Violence and Ascendance in Elena Ferrante’s MY BRILLIANT FRIEND

Italian author Elena Ferrante has had quite the effect on the American literary community–with her Neapolitan quartet of novels starting with My Brilliant Friend especially. Much of the more recent response (My Brilliant Friend was published in English in 2012) is likely due to this New York Times article: “The Ferrante Effect: In Italy, Women Writers are Ascendant.” And then there are the spoofs, including this one in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency called, simply, “I am Elena Ferrante,” that confirm Ferrante (a pen name, her real identity a mystery) has captured the American imagination.

She has captured this American’s imagination, anyway. Selfishly, I love the idea of women writers being ascendant anywhere, especially in a patriarchal culture dominated by, well, men–in literature and at home, in the neighborhood, at church…

Not all women readers have been as impressed by Ferrante as I have been, albeit only one novel into the quartet. A quick scan of Goodreads reviews of My Brilliant Friend, which follows the childhood and adolescent friendship between Lila and Lenú–sometimes fond, sometimes rivaling, always close–set against the backdrop of a poor neighborhood in post-war Naples reveals some dissent. “Why are the kids always throwing stones at each other?” one confounded reader asks.

Having studied up a bit on Italy between the wars for my own writing, it’s the stone-throwing, writ large–over the girls’ neighborhood, over their city, and over their country–that is most interesting to me. Often it’s stone-throwing in lieu of seizing any real, lasting power. (No real spoilers in this post–if you’ve read the summary.)

Oddly, some of the moments that describe the history of violence in this place are more lyrical than the moments devoted to friendship:

So she gave concrete motives, ordinary faces to the air of abstract apprehension that as children we had breathed in the neighborhood. Fascism, Nazism, the war, the Allies, the monarchy, the republic–she turned them into streets, houses, faces…

Isn’t this act of turning formless fear into places and characters just what a good writer does? So too do Ferrante’s characters expose this strange place to us through the everyday, the neighborhood. Leaving one of the girls to believe the other “…enclosed me in a terrible world that left no escape.”

The domestic, the old hearth-and-home, offers no respite from the violence, but only offers a different kind of violence. The neighborhood in this novel produces rival gangs, even agents of the Camorra (Neapolitan Mafia). Even inside Lina and Lenú’s homes there is violence–between husbands and wives, parents and children, mothers and daughters. No one is safe; certainly no one is ascending anywhere.

Perhaps the most startling admission in the (at least somewhat autobiographical) novel:

I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence.

How to rise above it all? How to escape the cycle of violence and poverty? This is Italy. So, God? No, Lenú ranks faith wholly inadequate to the task of pulling anyone out of her neighborhood, in a scathing derision of the Catholic Church–made all the more scathing as it’s delivered by a teenage girl:

[I] said that the human condition was so obviously exposed to the blind fury of chance that to trust in a God, a Jesus, the Holy Spirit–this last a completely superfluous entity, it was there only to make up a trinity, notoriously nobler than the mere binomial father-son–was the same thing as collecting trading cards while the city burns in the fires of hell.

Of course, this speech of Lenú is devastating–if also a bit humorous. We faithful, and we writers, alike, love a trinity, don’t we? But what a powerful image, those trading cards–reminiscent of the prayer and saint cards we Catholics receive at funerals and other ritualistic events. Were I to write about my own childhood and adolescence adhering to the rites of the Roman Catholic Church, there wouldn’t be much grasping at God. Rituals and ceremony, yes. What do I remember of my first communion in second grade? The white dress and veil I wore–the last veil I wore, not carrying on that particular tradition at my wedding, when I wore a tea-length dress to show off my legs.

If not God, where then can these adolescent girls, Lila and Lenú, turn to ascend from this violence they call home? Like all young people they dream of riches and fame–that would result, in their fantasies, from publishing a book “like Little Women…” But that dream fades as the girls’ intellectual and feminine powers grow. Lenú goes to high school, excels in languages, history, and even religion, mentored by a female teacher, a Communist distrusted by Lenú’s very-traditional mother. Lila turns her attention to a young man as savior. “He’s rich,” she says to her friend. “Also nice, also good.” Lenú considers those two adjectives as providing the “final blow to the shrine of childish fantasies.”

