This Essay originally appeared in the Summer 2016 Issue of MQR and is available courtesy of our archives
When I am another, my acts are more mine when they are the acts of others, in order to be I must be another, leave myself, search for myself in the others, the others that don’t exist if I don’t exist, the others that give me total existence, I am not, there is no I, we are always us.
-from “Sunstone” by Octavio Paz, translated by Eliot Weinberger
On close inspection, all literature is probably a version of the apocalypse that seems to me rooted . . . on the fragile border . . . where identities (subject/object, etc.) do not exist or only barely so—double, fuzzy, heterogeneous, animal, metamorphosed, altered, abject.
-from“Powers of Horror” by Julia Kristeva
1. Boundaries of knowledge
In the opening of Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth book of the Italian writer’s Neapolitan novels, the narrator, Elena Greco, notes: “Now that I’m close to the most painful part of our story, I want to seek on the page a balance between her and me that in life I couldn’t find even between myself and me.” “Her” here refers to Lila Cerullo, as Elena calls her, and these four novels, arguably one large masterpiece, chronicle the lives of and friendship between these two women set against the backdrop of Italy’s charged sociopolitics. Elena’s desire for balance here is representative of the intricate balance and boundary between the self and the other that exists in these novels. Their friendship becomes a continual process of blurring what is imagined and what is real to achieve a sort of truth, a mutual constitution of self and other.
The friendship is both tender and antagonistic, deeply intimate and full of spite, and Elena reflects on the difficulty of telling her own story without Lila in it. There is Lila’s story and there is Elena’s story, but Elena realizes the two are inextricable. The “very nature of our relationship,” Elena notes, “dictates that I can reach [Lila] only by passing through myself.” Lila, however, is adamant that her own story is not interesting, but Elena cannot admit that she is right, nor can she admit that “as the years pass, the less [she knows] of Lila.” And, perhaps, the less she knows of herself.
Rachel Donadio, in her New York Review of Books review of Ferrante’s novels (published before The Story of a Lost Child was released in English) eloquently argues that these books are about knowledge: “What kind of knowledge does it take to get by in this world? How do we attain that knowledge? How does our knowledge change us and wound us and empower us . . . ? What things do we want to know and what would we prefer to leave unknown?”
It’s a smart, astute observation, to which I would add that these novels feel less about knowledge as a goal and more about its flux, how knowledge not only changes us but how we might have a role in creating that knowledge. New knowledge creates new possibilities, after all, fulfilling certain needs that were limited by its previous lack. This lack of knowledge, and of power, can work as a catalyst, and writing is a way to claim both: “I loved Lila,” Elena notes. “I wanted her to last. But I wanted it to be I who made her last.”
There are boundaries to knowledge, of course. Elena struggles with the fact that “as the years pass, the less [she knows] of Lila.” Knowledge isn’t always absolute, and truth, these novels suggest, isn’t either. The books are about being perpetually in between, about hovering near the borders, about becoming. The story of the complicated friendship explores the idea of boundaries and balance: of narration, of knowledge, of the body, and of the self. A friend is, as Aristotle would say, one’s other self.
So when Lila goes missing, at the age of sixty-six, Elena takes it as a personal affront and a personal loss. “It’s been at least three decades since [Lila] told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace, and I’m the only one who knows what she means.” Her whereabouts—the novel’s great unknown, drives the novels forward, but the best suspense comes from what we know, not what we don’t. And we know Elena’s need to write it all down is hardly simply an act of memory or preservation. It’s one of spite, a continuation of a constant battle, and balance, between them; it is also one of desire. Elena muses:
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, you put them on the page, and it’s done.
What she means is: without Lila, there isn’t much of a story, or much of herself.
And if in order to know Lila she must more aggressively pass through herself, the boundaries between these two women are blurred and porous. As Montaigne has said of friends: “souls are mingled and confounded in so universal a blending that they efface the seam which joins them together so that it cannot be found.”
But the way each woman deals with this invisible seam is significant, in constant struggle to maintain a sort of balance and to navigate the boundaries of the self. Lila tells Elena: “I’m a scribble on a scribble, completely unsuitable for one of your books; forget it, Lenù, one doesn’t tell the story of an erasure.” But Elena seeks to do just that, spurred by Lila’s disappearance: “She never had in mind any sort of flight, a change of identity, the dream of making a new life somewhere else . . . she wanted to vanish. . .. She wanted not only to disappear herself, now, at the age of sixty-six, but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind.”
For Elena, there’s a sense of pride in having that exclusive knowledge (“I’m the only one who knows what she means”), and also a commentary on their two selves as inextricable. But it also shows something about their competition and constant striving for a balance between them. “We’ll see who wins this time,” Elena says. “I turned on the computer and began to write—all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.” Writing her story, and Lila’s, is not only an act of defiance—she also notes that for Lila “eliminating herself was a sort of aesthetic project”—but an act of both balance and self-restoration.
Because Lila has gone missing, the knowledge of the past acts as a reservoir to constitute the new present, but it’s the past’s reconstruction that creates the emotional experience that preoccupies Elena. But how does Elena have all this knowledge to reconstruct in the first place? Her memories come not only from what she has herself experienced firsthand but also from what she knows from talking with Lila, and what she has learned from a set of notebooks that Lila had entrusted her with years before, and that Elena, because she felt they both burdened and diminished her, threw into the Arno river. Her own rejection of knowledge, perhaps. But not before memorizing their contents, as if to make them her own, to recreate them. She says: “Every page ignited my thoughts, my ideas, my pages as if until that moment I had lived in a studious but ineffectual stupor.” The notebooks reanimate her, and she in turn reanimates their contents. With these notebooks she shares the same reflexivity as she does with Lila, only with the notebooks she has a greater control.
