The Story of a New Name: Sarah, August 9

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I guess I'll start with Sebald:

In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work. And in fact my hope was realized, up to a point; for I have seldom felt so carefree as I did then, walking for hours in the day through the thinly populated countryside, which stretches inland from the coast. I wonder now, however, whether there might be something in the old superstition that certain ailments of the spirit and of the body are particularly likely to beset us under the sign of the Dog Star. At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralyzing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place. Perhaps it was because of this that, a year to the day after I began my tour, I was taken into hospital in Norwich in a state of almost total immobility. It was then that I began in my thoughts to write these pages. (W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, trans. Michael Hulse)

It was in a state of almost total immobility that I began to slowly write these pages some time ago, in the aftermath of a vague midsummer malady. The cat, sadly sprawled next to me and heaving dramatic sighs of deep feline melancholy, looked like my brain felt: deflated, overheated, weighed down by the humidity. I lay there and tried to think about Ferrante, or even not-thinkfeel?about Ferrante, and heaved dramatic sighs of deep human melancholy.

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Thomas Browne’s skull, or not. (The Rings of Saturn, 11)

And so, as I often do, I thought/not-thought about Sebald for a few reasons, none of them particularly scholarly: it was more this feeling in the body that led me back to him, after our summer of Ferrante. Before I go on, let's be clearI’m not going to make any particularly responsible or rigorous claims here about Sebald and Ferrante as they relate to each other or the European Novel or Postwar History or Translation or Canonization or anything academic, really (it may be August, but IT'S STILL SUMMER, DAMN IT). This is not comparative literature. There will be no close readings. It's just some confused thoughts and feelings, stemming in some ways from Katherine’s provocation to think about place over/with/under character, that I think have something to do with Ferrante, and something to do with how places have selves, and something to do, in some obscure way, with the idea that every new name is a story at once necessary and impossible to tell.

To start with a facile and incredibly obvious observation: names and places are problems for both Sebald and Ferrante. Both are deeply invested in the where of their stories, and the stories of their wheres, if that makes sense. This is a tension that plays out in very different ways between them. Sebald's narratives move through an accretion of places at human paces (by foot, by train or car, at the speed of memory), and as he moves through them, their names take on meanings, start to signify embedded histories. His writing on place has both descriptive and narrative depth to the point of vertigo (in his first "novel" Vertigo and beyond). While Ferranteas I've written beforedoesn't go in for deep description of this type, her Naples is just as thickly imbued with hauntings and stories, more of a dense miasma than Sebald's geological strata.

But, different as they are, both authors' books create a sense of place that's so affectively resonant, so immersive, that you can practically feel it in the body. The urge that Katherine followed, to go to Naplesto go to Ferranteresonates with a similar urge I, and others, have to go to Sebald: it's a thing to do the walk that he does in The Rings of Saturn, the meandering loop around the flatlands of Suffolk that fills his unnamed narrator with such malaise, so much a thing that director Grant Gee basically made a whole documentary about people doing it. But why do we want to do this? Surely it is a perverse desire that demands that we go to a troubled place to inhabit the bad feelings (both Sebald’s “freedom” and “paralyzing horror”) we get from a texta strange kind of affective inhabitation, worlds away from than the reliquary amusement park delights of more conventional literary tourism.

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The paralyzing horror of Stratford-upon-Avon

We wantor at least, I wantto go to Sebald's Suffolk, or Ferrante's Naples, because it feels as though we've already been there, and more, because we need to feel in our own bodies what the place makes us feel, its particular character and quiddity. Despite, or perhaps through, their vagaries and abstractions, both authors create uniquely palpable geographies in their books: I dwell in Ferrante, uncomfortably but wholly, in a way that I haven't dwelled in a novel for a long time. Since Sebald, probably. It's a strange feeling, this dwelling in, different from the way that other absorbing texts might ask us to live with, or live as a certain character. Perhaps because of this power of place over person, character, in both cases, is often something of a problem; we see things through Lenù (or through the shifting "I"s of Sebald's multiply focalized narratives), but we don't get full access to these narrators, who offer cautious and, in Lenù's case, deceptive versions of intimacy.

This is where names come in. The desire to get inside the physical landscape of the text feels somehow aligned with that same confusion of whose placeor whose bodywe would occupy there. I think my own temptation to go on the Rings of Saturn walk has something to do with the fact that the places are fixed (named, over-full with stories), and the walking self is notso of course, I want to go to the places to feel for myself what that mysterious and unknowable self felt there, and thus get a little closer to it. After all, the central "I" of The Rings of Saturn or Austerlitz is not exactly W.G. Sebald, and even less so the real life Max Sebald. To identify Sebald's "I" as Sebald himself is both irresistible and impossible; there is at once a coy invitation and a coy rejection of identification here. A similar logic operates with Ferrante; while we imagine that Elena Ferrante might look in some ways like Elena Greco, the alignment of Elena F. with Elena G. at once flirts with identification and denies it. Both are authors who are named and not named, that we can and can't identify (with).

