The Neapolitan novels

This post is dedicated to my fellow Neapolitan sister Disha.

There are few books ever written which, put it simply, rocked your world. Such an experience is by necessity to a reader’s sanity few and far between.

And yet when I started reading My Brilliant Friend, the first of the Neapolitan novels by Italian author Elena Ferrante, I already knew it was going to change me, my world, and my words forever. I read the four books in the series about a year ago – practically inhaled them once I got the complex web of characters and relationships down. And it’s one of those experiences where I wish I could erase my memory of it just so I could live it again. For a year I’ve known the impact of these books on me and my worldview but I couldn’t articulate quite properly why they were so life-changing and important, and every effort that put words to paper felt inadequate and cumbersome.

But today I’m trying. Because I’ve been thinking recently about how we can never know what’s going to happen in life. I’d like to think I know everything and can see everything lying ahead, but the truth is the universe is just playing with us as tennis balls. I’m inspired to use the Neapolitan novels as a lens to life just because while the author grasps that wild, unpredictable quality of life, she is able to contain and control it in her narrative – something I’ve never quite experienced, and something I envy.

The Neapolitan novels chronicle the lives and friendship of two girls from a poor neighbourhood in Naples: Elena/Lenu the narrator and her friend Lila. From the beginning, Lila is a force of nature that leads Elena everywhere and Elena is always a step behind, in her studies, in love, in understanding the world. Elena would gladly follow Lila where she leads, yet this also means Elena is always trying to catch up to Lila but will always remain in her shadow, despite the fact that Elena eventually escapes her poverty through education, while Lila becomes trapped in a loveless marriage and the conventions of provincial life.

The story is a traditional bildungsroman so we follow the two characters as they grow up and learn about the caprices of the world, while they try to take what they can from it. While traditional in structure, it’s not traditional in tone. There’s no pot of gold waiting for Pip at the end, or a courageous build up to killing Voldermort. The books follow the natural crest and fall of life as it is, and it’s the most realistic thing I know. There’s no satisfying emotional payoff because life just goes on and on and on.

At the start the reader hopes for these two girls – these brilliant, creative, interesting, girls with so much interiority. We hope they could journey on like other famous characters to get out, get better, especially when Lila (and Elena) show the promise of brilliance which in other novels mean they could have an extraordinary story ahead. Lila is years ahead of her class, and Elena is the most hardworking girl – both deserve exceptionalism. After all, why else are we reading about them?

Yet as the reader keeps going, you realise there is a sense of resignation that permeates the novels. Despite hope, despite education, despite upward mobility, despite class struggle, Ferrante punctures her words with a minimum brick layer of despair. I’m not sure what it is – is it because these characters are female and are therefore not meant to hope/strive for what they want, or is it because these characters are born in the violence of poverty, and much like Gatsby, will never escape that stink? Or is it both?

This sense of inevitable disappointment makes the experience of reading the books an emptying affair. I always close a chapter feeling like my guts were completely dug out. But at the same time, the level of psychological detail in the narrative is so rich that I feel like I’m bursting to the seams in my imagination, almost leading these people’s lives – that this is me. I am Lila. I am Lenu. They are every woman. I am every woman.

While Elena goes away to complete her college education and meets people from more educated and affluent backgrounds, one day she is inspired in an almost torrential rush (in fact by a book Lila herself wrote many years ago) to write a novel and there’s something very female about it that demonstrates what it means to be a woman. She pens down a sexual experience she had on a beach with a man she did not love, a man who thinks he could have his way with any woman, a man she turns to in an act that completes her lack of self-worth, following the most painful rejection by the one Elena actually loved. This act is characterised by a kind of dirty quality – the kind that almost all women can understand because so much of interaction with men still has that dirtiness – just in the way men use women, in the way men treat women as objects just for sex, in the way there is violence in some intimacy, and in the way there is almost always an element of shame to women’s sexuality.

That dirty quality is one other women in the book recognise; when Elena returns home, the other women from her childhood echo her, praise her, for her ‘dirty’ book because they know what it’s like – that Elena has articulated the previously incommunicable. However male intellectuals are embarrassed by Elena’s book or they see it as gratuitous, unimportant and sensationalised. But that’s because there is some element of being a woman that men can never understand, with men as conquerer rather than the conquered, the one acting but never the one being acted on.

As I’ve read in a review, Elena Ferrante is Jane Austen on fire. I have never read a series of books that more accurately portrayed what it means to be a woman in the world, which makes this such a quintessentially female experience that perhaps only women can possibly fully understand the text, just like the women with Elena’s book. But at the same time these books are one of the best ways men can ever hope to get into the minds of women subject to the violence, inequalities, hopes and dreams, and poverty of being female. For any dudebro who says ‘I just don’t understand women’ or ‘women are a mystery’, well, attempt to read Elena Ferrante and you’ll understand.

