Sunday, December 27, 2015

"The telluric hum"

I really liked David Kurnick's Public Books essay on Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels. Worth reading in its entiretly, but here's what especially captured my attention (I've only read the first installment, will probably get to the others in coming weeks, but this resonates very strongly with my sense of what's most interesting in the series):
What gives unity to the rush of events is Lenù’s sense that Lila’s is the more genuine intellect, hers the more authentic relation to body, mind, action. Lenù’s most persistent fear is that her achievements are pallid reflections of the acumen that vibrates almost painfully from Lila. But this suspicion never settles for long into anything as predictable as competition or envy; Ferrante volatilizes every social and emotional situation. In a thrilling scene toward the end of The Story of a New Name, Lenù, just having published her first book, visits Lila on the floor of the sausage factory. She has convinced herself that she wants to thank Lila for her inspiration, to confess that what’s best in the novel derives from their friendship. Lenù comes, in other words, half in bad faith, and Lila senses it.

Reeking of offal and shrugging off the complaints of her supervisor, Lila launches into a relentless, apparently left-field account of the new world of computer programing in which she’s become immersed in the hours after work. Lenù is crestfallen—but rapt, too—to find her friend’s correspondence course–derived obsession with early digital technology more riveting, even to Lenù herself, than her own authorship. But Lila’s revenge is, as ever, also an invitation: “She was explaining to me that I had won nothing,” Lenù writes, “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 the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.” The Neapolitan novels offer the truest account I know of the telluric hum of being in the presence of a challenging mind, the shaming, tensed pleasure of trying to keep up.
I had to start the first installment a few times before I really got into it (insofar as one is now a Knausgaardian or a Ferrantista, I am the former!), but I gradually realized as I made myself read on that the novel actually has something that reminds me of one of my lifetime favorites, Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows. That is probably the best book about sisters, love and rivalry that I know (I thought also a bit of Sybille Bedford's great novel A Compass Error).

Here are the passages of My Brilliant Friend that compelled me to flag them. First, the description of the shoes Lila designs (and yes, it's surely an echo of those shoes in Madame Bovary!):
Once she showed me the designs for shoes that she wanted to make with her brother, both men's and women's. They were beautiful designs, drawn on graph paper, rich in precisely colored details, as if she had had a chance to examine shoes like that close up in some world parallel to ours and then had fixed them on paper. In reality she had invented them in their entirety and in every part, as she had done in elementary school when she drew princesses, so that, although they were normal shoes, they didn't resemble any that were seen in the neighbhoood, or even those of the actresses in the photo novels.
The letter Lila writes to Lenu who is away in Ischia:
It was from Lila. I tore open the envelope. There were five closely written pages, and I devoured them, but I understood almost nothing of what I read. It may seem strange today, and yet it really was so: even before I was overwhelmed by the contents, what struck me was that the writing contained Lila's voice. Not only that. From the first lines I thought of The Blue Fairy, the only text of hers that I had read, apart from our elementary-school homework, and I understood what, at the time, I had liked so much. There was, in The Blue Fairy, the same quality that struck me now: Lila was able to speak through writing; unlike me when I wrote, unlike Sarratore in his articles and poems, unlike even many writers I had read and was reading, she expressed herself in sentences that were well constructed, and without error, even though she had stopped going to school, but--further--she left no trace of effort, you weren't aware of the artifice of the written word. I read and I saw her, I heard her. The voice set in the writing overwhelmed me, enthralled me even more than when we talked face to face: it was completely cleansed of the dross of speech, of the confusion of the oral; it had the vivid orderliness that I imagined would belong to conversation if one were so fortunate as to be born from the head of Zeus and not from the Grecos, the Cerullos.
And the sequel rumination:
The next day I went unwillingly to take the exams. But something happened that made me feel better. Professor Gerace and Professor Galiani, who were part of the committee, praised my Italian paper to the skies. Gerace in particular said that my exposition was further improved. He wanted to read a pasasge to the rest of the committee. And only as I listened did I realize what I had tried to do in those months whenever I ahd to write: to free myself from my artificial tones, from sentences that were too rigid; to try for a fluid and engaging style like Lila's in the Ischia letter. When I heard my words in the teacher's voice, with Professor Faliani listening and silently nodding agreement, I realized that I had succeeded. Naturally it wasn't Lila's waay of writing, it was mine. And it seemed to my teachers something truly out of the ordinary.
Two other bits that stayed with me: Lila telling Lenu how to translate Latin sentences; reflections on the times characters move into dialect.

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