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‘Everything in her, was the result of the chaos of an occasion’: Elena Ferrante’s ‘The Story of a New Name’

“When she closed the door behind her and, as if she were inside a white cloud of steam that made her invisible, took the metro to Campi Flegrei, Lila had the impression that she had left a soft space, inhabited by forms without definition, and was finally heading toward a structure that was capable of containing her fully, all of her, without her cracking or the figures around her cracking.”

The Story of a New Name, the second book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, explodes into life like a meteor shower. It begins at Lila’s wedding, where it is already clear to Elena that her childhood friend’s decision to marry the up-and-coming neighbourhood grocer Stefano is a huge mistake, and one that will have tragic consequences. Feverishly moving between nihilism (“if nothing could save us, not money, not a male body, and not even studying, we might as well destroy everything immediately…”) and envy (“I saw myself identical to a dented bowl in which my sister Elisa used to feed a stray cat, until he disappeared, and the bowl stood empty, gathering dust on the landing…”), the marriage generates storm-clouds of conflicting emotions within her, which clash and produce the lightning-flash of her own hesitant, half-suppressed sexual desires. These, at last, find an outlet in her boyfriend, Antonio:

“We kissed without stopping, behind a tree, in the doorway of a building, along dark alleys. We took a bus, then another, and reached the station. We went towards the ponds on foot, still kissing each other on the nearly deserted street that skirted the railroad tracks… I wanted desire to find a violent satisfaction, capable of shattering that whole day… I said nothing else. I embraced him, I clasped him to me with all my strength. I would have liked to be caressed and kissed over every inch of my body, I felt the need to be rubbed, bitten, I wanted my breath to fail… My heart began to beat hard, I was afraid of the place, of myself, of the craving that possessed me to obliterate from my manners and from my voice the sense of alienation that I had discovered a few hours earlier… … yearning and anguished and guilty…”

With this, the stage is set. The Story of a New Name, which takes up the adventures of Elena and Lila, now sixteen years old, and their Neopolitan neighbourhood, is a story of sexual and emotional awakening, of the personal and the political coming together with an intimate violence, and – in the words of Charles Segal – of “the intransigence of reality before the plasticity of language” (and, we may add, the plasticity of desire). In the first book, My Brilliant Friend, we had seen the first hints of how the world impinges upon imagination, upon possibilities, and most of all, upon women’s freedom to fashion their own lives. In The Story of a New Name, the protagonists are older, their dreams more real and their desires more formed, and so they find reality to be even more implacably intransigent. “Words”, Elena tells herself at one point, “with them you can do and undo as you please.” But even words must fail before the “gluelike consistency” of time, the substance of which, now that the protagonists are seventeen, “no longer seemed fluid… but… churned around us like a yellow cream in a confectioner’s machine.”

Marriage – even a mistaken, bad marriage – destroys the possibilities of autonomy: “They had been consumed by the bodies of husbands, fathers, brothers, whom they ultimately came to resemble, because of their labors or the arrival of old age, of illness. When did that transformation begin? With housework? With pregnancies? With beatings?” Class forestalls the possibilities of love requited: “… the girl who came to meet Nino… was superior to us, just as she was, unwittingly. And this was unendurable.” Gender precludes the possibilities of academic excellence. To the coming-of-age heart, it is all quite unendurable:

“And then there was the lazy sea, the leaden sun that bore down on the gulf and the city, stray fantasies, desires, the ever-present wish to undo the order of the lines – and, with it, every order that required an effort, a wait for fulfillment yet to come – and yield, instead, to what was within reach, immediately gained, the crude life of the creatures of the sky, the earth, and the sea.”

But The Story of a New Name is not about a quiet surrender to the suffocating embrace of time and the world. There is a scene in which Lila and Elena are refashioning the display at the front of her family’s shoe shop window, to the utter chagrin of Lila’s brother and father. As they work together:

“We suspended time, we isolated space, there remained only the play of glue, scissors, paper, paint: the play of shared creation.”

And this, in a sentence, could be what The Story of a New Name is all about. Moments when time is suspended, space isolated, where “the play of… creation” becomes a question of authenticity, of authorship in a constraining world. These moments take different forms: a doomed extra-marital affair (or many), an undesired-yet-desired sexual encounter, an against-the-odds university education, and so on. They are moments of rebellion, of self-actualisation, and most of all, moments when women act in a world that denies them the very possibility of action.