Another element of the female experience is Elena and Lila’s friendship. That sense of despair I mentioned is also felt in their friendship. It’s one of the best, most complex depiction of a female friendship I’ve read before, and it rings so true. There is so much in the life and death of these friendships. Lenu and Lila were inseparable; they mirrored each other; they supported each other. But at the same time there was comparison and rivalry and envy. I felt at certain points in the novel that we were all Elena; we all wished we were Lila but we could only be Elena. And despite all the ugliness that Lila’s life became, there’s still an inequality there that Elena could never fill.

The first novel is called My Brilliant Friend and I’ve always thought this title referred to Lila as she had so much natural potential which Elena so envied and wanted. But in the end because of Lila’s circumstances and fear, Elena is the one who could complete her education while Lila dropped out of school. And as Elena advanced in her studies, Lila one day tells Elena ‘you’re my brilliant friend’ in the novel, when Lila is using her newly gained husband’s money to help Elena buy her books. It’s a deliberate twist of perspective from the author, but for the characters it was just so. And that’s when I realised that perhaps we all thought we were Elena, and Elena is perhaps enough after all, perhaps even better than Lila. That this circle of envy emblematic of many female friendships is just that: a cycle that should be broken.

Throughout the series, both women rely on each other in a manner of deep love, but also holding each other as the benchmarks of their lives: Elena always comparing herself to the Lila in her mind, who she could have been, and Lila seeing in Elena the life she could have lived, the mother who could have given her children more. On some level it’s almost sick that these women would do this to each other. But at the same time, when these women come together, something electric happens – they bring out the best in each other and they create a force that – no matter how parasitic – pushes them both to move forward in life.

As Malaysian writer Sarah Ngu says, “Lenu and Lila are so primordial in their drives—one hungering for approval, the other for control and stability—and so unchanging throughout the series that, over time, they come off less like two characters and begin to sound more like two warring voices within ourselves. Lenu is the voice that we hear when we wonder, “Was that enough? Am I enough?” while Lila is the voice that hisses back, “What do I care? Fuck them all.” ”

And there seems to be nothing more female than this.

The truth is reading the Neapolitan novels makes me rather depressed about the state of class and gender in the world. While much has changed since the time these girls grew up in Naples, so much is still the same that I almost feel like giving in to that sense of despair.

But what I choose to take away from this complex series of works is that there’s something spellbinding in Ferrante’s writing that bounds us all, and it is this common point from which we must build.

 

 

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An excerpt of my application to a creative writing course in 2011

“ All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and the sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. “

— Ernest Hemingway in Esquire, December 1934

To me, writing has always been one of the most powerful wonders that can move a person not just to emotion but action. It is not just a production of beautiful phrases or even a mere reflection of who we are, but a means of connection. Indeed, there is something very private about the process and even the published final product of writing. There is something unique about the special arrangement a writer uses, the way he dips into his arsenal of words, albeit one that is publicly owned. I love to write because when I do, the page becomes a space I own. Yet, this is a space that is inevitably someone else’s, because my motivations and longings are also someone else’s. The world is the muse of the writer, who will go on to inspire the world. In this way, writing and reading hold people together in a life where fragmentation is too easy.

Most of all, I hope that, as with many of the ventures we take on in life, I can gain insights into the very things that bemuse us most, the heart and mind of the human, the friend, the lover and the stranger, and somehow rediscover connections to the rest of the world. In the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

I am a writing machine/A piece that turned into writing tips

One of the worst things you can experience in the capacity as a writer is getting burned out. I feel exactly as the phrase articulates–completely out of fuel. After having worked at this PR agency for 5 months, I am almost completely out.

I’m sure many of you would have guessed that the writing necessary for PR agencies can be very repetitive and unsavoury, because selling a product generally is and for PR you have to pretend you’re not selling a product but that you’re sharing news!! (Not that it fools anybody.)

In the past week, I’ve been a writing machine and I feel like I’ve produced five million press releases, all of which share some variants of the same phrases, words and tone, most of them self-congratulatory. That, I believe, is the tiring part of public relations writing. But in any case, writing a lot of things in a short period of time can be rather exhausting, no matter the medium or the style of writing. I’m still trying to figure out how to combat this, especially if the only thing I’m sure about right now is the fact that I will continue to write as part of my career.

(Certainly, creative writing is very different from writing press releases, and it was so refreshing when I opened my Pages document over the weekend.)

I do fear that exerting my writing juices at my day job will leave little left for my secret night hobby, but I have to wonder if writing is dipping into a limited pool of ink or if it is threading strands of imagination (by its own nature infinite) into something communicable.

But here’s what I do when I am out of writing diesel:

#1: Plan/Format

Some people write as they go along and form a narrative structure afterwards, but I’m the exact opposite. I like to know where goes where, and what comes after what, before I tackle the actual writing.  I also like to do all the formatting on the page at the beginning; it’s almost like a ritual at this point.

Plus, I feel like I have to plan and format before I can tell myself: now, nothing left but to write. It doesn’t matter where I start as long as I have a plan, which brings me to the next point.

#2: Start anywhere but the top

Everyone knows that staring at the blank page with a blinking cursor is the worst feeling, and somehow everything that comes after that first sentence is so much easier. So, just write any part of your piece – any paragraph, conversation, description – that pops into your mind the easiest as a fully formed sentence. If you’re writing creatively, jot down sentences/phrases that magically appear in your mind even when they are not immediately relevant to your story. Work from there.

