Once upon a reading

Elena Ferrante, “The Story of a New Name”

Through the Revolving Looking Glass

I remember seeing, some time ago, a movie that was bordering comedy and drama without truly becoming neither, not even a melodrama. It was sometimes touching, sometimes funny, sometimes only artificial – like many a successful box office today. The name of the movie was Sliding Doors  and it was the plot’s idea I liked most: two alternative futures for the heroine, depending on some apparently minor circumstance – her catching or not a train.

Well, while thinking hard (:D) about the second volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, The Story of a New Name,  it suddenly struck me that its main technique (the whole series main technique, I guess) is roughly the same – the revolving doors one, combined with the good old motive of the double so favoured by Romantic and/ or Gothic literature. Lila and Lenù are nothing but two faces of one and only character in two different circumstances generated by the turning point of continuing or abandoning her education:

My life forces me to imagine what hers would have been if what happened to me had happened to her, what use she would have made of my luck. And her life continuously appears in mine, in the words that I’ve uttered, in which there’s often an echo of hers, in a particular gesture that is an adaptation of a gesture of hers, in my less which is such because of her more, in my more which is the yielding to the force of her less.

Furthermore (and this gets better and better, oh, genial me J!) each of them reinvent the other by degrees, both as an ideal and an enemy, in a game of magnifying and diminishing mirrors. This could explain why a reader accused the narrative voice of omniscience – in fact the narrator tells two stories about the same characters, often from the point of view of the only self able to tell a coherent story (thus the first person narrative) since the other, left in a cruder world, has to be picked up (this was one powerful comparison) like the contents of a luggage accidentally opened:

How easy it is to tell the story of myself without Lila: time quiets down and the important facts slide along the thread of the years like suitcases on a conveyor belt at an airport; you pick them up, put them on the page, and it’s done.


It’s more complicated to recount what happened to her in those years. The belt slows down, accelerates, swerves abruptly, goes off the tracks. The suitcases fall off, fly open, their contents scatter here and there. Her things end up among mine: to accommodate them, I am compelled to return to the narrative concerning me (and that had come to me unobstructed), and expand phrases that now sound too concise.

In fact, if the shoes were the obvious leitmotiv in the first book, alluding to a Cinderella story gone wrong, here it has been replaced by a more subtle one: the scattered suitcase, symbol not of a life, but of a narrative, since the Cinderella story is now supplanted by the Rising Artist story, in some kind of a weird, Faustian way:

I began to read The Blue Fairy from the beginning, racing over the pale ink, the handwriting so similar to mine of that time. But already at the first page I began to feel sick to my stomach and soon I was covered with sweat. Only at the end, however, did I admit what I had understood after a few lines. Lila’s childish pages were the secret heart of my book. Anyone who wanted to know what gave it warmth and what the origin was of the strong but invisible thread that joined the sentences would have had to go back to that child’s packet, ten notebook pages, the rusty pin, the brightly coloured cover, the title, and not even a signature.

From this perspective, the abominable wounds the two “friends” successfully manage to inflict each other make an eerie perfect sense – Elena reads Lila’s notebooks to gain perspective of her other destiny, Lila sleeps with the love of Lenù’s life to punish her for her obsession with a rather evil being, Lenù begins to write Lila’s story to punish her for wanting to sink into oblivion without her permission, and so forth and so on. For it seems clear to me that the book is not intended as the story of a friendship, but as a bizarre parallel bildungsroman passed through the merciless introspective analysis the narrator subjects herself when she does not objectively psychoanalyse her other herself. But in the end, it always comes to one single being, and its key word is “imagine”:

I thought: yes, Lila is right, the beauty of things is a trick, the sky is the throne of fear; I’m alive, now, here, ten steps from the water, and it is not at all beautiful, it’s terrifying; along with this beach, the sea, the swarm of animal forms, I am part of the universal terror; at this moment I’m the infinitesimal particle through which the fear of every thing becomes conscious of itself; I; I who listen to the sound of the sea, who feel the dampness and the cold sand; I who imagine all Ischia, the entwined bodies of Nino and Lila, Stefano sleeping by himself in the new house that is increasingly not so new, the furies who indulge the happiness of today to feed the violence of tomorrow.

I read this second volume as eagerly as the first. Until this idea of the double hit me, I confess I was somehow annoyed with the progress of the fable, which seemed to me sometimes in a precarious balance between sublime and ridicule, with its characters sliding slowly and irreversibly from caricatural to grotesque. However, if my Model Author’s intentions coincide with the empirical one’s, this could be an interesting reading key to put things in a new and thrilling perspective. I’ll keep reading the other two volumes and let you know J.