Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Sarah, September 1

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NJ Transit, the quiet car ("Speak Softly!"), circa Secaucus.

Fellow readers, burning bright:

A long time ago, Merve asked us all a very scary question:

"Have you ever tried to erase yourself?"

That question has stalked me ever since, but I've been too afraid to answer it in writing. In the intervening weeks, I've talked around it in person to some of you, often shyly framed by discussion of Ferrante. I thought it was a question only to be answered in this closed manner: a personal non-reading unimportant in the scope of this ongoing literary discussion.

But last week, when Lili told us about her sister's self-erasure, her writing and unwriting, her letter demolished some final retaining wall I'd been maintaining between critical reading and personal feeling. Perhaps we cannot help but ask intimate questions and tell intimate stories in these public/private letters because they speak to the void at the heart of Ferrante's whole saga: as Jill just reminded us, Lila is always already gone. Her loss is what shapes this world and powerfully shapes our reading of it, such that it can so easily reach out into our own lives.

 malevitch

Kazimir Malevitch, Black Square, 1913

i.

I cannot remember a time when I didn't think about disappearing. I don't think it matters so much here to say why, or how, et cetera. Suffice to say, the desire for self-obliteration is one I know well. Pardon the coyness and cliché, but this is writing that hurts. But Ferrante, for me, was reading that hurt; she has driven me to this point.

I see now that this is why these books have spoken to me in simultaneously captivating and terrifying tones all summer, for I recognize in myself Lila's formative fantasy of total disappearance. The reason I have felt Lila all along, the reason I want to be allowed to identify with her, is that she accomplishes what I spent many years trying to figure out: she unselves herself. Recall the title of the first section of the first book: "Eliminating All the Traces." The magic trick here is not the simple dream of no-longer-being, but rather, the genuine fascination of never-having-been:

It's been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace, and I'm the only one who knows what she means. She never had in mind any sort of flight, a change of identity, the dream of making a new life somewhere else. And she never thought of suicide, repulsed by the idea that Rino would have anything to do with her body, and would be forced to attend to the details. She meant something different: she wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found. (MBF 20)

Never before had I read so clear an articulation of this strange and singular desire. I feel possessively that, more than Lenù herself, "I'm the only one who knows what she means."

Yet, despite the fact I long for Lila-ness, and am chock-full of judgment (of the political, authorial, and petty personal varieties) for Lenù, there is something that always keeps this impulse towards disappearance in check. Framed by the Neapolitans, we might call it a certain Lenùccian ego; call it a desire for recognition that counters at every step the slip into oblivion. For I, like Lenù, also fear a certain flip side to disappearance: the fear of being rendered obsolescent, unwillingly and shoddily obscured by the passage of time.

This isn’t meant to be a soul-searching, final revelation about myself as a person or a reader or a site of female erasure, or, you know, whatever. All of this is still about Ferrante; these feelings well up from the cuts her books have made. These are the things I return to, again and again, as we near the end of these novels, of this project, of Lenù and Lila's lives. The question that lingers is still the same, though stated in more definite terms. Not "will we," or "might we," or "are we afraid that we'll," but rather:

How will we disappear?

ii.

Let me start over again with our magic words, our fetishes, our oft-repeated incantations. The words we've puzzled over these last several weeks, that we cannot define, that we cannot relinquish:

Solidarity

Dissolving Margins

Erasure

From the beginning, we have invoked these terms in different ways, without pinning them down. They are the states of body and mind and body politic that we have talked around all summer as we've traced the delicate webs of feeling that Lenù and Lila weave. These abstractions are the connective filaments of their shared and separate lives. Those webs, like the ones Jill describes of spoken and unspoken things telegraphed between our readings, are what we call "friendship." They are also sometimes indecipherable from what we might call animosity, or jealousy, or even flat-out hatred. These words all have different valences, yet they vibrate together in some weird frequency, which is perhaps what gives these novels, or in Katherine's reading, this one long novel, their disturbing, thrumming energy.