“Blow” such a telling action there–a violent end to a kind of shrine (a place of faith–even if fanciful). One chapter of life ends. The friends’ lives have diverged, a bit violently, one down the path of marriage and family, the other down the path of education:

Was it not true, then, that school was my personal wealth, now far from her influence?

Lenú weeps at this realization of the separation between the friends who have known each other, always.

This is a book that captures the violence of a time and place as it captures a female friendship, the portrayal of which–in my mind–makes these characters ascend (like their creator, Ferrante, a female writer in Italy) from their hurtful home. At least, I hope they do. There is more to come.

I can’t wait to see where Lina and Lenú go next.

Have you read any Elena Ferrante? Have you read My Brilliant Friend and the rest of the quartet? (No spoilers!) What did you think?

Have you known any of your current friends since early childhood? How have you traveled the same paths in life? How have your paths diverged?

Looking for a review? See my categories above for book reviews, author interviews, and more. And find me on Goodreads, where I try to at least rank what I’ve read. Let’s be friends there!

The Shape of Things: Reading Sarah Smarsh’s HEARTLAND

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

One particular shape captured my attention freshman year of college. That was Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory triangle. Remember that one? A foundation of basic needs building up, I.M. Pei style, to more lofty psychic needs, like self-actualization: the needs-lite, if you will, that keep people like us writing and reading.

I don’t recall taking any social science courses in high school, so introductory Psychology and Sociology were a revelation. Our high school courses were cut and dry: dates, times, rules of usage, facts, and figures that were set, that didn’t depend on personal or group experience. An isosceles triangle was the same, whether it sat in a wheat field in Kansas or a steel mill in Ohio.

Of course, like shapes, people are also the same everywhere. Isn’t this what we like to think? Americans are Americans, wherever they’re set down? Heck, I grew up in Ohio, The Heart of It All (my home state’s tourism slogan then). The world was my oyster, or, perhaps, zebra mussel. But I digress…

I did not grow up in Sarah Smarsh’s American heartland of Kansas. Yet, Smarsh, the author of HEARTLAND: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, and I share enough similarities that I recognized much of the emotional terrain of her memoir. We’re both white females who were born into Catholic Midwestern families of German extraction with Amish down the road; we’re both college educated (at state schools). Only, our roads to college were decidedly different, due in large part to what sociologist and journalist Barbara Ehrenreich calls “America’s most taboo subject”: class.

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Creative Inspiration: Part 2 from Intensity Without Mastery’s Michelle Cole

How did we get here? Not here at Rust Belt Girl so much as here—writing, blogging, connecting? (Anyone else have that Talking Heads song running on repeat in their minds? You’re welcome.)

For me, it was my mom who was the reader in my young life, who made it okay to “waste” an hour or a day on a good book. She was my biggest fan, even when my writing hadn’t a prayer of reaching a larger audience than my immediate family. She made me feel like a writer—and sometimes a vote of confidence from someone you love is enough to begin to believe it, yourself.

As I emerge from my Thanksgiving Day food coma, I say thanks to memories of my mom and to everyone else who makes me feel like something of a writer.

Many thanks, in particular, to Intensity Without Mastery blogger and photographer Michelle Cole for this two-part collaboration. I’ve learned so much! (Please check out Part 1, here.)

For Part 2, I wanted to see where Michelle finds her inspiration, what sparks her creativity.

Michelle—what inspires you to take photographs, especially of your Ohio city? What do you shoot with?

I must first credit my parents with impressing me with the notion that hobbies are vital to happiness. My dad kept an aquarium and made pictures of ships with strings pulled around pins painstakingly positioned on canvas or velvet (there is a name for these sort of pictures that escapes me now; its popularity rose and fell alongside macramé). My mom painted and drew. She also read an ocean of genre fiction.