After reading the second novel (The Story of a New Name) I discussed Elena’s reliance on these notebooks with a friend. “Doesn’t this device feel contrived?” he asked. “Besides,” he added, “even with the notebooks there’s no way Elena would know all she does. I’m not sure I buy it.” Elena tossed away the notebooks far before Lila’s disappearance, so Elena is remembering what was in them. Technically, however, the notebooks provided Elena with information that Lila has neither shared with her, nor that Elena herself has witnessed.
His point was fair, and one I admit I had not considered; I was so wrapped up in the story that I didn’t care if the information was being beamed down to Elena from the moon. But was this an artistically lazy device, a narrative trickery, or was it a deliberate comment on the boundaries of narration and storytelling itself? “Stories aren’t about things. They are things,” Bret Anthony Johnston notes in his essay “Don’t Write What You Know. ”Stories aren’t about actions. Stories are, unto themselves, actions.”
Lila’s notebooks were artifacts that Elena shaped into actions. Elena is clear to note, when she first reads Lila’s words, that they weren’t diaries as much as detailed recordings, “evidence of a stubborn self-discipline in writing. The pages were full of descriptions: the branch of a tree, the ponds, a stone, a leaf with its white veinings, the pots in the kitchen, the various parts of a coffee maker, a highly detailed map of the courtyard. . . .” In short, the facts.
Ferrante, not Elena, may have offered this bit of information as an anticipation of the resistance she knew she might face, the sort of question my friend brought up. How could Elena know all this? Well, here’s how. Yet whether Lila happened to record everything or nothing, whether Elena was there for every event or only heard of them second hand, she still must create her own interpretation, an action, an experience for the reader.
Peter Mendelsund, in his book What We See When We Read, notes that “Characters are ciphers, and narratives are made richer by omission.” He argues that “It is precisely what the text does not elucidate that becomes an invitation to our imaginations. . . . Is it that we imagine . . . the most vividly, when an author is at his most elliptical or withholding?”
Has Elena Greco taken these omissions, the blank spaces, of Lila’s notebooks and allowed herself to vividly imagine what has been withheld? To vividly imagine what is inherently unknowable as a crossing of a boundary, a frontier? Does that imagination become her reality? Could that actually be the point? Is this how she reclaims Lila, and therefore, herself?
Though the notebooks are mostly mentioned in the second book, Elena does continue to remind us throughout the writing that what she knows is a recollection of not only her memories and the notebooks but also from other voices. Of Lila’s pregnancy and giving birth, for instance, in The Story of the Lost Child, Elena notes: “I know about the birth from two sources, her and the gynecologist.” She is forever aware of narrating Lila’s story, and of the anxiety that arises when doing so. But without Lila, the details are no more than an accumulation of facts. And facts, after all, have little to do with story. The books are not simply plot driven or even character driven; there’s a postmodern quality to them. Though Ferrante does not call her work autofiction, she has noted that the Neapolitan novels stem from a complicated friendship she experienced but she will not say more than that. So she is doing what all fiction writers do: using our own experiences to create new ones for the reader. What Ferrante has done, in these novels within novels, is create a multilayered metafictional work.
The work we read is in the voice of the quartet’s narrator, Elena Greco, and what we read on these pages is Elena Greco’s recreation of her story and Lila’s. The books deal with the boundaries of knowledge (is to truly know another person an annihilation of the self?), the boundaries of narration, the boundaries of the self, the boundaries of the body, and the boundaries of spaces, all within a patriarchal Naples where the various transgressing of boundaries is an act of subverting a rigid cultural paradigm.
2. Boundaries of the self
In My Brilliant Friend, the first book of the quartet, Elena recalls Lila telling her about a dissociative state that she calls her “dissolving margins.” In those moments the “outlines of people and things suddenly dissolved, disappeared,” and it terrified her. Once, for example, when neighborhood boys set off fireworks, Lila “had the impression that something absolutely material, which had been present around her and around everyone and everything forever, but imperceptibly, was breaking down the outlines of persons and things and revealing itself.”
But what was revealing itself? Lila, even at a young age, carries a wise uneasiness, as if she knew far more than she could handle, such as when her sympathies lie with a neighbor, the mentally ill Melina, “whose attacks of madness usually took the form of shouting or singing.” Once, not long after Lila’s marriage, Melina goes missing and is found near the ponds, sitting in the water, red-eyed, leaves and mud covering her face and hair. When Elena and others bring her home, Lila watches silently from her yard.
Here Elena notes Lila seems moved but also “wounded by it, and frightened, as if she felt inside the same disruption.” When Elena tries to join her, Lila is gone. Melina portends an unwanted knowledge of what might lie ahead, a reading that becomes more clear as we advance into The Story of the Lost Child, where the more terrifying depths of the human mind are explored. Elena notices, when she is back in Naples, “the rigidity of the perimeter that Lila had established for herself.”
Elena’s boundaries, in contrast, are more like frontiers: they don’t dissolve so much as remain rigid, and therefore crossable. After all, she notes that she writes to find a balance between herself and Lila and between “myself and me,” and the way she finds this distinction is essentially through autobiography: the I who writes and the I who appears on the page.
