AN UNEDUCATED GUESS

The Neapolitan Novels
by Elena Ferrante

A couple weeks ago, I happened to find myself in the back corner of a Sarasota (that would be Florida) bookshop, perched on a folding chair, talking about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels with a group of women who had at least a generation on me. Because this is what I do. I travel to destinations even sunnier and warmer than where I already live to participate in book clubs of the elderly. (And/or my mother happens to be quite good at coming up with creative cultural activities when I’m in town.)

So the ladies and I were rapping and inevitably the conversation turned to the question that fans of these books seem anxious to answer: Who is Elena Ferrante? Funny how when a writer uses a pen name, people immediately want to know their true identity. Perhaps they feel it will give them a deeper understanding of the book, one they could not possible have otherwise. Yet once the author’s true identity is revealed, I wonder how much it actually brings any new, significant insight versus simply pacifying the public’s curiosity.

When it comes to uncovering the real Ferrante, the literary gumshoes out there seem to be focusing their detective work on people whose lives are/were very similar to the novels’ narrator, the fictional “Elena Greco.” What’s particularly strange to me about this line of investigation is that if someone has gone to all the trouble of publishing pseudonymously and even in the midst of international acclaim has yet to come forward, would she really veil herself so thinly in the story itself?

I’m thinking the author is buried a little deeper within these books. The series does have two protagonists, after all. The yin to Elena’s yang is Lila, Elena’s lifelong frenemy, muse, cheerleader and antagonist, all wrapped up in one very troubled, brilliant woman. Unlike Elena, Lila never makes it out of their insulated neighborhood in Naples and consequently, she never experiences the academic or professional success of Elena. But Lila is innately intelligent and clearly has a gift for writing from an early age. And it is her talents and example that spur Elena on.

Interwoven but ultimately divergent, the paths of these two characters could be seen as two tines of a fork in the road; each can see in the other what her life may have been like had she made different choices. Or maybe the two women are meant to be two sides of one person. Maybe a female born in 1944 Naples wouldn’t feel “whole” following one path or another. Maybe none of us do.

For my money (and I have people in Sarasota willing to back me on this), the real Elena Ferrante isn’t someone whose life has been like that of the fictional Elena. It is someone whose life has been like Lila’s. Rather than re-hashing a semi-fictional version of her own experiences, wouldn’t it be more interesting for a writer to explore what it would have been like had she taken another path?

 

MAKING AMERICA GREAT AGAIN

Fuzzy HangHi guys, it’s been a while, so let’s just jump right in with this point of re-entry, from David Brooks’ February 9 Op-Ed column: “To hear Sanders or Trump, Cruz and Ben Carson campaign is to wallow in the pornography of pessimism, to conclude that this country is on the verge of complete collapse. That’s simply not true. We have problems, but they are less serious than those faced by just about any other nation on earth.”

Before you grow too baffled, rest assured that this blog is not being converted into a political forum. But given what I’ve been up to over the past seven months or so, I couldn’t help but feel a particular appreciation for Brooks calling out the fear/anger-mongering for the sake of mongering. Don’t get me wrong – questioning the status quo is an important and sacred part of a free society, but there’s a difference between intellectual discourse and baiting.

And you know who really resents the disingenuousness of the mongering? My 18-year-old clients. Regardless of their political persuasion, they don’t like to feel as though they’re getting played. Which brings me to: a) what I’ve been doing since we last spoke and b) what I’ve been reading. Hint: the answers to both questions are virtually the same and can be summed up in two words: college essays.

Both the beauty and the horror of 18-year olds is that (with some exceptions) they are innately optimistic. This isn’t to say they aren’t questioning everything that’s come before, but they tend to believe it will get better and they personally can be agents of change. Heck, one of my students wrote a whole essay about being an optimist and how such an outlook will serve him well as a scientist and entrepreneur.

Another of my kiddos described the moment when she knew she wanted to be a doctor. While lifeguarding at the local pool, one of her charges got a bloody nose and as my gal held a paper towel up to the little boy’s nose and tipped his head back, she realized the power of being able to use her hands to help someone.

Even the most mundane-seeming events in a young person’s life can be made meaningful through their sensitive and thoughtful perspective. Like my client who wrote about learning to make her often-grumpy Punjabi grandfather a cup of chai tea, a rite that wasn’t significant to her until she realized how much it meant to him.

And then there was an essay by one of my Chinese students that was so beautifully written, with a narrative voice so strong, I can’t do it justice trying to paraphrase it here. But I’ll just say this (as Senator Sanders often quips): at its heart, the essay was about his struggle to find his place somewhere between the two cultures he occupied as an international student in the U.S. Beyond his lovely writing, the part that slayed me was the raw vulnerability he displayed when describing the intense, to the point of agonizing, desire he initially felt to be American.

