Do you understand what a pleasure it is not to have to begin with this little biographical section? Sometimes a writer goes to school somewhere, and you have to know which years. Sometimes a writer gets married three times, or is a sex freak, or stabs people at parties. The cry BUT WE DON’T KNOW WHO ELENA FERRANTE IS, EXCEPT FOR THOSE OF US WHO LOOKED UP HER REAL ESTATE RECORDS! is met from me only with the words: ‘Thank God.’ I am tired of knowing who people are. All that is necessary to know about Ferrante, beyond the novels, is contained in a book called Frantumaglia (2016), a collection of essays, interviews and passionate long letters that were never sent. I began Frantumaglia thinking that I knew what it would be – an exploration of craft, a ‘writer’s journey’ – and found it one of the most unstinting books I have ever read, full of polish and friction and human electricity, deeper and more revealing than anything the vultures could peck out of her. I started as a normal reader and ended up willing to give her a kidney. I became that thing she cautions us not to be: a fan.
Read it instead of the real estate records. Read it for the conversation from 2006 with the listeners of the radio programme Fahrenheit, in which devotees and doppelgängers emerge from white static to surround her anonymity. ‘Is the mysterious Elena possibly someone who knows me?’ one woman writes in to ask. ‘What does Elena Ferrante think about social questions like euthanasia?’ another inquires, breezily. A shy, bold reader, Miriam, writes to say ‘there is an invisible thread that connects us through a shared narrative project that you address with words and I with images.’ (Oh NO, I thought. Never tell a writer this!) ‘It all started with photos,’ Miriam continues, ‘with black-and-white photos that were taken at the seaside. I arranged the scenes on the sand. Little girls sitting in fifties poses, Barbies buried amid pails and shovels, mother Barbies, big and bright-coloured, like plastic totems, little girls walking along or playing pianos made of sand.’
In other words, a real letter. You get them sometimes and they are unmistakable; a charge jumps from person to person. Then I was thinking of My Brilliant Friend, of Lila and Lenù exchanging their dolls, of those dolls falling through the darkness beyond the cellar grate. Ferrante responds, she moves toward Miriam as if on a couch, with one impulsive motion, and another exchange takes place. ‘I understand this and I feel close to you. I’m curious about your manipulation of dolls and sand. If you want, you can send me a few photos.’
Other interviews, ostensibly by professionals, contain nothing but a dozen rephrasings of the same question: you’ve had your fun, haven’t you? Isn’t it time to show your face? One journalist was so disgustingly persistent in this attack that I looked her up online. I found a picture of her wearing a green ring I coveted – and then softened, as I imagined a novel about us stealing it back and forth from each other forever. But the question of Ferrante’s identity begins and ends for me with this comment, also from a Fahrenheit listener.
I read The Days of Abandonment, and I want to say that you are a woman, because one feels exactly like that when one is abandoned by those heartless beings, men. On the other hand, you could be a man, because you must also be someone who is aware of the harm you do (I’m thinking of the great Tolstoy of The Kreutzer Sonata). Congratulations, in any case.
Besides being possibly the funniest thing I’ve ever read, this sums up my feelings about the question of Elena Ferrante’s identity, and perhaps the question of gender in general. Congratulations, in any case!
The centrepiece of Frantumaglia is a seventy-page essay occasioned by a set of questions from the women at Indice magazine. When I reached the end and saw the questions they had wanted her to answer, I laughed until I cried: there are just five of them, including ‘What relationship do your protagonists have with the rituals of clothes and make-up?’ She hasn’t retreated from us out of a lack of care. She has retreated because if we passed her the microphone, it’s possible she would never stop speaking.
I wouldn’t cross out a line. Her entire body of work can be read by the light of a definition she gives here:
My mother left me a word in her dialect that she used to describe how she felt when she was racked by contradictory sensations that were tearing her apart. She said that inside her she had a frantumaglia, a jumble of fragments … It was the word for a disquiet not otherwise definable, it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain. The frantumaglia was mysterious, it provoked mysterious actions, it was the source of all suffering not traceable to a single obvious cause. When she was no longer young, the frantumaglia woke her in the middle of the night, led her to talk to herself and then feel ashamed, suggested some indecipherable tune to sing under her breath that soon faded into a sigh, drove her suddenly out of the house, leaving the stove on, the sauce burning in the pot … The frantumaglia is the storehouse of time without the orderliness of history, a story.
She goes on to claim the definition for herself. ‘I, who sometimes suffer from the illness of Olga, the protagonist of The Days of Abandonment, represent it to myself mainly as a hum growing louder and a vortex-like fracturing of material living and dead: a swarm of bees approaching above the motionless treetops; the sudden eddy in a slow body of water.’
All right then, the frantumaglia. At the beginning of Antonioni’s Red Desert, Monica Vitti totters on kitten heels through an industrial landscape and performs something like the ‘mysterious action’ of which Ferrante speaks. She stands outside her husband’s petrochemical plant, seeming to huddle inside her rich green coat, and asks to buy a striking worker’s gross sandwich. He hands it to her, baffled, and she takes it behind the bushes and begins to tear at it with an immaculately made-up mouth.
Vitti’s face is one of the most interesting in cinema: it is propelled entirely forward, there are no shadows on it and we, living outside the film and fifty years on, know that she will never look old. Her character seems to walk through her own poisoned city as the unpolluted element, but then we come in closer and see the twitch, the sudden nervous gesture that almost tosses her head off her shoulders, and we understand that a raft of debris floats at her very centre, as along a river in the underworld. Back at her apartment, her husband tries to kiss her and she fights him off as if he were a swarm of bees, approaching above the treetops through the stillness of the air.
This is what I see when I read Ferrante: Vitti’s face, her movements. In the rhythm of Ferrante’s text there is a walk down to the industrial side of the city, a journey that will not reach the sea. There are girls’ voices thundering in a tunnel as black-pouring trucks rush past. There is almost the gesture of a hand, moving the clauses back and forth, lighting a cigarette or getting something down from the cupboard. Every so often the kitchen is split down the middle and the ‘mysterious action’ is produced. And, from time to time, almost as a matter of indifference, a woman falls from an upper window.
‘I believe that the true reader shouldn’t be confused with the fan,’ Ferrante writes. ‘The true reader, I think, searches not for the brittle face of the author in flesh and blood, who makes herself beautiful for the occasion, but for the naked physiognomy that remains in every effective word.’ Well sure, if you’re perfect. But all these things we see as we read (Vitti twitching her way along the waterfront, my memories of the assorted fake Italys of Florida) are part of an exchange between author and reader that Ferrante describes in Frantumaglia.
Between the book that is published and the book that readers buy there is always a third book, a book where beside the written sentences are those which we imagined writing, beside the sentences that readers read are the sentences they have imagined reading. This third book, elusive, changing, is nevertheless a real book. I didn’t actually write it, my readers haven’t actually read it, but it’s there. It’s the book that is created in the relationship between life, writing and reading.
The little chiffon gremlins on the cover of My Brilliant Friend promise us that what we have in our hands is something both reassuring and recognisable: a book about friendship. The quartet begins, as it will end, with two Neapolitan girls at play. ‘There was something unbearable in the things, in the people, in the buildings, in the streets that, only if you reinvented it all, as in a game, became acceptable. The essential, however, was to know how to play, and she and I, only she and I, knew how to do it.’
Lila and Lenù. She and I. These friendships – these first, these formative friendships – are in part about adapting ourselves to our place in adult society. There is always one child who directs the game, who shows us all how to play School, or Store, or Town. She snaps her fingers and we run to our places: now you two hold hands, now you kiss. You’re married. You’re in jail. Now lie down dead and we’ll have your funeral. This ringleader is not one with a natural understanding of these systems, she is the child to whom these systems are most bewildering, frightening and meaningless, who is taking them apart to find out how they work.
It is Lila who is the discoverer of shortcuts, the overnight learner of languages, the winner of classroom contests, the finger on the scale, the designer of the finest fucking shoes that ever walked, the slasher of her own wedding photograph into something more like art. It is Lila who does things first, Lila who will eventually feed all the diagrams of living into the computer, and then turn to a diagram herself and disappear. Lila is fundamentally the child who cannot understand at first sight how things work. She’s taking the watch apart to put it back together. We first see her rise to the awareness of all she does not know at the rock’n’roll dance party. After learning the dance more thoroughly than anyone, she turns her interrogation on Naples itself. She demands, because she must know: Who are the Nazi fascists? Who are the monarchists? What’s the black market? The dance is forgotten, she is inhabited now with the realisation that she must take power, money, politics to pieces, and find out who or what are the moving cogs.
Why conquer the diagrams of living, if they are illusions? Why achieve victory over arbitrary systems, if they are nonsense? Because you must believe in them in order to have the will to participate. This is why Lenù is indispensable to Lila, because Lenù accepts forms of existence without question. This is why Lenù, dull daughter, supreme avatar of normalcy, is her accomplice and her goad.
Lila scans the game of the neighbourhood and she learns; all the while Lenù, her ‘brilliant subordinate’, watches. Where does the Solara family money come from? How far back does it go – to the war, before the war? Does the poison pump through the pastry shop, is it the sugar in everyone’s Sunday pastries? What is contained in Manuela Solara’s little red book? Don Achille, the presiding spirit of the neighbourhood, the overlord made of rats that slip and scrabble under the city, is also a frantumaglia … one that eats, steals, magnetises bits of others to his body. What is gathered up in his black bag of the living and the dead, besides our dolls, besides our daughters? Who murdered him, and who will take his place?
Once Lila opens her mind to these questions she can’t close it. The storehouse of time keeps flying, the tangle seeks the warmth of human forms. Lila, telling Lenù about her first experience of a dissociative state, describes it as an episode of ‘dissolving margins’: ‘she had had the impression that something absolutely material, which had been present around her and around everyone and around everything forever, but imperceptible, was breaking down the outlines of persons and things and revealing itself.’ Her heart was beating out of her chest, the neighbourhood dialect had become unintelligible, all at once it was apparent that our bodies were not made to stand up to this onslaught. ‘I have to seize the stream that’s passing through me, I have to throw it out from me,’ she said, in order to calm herself. But even before that night, ‘she had often had the sensation of moving for a few fractions of a second into a person or thing or a number or a syllable, violating its edges.’ Lila is the house, for a brief moment, of history as it happens. In that house there is never any happiness. In that house we will lose everything, even ourselves.
What passes for the next thousand pages, between these harmless pastel covers? Life, all of it. Say any character’s name to me – say Pinuccia, and I will flash on her at the beach, pregnant, in love with a boy who isn’t the father, faced with the intolerable prospect of the future she has chosen, drinking coconut so her child will not be born craving it. Donato? I know where all his freckles are. Nadia? Allow me to direct you to the line in my notebook that reads: ‘I hate Nadia beyond all reason.’ In Frantumaglia, Ferrante writes: ‘The as yet unsurpassed force of literature lies in its capacity to construct vibrating bodies from whose veins anyone can drink.’ For a thousand pages we drink, body after body after body, husbands and daughters and teachers and friends, we drink directly from the neck of Naples. And we do it through the character of the writer, Elena Greco (Lenù), who is driven to master fiction as an organising force, a way of ‘finally putting everything back on its feet in the proper way’.
‘One morning I bought a graph-paper notebook and began to write, in the third person, about what had happened to me that night on the beach near Barano.’ ‘Then I imagined a dark force crouching in the life of the protagonist, an entity that had the capacity to weld the world around her, with the colours of the flame of a blowtorch: a blue-violet dome where everything went well for her, shooting sparks, but that soon came apart, breaking up into meaningless grey fragments.’ Lila’s episodes of fracture, senselessness, the violation of hard edges – these have a positive correspondence in Lenù. Lenù, at parties, at university, in richer houses, and finally at her own desk, is overtaken by the monologue. Her monologues are moments of cohesion, synthesis, when the fragments of everything you have ever heard and seen and read begin to surge on a uniting stream. And suddenly she is able to speak, to write. She is seized not with history but with what will survive of it – the legend, the lyric, the tale. And she writes about herself, and she writes about her brilliant friend.
What streams around, through and between people is what Lenù refers to as ‘a flow of air, an immaterial wave of images and sounds that, whether disastrous or beneficial, constituted material for my work’. This is the same flow of air that breaks Lila apart, takes her head off her shoulders, fills her with the roaring knowledge that her present form is temporary. Her beauty is inconsequential, even an insult – it does not belong to her, is trying every moment to rejoin the trees, the sea, the sunset.
Lenù accommodates herself to the flow of air, is able to breathe it as oxygen. Lila alone sees it for what it is, she alone sees what is happening. Her brother Rino’s boundaries are dissolving, he is pinwheeling through the night like a firework. Pasquale, their childhood friend and eventual terrorist, is a rocket launched from the narrow space of the neighbourhood; he will display his colours and sputter out. Lenù’s first boyfriend, Antonio, is subject to recurring breakdowns; he sees his own father emerging from his hand. Bruno, a tyrant at the sausage factory where Lila works in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, is not anyone at all, just a continuation of the way things have always been, a shape. Lenù’s mother says to her, ‘Now that I’m dying I know that I’ll turn into little bits and pieces,’ and then embraces her ‘as if she meant to slip inside me and stay there, as once I had been inside her’. All of this roars inside Lila; the simultaneity of history, the single exploding eternal moment. Lila envies Lenù’s ability to participate in the world as it appears, to float in this current like a hollow blonde straw. She wishes to protect this equilibrium, she wishes to destroy it.
Lila, after reading one of Lenù’s books, breaks down weeping and tells her: ‘You mustn’t write those things, Lenù, you aren’t that, none of what I read resembles you, it’s an ugly, ugly book.’ In fact it resembles ME, Lila is saying. You aren’t that – I am that, the neighbourhood is that, Naples is that, the planet. I need you because you impose order, Lenù, maintain harmony for me, because you are the shape of the way things are – not fragmented and constantly threatened with boundarilessness, not like the horrific night sky at Ischia, opening its mouth to swallow, not like me.
But Lila also perceives that Lenù needs to know the truth. She must return to the neighbourhood in order to tell its story. She must learn to diagram what flows around them, formless. Diagram the sight of Vesuvius, which could stop them mid-sentence. Diagram her brilliant friend’s eyes rolling white in the middle of the earthquake, as the ground splits and threatens to disgorge their shared past. Lenù listens as Lila explains how Enzo, her partner and the ‘singular protagonist’ of her monologues, is teaching computers how to think: he ‘dominated all that material like a god, he manipulated the vocabulary and the substance inside a large room with big air conditioners, a hero who could make the machine do everything that people did. Is that clear?’ This is more than playing Town, it is operating a universe – hand in hand together, she and I, only she and I. Say it back to me, Lenù, and then say it again, because if you’re going to write those ugly books you need to understand.
So yeah, to call the Neapolitan Quartet ‘a rich portrait of a friendship’ seems insane, or like something a pod person would say. Lila is a demon of inducement, the cattle prod that drives the mild herd forward, Lenù the definition of homeostasis. The epigraph is from Faust, which I guess according to this formula is a story about two dudes hanging out: only one of them is completely red, because he is the Devil. Like that legend, it begins in a location so specific it can only be referred to as a crossroads, and then moves into the macrocosmos. It is the picture of a person standing on a single point, and inside the long deep dive of a soul into the universe. Of course, it is also a rich portrait of a friendship.
‘You wanted to write novels, I created a novel with real people, with real blood, in reality,’ Lenù imagines Lila telling her. Lila’s apparent power, that scent of ozone that surrounds her, induces in the people around her a sort of paranoia: does she really control everything? Has she controlled it from the very beginning, from her place in the courtyard with the other children? Did it all turn on the point of her shoemaker’s knife? Lila, teaching with Enzo the forms and diagrams of human behaviour to the computer that will one day rule the world, describing it to Lenù so that she will be able to tell the story, asking: ‘Is that clear?’
I had read the books before, two years ago, but when I went back I found that I remembered only the feeling of what it was like to read them. How did I forget all these violent, clashing, red-and-purple happenings? Is it because I raced through so quickly? Sometimes, as a scene approached, I had a presentiment of it, a sense of outline, but that was all. What was I experiencing when I read it before? The flow of air, disastrous, beneficial, the unmitigated encounter with Ferrante’s material.
Perhaps the books are over-comprehensive – I kept having ‘insights’ that three hundred pages later Ferrante herself would make explicit. LILA (OR Lenù?) IS THE LITTLE RED BOOK! LILA (OR Lenù?) IS THE COMPUTER! I would write, and then two hundred pages later there it was. But there is still that satisfying detective click when the brilliant friends begin to create their final collage: together they go through the pages of Manuela Solara’s register, which contains the names of the neighbourhood and the debts everyone owes. And Lenù realises that her own writing really might be bad, might ultimately be untrue, ‘because it was well-organised, because it was written with obsessive care, because I hadn’t been able to imitate the disjointed, unaesthetic, illogical, shapeless banality of things’. How they sit together at the personal computer and enter the story into the machine, ‘green like newly sprouted grass’. Remember that colour? And they cut and they slash and they make something new out of the little red book. And they are consummated, they become the computer together, erasing nothing, teaching it all the most difficult diagrams of living and dying, telling the story, ‘Is that clear?’
I’m talking about all those others who were once in the world and who have acted or who now act through us. Our entire body, like it or not, enacts a stunning resurrection of the dead just as we advance toward our own death. We are, as you say, interconnected. And we should teach ourselves to look deeply at this interconnection – I call it a tangle, or, rather, frantumaglia – to give ourselves adequate tools to describe it.