The boundaries between the two, formed by what is known, what is recollected, and what is created, drive the novels forward. Narration, in fact, becomes a way of crossing boundaries. Unlike Lila, Elena does not want to disappear. Her margins are not dissolving but are instead clear and compartmentalized, as are the lines between her different selves. To move among them is straightforward because they are discrete entities, but because they remain compartmentalized she might lose something essential about herself: the parts together may amount to less than the whole. Elena willingly admits a relational subjectivity: that her identity is based not only on Lila’s, but on her lovers, on motherhood, on her children, on the response to her writing, and so forth.
Elena says of Nino, for instance, whom she has loved since childhood and for whom she eventually leaves her husband and children (“I loved him more than my own daughters,” she admits), that time spent with him made the other world disappear, as if they were “suspended in a parallel universe.” She also notes he was a major creator of her own identity:
At the idea of hurting him and of no longer seeing him I withered painfully, the free and educated woman lost her petals, separated from the woman-mother, and the woman-mother was disconnected from the woman-lover, and the woman-lover from the furious whore, and we all seemed on the point of flying off in different directions.
. . . I discovered that, with Lila set aside, I didn’t know how to give myself substance by modeling myself on Nino. I was incapable of being a model for myself. Without him I no longer had a nucleus from which to expand outside the neighborhood and through the world, I was a pile of debris.
In order for her to cross her borders she needs something to anchor her, to tether her back. Elena does not collapse into herself but instead flies outward, which is perhaps how she is able to recreate her experience on the page. The creation of the story is an action that extends, once again, outside her own boundaries.
But if her compartmentalized identities limit her knowledge, Lila, with her dissolving boundaries, becomes all-knowing. In The Story of a Lost Child, when Elena returns to Naples, she notices that Lila could see things others could not. “Lila knew everything. She knew everything out of pure, simple fear of all that was living or dead.”
Elena acknowledges that there was the woman she herself was inside of Naples and outside its borders. “At times I thought that, because of my respectable identity, I had lost, especially in Lila’s eyes, the capacity to understand and so she wanted to protect me from moves that I might misunderstand through ignorance.”
Lila, of course, is never ignorant. For instance, when Elena realizes something about Nino that Lila already knew to be true, Elena’s enraged reaction seems a double humiliation: she is not only angry at Nino, she is perhaps angry that Lila somehow had access to knowledge she did not. And even in the moments of a loss of control, she is aware of her double identity:
I hit [Nino] in the chest with my fists and as I did it felt as if there were a me unglued from me who wished to hurt him even more, who wanted to beat him, spit in his face as I had seen people do as a child in the neighborhood quarrels, call him a man of shit, scratch him, tear out his eyes. I was surprised, frightened. Am I always this furious other I? I, here in Naples, in this filthy house, I, who if I could would kill this man, stick a knife in his heart with all my strength? Should I restrain this shadow—my mother, all our female ancestors—or should I let her go?
This is a question Elena often asks herself of Naples: how much of where we’ve come from stays in us forever, and how much can truly be escaped? Elena is well aware of the way Naples acts on her own boundaries, yet she is still able to separate her two identities: the woman who has grown up in Naples and the woman who has left it behind. But this dual identity of the self can be also a detriment to knowledge. She notes: “In the past Lila had showed me that she knew about [Nino] things I didn’t know. Was she now suggesting that there were still other facts known to her and not to me? It was pointless to ask her to explain herself better; she left, cutting short any conversation.”
Knowledge is power but it is also can be devastating. For instance, the wife of Elena’s lover knows everything of Elena, of their affair, their child, “but behaves as if she knows nothing.” In a patriarchal society such as Naples, full of violence and oppression and a crime-ridden underworld, to pretend to not know is a comfort and a guard; it can also be an act of power. Perhaps Lila’s access to knowledge is a huge burden, and it’s why she notes that lies are the only true comfort: “Lies are better than tranquilizers,” she says.
But Lila’s only guard against the oppression of and truths of Naples is to disappear into it; it is so enmeshed into her identity that leaving it makes her anxious. Lila “wanted to eliminate herself, cancel all the traces, because she couldn’t tolerate herself. She had done it continuously, for her entire existence, ever since she had shut herself off within a suffocating perimeter, confining herself at a time when the planet wanted to eliminate borders. She had never gotten on a train, not even to go to Rome. She had never taken a plane.” The only other option is to disappear into it, or, perhaps, to become it.
Lila’s adamant assertion that she will not write furthers her need to keep her perimeter rigid. “[T]o write you have to want something to survive you,” Lila says. “I don’t even have the desire to live, I’ve never had it strongly the way you have. If I could eliminate myself now, just as we’re speaking, I’d be more than happy.”
Because Elena’s truths can be found outside of herself—she creates boundaries at the same time she casts herself outside them—this delicate balance allows her to tell her story, to separate the I who writes and the I on the page. Nadine Gordimer, in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, says “For myself, I have said that nothing factual I will write or say will be as truthful as my fiction. The life, the opinions, are not the work, for it is in the tension between standing apart and being fully involved that the imagination transforms both.”
The imagination transforms both. Yet Lila’s life, in many ways, is the work that Elena transforms. As Elena is leaving Naples for Turin, to take a job running a literary press, she suddenly realizes that if Lila were to write about her own life, including the lost daughter that gives this final book its name, that the text would be extraordinary. But Lila’s life is the text, she is all over it even as Elena herself is trying to write it, to capture knowledge about Lila, all the while Lila, through an act of extreme knowledge, is attempting to annihilate herself. Day after day, she disappears into the Biblioteca Nazionale, teaching herself of the history of Naples, her own history. She “wanted to learn all she could about Naples.” Elena’s ex-husband tells Elena this, and she wonders: “That’s what she was doing when she disappeared from the neighborhood? That was her new mania?”
