Lili Loofbourow is a guest contributor to The Slow Burn.
I've spent some of this summer searching for my own Lila.
We're like pipes when the water freezes, what a terrible thing a dissatisfied mind is. You remember what we did with my wedding picture? I want to continue on that path. The day will come when I reduce myself to diagrams, I'll become a perforated tape and you won't find me anymore. Nonsense, that's all.
My sister erased herself this summer with a gun to her left temple. She didn't give anyone her notebooks; quite the opposite. Her particular disappearing act assumed an electronic aspect of which Lila would have approved: she took a wrench to her hard drives, closed all her email accounts, wiped her iPhone and tablet. Here is her Myspace page:
Here is her Pinterest:
0 interests, 0 pins, 0 likes.
All we have left to try and understand her by is a heap of disabled electronics. An irritatingly material heap, dull and scratched and mute. The Motorola tablet hidden under the sink was covered with her fingerprints and yet it's dead without them, a glass brick.
"Mute paper, useless paper." -Lenù, looking at the French, German and Spanish translations of her book.
A book was open on my sister's bed. She was reading, I guess, right before she did it. I haven't read that book yet, mainly—I admit it—as a kindness to myself. Also for her, though. I think. I don't want to draw unfair connections. I don't want to assume that reading was as important for her as it is for me. I'm trying not to let the layers of fiction suicide produces completely overwrite my sister. (There are so many, and some of them even have the merit of being true. She was physically ill. She was mentally ill. She was sick at heart. She was wracked with pain.)
It's all too easy to lose her to the black hole that explains her—and what she did—by alienating her. Turning her into another Melina. Before we consign her to the ocean of comforting platitudes that help drown out our grief, I'd like to see her clearly as she wished to be seen. Especially since I didn't really try—not hard, not really—to see her for years.
Success isn't the point. I know I'll fail. But I want, more than anything, to see my sister's version of Lila's self-portrait. If Lila erased herself, leaving only an eye and a Cerullo shoe, what parts of herself did my sister want to leave visible, intact?
So we started going through her house. I went straight to her office and started going through her files. I began photographing her phone records, bank statements, all the mundane, irritating packets of paper that now assumed huge significance. They told a story, albeit in numbers. Nonsense numbers, to be sure, the kind Lila dreamed of becoming, but numbers that, fed into the right computer, might lead back to my sister. Numbers it would be our work to decode. Would I look up every phone call? Would I try to track every purchase? I admit it: I was beginning to droop under the weight of that hopeless math.
And then—you can imagine my feelings—I came across a sheaf of paper hidden under desk. It's full of her writing. Her poetry, her life story, and pages and pages on her fear, above all, of having her privacy compromised, of being hacked.
Did I respect my sister's desire for self-erasure and leave the paper alone?
I did not.
It's emboldening to read about a peculiarly intrusive literary excavation when you're engaged in precisely the same thing. "It wasn't a diary," Lenù writes of Lina's notebooks, "although there were detailed accounts of the events of her life, starting with the end of elementary school." Yes, I nod, this exactly. My sister's writing is on loose-leaf sheets, not notebooks, but the pages are numbered. Those pages tell the story of her life, but the text is aimed at an audience I can't guess at. Whenever I decide it's a diary, for example, she adds in the kinds of helpful expository parentheses no diarist would need: X (my husband), she says. Or Y, my brother.
I've been thinking, in other words, about how and to what extent explanation alienates. Within the affective system Ferrante sketches out in the Neapolitan novels, erasure is an aesthetic as well as an intimate act. Lina is Lila for Lenù—if she ever called her Lina (so she tells us in My Brilliant Friend) the friendship would be over. I'll respect that—and note that Lina's ability to empathetically enter someone, effectively erasing herself, proves (in Lena's mind) both her aesthetic and affective superiority.
To the extent that the Neapolitan series has a crisis, it's that Lenù's exposition violates that intimacy. Lenù's betrayal goes far beyond reading and discarding Lina's notebooks. Her decision to reconstruct her friend, to explain her, to reveal her in public is an act of violence, especially toward someone who fantasizes about disappearing. Ferrante's is a universe of violent remembrance and tender, even intimate erasure.
These principles mix, of course: sometimes explanation IS erasure. As several of you have said so well, one of the more maddening aspects of Lenù's narrative is the compulsion to talk about the brilliance of Lina's writing while withholding the thing itself. Lenù's fulsome praise itself becomes—on this understanding—an exercise in masking. Presenting the judgment without the object obliterates the point of origin: Lila may be Christ, but we are reading the Gospel According to Lenù.
My sister's life looks very different depending on whose gospel you read. Did a man break into her house every day? No, say the police reports, neighbors, her family. Yes, she writes, and fills several pages with his crimes. "He takes all my eyeglasses and bends the frame, and leaves them bent backwards—visually it's supposed to disturb me. The appearance is violent."
I've been thinking about Sarah's really brilliant observation about Ferrante's descriptive restraint—what she calls the paucity of detailed physical description in the novels—and how that both spares us from "poverty porn" and conceptually respects the narrative black hole (Lina's disappearance) from which the novels originate. There's a striking discipline to the lack of visual description. We're taught, I think, to understand that restraint as the writerly difference between Lenù and Lina. Take, as an example, Lenù's account of Lina's notebooks: "The pages were full of descriptions," Lenù says, "the branch of a tree, the ponds, a stone, a leaf with its white veinings, the pots in the kitchen, the various parts of a coffeemaker, the brazier, the coal and bits of coal."
Lina's writing, we're meant to understand, is the opposite of Lenù's: she practices, she's invested in aesthetics, in observation, in accuracy. (Her proficiency at diagramming, at computation, is hinted at here.) Lina is richly descriptive in ways Lenù is not. And yet: which do we experience as more objectively "descriptive"—the character that emerges from a list of their descriptions of various objects, or the detailed description of the objects themselves?
Put to that test, the word "descriptive" dissolves, becomes meaningless. (Which is more descriptive, my sister's list of bank and phone records or her poetry and prose?)
There are echoes here of the childish dialectic Jill points to in her discussion of My Brilliant Friend—where the girls organize themselves into the good one and the bad one, the ugly one and the pretty one. Mother and scholar, rebel and conformist: three novels in, dichotomy has become totally inadequate. The muscularity with which the Neapolitan series successively smashes (or dissolves) the borders that once made Lina and Lenù's complementary self-fashioning possible has a secondary, unexpected effect: it proves our narrator's gift as a writer. "Elena Greco's" (quotes are there for a reason) writerly ability is always—to hear her tell it—in doubt. Unlike Lina's notebooks, however, we experience "Elena"'s directly, and by the third novel, we have no choice but to admire the skill with which she's created and controlled that progression of Lenùccian perspectives without ever abandoning her own point in time. She is always already old. Lila is always already gone. But we experience events through Young Lenù and Middle-Aged Lenù and forget—subjectively, no matter how often we're reminded—that Old "Elena Greco" is taking our eyeglasses and bending the frames until we see through her character's mentality as she did during that particular slice of time. The appearance is violent.
"She had an involved way of talking. She chose emotionally charged words," Lenù says, trying to pin down the narrative habits that distinguish her from her friend:
she described Melina Cappuccio and Giuseppina Peluso as if their bodies had seized hers, imposing on it the same contracted or inflated forms, the same bad feelings. As she spoke, she touched her face, her breast, her stomach, her hips as if they were no longer hers, and showed that she knew everything about those women, down to the tiniest details, in order to prove that no one told me anything but told her everything, or, worse, in order to make me feel that I was wrapped in a fog, unable to see the suffering of the people around me. [bold mine]
The thing is, those interpolations in bold don't quite hold up—either as true readings of Lina's subtextual intentions or, indeed, as instances of the foggy, unempathetic blindness of which Lenù stands (implicitly) accused. If Lina has an "involved" way of talking, Lenù is no less implicated. In this passage dedicated to Lenù's fear that Lina has abilities she doesn't—specifically, the ability to narrate by entering the bad feelings of other bodies—Lenù is writing as if Lina's body had "seized" her own.
Take this passage, in which Lenù is waiting at the university for the editor's son to recognize her and deliver her to wherever she's supposed to be:
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," Lenù says, "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."
The message is clear: Lina's imaginative exercises are serious, whereas Lena's are ways of masking social discomfort (or worse, angling for social status). And yet: the image of a tiny blond girl trying desperately to catch up to an unseen Other while carrying a lock and chain is (for us) deeply meaningful. And yet: a few short pages later, we get this arresting description:
I was struck immediately by a very beautiful girl, with delicate features and long black hair that hung over her shoulders, who was certainly younger than me. I couldn't take my eyes off her. She was standing in the midst of some combative young men, and behind her a dark man about thirty, smoking a cigar, stood glued to her like a bodyguard. What distinguished her in that environment, besides her beauty, was that she was holding in her arms a baby a few months old, she was nursing him and, at the same time, closely following the conflict, and occasionally even shouting something. When the baby, a patch of blue, with his little reddish-colored legs and feet uncovered, detached his mouth from the nipple, she didn't put her breast back in the bra but stayed like that, exposed, her white shirt unbuttoned, her breast swollen, her mouth half open, frowning, until she realized the child was no longer suckling and mechanically tried to reattach him. That girl disturbed me. In the noisy smoke-filled classroom, she was an incongruous icon of maternity. She was younger than me, she had a refined appearance, responsibility for an infant. Yet she seemed determined to reject the persona of the young woman placidly absorbed in caring for her child. She yelled, she gesticulated, she asked to speak, she laughed angrily, she pointed to someone with contempt. And yet the child was part of her, he sought her breast, he lost it. Together they made up a fragile image, at risk, close to breaking, as if it had been painted on glass: the child would fall out of her arms or something would bump his head, an elbow, an uncontrolled movement.
There is no paucity of physical description here. It's a scene as vividly rendered as any I can remember reading.
So, if Lenù's self-assessment isn't just off, but catastrophically wrong, what does it mean for the text as a whole?
"Today, as I'm writing, that goad is even more essential. I wish she were here, that's why I'm writing. I want her to erase, add, collaborate in our story by spilling into it, according to her whim, the things she knows, what she said or thought."
What interests me most about the Neapolitan series, I think, is the fascinating threat that both these women pose to any textual historian. Because the resulting text doesn't consistently conform to either Lina or Lenù's stylistic strategies as they're described. We know that Nino Sarratore has "written" articles they've both "helped" him with. We know that Lina is good at computers. And we know that she's made a very clear promise to Lenù: don't write about me, or else:
"I'll come look in your computer, I'll read your files, I'll erase them," Lina says.
"You think I'm not capable of it?"
"I know you're capable. But I can protect myself."
She laughed in her old mean way. "Not from me."
The Neapolitan series is exactly that provocation to co-authorship: here I am, disobeying you, preying on your worst fears. Come back, punish me. I've been thrumming with sympathy for Lenù as she betrays her friend. My sister's greatest fear was being hacked. Well, here I am, hacking.
IN THIS SERIES: