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

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New Haven, CT

Oh Nino, why are you such a tool? Marissa, I'm with you Nino is a real goober, though it's really Enzo who gets me. To Enzo I say, you are boring and not particularly bright, stop being a martyr. Pietro you too, with all that intellectual strutting, the self-absorption justified by an overwrought sense of injury, as though the world as done wrong to you, you especially. And Juan that's rape, not sexual liberation, you fool. To Rino I say, you are so mean, so incompetent at everything besides cruelty. To Stefano, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you.

Looking back, the men don't come off particularly well in the Neapolitan cycle, though it might be more accurate to say that no one goes through unscathed. All the same, I find myself talking to the men more than anyone else, most often in the declarative. This isn't a categorical claim about Ferrante's treatment of men. The women can be just as cruel and stupid. It's more about how I can't imagine myself talking to Lenù and Lila. Instead, while reading, I imagine myself being them, in every case.

This is all somewhat embarrassing to admit. It is certainly not a very professional mode of reader response that I'm describingthat is, talking to characters, giving them advice, insulting them, sometimes out loud, in public places, where people will stare at you. When I teach novels, much of my energy is geared towards persuading students to avoid these moments of identification. To students I say, I don't want to hear that you really love Clarissa or that, if you were on the Patna, you would have definitely jumped. Talking to characters, imagining what we would have done in their situation, and comparing their lives to our own, in the world of academic literary criticism at least, is looked down upon as an overly subjective, immature model of reading. It is not the thing to do.

This sense that talking to characters or comparing oneself to a character overmuch is a juvenile reading strategy compounds a second anxiety of mine. In general, when I write about a book, I have already finished the book in question. Indeed, most of my argument will hinge on some sort of development that we can only understand in retrospect. Across this summer, I've been writing about Ferrante as I go along, not knowing how things will turn out. Writing while reading, without knowing how the story will end, involves making a number of assumptions. Most pointedly, due to the general doucheyness of the male characters, I've assumed that Lenù and Lila will eventually shed their respective beaux. Like Marissa, I've assumed that this shedding will involve some realization about feminism and, most likely, a kind of political awakening to what Mariarosa calls the revolution. Halfway into Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, I am getting ready to be wrong and that itself generates a particular mode of reading. For now let's call it a freighted, anxious kind of waiting.

This kind of reading and writing, as one goes along, is happening, of course in conversation with you all, with other women, some whom are dear friends, some whom I haven't met, a number of whom I have lived with or turned to in moments of crisis, for couch-surfing and other forms of care. I am learning about the meantime of these other lives, in distant and nearby cities, amidst the reading and writing on Ferrante, as I go along. The writing about Ferrante then becomes a gloss for all these other things that I would like to convey but don't quite have the words. There are shadow narratives, about me and to these other women, underneath the stories that I tell about Lenù and Lila, so that the Neapolitan cycle blurs, a bit, into the background, as a merely enabling fiction. All these things I want to say, I think, I will say about Lenù and Lila. Some of them I will say on other mediums, with less prying eyes. If the Slow Burn is a companion to the Neapolitan cycle, I like to think of the email threads scheduling these posts as another literary form altogether, a companion to the companion, as spider-web of dumb gifs, summer schedules, revolving encouragements, friendship, trauma, care.

This blurring, between fictional world of the novel and the spider-web of our extended literary correspondence, of our various summers, is perhaps what always happens but more often gets covered up. Normally I would just skip over the fact that this writing, here, now, is in a humid, airless room, in my railroad apartment. I would not mention that there is a heat wave in New Haven and I have a non-functional air conditioner. I would not mention that my dog is panting with her whole body or that as I type I can hear the false echo of another click-clacking that is my girlfriend typing in the other room, because she is visiting me, for a spell, before returning to the city where she lives, for the start of the semester. Instead I would just skip to the compounded metaphor, as though it came out of nowhere: The thing about heat is that, for me, it makes everything seem like a spell, like the in between. During this heat spell, what Lili called the exploding copper pot of a summer in a paragraph that was edited out, I am perpetually waiting for the time of day that is less hot or the room that is less hot. Spaces get mapped out in my brain differently, according to respective temperatures. At this moment, the Neapolitan novels feel like the meantime and the meantime feels like a heat wave at the end of the summer. Is that merely a fact of the particularities of my experience, here, now? If I was writing after having read that fourth novel, would this kind of criticism be an entirely different story? Right now, how I feel about these novels, about the cycle really, cannot really snap into place, so I end up describing that meantime, or what it feels like here, now. In many ways, it feels like the passage that Lili noted:

The heat was unbearable. I found myself against a background of posters dense with writing, red flags, and struggling people, placards announcing activities, noisy voices,    laughter, and a widespread sense of apprehension. I wandered around, looking for signs    that had to do with me. I recall a dark-haired young man who, running, rudely bumped into me, lost his balance, picked himself up, and ran out into the street as if he were being    pursued, even though no one was behind him. I recall the pure, solitary sound of a trumpet that pierced the suffocating air. I recall a tiny blond girl, who was dragging a clanking chain with a large lock at the end, and zealously shouting, I don't know to whom: I'm coming! I remember it because in order to seem purposeful, as I waited for someone to recognize me and come over, I took out my notebook and wrote down this and that. But half an hour passed, and no one arrived.  (68; bold mine)

What I'd like to point out is not the fact of Lenù's recording of the scene, but the way that this recording, with its litany of first-person recollections, looks so different from another account of Italy in the 1970s, this time taken from Nanni Balestrini's The Unseen: 

when we arrive there's a long procession filling the platform and it's moving up the stairs of the metro no one's bothering with tickets and in the carriages there are flags and the long poles for the banners someone has a go at singing but the mood is grim threatening we reach the university in the square in front of the university there's a tide of people but not just students not just young people all ages are there old people too there are workers in overalls with red kerchiefs round their necks the demonstration is already there drawn up ready to go the stewards in front kerchiefs masking half their faces and the heavy sticks with small red flags tied on there's a dull rumbling sound then a shout and a slogan launched murdered comrade you'll be avenged everyone together a roar and the demonstration sets off  (15)

For Balestrini, there is this sense of immediacy, of a we melded together, if only in a single moment. Ferrante won't give us that. The persistently mediating term, "I recall," makes the political scene a pointed memory, forever apart. While reading, amidst all my assumptions, I take this moment of Lenù's narration as a kind of gelatinous middle, a meantime that will eventually speed up, somehow, into the present-tense of Lenù's life, into Balestrini's We. I had thought that surely Lenù will, at some point, come to recognize herself somewhere, if not amidst the students, then amidst the communists, or the Florentine women. But then maybe there is something wrong with this progress narrative that ends in a unified We as if it was in another book, so easily, so confidently narrated by a man. In any case, this is all speculation, so my judgment remains suspended too.

Reading the posts by Merve and Lili, I try out these different endings. I am perpetually talking to and with characters, as I wait in line, when I'm doing the dishes. Sometime I talk to you all too, my friends and co-authors and the tiny handful of people I can count on as readers, as I try to position this response in relation to what you have already written or said. I curse at the characters, at Nino and Pietro, and perpetually, obsessively return to a handful of bent pages, like the moment when Lila says to Professor Galiani, just before the chapter breaks off, "We made a pact when we were children: I'm the wicked one." (144) It's a lie, according to the facts we have, but Lila believes herself. Or she believes the promises she's made to herself and to others, about who to be, as a reality more pressing than any words actually exchanged, any promises made, on Lenù's part. It is one of those moments that I see as blurred, subject to what Lila would call dissolving margins, not for her, but for us, the readers. I am confident that, at that moment, Lila believes every word that she says, as the rock-hard truth. Funny, that blurring. It is so promiscuous. Looking backward, I realize that there must be seasons in these novels, but in my imperfect memory, one prone to melding what is fictional and real, all of it, everything, seems to have taken place during the hottest day, at the end of a long summer.

-Jill

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: 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