A Likeness of Wings

This year, I did not publish very much. In fact, I’m pretty sure I only wrote the one essay. The essay on the epistemology of hands, which has found a very good home at Adult, has been stewing in me ever since I did a university project on Alfred Steiglitz’s photography some five years ago. I did not realise quite how much I needed to get it written. I am surprised it got written. I still feel a faint jolt of shock–the ever reliable jolt–when I see it floating about on the web, perhaps being read, perhaps not. My disconnect with the published word, pushed out into the world, hardening into fact, is always deep.

There is still more to be said on hands. There is, one hopes, more time.

 ~

My reading and writing habits changed heavily over the past year. I’m not sure when and how, of course; as is the case with these things, you only notice at the moment of reckoning. I am not complaining. All I know is that outside of work purposes, I appear to have read more of what I want to read, which may overlap occasionally with but is still different from what I think I need to, or should read in the moment. I stopped trying to keep up with new books, although I read them unapologetically when I thought I needed to (and could afford to, we could do with acknowledging this more). I read a lot of British women: Penelope Fitzgerald, Barbara Pym, Nicola Barker, Kamila Shamsie, Sarah Kane, Agatha Christie. I enjoyed: Jenny Zhang, Zora Neale Hurston, Edith Wharton, Anne Carson, Alice Munro and Toni Morrison. Some of these are staples; it would be fair to say I did more re-reading than fresh reading.

I did not read many men. It is worth mentioning that I returned to James Baldwin and, to my utter chagrin, James Salter. They both write beautifully, but they are also very, very different writers, and sometimes I am disconcerted at how I could possibly like them both–or rather, how I could possibly justify liking the latter in the face of the former; although they are not directly opposed, Salter is so white. You couldn’t mistake it. I read a lot of Walter Benjamin for work, or rather, I ensured I could read him into work, and I am so glad I made that happen–I have grown into Benjamin, particularly his essays in One-Way Street and Illuminations, and the pleasure has skidded across days, even months. I binge-watched Jessica Jones like everyone else, and am still not over it, and do not want to be–but that is a separate essay, I think.

Writing from this year that I enjoyed to the fullest and even re-read, in parts: Jenny Offill, Durga-Chew Bose, Claudia Rankine, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Alexandra Kleeman and Elena Ferrante.  I mention them because of all the reading I did, their work springs to mind, which is a sort of sly test in itself, I suppose; those whose words, against all odds, press on the walls of your mind. I leave here extracts of works from two of these writers. From Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name, the second of the Neapolitan Quartet:

My friend tugged her husband’s arm with both hands. She used all her strength, and I who knew her thoroughly felt that if she could she would have wrenched it from his body, crossed the room holding it high above her head, blood dripping in her train, and she would have used it as a club or a donkey’s jawbone to crush Marcello’s face with a solid blow. Ah yes, she would have done it, and at the idea my heart pounded furiously, my throat became dry. Then she would have dug out the eyes of both men, she would have torn the flesh from the bones of their faces, she would have bitten them. Yes, yes, I felt that I wanted that, I wanted it to happen. An end of love and of that intolerable celebration, no embraces in a bed in Amalfi. Immediately shatter everything and every person in the neighbourhood, tear them to pieces, Lila and I, go and live far away, lightheartedly descending together all the steps of humiliation, alone, in unknown cities. It seemed to me the just conclusion to that day. If nothing could save us, not money, not a male body, and not even studying, we might as well destroy everything immediately.

I have written about the quartet before, and will not say much more, only that I barely read fiction to affirm what I already know, or suspect, or at least I try not to, but the Neapolitan novels–because of world views crystallised to a sharp edge like this, both in style and thought–have affirmed in abundance a way of being with myself and feminist politics that I did not think I would be so grateful for. Life has been easier after reading Ferrante, even as circumstances themselves have become trickier, but the aftermath of the quartet is not so much a warm glow of undiminished selfhood as much as a dented armour of willingness to recognise and hold fort in one’s own way against the rabid unthinkingness of kyriarchy. There is also a tangible need to do more. This is a bonus of fiction, I tell you: one does not read to seek this, but now I think, why not?

