The Story of a New Name: Marissa Brostoff, August 10

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Marissa Brostoff is a guest contributor to The Slow Burn.

A plane from San Francisco to New York

Dear Katherine, Merve, Jill, Sarah C., and Sara M.,

I want to second Sara M.'s thanks for letting me crash the long-burning book club as a guest contributor. Like everyone else here, I've experienced the Neapolitan novels as an uncanny revelation. I read My Brilliant Friend lying on my couch in June with a bad summer cold. It was the first time in recent memory that I had read an entire book without a pencil in my hand. It felt wonderful. A few weeks later I started The Story of a New Name, and this time the compulsion to annotate returned, but in a delirious way, without a particular project in mind, as though I had just invented literary criticism from whole cloth. When I discovered your salone de Ferrante it was, miraculously, exactly where I was: at the end of Book Two, and bursting with the sense that these books must be talked about, not with a single critical "take" but in the digressive mode of the novels themselves.

So, as Merve did in a recent post, I'll start my digression with a childhood memory: I'm eight or nine, I can't get enough of Ann M. Martin's Babysitter's Club series, and I'm mad about Logan. Mad like pissed. To refresh your memory, Logan was prissy Mary Ann's quasi-boyfriend, andmore to the pointthe herald of an era beyond the horizon of the series, when the utopic BSC sisterhood of baby butches, art geeks, and book nerds would give way to a Sweet Valley High of hetero romance. Jill talked earlier about her allergy to marriage plots, which I think is a grownup way of articulating the same thing. But since I was eight, it just felt like: Why is he *here*?

bsc

At many moments in My Brilliant Friend and Story of a New Name, that would be a reasonable question to ask about Nino Serratore. On the beach in Ischia, he's there; at Professor Galiani's party, he's there. Yes, Lenù has been quietly stalking her intellectual emo boy since childhood, just as he has been secretly pining for Lila, but his quality of serially turning up, despite a street and social address far from our heroines', accords best with the overdetermining logic of narrativehe's at the beach because they have to meet again. The Neapolitan novels have the bulging shaggy-dog-story shape of another long, unconventional Bildungsroman, In Search of Lost Time. Proust likewise presents a protagonist doggedly climbing the social ladder of his milieu only to find childhood friends, enemies, and crushes turning up over and over again, so that what at first seemed like a linear ascent reveals itself to be more like the Talking Heads's vision of heaven as an endless party: "Everyone is there." But whymy inner eight-year-old persists, wanting to get at the logic behind the overdeterminationis he there?

Technically speaking, Nino is not the first boy to break up Lila and Lenù's party. Adolescent seed is spilt over Lila almost ritualistically from the second she hits puberty. If rivalries between suitors in literature function, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argues, as a means of homosocial contact between men, then the entire male half of the neighborhood is erotically bound by their greed to get in Lila's pants. But precisely because their crush is collective, it takes power away from every individual paramour and gives it all (in the short term, anyway) to Lila. Indeed, Lila's gambit is precisely to show the neighborhood that, as different as Stefano, the Solara brothers, Enzo, and the rest may seem from one another according to the subtle gradations of class status within their claustrophobic district, they are all, from the perspective of the wider world, the same.

Nino is something elsehe is the girls' intellectual equal, and though he lacks their wit and imagination, he knows far more about the world. What else can we say about him? Not much that gets beneath the surface, it turns out. Lenù's enmeshment with Lila runs so deep that grownup-writer-Elena's narration sometimes bleeds from the first person into a limited omniscience that encompasses both brilliant friends. Lenù may not always be right or honest about Lila, but she makes claims about Lila's subjectivity just as she makes them about herself. Nino, though also brought to life by Lenù's desire, lacks this kind of interiority. The main thing we know about his inner life is that he hates his smarmy, hypocritical father. The rest, as far as Lenù can tell, he has exteriorized into a highly articulate but still hot-blooded passion for left politics. Eventually we will see this energy turn into a passion for Lila that effects the awful double betrayal that becomes the central twist of the novel. Then we will see that he can also be impetuous and single-minded in pursuit of a woman. But beyond this, he remains largely a blank, resistant canvas onto which Lenù can project her hungers.

Let me just come out and say it: I would have wanted Nino too. I probably have a hate-crush on him even now, as evidenced by how I have manifested him into my neighborhood:

ninos

The brooding Marxist boy can be a very attractive boy indeed. Zoom in on Nino jousting with (female) Professor Galiani's other protégés (all male) over "Gaullism, the O.A.S., social democracy, the opening to the left...Danilo Dolci, Bertrand Russell, the pied-noirs, the followers of Fanfani" as they smoke on the terrace of Galiani's beautiful apartment. (Interestingly, Nino tends to take slightly more moderate positions than his comrades. To a girl like Lenù, perhaps, there's ultimately nothing sexier than the reality principle.) Lenù, standing among these bloviators, reacts in a way that made me want to shake her, but that I could not disavow as the reaction I would have had at her age and in her place. First, she is struck with an acute flare-up of her chronic imposter syndrome, feeling that "the world of persons, events, ideas was endless, and the reading I did at night had not been sufficient, I would have to work even harder in order to be able to say to Nino, to Professor Galiani, to Carlo, to Armando: yes, I understand. I know." Then, listening to Nino carry on, she is "overwhelmed by emotion." She craves "to take care of him, to tend to him, to protect him, to sustain him in everything that he would do in the course of his life. It was the only moment of the evening when I felt envious of Nadia"Professor Galiani's daughter and Nino's girlfriend"who stood beside him like a minor but radiant divinity" (159).

Gahhhhh! It's so awful and so familiar. And yet. While I couldn't agree more with Jill's description of the episode above as an "epic mansplaining incident," I depart somewhat from her assessment of it as the nadir of a "wincingly awful university party." Let me zoom out for a moment to try and defend my perhaps questionable position on this.

What first got me hooked on the Neapolitan novels, almost from the start of My Brilliant Friend, was the way in which the many things Lenù and Lila fervently desirebooks, money, power, knowledge, experience, boys, sex, beautiful objects, political change, respect, escape, superiority, each otherrefuse to arrange themselves into a fixed hierarchy. Any of these, in the girls' cosmology, may act in the service of any other at any given moment; all may be means and all may be ends. Which are which shift so frequently that the desires consistently catch the desirers themselves off guard.

I fell in love with something similar when I started reading Doris Lessing a couple of years ago; it was, in fact, a friend on whom I'd pushed Lessing, in longstanding feminist tradition, who pushed Ferrante on me. Lessing is a progenitor of what Sarah described as Ferrante's fever dream realism, and much of her work is similarly devoted to acidly representing the sexual politics of the postwar global Left. I had never read anyone else who better captured the vexed intersection of communism and boys until I read Ferrante, or grasped why that obscure crossing is so terribly important to understand. From a contemporary vantage point, its significance is easiest to see if we work backward, recalling that radical feminism emerged in places including Lessing's adopted England, Ferrante's Italy, and the United States in the late 1960s in reaction to the pernicious sexism endemic within the era's left social movements. But Lessing's and Ferrante's young radical women aren't struggling with a feminist telos in mind; they have to figure out on their own what it means to be in thrall to a vision of justice and equality when the self-appointed agents of that vision are epic mansplainers and often much worse. And this was only the tip of the iceberg that feminism was yet to exhume. Even when sexual politics are buried deep, how can we think the connections between books, money, power, knowledge, experience, etc? In the Neapolitan novels, how can we account for their absence in the lives that the neighborhood expects Lenù and Lila will lead?

Marxism conceived in Henri Lefebvre's terms as a critique of everyday life has ways of addressing those questions, but this conception has historically and sometimes violently been lost on the left's mansplainers. After all, what does the drab texture of daily existence for a poor schoolgirl in Naples have on the theoretical prestige of Gaullism, the O.A.S., and the followers of Fanfani? Radical feminism, most spectacularly if not singularly among the new social movements of the Sixties, changed the conversation by insisting on a revolution in everyday life as its core political demand. SNN, like much of Lessing's work, takes place just before that shit hit the fan. And so Lessing's heroines hunt alone through the vagaries of sex and friendship, geopolitics and history, trying to make sense of how it all fits together and often going mad in the process. Her 1962 magnum opus The Golden Notebook is so-called for the color-coded notebooks that sometime novelist and activist Anna Wulf keeps in an attempt to compartmentalize this bewildering totality: black for memories of her youth in Rhodesia, red for her experience in the Communist Party, yellow for a fictionalized version of a doomed relationship, blue for dreams, and a golden notebook in which she tries to see the whole thing at once.

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Is Lenù a young radical woman, though? Is she driven to try and get at the roots of things by seeing everything at once? Lila, after all, is the assiduous notebook-keeper of the two. For Lenù, in a fascinating twist, becoming conversant in left politics is largely continuous with her own individual social mobility. With a few exceptions, hers is a world of poor capitalists and rich communists. In the car on the way back from Galiani's party, Lila takes devastating note:

They've read and studied in that house, fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers. For hundreds of years they've been, at the least, lawyers, doctors, professors. So they all talk just so, so they dress and eat and move just so. They do it because they were born there. But in their heads they don't have a thought that's their own, that they struggled to think…. You, too, want to be a puppet from the neighborhood who performs so you can be welcomed into the home of those people? You want to leave us alone in our own shit, cracking our skulls, while all of you go cocorico cocorico, hunger, war, working class, peace? (163)

Arguably, political change is the weakest of Lenù's many yearnings, or more precisely, the one that is least an end unto itself. And that, oddly enough, is why a thrill of excitement accompanied my cringe in response to her experience at Professor Galiani's party. Because here's how the epic mansplaining incident ultimately plays out. Lenù reports:

Then I heard myself utter sentences as if it were not I who had decided to do so, as if another person, more assured, more informed, had decided to speak through my mouth. I began without knowing what I would say, but, hearing the boys, fragments of phrases read in Galiani's books and newspapers stirred in my mind, and the desire to speak, to make my presence felt, became stronger than timidity. I used the elevated Italian I had practiced in making translations from Greek and Latin. I was on Nino's side. I said I didn't want to live in a world at war. We mustn't repeat the mistakes of the generations that preceded us, I said. Today we should make war on the atomic arsenals, should make war on war itself. If we allow the use of those weapons, we will all become even guiltier than the Nazis. Ah, how moved I was, as I spoke: I felt tears coming to my eyes. I concluded by saying that the world urgently needed to be changed, that there were too many tyrants who kept peoples enslaved. But it should be changed by peaceful means. (159-160)

With her own political rhetoric, she has moved herself to tears.

Sometimes the way we get turned onto politics is to get turned on. From Plato's Symposium through Wilhelm Reich and his sexual-revolutionary heirs, a compelling line of thought holds that if you want people to develop a political consciousness, it's not a bad idea to begin with the eroticsex, wine, a party. I suppose I'm saying that I hope one answer to the question, "Why is Nino there?" is that he is a dialectically necessary stage Lenù must pass through on her way from being Lila's minder to her own emancipation, intellectual, political, and otherwise. Have I given the novel exactly the kind of telos I said earlier I enjoyed it not having? Well, I contradict myself. I'll admit it: I desperately want true political consciousness for Lenù. I really, really want her to discover feminism. I want it for her like you want Sherlock to solve the mystery. I'm not holding my breath for Ferrante to give me what I want. But she has certainly nurtured the fantasy. Lenù needs feminism and feminism needs her. The hazy spoilers that have come my way about the rest of the series have made me hedge my bets about everything turning out great for these brilliant characters, but in this particular respect, my fingers are cautiously crossed for Book Three.

-Marissa

IN THIS SERIES:

The Slow Burn: an Introduction

My Brilliant Friend: Jill, June 22

My Brilliant Friend: Katherine, June 23

My Brilliant Friend: Merve, June 25

My Brilliant Friend: Sarah, June 26

My Brilliant Friend: Katherine, July 1

My Brilliant Friend: Merve, July 6

My Brilliant Friend: Sarah, July 11

The Story of a New Name: Jill, July 17

The Story of a New Name: Merve, July 20

The Story of a New Name: Merve, July 30

The Story of a New Name: Katherine, July 31

The Story of a New Name: Sara Marcus, August 6

The Story of a New Name: Sarah, August 9

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Katherine, August 20

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Merve, August 21

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Lili Loofbourow, August 26

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Jill, August 27

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Cecily Swanson, August 28

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Amy Schiller, August 30

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Sarah, September 1

The Story of the Lost Child: Merve, September 16

The Story of the Lost Child: Katherine, September 18

The Story of the Lost Child: Jill, September 21

The Story of the Lost Child: Sarah, September 25