Ferrante’s Neopolitan Quartet: female=crazy? #1

Earlier in December, I had an episode lasting 36 hours, the name of which I have just learned: marginature. I found it near the end of Frantumaglia, Elena Ferrante’s collection of letters and interviews. Or as Lila in My Brilliant Friend explains it – dissolving boundaries. I would not have described it her way. Nicola Lagioia uses marginature in one of her emailed interview questions to Ferrante.

Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym, which the Italian woman, who chose it, uses to separate herself from her books. Only her family and her publishers know her to be the author. Thus all interviews are by email. https://115journals.com/2020/12/15/elena-ferrantes-neopolitan-quartet-a-personal,
https://115journals.com/2020/12/18/elena-ferrantes-neopolitan-quartet-a-personal-reflection-2/

To quote Lagioia, At ‘crucial moments…the world comes unglued before Lila’s eyes, ..goes off its axis, appearing in its unbearable nakedness, a chaotic, shapeless mass …without meaning’.

In my own case, I was suddenly struck by the idea that the universe was without meaning and whatever had brought it into being had done so without purpose. Indeed, was very likely sadistic. Not such a surprising conclusion on a short, dark day in the midst of an 8-week Covid lock-down as the leader of the free world tried to destroy democracy. I had suffered depression before and took medication to prevent it, but this was of another order altogether. It was way past suicidality.

Lila first reports that condition to Elenu, the narrator of My Brilliant Friend, on New Year’s Eve in Naples just as rival fireworks begin to break into gunfire.

Frantumaglia, the name of Ferrante’s book of letters, etc., is not an Italian word. It is a dialect word meaning a jumble of fragments. Ferrante’s mother used the word to describe emotional and mental suffering that had no obvious cause, a debris field of muddy filth, a ‘sense of loss’ as everything that seemed stable and anchoring slips into the debris. This feeling led Ferrante’s mother to leave the pot on the fire and wander out of the house, to sing tunelessly, to weep, to talk to herself. And it is just such frantumaglia out of which Ferrante draws her best writing, her most authentic narratives.

Readers of A Troubling Love and Days of Abandonment, two novels that preceded the Quartet, will see that Delia and Olga also suffer from this state of mind, a kind dissociation or a fugue state brought on in both cases by shock. I believe the same is true of The Lost Daughter, which has been loaded onto my iPad, but which I have yet to read. These titles, in fact, seem to be recurring themes in Ferrante’s work. The central story is of female friendship and the struggle to achieve that between mother and daughter.

I remember that I talked to my sister -on the phone – see Covid lock-down- first about my marginature, aka my depression deeper than death. It horrified her. She wouldn’t allow herself to go there and she didn’t want me to either. “I was always luckier than you,” she said, “I believed what Aunt Mae taught us.” Aunt Mae, who ‘saw’ the atomic bomb before August 1945′ taught that whatever happened was for the best. Death, even of large numbers, was no big deal. That line of reasoning was a bridge too far for me in that muddle. So I consulted my daughter on the other side of the continent. She knew depression better than most.

I had stopped keeping a journal by then, so I have no record of what we talked about, although I do know that she- Julia – told me that my 92-year-old friend, Clara, her mother-in-law was declining rapidly. I had modeled one of the characters in my book Hour of the Hawk on her. I loved Clara. Perhaps, having a concrete grief focused my mind. Julia, although she was my daughter, like the teenagers who were my students, had taught me to clarify my thinking. Over more than 30 years, we had worked on our relationship deliberately until we had forgiven each other.

In the first post I wrote about the Neopolitan Quartet, I speculated that Ferrante had children. Frantumaglia affirms that idea; she has daughters. Although she doesn’t say so, she has been divorced. One of her central issues is abandonment and she shows a keen understanding of a man who, out of the blue, betrays a woman by the revelation of a secret other life. She returned to Italy from years of living in Greece and says she no longer had responsibilities there. She has always taught and refers to teaching as her real job. I speculated in that first post that she had not been psychotic, but frantumaglia sounds as good as. She says it wipes out linear time, leading women into a vortex of dizzy suffering. Delia and Olga tell their stories in the midst of that whirling.

Why do women whirl?

My whirling in December 2020 doesn’t seem as if it was particularly female in its origin. From what I read on Twitter men have been whirling too. George Conway, for example. But I am familiar with that other kind. My attempt to be a housewife and mother of toddlers didn’t go well. It was the early 60s. I had got an education and spent 2-years in a career. The mythology of the time suggested forcefully that I should let hubby earn the dough and enjoy Mom and Tot classes, learn bridge and nurture babies. Hubby worked 3 jobs and we barely made ends meet. When we finally sat down to try to pull my fragments together, Hubby asked what would you do now if you could do anything.” “Put on my blue suit,” I said. “Where would you go?” he asked. I named the nearest high school. By bedtime, we had a plan, 1 job each and a carefully chosen nanny. My mother-in-law had always worked, so my husband thought it was the natural order of things. Unfortunately, it turned out that he also thought a job would cool down my craziness.

Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Quartet: a personal reflection #2

See also: https://115journals.com/2020/12/15/elena-ferrantes-neopolitan-quartet-a-personal-reflection-1/

Elena Ferrante didn’t write the Neopolitan Quartet. We don’t actually know who did. It is the subject of great speculation. One super sleuth, Claudio Gatti in 2016 followed the money and h concluded she is actually Anita Raja, a translator of German novels and until her retirement, head of a library. Her husband is a novelist, and according to Gatti could not afford the real estate they own. Like many of Ferrante’s readers, I am on her side. I know who she is in her heart and soul. I don’t need a name and picture or speculation that her husband actually does the writing.

The writer who calls herself Elena Ferrante believes that, having written a book, she has done her part. She doesn’t have to follow it out into the world and sell it. A good book will sell itself. She does depict Elenu Greco the narrator of the series going on book tours to whip up interest and using what reputation she can gain to establish herself in the literary world. Ferrante prefers like Lila Cerulli to stay hidden.

Ferrante begins the cycle when Elenu and Lila are in their sixties, which she calls ‘old’. Rino, LIla’s forty-year-old, ne’er-do-well son phones Elenu to tell her that Lila has vanished. Two weeks ago. Well, he thought she was just walking around Naples as she often did. Even at night? Well, yes. Elenu knows that Lila’s fondest wish throughout the ups and downs, whether poor or rich, Lila has always wanted to erase herself, to vanish without a trace. Eventually, Elenu gets Rino to look in Lila’s closet and dresser and desk to see what she has taken. Everything. Every last possession. Elenu advises Rino to pull himself together and look after himself. Then she sets out to write this four volume history of Lila’s life, which necessarily includes Elenu’s own.

In her earlier two books A Troubling Love and Days of Abandonment, she spoke of the old as young people often do, with scant respect and a reluctant growing understanding that they are actually just people. It is her more grownup self writing the Quartet.

In the game of Find the Lady, people assert that surely Ferrante has been married, had children, been divorced, lived in Naples, etc. because she writes about this things with insight. To that I could add she has also had psychotic episodes, which helped her write her earlier book Days of Abandonment, in which the deserted wife has unwittingly locked herself in her apartment with a dying dog and a very sick child. Some of that wavering of the edges of reality shows up as Delia in A Troubling Love tries to understand why her mother drowned. And Lila in My Brilliant Friend experiences times when reality loses its edges and she begins to lose herself.

I don’t necessarily believe she has been psychotic. Observing that condition is good enough. Having observed it, I could write about it. I certainly think that one way or another she has experienced abandonment.

Remember in my first reflection on the Neopolitan Quartet, the little family in the red Fiat that roamed around Europe for weeks. Four summers later, I found myself alone in the house under the hill, dipping frogs out of the pool filter basket. After all, my husband preferred a younger, blonder companion. It was a hide-the-knives situation. The teenagers transferred to an alternative school, dropped out and went to live with arty friends, worked in donut shops and back stage or enrolled in art school. I lost my mind, as well as a lot of weight, dyed my hair auburn and went on teaching next door to the cad who had left me. Tell me about abandonment.

I do grant children to Ferrante and abandonment.

As far as I’m concerned, she got me through November and early December in a Covid red zone. Whatever she wants in return! I will not try to hunt her down. Even if I could. I’m 84. She’s younger. I think. I think so because I already had children when oral contraceptives became available in the early 60’s. Elenu’s decision to use them at the beginning of her marriage strikes me as realistic and true for the writer. I would say Ferrante is a decade younger than I am. I say that not to track her down but as a way to understand her era.

So the main theme of the book is the friendship of these two women -Lila and Elenu, which starts in early childhood and ends with a wordless final act.

Who was the brilliant one, who was the leader, who moulded whom?

Initially, Elenu competed with Lila in elementary school. Not that she wanted to beat her scholastically or even tie. She was content to come #2. That was all she could aspire to. Then LIia’s shoemaker father took her out of school at the end of grade 5. Both girls had the same teacher, but despite Lila’s brilliance – she even wrote a story called The Blue Fairy, which later informed and inspired Elenu’s first novel – the teacher ignored her and campaigned instead for Elenu to go to middle school, even providing her text books. Eventually with such help, Elenu went to high school and then to university. As we saw in my previous response, Lila was able to tutor Elenu in Latin just by borrowing her text book briefly.

Lila masters shoemaker skills and designs a unique pair that play more than a symbolic role, pivoting the plot at a crucial moment. At 16, Lila is engaged to a wealthy shopkeeper and becomes the beautiful, well-dressed envy of the neighborhood. All the young men are in love with her.

Elenu, at university in Pisa, continues on her ambitious path to get out of Naples, attaching herself to an academic family, as well as to social activists, one of whom teaches her to dress stylishly and takes her to Paris.

Lila is the first to have a child – Rino, who calls Elenu years later to say Lila is missing. Pregnant Lila has a very hard time sharing her body with this alien creature. In her Lila way, she immediately sets out to improve her new baby’s intelligence by inventing games to play with him. At this point, she has no need to work. Elenu’s first baby arrives far too early in her marriage for her liking. Pregnancy for her is no big deal but her daughter is a ‘difficult’ infant. She can’t latch on and she’s either hungry or colicky.

The best thing about my first pregnancy was that I was teaching next door to a girl’s rest room. The not best thing was that I was nauseated the entire time. Then my daughter proved to have the same problem as Elenu’s Dede, but less obliging grandmothers. Just before my mother died, she asked me if I remembered she had spent 5 weeks with me and the baby. I agreed and thanked her. In reality, she had spent 5 days and had to rush home to take delivery of a new freezer.

Because my family moved so much, I was never able to have such a long term friendship. When I started at McMaster University, I shared a single dorm room with a room-mate. My upper bunk was so high that I had to climb a five-step ladder and over a sturdy railing. There was so little space, we had to take turns getting dressed. We were totally unalike. She quit after first year. She had succeeded in getting her MRS. She was engaged to the head boy who graduated that year. I had a boyfriend from high school, the Italian-looking chap, but both of us were there to get degrees and escape our own poverty. The room-mate had nothing to teach me.

In the unbelievably bleak common room of West Wallingford – alias an old military barrack -I met a totally different sort of girl. It was only later I realized she had actually dropped down from 1968 into 1955. She was an orphan, the ward of her uncle, a Baptist minister as her father had been. We were there at a Baptist university and we had to study all about Paul and his letters: It is better to marry than to burn. My new friend Felicity preferred to burn, preferably with a good brandy. I attracted a serious young man studying for the ministry. He took me for dinner at a local greasy spoon and saved me from Refectory food. I thought at least I should look around when boyfriend had gone home as he did each day. But Felicity.. all the grad students were in love with Felicity. Thus we got lifts out to the Annex in Dundas where the science grads lived in squalor and intellectual ferment. It was fun to have a beer and argue about McCarthy and Communism, but to listen to Felicity laugh was pure joy. I can hear her still, running up the scale, and starting hilariously all over again. Her life had been shaped by tragedy and yet she was delighted by life and avid for experience. Once we got snowed in at the Annex and had to stay the night much to the horror of the prefect on night duty at the residence. But it wasn’t that kind of sleep over. Worn out by conversation, we all fell asleep where we were sitting. Well, the boys could cook spaghetti and talk nuclear physics but they smelled of pipe tobacco and wet wool. Some of Felicity’s other swains were more acceptable, the honorable this or that by now. There were weekends where she vanished, ostensibly to my home, for what were boozy, pleasure-filled escapes at a conveniently empty house or cottage. Felicity herself lives here in my city. As it turned out we both had one divorce, one girl and one boy. She established herself in her own specialty and edited a magazine. When I hear her being interviewed, she sounds very serious and respectable. I hear her laugh only in my head.

