Time on to-read: Two years
Reason for not reading: Eh…… maybe later. And also I haven’t read the first one!
Reason for picking up: DID YOU READ MY REVIEW OF THE FIRST ONE??
Verdict: I’m already reading the next one. I can’t believe I paused long enough to write this, frankly.
What’s your ugly place?
We all have one. We all have a place we quite deliberately do not go to. That we are aware is there, but have developed systems and defensive walls and jokes and denials in order to keep it out of the light of day. It’s the place you can’t help but end up sometimes when something particularly embarrassing happens to you, something tragic, an epiphany about yourself that you didn’t particularly want occurs to you. It’s the place where you were the person you never, ever wanted to be lives, and the memories of when that person came out that one time that you never want to think about again.
That deep down dark pit of your stomach feeling that’s welling up and over as that image comes to your brain? That’s it. That’s the visceral level of vulnerability, insecurity, ugliness and pain that I saw there. And there is where you need to be to understand everything I’m about to tell you.
Because that place is where this novel goes. This thing hit me where I live.
Story of a New Name is not for anyone in a fragile emotional state. I’m telling you now. It isn’t for anyone who is still too close to being an insecure, bookish not-quite-teenager anymore with major self esteem issues. Even a few years ago, I think reading this might have sent me into a depressive, melodramatic spiral like when I saw Melancholia, which had to have been the literal worst thing I could have chosen to see while writing my thesis in a foreign country at a school full of people smarter than me. I saw it three times and lost a weekend before I could see straight again.
Which is what may happen with Ferrante. Which is totally insane, when you read these books objectively. Or at least, I think it would be, I have no way of really telling right now. Her style is, for the most part, this totally bare, bald-faced thing that just tells you exactly what is happening to her characters in their mundane, perfectly ordinary 1960s poor Italian lives. The engine driving the drama that the things that keep happening keep right on damn happening to them and the second volume is no better. Ferrante is as merciless as time, marching on without a thought for her characters and their development, who really could use some more time in this stage of their personal development or other. Ferrante, like the harsh Naples neighborhood she raises her characters in, doesn’t allow herself to give a damn. I can absolutely guarantee you, whatever you sign up for, you should sign up for some “shit happens” and very little mercy granted, because that’s how it goes with Ferrante. (Sometimes I think that the main narrator’s school and career arc is the mercy bone she threw us just to keep us from looking away.)
The second volume of this series focuses on the girls’ late adolescence and post-adolescence, the years that for most of us would be covered by late high school, college and your first post-college job. As with the first novel, the pages of the novel are covered over with a powerful atmosphere that burns right through the pages until you’re sitting right with Lila and Elena with sand in your outdated bathing suit on the beach at Ischia, standing on a street corner watching a too-flashy sports car go by, catching a glimpse of a movie star that looks like your friend, with Elena in a cramped corner of a bedroom like a modern Italian Fanny Price, angrily swatting at mosquitoes and trying to keep still in the suffocating heat. The courtyards of broken glass, wailing from the windows, and women, uncommented upon, wearing bruises to work the next day is as sickeningly evoked as ever.
One of the more fascinating atmospheric elements that Ferrante added demonstrated the stage of development where you become aware that you are not the center of the universe in a variety of ways- in this case for characters living in poverty and powerlessness, most of them borne in forcibly upon you whether you like it or not. Ferrante starts to introduce the gradual intrusion of politics and political identity- tellingly, it mostly shows in one more tribal identity, one more way for the kids to divide themselves- mostly in increased accusations of “Fascist pig!” and “Red communist!” thrown around in place of remarks on one’s face and person, and one kid going to one meeting and one going to another. Elena also encounters this world, but again, not in itself, but as a piece of currency in the game of the class system, another piece of another kind of tribal mask that she’s trying hard to don:
”Professor Airota and his daughter, had, for example, affectionate skirmishes on political subjects that I had heard about from Pasquale, from Nino, but whose substance I knew almost nothing about. Arguments like: you’ve been trapped by inter-class collaboration, you call it a trap, I call it mediation; mediation in which the Christian Democrats always and only win; you’re not reforming a thing; in our place what would you do; revolution, revolution and revolution; revolution is taking Italy out of the middle ages….