#3: Read someone else’s writing

Preferably of a completely different genre and topic, so your brain changes gears. Though reading peripheral pieces about your given topic can also be excellent, as that can spark sudden inspiration. The best writing to read at this point is simple and economical writing, just because it will help the words in your mind flow and form into articulate sentences.

#4: Do this thing where you scroll up and down the document so quickly everything turns into a blur

Very much better than simply staring at the screen and not doing anything, after all!

That’s all I got for now, but I’m nowhere near being an expert to give such advice, anyway. So, look for me after I’ve published something I’m proud of.

“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.”

Ernest Hemingway (via 4mbivalent)

 

3 tips for writers dealing with rejection

amandaonwriting:

Three tips for coping with rejection:

  1. Laugh at your rejections.
  2. Learn from your rejections.
  3. Always have a new project underway, something that will give you hope no matter how many rejections come your way for the previous project.

You may take some consolation in knowing the rejection history of these writers and works:

Dune by Frank Herbert – 13 rejections

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – 14 rejections

Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis – 17 rejections

Jonathan Livingston Seagull – 18 rejections

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle – 29 rejections

Carrie by Stephen King – over 30 rejections

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – 38 rejections

A Time to Kill by John Grisham – 45 rejections

Louis L’Amour, author of over 100 western novels – over 300 rejections before publishing his first book

John Creasy, author of 564 mystery novels – 743 rejections before publishing his first book

Ray Bradbury, author of over 100 science fiction novels and stories – around 800 rejections before selling his first story

The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter – rejected so universally the author decided to self-publish the book

From rejection slip for George Orwell’s Animal Farm:

“It is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.”

From rejection slip for Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It:

“These stories have trees in them.”

From rejection slip for article sent to the San Francisco Examiner to Rudyard Kipling:

“I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.”

From rejection slip for The Diary of Anne Frank:

“The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the curiosity level.”

Rejection slip for Dr. Seuss’s And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street:

“Too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.”

Rejection from a Chinese economic journal:

“We have read your manuscript with boundless delight. If we were to publish your paper, it would be impossible for us to publish any work of lower standard. And as it is unthinkable that in the next thousand years we shall see its equal, we are, to our regret, compelled to return your divine composition, and to beg you a thousand times to overlook our short sight and timidity.”

TUMBLR ASK: how so?

I used to think that talent is the most important thing in writing. Talent and reading. To be a better writer, you have to read more.

I still feel that these two things are important, but the more I write, and the more I talk to people about writing, I realise that writing is just like any other skill or sport—you have to hone it. So, to be a better writer, you have to work at it. You have to continually write, write every day, and produce content consistently. You don’t always get the good stuff at first, and sometimes the regularity in writing helps to get the bad writing out of the way. At least, this is the way I function.

I realise that to write every day, especially creatively, it takes more effort and discipline than pure brilliance. It’s about sitting down at your desk typing away, noting down phrases on your phone, editing, when you can be watching television, or devouring a book, or Tumblring.

What do you think, anon?

What happens if you fall in love with a writer?

(via karenfelloutofbedagain)

Lots of things might happen. That’s the thing about writers. They’re unpredictable. They might bring you eggs in bed for breakfast, or they might all but ignore you for days. They might bring you eggs in bed at three in the morning. Or they might wake you up for sex at three in the morning. Or make love at four in the afternoon. They might not sleep at all. Or they might sleep right through the alarm and forget to get you up for work. Or call you home from work to kill a spider. Or refuse to speak to you after finding out you’ve never seen To Kill A Mockingbird. Or spend the last of the rent money on five kinds of soap. Or sell your textbooks for cash halfway through the semester. Or leave you love notes in your pockets. Or wash you pants with Post-It notes in the pockets so your laundry comes out covered in bits of wet paper. They might cry if the Post-It notes are unread all over your pants. It’s an unpredictable life.

But what happens if a writer falls in love with you?

This is a little more predictable. You will find your hemp necklace with the glass mushroom pendant around the neck of someone at a bus stop in a short story. Your favorite shoes will mysteriously disappear, and show up in a poem. The watch you always wear, the watch you own but never wear, the fact that you’ve never worn a watch: they suddenly belong to characters you’ve never known. And yet they’re you. They’re not you; they’re someone else entirely, but they toss their hair like you. They use the same colloquialisms as you. They scratch their nose when they lie like you. Sometimes they will be narrators; sometimes protagonists, sometimes villains. Sometimes they will be nobodies, an unimportant, static prop. This might amuse you at first. Or confuse you. You might be bewildered when books turn into mirrors. You might try to see yourself how your beloved writer sees you when you read a poem about someone who has your middle name or prose about someone who has never seen To Kill A Mockingbird. These poems and novels and short stories, they will scatter into the wind. You will wonder if you’re wandering through the pages of some story you’ve never even read. There’s no way to know. And no way to erase it. Even if you leave, a part of you will always be left behind.

If a writer falls in love with you, you can never die.