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Losing oneself, becoming the other

Sharanya | Updated on January 16, 2018
Two’s company: Female friendships, like the one between the titular characters of Thelma and Louise, haven’t got their due in pop culture. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Two’s company: Female friendships, like the one between the titular characters of Thelma and Louise, haven’t got their due in pop culture. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Elena’s year: 2016 is a post Ferrante world. You can’t look towards discourse on female friendship, anonymity or disappearing women without being cast in the shadow of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels

Elena’s year: 2016 is a post Ferrante world. You can’t look towards discourse on female friendship, anonymity or disappearing women without being cast in the shadow of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels are an immaculate study of identity and friendship, never neat or easy

At the end of the second ‘tango’ in Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband, subtitled as “a fictional essay in 29 tangos”, the wife notes of their decaying marriage: “Big mystery. No one knew where to put their leg and to this day I’m not sure/ we got it right/ He seemed happy. You’re like Venice he said beautifully./ Early next day/ I wrote a short talk (“on Defloration”) which he stole and had published/ in a small quarterly magazine./ Overall this was a characteristic interaction between us.” When I began re-reading Beauty, I thought, what a great summary of the Sarratore men. Nino Sarratore, a key protagonist in Elena Ferrante’s enduring Neapolitan quartet, is just one of many men in the quartet who embodies a strain of liberal male feminism that is flashing, utterly hollow, and most of all, mundane in what it reveals about men: that they prioritise themselves — when it appears as though they cannot — at the expense of the women in their lives. My Brilliant Friend, the first in the quartet, tells the story of best friends Elena (Lenù) and Raffaella (Lila to the world, or Lina to Lenù), children in Naples in the mid-20th century, and ends with The Story of the Lost Child in the 21st.

Beauty, which formerly had seemed to me an astute portrait of marriage, now reads, particularly post-Ferrante, as an indictment of the gloam of stylish misogyny. Anne Carson sums up her bio in a single line: “Anne Carson lives in Canada.” It is contained, it is cautious, it is a hot breath. Post-Ferrante, I think about this choice to fold into oneself as smudging the line between self-imposed withdrawals by women as the ultimate perversion of the perceived monolith of agency, and succumbing to its dialectical other: the historical effacement of women. The woman still disappears when she chooses to disappear from an unbearable world; who’s got the last laugh now?

2016 is a post-Ferrante world. You can’t look towards discourse on ‘female friendship’, ‘anonymity’ or ‘disappearing women’ without being cast in the shadow of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, or more gradually now, her other three novels which are also about broken marriages, lonely mothers, and women under the influence, except we aren’t offered an easy diagnosis of mental health as much as women’s loneliness as a social condition that festers in more ways than one. And Ferrante, whose influences range vastly from Proust to Donna Haraway, has an uncompromising vision of the world where women live at the expense of men who don’t want them to centre themselves.

My Brilliant Friend opens with a middle-aged Lenù embarking upon the process of recovering — metaphorically, literally — her best friend Lila, who has vanished from Naples. Lenù narrates, across the four volumes, a narrative of how she and Lila, fiercely competitive and close as children, embark upon differing paths in life. Their friendship begins when they lose their dolls, presumably to Don Achille, “an ogre of fairy tales”, as children, and then runs in queer sparks and halts at various turning points: Lenù bathes Lila before the latter marries Stefano Carraci, Don Achille’s son; Lila helps Lenù study by giving her a room of her own in the Carraci household when she herself can’t; Lenù staying up by Lila’s side when Lila has a violent episode of what is translated by Ann Goldstein as “dissolving boundaries” where Lila confesses to Lenù that objects come unstuck, people lose shape: “ (...) that the outlines of things and people were delicate, that they broke like cotton thread. She whispered that for her it had always been that way, an object loses its edges and poured into another, into a solution of heterogeneous materials, a merging and mixing.”