Yet this is not to suggest that The Story of a New Name glorifies these acts of rebellion. More often than not, there is more ugliness than glory, more grit and slime than the music of the spheres, more breaking (frantumaglia) than making whole. This is not surprising. Ferrante’s material is the material of everyday life, her characters are excruciatingly, agonisingly, infuriatingly, human (and therefore us, and therefore, impossible to love). Yet even as she deals with the every day, Ferrante never drags us down to the level of a soap-opera. She manages to avoid the perils of both glorification and banality, and, instead – to borrow a phrase from the phenomenologists – takes us “to the things themselves“. In her writing, our submerged thoughts, our buried dreams and desires, the darkness that we keep secret even from ourselves, takes on flesh, shape, contours, reality. Hannah Arendt once wrote about Heidegger, that “he worked his way down to the roots of things, but rather than hauling them into the light, he left them embedded, merely opening up exploratory roots around them.” That is a perfect description of Ferrante.

In fact, the point is best explained by resorting – as ever – to Ferrante’s own language. Early in the book, while reading novels lent to her by her school Professor, Elena feels that “they presented intense lives, profound conversations, a phantom reality more appealing then my real life.” This is not Ferrante. At a later point, suffering from the agony of unrequited love, Elena “call[s]  on poems and novels as tranquilizers. Maybe, I thought, studying has been useful to me just for this: to calm myself.” This is not Ferrante either. Neither a phantom reality, nor a tranquiliser. Simply, the limits of what can be articulated.

Politics, as always, is a subtle yet unmistakable presence. At one point, Elena sees Stefano as cheerful: “he began to speak of Lila with the pride of someone possessing a rare object whose ownership confers great prestige… yet Lila, in his words, was no longer a person who couldn’t be controlled but a sort of precious fluid stored in a container that belonged to him.”  And then there’s Elena’s ambiguous, unequal relationship with Nino Sarratore:

“Have you read Federico Chabod? It was the only moment when Nino seemed to be annoyed. I realized that he didn’t know who Chabod was and from that I got an electrifying sensation of fullness. I began to summarise the little I had learned, but I quickly realized that to know, to compulsively display what he knew, was his point of strength and at the same time his weakness. He felt strong if he took the lead and weak if he lacked words. He darkened, in fact he stopped me almost immediately. He sidetracked the conversation, he started talking about the Regions, about how urgent it was to get them approved, about autonomy and decentralization, about economic planning on a regional basis, all things I had never heard a word about. No Chabod, then: I had left him the field… What were we doing? A discussion? Practicing for future confrontations with people who had learned to use words as we had? An exchange of signals to prove to ourselves that such words were the basis of a long and fruitful friendship? A cultivated screen for sexual desire? … But I also understood that there was no comparison with the exchanges I had had with Lila years earlier, which ignited my brain, and in the course of which we tore the words from each other’s mouth, creating an excitement that seemed like a storm of electrical charges. With Nino it was different. I felt that I had to pay attention to say what he wanted me to say, hiding from him both my ignorance, and the few things I knew and he didn’t.”

There is, I feel, more in there about gender, about patriarchy, and about structural privilege, than in a month of graduate school seminars. Or consider Elena’s first, painful introduction to class, at a party organised by her professor:

“And Nino, politely disagreeing with the professor, contradicted Armando, contradicted Carlo. I listened spellbound. Their words were buds that blossomed in my mind into more or less familiar flowers, and then I flared up, mimicking participation; or they manifested forms unknown to me, and I retreated, to hide my ignorance.” 

Unlike Nino, who “was profound in confronting the great problems of the world as he was superficial in the feelings of love“, Ferrante is equally adept at both.

Previously, while reviewing My Brilliant Friend, I had remarked upon Ferrante’s felicity with the perfect phrase, the almost achingly perfect choice of words, as though for her, language is no barrier to expression, but augments it. The Story of a New Name is simply more of the same. Whether it is describing the ambiguity of friendship and parting (“I had wished to diminish her in order not to feel her loss…”), the inexpressible pains of love (“Maybe he’s hurting himself inside, because the words, shouted in his throat like that, in his chest, but without exploding in the air, are like bits of sharp iron piercing his lungs and his pharynx…”), insecurity (“… as if the pure and simple fact that he loved me were the public sanctioning of my talents…”),  the ending of relationships (“… there are people who leave and people who know how to be left…”), or simply, pure rage against the constraints of the world (“At times she was overwhelmed by a mania to express herself with no mediation…”), after Ferrante has written it, you wonder how it could ever have been expressed differently.