Looking back, I wonder if the central puzzle is the term that seems the least mysterious in theory, but can be the most mysterious, dreamt-of, and longed for in practice: "Solidarity."

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 and hour passed, and no one arrived. Then I examined the placards and posters more carefully, hoping to find my name, or the title of the book. (68; bold is mine)

I return to a passage that both Lili and Jill have read and marked, in order to read and mark it somewhat differently. The "I," of course, is Lenù, reluctantly but irresistibly sucked into a demonstration in Milan. Lili asked us to consider Lenù's questionable motivations for writing. Jill highlighted the "I" clauses: I found, I wandered, I recall.

I, in turn, ask you to consider the desire for clear (read: selfish, self-asserting) singularity that renders this scene of collaborative political action so unsettling to Lenù. The rich density of the background overwhelms her; the signs don't speak to her particular Lenitude; she seems to envy the purity of the single trumpet among the "suffocation" of the madding crowd. As always, she wants others to recognize her by name, as the famous author Elena Greco. Lenù is inexorably drawn to the idea of the demonstration, the idea of dwelling in this moment in solidarity with others, but at every turn it repulses her.

Solidarity to Lenù is both a dream and a nightmare; she wants to join in, but is too afraid to relinquish her unique self to give in to the triumphal we that Jill highlighted in Balestrini. To her, that "we" is irreconcilable with the singularity of independent being, or more specifically, the desired singularity of the autonomous female being. For increasingly, as she walks through the mass of protesters, looking for a familiar face or name (her own), Lenù finds it particularly hard to articulate the women from the mass, or from each other. She sees men in passing, and notes them variously as "handsome, ugly, well-dressed, scruffy, violent, frightened, amused," yet the women she sees "stayed close together... they shouted together, laughed together, and if they were separated by even a few meters they kept an eye on each other so as not to get lost" (69). It is 1968 and while Lenù struggles to absorb "the lesson from France," she is deeply terrified by the idea of losing the individual female self she has worked so hard (albeit confusedly) to keep cleanly defined and bounded, in order to join the massed bodies of implicitly male solidarity:

 lepouvoir

Atelier Populaire poster, 1968

So surely it's not too much of a stretch to say that "solidarity" slides in the mouth, on the page, into two other troubled terms for Lenù and Lila: solitude, solidity.

Solitude, in Ferrante's world, is another fervently desired but unattainable thing. The neighborhood, we have seen, is everywhere, is everyone. And more broadly, you are not alone while you are connected to anyone, while you come from anyone, while you remember anyone, while you love anyonein short, while you are human. Ferrante's psychological genius unfolds in the very paradox of this idea: "No one is alone" is a comforting platitude, but it is also, if you think about it, really a horrifying revelation. Lenù herself is increasingly full of emotional squatters (a word she uses for the imagined figure of Lila, always occupying some hidden control center of her mind) - not only her mother and Lila, but Gigliola, Pasquale, Enzo, others. For the first time, we see her slide seamlessly and dizzyingly into the first person when narrating the experience of others. As Amy noted, in this book, Elena the narrator is never alone.

We are never alone: those we come from, those we love and hate and fear dwell always inside us. Yet - and here again is the paradox - these are the very people who make us our unique and singular selves. We cannot be properly our own selves without them, yet that is perhaps all we want. Solitude, then, seems like an impossible dream in Ferranteland - but only if you need to retain a conventional sense of self. Thus, Lila's particular desire for erasure starts to make a strange and elegant theoretical sense: the only way to be both in solidarity (to be everywhere, to be everyone) and to achieve perfect solitude (to be alone, to be without one's constant inhabitation by ghosts) is perhaps to dissolve the self completely.

This is where the second slippery term springs to mind: solidity. Lila is the most clearly defined character at various points, yet she is also the most willing to withstand phase changes and transformations, simultaneously the most and least solid of forms. Thus, both her changeling nature and her lifelong nightmare of slowly dissolving margins - perhaps migraine, perhaps something more mystical - might both be incomplete, primitive stages on the way to her ultimate desire and destiny, the total "elimination without a trace." Maybe her willful proximity to the void is what makes Lila at once the most empathetic character (who feels other minds; around whom others dissolve) and the most remote one, that distant figure nobody can comprehend or touch, she who refuses to leave traces for anyone to hold onto ("I'll come look in your computer, I'll read your files, I'll erase them," 29).