A theme that reverberates through the heart of the four novels, disappearing boundaries becomes a hallmark of Lila’s condition that exceeds language, which is the only way for Lenù to access her. They write letters to each other across the years, but Lila burns the story she wrote as a child, Lenù throws the diaries she is given into the Arno, and their writing becomes an endless act of Derridean deferral but with an acknowledgement that disappearance into — for Lenù, and out of, for Lila — the violence of language is the only way to acquiesce to the labour that is life. “To write, you have to want something to survive you,” Lila tells Lenù. “I don’t even have the desire to live, I’ve never had it strongly the way you have.” Lenù has never agreed, she testifies to us, in turn: “I who have written for months and months to give her a form whose boundaries won’t dissolve, and defeat her, and calm her, and so in turn calm myself.”

Do we believe Lenù? Her writing is no more stable than Lila’s declaration that she does not want to live. Both Nino and Lenù’s husband say to her, at various points: “Your liberation shouldn’t necessarily signify the loss of my freedom.” And yet, this is how Lenù and Lila love each other. They resist differently; Lila embraces a literal effacement that, for Lenù, can only be countered, and encountered, through writing, where she disappears herself. “The only problem has always been the disquiet of my mind,” Lila says in a rush, or so we hear from Lenù. “I can’t stop it, I always have to do, redo, cover, uncover, reinforce, and then suddenly undo, break.” Anne Carson in tango three: “To stay human is to break a limitation.”

The primary feature of both women — and indeed, women from Ferrante’s other novels, most notably Olga from Days of Abandonment — is their response to their pervasive social condition of a beleaguered womanhood. They are tired of looking after their men, poverty, and an incendiary domestic life. Lila, whose magma of intelligence is envied continually by Lenù who has studied longer and more widely, reads pamphlets on work and unions left by a friend. “They helped to keep her anchored to the dull things of everyday, she was afraid of the silence of the house, of sleep, of her unruly heartbeats, of the shapes that threatened to break apart at any moment,” Lenù writes of her friend. But Lenù herself is agitated at not having more time to write under the pressures of domestic life. Her navigation of her own anxieties of becoming is by closing herself into writing. Maggie Nelson writes in The Argonauts, another essay in the poetic form: “Our diagnosis is similar, but our perversities are not compatible.”

The worlds that Lenù and Lila fashion their individual departures from are not wholly compatible either. Lenù finds herself crossing the stradone that links her neighbourhood to the rest of Naples and beyond frequently, until returning entails its own form of disquiet. Patriarchy is a wider knot in editorial rooms, university campuses, her love affairs and her own crumbling household, but these struggles are untranslatable to Lila. For Lila, retreating further into the neighbourhood holds up a similar fate, but her insights into men, whilst comprehensible to Lenù who has been acquainted with those very men all her life, do not help either cope. In one of the most chilling passages of the series, Lila notes of Michele Solara, a brutal, intelligent man who has been obsessed with her since childhood: “Once, she thought, he asked me to become his lover. But that’s not what he really wants, there’s something else, something that doesn’t have to do with sex and that not even he can explain . . . Maybe he thinks that I have a power and that that power is indispensable to him. He wants it but he can’t get it, and it makes him suffer, it’s a thing he can’t take from me by force . . . Otherwise he would have crushed me by now.”

In her feminist treatise The Dialectic of Sex, Shulamith Firestone, whom Lenù might have encountered in her studies, writes similarly on patriarchal appropriations of romantic love: “The self-containment of the other creates desire (read: a challenge); admiration (envy) of the other becomes a wish to incorporate (possess) its qualities.” Ferrante’s biggest triumph lies there, in revealing the ruptures of friendship — and love — without being beholden to the always-already of feminist solidarity. We do not learn from each other’s testimonies, or feminist treatises, or the Nino Sarratores of the world though we identify them every day, and we remain uncertain about how to enable each other’s acts of resistance, be it writing oneself into the world or dissolving at its margins.

The Neapolitan quartet blazes through as a feminist project that is concerned with how women labour through the world and crucially, write their way out of it when the premise of their existence is to save each other from disappearance. “Unlike stories,” Lenù writes as a sobering act of admission, “real life, when it has passed, inclines towards obscurity, not clarity.” There, then, perhaps lies the beginnings of solidarity, or care, gesturing towards an efficacy of evisceration.

Sharanya lives and writes in England

Published on October 14, 2016

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