I work with a fair number of international students (and lots more who are their family’s first or second generation in the U.S.) and the essays that describe the agony and the ecstasy of this journey are a constant reminder that we’re doing something right over here. Even more encouraging is witnessing how so many of my students–regardless of their background–want to pay it forward. I can’t tell you how many kids want to develop renewable energy systems or businesses based in social entrepreneurship or organizations to address all those parts of the current system they don’t think are working. I’ve got young women who want to work with younger girls to encourage their love of math and science. I’ve even got someone brave enough to want to tackle big money in politics. Beyond their goals, the sheer magnitude of their energy is astounding. How could I possibly identify with the “pornography of pessimism” when this is my daily reading material? I think it’s pretty clear who is going to make America great again.

 

LOWERING THE BAR

Did you miss me? Aw, thanks, I missed you too. Why yes, I have had a nice summer. I’ve been eating a lot of fruit, reading a little and I went somewhere I haven’t been in twenty years: Paris.

Now usually a person doesn’t feel nervous and guilty anticipating a glamorous, upcoming vacation (unless of course that person happens to be my husband), but before the trip I had some concerns. The last time I’d been in Paris I was a college student doing her semester abroad and when I left in the summer of 1994, I assumed I’d be back soon, in the naïve, entitled way that a person does when they’re unable to realize how thoroughly they’re taking something for granted.

Trying to look cool = no smile

Trying to look cool = no smile

As the years went by and I traveled to other places but never back to the city that had embraced and challenged me, I began to wonder if perhaps I was still up for Paris – meaning mostly that I was terrified of speaking French again (which hadn’t exactly been my forte, even at my most immersed). If you are thinking, “well then just speak English,” you do not understand the solemnity with which the Parisians of my youth took their mother tongue. Rule #1: if you know any shred of French whatsoever, you speak it. It’s a sign of respect. We can get into the historical/socio-political context for this attitude another time. Just know that being the compulsive rule-follower that I am, respect I would show.

Cut to the summer of 2015. Paris is a significantly more diverse city than the one I left. It’s also cleaner, friendlier and generally younger (though maybe that last one has more to do with me being older). And pardon the abstraction, but it also feels more nuanced and layered in ways that are difficult to explain. Or were hard to explain until I reached a particular passage from our old friend Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose second volume of My Struggle I happened to be reading on the trip:

“When I was twenty what I had, what made me me, was so little. I didn’t know that, of course, because that was all there was at that time. But now that I’m thirty-five there’s more. Well, everything that existed in me when I was twenty is still there. But now it’s surrounded by so much more.”

I thought this was a great antidote to sentimentality – the idea that life becomes richer and more interesting as we get older because we are more enriched and interesting ourselves.

Does this mean j’ai parlé with the best of them? Let me put it this way. It’s amazing how fluent one can be in a language of 1,000 words. It turns out that just getting one’s point across, no matter how clumsy, can be a victory in and of itself. In fact, it can even be fun. Lowering the bar allows you to leap over it.

Le Metro I

Which brings me to this blog. During this past year, I wrote a post based on every book I read. The idea, as you’ve figured out by now, was to use the books as launching points for pithy little essays, rather than to write reviews (there are plenty of those out there).

This year there are new demands on the work and personal fronts—all good, but demanding nonetheless—so that both my time and mental energy are more occupied now.

So I’m going to lower the bar. I’m going to write in a language of 1,000 words, rather than 100,000. I’m going to post when I can but not freak out when I can’t. (The compulsive rule-follower in me has trouble changing rules, even when they’re self-imposed.) Hopefully the things I read will be inspiring enough that writing about them will be effortless, but I’m making no promises. I know, dear reader, at this point you’re shaking your fist at the screen and screaming out “WHY???” with a sense of bottomless grief. It’ll be a loss, I understand, but try to carry on as best you can during my absences. I’ll be back before you know it. I do, eventually, return.

Le Metro II

THE STORY OF A NEW NAME

SOANN

I love these books but this cover is so random

The Story of a New Name
by Elena Ferrante

Have you ever had a friend—someone you’ve known for a long time–whose life, for better or for worse, has diverged dramatically from your own and you’ve thought: that could have been me? If only I’d done one thing differently, maybe I would have ended up like her. Or maybe you’ve been in a relationship where it seemed as though every time one of you succeeded it doomed the other, like there was only enough in the well of good fortune for one of you.

