The Story of a New name—Elena Ferrante

[I am reading this 2012 novel, second in the sequence that began with My Brilliant Friend, in four sections. I write about what I’ve read in each section before reading further. So far I have read roughly half the novel.]

31 July 2021
Chapters 1-25
It’s six years since I read My Brilliant Friend, which I loved. So far, I’m not sure I’m loving this second novel so much, although I suppose it’s early days. Perhaps it just feels so headlong, the story of Lila and her ‘new name’ rushing into fierce running battles with almost everybody, while Elena wants to do some rushing of her own, out of a life of study that seems drab compared to her friend’s. There are some extraordinary things, mostly to do with how sixteen- and seventeen-year-old girls deal with the realities of sex. And the most memorable of these, for me, is the description of Lila’s powerlessness on her wedding night when she thinks she will be able to stop her new husband Stefano doing what he is definitely going to do.

At the wedding, having seen how easily Stefano had compromised in allowing the hated Marcello Solara to wear the special shoes she designed, the marriage is over for her. All through their evening alone, right up to when they both prepare for bed, she is determined. But he is stronger and just as determined. Holding her down, ‘he took out of his pyjamas his stubby sex that, extended over her, seemed like a puppet without arms or legs, congested by mute stirrings, in a frenzy to uproot itself from that other, bigger puppet that was saying, hoarsely, Now I’ll make you feel it, Lina…. And since she was still writhing, he hit her twice, first with the palm of his hand, then with the back, and so hard that she understood that if she continued to resist he would certainly kill her.’ This follows pages of description, as detailed as in any third-person, omniscient author narrative…

… which Elena, the actual narrator, can supposedly do not only because her childhood friend has confessed it all to an almost worryingly disinhibited degree but also because, in a prologue, we are told that some years later she would give Elena a sheaf of diary pages and other personal writings. The details about the wedding night come early on, and perhaps this self-revelation is the confirmation of a side to Lila hinted at in the first novel. She is possessed by an unshakeable certainty of what is right for her, and if things don’t go her way she bides her time while she regroups her forces. To outsiders—including, sometimes, Elena—it might not be at all clear what is going through her head. It sometimes seems to be a kind of wilful self-destructiveness, as she gambles on some future development she has in mind. Sometimes it seems that not even her own long-term survival matters as much as her determination not to be forced into whatever place other people want her to be.

This includes her husband, a man she realises before the end of the wedding celebration is both set on make money at any cost, and as conservative as every other man she knows in his expectation of how wives should behave. She has made the commonest of mistakes—assumed, against all her experience of the men she knows, that a man who loves her will allow her to be herself. Now her husband thinks he has won, and so does everybody else. This is Naples in the mid-1960s, and after the struggles of the honeymoon Lila passes off her black eye and swollen lip as injuries from a fall: ‘they had all sarcastically believed her, especially the women, who knew what had to be said when the men who loved them and whom they loved beat them severely. Besides, there was no one in the neighbourhood, especially of the female sex, who did not think that she had needed a good thrashing for a long time.’ In this world, real men show their wives what’s what: ‘sympathy and respect for Stefano increased—there was someone who knew how to be a man.’

These attitudes, which meanwhile come out in all sorts of other ways, are immovable. But Lila’s determination not to give in to them, as we are continuing to see, is an unstoppable force. I mentioned when I read My Brilliant Friend all those years ago that Lila lives her life with the volume turned up high, and things are already becoming noisy in this next part of her story. For months, Lila carries on, behaving publicly as though all is well, while enjoying spending the money that Stefano’s retail projects are bringing in. Her lifestyle, compared to that of everyone they grew up with, is lavish and… and what? Elena knows Lila has not forgiven Stefano, and is never going to go along with the expectation that she will be a good wife. It’s impossible to imagine her settling down to a life of childbearing and everything else that women have to put up with.