Like that, a swift back and forth: a polemical exercise that they both obviously enjoyed…. What I had never had and, I now knew, would always lack. What was it? I wasn’t able to say precisely: the training, perhaps, to feel that the questions of the world were deeply connected to me; the capacity to feel them as crucial and not purely as information to display at an exam, in view of a good grade; a mental conformation that didn’t reduce everything to my own individual battle, to the effort to be successful.”
That one hit me hard. This is one of the most brutal books on the class system and what it does to the psyche that I’ve seen. The sort of psychology on display here is the sort of thing I learned in my urban teacher training program, or learned first hand when faced with some of my students. Elena spends a great deal of the back half of this book anxiously trying to decode and adopt the unwritten rules of being middle class- the words, the clothes, what I was trained to call the “cultural knapsack” that middle class kids often get seemingly by osmosis. Ferrante shows the utter human waste that happens as a result- invisible waste, as far as we’re concerned- the brilliant minds that never get a chance to take over the world, the fruit seller who is unexpectedly good at math, the entrepreneurial ideas crushed by self-confidence issues and family squabbles. It’s much harder to look at than any of the wasted landscapes or shabby apartments that she describes.
And watching Elena sew her middle class mask onto her face tighter and tighter, laboring at it for years, and watching the ugly ugly road that it takes to get there (of which Ferrante only tells you the barest part, but it isn’t hard to guess) it… well… did anyone else watch Battlestar Galatica? Do you remember that time that Baltar was in jail after fucking up yet again, and he talks to… Lee, I think, finally opening up to him a little bit about where he’s from? Fuck, I wish I could find it. But while he’s talking to him, hanging his head in the darkness with his hair covering his face, he slowly lets his cultured British accent morph into a thick, gravelly, hick voice that is clearly his natural tone. He makes it as scary as possible, throwing it at aristocratic Lee like a weapon, moving to the bars with red eyes, like he’s morphing himself into the monster he believes himself to be.
It’s like that, but mannered, expressed in ladylike, spare lines like this:
”…. I was so glad that no one in that nice little family had asked me, as happened frequently, where I came from, what my father did and my mother, I was I, I, I.”
It makes sense why, later in the novel, there’s a passage about how so many characters are confused when Lila wants to go take a job in the center of the city. She’s a veritable queen in the old neighborhood, and can lord it over anyone there, lend them money, show them up in clothes, people are now afraid to cross her…. Why would she want to go to the nicer part of town, where her illusions will be shattered? Why would she want to take that away that illusion from herself?
This class angle had a lot to do with the ugly place I was telling you about before, which is the deep-seeded insecurity that runs throughout this entire book. But while class and place and atmosphere are the bedrock reasons, the insecurity I’m talking about here has to do with friendship. This series is, after all, about a friendship. No matter what other powerful stuff buttresses it under the surface, that provided it with its foundation, we’re far enough along into the lives of these girls that the friendship has now taken on a life of its own.
We’ve reached the point, as happens in a lot of long-running friendships, where the thing has become overripe- it’s become something rotten and possibly poisonous, something that probably should have been dumped overboard a long time ago. But you’re still at the place where you can’t quite let it go.
Especially when it’s a powerful relationship with someone as charismatic as Lila- someone you looked up to, someone you put on a pedestal and set up as a sort of personal muse/deity/devil. It’s a fascinating, minute examination of a part of the consequences of an expanding consciousness of the world- namely that you realize that you, your friend, and your courtyard are no longer the center of the universe. Elena is starting to become aware, in fits and starts, of the fact that Lila has a personality and limits, just like she does. She starts to say things like “this is what she does.” She starts to express annoyance, and there’s even a few times, where she pathetically tries to keep Lila out:
“In the past there had been Lila, a continuous happy detour into surprising lands. Now everything I was I wanted to get from myself. I was almost nineteen, I would never again depend on someone, and I would never again miss someone.”