After finishing The Story of a New Name, you take a deep, shuddering breath. You put the book down, and you go out for a walk, into a world that feels – as Ferrante writes – “… formed, reformed, deformed.” But a world that you recognise better than you did before you began the book.

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‘Every day I felt more strongly the anguish of not being in time’: Elena Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’

“My father held tight to my hand as if he were afraid that I would slip away. In fact I had the wish to leave him, run, move, cross the street, be struck by the brilliant scales of the sea. At that tremendous moment, full of light and sound, I pretended I was alone in the newness of the city, new myself with all life ahead, exposed to the mutable fury of things but surely triumphant: I, I and Lila, we two with that capacity that together – only together – we had to seize the mass of colours, things, and people, and express it and give it power.”

In Charles Baudelaire’s poem, Le Soleil, the poet goes out into the streets questing for words. “Along the old street on whose cottages are hung/ The slatted shutters which hide secret lecheries,/ When the cruel sun strikes with increased blows/ The city, the country, the roofs, and the wheat fields,/ I go alone to try my fanciful fencing,/ Scenting in every corner the chance of a rhyme,/ Stumbling over words as over paving stones,/ Colliding at times with lines dreamed of long ago.” There is a sense of language as a physical obstruction, condensed in words such as “stumbling” and “colliding’, a barrier against expressing meaning. In the next two stanzas, Baudelaire turns to the sun for clarity: “This foster-father, enemy of chlorosis,/ Makes verses bloom in the fields like roses;/… commands crops to flourish and ripen/ In those immortal hearts which ever wish to bloom!” With the right catalyst, then, language (words) can serve to make the world “flourish and ripen”, replacing “chlorosis” with “bloom”.

On similar lines, the protagonist of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (also called Elena), writes of her friend Lila: “… she took the facts and in a natural way charged them with tension; she identified reality as she reduced it to words, she injected it with energy.”  And this, I think, is the aptest description of Ferrante’s writing as well. To borrow a line from the Irish playwright Brien Friel, Ferrante’s novel is all about how “an experience, an event, even a small unimportant happening [can be] isolated, and assessed, and articulated.” It is not quite as simple as just glamourising the quotidian; rather, it is about taking that collage of human life – love, loss, friendship, growing up – and, like Baudelaire’s sun, casting a light upon the ordinary language of experience that makes it flourish, ripen, and bloom.

My Brilliant Friend is the first book in a four-volume series called The Neapolitan Novels. It is an account of a rough Neapolitan neighbourhood in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, told through the eyes of the narrator, a young girl called Elena Greco. The novel features a generous ensemble of characters (James Wood calls it an “amiably peopled bildungsroman“), tracing out the intertwined lives of a number of families of the neighbourhood, a neighbourhood whose dense past hangs over it like a thick cloud of regret, unhappiness, and unresolved tension, and which continues to choke the lives of its residents: “and they thought that what had happened before was past and, in order to live quietly, they placed a stone on top of it, and so, without knowing it, they continued it, they were immersed in the things of before, and we kept them inside us too.”

At its heart, however, My Brilliant Friend is about the intense, passionate friendship between Elena and another girl her age, Lila. Like all things intense and passionate, it is never quite equal, and invariably causes Elena equal amounts of joy and pain. In the beginning, Lila’s fierce intelligence and fiercer wit makes her a subject of near-worshipful adoration. And although as they grow up, it is Lila who bends more to the demands of society and of convention, Elena can never quite shake off their initial equation, much though she tries (“… maybe I should erase Lila from myself like a drawing from the blackboard.”) The relationship between the two comes to define, to characterise, and to colour the world around, even as it presses in upon them, constricting their choices and suffocating their desires.

My Brilliant Friend has been called a ‘bildungsroman’, a coming-of-age novel. I’m not so sure. A significant part of it is, indeed, about how Elena’s interior landscape transforms and evolves in response to the world around her, and Ferrante describes this with rare sensitivity: “I was absorbing much of that sight, many things, too many, were scattering around me without letting me grasp them.”

Far more than that, however, My Brilliant Friend – as I wrote above – is about “isolating, assessing, and articulating” that core of experience that might (with some trepidation) be called “universal”. Many reviews respond to this by using adjectives such as “honest” and “authentic” (fraught words, both) to describe Ferrante’s writing. There is a kernel of truth there, of course, but that’s not all there is to it. Honesty of expression is all very well, but My Brilliant Friend has something more. Like the “sublimation of sorrow” that Adam Perry invokes to characterise how Virgil’s Aeneid transforms raw grief into art, what is unique about My Brilliant Friend is the range of experiences that it sublimates in this fashion. Consider, for instance, Elena’s musings as she reflects upon her fraught relationship with Lila, at one of its particularly low points: “I wanted her to be curious, to want at least a little to share my adventure from the outside, to feel she was losing something of me as I always feared losing much of her”; and “it was an old fear, a fear that has never left me: the fear that, in losing pieces of her life, mine lost intensity and importance.”