But enough of Lila for now. This is also Elena’s story, and we wonder what direction the Bildungsroman aspect of her narrative will take. At first, it seems to be on hold. She can see as well as Lila can just how horrendously limited the lives of women are… but she also feels, at a visceral level, the attractions of sex. She decides that Antonio, the strongly-built boyfriend she is with because the intellectual Nino seems never to notice her, is capable of providing what she needs. Somewhere inside her, Elena knows she’s fooling herself. But it’s a powerful urge, and we see it at work as she thinks about Lila on her wedding night. She’s doing what she often does with Antonio and, for the first time, wants him to take their accustomed heavy petting much further than usual. But she can’t help contrasting her own squalid situation with Lila’s:

‘What was I, here with Antonio, secretly, in this rusting ruin, with the scurrying rats, my skirt raised over my hips, my underpants lowered, yearning and anguished and guilty, while she lay naked, with languid detachment, on linen sheets, in a hotel that looked out on the sea, and let Stefano violate her, enter her completely, give her his seed, impregnate her legitimately and without fear?’ Envy, confusion, wishful thinking…. Ferrante has her alter-ego experience all of these, with that extraordinary added frisson, the idea that what men do to women is violate them. Any less, at this moment, would not satisfy her.

Antonio has other ideas, just as strongly founded in the culture they grew up in as hers of violation. ‘I … felt the effort he was making to stop, to keep from pushing with all the violence that had been smouldering for an entire afternoon and surely was still. He was about to stop, I realized, and I pressed against him to persuade him to continue. But with a deep breath Antonio pushed me away and said in dialect, “No, Lenù, I want to do it the way it’s done with a wife, not like this.”’ On their wedding night, which both of them hope is not too far away, he wants her to be untouched.

Not long after, the relationship with Antonio ends. It doesn’t happen immediately, and not as a straightforward result of Elena’s desperate confusion over what future might await a girl from her class who doesn’t tread the usual path. In fact, it has a lot to do with his suspicions that it’s Nino she would really like to be with and, although her yearning for the other seems quite hopeless—she has seen him with another girl, and he is off to college soon—Antonio’s suspicions are right. But her confused non-decision, hoping to do the same as Lila and stop looking beyond the confines of the neighbourhood and settle into marriage and motherhood, has left her with nothing. She has let a whole summer pass with only the minimum of study, and she has no idea what to do.

This is where the story of the two girls comes back together. When Lila finds out that Elena seems to be throwing it all away, she is appalled. She invites her to her new apartment, ostensibly to catch up on what Lila has to say about married life—very little that’s good, of course—but really to make her study in a spare room. Somehow, it isn’t enough. Elena’s old enthusiasm has left her, and she finds studying hard. Her grades are the lowest she’s ever achieved, and she can see little point in carrying on. So… Lila makes a bet with her. It’s complicated, because it’s tied up with a battle that Lila is fighting with her husband over the long-awaited shoe shop her family is finally opening, with the help of Stefano and the hated Solara brothers….

To rewind a little. There had been expensive photographs of the wedding, and Stefano had proudly shown one to the maker of the dress. She asked for a copy, and Stefano definitely didn’t mind when the picture became part of a display in the dress-shop window. But Lila minds, and makes him get it back—only for the suggestion to be made (I forget by whom) that the picture be displayed in the new shoe store. Lila, and her shoes, look wonderful in it. Stefano agrees to the display of a huge enlargement of it, and the bet comes about when Lila says she knows Stefano won’t back down if she objects, while Elena says he will. If Elena loses, Lila says, ‘you mut never again pass with anything less than the best grades.’

All Elena’s insecurities rise to the surface, as does her confusion about her own place in the neighbourhood. ‘She expected from me what she would have done in my place. She really wanted me fixed in the role of someone who spends her life with books, while she had money, nice clothes, a house, television, a car, took everything, granted everything.’ This is a real irony. Lila hates her life, despite the money, hates the fact that, after many months, she has finally become pregnant, and envies the chance that Elena has. When Elena asks what Lila will do if she loses the bet, there’s something both defiant and sad about the clear sense of loss she feels about the turn her life has taken. ‘I’ll enrol in a private school, start studying again, and I swear I’ll get my diploma along with you and do better than you.’ Which, inevitably, brings Elena’s insecurities bubbling up all over again. She knows Lila could do it if she wanted to.