My Italian-looking boyfriend was very earnest. Felicity taught me not to be.

As young mothers, Elenu and Lila could count on each other to take in their children and mother them for months on end if necessary

Felicity and I haven’t kept in touch. Elenu and Lila do and call upon each other when in difficulty. They shape each other through both their similarities and their differences. Lila never leaves the neighborhood and Elenu, who does, actually goes back there to live. They were intertwined until almost the end. By writing this long story, Elenu is trying to figure out how much of her is actually Lila.

Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Quartet: a personal reflection #1

If you hate knowing any details of a novel you have not yet read, you may hate this post. No real spoilers though.

In 1974, driving a red Fiat rented in Brussels, our family of four paid a lightning visit to Naples because – how else could you see Pompei. We stayed at the Mediteranno Hotel, so the tiny brown leather ‘Travel Record’ tells me. (Nothing like the Rennaisance Mediteranno the Google shows me now.) On arrival from Rome, we ate. The lunch rush was over. The waiter had time to mess with my husband by pouring the wine from a height of two feet over Rick’s pant leg. Rick looked Italian, but spoke Canadian. He did not flinch at the macho showdown. We had Neopolitan pizza, the first thin crust pizza we had ever had, complete with a history lesson on the city’s invention of the dish. Stuffed to the gills, we then faced roast veal. Another macho contest. Later we wondered around and had the ice cream of Naples. The French starve you deliciously. The Italians over-feed you deliciously.

It was a time of unrest in the country. The economy had had a meltdown. Bombs were going off and we were in Cammora country. But how else could you see Pompei?

I had had a ‘classical’ education or at least the best one still available in Canadian high schools and universities in the 50’s. Greek had been cancelled the year before, but I studied Latin and Ancient History. We had already spent several days ‘seeing’ Rome and the Etruscan tombs of Cervetari and our next port of call would be Brindisi where we would take the ferry to Patras and spend several weeks in Greece, which had its own political upheaval but also Delphi.

I knew nothing about Naples when I started to read My Brilliant Friend, the first of the four Neopolitan novels. (The others are The Story of A New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child. The first two books are set in a poor neighborhood in Naples. Somewhere in Italy, there is a movie set of the stradalone, complete with the 5 four-storey apartment buildings, the stores, the church and the garden. The first book was made into a series, which was not shown in North America, so far as I can tell.

It was a violent place. Fathers were violent to their wives and children. On his wedding night a previously pacific groom gives his wife her first beating. My home was violent, full of shrieking and yelling and whacks and thuds. But never to the face. How would that look? The men in the Naples neighborhood not only didn’t care, they took pride in dishing it out. However no child ever flew out of a second storey window in our house as they did from the shoemaker’s house in Naples. Nor did corpses pile up in front of the church or get discovered in the garden. That was a Cammora war. We had them in Hamilton, Ontario but lower-keyed. Bodies, usually singular, turned up in out of the way places if at all. Our town was in the hands of Papalia, whom I met whenever my father had to do an errand for him and needed the company of one or more of his charming girls to distract nosy cops.

The narrator of the books is Elenu Greco, the daughter of a porter at the city hall. The story that she tells seems so authentic that the reader wants to believe it is autobiographical. Her best friend is Lino Cerullo, whom Elenu called Lila, daughter of the shoemaker – see second-floor window above.

As it turned out my grandson named his first daughter Lila, never knowing that had been my mother’s name.

Elenu and Lila decide that they will write a great novel like their beloved Little Women, become rich and so escape their poverty. Their are a few weaknesses to this plan as anyone who has published a book knows. One of the greatest is that girls don’t need to be educated, so Lila’s father takes her out of the school after grade 5 and puts her to work in the shoe repair shop.

