On Watching Violence, and Elena Ferrante's "My Brilliant Friend."

Writing from the apocalypse, dispatch #10

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I started watching “My Brilliant Friend” on HBO a few weeks ago, and then last week started reading the novel as well. I was struck by how alive and known the characters were, especially the two leads: Lila, who, particularly as a child, is exceptional and haunting; and Lenù, whose constant quiet pain—yet simultaneous longing for, as she calls it, “the experiencing of joy”—is so very realized, and so very palpable.

The story, for those of you who don’t know, is about Lenù and Lila’s friendship, but really, it’s about the machinations of life against the backdrop of a poor Italian neighborhood in the 1950s. What’s highlighted, through their relationship, is the overwhelming burden of piggish patriarchal standards, class struggle—and the tragic intricacies that are borne out of the two.

Ferrante asks: What does it mean to long for something? Then what does it mean to have that feeling usurped by rage? We see this so clearly with multiple characters (especially men) who begin to weaponize their own desire against themselves and then against everyone else. You see them battle constant humiliation, which is inevitably followed by accepting the bitterness of their fate.

But, sometimes when that bitterness festers and sits long enough, it ripens and becomes perfectly explosive. This is what happens in Episode 4, Season 1. New Years’ Eve fireworks blast on narrow rooftops and the scene feels familiar, those days when spirits are high because everyone has agreed to have a good time. In a sense, it’s a performance. For yourself, as well as the people around you. I remember those days, well. When in front of strangers my mother was an enchanting being. Beautiful, charming. Those were the agreed-upon days we masked ourselves in a charade, one where we all played a family.

The camera moves from the fireworks to Lila, and suddenly the night takes a turn. It’s so fast, the shift, that it’s cosmic, and we watch as she witnesses, maybe for the first time, the beautiful crescendo of rage that begins to form in her brother, Rino. There’s a competition happening between the fireworks with richer neighbors, and Rino feels humiliated by his losses, by the wins they won’t give him, so, like a tortured animal, he fights back, his pulse ragged but strong. It’s the most thrilling (and equally devastating) part of the whole narrative; this characterization of violence. In scenes, it spurts out like hot water from a boiling kettle. It’s so rapturous, so ugly, so extreme that it holds me, close, fixated. Ferrante pulls it out so well, this violence, and she makes us watch. Like maybe she once had to, too.

I’m very adept at violence. I’ve been thrown against the room, lashed at with a wire hanger, hit with a rolling pin, sandals, the end of a broom, almost stabbed by a knife. Also hands, lots of hands. I say this offhandedly not to be callous, but because I’ve never had a choice to wear it with weight. So, in more ways than one, I’ve taught myself to be happy. And thankfully, I have been. Despite it all. For years, I thought this happiness was sincere until it wasn’t. Until I’d be consumed by a deep sadness that was like a gnawing void.

But that’s what happens when you realize you have to confront your past. It won’t let you move on otherwise.

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I’ve not been following the Elena Ferrante craze, but after seeing (and reading) these tiny illustrious details, the minutiae she captures with such skill, I’m sold. As a wannabe novelist myself, I am interested in the lives of writers, so I found this NYT profile of her from a few years ago to be so delicious. She’s so caustic, so unforgiving, it’s quite admirable.

Her anonymity is equally so. If you didn’t know, nobody knows who Elena Ferrante is. There are intense discussions about the possibility of who she might be, and many fancy, esteemed Italian men think that without a doubt, Ferrante is a man. (Jeanette Winterson discusses the inherent sexism in this stance). But that doesn’t surprise me (that men want to claim everything) as much as the fact she’s never, in the entirety of her career, which has spanned almost 30 years, ever revealed who she really is.

She’s building a mythology around herself, leaving a mysterious trail in a society that demands to know everything. Is she a ghost? A construction? Or is it just obsessive privacy? I wonder if the only way she can tell her story is to divorce it from herself?

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion writes in the White Album. This adage is perhaps the truest for anyone who tells a story through an artistic medium, especially when you begin to undertake a journey of documenting your healing through such mediums. Even if you’re not like me and don’t call it, “documenting healing,” lmfao—through watching and reading this series I’ve really thought about how pertinent it is to face the current violence of the time, so it doesn’t haunt us.

Isn’t this very moment, living through a pandemic, and all the trials and tribulations, that have come with it, absolutely fucking insane? The collapsing infrastructures, the climate, yet another murder of a black person—his name was George Floyd—at the hands of the police, that it all feels way too much. Our very own lives are so intricate and pouring with emotion and menace, yet we spend hours upon hours of the day looking away from ourselves only to fear what may come.

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In a way, I can’t stop thinking about Ferrante as a ghost, and what she may or not may have been through to want to hide from the public. We are beginning to understand that traumas are deeply embedded in us. Some of us only know how to confront them through our work, to begin to face them in a different language. To talk about violence—though to never call it that outrightly, but only to circle around it, again and again—is the way she communicates.

Ferrante, you can tell, is sentimental. She seems surprisingly sensitive for someone so apparently acerbic. She reminds me again, of my mother. Maybe I always secretly admire women like my mother. Because, in another universe, my mother had the life she wanted, she was the artist she always wanted to be, had the husband she longed for, and never experienced her own multiple traumas. In these moments, I understand her vastly. In so many ways, that—the grief of life’s failings—is ever-present in “My Brilliant Friend.” Like the word, Saudade, but instead it’s about the lingering sadness that lives underneath everything, like a residue.

Lenù towards the end of Season 1 declares, “They’re things that hurt but are also very moving.” I feel that way about my own life, and I wonder if it’s extractive. So, I battle with writing about myself, my family, my pain, but also find the release, the catharsis, quite remarkable. I do wish that I could disappear like Ferrante sometimes, become a ghost, who writes obscure novels in a villa overlooking the sea somewhere. It must be noted, Lenù’s full name is Elena. Some of us can’t (or won’t) name it for ourselves, so it’s easier to name for others.

Through her work, Ferrante interweaves violence so acutely, you know she’s asking us to think more deeply about how people become people. In more ways than one, the trigger into being an unlikeable woman is often just a trauma response. Lila, like my mother, is resentful, and she has reason to be. Ferrante never says that, but you’re forced to question, as I’ve often been forced to question: What would you do if you had lived under these circumstances? Who would you become? She humanizes deplorable women, not by forgiving them (I don’t think she’s that trite) but by understanding them. She also juxtaposes Lila with Lenù, showing the opposite side of the coin. Maybe she’s saying there are multiple responses to barbarity, so choose wisely. It’s a deep psychological excavation. One that I’m grateful for this week.

With love—

Your moment of zen:

  1. For Eid I’ve been trying to do a round up of places to give Zakat, Black Mamas Bailout Fund is a great place for anyone wanting to put their money into use.

  2. I’ve recently been reading a bit on Julius Eastman, the insanely talented composer/pianist/singer. Here’s a rapturous recording of “Stay On It,” performed in Glasgow, 1974

  3. My dad and I have wanted to go on a Silk Road tour since I was a kid, so I really enjoyed this write up in T Magazine.

  4. I really enjoyed this talk between Naomi Klein and Arundhati Roy