Lila disappears from the neighborhood but into Naples, as if the city absorbed her, and as tensions grow between her and her partner, Enzo, she vanishes into the city for the entire day, even into the night: whether she found solace in the library or wandering the streets of Naples Elena does not know. But she knows Lila takes great pleasure in telling Elena’s daughter, Imma, stories of Naples, and Imma tells these stories to Elena. Elena notes: “The city is full of events, both large and small—Lila had told her—you can even see the spirits if you go to the museum, the painting gallery, and, especially, the Biblioteca Nazionale, there are a lot of them in books. You open one and, for example, Masaniello jumps out. Masaniello is a funny and terrible spirit, he makes the poor laugh and the rich tremble.” Elena’s daughter Imma is enthralled with his antics, and particularly his dressing up “all decked out like a marquis. . . .” when he “didn’t know how to read or write.”
Lila’s existence is through Elena’s books now, absorbed into them, but she also is absorbed into the city, jumping out from her disappeared state to deliver remnants of the past.
Long after a major earthquake hits the city, Elena notes that “[t]he memory of the earthquake endured, Naples contained it. Only the heat was departing, like a foggy breath that rose from the body of the city and its slow, strident life.” Naples also perhaps contains Lila, with only her own foggy breath rising up and leaving it behind.
3. Boundaries of the body
But if Lila disappears into the city, what becomes of her body? One of the interesting things about this rich quartet of novels, and one of the most satisfying things about the final installment, is the way certain incidents are revisited, recontextualized, recycled, each book not only advancing the narrative but also texturing the knowledge we already have. When Lila’s experience with her dissolving margins is revisited in the final book, its description is more violent, more repulsive, more bodily, as if as the story progresses and the women age they become more aware of the limits of the flesh. “[Lila] said that the outlines of things and people were delicate, that they broke like cotton thread. . . . And so if she didn’t stay alert, if she didn’t pay attention to the boundaries, the waters would break through, a flood would rise, carrying everything off in clots of menstrual blood, in cancerous polyps, in bits of yellowish fiber.”
The limits of the body are revisited when Elena tells us of the last time she saw Lila, five years before her disappearance, in 2005, an event that we first learn of in the third book, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. Elena and Lila are walking together along the stradone, as they had many times before, when a young man shouts that the body of a woman had been found in a flowerbed near the elementary school. Lila noticed right away that it was their childhood friend Gigliola, looking nothing like Elena remembered her, now “extraordinarily fat,” with enormous ankles, a “ruined” face, and long “fiery red” hair spread out on the dirt. Elena bursts into tears, and Lila looks at her in annoyance, seemingly unmoved.
Whereas Gigliola is part of the early narrative, when she is found she is referred to as their childhood friend. But who she is significant; it was Lila, Elena, and Gigliola who performed best in the end-of-the-year academic competition at the very elementary school in whose flower beds she is found dead. They were the smartest and sharpest in the class. Here are your options as women with intellectual leanings in Naples, Ferrante seems to be saying: become discarded in full view, vanish, or leave.
It is a powerful scene, one that also mentions Elena and Lila’s own physicalities: Lila’s face is “deeply lined” and “increasingly recalled her father’s,” and Elena is prone to weight gain. Before continuing, I want to point out that the moment resonates with an earlier moment from the second book, The Story of a New Name, where, after Lila had married—a symbolic entry into womanhood—Elena begins to notice women on the street. Nervous, silent, tight lipped, shouting insults. Thin with sunken features or with “broad behinds, swollen ankles, heavy chests.” But what Elena notes that surprises and frightens her most is that these women:
appeared to have lost those feminine qualities that were so important to us girls. . . . They had been consumed by the bodies of husbands, fathers, brothers, whom they 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? Would my body, too, one day be ruined by the emergence of not only my mother’s body but my father’s?
Here, Elena understands not only what she is becoming but what she doesn’t want to become: the girls observe the women and the women observe the corpse, suggesting the cycle of life, the constant merging of the past and present that also creates Elena’s narrative. For Lila in particular, who refuses to be moved by the dead Gigliola, the gruesomeness of her body is too much of an acknowledgement of what she is, what they are, too threatening to her own precarious borders. Lila in particular must remain rigid to reject the knowledge of the corpse for fear it will destroy her.
Lila’s response to her dissolving margins seem to be either to disappear, as she does in an aforementioned example regarding Melina, to remain silent or terse, as she does upon witnessing Gigliola’s corpse, or to have her language be reduced to something chaotic and unintelligible, as happens during the earthquake, an event that is a physical touchstone for the dissolution of boundaries between the deep hot core of the earth—or the body—and what appears on the surface. When Naples is shaken up by the earthquake, it is also given a bodily form: “it seemed that the heart of the neighborhood, of the city, was about to burst.”
The earthquake brings about another crisis of boundaries, though for Elena it secures them whereas for Lila it dissolves them. Elena notices:
Everything that struck me . . . would pass, and I, whatever I among those I was accumulating, I would remain firm. I was the arm of the compass that stays fixed while the lead traces circles around it. Lila on the other hand—it seemed clear to me now, and it made me proud, it calmed me, touched me—struggled to feel stable. She couldn’t, she didn’t believe it . . . she perceived herself as a liquid and all her efforts were, in the end, directed only at containing herself. When in spite of her defensive manipulation of persona and things, the liquid prevailed, Lila lost Lila, chaos seemed the only truth, and she—so active, so courageous—erased herself and, terrified, became nothing.
