Post45 Merve: "After all, what is friendship if not the ability to intuit each another's shifting boundariesto give words to those sensations that we, as individuals, are not yet able to name?"
Date: Jul 6 2015
Dear Jill, Katherine, and Sarah,
Do any of you own a copper pot?
I don't—I'm a miserable cook. But many Turkish women I know take great pride in cooking with copper pots. Here is what I have learned from them: that cast iron is stubborn, for it holds heat overlong; that steel is a middling conductor, a play thing for children afraid to burn their fingers; and that only copper is volatile enough to reward real culinary mastery. Only copper warms and cools decisively, thoroughly, so that whatever one exposes to it can be manipulated with the utmost precision. And only copper is beautiful in its own right and, as such, is prohibitively expensive to buy and to maintain.
The copper pot that emerges in the last third of My Brilliant Friend is many things to many people. To Lila, it is a prophecy, one that visits her late at night after Marcello, her wealthy and threatening suitor, has left the house. As she relates the incident in a letter to Lenù, Lila was "washing the dishes and was tired, really without energy, when there was an explosion." Startled out of her exhaustion, she turns to find that her family's "big copper pot had exploded." But "exploded" does not begin to describe how dramatically the pot's form had altered. "It was hanging on the nail where it normally hung, but in the middle there was a large hole and the rim was lifted and twisted and the pot itself was all deformed, as if it could no longer maintain its appearance as a pot" (229).
Energy can neither be created nor destroyed; it can only change from one form to another. This is Lila's mystified interpretation of the exploding copper pot. It is, quite literally, a receptacle for the slow and diffuse deformation of the Cerullo household: Marcello's violent insistence that Lila marry him, her parent's anger at her refusal, her brother's hostility, the fog of sexual desire that follows Lila wherever she goes. It is precisely this conversion of social entropy into material destruction that terrifies Lila. To Lenù, she writes, "It's this sort of thing ... that frightens me. More than Marcello, more than anyone. And I feel that I have to find a solution, otherwise, everything, one thing after another, will break, everything, everything" (229).
If you re-read Ferrante's description of the copper pot aloud—go ahead, try it—you too may linger on the energy compressed into the middle clause. The verbs "lifted" and "twisted" hiss like a geyser about to erupt, and the reflexive pronoun "itself" directs this hissing from the middle of the sentence to the middle of the pot. It is as if the words Lila uses in her letter enact the very conversion she fears, shaping the spectral evil of the neighborhood into the actual sounds of a pot crumpling in on itself. (Whether this is the work of Ferrante or her translator, Ann Goldstein, I can't be sure, but either way, it's delightful.) I think this is the quality in Lila's writing that Lenù later describes as "seductive": Lila's ability to transfigure the evil of village folklore—exploding pots, captive girls, tyrannical fathers, violent lovers—into something vivid, everyday, and yet still enchanted.
But like I suggested in my last post, language can only take you so far. To Lila, money is far better at giving shape to life than language; at preventing people and their families from dissolving into nothingness. Thus Lila frees herself from Marcello by attaching herself to Stefano, a stilted little man who owns a grocery shop, a bright red convertible, and, at Lila's urging, invests generously in her father's shoe business. "The fundamental feature that now prevailed was concreteness, the daily gesture, the negotiation," Lenù observes. "It was, in short, wealth that existed in the facts of every day, and so was without splendor and without glory" (249). And whereas that wealth had once weaved its way into Lenù and Lila's fantasies of literary production, now Lila latches onto a more tangible and strategic form of seduction: fashion. By arming herself with "a new hairstyle, a new dress, a new way of making up her eyes or her mouth," she encourages Stefano to "seek in her the most palpable symbol of the future of wealth and power that he intended: and she seemed to use that seal that he was placing on her to make herself, her brother, her parents, her other relatives safe from all that she had confusedly confronted and challenged since she was a child" (265).
When Lila's "beauty of mind" ends up in "her face, in her breasts, in her thighs, in her ass," Lenù steps in, armed with a more sophisticated understanding of how to do things with words (277). Who better than an aspiring writer to stage the conversion of the literal (the pot explodes because of social pressure) into the figurative (the pot's explosion stands for Lila's deformation under social pressure)? To Lenù, the exploding copper pot is an irresistible metaphor for her friend, one that she returns to time and again to grasp Lila's transformation from the "tense, aggressive Cerrulo" into a "princess," a "diva," and, ultimately, Stefano's wife (265). Volatility, manipulation, mastery over the other elements—all the properties of copper emerge as the character traits that define Lila, once she begins to make herself over for Stefano.
Like any amateur novelist, Lenù's compulsive return to the pot-as-metaphor is a touch transparent, a little heavy handed in its proud reflexivity. (The pot was "always lying in ambush in some corner of my mind," writes Lenù.) Yet it is an unforgettable image all the same, one that helps us track the plot's climax and denouement. Indeed, the pot makes its final fated appearance on the day of Lila's wedding, when Lenù washes Lila in a "copper tub full of boiling water," which "had a consistency not different from Lila's flesh, which was smooth, solid, calm" (312). Instead of an unstable and old copper pot, there is a new copper tub. The danger of explosion, it seems, has disappeared with the appearance of Stefano and everything he owns. And the pot, like Lila, has consolidated itself, forming a "solid vision, without cracks" of the world that money will allow her to create.
In part, Lenù's obsession with finding a literary form to contain the new Lila is an act of deflection; she is unwilling to shape her own confused desires into something intelligible to herself or communicable to others. "I made no attempt to find a form for my emotions," she confesses after her first, fleeting sexual encounters with Nino and his father leave her hot and bothered and more than a little ashamed. But it is also, as Katherine pointed out, an act of solidarity and intimacy. After all, Lenù claims she does not yet know about Lila's experiences of "dissolving margins"; her sense of "a pressure so strong" that it "broke down" the "outlines" of the people she loves, making herself and everyone around her "softer and more yielding" to the violence of the neighborhood (176). While there is much that Lenù may not know about Lila, as Sarah has persuasively argued, there is also a mysterious telepathy at work that electrifies all that unknowingness. After all, what is friendship if not the ability to intuit each another's shifting boundaries—to give words to those sensations that we, as individuals, are not yet able to name?
-Merve (A Virgo who can’t drive)