The first installment of my “Reading is Sexy” series, in which I review my favorite (and not so favorite) books. The somewhat fragmentary style of this first post is inspired by Katherine Bernard’s response to Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts.
Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend begins with a disappearance. The narrator, a sixty-something Italian woman, learns that her childhood friend Lila has gone missing without a trace. This seems to come as no surprise to Elena – and even, perhaps, as a relief.
When she goes through her things, Elena realizes she has nothing left to remind her of Lila. Not a letter, not a photograph, not a postcard. Nothing. “Is it possible,” she wonders “that in all those years she left me nothing of herself, or worse, that I didn’t want to keep anything of her? It is.”
Lila’s disappearance, it seems, is not just physical. It is also symbolic. All of her possessions are gone. She has cut her face from every family photograph.
Not only does she wish to be forgotten, she wishes to be un-remembered. Erased. As though she was never there in the first place.
I filled my first memory box (I hate that phrase, but I can’t seem to come up with a better one) at at the age of eleven. Since then, I’ve filled seven more.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized what I had been doing all those years. That I had been creating an archive of my own life – meticulously labelled, eccentrically collected.
When you get into this kind of thing at such a young age, you soon realize there’s a limit to how much you can keep. Your average birthday card just isn’t going to cut it.
Soon, I started branching out from paper goods. I filled plastic sandwich bags with blades of summer grass. I saved the flower crown from my first Pangy Day. I even included the bandana that my middle school friend Molly gave me before she ditched me for the popular kids… could I have been any gayer?
The point is, I don’t think this obsessive preservation operated on nostalgia alone. Behind it all, I can see a lurking fear… a fear of forgetting.
Or was it the fear of being forgotten?
Elena Ferrante’s prose is simple. Or at least, that’s what I can glean from the translation. Where the words themselves are unassuming, the images and metaphors can hit you over the head at times. Elena’s childhood doll is one such image, described in the first few chapters of the novel in a way that screams: this is about more than just the doll!
At first, I wasn’t sure how to feel about Ferrante’s style. Sentence structure aside, the narrative seemed to lack layers; its complications seemed too obvious, its contradictions trite. It felt to me like she couldn’t quite decide how novelistic she wanted to be. Somewhere between the free-for-all ease of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle and the richly metaphorical perfection of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Ferrante’s own version of the autobiographical novel felt, at first, like a disappointment. Neither pedestrian nor pretentious, neither transparent nor opaque, I felt that Ferrante’s writing left something to be desired.
Except here’s the thing: Elena Ferrante isn’t Marcel Proust, and she isn’t Karl Ove Knausgaard. In fact, Elena Ferrante is not even Elena Ferrante. Elena Ferrante is the pen name of an author whose true identity remains unknown.
“The story of our lives becomes our lives.” – Adrienne Rich
My Brilliant Friend is the story of Elena, yes. The story of her life, from early childhood to old age. But it is also, and essentially, the story of her best friend Lila, a character without whom Elena’s narrative would not exist.
From the beginning, the story itself is an act of revenge. A way of actively defying Lila’s disappearance. If Lila refuses to remain physically present, than Elena will make her present with words. She will re-member her -place her in a narrative she can’t escape, in a past she can’t undo.
This is more than just fear of forgetting. This is remembering as an act of revenge.
You told me once:
“If you write about me, I will never forgive you.”
But what if my words are a way of forgiving?
What if my words are an act of revenge?
Autobiographical fiction is a slippery genre. It’s one I’ve thought a lot about. It’s one thing to write about your own experiences, to speak about your emotional, physical and intellectual experience of everyday life. It’s another thing to talk about the people you love, or don’t love, or kind of love, and they way they have affected you. Another thing entirely to publish these thoughts, and to publish them with you name attached to the cover.
The second-wave feminist movement taught us that the “personal is political.” That by making the personal public, we revindicate the feminine.