In fact, Lila wins the bet, because Stefano and the others won’t let her remove the photograph from the store’s new display. But she needs to win the battle with Stefano somehow, and she does it by making them agree to her modifications to it. At the point I’ve reached, she has spent some minutes covering parts of it with cut-out strips of black paper. Everybody seems to hate it, but Elena says it’s beautiful, like the modern art in some high-status local man’s house. This galvanises Lila: ‘I had only to glance at Lila to realize that, if when we arrived at the shop she had really felt willing to give in should the attempt prove fruitless, now that the attempt had been made and had produced that image of disfigurement she wouldn’t yield an inch.’

A change has come over the dynamic in the shop. The Solaras are there, and Marcello hates what Lila has done. But Michele doesn’t: ‘I like it, signò. You’ve erased yourself deliberately and I see why: to show the thigh, to show how well a woman’s thigh goes with those shoes. Excellent. You’re a pain in the ass, but when you do a thing you do it right.’ Stefano doesn’t like the way Michele is suddenly making the decisions, and tries to take charge by reminding them that he will be needing Lila in the new grocery he’s opening. Michele is dismissive: ‘Figure it out. We have more interesting things to do here.’

The battles for status and power in this little world never end.

2 September
Chapters 26-58…
…which takes us to about half-way through the novel. It must also be about half-way through the young women’s long summer holiday on Ischia. For Elena, of course, the island holds a mixture of memories from the previous time she was there. One way and another, all of them come back to haunt her this time. She’s persuaded Lila to alter her holiday plans so that there will be a chance to see Nino, who is staying at a flat in a different town from the rest of his family. In other words, he is well away from the hated father. As well as Lila, who has been urged by her doctor to get some exercise and sea air to strengthen her up—specifically, to increase her chances of bringing a pregnancy to term—there is her mother Nunzia and Pinuccia, now Lila’s sister-in-law. The husbands, Stefano and Rino, spend a hectic 24 hours with them each weekend, until things become complicated, and Pinuccia leaves with Rino on the third Sunday. Pinuccia reads photo-romances, and I wonder if this is a sly nod by our author-narrator to the melodramatic pitch of events and emotions.

But I need to rewind to the previous September. Lila’s life becomes focused on the grocery store, Stefano having insisted on it. In fact, she transforms the running of the place, not only because she’s brilliant with both the management of it and with the customers, but because she’s so quick to learn how to cheat. Being Lila, she can do it whilst leaving the customers starry-eyed about the wonderful service…. Meanwhile studious, bespectacled Elena surprises herself almost from the start by excelling in her studies. She becomes the favourite of Professor Galiani, one of those teachers who loves to induct a promising student into what she sees as an utterly fulfilling life of the intellect. Elena is the chosen one, and her introduction what she sees as a sophisticated world of educated debate becomes the driver of a huge rift with Lila. It doesn’t last, but it has repercussions. Lila isn’t happy to feel left behind, even though she pretends to be content with her chosen life. Her mockery of the intellectual world she’s turned her back on is what causes the rift, but her mockery is hiding something deep.

In both the girls’ lives—they are still only seventeen years old—Ferrante moves things on through set-piece scenes, often containing one decisive moment. There’s one in the shoe store, where the jockeying for supremacy continues as before. Lila’s art piece which, with Elena’s help, she brings to a kind of completion over several days, continues to be the embodiment of different ways of seeing the world. Elena reads a positive review of it in a local newspaper, and is thrilled—until she is given a lesson in how the press works in Naples. It all depends who is paying for the article, and she is shown damning articles in other papers. Whatever, the set-piece moment comes when it goes up in flames, and the hapless reader is left wondering at the possible symbolism. Or is it just down to carelessness or spite on the part of Gigliola, fiancée of one of the Solaras? She has to live with the picture every day, hates everything about it, and doesn’t always show the right amount of caution when she smokes….

