“My return to Naples was like having a defective umbrella that suddenly closes over your head in a gust of wind.” (chapter 116)
This wonderful, arresting metaphor comes at the beginning of a short chapter near the end of Story of a New Name, the second volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. So far I have only read these first two. I’ll pick up the third soon, and perhaps even finish it in time to be impatient about the arrival of the translation of the fourth. Here I’ll make no attempt at plot summary (and won’t be shy about spoilers). I’ve read very little of the material which has appeared about these books so far. Rothman’s piece asking "Ferrante or Knausgaard?", which I read after I was already well into the first volume, left me with absolutely no desire to read the latter, but unsatisfied of course with the description of the former.
The umbrella metaphor is effective, and in several ways. The umbrella—a banal shelter—turns against the one holding it. This marks it at once as “defective,” but of course it is in the nature of umbrellas to open and close. Like this object, the narrator Lenù, if not the narrative, is defined by oscillation. She is now transcendentally happy, now plunged into depression. Open and closed. In part this is an effect of the childhood and adolescence that is the subject of the first two volumes of the novel, but the oscillation is nearly oppressive, and I cannot imagine that it will do more than stretch out a little as Lenù ages. I also stumble over the mix of temporal orders. Ferrante plays with this: “now that we were seventeen the substance of time no longer seemed fluid but had assumed a gluelike consistency and churned around us like a yellow cream in a confectioner’s machine.” The return to Naples is discrete, a punctual moment. But the comparison is not. The punctual return is not compared to another simple punctual event, but to the having of an umbrella like that. And this temporal structure is not without parallel in the book itself—the just-mentioned oscillation, of course, but also the various slowly-changing backdrops against which the events of the novel take place. This means, most immediately, “the neighborhood” in Naples, the menacing backdrop of poverty and the camorra.
Of course this background is not unchanging. Indeed the most obvious themes of the novel are woven into the larger story of the Italian postwar. Lenù and Lila grow up literally in the wreckage of fascist Italy, which is always present, if poorly understood and rarely discussed by the adults. There is ambient violence--unexploded wartime ordinance both real and metaphorical. As the characters grow up, Italy is going through the postwar boom, the years of modernization. Parents who grew up without running water will see their children demand televisions. Lenù, Lila, and practically all their acquaintances are poor, provincial—their parents aren’t illiterate, for the most part, but their parents were. Lenù will get out, go to university, other characters will educate themselves and be educated in various ways.
Writing and language therefore hold a special place here. Do you speak in dialect? Do you speak Italian? Lenù’s return to Naples, described in the quote above, is marked by the famous linguistic in-between-ness of one who has escaped, or is trying to escape, her origins through education. She never entirely lost her Neapolitan accent at school in Pisa, but she no longer sounds right to her friends and family either. From the very beginning the two friends read and were enchanted not just by words, not just by writing, but by the cultural object that is a printed book. It seemed important, magical, a marker of success and power. The novel begins, of course, with Lenu’s decision to write, to record as much as she can about the existence of Lila—a sort of counter to Lila’s willful disappearance. This is a sort of violence inflicted through words. And we see many examples throughout the narrative. In writing, Lila hurts Lenù, makes her feel small and a failure. Characters are constantly mixing their words together. Of course, most important are the acts of co-creation between Lenù and Lila. But there is also Lenù and Nino, Lila and Nino. Not that this is constrained to verbal reproduction. Lila’s creativity is manifest constantly, is an active force in the world of the novel, she designs shoes, and the conflict over Lila’s photograph is an important plot point, as is her her desecration/creation in reworking it, its eventual destruction. Lenù, it seems, is always struggling with the possibility, the feeling, that indeed she is nothing more than another creation of Lila’s, even if we as readers see clearly that this isn’t so.
The novel is of course actuated by a vanishing act, but it is also full of acts of wanton destruction, importantly of written words. The narrator writes, ostensibly, to prevent Lila from really disappearing, and begins the narrative proper with the primordial act of violence in which the two girls throw away one another’s most prized possessions, their dolls. The second volume is given its whole emotional tenor, is haunted, by Lenù’s shocking destruction of Lila’s private journals. Then of course that volume ends with the appearance of Lenù’s novel, the reappearance of its ur-text, the novel Lila wrote as a child, and Lila’s own destruction, in the hellish meat-packing plant, of that object. All of these texts are defined and given agency, in the novel, as much by their audience, the moral authority of culture, as by their authors. For instance Lenù’s first article so freighted with emotion and given, to no obvious response, to Nino. Lila’s childhood production had deeply moved Lenù, but for whatever reason vanished for years, unremarked upon, not encouraged, by their teacher. Lila’s text, the production of which is treated by the narrative in a cursory way, like the treatment for an illness, is apparently impulsively given to a man in response to his proposal of marriage. It, too, vanishes for a little while, only to be taken up, accepted, published, by cultural authority.
Some bonds cannot be dissolved. Some situations, some people, cannot be escaped. It seems wrong, insufficient, to say that the relationship between Lenù and Lila is at the heart of the novel. Who is the brilliant friend? This is not a relationship, the word is too vapid. On every page, we have the force-field of Lila shaping Lenù’s life—and, for the reader, for the narrator, if not for Lenù in the narrative, we can see how the lines of force run in both directions. This novel is not, I think, going to be about how, ultimately, we learn not to be cruel. It is not a liberal novel, not a Bildungsroman, not a novel about making one’s self on one’s own, not about learning to be free.