In Ferrante, this authorial confusion ties in to a broader confusion about the significance of names (or if they have significance at all). In some cases, no matter what a thing or place or person is named, those new names build on each other and retain the shape of some original form. For example, whatever she's called, Elena Greco is still Lenuccia from the neighborhood, still sly Lenù the deceptive narrator, still Greco, the brownnosing star student. Lenù collects names like she collects accolades, thinking that they help define her more clearly, an accumulation of signs that all point to the same thing. This is boring. What I find more intriguing is the status of the unnamed, whether person or place (or author): the thing that cannot be pinned down to a singular and fundamental self.

Sebald plays often with the act of unnaming, or the refusal to name (as in his defamiliarizing narratives about Stendhal and Kafka in Vertigo). In Ferrante too, the unnamed or unnameable are the most fascinating objects of interrogation: the things that either have too many names, or too few. The most significant of these things is Lila herself. People constantly try to define her nominally, but none of her new names really seem to stickshe is, after all, an erasure waiting to happen. She, like Lenù, has many namesyet unlike Lenù/Lenuccia/Elena/Greco, these names are not cumulative. They are discrete versions of her, ones that seemingly don't fit together: the legal fiction of Raffaella Cerullo; remote Signora Carracci; Cerù the factory worker; the neighborhood Lina that everyone else sees but doesn't understand; the increasingly inaccessible and imagined Lila we see through Lenù's eyes alone. Yet none of these names are exactly real or proper to Lila herself, as she painfully expresses to Lenù while working on her obscured portrait:

…her new designation at first [had not] made much of an impression: Raffaella Cerullo Carracci. Nothing exciting, nothing serious. In the beginning, that "Carracci" had been no more absorbing than an exercise in logical analysis, of the sort that Maestra Oliviero had hammered into us in elementary school. What was it, an indirect object of place?… Lila, as usual, hadn't stopped there, she had soon gone further. As we worked with brushes and paints, she told me that she had begun to see in that formula an indirect object of place to which, as if Cerullo Carracci somehow indicated that Cerullo goes toward Carracci, falls into it, is sucked up by it, is dissolved in it... Raffaella Cerullo, overpowered, had lost her shape and had dissolved inside the outlines of Stefano, becoming a subsidiary emanation of him: Signora Carracci. It was then that I began to see in the panel the traces of what she was saying (SNN, 123-124)

The new nameSignora Carraccigrotesquely absorbs the old one, but that old one didn't even seem to contain Lila fully itself. Again, I think back to the images of Lila/Lina as the fairytale changeling, this time in a sad rather than alarming light: she has a new body, a new identity, a new story for every new name, but none of them reveal her true nature, none of them are her secret and true name. Rather, it seems safer and better to have none, such that she can be possessed by no one (sorry if this is getting a bit Wizard of Earthsea). It brings to mind yet another Sebald resonance, the peculiar story of the magical creature Baldanders ("soon another," itself a non-name), who transforms endlessly into, among other things, "a mighty oak, a sow, a sausage, a piece of excrement, a field of clover, a white flower, a mulberry tree, and a silk carpet" (The Rings of Saturn, 23). Baldanders, like Lila, has a certain power in this indefinability, yet Sebald’s reading of him (following Thomas Browne) is  that "in this continuous process of consuming and being consumed, nothing endures... On every new thing, there lies already the shadow of annihilation,” an idea we might also see in Lila, whose many transformations are preludes to an ultimate erasure (Saturn, 24). And indeed, even as a child, Lila herself seems to know the coexistent power and the sadness of the unnamed, or the non-named; remember, while Lenù gives her doll a human name, Tina, Lila cryptically calls hers Nua letter? A negation? A sound without meaning? A powerful non-name.

And finally, to loop back loosely to places, the neighborhood itself is the other unnamed and powerful thing at the heart of these vaguely and specifically Neapolitan novels. Herein lies the big difference between wanting to do Sebald’s walk, and go to Ferrante’s Naples. For while Sebald’s places are clearly identified, described, even photographed, and thus are inextricably bound by their names or histories, Ferrante’s primal place is evasiveit is, as we’ve noted before, both real and unreal as Ferrante herself. As Katherine notes, we don't know exactly where it is, or even exactly what it looks like, and yet it is the story's magnetic heart of darkness; it always draws Lenù back, no matter where she goes. It is at once like Lenù, a thing that seems like it stays the same, despite external changes and reconstructions, yet it is also possessed of a Lila-like changeabilty, as it morphs into a different and incomprehensible space every time Lenù leaves and returns, a changeability that perhaps masks, like Lila, a dark void, "the shadow of annihilation." The neighborhood is a mysterious problem, nowhere and everywhere, familiar and defamiliarized, asking the question: do its readers and characters dwell in it, or does it dwell in us?

– Sarah (if that's even my real name)

 

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: 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