For a blog with a title that’s a joke on a lesser-known Jane Austen novel, whose banner is a picture of the author’s own over-crowded bookshelf, books are pretty absent here. It’s probably because I take the books I read way too seriously and I can’t be snarky about them. I wanted to try writing about what I’m reading but it’s not funny at all, it’s way too long and it’s confusing. Instead of using gifs, which felt out of place, I’ve stolen photos of Italy from a tumblr I follow, one of many copyright infringements on this blog. Pretty pictures of Italy are not from Naples where the books take place yet they uphold my belief that tumblr is the only thing in the world worthwhile.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the different kinds of love that exist. One thing I’ve been meditating on is how love doesn’t have to be between people, but it can be with things. A song you love, a sport you’re obsessed with, those are all just as valid forms of love as the love you share with other people, and I think equally important. It’s a different kind of love, but it’s real and rewarding. I am right now head-over-heels in love with Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, and it only took me three times to get my spelling of the word “Neapolitan” close enough to correct so that spell check would recognize what I was aiming for.
I have not been this into a book series since I read Harry Potter. It is driving my father insane. They’re a tetraology (read: there are four of them) focusing on two friends who grow up together in the slums of Naples. One of them gets out, the other doesn’t. The first novel, My Brilliant Friend, is on the bestseller list in the U.S. right now so some of you may have heard of it. I will say this once and only once: If after this post, you happen to decide to read these books, do not read just the first one. It’s just exposition and it’s my least favorite.
Ferrante is obsessed with something called smarginatura in Italian, a concept that doesn’t neatly translate into English. Translator, and one of my main girl crushes right now, Ann Goldstein calls it “dissolving margins.” It means, in my understanding, something like the disappearing of boundaries between you and the rest of the world, the bleeding of borders. It’s used in art for the blurring boundary between the town and country in landscapes, or in publishing when the margins bleed. The novels are a kind of a battle between these young women and smarginatura, the force pulling them into being subsumed by Naples, by their families, by the men they love and by each other.
It’s directly tied to the feminism of the book in that there’s a way that women have to fight for their identity that’s slightly different than men. Men are normally taught to be more autonomous through the stories we tell them. Women are in general still taught to view themselves as an other, in relation to someone else. I know I’m making a huge generalization here, and this is changing, but I don’t have an entire blog post to go into it. Just, it can be very easy for women to lose their identity to their family, or the man they love, or to be permeated by other people’s lives in a specific way that while I am sure that this is a struggle for men as well, I think is more pronounced for women.
The narrator of the novels, Elena Greco, fights smarginatura through language. (Heads up: This whole paragraph is spoilers.) First, she goes to school and surpasses everyone in her classes. Her studies take her further and further away, eventually to Pisa. She learns Italian, Greek, Latin and English in school so that her own accent in which she speaks in the Neapolitan dialect starts to change. When she finishes her studies, she writes a novel about her beginnings in Naples, and it paradoxically only further alienates her from the neighborhood which she describes. Later, her second novel gets her out of her failing marriage.
Words, Ferrante insists, are the way we create our own identity. Books (and I would say all art) provide a solid thing that can’t be subsumed by the ever-blurring world.
I know this blog is a dumb thing that only a few people read, and I know that my webzine with Heleen is another dumb thing that only a few more people read, but as I have started to allow myself to take my own writing just a tad more seriously over the past few months, I can feel the way language allows us to assert ourselves separate from the forces which threaten to pull us back into the smarginatura, the womb, nothingness.
As I write this, from my childhood bedroom where a faded yellow teletubby stares back at me, I feel terrified that the all-consuming smarginatura of Northern Virginia will obliterate me. But I think having the power to sit and write about it makes it feel more manageable. The stories we tell about ourselves and each other have that power. The power to say “I don’t care what that birth certificate reads, Louis Tomlinson’s baby is fake,” or the power to say that I may not be where I want to be in my life right now, but that doesn’t mean I’m not ever going to get there. And to me, that’s the only power any of us has.
I apologize for being so pretentious this week. To make up for it, here is a picture of Zayn Malik and Gigi Hadid in Naples, part of a shoot they just did glamorizing the rough mid-century Naples described in Ferrante’s books. It is the opposite of the Neapolitan novels, but you should see the entire slideshow because it is bananas: