The Story of the Lost Child: Katherine, September 18

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New York, NY 

Dear Friends,

As our hot summer of Ferrante stretches on, inexhaustibly, into fall, I know I'm not the only one still seeing her everywhere, even in places she doesn't really belong.

This one, though, is not a stretch.

Last weekend, for the first time ever, two Italians met in the U.S. Open Final. Flavia Pennetta and Roberta Vinci have been friends since childhood, growing up in neighboring cities in the heel, and later rooming together in Rome. In 1999, they teamed up to win the girls' doubles championship at the French Open. When they faced off as kids, Vinci always won. As adults, Pennetta has the edge. This was undeniably the biggest match of both of their careers.

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Pennetta won, but Vinci hugged her so close and smiled and laughed so hard during the trophy ceremony, that you might've thought their roles were reversed. "You have to know," Pennetta told the crowd, "we know each other since we are really young...We spend so much time together, we can write a book about our life."

Really. She said book.

Another thing about these women: they're adults. At thirty-three, Pennetta is the oldest first-time Major champion in the Open Era, having played her best at the moment when her body should've been breaking down. She announced her retirement immediately following the match.

Back in Ferrante-land, Lenù and Lila are adults, too. They know things of the world. They are known. They both have names that precede them. But with knowledge and name come other losses: innocence, potential, various kinds of mutability and flexibility, and eventually, always, the body itself.

The name. The body. Two of the most formidable tyrants of adulthood. Can we resist them? In a world of greater injustice, should we even try? There are so many questions that play out in the long match of Lenù v. Lila, but I keep coming back to these.

Lenù, the earthy, curvy, lustful one, is also the one who wants to be known. She is desperate for her name to outlast her. Lila, the narrow pragmatist, would rather work surreptitiously, speak obliquely, and then just disappear. Lenù embraces sex and pregnancy and childbirth. She even renews her romance with her mother as she nurses her in her final sickness. Lila has no use for sex, hates pregnancy, and saves her most crippling anxiety for the kinds of violence she can't control. These two are, as sportscasters love to point out, a study in contrasts.

"What to do then?" Lenù asks as she struggles to write a balanced tale, one that honors both of their truths. "Admit yet again that she's right? Accept that to be adult is to disappear, is to learn to hide to the point of vanishing? Admit that, as the years pass, the less I know Lila?" (25)

Pregnant together in 1980, their counterpoints come into sharp reliefsharper still when the historic earthquake strikes that November. Naples has been torn apart and our girls are huddled in Lenù's car, where Lila tells her, for the first time, about her visions of dissolving boundaries:

But, even now as I pondered the wave of Lila's distraught words, I felt that in me fear could not put down roots, and even the lava, the fiery stream of melting matter that I imagined inside the earthly globe, and the fear it provoked in me, settled in my mind in orderly sentences, in harmonious images, became a pavement of black stones like the streets of Naples, a pavement where I was always and no matter what the center. I gave myself weight, in other words, I knew how to do that, whatever happened. Everything that struck memy studies, books, Franco, Pietro, the children, Nino, the earthquakewould pass, and I, whatever I among those I was accumulating, I would remain firm, I was the needle of the compass that stays fixed while the lead traces circles around it. Lila on the other handit seemed clear to me now, and it made me proud, it calmed me, touched mestruggled to feel stable. She couldn't, she didn't believe it. However much she had always dominated all of us and had imposed and was still imposing a way of being, on pain of her resentment and her fury, she perceived herself as a liquid and all her efforts were, in the end, directed only at containing herself. (179)


Lenù, who writesairy callingfeels solid. Even her personal life, even geologic disaster, even the violence of the Years of Lead cannot undo her stability, for she can always marshal it into orderly sentences. She can always put herself at the center. Lila, on the other hand, Lila who dominates, who negotiates, who actsshe is the one who feels liquid.

It's a high point for Lenù, who takes pride in her stability, and in her ability to comfort her ailing friend. Her game, for the moment, seems better. She can survive with this game. She can win.

I can't help invoking the language of tennis because, like tennis players, these two watch each other constantly. They battle, but from a distance, as though life has erected a net between them that they are rule-bound not to cross. Lenù takes the earthquake match, but the rivalry endures. Soon Lila is back to dominating, and to exposing the weaknesses in Lenù's game:

Eh, she said once, what a fuss for a name: famous or not, it's only a ribbon tied around a sack randomly filled with blood, flesh, words, shit, and petty thoughts. She mocked me at length on that point: I untie the ribbonElena Grecoand the sack stays there, it functions just the same, haphazardly, of course, without virtues or vices, until it breaks. On her darkest days she said with a bitter laugh: I want to untie my name, slip it off me, throw it away, forget it. (455)

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Suddenly, Lenù's solidity seems not so solid after all. How can Elena Greco be the fixed needle of the compass when she's only a bodya sausage, really!that will inevitably be consumed? By this point in the story, Lila has been wholly battered by life: Tina gone, Rino and countless others dead. Yet her nihilism preexists personal tragedy. It feels truer than Lenù's comparatively blessed life, truer even than Lenù's art.

All along, Lenù has feared that Lila is the "real" writer, the one secretly excelling at the thing by which Lenù has made her name. In middle age Lila spends an enormous amount of time in the library, researching Neapolitan history, an activity Lenù can only imagine as a prelude to a book, a work of genuine, mature genius. And what if that were true?

In that case her book would becomeeven only for methe proof of my failure, and reading it I would understand how I should have written but had been unable to...My image as a writer who had emerged from a blighted place and gained success, esteem, would reveal its insubstantiality...My entire life would be reduced merely to a petty battle to change my social class. (459)

Here's another tennis truism: Lila is in her head. While I think we mostly have to understand this as a manifestation of Lenù's self-doubt, it also highlights the inescapable selfishness in the quest to make one's name.

For her part, Lila denies writing anything at all: "To carry out any project to which you attach your own name you have to love yourself, and she had told me, she didn't love herself, she loved nothing about herself" (462). This, too, is probably too strong, but it's a sentiment that generates tingles in this lengthy pseudonymous work.

In the end, Lenù endures, in name and body both. Lila's name endures only to the extent that Lenù betrays her. She has written about her, first in A Friendship and now again in the books we are reading, something she promised her she would never do.

But can we really be upset about that betrayal? Without it, we'd have no Neapolitan cycle! Everybody wants to be Lila: the genius, the resistor, the living principle. But here at The Slow Burn, let's admit again that we are not. We are the self-loathing Lenùs, and so is everyone who writes about Ferrante and attaches her name to the work.

So what, then, about Lila's body, which endures so much abuse over the course of the Neapolitan novelsas indeed all bodies do, if they live long enough? Like Tina, she might be anywhere. But unlike Tina, we sense that she must be alive, that she has merely taken off her ribbon and taken her exit, after so much grueling, thankless work.

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Perhaps it is a stretch to see Ferrante in the all-Italia U.S. Open. After all, Pennetta's retirement was taken in victory, with her old friend cheering her on. Lila's is the opposite: the game over, the friendship too. Lenù is the one left with the trophies, and what hard-earned trophies they are: the successful novel, the cheap and ugly dolls.

– Katherine

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: 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: Jill, September 21

The Story of the Lost Child: Sarah, September 25