Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The ugliness of banality

The time of my adolescence is slow, made up of large gray blocks and sudden humps of color, green or red or purple. The blocks don't have hours, days, months, years, and the seasons are indefinite, it's hot or cold, rainy or sunny. Even the bulges don't have a definite time, the color counts more than any date. The hue itself, moreover, that certain emotions take on is of unimportant duration, the one who is writing knows. As soon as you look for words, the slowness becomes a whirlwind and the colors get mixed together like the colors of different fruits in a blender. Not only does "time passed" become an empty formula but also "one afternoon," "one morning," "one evening" become merely markers of convenience. 

I've spent a good deal of time lately recollecting my teenage years in recent months. For days I sorted through the memorabilia of my adolescence — newspaper clippings and letters and yearbooks. I was dissatisfied, ambitious in an unfocused generic way, and convinced I knew better than anyone who had ever been an adolescent.

My daughter has just turned 18, and inevitably I compare our lives, the circumstances in which we were brought up, the factors forming the kind of people we're turning out to be. (I wonder what she would make of this book.)

I very often feel like a 12-year-old girl still, especially when it comes to love.

Love — she said, in an inspired tone and using a formula that didn't belong to her, that in fact baffled and irritated me — is a ray of sun that warms the soul. I was disappointed. Maybe I should have observed my aunt with the same attention with which she had urged me to spy on my parents. Maybe I would have discovered that behind the harshness that had charmed me there was a soft, foolish little woman, rough on the surface, tender underneath. If Vittoria really is that, I thought, discouraged, then she is ugly, she has the ugliness of banality.

The Lying Life of Adults, by Elena Ferrante, vividly recalls the anxiety, aspirations and confusion of that stage of life. 

I discovered I had a space inside me that could swallow up every feeling in a very short time. [...] The bond with known spaces, with secure affections, yielded to curiosity about what might happen.

That space. I know that space.

"Enzo and I did that thing eleven times altogether. Then he went back to his wife and I never did it again with anyone. Enzo kissed me and touched me and licked me all over, and I touched him and kissed him all the way to his toes and caressed him and licked and sucked. Then he put his dick inside me and held my ass with both hands, one here and one there, and he thrust it into me with such force that it made me cry out. If you, in all your life, don't do this thing as I did it, with the passion I did it with, the love I did it with, and I don't mean eleven times but at least once, it's pointless to live. Tell your father: Vittoria said that if I don't fuck the way she fucked with Enzo, it's pointless for me to live. You have to say it just like that. He thinks he deprived me of something, with what he did to me. But he didn't deprive me anything, I've had everything, I have everything. It's your father who has nothing."

If you want to know what this novel really has to say, please read these two brilliant reviews, on ugliness and lying. 

This is a beautiful novel that I gave myself over to wholly. It's as colourful and engrossing as the Neapolitan quartet, but more focused on the intimate reality and realizations of one girl at a particular age. I think it is also more timeless — feminism and labour movements are not issues that need resolving, this book is not a statement about postwar Italy. The social mores of this community may not be quite as relaxed as those evident in twenty-first-century North America, but they still find purchase, even if they are upheld by hypocrites. 

When I was a teenager, I was booksmart. I may have been wise about the world, but I was naïve about people. Giovanna catches on a lot faster than I ever did.

At my age, I am still formulating  my relationship to ugliness and to lying. While I may gravitate toward them, I like to think I value beauty and truth. But really they are the same thing.

And then there's compunction. It's the favourite subject of Giannì's main crush. To prick the conscience to keep it from going to sleep. A needle pulling the thread through the scattered fragments of our existence. The necessity of guilt, which no character in this novel seems to have. (Take mine.) Giannì admires the idea of it but never embodies it. She's as adult as the rest of them.

As I dried my hair in front of the mirror, I felt like laughing. I had been deceived in everything, not even my hair was beautiful, it was pasted to my skull and I couldn't give it volume and splendor. As for my face, it had no harmony, just like Vittoria's. But the mistake had been to make it a tragedy. If you looked even just for a moment at those who had the privilege of a beautiful, refined face, you discovered that it hid infernos no different from those expressed by coarse, ugly faces. The splendor of a face, enhanced even by kindness, harbored and promised suffering still more than a dull face.


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