When I first read The Lying Life of Adults, her latest novel, I made a careful assessment: too much about a bracelet. On my second reading, I revised my opinion somewhat: the most about a bracelet that a book has ever been.
The Lying Life of Adults feels like one of the earlier, slimmer Ferrante stories, operating at the length of one of the instalments of the Neapolitan Quartet. The teenage Giovanna is simultaneously wearing and not wearing the bracelet in question, it spends the entire novel in transit both to and away from her. The dialogue is intensely detached from human rhythms – almost like Beckett in certain places, if he wrote a long play about handjobs. This is the result, perhaps, of a concerted attempt to write ‘younger’. The word ‘boobs’ recurs in the text. When Giovanna at long last loses her virginity, Ferrante’s chosen language prevents us from getting close enough to the experience to touch it; it was chosen for verisimilitude and ends up preventing verisimilitude entirely. ‘Boobs,’ you imagine the two young people saying to each other, at the moment of consummation. But perhaps this was all too close to my own adolescence: I’ve been a youth-group idiot with huge tits, I don’t need to read about it happening in Italy.
So many elements of the Neapolitan Quartet reappear that the inevitable comparisons seem justified: a friend’s dad looks at your cleavage, a boy you lightly stabbed is in love with you, someone is failing school but then all at once knows Greek; dolls, articles, half-hearted writers, even a notebook with a red cover. Instead of the shoemaker’s knife, on the point of which the world turns, we have Giovanna randomly sticking some kid with a pencil. ‘If I’d had a knife in my hands, what would I have done, would I have stuck it in his arm, or where?’ But the question is moot, really, because this is not a story where people have knives. Is it even taking place in Naples? Shouldn’t an overlord made of rats show up at some point? Where are my communists, my soppressata made of human fingertips? Does anyone in this book even know HTML?
Occasionally you get your hopes up, but to no avail. Giovanna begins to dress in black but fails to go fully goth. She fails, too, to take advantage of her deranged Aunt Vittoria who, on the one hand, is incredibly boring – you are desperate for her to design a shoe, anything – but who is always saying things like, ‘You’re an intelligent little slut like me,’ and calling your mother a real bitch for liking lotions. If Vittoria were my aunt I would either be the most famous influencer on the planet or else I would be in jail for one of those teen girl Slender Man murders. The one thing I wouldn’t do is waste her.
When Giovanna – raised between the boobs of a loving family, educated about sex by cartoons – stops studying for a few months, you can’t get that frantic about it. She’ll be caught by a cloud, Giovannas always are. It is a book written from the point of view of a teenage daughter, whom the writer resents for having been born with everything. But you don’t see a teenage daughter clearly, not enough to let her be interesting. You are not quite ready to be her Before; there is some line of love-hatred between you that will not let you look directly at that fresh, insulting form. You want to keep the bracelet yourself, a while longer – after all, it was your grandmother’s.
‘But when the wave of a feeling arrives the writing arches, becomes excited, spins around breathlessly absorbing everything,’ Ferrante writes in Frantumaglia. You can lay all the bones and muscles out in order, according to the diagram, you can put everything back on its feet in the proper way, but that spin is beyond all hard work, education, conscientiousness. And when Ferrante hits it – that hope above all, that makes her leave more polished pages on the floor – you find yourself dizzy in the book as in a real human body, the world smearing ecstatically past your eyes. When she doesn’t, it grinds: it’s like the interminable fuckings of her fictional husbands in The Days of Abandonment: you are reading the product of some hyper-conscientious court reporter of the emotions, and the fact that it’s all on a single sheet of paper does not make it continuous. I wondered about the pages of The Lying Life of Adults that had been left on the floor, and I wondered, too, about the ten-year interval between her first novel, Troubling Love, and her next. According to Frantumaglia, she wrote several others in that period and put them away. That would be difficult to do now. When your works start being referred to as achievements rather than books, nothing goes in a drawer anymore. What is the urge to tell a new story, and what is the urge to get away from the scene of the previous one, throw the powerful stream of it out from yourself?