But what happens when you make someone else’s “personal” public? What happens when the story of your life becomes the story of someone else’s?
[insert personal anecdote here]
[but what if?]
[what if what?]
[what if she reads it?]
When asked whether the character of Lila was inspired by an actual friendship, Elena Ferrante admitted: “Let’s say that it comes from what I know of a long, complicated, difficult friendship that began at the end of my infancy.”
The friendship between Elena and Lila is at times competitive, at other times revelatory, always complicated. Elena cannot help but measure herself in relation to Lila. Left at that, this portrait of female friendship may seem far from revolutionary, weighed down with the trope of female competitiveness that feminists have fought so long to undo.
But Ferrante seems to plant this trope only to disfigure it. Elena and Lila are like a knife to its sharpener – metal meeting metal in a battle of words, each sharpening the other’s intellect, challenging the other’s strength. They make each other better, even when that means tearing each other apart.
“Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. It may be that one wants to, or does, but it may also be that despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel. And so when we speak about my sexuality or my gender, as we do (and as we must), we mean something complicated by it. Neither of these is precisely a possession, but both are to be understood as modes of being dispossessed, ways of being for another, or, indeed, by virtue of another.” – Judith Butler
Elena’s friendship with Lila is like no friendship I have ever known, and like every friendship I have ever known. I don’t think I’m making any revolutionary claims when I say that female friendship is rarely depicted in a way that is quite so central, and quite so rich as it is in My Brilliant Friend.
What is truly revolutionary about Ferrante’s work, as she explains in her recent interview the Vanity Fair, is that while male writers (like Proust and Knausgaard) are often seen as representing the human experience, women writers – especially of autobiographical fiction – are seen as speaking only to “women’s experience.”
For Ferrante, however, this is as much a blessing as it is a curse.
“I hold that male colonization of our imaginations—a calamity while ever we were unable to give shape to our difference—is, today, a strength. We know everything about the male symbol system; they, for the most part, know nothing about ours, above all about how it has been restructured by the blows the world has dealt us. What’s more, they are not even curious, indeed they recognize us only from within their system.”
Writing this blog post has been a struggle in more ways than one. There were so many themes I could have talked about in My Brilliant Friend, so many passages I could have quoted, so many Adrienne Rich poems I could have referenced (so much self-restraint I did use). But hardest of all was realizing that I didn’t trust myself enough to write a review of this book. That I didn’t trust myself enough to write anything at all.
“Afraid of assertion. Always trying to get out of ‘totalizing’ language, i.e., language that rides roughshod over specificity; realizing this is another form of paranoia… My writing is riddled with such tics of uncertainty. I have no excuse or solution, save to allow myself the tremblings, then go back in later and slash them out. In this way I edit myself into a boldness that is neither native nor foreign to me.” – Maggie Nelson
This blog, which started as a personal pet project, has become more “public” than I ever expected. It may be nothing compared to Ferrante’s audience, but it helps me to empathize, even in some small way, with her decision to keep her identity anonymous.
Because when we speak about the personal, we are rarely – if ever – speaking only about ourselves.
I have grown up reading a literary canon in which the masculine is universal, the feminine particular. In which male rationality is pitted against female sentimentality, male strength against female weakness, male sanity against female hysteria.
In this world, it’s no wonder I have trouble trusting my own voice. Because nothing that is mine – as a woman, and especially as a woman who loves women – is the whole truth. It is only marginally true. Only marginal. I am, in fact, that margin. Only words in the margin of other people’s truth.
And yet, I continue to write. I continue to put words on the page. I make a practice of cringing. I make a practice of blushing. I make a practice of closing my notebook, leaving the room, and then coming back. I make a practice of beginning, and stopping, and beginning again.
I make a practice of opening all the boxes I have filled with my life, and taking out their contents one by one. Of laying each letter, each photograph, each blade of grass onto the floor, and stitching them together in some kind of a ragged truth.
“We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write…” – Elena Ferrante