Not coincidentally, then, I hugely admired Chew-Bose’s essay on Gus van Sant’s 1995 film To Die For. Two extracts I can’t stop thinking about:

At To Die For’s Cannes photocall, where the film was screening out of competition and ahead of its fall release, one picture in particular of Van Sant and Kidman comes to mind. I’ve always loved how directors appear unlikely-paired when standing next to their leads. How mutual respect between two people can, on occasion, look terribly awkward. Pasted together like a collage. While it’s usually a matter of height, clothes, gloss, grooming, there is, too, that quality movie stars possess: their very own aspect ratio. Luster sourced from some place secret. An exclusive deal with the elements.

and:

In Joyce Maynard’s novel, Suzanne’s childhood dance teacher makes a point of noting that Suzanne had no rhythm growing up, characterizing her as a technician more so than a dancer: “Every step executed just right.” Harmless enough. However, when it comes to women who outrival, “execution” and “equipment” are terms that frequently crop up in an attempt to undermine. Precision is, in turn, code for not being a natural, yet that hard work is celebrated so long as it’s served seamlessly. More so, calling a young woman a perfectionist is sometimes backhanded praise, and accomplishments are provisional and contingent on one recurring phrase, popular in childhood and used, for example, by Suzanne’s mother: If she sets her mind to it.The idea being that if she focuses really hard and becomes, essentially, a human funnel of energy, wit, and emphasis, nothing is impossible.

The first extract I cite here because the glamour of her writing rivals in its attention and glitter, for me, the photograph she’s talking about. The second: again, that glimpse of women serving up a palatable form of labour, revealingly feminised in its utter defeminisation. It’s a quiet nod to the pitfalls of Lean-In feminism, which sits well with WASP-ish patriarchy’s code of ethics.

I want to round this year up with a passage from Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, which I am re-reading to undo knots that have emerged in my reading of her work. I am not sure why. This is a passage I can’t stop thinking about:

There were graves in Gilead with his name written out on them, and there was no one anywhere alive or dead with her name, since the first one belonged to the sister she never saw of a woman she barely remembered and the second one was just a mistake. Her name had the likeness of a name. She had the likeness of a woman, with hands but no face at all, since she never let herself see it. She had the likeness of a life, because she was all alone in it. She lived in the likeness of a house, with walls and a roof and a door that kept nothing in and nothing out. And when Doll took her up and swept her away, she had felt a likeness of wings.

A likeness of wings: I felt it in flashes, all year, sometimes because of reading or writing, sometimes because of people and places, in place, sometimes because the sea stretched out for miles and I could scarcely believe, in anything, and sometimes because the light in the room would be just right and the lifting was proof of life, of joy, in a way little else could be. Happy 2016.

On Three-Quarters of the Neapolitan Novels

I have some thoughts I want to put down quickly, mostly out of fear that I will forget. I am still reading the Neapolitan novels—I am nearly finished with book three, and slightly giddy at the prospect of book four—I am even considering an immediate re-read although I don’t think that is an indulgence suited for the moment. The Neapolitan quartet is, broadly, about the lives of two women, Lenù, or Elena, and Lila, or Lina to everyone but Lenù, from the age of eight to, I don’t know, sixty perhaps, and how they unfold in the city of Naples. It’s a saga, in the primary sense of the word, and Ferrante’s technical skill and the politics of her anonymity are more intricately noted here, and here.

I am not interested in that. But I hardly know where to begin. There is too much to say, with a great deal of both anguish and intrigue at the quartet prompting this impulse. Mostly, what I want to say is about care, I think, on this whole business of neoliberal self-care, which is an industry that I am increasingly viewing as serving to alienate various feminisms from each other to the point that after the kale, selfie and lipstick jokes are out of the way, we probably really should still be standing there in killjoy mode with our battered Lemys to ask what self-care means when it isn’t being co-opted by capitalism. I have no answers, but I suspect Ferrante does.

First of all—and I would like to extend what Dayna Tortorici has written about this with respect to Ferrante’s other novels here, to the Neapolitan novels—it is the premise of the place of work in the lives of both women, Lila and Lenù, and in the lives of the women they grow up around and engage with. Work is what saves them, even from themselves. “Work — routine — is a detergent for the mind, lifting the stain of another person’s unwelcome encroachment,” writes Tortorici. You see this over and over again with Lenù and Lila.

This work isn’t necessarily well-paid or skilled work, it is sometimes zero-hours-minimum-wage that may make rent. If for Lenù–and this is a reading I am reluctant to camp with–work is a manner of getting ahead of Lila, and it isn’t although she will have us believe so then for Lila it is the thing that keeps her alive, moving ahead, almost against life in order to feel it when she attempts to violate her everyday, if not with it.