Though Lila’s reactions to the earthquake and the corpse are decidedly different, her goal of self-protection is the same. Whereas the alive, physical movement and bedlam of the earthquake causes Lila to babble uncontrollably, perhaps a guarding of her borders, the rigid finality of the corpse brings about a silence. Julia Kristeva writes in Powers of Horror: “corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. . . . There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border.”
Gigliola’s death is revisited at the end of The Story of a Lost Child, where Elena can further admit the uncanny closeness she feels to the corpse and to her own bodily transformation: “[Gigliola’s] body supine on the ground was enormous. How she must have suffered from that transformation, she who had been beautiful and had caught the handsome Michele Solara. I am still alive—I thought—and yet I can’t feel any different from that big body lying lifeless in that sordid place, in that sordid way.”
Corpses, then, force us to face a knowledge we would rather not. Because Lila knows that the borders of her own human condition are precarious, she cannot allow the dead body to faze her; she even becomes annoyed with Elena’s reaction. According to Kristeva, the corpse “is a border that has encroached upon everything.” To view it is to observe “the breaking down of a world that has erased its borders. . . . It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us.”
It is almost as though Lila had written this, or Elena about Lila.
Kristeva is talking about a corpse, but her phrase “the breaking down of a world that has erased its borders” could also be describing an earthquake. When the earthquake hits, Elena notes Lila becomes “immobilized by horror, fearful that if I merely touched her she would break”:
In those seconds of the earthquake she had suddenly stripped away the woman she had been until a moment before—the one who was able to calibrate precisely thoughts, words, gestures, tactics, strategies—as if in that situation she considered her a useless suit of armor. Now she was someone else. She was the person I had glimpsed the time Melina walked along the stradone eating soap; of the one of the night of the New Year’s Eve in 1958, when the fireworks war broke out between the Carraccis and the Solaras. . . . But now that other person seemed to have emerged directly from the churning guts of the earth; she bore almost no resemblance to the friend who a few minutes before I had envied for her ability to choose words deliberately, there was no resemblance even in the features, disfigured by anguish.
The “churning guts of the earth” give again a bodily component to this terror, and to the earthquake itself: Lila’s terror is heightened by the sense that although the earthquake is happening to all of them, collectively, her particular experience of terror is hers alone, alienating her from the rest. In the same way the corpse’s uncanny physicality unhinges Lila, the uncanniness of the earthquake has a similar effect. The familiar is made foreign by the shifting earth, and this shifting powerfully affects Lila, showing her how easily she might slip into madness: “She cried out, gasping for breath, that the car’s boundaries were dissolving, the boundaries of Marcello, too, at the wheel, were dissolving, the thing and the person were gushing out of themselves, mixing liquid metal and flesh.” In this moment she also loses language: “she repeated obsessively adjectives and nouns that were incongruous with the situation we were in, she uttered sentences without sense and yet she uttered them with conviction, tugging on me: ‘luckily’ is a breath of perfume that comes out when you press the pump.”
This release of words mimics Lila’s other visceral reaction: vomiting.
When the earthquake hits, Lila throws up while Elena fights nausea: two different bodily reactions. One is expelled and one is internalized. An earthquake, though, unlike a corpse, is something one cannot ignore or walk away from.
In a moment of desperation Lila notes: “there is always a solvent that acts slowly, with a gentle heat, and undoes everything, even when there’s no earthquake. So please, if I insult you, if I say ugly things to you, stop up your ears, I don’t want to do it and yet I do. Please, please, don’t leave me, or I’ll fall in.”
Although Lila does not as often admit her need for Elena to define her sense of self, here she admits her need for Elena to stay alive. Kristeva notes that the root of corpse in Italian is cadere, or to fall. Lila cannot acknowledge the corpse or she, too, will fall in, just as the earthquake terrified her with the sense of being swallowed up by the earth. The world, for Lila, is one of constant danger, and not simply because of the violence-steeped Naples they inhabit but because she sees, more than anyone else, the fragility of everything.
4. Boundaries of narrative
Walter Benjamin, in Illuminations, writes: “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was.’ It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.”
The Neapolitan novels are a sort of seizing hold of a memory. Lila’s disappearance, after all, is a moment of danger, and Elena is left to translate it, narrate it, give the past meaning in order to understand the present. The danger is not only for Lila, however, but for Elena herself, as if she too might disappear with Lila, be made irrelevant, her whole past vanishing along with her. “What I could become outside of Lila’s shadow counted for nothing,” Elena writes. Her identity, once again, is always relational. If Lila disappears, who is Elena? And so she must write the books to keep herself alive. To keep herself known.
Each book, it could be argued, begins with a moment of danger. Whereas the quartet as a whole begins with and is framed by Lila’s disappearance, each volume, full of violence and the darkness of the mafia underworld, also begins with its own moment of danger. My Brilliant Friend begins when the young Lila and Elena go looking for the terrifying Don Achille and then Lila tosses Elena’s doll into the cellar; The Story of a New Name begins with the violence of Lila’s new marriage, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay with Gigliola’s death; and The Story of the Lost Child, though the title suggests another major traumatic event, begins with Elena’s having left her husband and children for her childhood love, Nino.
For Elena, more important is the way she shapes and interprets the events at the present moment of her narration; the past speaks to the needs of the present, and often those boundaries blur as well. At the beginning of the second book, The Story of a New Name, Lila has returned from her honeymoon, which, in short, did not go well. Elena, not having known that Lila had returned, spots her and follows her down the street. When Elena confronts her, asking why Lila didn’t tell her she had returned, Lila answers: “I don’t care about others, I do care about you.”
