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

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New York, New York

Dear All of You,

It's probably time we admitted that this is really just one novel we're reading. Not that formal definitions matter so much. I've never liked the ornery "Is this a novel?" conversation, about books that break with some tradition. But formal questions have always interested me, particularly when they drive a narrative.

I'm thinking of Lenù and Lila as a single novel not merely because the volumes proceed chronologically; or because the pages, with some notable variation, generally retain their powerful, declarative style; or even because the narrative centers on a single speaker, friendship, and social world; but also because the resonant symbols we first encounter in My Brilliant Friend never really leave us. Three-quarters of the way through this saga, I can't stop thinking about the degree to which so many of them are symbols of corrupted shape and form: Lila's visions of dissolving margins, her experience of the exploding copper pot. In both cases, a shape or entity that has been, to some degree, fixed, loses its shape, much to Lila's horror.

The horror is compounded in The Story of a New Name, like a dreaded oracle come to pass. On their honeymoon, Stefano rapes Lila, literally violating her form. "What are you doing, be quiet, you're just a twig," he tells her, recalling Ovid, Roman poet of rape and change, "if I want to break you I'll break you." And she's not the only one to lose her shape: "He was never Stefano, she seemed to discover suddenly, he was always the oldest son of Don Achille…The father was cracking his skin, changing his gaze, exploding out of his body" (SNN 40-42).

Later, after Lila's love affair with Nino, comes pregnancy, and this, too, is a realization of her worst nightmare (and maybe also mine):

She had the impression of having become large and inflated inside rather than outside, as if within the wrapping of her body every organ had begun to fatten. Her stomach seemed a bubble of flesh that was expanding because of the baby's breathing. She was afraid of that expansion, she feared that the thing she was most afraid of would happen: she would break apart, overflow. (SNN 372)

Lenù, meanwhile, has always been drawn to changing forms. Escaping the confines of the neighborhood and Naples, growing tan and blonde at Ischia, even, to some extent, the violence of childbirtheach of these experiences leaves her ecstatic. Her career and domestic trajectory have been superficially orderly, but her heart yearns for something wilder. Near the beginning of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, shortly after the publication of her first novel, she finds herself skipping her own book event in favor of a radical political meeting, where she looks with envy upon the happy, aggressive women in attendance: "Now that I have some money, I thought, now that I'll earn who knows how much, I can have some of the things I missed. Or maybe not. I was now too cultured, too ignorant, too controlled, too accustomed to freezing life by storing up ideas and facts, too close to marriage and settling down, in short too obtusely fixed within an order that here appeared to be in decline" (TWL&TWS 70).

Lila values that order. She wants it, desperately, for Lenùnever mind what Lenù might want for herself. In The Story of a New Name, while Lila is still with Stefano, she forcefully underwrites Lenù's education because "She expected from me what she would have done in my place. She really wanted me fixed in the role of someone who spends her life with books..." (SNN 93). Later, when Lenù demands Lila's opinion of her second novel, with its workers and camorrists and its spaghetti Western ending, Lila breaks down sobbing on the phone.

You mustn't write those things, Lenù, you aren't that, none of what I read resembles you, it's an ugly, ugly book, and the one before it was, too...Don't make me read anything else, I'm not fit for it, I expect the best from you, I'm too certain that you can do better, I want you to do better, it's what I want most, because who am I if you aren't great, who am I? (TWL&TWS 272-3)

It's a demand that arises from her own experience of chaos, within marriage, within the violence of the neighborhood. I keep recalling Emily Dickinson: "After great pain, a formal feeling comes." Lila's pain can be alleviated only by order: by personally devoting herself to Gennaro's early education; by the routine of factory work in San Giovanni a Teduccio; by her later work with computer systems, "transform[ing] everything into diagrams and holes" (262); and by her vicarious comfort in Lenù's success. Though Lila is fiery, and always moving, freezing life might actually seem like a pretty safe bet, but only because she hasn't read Dickinson, whose formal feeling ends with a mass death in snow. After all, it is Lila, not Lenù, who turns back in the tunnel; she is the one who stays.


Emily Dickinson: also not a leaver.

Competitive friends so often want what the other one has. Whatever Lila might think, Lenù finds her domestic situation with Pietro increasingly untenable. They are a poor match erotically, leaving her perennially unsatisfied, and they are a poor match intellectually, arguing constantly over politics. Worst by far, he won't even read her fiction.

The fiction is another source of dissatisfaction. Lenù spends the period following her first novel's publication on the all-too-familiar pendulum between grandiosity and self-doubt. A positive review fills her sails; a negative review sends her reeling. She feels embarrassed at the public's reaction to the "dirty parts," then learns to talk about them in terms that justify her choice"I spoke of the necessity of recounting frankly every human experience, including...what seems unsayable and what we do not speak of even to ourselves" (TWL&TWS 64)then comes to rethink them yet again. All along, she can't shake the feeling of exposure, or of posing:

Whenever I saw the book in a window, among other novels that had just come out, I felt inside a mixture of pride and fear, a dart of pleasure that ended in anguish...I knew what great literature was, I had done a lot of work in the classics, and it never occurred to me, while I was writing, that I was making something of value. But the effort of finding a form had absorbed me. And the absorption had become that book, an object that contained me. Now I was there, exposed, and seeing myself caused a violent pounding in my chest. (TWL&TWS 53)

Reading this, each time, causes a violent pounding in my chest, too.

But I bring up this debut novelist moment not (only) to tell you it's so true, but also because it highlights Lenù's longstanding obsession with form, dating back to her good student years. Having spent the vast majority of her life upholding the well-constructed sentence, she finds her adult self thinking of her first novel as "frivolous and very traditional." For her second effort, she wants to move away from it, toward a form with more political significance, "one that would contain the tumult of the present" (TWL&TWS  248). Yes, yes, yesas you might remember, I'm working on a second novel, too.

Anyway, the spaghetti Western Camorra novel fails, a devastating moment for Lenù and me both, but another effort, a story-essay hybrid on the creation myth and the hubris of man, finds a prestigious publisher in France. So Lenù's writing career is finding its way, not by adhering to forms, but by breaking them, and much to her own satisfaction.

No wonder she runs away with Nino, that brooding Marxist boy who keeps turning up, who washes dishes, and who defends her time to that hapless Casaubon, Pietro. "I thought: Something great is happening that will dissolve the old way of living entirely and I'm part of that dissolution" (TWL&TWS 418).

She has seen herself on the shelf, contained, and she has exploded out of that containment with Ninoalways Ninoas her muse. If Lila's efforts to right what's wrecked recall Dickinson, then Lenù's desires put me in a Rilke frame of mind.

"Archaic Torso of Apollo"

We cannot know his legendary head

with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso

is still suffused with brilliance from inside,

like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,


gleams in all its power. Otherwise

the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could

a smile run through the placid hips and thighs

to that dark center where procreation flared.


Otherwise this stone would seem defaced

beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders

and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:


would not, from all the borders of itself,

burst like a star: for here there is no place

that does not see you. You must change your life.


We've been reading this novel too long to feel that Lenù's triumphant first flight will end happily, and yet, how could we read on if we were not hoping, just a little, that it might?

Bursting from my borders,



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: 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