This is not noteworthy in itself; others are better positioned to write about Italian feminist politics of the time; the changing nature of housework, feminism with, against or within fascism, etc. What is remarkable at least in as much as these are novels, works of fiction, is that this work is positioned to “lift” what Tortorici calls the “stain” of another person; these people are frequently men, men who treat women like scum, liberal educated men and illiterate gangsters and late-blooming communists and economic geographers who get away with all that violence: intellectual, physical, emotional. The men v/s work divide is pure genius in as much as the latter becomes essential by the middle of book two in a way that the former never has been to both women; if this wasn’t clear before in the diverging paths that Lenù and Lila took, it is clear as fucking daylight now, and we’d do well as readers to give in to it. Ferrante is clear: the work we do will save us from men, whom we are tricked into needing but don’t need, by the way.

This is the second fantastic aspect of her novels; from the very beginning, we are taught to eye these men warily. All of them. No exceptions, not even nice boy Enzo. This is some terrifyingly efficacious coaching in re-reading fiction, where the rug is pulled from under your little feminist feet because Ferrante quietly cultivates this storm inside you as a reader, so by the time you’ve finished My Brilliant Friend, and The Story of a New Name a few days later, and have nearly read all of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay in one sitting the day after that, you are not reading against the novel, as Eve Sedgwick would caution you about, but, against all odds, with it. In other words, these are feminist novels, the protagonists are women, and a happy ending, should there even be one, will be about the women. And it may well be about them escaping men, and we would do well do know that.

It’s been a while since I trusted fiction so productively, held it close to my heart so keenly.

I want to acknowledge too that it is more complex than I seem to be allowing for here; Lila’s work at the sausage factory is literally a crash course in how patriarchy controls, sexualises and dehumanises labour, particularly women’s labour. You work for the men who will oppress you in order to escape the men who will oppress you, etc. Here is Silvia Federici on the intersections: “Though women’s waged work, housework, and (paid) sexual work are still studied often in isolation from each other, we are now in a better position to see that the discrimination that women have suffered in the waged work-force has been directly rooted in their function as unpaid laborers in the home” (2004: 94). But you root for Lenù and Lila, you worry about the men in their lives, as Ferrante has trained you to, because she is writing unabashedly with that very agenda. It is not an accident that these men emerge as cultivated monsters, it is Ferrante’s deliberate, ringing voice from page one of My Brilliant Friend asking that you recognise this, in the novels, in your friendships, around you, asking that you respect the value and place of work and female friendships in your life because they will—or can—save you when men cannot, or at least they will kill you in ways you prefer. Here is Lila on Michele Solara, a man who has pursued her since they were children (which is putting it mildly):

Once, she thought, he asked me to become his lover, But that’s not what he really wants, there’s something else, something that doesn’t have to do with sex and that not even he can explain. He’s obsessed, it’s like a superstition. Maybe he thinks that I have a power and that that power is indispensable to him. He wants it but he can’t get it, and it makes him suffer, it’s a thing he can’t take from me by force.

The question I found myself asking constantly, even as the days went by in the novel: what does it mean to be treated well by a man? That he doesn’t hit us, or abuse us in any form; yes, all that. But also perhaps that he doesn’t patronise us, that the emotional walls that he builds as a man for us to scale—this is literally a line from book 2—explode, like Lila’s boundaries, as soon as they are built? If I give him sex will he let me be, but equally, will he let me be, live, write, if I don’t? Are we all replaceable simulacra in the lives of a man, like the women are in Nino Sarratore’s life? Does abstaining from abuse mean we are being treated well, or that we are being treated as merely human? When our standards are so low, both in professional patriarchy and in our private lives, is there a difference?

Lenù and Lila don’t think so, and I’ll tell you why: it’s because they see, however dimly, how they can be valued, they see the magnificent potential that grows within them to realise their best self in treating a beloved with self-reflexive love, because they both treat each other like that. Solara is not alone in recognising that power in Lila, Lenù—and most of Naples, let’s be honest—knows it too. The difference is that Solara wants to harness it, like Lila were some kind of animal whose genetic and social properties are a cure for his eternal inadequacy. Lila and Lenù are the worst for each other, because they see through each other–or so Lenù writes–but they also treat each other better than any man could. Lenù knows this, Lila doesn’t, or she doesn’t explicitly according to Lenù as of book 3, a real fucking tragedy if you happen to be looking for one. Is self-care also about acknowledging care that arrives, bruised, having jerked itself out of patriarchy’s bloody hands? Is self-care about recognising how the power in a woman so beloved to you can be a safeguard for your own struggles with womanhood? I don’t say this as a logical extension of mere care, but without wanting to give away anymore, there is an essay waiting to happen on Lenù and Lila as lesbian lovers, naturally.