Lenù, on the other hand, fears a lack of solidity beyond anything else. Hence, on one hand, her innate conservatism but also, in wilder terms, her phantasmagoric anxiety about physical expansion; remember the "expanding pizza dough" of her adolescent body. She's always anxious about lack of definition, and resists melding with others at every turn, for fear that any incursion might be a blurring of the self. And even when she recounts others' stories, she is an antiempath. The one time she really feels someone else (while stoned), she actually passes out:

[Mariarosa] became furious, then stopped talking and burst into tears. I couldn't find a single word of comfort. I felt her tears, it seemed to me that they made a sound sliding from her eyes down her cheeks. Suddenly I couldn't see her, I couldn't even see the room, everything turned black. I fainted. (289)

To maintain her singularity, Lenù seeks individual form through her books ("the effort of finding a form had absorbed me. And the absorption had become that book, an object that contained me," 53), through the repetitive articulation of set phrases and beliefs, through the definition of her relationships. All of these attempts at definition, of herself and of others, speak back to her own terror at the idea of spreading and becoming indistinguishable from the external world, whether the "we" of the demonstration, or the nightmarishly malleable surfaces she hallucinated about in My Brilliant Friend. I wonder if this resistance to uncontrolled expansion and the loss of self explains, in part, why she persistently and violently overwrites Lila: she must contain Lila and Lila's story neatly within her own in order to contain herself.

Both of these anxieties - the fear of others spreading into you, or you spreading into others - are edged with a kind of pleasure, though, a dangerous seduction. Perhaps the real, terrifying magic spell of these novels is the uncertainty about whether we are going to expand into everything or dissolve into everyone/no one, for one of these ends seems inevitable for us all; perhaps our various identifications with Lenù or Lila have to do with which of these ends we fear - or desire - most.

iii.

When the four of us original Burners began this whole enterprise, we met in person to talk about our projections and anxieties about writing together. Over beautiful food and many cocktails (ah, pre-baby times!), we worried about the idea of reading books together, long-term: what if we all came up with the same ideas? How would we distinguish our voices as writers? What if we weren't original enough? It turned out that none of these concerns came to anything, though of course we all fell into certain patterns of reading, and even raised the same questions or terms or ideas. We never thought the same things, or repeated each other. It seems so obvious now: of course we wouldn't, we are different people. And yet, that anxiety was so strongly felt. Why?

These are, of course, the very same fears that Lila and Lenù express in their different ways - the fears of pollution and codependence that inevitably accompany intimacy of any kind. Considering Lila and Lenù, considering us, considering this venture and the novels it springs from, I wonder if there is a way to be confident in solidarity in a personal way (and in a political one too, I think) but not subsume each other; to experience an intellectual and emotional togetherness that feels the giddiness of being overwhelmed with feeling, but does not itself overwhelm. If there is a way to truly be with one another, and infiltrate one another, and communicate deeply, but not get lost in other minds. If there is a way to both be your friend and be yourself, and not betray either. If there is a way to dissolve margins, but not give in to the seductions of madness or self-obliteration. Perhaps that is the most defiant challenge of these novels to their characters, and to their readers.

Today is the first day of September, a day overburdened with significance this year. It is, as any student knows, always a symbolic end of freedom (it's my actual first day on campus) but, most importantly, this September first is the release of the fourth Neapolitan Novel, The Story of the Lost Child. The heat is breaking, the spell Jill wrote of is almost over. I started composing this letter in a late August late afternoon, on that aching cusp between writing time and teaching time that reminds us of what we lose and what we gain with the structured arc of fall semester. The summer and the Slow Burn are both cooling. But, my brilliant friends, I hope that even after Ferrante, we can continue in some small way to live in each other harmoniously, to treasure the traces we've left in each other, to keep each other from disappearing.

Yours,

Sarah

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

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