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

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Sara Marcus is a guest contributor to The Slow Burn.

Brooklyn, NY

Dear Jill, Katherine, Merve, and Sarah,

Thanks so much for inviting me into this conversation. Most of my friends who aren't subject to the strictures of school-year obligations started their Ferrante reading many months ago, so I'm very grateful to have a chance to crash this slow-reading book club. Untimeliness is always more fun with company.

And I'm charmed to hear about your inadvertent lunchtime field research, Merve! After finishing The Story of a New Name, I wondered to myself: Are there people who read this book as being primarily about Lila's romantic turmoil? I decided there were probably a lotand there you were, eating lunch next to some of them.

As the very framing of my question makes clear, I'm not one of these readers. It's not that I'm fully insensitive to the charms of SNN's operatic, intertwining plots of love and betrayalI mean, I do have a pulse. But what attracted me the most here was Lenù's persistent question about how class mobility does and doesn't work.

At the end of My Brilliant Friend, it looks to Lenù like Lila has won the class-mobility lottery, cracked the code: Marry a man who not only has a job and money but is willing to pump capital into your family-of-origin's business concern and spotlight your own creative output; move to a sweet house with a telephone; get an open credit line at area shops and fill your closet with beautiful clothes. That's the way to get out of the neighborhood, to leave poverty behind forever. Apparently.

Lenù can't just copy Lila's successful strategy. She lacks Lila's boldness, her raw sex appeal. Yet she also has what Lila lacks: a potential alternate route out of the neighborhood, the route ostensibly offered by education. Lenù is still in the running for whatever meritocratic prize is available to a brainy daughter of the Neapolitan working class. But it's often unclear precisely what that prize is, and as SNN opens, Lenù is wavering, wondering whether she shouldn't just be satisfied with the variation on Lila's strategy that is accessible to herleave school, marry Antonio, accede to the destiny her neighborhood and her gender have laid out for her. Once, the two girls were united in their determination to leave where they'd come from; once, Lila drew Lenù through a tunnel and out toward the sea. But without Lila for company, that journey seems far less desirable.

As soon as Lila and Stefano leave on their honeymoon, Lenù's misreading of the newlyweds swings wide. "She loved him," Lenù raves internally, deludedly, "she loved him like the girls in the photonovels."thus proving that women have never needed Instagram to misread their friends' lives as impossibly glamorous and full of love, and to downgrade their own accordingly. Shorn of Lila's companionship, Lenù feels useless, a bent and empty vessel:

I, I thought, am not capable of loving anyone like that, not even Nino, all I know is how to get along with books. And for a fraction of a second I saw myself identical to a dented bowl in which my sister Elisa used to feed a stray cat, until he disappeared, and the bowl stood empty, gathering dust on the landing. At that point, with a sharp sense of anguish, I felt sure that I had ventured too far. I must go back, I said to myself, I should be like Carmela, Ada, Gigliola, Lila herself. Accept the neighborhood, expel pride, punish presumption, stop humiliating the people who love me.

The bowl image is miserably piquant, a horror of an already obsolescent female sex as imagined by a hot-blooded teenage virgin. But who's the stray cat here, whose departure has rendered Lenù purposeless and pathetic? Her perennial crush-object Nino Sarratore? Lila? Antonio, the boyfriend she's been snubbing? Love itself? Since her "get[ting] along with books," that old familiar skill, is what spurs the image, perhaps it has to do with the collapse of her intellectual self-confidence. She had had value as long as she saw herself as intelligent, but now she can't even play the smart girl well enough to gain Nino's love or to get her essay published. This last interpretation feels compelling to me, but I acknowledge that it's not a great fit with the metaphor. None of my explanations fit particularly well, in fact: Lenù doesn't see Lila or Nino as comparable to a stray cat, and Antonio, yowly as he is, hasn't yet "disappeared." The well-chosen metaphor was never Lenù's talent, anyhow.

Whatever the motivation for the dented and dusty bowl, Lenù is unable to bear this self-conception for even a full second. She flees it instantly, taking refuge in the answer that's stood ready and waiting her whole life: Accept the neighborhood; emulate the other girls; placate the man who loves you. Simply returning to Antonio isn't enough; she also has to detox from all the schooling, because her education infuriates him. "He heard scarcely any dialect in my voice, he noted the long sentence, the subjunctives, and he lost his temper."