Which is possibly why, even as I devoured them, the novels have been so hard to read. It is easy to recognise some form of man or another in the books from literature, culture, the world around you—the names read off an endless scroll, I should think—but more importantly, it is easier to recognise the women friends, whom one has inevitably lost to men. Lila’s disappearance—which opens the series and almost justifies the telling of the story, oddly reminiscent of the disappearance at the end in Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart—is much more than a metaphor, it is a validation and reclaiming of the constant disappearing of women through history. I had to put the books down then, and think: What has Ferrante put her finger on that is unsettling me in this moment? And then, if I had the energy: How does she do it?

A third, brief point: most of Ferrante’s women in the Neapolitan quartet struggle with mental health issues. This isn’t surprising. What is surprising is how deftly and openly Ferrante works with this reality. No glamorising, no shame. Just the unnerving reality of having to endure, god, endure, will the triumph of having endured ever diminish? That it is frequently complicated by its intersections with patriarchy and sexual politics is not a coincidence, thank god. The novels are “realist” in as much as they aren’t fantasy, but Lila’s “dissolving boundaries”—which I have chosen to read as a kind of breakdown, especially by book three—mess with the question of autobiography and world-building, if not genre itself. Lila has breakdowns, then, but Lenù’s struggle against emptiness and her continuous anxiety are performative of this struggle too. The deceptive first-person that dictates the quartet: once you get past the guise of autobiography, you are left with the voice of a woman you cannot trust, even as you trust the stories being told by her.

A last, related, perhaps inadequate point to conclude this, to return to the neoliberal politics of care. Artist Hannah Black is spot on when she muses aloud, in an interview about self-care: “Don’t you think that is like, pure capitalist reification though, in the sense of like, making a thing of a thing that is just a thing?” Yes, indeed. We arrive at writing, particularly in the realm of women’s writing, as a form of self-care, matrixed within the neoliberal project of patriarchy but also slipping out of it ever so often. The Neapolitan novels are fundamentally about women who write. I would stack them up there right with Joanna Russ, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Virginia Woolf, Kate Zambreno and Gayatri Spivak. Ferrante is part of that legacy; the books are about lots of things, but they are also mostly about what it means to be a woman who makes sense of the world through writing, for herself, for capitalist consumption, and how both can be redeeming and forms of complex, unrelenting care in their own ways.

I welcome this, and I hold it at an arm’s length because, well, no, it’s too much. Some of us are women who write for a living, it’s easier to deal with that when we pretend it’s happening to Lenù and Lila, not us. Lenù expands her world by making her way uncertainly through it; her writing enables her to stay on the supposedly ethnographic outside. For Lila, writing is a way through the world; writing the world out in her diaries and letters so that her disappearance is not just the absence of herself and every trace of her, but also everything that could have been known about her. The potential of it, because we cannot stop thinking of writing as holding the keys to understanding the (w)hole of someone. Lili Loofburrow, in a gut-wrenching essay about her sister’s suicide and how the Neapolitan novels helped her make sense of her sister’s absence: “Within the affective system Ferrante sketches out in the Neapolitan novels, erasure is an aesthetic as well as an intimate act.” Here is Lenù the narrator, in book three:

This may be the last time I’ll talk about Lila with a wealth of detail. Later on she became more evasive, and the material at my disposal was diminished. It’s the fault of our lives diverging, the fault of distance. And yet even when I lived in other cities and we almost never met, and she as usual didn’t give me any news and I made an effort not to ask for it, her shadow goaded me, depressed me, filled me with pride, deflated me, giving me no rest.

Today, as I’m writing, that goad is even more essential. I wish she were here, that’s why I’m writing. I want her to erase, add, collaborate in our story by spilling into it, according to her whim, the things she knows, what she said or thought […]

Perhaps it is testament to Ferrante’s writing that we forget that but isn’t this how we live our lives? I don’t know what book four will bring but Lenù’s desperate and skillful narration of chosen details of her friendship with Lila so the latter can be embalmed, in a manner of speaking, is self-care in the most basic sense; not the kind where a thing is made of a thing that is just a thing, but the thing that we have to remind ourselves is a thing so we can carry on doing it. And the difference is important. Lili is right, Lenù’s narration could be viewed as a kind of retrospective violence in so far as it is the opposite of what Lila so fiercely desired; it stops Lila from disappearing completely. A story narrated once, twice, eight times, to ourselves, to others: at what point does it stop being “true” and start being real? There are stories we tell ourselves in order to enable survival, which we sometimes call care, self or otherwise. Lenù’s story of their lives is one that is consistently generous and, at its best, demonstrates the ugly politics of care—and its utterly tender failures.