Post45 Sarah: "Ferrante's particular reckoning warps them into something much odder and darker."
Date: Jul 11 2015
Okay, maybe this is incredibly trivial, but before we're done with MBF, can we talk about how hilariously insufficient the cover blurb on this (Europa) edition is? In case you've forgotten/didn't notice, the oddly bland snippet—a misleading quote plucked from James Wood's otherwise quite compelling 2013 New Yorker profile of Ferrante—describes the novel as "a large, captivating, amiably peopled bildungsroman [sic]." For lack of a better critical question: WTF?
This description brings a range of incongruously affable visions to mind (the most persistent of which, to my Disney-warped mind, is the opening musical number of Beauty and the Beast, hence my salutation to you today). The blurb suggests a kind of gentle, pleasant, conventional realism, and a narrative of gentle, pleasant, conventional character development, a semisweet literary blancmange that goes down easy and doesn't trouble the stomach. But what could be further from the truth? With the exception of "captivating," every descriptor here is off-mark. As Jill points out in her post, "Bildungsroman" is the most obvious red herring—while there certainly are elements of Bildung in Lenù and Lila's shared story, it's an often-mysterious tale of unclear and sudden transitions that, at times, refuse elucidation and push back upon themselves. Think of Merve's evocation of the terrifying and sudden deformation of the copper pot: these character changes can be explosive, unsolved mysteries. On that note, don't even get me started on "amiably peopled": how could any of the characters that grow up steeped in this miasma of poverty, madness, and resentment be particularly "amiable"? The novel is populated with compelling liars (Lenù!), screamers, madwomen, fighters. And, because I'm peevish and persnickety, let me also just say that even "large" is a relative claim (in his piece, Wood weighs it against Ferrante's shorter previous works); at 331 pages, My Beautiful Friend can feel downright compact, in the lingering shadow of the maximalist novel and alongside the hulking weight of Knausgaard's oeuvre.
In short, this blurb tries to sell us a friendlier, more digestible Ferrante than the one we find inside the cover. And once you've actually read the book, the misleading quality of the blurb is rendered even more apparent by its superimposition on the peculiar cover image, which is possessed of its own strange deceptions:
The book's style on the whole is a bit like its disorienting packaging: it may look like a familiar brand of realism at first glance, but the longer you look, the more it becomes something of a surrealist assemblage. Take a closer look at the picture: it seems from a distance like an unremarkable vintage photograph of a wedding party by the Neapolitan shore. Upon closer examination, though, it is oddly scaled and strangely doctored; the little girls' dresses gleam under an unearthly light that's surely not the sun, the figures all feel flattened and pasted onto a blurry, generic backdrop, against which the groom's ominously black silhouette cuts too sharply. The whole thing feels overexposed and unnatural. If you look at it too long, you start to feel the visual overload of looking at a Magic Eye: how do these confusingly layered figures relate to each other; who are they; where are they going? In short, the questions the novel itself provokes. It's at once extremely clear and extremely puzzling, creating a vertiginous divide between the purported reality of the photographic medium and the unreal, too clear, too bright quality of its processing.
Similarly, while one might claim that the novel embraces a kind of visceral realism, its very viscerality makes it a phantasmagoric realism as well. This is especially marked in its early chapters: Ferrante's accounts of young Lenù's experiences are so hotly vivid that they make one feel like the novel's "real life" episodes actually play out in a fever dream. Rather than factual accounts, Lenù offers us her grotesquely torqued, imagined versions of events and people. For example, the criminal neighborhood czar, Don Achille, is depicted as a fleshy, composite monster in Lenù's childish eyes (and older Lenù's recollection), as, "For years I saw his body—a coarse body, heavy with a mixture of materials—emitting in a swarm salami, provolone, mortadella, lard, and prosciutto." (36) Though we later see that he's just a middle-aged man, it's impossible to dispel the primary image of the meat-monster; it has become as much a part of the reader's Neapolitan reality as it is part of Lenù's. Around the same time, Lenù is
“overcome by a kind of tactile dysfunction; sometimes I had the impression that, while every animated being around me was speeding up the rhythms of its life, solid surfaces turned soft under my fingers or swelled up... I had a bad taste in my mouth, a permanent sense of nausea that exhausted me... It was an enduring malaise, lasting perhaps years, beyond early adolescence. “(57)
This is Lenù's grotesque experience of her world, and from this early point onwards, it is ours as well. Ultimately, rather than “realistic” depictions of people, things, or places, it is the palpable, embodied dream-visions of Lenù’s childhood that initially structure the reader's "real world" of Ferrante's impoverished Naples. While the quotidian events related in the novel (local vendettas, marriages, teenage affairs) might by themselves indeed be the stuff of some parallel "large, captivating, amiably peopled bildungsroman," Ferrante's particular reckoning warps them into something much odder and darker.
Thinking about the kind of comfortably comprehensible world that "large" and "amiably peopled" novel of development might bring into being, versus the malignant and fantastical one of Ferrante's book, might offer some hint as to why the latter necessitates her particular brand of weird realism. The novel offers, after all, a world built on absence rather than presence (the opposite of any facile expectation of historical or material reality), for we must always remember that its point of origin is a black hole: Lila's total disappearance. Rather than describing what is there, Lenù shapes a world out of what is not. We see this in the paucity of detailed physical description in the novel. For example, we know that Lenù's mother lends her a significant silver bracelet, but we have no idea what it looks like. Even a childhood fetish object like Lenù's doll is described in the barest, repetitive terms: "She had a plastic face and plastic hair and plastic eyes" (30). This curious dearth of physical detail relates not only to the pending void of Lila’s disappearance (“without leaving a trace,” 20), but also gestures towards the poverty of the neighborhood; after all, the only special thing about Lenù's doll is her plastic face, compared to Lila's sawdust-filled cloth doll. The seemingly nonchalant lack of concern with visual detail allows Ferrante to evade both the traps of indulgently describing either the personal effects of impoverishment (think Zola's naturalist poverty porn: the roughness of a burlap shirt, a moldy baguette crust on a grimy café counter), or the cathartic dramatization of emptiness and want. In lieu of either of these emphases on physical conditions, we sometimes get these descriptions of feelings and visions that are felt in the body, often disturbingly so.
And perhaps that’s one of Ferrante's ways of getting at class via style here, sneakily, weirdly, unexpectedly. Just as Merve points out that money and writing swap in for each other in L&L's shared imagination, so too do Lenù's materializations of imaginative interpretation stand in for actual things. The world is over-full of physicalized emotions, filling in the hollows of material lack. Yet this volume comes to an end with a sudden overflowing of those hollows, with Lila's marriage to wealthy Stefano, and the abrupt appearance of all manner of worldly goods. If the dark, fantastic imagined world of My Brilliant Friend is suddenly supplanted by the "real" material one, what will happen to Lenù's mode of telling as we move forward in The Story of a New Name?
-Sarah (not a particularly amiable peopler of this blog)