In the second of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, The Story of a New Name, the two protagonists, Elena and Lila, enter their late adolescence and early adulthood with lives, once so similar, on very different paths. (Warning: The rest of this post has some spoilers from the first book in the series, but not this one) At 16, Lila marries one of the neighborhood’s wealthier men, the local grocer. Without the education that her friend Elena continues to receive, it appears that the marriage is Lila’s best option for escaping her family’s poverty and abuse. That theory is quickly dismantled. Meanwhile, although she has struggles of her own, Elena goes on to achieve academically and garner an education far beyond that of anyone else in her community.

Both women have their moments of soaring joy and plummeting disappointment, but never at the same time. The universe seems to have only enough good will for one girl at a time. Or is there more free will, maybe even ill will, at work? Though never verbalized, the girls have always harbored a strong sense of competition and as much as they wish for each other’s happiness, they wish for their own more. As her situation devolves further, Lila’s actions become more irrational to the point of pathological, but there’s so much desperation behind her behavior that one can understand how it is hard to be generous when one has so little to give.

In the first of these books, we see Italy’s economic growth of the 1950s and 60s trickle into the girls’ poor neighborhood and we watch how this affects its residents. In this book, each of the two girls seems to represent a version of the changing country. Although Lila is the first to benefit from the amenities of an advanced, wealthier Italy, ultimately her traditional choices keep her tied to an old way of life. Yet Elena, more rational and pragmatic, blossoms into a representation of a new, more modern version of Italy.

I want both characters to succeed, even if one is a little harder to love. I can’t help but feel for the rougher Lila and I found myself circling back to a moment from the first book that seemed to change everything for her. It is at the end of the fifth grade, when both girls are invited to take the admissions exam for middle school, an unusual step within their community. After some debate, Elena’s parents agree to let her take the test and Lila’s do not. From there, their trajectories seem to be set on divergent paths that read like a feminist tragedy.

It’s stomach churning to consider: if this one decision by Lila’s parents did change the course of her life, how tenuous life is. I’m not convinced that this is what Ferrante is trying to say, especially given some of the promise that fills the final pages of this book, but thus far her heroines seem to be having trouble sharing the glory.

MY BRILLIANT FRIEND

Brilliant cartoon by Alison Bechdel

                              Brilliant cartoon by Alison Bechdel

My Brilliant Friend
by Elena Ferrante

There are so many different directions I could go with this gorgeous book, but what I keep coming back to is the Bechdel Test. Have you heard of the Bechdel Test? One of my clients introduced it to me recently. Named after the cartoonist and graphic novelist Alison Bechdel, who coined the idea in her 1985 comic Dykes to Watch Out For, the Bechdel Test measures whether a work of fiction features at least two women talking to each other about something other than men.

Now I’ve read my share of books that feature interesting, smart women talking about interesting, smart things, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book before in which two girls’ lives are so singularly driven by their intellect and desire for knowledge. My Brilliant Friend may as well have been written in direct response to the Bechdel Test.

This novel, the first in a series of four, depicts the childhood friendship between Elena, the book’s narrator, and Lila, who come of age in 1950s Naples, Italy. The girls live in a poor neighborhood on the edge of the city from which they never wander. Some of their friends take trips to the beach and other “outings far away,” but “Ours [their parents] weren’t like that, they didn’t have time, they didn’t have money, they didn’t have the desire.” In fact, they aren’t even aware that such a thing as high school exists until Elena’s teachers encourage her to attend.

By this time, Lila, the more naturally gifted of the two girls, has already been constricted to a life of work in the neighborhood, so the promise of higher education is beyond her reach. But it is Lila who continually sparks Elena’s academic pursuits and, although Elena doesn’t understand it at the time, her advanced studies in turn inspire Lila to educate herself so she can keep up with her friend. Their relationship is one of great intellectual stimulation and deep-seated competition – because using their brains is what truly matters to them.

This emphasis on knowledge translates to every facet of their lives. When they first discover Little Women (Jo March being the perfect protagonist for these two), they determine that if they can someday write books like Louisa May Alcott, they will become rich and escape their limited circumstances. To these girls, a life of the mind equals wealth, freedom and romance. As they grow into teenagers, Elena falls in the love with the smartest boy in school with whom “I wished I could talk every day to a boy on that level …”

There’s so much more I could tell you, like how the changes that the girls begin to witness in their neighborhood are a mirror for the changes throughout Italy at the time or how people can’t help but compare Ferrante’s series to that of Karl Ove Knausgaard or how Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym for an anonymous Italian author. But mostly I want to tell you that I loved this book and you’ll probably be hearing more about the other three.

A shout-out to my brilliant friend Justine for recommending it! Thank you!

Until next time, I’d love to hear about your favorite book featuring interesting, smart women?