Elena thinks: “What was I not supposed to see? I climbed the stairs that separated us and delicately pull aside the scarf, raised the sunglasses.” The chapter ends here, with this unknown, the two women looking at each other, leaving us to wonder what the two of them see.
The next chapter begins with this unknown hanging a bit longer: Elena writes: “I do it again now, in my imagination, as I begin to tell the story of her honeymoon, not only as she told it to me there on the landing but as I read it later, in her notebooks. I had been unjust to her, I had wished to believe in an easy surrender on her part to be able to humiliate her as I felt humiliated . . . ; I had wished to diminish her in order not to feel her loss.”
It is a powerful proclamation Elena makes, to diminish someone to not feel their loss. To reduce her to only a reflection, not a three-dimensional figure. Because Lila’s pain was also Elena’s. The self and the other split and come together.
The chapter goes on to describe a violent scene between Lila and her new husband, Stefano, and ends with this interaction between Stefano and Lila. He says: “So just try saying again what you said tonight and I will ruin that beautiful face of yours so that you can’t go out of the house. You understand? Answer me.”
And here is where the boundaries of narration, and those notebooks, begin to blur once again. “Lila’s eyes narrowed to cracks,” Elena tells us. Her cheek had turned purple, but otherwise was very pale.” Now, in her notebooks Lila might have noted later that her cheek had bruised purple, or this may have come from Elena’s seeing it later. It seems less likely that Lila would note that at that moment her own eyes narrowed to cracks. In fact, for a moment, we’re not sure where Lila is in space and time. That is, it’s unclear if we’ve been lifted from the told narrative of the honeymoon back onto that landing, where Elena has lifted the scarf, raised the sunglasses to see the damage Stefano had done.
The blurring of time and space may be deliberate, to further complicate Elena’s power and limits in reconstructing that narrative, of time folding in on itself. But when Elena says “She didn’t answer him,” this line firmly grounds us in that honeymoon moment, with Stefano, that Elena is still relaying it to us.
Joanna Biggs notes in the London Review of Books that the “narration often slips from the third person . . . into the first person, as if Lila herself were speaking, even when [Elena] reminds us she isn’t.” The boundaries of narration blur and dissolve, as during the time Elena is trying to describe Lila’s sense of shifting boundaries (as quoted by Biggs):
Up to now, she said—and here I summarize in my own words, of the present—I thought it was a matter of bad moments that came and then passed, like a childhood illness. Do you remember New Year’s Eve of 1958, when the Solaras shot at us? . . . The only problem has always been the disquiet of my mind, I can’t stop it, I always have to do, redo, cover, uncover, reinforce and then suddenly undo, break.
Biggs aptly points out that in Elena’s narration; “‘She’ irresistibly becomes ‘I,’ a confessional ‘I.’ And in letting Lila’s voice in . . . she admits that the boundaries between people can never be maintained, that porousness is one of the conditions of life.” Elena is both afraid Lila will threaten her text with her own presence as she is afraid that she will not: from time to time, she must invoke her, an incantatory invitation into the work that she— Lila—has been so instrumental in shaping.
The porousness of boundaries terrifies Lila, but for Elena, to cross them through her writing, both the act of and the privileges associated with it, is her only route to autonomy, and it thrills her. On finding herself read outside of Italy: “It was marvelous to cross borders, to let oneself go within other cultures, discover the provisional nature of what I had taken for absolute.” Or, she notes of a time spent with Nino: “I clung to Nino, now and then I fell asleep on his shoulder; I began to feel, with pleasure, far beyond my margins.”
Language and writing, for Elena, are ways of keeping her borders intact, whereas when Lila’s borders feel threatened, she either becomes silent or nonsensical. Mikhail Bakhtin, in The Dialogic Imagination, expresses that “language, for the individual consciousness, lies on the borderline between oneself and the other. . . . The word in language is half someone else’s. It becomes one’s ‘own’ only when the speaker populates it with his own intentions, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention.”
Here, the word is half Lila’s and half Elena’s, but the intentions are all Elena’s. But for her language, its articulation in the form of narrative, is a way to both separate herself from Lila and to forever link herself to her.
But the terrain is complicated. At one point, Elena comments: “I was suddenly sure that, without being aware of it, I had intercepted Lila’s feelings and was adding them to mine.” Elena and Lila, as different as they are, are doubles, two sides, other selves. And in the traditional sense of the observer and the observed, Elena is more reticent, more hesitant, while Lila is unpredictable, violent, and wild. But sometimes this reverses, or shifts shape, the two of them melting into each other. Elena both needs Lila to understand herself and is threatened by her presence. What is dear to Elena is threatening to Lila, and vice versa. They are simultaneous threats to each other.
Any time a character in a novel is a writer, and one who addresses the fact that she is writing a book, we are left with the question of whether what we are reading is that text that she is producing. What exactly are we reading of Elena Greco’s? We know that the book she published, A Friendship, which Elena had at once time considered her best, she grows to hate. “It’s Lila who made me hate it, by refusing in every possible way to see me, to discuss it with me, even to insult me and hit me. I called her constantly, I wrote endless emails, I went to the neighborhood, . . . she was never there. . . .”
A Friendship moves “from the loss of the doll to the loss of Tina,” Lila’s daughter, just as the quartet does, though the novel within the novel is shorter, more compact, giving it the sense of a story compacted, with artifice, with “the necessary disguises.” This draws attention to the novels we are reading, without these “necessary disguises.”
