lila against the world here, together: co-authors of an alternate history as well as an alternate destiny, walking a present in which they are twelve-year-olds and old ladies at the same time, a purely fictional proposition. And that's as it should be, because if all friends are imaginary (yes, Sarah, you've convinced me), then what is a friendship but a shared fiction, an atmosphere (good word, Jill), that exists only because both parties believe in it? The same could be said of a romance, or a marriage, or indeed any relationship between two people, but for everyone's sake, I'll keep it topical. The bond is threatened only when the fiction is, when one person withdraws her belief. Lila's disappearance at the beginning of the novel is precisely this kind of threat. You can disappear for stretches in a friendship, but you cannot disappear without leaving a trace. Not without killing the twelve-year-olds. Not without killing the friendship. Lenù is writing in revenge (absolutely, Merve), but she's also writing in resuscitation, as a way of keeping the wounded fiction alive.
I'll be the first to admit that the thought of an old friend vanishing is just about the most frightening thought imaginable. With my closest friends, I too have the old lady fantasy, which has evolved from something distant and formulaic involving rockers on a porch to the much more familiar, physical intimacy of piling onto a couch with our memories (so Gemini). Of course, we argue over the memories, in those inevitable flare-ups of co-authorship: what happened that one time and why; who each of us has been; what, in the end, was important. In that sense, the old lady fantasy isn't that different from a great Saturday afternoon right now.
But you need the friend there to make it fun. Lenù asks similar questions throughout My Brilliant Friend— "What was I like, really? What would she, sooner or later, be like?" (133)—and they are always somehow tinged with dread. Without her co-author to speak her words back to her, challenge her, and elaborate upon what she knows, the memories are subject to all the errors of a single, unchecked perspective. The novel Lenù is writing is as much a fiction as the friendship, but unlike the friendship, it is the work of Lenù alone.
Okay, but I lied a little bit there. Really, it's the work of two Elenas: our fictional narrator Elena Greco, and our fictional author, Elena Ferrante, the pseudonym that stands in for the writer of these books. We have to talk about that, don't we—what it means, as a writer of fiction, to be a fiction yourself?