There are many things in the Neapolitan Quartet that do not seem to have been plotted consciously. It isn’t linear, moving from one point to the next, it covers the whole acreage. So what is its quality, then? Geographical? This mound marks Vesuvius and here is the sea. Let us check in for a little while with Carmen, at the gas pump over on the stradone. Let us listen to Gigliola for a while. But their plots always come together at the last moment. When they do it’s like watching one of Lila’s demolitions in reverse: clouds flying together into the most compact possible fist. An outline suddenly gathers up every fragment in the universe, not into safety but into surprise, the shock of intactness. The books are controlled performances of the dissolving boundaries experienced by Ferrante’s women, by Ferrante herself, ‘a hum growing louder and a vortex-like fracturing of material living and dead’, a ‘storehouse of time without the orderliness of history, a story’. The swarm of another person swatted away from your face, moving for a fraction of a second into a person or thing or syllable, and all written and fixed so it is no longer dangerous, as ‘harmless as a museum’.
And while Elena hurries to gather it all in her hands, her brilliant friend is saying:
You still waste time with those things, Lenù? 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?
Ferrante is yours not when you love all of her books without exception, but when you hate a few of them irrationally, almost as enemies of your happiness. (I am a fierce partisan of The Days of Abandonment and The Lost Daughter. Troubling Love, meanwhile, made me feel that I was rejecting a hair transplant.) But is it irrational? You are still experiencing the characters as real people. In this life, certain hoes you hate on sight. GIOVANNA! I swore, whenever she came into view, suffering from pernicious anaemia, her socks drooping around her ankles. She is more than an inert substance, she is a teen playing listlessly with a bowl of Cream of Wheat; you can hear the slow plop of her spoon. She’s the long drawn-out cry of ‘M-OOO-OOO-OO-M’ from the bottom of the stairs. It’s a gift, to be capable of inducing this physical irritation with fictional bodies, movements, motives; to make a reader want to pinch a character just to see her jump, to disarrange unreal hair, slap the face of a non-existent daughter, steal a doll from a strange child, draw a drop of blood with the tip of a shoemaker’s knife, to usher in a new Inquisition with profuse and ingenious tortures, simply for the purposes of punishing some skinny little figment named Nino. And what was it that the writer Elena Greco wanted, in one of the moments when she arched and rose off the page, when she felt herself balancing perfectly on that flow of air? ‘[T]o study the stories of the past and the present to understand how they worked, and to learn, learn everything about the world with the sole purpose of constructing living hearts, which no one would ever do better than me, not even Lila if she had had the opportunity?’ She’s playing Town; you live there too.
While writing this, I read another essay that made me self-conscious; it lamented the trend toward the autobiographical review. Oh no, I said to myself, like Lenù at university, like Lila at the party, I have been doing it wrong the whole time. I went through what I had written, carefully removing the I, I, I. Then I stopped. I was even angry. I thought, what else do you read a book with but your body, your history? Elena Greco speaks of her life as a flight from her origins:
I had fled, in fact. Only to discover, in the decades to come, that I had been wrong, that it was a chain with larger and larger links: the neighbourhood was connected to the city, the city to Italy, Italy to Europe, Europe to the whole planet. And this is how I see it today: it’s not the neighbourhood that’s sick, it’s not Naples, it is the entire earth, it is the universe, or universes.
And you the first link in the loop, holding hands with a girl in the courtyard.
What do you read a book with? Your wrong clothes, wrong shoes, wrong words, wrong mind? Monica Vitti’s face, floating past telephone wires? The bracelet that belonged to your aunt, the link pinched together between fingernails? Old diaries, lost, sunk in the river? The shame that must pass from me to my notebook: that sometimes when I read these scenes I am imagining Buca di Beppo? The death of the family dog? The back-and-forth hands of my mother, sewing; the dress that men see on me? Those ugly Europa covers, like the stock photos in frames you buy at Walmart? The disappearance of high school friends, those geniuses, those genuine articles, who somehow accomplished the real escape? My uncontrollable laughter at the cover quote, ‘Imagine if Jane Austen got angry?’
I too have been Lenù at university, with an accent and only two outfits, I too have been Lila at the party: tell me about the Camorrists. Explain to me the life I am living, tell me what is possible for me. And the communists? And the fascists? And I have been the fireworks, and the sudden fluent speech, and Lenù opening her mouth to join the conversation, overtaken by the monologue: ‘Oh, how moved I was, as I spoke: I felt tears coming to my eyes.’
And my brilliant friend, beautiful, standing in the darkness of her own disappearance, who listens to me in silence, who alone knows that I am a fraud, who hears the sound of my match igniting and who will ask me in dialect, after we leave: ‘Why were you talking that way? Who were you trying to impress? Are you ashamed of me?’
Your body, your history? The old neighbourhood? The planet?
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