So there are other narrative boundaries: those between the book Elena wrote and the book we are reading. Where is the author, where is the narrator, and where do they blur? Elena worries that she had offended Lila because in her reconstructing of the narrative, “what in the fiction of the story serves in all innocence to reach the heart of the reader becomes an abomination for one who feels the echo of the facts she has really lived.” But then Elena wonders if she had exaggerated connections, accentuated “the trauma of loss” and in order to incite an emotional reaction from the reader, “used the fact that one of the dolls and the lost child had the same name.” Through Elena’s wondering Ferrante is making a comment about the porous borders between reality and imagination and the artifice of fiction.
Elena Greco, however, writes an autofiction—and Elena Ferrante a sort of imagined autofiction (let me remind you that Elena Ferrante is itself a pseudonym)—leaves us wondering what exactly was in A Friendship and how, if at all, it differs from the text in our hands. Both the I who writes and the I who exists on the page seem to know the exact effect of all this layering: a purposeful blurring of desire and outcome, what we see and what we get, what is purposefully omitted and how that might hold the most power, and even the most truth.
6. Boundaries shared
And what do we know is true? The world is filtered through Elena Greco’s eyes, and every so often, in a breakdown between narrator and character, gives us a bit of outside perspective that we can take as bitter judgment or bitter truth. But the way the two characters view themselves through each other’s eyes provides an interesting idea of subjectivity. We are who we are in relation to others. And for all of us, particularly these women in conservative 1960s Naples, there is not only one truth but many depending upon how the tension of a shared boundary transforms each self.
In a brilliant scene from The Story of a New Name, Lila, newly married, buys a film projector to watch footage from her wedding. We usually have Elena watching Lila, and maybe Lila watching Elena. Lila sees herself in one way and Elena interprets it; Elena sees herself one way and Lila interprets it. (“Each of us narrates our own story to suit us,” Lila quips to Elena.) In this particular moment, however, the two sit together and watch themselves on the screen, and we, as the readers, watch their watching.
The first time Elena sees herself onscreen she is sitting beside her boyfriend Antonio: “I looked awkward, nervous, my face taken up by my glasses.” But the second time, she’s at the table with Nino, whom she loves and for whom she eventually leaves her husband, notes that to herself she “was barely recognizable: I was laughing, hands and arms moved with casual elegance, I adjusted my hair, toyed with my mother’s bracelet—I seemed to myself refined and beautiful.”
And Lila seems to agree. She says: “look how well you came out,” and further comments that Elena looks the way she does when she’s happy.
Elena watches again, this time focusing on the social dynamics at play in this scene. To go more deeply into this dynamic would be another topic entirely, but Elena further notes: “The scene provided documentary proof of what I had intuited as I was experiencing it in reality.”
Ferrante’s multilayering here is intricate and elegant. It is artifice, indeed; fiction is artifice. Elena Greco is telling us, you may be questioning my instincts, my interpretations, my assembling of the story, but I have proof here: my imagination and my reality are aligned. There is indeed a link between the I who writes and the I who exists on the page. Lila, in her confirmation of Elena’s happiness, sees it that way too. At least, at that moment. It’s an interesting place where the two characters share a boundary before they split yet again, where the seam that connects them is visible. There is a future they’re looking toward together, to give them clues as to what they might become.
In The Story of the Lost Child, Elena writes of the time she reads over her book to see evidence that Lila
entered my texts and decided to contribute writing it. But I have had to acknowledge that all these pages are mine alone. What Lila often threatened to do—enter my computer—she hasn’t done, maybe she wasn’t even capable of doing, it was long a fantasy I had as an old woman inexperienced in networks, cables, connections, electronic spirits. Lila is not in these words.
But because of their shared boundaries, their inextricable histories, of course she is. For instance, in The Story of the Lost Child, when Elena returns to Naples, Elena and Lila live in the same building: “My floor was her ceiling; two flights of stairs down brought me to her house, two up brought her to mine.” But there is also a power dynamic here: “Separating us was only a layer of floor, and yet she could shorten the distance further or expand it according to her mood and convenience and the movements of her mind. . . . ” Yet Elena needs Lila to ignite her mind; this shared boundary is necessary for her writing. “In those years of being neighbors, I on the floor above, she below, it often happened. A slight push was enough and the seemingly empty mind discovered that it was full and lively. . . . I was I and for that very reason I could make space for her in me and give her an enduring form. She instead didn’t want to be her, so she couldn’t do the same.” Her own identity is so precarious that to know another would be to completely annihilate herself. Yet that is what she does. This is her autonomy, and as she disappears into the library of Naples, learning about the city, she becomes Naples, she becomes all-knowing, a sort of spirit such as she told Imma about, a spirit Elena hoped might enter her text. Lila’s erasure becomes her autonomy, an act of rebellion that is both her self-abandonment and her self-fulfillment.
It is not only that Elena needs Lila’s story in order to make sense of, and tell, her own. Elena feels she needs Lila close by to simply write. Lila’s presence is imperative for both the I who writes and the I who appears on the page. “[S]omething was released from her body that enthralled me, stimulating my brain as it always had helping me reflect.” For Elena, writing is inextricable from Lila, and writing is inextricable from herself: “As usual a half sentence of Lila’s was enough and my brain recognized her aura, became active, liberated my intelligence.”
Elena wistfully muses what might have become of Lila had Lila and she continued to study together, write together, “elbow to elbow, allied, a perfect couple, the sum of intellectual energies.” Elena laments the fact that the “solitude of women’s minds is regrettable,” that “it’s a waste to be separated from each other, without procedures, without tradition.” Here, the boundaries of knowledge, the body, the self, and of narrative align, the idea of writing texts together, side by side.
