It was Ferrante’s rusted safety pin that did it – the one that could give you tetanus if it pierced your skin while you played with it. The death-dealing prick at the beginning of My Brilliant Friend, is a Sleeping Beauty curse and the same one my grandmother feared. When Elena Greco, Ferrante’s narrator, says that she grew up in a time when children died, lost eyes and limbs – not to mention teeth – it’s a familiar story, even if it’s mine by inheritance, rather than by firsthand experience. Elena’s poor, tight-knit community in Postwar Naples, is one where you live in intimacy and suspicion of your neighbours – they might do you a favour, but they can also ruin you. We grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us, Ferrante writes. No-one in my extended Greek Cypriot family spoke these exact words, but I heard enough iterations of this sentiment to know that it was true.
My cousin, who I saw on a recent trip to London, testifies that Ferrante’s world of fearful convictions existed for our mothers and grandmothers. They’d witnessed not only the fragility of the human body in its poor, undernourished state, but colonial oppression and war. Even when life around them changed, they’d not quite felt the horrors pass, or maybe they saw them take on different forms. As we grew up, the rusted safety pin became a heroin needle, that we’d somehow be tricked into using. (Our grandmother could never believe us capable of direct misdemeanour) These days, my cousin laughs at their fears, though she wishes that they’d allowed her to discover life for herself, rather than telling her what to expect of the world.
My grandmother’s world, her ways, come back to me in flashes. Reading Ferrante, who was my work assignment and constant companion the two weeks I was in London, felt like haunting my ancestors’ minds. Though I grew up with the tall buildings and city grit, the hum of the tubes, I can’t help but feel that Ferrante’s Naples taps into a more essential part of my past. Elena’s feelings about the island of Ischia, could be mine on the Cyprus of my grandmothers: The island faded, lost itself in some secret corner of my head. As the years pass and I grow more distant from my now late grandmothers’ memory, I worry that I have lost their stories; but all it takes to refind them is the trigger of another, complementary narrative.
I’m far from the only person to stumble upon their own story in books. I recently read a New Yorker interview with young Irish writer, Sally Rooney, who says I feel extraordinarily connected to (Henry James‘) novels, like my whole life is there. And I still have so many of them left to read! Makes me feel very lucky. Rooney’s comment, in its allusion to novels, both read and unread, references the past and telescopes into the future. I wonder what she means by finding a whole life in the complex, psychologically acute American writer. Does she mean the actual incidents of her life, or rather, her mental and emotional experiences? Does she expect to find more and more of herself in the James novels she is yet to read? And would it matter what order she’d read them in – if The Portrait of a Lady, a young woman’s story, was left for her to discover at 52 and she’d managed to get to The Ambassadors, a more mature novel, at 17?
For me, Ferrante seems to document a whole life before I existed. The time before their birth is an important concept to Ferrante’s heroines Lila and Elena. The before is an invisible mystery and yet underpins the structures and expectations of their neighbourhood. Lila and Elena’s own tale fills the gaps in my before, helping me to understand and perhaps imagine, things about my family that were never articulated. I am living out my cousin’s wish, discovering and creating impressions, instead of reading obediently.
This post takes a break from my regular San Sebastián-themed posts, but it reflects my experience of boarding tubes and trains and planes and buses in the past two weeks, always accompanied by ‘My Brilliant Friend.’ To experience the Elena Ferrante phenomenon for yourself, get your hands on the Neapolitan novels, or look out for the recent TV adaptation of the novel, by Italian director, Saverio Constanzo.