Post45 Jill: "All this brings me back to Ferrante's Neopolitan novel cycle, which is, more than anything else, I think, about the intersection of intimacy and violence."
Date: Jul 17 2015
I borrowed one of those yellow legal pads from Charles, to keep a running list of the people who raised their hands to talk. In the hubbub after our panel, I forgot to return it, of course. A day or two later, Tuli used a bunch of the pages for crayon drawings during "Feminism and Anti-Capitalist Organizing, Part II." Someone, probably me, spilled water on what appears to be a tax calculation sheet tucked into the last pages, most likely from the last AK Press sale, given the notebook's original source. There were a few blank, non-wrinkled pages left, so mid-week, in my tent, having abandoned a dance party, I started sketching out the bones for this post. But I was tired. There were too many panels and too many people. Dear friends, not much writing got done at what had been affectionately termed "commie camp"—basically a week long conference and report-back on global uprisings, in the mountains outside Seattle, where reproductive labor was communized and costs were few. It was a reunion of sorts, with far-flung leftists and the Oakland comrades, my most brilliant friends.
So I don't feel entirely self-indulgent starting with the autobiographical, in this case. The funny thing about being around so many people, mostly left communists, anarchists, anti-state socialists, radical queers, Marxist feminists, and the like, is the way that so many things get passed around and back. Or what's funny, I guess, is the way that this basic mode of sharing appears sort of magical, like the stars were aligning in a given object, a notebook, say, that could then make visible the crisscrossing of social relations that circulated around it. On the Metro North home, as I was flipping through the legal pad, it did seem sort of magical—the tax sheet, the crayon drawings, the list of names to be called on, some incoherent notes on feral teenagers, looting selfie sticks, Prosecco riots, Eucalyptus vigilantism, the overthrow of the corn lords.
This sense of charmed intersections, somehow accrued in a single object, had other, less happy vectors. There were ghosts in the constellations, wound up in everything else: the banished persons, the serial rapes, the police repression, the sex work crackdowns, the denunciations, the persons lost to suicide and murder and AIDS. At that meeting, the one with Tuli's doodles, everything was sad, sad, sad—or that was what, in a fit of melancholy, I texted to Eli, back on the east coast. I was sitting through this meeting of mostly women, as Juliana would say, talking about different kinds of violence and persons lost, about death threats and accountability processes, thinking about how easily a sense of shared trauma creates intimacy, on the street or in similar lived pasts, and how horrible it is, really, that these closest ties grow out of such cruel soil. There is a danger, said Chris, another night, in romanticizing that trauma or making the violence too beautiful, as a story we tell about ourselves.
All this brings me back to Ferrante's Neopolitan novel cycle, which is, more than anything else, I think, about the intersection of intimacy and violence. This turn to the violence of the personal, to the domestic lives of women, makes up a gendered counter-history to the more famous, workerest versions of Italy's Creeping May. In The Story of a New Name, the wider political context begins to emerge, as a backdrop that perplexes Lenù. After an epic mansplaining incident, she wonders, "what were Gaullism, the O.A.S., social democracy, the opening to the left; who were Danilo Dolci, Bertrand Russell, the pieds-noirs, the followers of Fanfani; and what had happened in Beirut, what in Algeria"? (SNN 159) There is much to say on this score—I'll return to that wincingly awful university party later, in another post. However, here, in my last consideration of My Brilliant Friend, I'm going to take a second pass at a few things, to chew over them a bit more, really. I want to begin, again, with how magical, how supremely beautiful, almost charmed, Ferrante makes the poverty and desperation of Lenù's childhood appear. It is such a pleasure, this book, to read. Recall early on, when Lenù sets the reader straight: "I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence." The declarative is misleading, in that it feels like the truth. But then the sentences get longer, as though explaining. They tilt, so that it is not so much childhood, but just life that is like that, violent. The matter of violence unsticks from childhood and becomes nothing special, certainly nothing to cry about. As Lenù continues, stitching together the head that cracked on the stairs like a melon and those grandmothers, tearing at each other's hair, there are tiny animals sneaking into the neighborhood, from abandoned trains and bogs, the imagined frogs, salamanders, and flies, infecting all of these persons, through water and air, as though the mutual aggression were some sort of interspecies plague. In this prose, what looks normal, or at least recognizable, gets mangled into enchantment so deftly, so quietly, that you are not sure how you got there, or really where you are at all. It might seem like magic, and pretends to be, sometimes. But this kind of vertigo is more aptly understood as desperation: that mixture of unpredictable, dangerous, and combustible that results from having no other choices and nowhere else to go. Nevertheless, it's a thin line, here, between the magical and the desperate. This is writing like an oil slick—slippery, thick.
