Thus she returned to the theme of "before," but in a different way than she had at first. She said that we didn't know anything, either as children or now, that we were therefore not in a position to understand anything, that everything in the neighborhood, every stone or piece of wood, everything, anything you could name, was already there before us, but we had grown up without realizing it, without ever thinking about it. Not just us. Her father pretended that there had been nothing before. Her mother did the same, my mother, my father, even Rino. And yet Stefano's grocery store before had been the carpenter shop of Alfredo Peluso, Pasquale's father. And yet Don Achille's money had been made before. And the Solaras' money as well. She had tested this out on her father and mother. They didn't know anything, they wouldn't talk about anything. Not Fascism, not the king. No injustice, no oppression, no exploitation. They hated Don Achille and were afraid of the Solaras. But they overlooked it and went to spend their money both at Don Achille's son's and at the Solaras', and sent us, too. And they voted for the Fascists, for the monarchists, as the Solaras wanted them to. And they thought that what had happened before was past and, in order to live quietly, they placed a stone on top of it, and so, without knowing it, they continued it, they were immersed in the things of before, and we kept them inside us, too.— from My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante.
I was slow to warm to this novel, to find its rhythm, it didn't have the urgency and desperation of The Days of Abandonment, or the abandon of The Lost Daughter, and I wasn't sure I was in the right state of mind, but then I had a brilliant porchetta and provolone panini, and I washed it down with a pinot grigio, and thought how funny it was to look back on childhood, cuz the only way to do it is through a veil of age. We're not good at knowing the before, except maybe while we're in it, and even then we either fail to recognize it or quickly forget. So I'm reading about a teenage girl and watching my daughter be a teenage girl, albeit nearly 60 years later than the novel takes place, and everything just clicks while I'm watching Helena's now, and recalling my own before, and reading Ferrante's before, Latin lessons and the other demands of school, declarations of love, friendship struggles and parent struggles, it's all very complicated.
School's out now, but last week during exams, one of the boys in Helena' class essentially followed her home. Two days in a row. And he told her he liked her. She was mortified. But when she was telling me, she was smiling at the fact that he told her to her face, not by text. All our befores are the same, but different.
I know Ferrante's point in the excerpt above is much bigger, I mean, we're not talking about a teenager's feelings, this is Fascism, Ferrante is saying something on the scale of Santayana, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Yet, we are talking about our neighbours and our day to day, how one of them wrote poetry, how one of them killed another man.
In typical fashion, Ferrante weaves something that feels dangerous — something familiar and slightly uncomfortable. I'm barely halfway through this first book of the Neapolitan quartet. Summer has just begun.