If I Could Smoke with Elena and Talk Dido
Updated: Apr 17
By Kristina Walton
Behind every sentence I write there is a wasteland of half-finished things, unlived-ness, two bodies, some stories that still make no sense and a present built on them. I am a half-empty space and this frightens me. My uncertainty about who I am bleeds into the texts I read and the texts I create. My uncertainty is haunting. That is to say that I am like Elena Greco, Elena Ferrante’s narrator in My Brilliant Friend. Greco ventures to tell us everything, the way one might pick up the phone and call her best friend when overcome with doubt.
If you’ve read the book, My Brilliant Friend, and gone on to read the other three books in the Neapolitan Quartet, then you might have expected this blog to have started with an anecdote about my best childhood friend (creator of Reads and Weeds, Smelly-- I mean Shelly Smith). Because this book is about that. It absolutely is about how girls bond together in childhood, and wound each other in adolescence, and fracture themselves in the name of love. It is about suspicion, manipulation, misunderstandings, fear, access to education, feminism, marriage, work, power, and much of that influenced by Dido and other classics.
Before Ferrante, I knew little of Dido. Dido who escapes with her life, from a violent past, in order to create something of her own. Ferrante has not only studied the classics, but has mastered them through translation and deconstruction of their literary forms. What she absorbed in her studies is behind her every sentence, every character construction, and every arc. She is exploring myths and simultaneously creating her own.
Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo bind to one another, in fact, over a competition of literacy. Elena Greco, whose nickname is Lenú, is goaded (Ferrante’s word) by Lila’s natural intelligence and advanced reading and writing skills. Writing becomes the instrument of their competition. It is also how the book opens. Writing is the tool that Lenú employs to keep Lila from truly disappearing (taken from an interview with Ferrante). Only through writing can Lenú win their literacy-based competition, attempt to own the narrative, and claim mastery of voice, tone, and truth. As the story unfolds-- from discarded dolls, to ogres, murder, to the “male city” by which these girls, like all women, are born into-- Lenú attempts to examine the foundation of her young life which is her own uncertainty. Uncertainty of self. Of men. Of the female body. Of friendship. Of family. Of past. Of future. Of love. Of writing.
The prose’s diary-like voice is layered and woven from Lenú’s experiences. She untangles and dissects and constructs a self within the margins of language as her understanding of language also forms: She studies translation of Latin, then Greek. The person she is constructing out of study-- from her female body, from the collected fragments stored in the writer’s mind throughout a lifetime-- takes shape, takes form, because of the literacy she continues to pursue. In the prologue of the novel, Lenú (now in her 60s), sets out to keep Lila from truly disappearing by creating a lasting record of Lila. Lenú as narrator wants the final word. At this moment in the prologue, Lenú feels clear, boundless, determined. We learn, through the origins of Lila’s disappearance, puzzled together from childhood events in this first book, My Brilliant Friend, that Lenú turned to writing in the first place because of Lila. In fact, it is only after Lila demonstrated her own mastery of a literary voice via a letter, the cousin of the diary form, that Lenú began to form her own literary voice, and her own voice. Further, Lenú’s writing, her education, her literary future, is finally validated and solidified when Lila implores, “You are my brilliant friend,” in an effort to push Lenú to never quit.
Lila does not have the uncertainty sickness. Instead, in early childhood, she fights and loses a battle with her father over furthering her elementary education when her father throws her out a window and breaks her arm. She pivots, and instead, decides to write a book as great as Little Women, so that she and Lenú can become rich. Since education won’t be her way out, then writing will be. But no: Her first story, a fairy tale, perfect in Lenús eyes, is dismissed by their teacher. So Lila goes to work in her father’s shoe store. There, she doesn’t just work at shoe repair, she creates. She designs shoes and sets out to make them with the help of her brother and to help her brother. For Lila’s existence is always acutely contained by men. In adolescence, her beauty captures the attention of the violent Marcello Solara, a son in a mob-like family that lives off the suffering and loss of others. Still, she manages, in her certainty of self, to defy male reason and push Marcello out. She marries Stefano, the son of the village ogre, Don Achilles, the Solara’s street-money competitor, to manifest a vision of a new city, made, at least partially, from love. She knows her power and leverages it at every turn --but she does so with her father and brother’s economic mobility in heart and mind. Lila projects authority, or this is how Lenú writes her. An authority Lenú first reveals to the reader by way of Lila’s disappearance. It is a myth in the making.
Before she wholly disappears, though, Lila suffers from “dissolving boundaries”, an attack that seems to occur when her brother’s “lack of concreteness” and her neighborhood--her defining margins--become “carried away” when the end-of-year celebration turns violent. Lila has studied her male world closely. She’s accepted her female position only because she, up until this point, may have believed she could self-determine within these male boundaries and in doing so change the male city itself. During the rooftop party, heralded by her brother as a show of power and financial means, her own concreteness dissolves in the shadow of her brother’s show of chaotic malevolence. Gunshots are fired. I can only think that this rooftop war is, in part, an allusion to the war the Italians have just narrowly survived, World War Two. The boundaries of Lila’s parents’ survival (what Lila calls the “before”) and Lila’s generation, her own survival as a woman, must feel blurred at this moment. It cannot feel possible to construct a new city as Dido attempts, or for Lila, to construct a new self, when men twist her pride and her love so aggressively. I understand her experience as Lenú describes it. She must have felt ensnared and invisible at once. She is caught in a world where she exists and doesn’t exist.
Dido, after constructing Carthage by outsmarting a king, allows her city to fall when Aeneas betrays her. She abandons her work. Takes her life. Her love also becomes a ruin. Book one, in the Quartet, My Brilliant Friend, ends with Lila’s wedding. Once again, what she has devised dissolves, the reality of her confining margins descends and manifests on the feet (the shoes she designed) of Marcello Solara, a betrayal shaped by Stefano, her husband. Her power and her will, are desecrated by men, despite the fact that she has mastered their rules. That betrayal can only exist from the vulnerability of love, a love, a vision, that she erected out of a love for her brother and father. Could it be that all Lila really has at this moment, is her confidant, Lenú? So, on to book two, The Story of a New Name.
Reading My Brilliant Friend over the last two years has, at times, felt like a crisis, but it has also given me tools by which to examine that crisis. With writing, I am never satisfied, and so, I never finish. I am uncertain of voice on the page, uncertain of character creations, uncertain of purpose. My own text--my life--are my tools of flagellation. I am uncertain because of what came before me that I know little about. I am uncertain because I did not know what it meant to have this female body--it is always unfolding. I am uncertain because of things my mother believed and my father failed to do before he died. I did not fully know my son, and now he is gone. I am uncertain because I have tried to construct a self from ruin, again and again and again. What else does a potent narrative voice do? A protagonist uses the I to tell you something about themselves, while also exploring what is hidden or unknown or unknowable. Ferrante said that it isn’t just what Lenú tells us that informs the narrative, but what is not there, what is not said, what she leaves out. So, Ferrante channels concealment via Lenú by having her tell us “everything.” What have I done everyday of my life, with my friends and children and husbands, if not form concealment by way of uncertainty. I just didn’t understand that it was the foundation for everything, until now.