Thursday, July 28, 2016

Dissolving margins

On December 31st of 1958 Lila had her first episode of dissolving margins. The term isn't mine, she always used it. She said that on those occasions the outlines of people and things suddenly dissolved, disappeared. That night, on the terrace where we were celebrating the arrival of 1959, when she was abruptly struck by that sensation, she was frightened and kept it to herself, unable to name it. [...] now she felt content, watching the streaks of fire in the sky. But suddenly — she told me — in spite of the cold she had begun to sweat. It seemed to her everyone was shouting too loudly and moving too quickly. This sensation was accompanied by nausea, and she had had the impression that something absolutely material, which had been present around her and around everyone and everything forever, but imperceptible, was breaking down the outlines of persons and things and revealing itself.
[...] How poorly made we are, she had thought, how insufficient.
[...]But that New Year's Eve she had perceived for the first time unknown entities that broke down the outline of the world and demonstrated its terrifying nature.
My Brilliant Friend,by Elena Ferrante, is, I believe, everything it's cracked up to be and quite possibly more.

The dissolving margins at first are like a migraine, but then grow out of control, even into mental illness. It is a fractured view of the world, filtered through the clarity of pain. How will Lila turn out? Will she be broken? Or will she transcend the material world, become one with its terrifying nature?

My Brilliant Friend is the story of two friends, documented from the time of their childhood in 1950s Naples, both of them brilliant in their own way. They are competitive with each other, particularly in terms of academics, but this spills over into what they wear, who they associate with, and boys. They admire and inspire each other, but they are still adolescent girls with confused motivations. Since it's written from a first-person perspective, I assumed the title was Lena refering to Lila. But it's late in this book that Lila calls Lena her brilliant friend. So is Lena writing Lila's story? Or is she really more interested in putting her own story forth?
But I did it without conviction: I did many things in my life without conviction; I always felt slightly detached from my own actions. Lila, on the other hand, had, from a young age — I can't say now precisely if it was so at six or seven, or when we went together up the stairs that led to Don Achille's and were eight, almost nine — the characteristic of absolute determination.
They have different temperaments, but they grow up in the same neighbourhood, in similar circumstances. However, their paths diverge when Lila is denied the opportunity to go to high school.
She also asked me about the Aeneid, she was crazy about it. She had read it all in a few days, while I, in school, was in the middle of the second book. She talked in great detail about Dido, a figure I knew nothing about, I heard that name for the first time not at school but from her. And one afternoon she made an observation that impressed me deeply. She said, "When there is no love, not only the life of the people becomes sterile but the life of cities." I don't remember exactly how she expressed it, but that was the idea and I associated it with our dirty streets, the dusty gardens, the countryside disfigured by new buildings, the violence in every house, every family. I was afraid that she would start talking about Fascism, Nazism, Communism.
Depite claiming to lack conviciton, Lena is hard-working and ambitious. Lila's "determination," on the other hand, stems from confidence (is it feigned?) and certainty — her life is not easy, but everything seems to come naturally to her. Lena's brilliance is studied; Lila's brilliance is free-spirited and creative.
She said, in dialect, "You still waste time with those things, Lenu? We are flying over a ball of fire. The part that has cooled floats on the lava. On that part we construct the buildings, the bridges, and the streets, and every so often the lava comes out of Vesuvius or causes an earthquake that destroys everything. There are microbes everywhere that make us sick and die. There are wars. There is a poverty that makes us all cruel. Every second something might happen that will cause you such suffering that you'll never have enough tears. And what are you doing? A theology course in which you struggle to understand what the Holy Spirit is? Forget it, it was the Devil who invented the world, not the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Do you want to see the string of pearls that Stefan gave me?" That was how she talked, more or less, confusing me.
This first book of the quartet ends with Lila's wedding. She's barely 16.
But it wasn't the ordinary conflict between mother-in-law, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law. I had the impression, from the way she used me, from the way she handled Stefano, that she was struggling to find, from inside the cage in which she was enclosed, a way of being, all her own, that was still obscure to her.
Struggling to find a way of being.

1 comment:

Stefanie said...

I too thought it was interesting the reference to my brilliant friend was Lila to Lena. Such a good story, so rich. Lena believes everything Lila does is so easy, her grace and beauty and intelligence, but I wonder just how easy it is? She might possibly work really hard to make it all look so easy, and she probably does and Lena is fooled by it all just like everyone else. I am very much looking forward to the next book!