But the shared boundaries are not without tension. When a weekly magazine comes to photograph Elena (the writer at home) but mistakes Lila’s daughter Tina for Elena’s (a mistake that Elena does not exactly correct), the shared boundaries between the two women are further complicated. Shortly after, when Lila’s daughter goes missing, Lila’s grief causes her to accuse Elena of responsibility, that someone is looking to hurt Elena, not Lila. But the slippage goes beyond this. Elena notes:
Lila had given her daughter the name of my beloved doll, the one that, as a child, she herself had thrown into a cellar. It was the first time, I recall, that I fantasized about it, but I couldn’t stand it for long, I looked into a dark well with a few glimmers of light and drew back. Every intense relationship between human beings is full of traps, and if you want it to endure you have to learn to avoid them. I did so then, and finally it seemed that I had only come up against yet another proof of how splendid and shadowy our friendship was, how long and complicated Lila’s suffering had been, how it still endured and would endure forever.
The flux between Lila and Elena is constant, and it is often a power struggle. Elena is terrified that Lila will somehow infiltrate her text and simultaneously hopeful that she might. When one is erased the other is drawn in. And sometimes their narratives are parallel: when Lila is forced to have sex on her wedding night, Elena is almost ferocious in her desire to also lose her virginity. To not be left behind. Elena’s doubled self has become unhinged and then tells us a story: both of them intense, though one story is dead and the other is urgent.
Elena is elated when she is flung outside her boundaries, whereas Lila’s boundaries, rigid and unbreakable, dissolve and frighten her. Elena’s dissolving borders give her creative inspiration whereas for Lila they are simply terrifying. Both give a kind of knowledge; one of them is seeking it and the other is horrified by it.
All Elena’s chronicling might be seen as obsessive, but obsession is so often not simply about the object but about the self, a self Elena Greco is desperately trying to preserve. The balance lies in trying to know Lila while also maintaining the bounds, and the content, of the self. Elena notes the way Lila refers to Elena as her “brilliant friend,” whereas the moniker was originally used for Lila when they were children. “From that unexpected reversal of identities I would emerge annihilated.” But instead it’s Lila who emerges annihilated, or attempts to. Or does she? The ending, to match the titles of each book, is wonderfully ambiguous, presenting us with a cyclical narrative. Cycles seem not only to comfort Lila but provide a natural link between past and present that Elena is so intent on creating through narrative.
Lila tells Elena’s daughter, Imma, the stories of Naples: “a cyclical Naples where everything was marvelous and everything became gray and irrational and everything sparkled again,” and these books are cyclical, too: beginning with a doll tossed into a cellar and a doll that returns. Something assumed as forever lost and then rematerialized, like the spirits in the library that jump out of books. Or perhaps like omniscient Lila herself.
The doll represents one of their first shared boundaries, and it is the name of this doll that Lila gives her daughter, who eventually disappears; it is this daughter that a journalist has mistaken for Elena’s and that Elena does not go through much trouble to correct. The boundaries blur, and blur, and blur, down a rabbit hole of boundaries upon boundaries, and their bending perhaps suggests a way of undermining or transgressing women’s subversive roles in a patriarchal society, a way to gain autonomy.
Elena wants to give Lila “a form whose margins won’t dissolve, and defeat her, and calm her, and so in turn calm myself.” She notes early on that “poems and novels” were “tranquilizers. Maybe, I thought, studying has been useful to me just for this: to calm myself,” which echoes Lila’s comment that lies are tranquilizers too. For Elena, fiction is, to quote an aphorism, a lie that tells a truth.
In her essay, “Fail Better,” Zadie Smith writes: “To me, writing is always the attempted revelation of [the] elusive, multifaceted self,” but she also notes that its total revelation is impossible. “It is impossible to convey all of the truth of all our experience. Actually, it’s impossible to even know what that would mean. . . . When we write, similarly, we have the idea of a total revelation of truth, but cannot realize it. And so, instead, each writer asks himself which serviceable truths he can live with, which alliances are strong enough to hold.”
The character of Elena Greco attempts the total revelation of truth, or more importantly, a truth. By trying to know Lila she is also trying to know herself—understanding, of course, both that she may not realize either and that there is a precarious balance in place. The becoming, the careening toward knowledge may be more significant than its actual attainment. Elena Greco is hoping to find the “serviceable truths” that she can live with, to uncover the knowledge that will preserve her alliance to Lila, to, in short, keep both of them from falling, keep both of them alive.
- Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics.
- Benjamin, Walter. 1967, 2007. Illuminations. Edited by and with introduction by Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, Random House. Original publication date 1955.
- Biggs, Joanna. 2015.“I Was Blind, She a Falcon.” 10 September 2015. London Review of Books.
- Donadio, Rachel. “Italy’s Great, Mysterious Storyteller.” December 18, 2014. The New York Review of Books.
- Gordimer, Nadine. “Writing and Being.” Nobel Lecture, 7 December 1991. Accessed 1 February 2016. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1991/gordimer-lecture.html.
- Johnson, Bret Anthony. 2011. “Don’t Write What You Know.” Special Fiction issue. The Atlantic.
- Kristeva, Julia. 1982. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Columbia University Press.
- Kristeva, Julia. 1991. Strangers to Ourselves. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Mendelsund, Peter. 2014. What We See When We Read. New York: Knopf. Montaigne, Michel. 1991, 2003. The Complete Essays. M. A. Screech, trans., ed. New York: Penguin.
- Smith, Zadie. 2007.“Fail Better.” 13 January. The Guardian.