She used to think education was her ticket out. But Nino has just dangled, then yanked back, the possibility that she might be published, and the disappointment intellectual and romantic rejection combinedis devastating:

It seemed to me that, thanks to the humiliation of the unpublished article, I had thoroughly understood my inadequacy. Even though Nino was born and had grown up like Lila and me in that wretched outlying neighborhood, he was able to use school with intelligence, I was not. So stop deluding myself, stop striving. Accept your lot, as Carmela, Ada, Gigliola, and, in her way, Lila herself have long since done.

Again this musical litany of neighborhood girls, this siren chorus of names calling Lenù to join them. The sutures that tied her to the mast are weakening: If she doesn't have what it takes to succeed as an intellectual, if she can't win the smartest boy by being the smartest girl, she might as well quit now. She ditches school for two weeks after the wedding.


Charles-Édouard Boutibonne, Sirens (1883)

But the calculus changes, of course. She learns that Lila isn't in love or happy, that Stefano beats and rapes her. And Stefano's brother Alfonso tells Lenù he could never beat a woman, because he goes to school with herwhich means, she realizes, that she doesn't have to settle for the violent, destructive way love and marriage play out in her neighborhood, even if the other girls do. She has the power to change a man's behaviorbut only if she's seen as an intellectual equal. She returns to school.

Her vacillations go on for a good long while, though. Sometimes she's tempted by the prospect of marriage and family, the path of least resistance, but more often she's haunted by the possibility that all the school in the world won't do her any good. "There was no escape. No, neither Lila nor I would ever become like the girl who had waited for Nino after school. We both lacked something intangible but fundamental, which was obvious in her even if you simply saw her from a distance, and which one possessed or did not, because to have that thing it was not enough to learn Latin or Greek or philosophy, nor was the money from groceries or shoes of any use." This intangible something is class, and the particular versions of femininity that class makes possible. Lenù wants to get out of poverty, but she worries that education can only take you so far, especially when you're a woman.

Her resolve comes back, it seems to me, in two key scenes, both involving Professor Galiani, but in precisely opposite ways. At the party at the teacher's house, feeling appreciated and valued by all the cultured guests, and realizing that Lila is out of her element, Lenù has a breakthrough: "Suddenly I felt that the state of suspension that had begun the day of her wedding was over. I knew how to be with these people, I felt more at ease than I did with my friends in the neighborhood." The siren song fadesit was never that lovely in the first place.

In the second scene, Lenù has just aced her graduation exams, but Galiani greets her coolly. Because Lenù can't explain that Nino's unceremonious dumping of the teacher's daughter was Lila's fault, Galiani blames Lenù for the breakup, and Lenù realizes she has lost her champion. "I was used to being liked by everyone, to wrapping that liking around me like shining armor; I was disappointed, and I think that her indifference had an important role in the decision I then made. Without talking about it to anyone (who could I ask advice from, anyway, if not Professor Galiani?) I applied for admission to the Pisa Normale."

Where Lenù's first epiphany came from affinity with a group of peers, her second epiphany comes from realizing that as long as she's based in Naples, caught up in Lila's life, she'll always be subject to Lila's actions, which are becoming at least as perilous as they are compelling. If the attention of other peopleLila, Nino, Galiani, the party guestsonce helped Lenù believe she was smart enough to keep striving, the withdrawal of all that attention makes her realize that nobody else can take her out of the neighborhood, and that she can't bring anybody with her when she leaves. "I, Elena Greco, the daughter of the porter, at nineteen years old was about to pull myself out of the neighborhood" (I hear this line in my head as "was about to pull myself out"), "I was about to leave Naples. By myself."

Questions about the limits of class mobility stay with her throughout her time in Pisa: She's learned to put on a good show, to pride herself on "the mask worn so well that it was almost a face" (I can't not think of Paul Laurence Dunbar here), but she's haunted again by that almost. There's a stubborn distance between herself and her classmates who excel without visible effort, who possess wide-ranging cultural literacy "because of the families they came from or through an instinctive orientation."so it's class but not only class, or class that at times masquerades, insidiously, as something more ineffable, something Lenù can castigate herself for lacking.

The Story of a New Name ends on an upswing, with Elena Greco taking unmixed pride in graduating, getting published. For the first time, she's known not by any of her neighborhood sobriquets, and not by the brusque surname-only address of grade school, but by her full, myth-infused name. And maybe whatever ineradicable trace of the old neighborhood persists in her might account, after all, for her own ineffable quality, the "something powerful whose origin [the publisher] can't figure out" that makes the novel she writes so great. Elena is convinced that special something is Lila. But she's wrong about so much in SNN; I suspect she's wrong about this too.

– Sara


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: Sarah, August 9

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

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