And even a whole chapter where she experiments writing about her own life without referencing Lila at all, something neat, clean, undisturbed…. And something that lasts two pages before Lila returns:
“How easy it is to tell the story of myself without Lila: time quiets down and the important facts slide along the thread of the years like suitcases on a conveyor belt at an airport; you pick them up and put them on a page and it’s done.
It’s more complicated to recount what happened to her in those years. The belt slows down, accelerates, swerves abruptly, goes off the tracks. The suitcases fall off, fly open, her things end up among mine: to accommodate them, I am compelled to return to the narrative concerning me (and that had come to be unobstructed) and expand phrases that now sound too concise…. My life forces me to imagine what hers would have been if what happened to me had happened to her, what use she would have made of my luck. And her life continuously appears in mine, in the words that I’ve uttered, in which there’s often an echo of hers, in a particular gesture that is an adaptation of a gesture of hers, in may less which is such because of her more, in my more which is yielding to the force of her less.”</i>
She can’t leave her behind. There’s a lot of reasons why, but at the heart of it is another class battle of sorts to do with Elena’s identification as an intellectual, and a discussion of different kinds of intelligence and which one is “better”. Lila’s is the kind that poets romanticize, people are magnetically drawn to, that succeeds when it shouldn’t, but also continues to push and push until it inevitably breaks something. (<i> “Is it possible that you must always do harm, Lila? When will you stop? When will your energy diminish, will you be distracted, when will you finally collapse like a sleepy sentinel? When will you grow wide and sit at the cash register in the new neighborhood, with your stomach swelling and make Pinuccia and aunt, and me, me, me, leave to go my own way?”</i>- runs the imagined inner monologue of one of the characters) While Elena’s… well, Elena’s is kind that gets you through high school and college and into a steady job and the plaudits of those around you.
It’s the sort of self-punishing struggle that most intellectuals put themselves through at some point, and probably most of their lives, if they identify as or are put into the role of a “smart kid” early enough. You were that kid, right? A lot of us were. But then you met that other kid, right? The one who was smarter than you. If you’re me, you met a whole group of them in which you were the least intelligent person. If you’re lucky, you felt challenged, you felt yourself blossom. If you weren’t, you felt inadequate, like your identity had melted away and you never quite recovered. If you’re super unlucky, like Elena, you get the triple double horrible punch of feeling elated/exhilarated/proud/betrayed/insecure/unhappy/angry/sad every time you see this person wasting themselves away. If you’ve never had that sort of deep friendship, the kind that’s gone wrong and back around the corner again (or even if it never quite come back again), the sort that’s steered your life, I don’t know how to explain it to you. Maybe by repeating that Cathy Heathcliff thing, it’s that thing where Cathy tells people that Heathcliff is a part of her, and that really sucks and it’s no pleasure to her most of the time, but there he is and there’s really no way to tear him out again and you’re going to have to live with the goddamn thing because otherwise you’ll probably stop being able to function like you’re some semblance of a human being.
She burns it up again at the end though, even after everything we see them go through. That end, man. I can’t leave without talking about it. Elena goes to see Lila, to share some important, happy news with her, news that she is convinced will change things, will ignite something good in her again. And she does, but then Lila’s reaction, what she sees her do in response. And what happens to her- what she thinks she realizes- It was a gut punch that I can only describe by going back to Baltar again- in the last episode of the series. Remember, he’s with Six and they’re trying to figure out how they’re going to get by on the planet and he says, in the most broken little voice you’ve ever heard, like he absolutely can’t believe he’s bringing it up: “You know, I know about farming?”
If you were the person who, like me, was utterly destroyed by that moment, then you need to read this book. If you were any of the people described above, or if you have that ugly place, you need to read this book. If you’re looking to be transported, if you’re looking for something that can consume you for days, you need to read this book.
So I guess, really, I would say that if you’re alive in any way, I’m sure that there’s a reason that you should probably read this book.
Instant personal classic, instant all-time favorites list, will be re-reading this once a decade for the rest of my life. Why?
“…She was explaining to me that I had won nothing, that in the world there is nothing to win, that her life was full of varied and foolish adventures as much as mine, and that time simply slipped away without any meaning, and it was good just to see each other every so often to hear the mad sound of one brain echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.”