These are sentiments that we all, I suppose, have felt at one point or another (for my part, I can personally affirm to it). But they have been inarticulable: perhaps, partly, we fear to articulate them for what they reveal about ourselves; but perhaps, mostly, because they are buried so deep within us that they defy articulation. Ferrante – to go back t0 Baudelaire’s image – is the sun that casts its light upon them, illuminating them in a way that we can recognise them as our own, claim them, and yet (somehow) not be ashamed of them. That’s why “honesty” does not quite capture it – it is something more, something elusive and fleeting, almost unnameable. “Sublimation” is the best that I can come up with.

Yet more than this, Ferrante is also equal to the task of writing one of the most sensitive and difficult of experiences: the infinitesimally slow, yet infinitely painful process by which our childhood imaginations run up against the rocky shoals of the world, and after an agonising resistance (whether long or short), break upon it. Because of the structure of our society, this is something that I’m sure will resonate far more with Ferrante’s women readers than it will with men (and there are other scenes that will as well: “I myself – especially after the incident with the Solaras – had learned instinctively to lower our eyes, pretend not to hear the obscenities they directed at us, and keep going.“) But consider this:

“… she was struggling to find, from inside the cage in which she was enclosed, a way of being, all her own, that was still obscure to her.”

I cannot think of a word out of place, a word that is not perfect in this pellucid half-sentence. I think of Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art, with its last, almost desperate cry of Write it! – write it so that it can be named, so that language can save us from the wilderness of unsayable sorrows, so that words can anchor us safe from the “terrifying ambiguity of… experience.” Ferrante writes it. And who can be the same again after reading this frisson-inducing account of Elena bathing Lila a few hours before her wedding:

“At the time it was just a tumultuous sensation of necessary awkwardness, a state in which you cannot avert the gaze or take away the hand without recognizing your own turmoil, without, by that retreat, declaring it, hence without coming into conflict with the undisturbed innocence of the one who is the cause of the turmoil, without expressing by that rejection the violent emotion that overwhelms you, so that it forces you to stay, to rest your gaze on the childish shoulders, on the breasts and stiffly cold nipples, on the narrow hips and the tense buttocks, on the black sex, on the long legs, on the tender knees, on the curved ankles, on the elegant feet; and to act as if it’s nothing when instead everything is there, present, in the poor dim room, amid the worn furniture, on the uneven, water-stained floor, and your heart is agitated, your veins inflamed.”

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“To be alive meant to collide…”

I haven’t yet read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. However, I was recently directed to this conversation between Ferrante and another Italian writer, Nicola Lagioia, where this, from Ferrante, struck me:

“The idea that every “I” is largely made up of others and by the others wasn’t theoretical; it was a reality. To be alive meant to collide continually with the existence of others and to be collided with…”

A little later, she says:

“And we should teach ourselves to look deeply at this interconnection—I call it a tangle, or, rather, frantumaglia—to give ourselves adequate tools to describe it…”

Recently, I read Sarah Bakewell’s At The Existentialist Cafe, where I was equally struck by her summing up of this important aspect of the existentialist project:

“Ever since Husserl, phenomenologists and existentialists had been trying to stretch the definition of existence to incorporate our social lives and relationships. Levinas did more: he turned philosophy around entirely so that these relationships were the foundation of our existence, not an extension of it.”

And:

“Merleau-Ponty thinks human experience only makes sense if we abandon philosophy’s time-honoured habit of starting with a solitary, capsule-like, immobile adult self, isolated from its body and world, which must then be connected up again… instead, for him, we slide from the womb to the birth canal to an equally close and total immersion in the world.”

Of late, I’ve been feeling, more and more, that the category of the “individual”, which constitutes the basis of much of the legal order, and indeed, the foundation of the concept of “rights”, is detached from human experience precisely because it assumes the “I” without the others. I’m aware that this is an old criticism, but the communitarian alternative leaves me equally unsatisfied. I wonder how we might develop a (legal) philosophy that would acknowledge “frantumaglia” as a central feature of human experience in the world, while stopping short of making an imagined “community” the basic unit of analysis…

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