I worked at part-time jobs from the age of 15. (Lila was not yet 12.) My father was too busy working two jobs and freelance to take an interest in my choice of courses. I refused to study typing so that I couldn’t quit high school early to work in an office. He tried to make me take special commercial after grade 12. Too late. Like Elenu, I had teachers on my side and a certain amount of small town newspaper fame. He would have lost face if he had kept objecting and besides, one way or another, he wouldn’t be paying.

Who is the brilliant friend? Elenu means Lila, although, later, Lila describes Elenu that way. On her breaks from the shoe shop, Lila borrows Elenu’s Latin text and learns so fast that she is able to tutor Elenu. She makes a similar head start with Greek. She borrows 5 books a week from the library. She is entitled to only 1, so she takes books out in the names of her family members. She designs a remarkable shoe, which makes a fortune, just not for her.

Do I believe in such brilliance? I do. My younger grandson – the one without the Harvard degree, failed high school. He went to an L.A. arts school where he mastered sound engineering, but he couldn’t learn in class. We spent a hundreds on tutoring. After he flunked out, he got his high school diploma on-line. He took my Christmas money and bought a calculus text. Having barely passed middle school math – see tutoring – he went on to study advanced mathematics and now tutors college students on-line at 4 p.m. daily. He has a chess rating of 2100, last I heard, and just won first prize at a San Diego tournament.

The brilliant genes either skipped my generation or came from the other side – his paternal grandfather who had several PhDs. Like Elenu I had an intelligence founded on memory, grit and perseverance. Psychology 101 was an 8:30 a.m. hike across an icy campus, in the library theatre, the only place large enough for 170 of us. I observed from my extremely complete lecture notes that the prof was reading the text to us. Fair play, he had written it. So 3 times a week, I sat down at my dorm desk at 8:30 and memorized a new chapter. My roommate filled me in on quiz and essay dates. It was somewhat embarrassing when I won the award for top marks in Psychology 101.

But it wasn’t brilliant.

Elenu becomes a writer, even a noted writer. I became a teacher, thus the 6 week European vacations. And of course I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. I even published. joycehowe.com But I was not noted.

God willing and the creek dont rise, I will continue these reflections

Closing Time: farewell Blake, it’s time to go

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December 14th 2020 would have been Blake’s 86th birthday. He passed Mar. 18, 2019. His real name as many of you knew was Rick Dermont. His sailboat was Gecko. This piece was originally posted in the summer of 2019. You missed 2020, so much fun, fella.

Tomorrow I go to sign the papers that close the sale of Blake’s house in Toronto’s Cabbage Town. The lawyer’s office is near there on Parliament St., but I think I will not go back to the place itself. I am told that it smells like any closed up house, which is good news because I spent several thousand dollars getting it not to smell like dying dog and master and incontinent cats and hoarder/not housekeeper girl friend.

The only trouble is by signing those papers, I am killing him all over again. Prostate cancer took him out, long, slow and painful, but there have been steps along the way that made him deader. The day the house was finally emptied of all the detritus of twenty years of living and never throwing anything away or cleaning anything for that matter. The day we got the unconditional offer for the asking price. The day that I could no longer feel him there beyond the veil. He had walked away. Gone on to higher education. Oblivious to the weeks of juggling figures, filing late tax returns, paying utility bills, house insurance, all that day-to-day stuff that I still had to do.

For years, when I glimpsed the blue of Lake Ontario from my 14-floor window, I thought Blake’s lake, Sirocco is down there waiting him to climb on board, his house is down there. Now it is not Blake’s lake.

Blake was my great love. Explaining that is like explaining sex to a child, impossible.The only one who expressed it was Leonard Cohen in Hallelujah.

Blake betrayed me. The only one who apologized was Leonard Cohen. I understood from him that Blake had tried in his way to be free.

Blake knew though what Cohen had said about “children waiting to be born.”, although he wouldn’t have put it in those words. Apparently, he and I had a contract to produce and nurture two children, He fulfilled it. They are greater than we ever imagined

Why he forsook us for those who seemed to care less for him than we did, we can only surmise. It was his life.

He left me a dragon’s trail of slime. Little by little his son and his step-daughter and my sister and my niece have helped me clear the material dross, and I have wrestled the numbers into some semblance of order. Our daughter lent me courage from afar.

I know you’re busy, Blake, learning some advanced other worldly physics, but, just saying, I miss you, Love.