Looking for a nice beach read? A story about the lives and loves of two best friends, freckled and smartypantsed? Imaginative and precocious? Getting into scrapes?
Getting beaten by their dads, brothers and husbands? Getting raped by their neighbors?
In picturesque postwar Italy?
Nothing like a trilogy about patriarchal brutality and poverty to help a Thinker for Hire unwindulax and enjoy the carcinogenic Denver sunshine.
In earnest. Elena Ferrante’s novels are just what I needed this summer. A beach read for the overhot Rocky Mountains.
Sometimes perhaps this blog seems to be all quotation mark blah blah, patriarchy blah blah blah quotation mark.
It’s true. I dislike the patriarchy. I try to use this blog to deepen Feminist Internet discourse.
And Ferrante’s novels are almost exclusively about the ways women strain against the chains.
These novels—the first two in a trilogy whose final entry will be published, mercifully, next month, about best friends in postwar Naples— are no different. The chains are many and strong. The straining is bloody, desperate and futile.
But in these novels, the objectification, subjugation and commodification of women is so commonplace that it seems like wallpaper.
Hardly worth writing about. But the only thing anyone writes about.
Instead I think of these books as a portrait of two girls trying to breathe in a culture of scarcity so pervasive that even the air barely wants to sustain them.
About the way that girl best friends are Frankenstein fusions of incompatible parts.
The skinny one/curvy one.
The great at school/street smart whip.
The early bloomer/late fall blossom.
By the laws of scarcity, each girl can only be one. You can’t be the pretty one and the likeable best friend with bad skin.
So these parts are electrically fused into the best friend unit. But by the laws of scarcity, (known to most as the laws of patriarchy,) only one half of each fused pair can blink alive at a time.
The game of girlhood is zero sum.
When Lila, a knife blade magicked alive into a girl, succeeds, Elena, the narrator, cannot. And Elena’s later success can only mean Lila’s failure.
The laws of scarcity weigh heavier, work harder on women. Women can get almost nothing on their own. They need a man—and must please his whims—for everything required of selfhood: education, creativity, public life. Food. Shelter.
Elena’s narrative fixates with at times overt homoerotic intensity on Lila. But Lila remains unknowable. At the reader’s first glimpse of her, she has already excised herself from the world. The novels tell Elena’s memory of her. Her guesses about her.
The phantom limbs of an amputated Frankenstein monster.
But the novels render Elena just as unknowable. This narrator of her own life cannot manage to narrate much about her own life.
Elena’s narrative pokes so many holes in itself. She is reliable about everything—the social novel sweep of it all—but herself and her best friend.
In crass terms of literary technique and innovation, I’d stake Ferrante as the re-inventor of unreliable narrative—an unreliability so subtle and beguiling it survives translation into English.
And Lila, the literary creation/best friend/lifelong rival/alter ego of Elena is no more knowable than her creator. Or than their creator Ferrante, famously hidden from public knowledge.
If I didn’t trust Ferrante’s social realism so completely, I’d suspect that the third novel of this trilogy will go all Fight Club on us, or PK Dick, or some other SHE MADE IT ALL UP or SHE’S HER ALTERNATE REALITY or even ELENA GRECO IS LILA CARRACCI IS ELENA FERRANTE sort of thing.
But this is Big Girl Lit. And all that stuff is subtext, embedded in this story of poverty, politics, and patrimony. Of Naples, Italy, and its people.
Of women so deeply beholden to men for their very existence that they may as well not exist at all. Let alone speak.
Are these the fractured selves described by postmodern theory? The fractured selves we’re all constantly, compulsively, continually trying to sew back into linearity?
The way that this narrative is trying so carefully to patch over its own holes, paste new images over the holes ripped away by its subject.
Because in a world so hostile to the basic conditions required for women to become subjects, women have two options: to write their own stories (Elena), or to erase themselves from all stories (Lila).
Lila and Elena are both self-makers and self-unmakers. Both Frankenstein and the monster. Both women and nothingness.
So read their damn books. And enjoy the vibrant bleak of summer in postwar Naples, or wherever you are.