My dad had a significant interest in photography in the 70s. My parents’ bathroom did double duty as a dark room for a few years. My dad’s interest in photography was mostly confined to portraits of family members and some architectural photos. One of my earliest memories involves taking the elevator to the top of what was then the tallest building in Indianapolis, probably the National Bank Building. We went to the top so Dad could take a cityscape picture from that vantage point.

Like for so many Rust Belt families, the prosperity we knew in the 70s did not last, so Dad put aside his photography habit due to cost.

Despite that our fortunes rose and fell, the example of their hobbies endured. Creative pursuits had value. Eventually, my history of major depression intersected with this notion. When digital photography became widespread, I decided to try it because I wanted to see if I could develop a skill that I knew was not a total waste of my time. My parents taught me by example that all creative expression had inherent value.

Then I was struck by the idea that photography could remind me that life was worth living, that my life itself had value. The places I saw, my city especially, were a part of that value.

As I took more pictures of the places I had seen so often, I began to feel something akin to teaching a dying language. I was capturing scenes that should not be forgotten: this is how we lived, the good, the bad, the ugly . . .

I also have an enduring interest in nature photography. I feel serenity in documenting the change of seasons.

I shoot with three different cameras, a Nikon D5200, a Canon Rebel T6, and my cell phone camera (a budget LG V8). None of my equipment is expensive or super sophisticated. There is still much I should learn about the technical points of photography. My favorite shooting combo is my Nikon D5200 with a Nikkor 55-200 mm f4-5.6 VR lens.

What moves you to provide a short essay or story around your photographs?

I wish I had the time and consistent motivation to write about the pictures in every photography post on my blog. When I look at my pictures, I see shorthand for memories that I wish others could read. I suppose that great photographs past and present tell that story with no annotation necessary.

I feel like my inclination to write an essay to accompany a picture is a function of two things: time and depression. If my depression is flaring up, my picture posts have little or no text offered, and the writing is perfunctory or clinical in tone. If the text is short but optimistic in nature, I am simply too busy with work or parenting to write much more.

The photos I take of places in my city usually tap a rich vein of memory for me because I’ve seen them so often, and I really should offer an anecdote to accompany them.

Today I took a picture of a house near the downtown area that intrigues me with its longevity.

Lima house by Michelle Cole
Lima, Ohio, house by Michelle Cole

While this home has some striking Victorian details, its greatest distinction is being the last home left standing in its area. Every other home along that street for several blocks was taken by eminent domain for the construction of a new high school and stadium. I don’t know how this house escaped this dragnet that resulted in the razing of many aging homes and row houses in the vicinity. The powers that be made the school’s lawn large beyond reason to justify demolishing a problem public housing project that had been built in the 80s. This house reminds me that the place we call home stirs feelings of ambivalence.

At heart, I feel this project was like liposuction to this town; poverty and crime can’t be erased just by demolishing buildings and planting perfect lawns where they once stood. I wish some of the other houses had been spared. The perfect lawn and angled brick of the new high school are reminders that the Lima my parents and grandparents knew cannot be resurrected. At least we have this one home left from the old era.

Michelle—thank you for giving me a window into your world. Your personal journey captured in stunning images inspires me to keep growing by creating and connecting with bloggers like you. Anything else you’d like to say?

We live in a golden era of photography. Chances are you have at least one camera within reach almost all the time. No one’s life is just like yours. No one sees all of the places you’ve seen. What you’ve seen today could be gone tomorrow. Now is the time to share those images with the world.

Lima fall foliage by Michelle Cole
Lima, Ohio, fall foliage by Michelle Cole

Thanks again to Michelle Cole at Intensity Without Mastery for reminding us to keep sharing our visions in words and images. And don’t forget to visit Michelle’s site.

Do you feel you, too, are “teaching a dying language” by resurrecting memories of the past through your writing or photography?

Please share!