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

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Amy Schiller is a guest contributor to the Slow Burn. 

A grassy patch adjacent to the Hall of Philosophy at the Chautauqua Institution.

Dear all,

I join you all with admiration, gratitude and no small amount of chutzpah, at the urging of Marissa, who told me it was appropriate to email Sarah and ask to crash the party. Lenù and Lila have accompanied me on every significant vacation I've had in 2015, which are quickly becoming defined less by destination and more as Respective Reorganizations of Time and Space Around Reading Ferrante. The Story of a New Name was my reward for finishing my last major course paper, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay served the same purpose after several intense months of dissertation proposal writing.

Incidentally, I'm a political theorist, which lends a special joy to reading about 1970s Italian fascism and Communism and the total collapse of that hoary public-private chestnut in the lives of both Elena and Lila. I really value the specifically Italian flavor of these transnational movements - the feminism here (Elena does finally get there, Marissa!) is the Marxist feminism of Silvia Federici, whose "Wages Against Housework" is on my fall syllabus and many others', as well as Carla Lonzi, arguably the Italian answer to Irigaray and Cixous. When Lila, as quoted by Enzo, refuses to lament the loss of welding and other "good" manufacturing jobs to machines, by stating "humiliating and stultifying jobs should disappear," she reflects in part the philosophy of Autonomous Marxism that originated in Italy with Antonio Negri, alongside Federici (299). The world is going faster and faster around them, yet the intensity of the times seem to be catching up to, not catalyzing, the passion each of these women has carried since we first met them.

Back to the public-private folie-à-deux of this epic. Lenù has always pursued the seeming "sure thing" - education, marrying into a prestigious family - and TWL&TWS is a fascinating reckoning that not only are her leftist politics out of step with her domestic life, but that her entire strategy of advancement feels a bit decadent and stodgy. Being a Lila Girl (how nice to have a feminist version of the Lennon vs. McCartney debate), I feel a tiny bit of glee that Elena, for all her would-be emancipatory moves, is in decline from the moment she arrives on the public scene. Her innate conservatism is catching up with her; she bought legacy stock just before the market collapsed, in all respects. She is both the one who left and the one who stayed, stuck in an old framework of hierarchy and advancement within it.

I'll allow Elena her rage and jealousy. I too would be pissed if my best friend were a wizard, especially if she demanded that I surpass her in accomplishment. That being said, Lila is a product of both her hiss-dart-bite intellect and her self-reliance, after having to fight for herself even in her own family from a very young age. She adapts because she has to, and always has an eye for an unanticipated opportunity. Elena, partially because her father was more tolerant of her pursuit of education and her teachers chose to mentor her, learned to depend on existing institutions to contain and reward her ambition.

This is, I think, what Michele is getting at when, at that edge-of-my-seat dinner party (Ch. 92), he applauds Lila's quicksilver intelligence as superior to Elena's diligence. But that moment encapsulates so much about what makes TWL&TWS particularly significant among these novels: he validates and confirms as an outsider what has only been stated in interior voice. Lila's courage and brilliance have seemed almost mythical - she reads first, remains the more natural writer of the two according to Elena, then designs spectacular shoes before reaching puberty, plays romantic parkour to avoid becoming a Camorra bride. With one photograph she becomes a renowned model, then dabbles in avant-garde art (to erase the effects of said modeling, as stated so well by Merve), organized and managed several retail operations, adapts to factory work, rallies political opposition, and finally, learns the intricacies of computer technology, all with the same dazzling aplomb and immediate triumph. I mean. Come on. That seems like absurd and overawed characterization. But with Michele's speech, we now have to reflect back on whether Elena's portraiture has been more accurate than it previously appeared.

With the aging of all our primary characters into adults in TWL&TWS, the folding of time becomes more poignant, for not only the narrator, but the characters themselves are all now far away from those formative moments. That sense of multiplied times that Katherine highlighted, as twelve-year-old Lila and Lenù walk the neighborhood streets, starts to spread, as other characters become part of that nostalgic time-folding enterprise. Think of Bruno reminiscing fondly about the summer in Ischia on the phone with Elena, or Lila bringing up the first party at Professor Galiani's, remembering events that previously we only observed through Elena. Manuela Solara probably did order the hit on Don Achille - and it matters anew, since now other people are talking about it, not just Elena musing from a distance. These characters perform narrative purposes, retelling and analyzing earlier events, in some ways competing with our narrator, underscoring her own sense of marginalization and irrelevance.

The erosion of Elena's narrative authority, as more characters fill out and articulate the passage of time, is also seen in the evolution of the men of Lenù's world, who seem to undergo much more dramatic metamorphoses than the women in this volume. A quick rundown, intentionally excluding Nino, who I consider to be forever the Marxist Pixie Dream Boy:

marxist pixie dream boy1

  • Michele's devotion to Lila might be playing some sexual long game, but his rhapsodies about her intelligence and talent make clear that, even to him, this relationship is different and almost secluded from his usual violence,
  • Enzo's transformation from hardbitten fruit seller - the most village-bound old-world profession - to the most upwardly mobile professional of the men, the one best suited to the emerging knowledge economy,
  • Stefano's disintegration from abusive hotshot into a debt-crushed, sulky ghost haunting the neighborhood,
  • Pasquale, admittedly a bit of an arrogant dick from the beginning, has gone full-on guerilla bro, condescending and absolutist towards everyone.
  • Pietro unraveling from puppyish admirer to a petulant fuddy-duddy who totally abdicates any domestic responsibility and undermines his wife's writing,
  • Rino's enormous weight gain and loss of any rebellious edge, as the Solara payroll starts working for, rather than against him.
  • Confirmation of Alfonso's homosexuality (and I hope I'm not alone in hoping Michele reciprocates his crush, since the latter's rampant, self-publicized womanizing might indicate some mismatch with his Kinsey score.)
  • And in my favorite sentimental detail, Elena's father becomes more animated in his affection than we've ever seen once he gets Pietro's company in front of the television. Ah, fathers-in-law.

 

(As for the other women, compared to secondary female characters like Gigliola, Elisa, and Mariarosa, only Adele seems pretty cool, in a Florentine Emily Gilmore way.)

Even though we obviously know more about our two primary characters' lives, the male characters exhibit far more dynamic and surprising development than we see even with Lila, who evolves pretty much as I could have predicted, upping her badass quotient at every turn. Her skills now match her confidence to such a degree that she can work for Michele without fear; she has likewise conquered her sabotaging family and supports them financially. Meanwhile, Elena is in some kind of goldfish pattern, returning time and again to the publishing house and Nino, respectively, as her instruments of emancipation. Even when she admits, "I had decided" (to ignite the affair with Nino), she parrots Pietro's direct statement here, after a long stretch of ambivalence and half-consciousness of her actions, rendering her ultimately passive (386).

I hope Book 4 contains more of a story that turns against Elena - whether through the emergence of more narrative voices, more open acknowledgement of her passivity and traditionalism, or more people defying her earlier impressions and portrayals of them. While I respect Katherine's fraction of optimism that Elena's liberation begins anew on that flight to Montpellier, I'm far more fascinated by the way Elena's own novel ends up decentering her from her own story.

Back to cloud-gazing,

Amy

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

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: 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