Newspapers are a big thing for Elena this year. Professor Galiani lends her the left-leaning broadsheets she’s never come across before, and reading them becomes part of her nightly schedule. It’s a strain, and little of what she reads means anything to her. But something must be sticking, and it stands her in good stead for the set piece that causes the rift with Lila. Ferrante makes the episode do a lot of work, starting with Elena’s confusion as to why the professor has invited only her, of all the class, to a party at her house. She doesn’t know whether to go at all, or what to wear if she does. Her anxieties about her education are always tied up with her self-consciousness about her poor background, and she seeks reassurance from Lila. By now, Lila is buying Elena all her books, and so has an interest. Eventually, Lila says she should go, and asks if she can go as her guest. She’ll behave herself, honest—but, meanwhile, cue more class anxiety for Elena….

It’s a triumph. Only when they get there do the professor’s son and daughter tell Elena how they’ve been looking forward to meeting the student they’ve heard so much about. And during a conversation about world peace, in which boys jostle for the professor’s approval, she discovers—to her own astonishment—that she has the confidence to make a point of her own. And, Reader, Nino is there to witness it, and nod his head approvingly. Of course, it helps that what she’s saying is an extension of Nino’s own point, and that she has read the magazine he’s now been published in…. I guess it’s a big part of the Bildungsroman process that she tries out voices that aren’t quite her own, and she considers it to be the biggest moment in her life, ever.

Meanwhile, Lila has been almost invisible at the party. Elena literally forgets she’s there most of the time and, when she finds Lila looking at the shelves of books in another room, she asks her if everything’s OK. Sure, says Lila. But fading into the background isn’t what Lila does. When Stefano picks them both up to go home in the car, she lets rip about everyone at the party, including Elena. We can only guess that it’s really about her own deep insecurities about the education her father would never allow her to have. She can pretend all she likes about having chosen her life for herself, but the way her resentment comes out is palpable: ‘they all talk just so, so they dress and eat and move just so. They do it because they were born there. But in their heads they don’t have a thought that’s their own, that they struggled to think. They know everything and they don’t know a thing.’ After kissing her husband on the neck, and lovingly smoothing his hair, she continues. ‘If you were up there, Ste’, all you’d see is parrots going cocorico, cocorico.’

Is she right? Once, she used to have a lot of thoughts of her own, that she had ‘struggled to think.’ And it’s easy to recognise the kind of conversation Elena was having with the boys, recycling and re-purposing what they have read or heard in order to make a good impression. The level of debate is not high, but they aren’t just parrots—Lila’s sarcastic take on it misses the simple truth that is how we learn. The irony in what she says, not just in this quotation, is that she resorts to parroting different attitudes herself. She knows Stefano will agree with all she says about them and their antiques: ‘those disgusting people. There’s not a thing there, an object, a painting, that was acquired by them directly. The furniture is from a hundred years ago….’ Not, in other words, like the furniture and pictures she and Stefano have chosen, all new and expensive. With Lila it isn’t class anxiety, it’s class war.

Other things happen. Rino asks Lila to help him with some shoe designs, but her belief in herself is all gone, and she is certain she can’t do it any more. More and more, Elena finds herself wondering what happened to the Lila she used to know. Rino, in fact, is very positive about the small modifications Lila occasionally suggests to his designs, but she is dismissive. She speaks and acts as though that old self is irrelevant. She’s Signora Carracci now, a title and name that is used all the time as a mark of who she is. She behaves as though by taking on this new name she has genuinely shuffled off her old self…. We know it can’t possibly be true, especially following her disgust with Stefano during and after the wedding, and we look on as events either confirm or undermine her new identity.

On Ischia, when Stefano is on his weekend visits, she seems more determined than ever to confirm it. Elena and the others are surprised how loving she is to Stefano, behaving exactly like the wife her husband would want to welcome him after a hard week at work. As I’ve said before, we can be pretty sure that she doesn’t respect him and his show-off lifestyle any more than she ever did, so we’ll just have to wait and see what she‘s up to… which includes gradually making herself more noticeable to Nino which, for all kinds of reasons, seriously messes with Elena’s head.

I’ll come back to Lila, because we need to talk about Nino. Elena always pretends to everyone that she dislikes him, but that’s just a part of her muddled late-adolescent attempt to hide from her own insecurities. In fact, he represents a kind of ideal for her, an embodiment of the intellectual life she aspires to and the opposite of the swaggering machismo of the other neighbourhood boys. In the first week on the island, Elena had persuaded the others to walk over to where Nino would be spending time with his family. In fact, he isn’t around, and it’s his father who charms Lila and Pinuccia. He shows them the rudiments of swimming, which becomes important later, in connection with Nino.