Sarah described this effect as a fever dream, which is exactly right, I think. It is not magical realism in the mode of Garcia Marquez, for example, where the world is somehow enchanted, filled with yellow butterflies that everyone can see. There is a doubleness in Ferrante, so that the magical is only a kind of scrim—a fever dream, a game, a childhood misunderstanding—that makes the unenchanted world palatable. Consider, for instance, the moment that Katherine took up in her last post:
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. (BF 107)
The game is magical and the game is imaginary. The game is a way of coping. It is a made-up story, very beautiful, almost romantic. There is something unsettling about the ways that this cruelty can become so beautiful, the way that the cruelty begets intimacy, but then I wonder: Why assume that lives so touched by desperation should be entirely stark, black and white, without ornament? Isn't this as much of a paternalistic imposition as the fantastic or beautiful? Why is the "realism" of a life lived amidst poverty, violence, desperation necessarily, naturally, understood as a matter of the subdued—the prosaic, gritty, spare, austere?
As we move into the next volume, The Story of a New Name, Ferrante's realism changes, slightly. If My Brilliant Friend was slippery, the reading like an accelerated flight, The Story of a New Name feels like picking through tiny, dry stones. The second book is even more violent, maybe, but the game looks different:
So, caught between Nino's impatience and her husband's complaints, instead of regaining a sense of reality and telling herself clearly that she was in a situation with no way out, Lila began to act as if the real world were a backdrop or a chessboard, and you had only to shift a painted screen, move a pawn or two, and you would see that the game, the only thing that really counted, her game, the game of the two of them, could continue to be played. As for the future, the future became the day after and then the next and then the one after that. Or sudden images of massacre and blood, which were very frequent in her notebooks. She never wrote I will die murdered, but she noted local crime news, sometimes she reinvented it. In these stories of murdered women she emphasized the murderer's rage, the blood everywhere. ... It was as if she wanted to take the power away even from the realistic possibility of violent death by reducing it to words, to a form that could be controlled. (SNN 343)
In The Story of a New Name, Lenù finds Lila's notebooks, so that we have two accounts of every event. The notebooks offer a second narration of what happens, from Lila's eyes and then filtered through Lenù's narration. But the notebooks also become a place to imagine other endings, or to stave off the reality of having nowhere else to go and no way out. In the lines above, "a sense of reality" and "the real world" opposes the game of painted screens. This realism is a world with no power and no future, where Lila will die murdered.
One critique of the ultra-left, in its various manifestations, is that the imagination of a world beyond or after capitalism is utterly unrealistic, impossible, totally fantastic, a science fiction for children, etc., etc. The end of capitalism is, in one well-known phrase, more impossible to imagine than the end of the world. I've littered this post with proper names, all those magical connections accrued in the legal pad, now tinged with the antique filters of digital processing, not really to query the status of an object, as artifact, but to push on the line between what gets to be called realism and what is fantastic. Really, it is not all that supernatural that stationary might be used by a bunch of different people temporarily living together. What is significant, here, and in Lenù's belated reading of Lila's notebooks, is the way that the thinking of other futures and the persons within them happens together, as a conversation, back and forth. As Maya wrote, later, amidst the anomie of Facebook, these conversations involve a thinking that happens at the limits of the imagination. I'd wager that this thinking with one another, born out of acting together, hurting together, the manners of coping together, converging, fantastically, amidst the dead and other specters, might be a kind of realism, too.