In fact, it’s soon confirmed for the reader that while Nino’s swagger might be different from that of the other boys, he’s no less arrogant and sure of himself among the girls. Once Elena makes contact with him, he gets into the habit of walking over in the afternoon to spend a few hours with the girls on the beach. He comes with Bruno, the shy friend who has enough money to put Nino up for the summer. Nino’s endless talking bores the conventional Pinuccia, and she seeks refuge in Bruno’s company. Despite having earlier been rude about his unremarkable looks, she spends most of her time on the beach with him while Lila stays with Nino and Elena. She, Elena, is prepared to tolerate the fact that Nino clearly thinks only his own views matter. When she offers something from her own reading, he is annoyed and changes the subject. She tolerates his arrogance because she’s starry-eyed about his cleverness—and anyway, what other choice does she have? He might stop coming if she isn’t careful.

Lila seems not to mind being around as Nino endlessly talks about the things she had been so dismissive of after the party. We might guess that she isn’t simply biding her time before Stefano’s next flying visit. For a start, there’s something very Elena Farrante-ish about the way Lila is able to use the swimming lesson the hated father gave her in order to make a connection with the son. And through another typical irony, Lila had been able to improve her basic skills in further lessons from Elena. After only a couple of weeks, it’s Lila who is swimming with Nino, their easy strokes easily taking both of them away from the ungainly Elena. She sees them ahead, and has to force back her own panic when she swims far out of her depth….

Is the symbolism crude? It isn’t subtle, and soon Elena is unknowingly helping what is starting to look like a project on Lila’s part to make herself interesting to Nino. She asks Elena to lend her a book, and it’s the plays of Samuel Beckett because Elena isn’t thinking of reading it. But Lila does, and she soon drops the name into one of Nino’s beach conversations. He is nonplussed, has to admit he hasn’t read Beckett, and asks Elena if he can borrow it. Of course he can, and Ferrante makes these encounters do a lot of work. There’s more symbolism in there, in the form of Happy Days, the Beckett play in which the main character is first half-buried, then buried up to the neck in sand…. Never mind their comments on what Beckett might be saying about the human condition. I’m just wondering who is getting stuck in the sand, and who’s finding ways out of it. Just how far is Lila going to take things with Nino?

Meanwhile, Pinuccia has been spending all their beach time with Bruno. He is endlessly considerate of her condition—I didn’t mention that she, unlike Lila, fell pregnant very quickly, which is why she and Rino are now married—and his self-effacing manner is the opposite of Nino’s. He’s neither as tall nor as good-looking as his friend, and she had been scornful when they first saw the pair in the distance. She had made a joke about ‘the long and short of it,’ but time spent with him changes all that. After a couple of weeks of daily meetings, something has got to her. She seems lethargic and apathetic before Rino’s arrival on the Saturday, and the others are willing to blame it on her pregnancy. But, when he does arrive, she insists that he must take her home with him. She says she wants to spend more time with him, but Nunzio knows. She’s doing it to keep herself from temptation. I might be wrong, but I don’t think anybody has pointed out the contrast with Lila—perhaps because she is being so uncharacteristically loving towards her own husband.

As the ironic take on the photo-romance continues, Ferrante makes sure we never forget that all this is in the context of where they are from and the people they grew up with. Nino’s father, we are reminded, did a terrible thing to the widow, almost sending her out of her mind. Other women, like Nunzia, are doggedly accepting of their lives, while younger ones like Gigliola seek a way out through marrying into money. This is the life Lila is pretending to accept, while all along she sees it for what it is, mercenary and reliant on the city’s everyday corruption. Had she ever imagined the comforts brought by her new life would make it bearable? The question seems almost irrelevant. The bitterness of the wedding night and the knowledge that she could easily outstrip Elena’s success seem to be sending her in a different direction. I just don’t know if she’s serious, or if she’s just spending these holiday weeks letting Elena and her new friend know who’s the best.

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