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À mon chevet: 'L'amica geniale'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
The boundaries of the neighborhood faded in the course of that summer. One morning my father took me with him. Since I was enrolling in high school, he wanted me to know what public transportation I would have to take and what route when I went in October to the new school. It was a beautiful, very clear, windy day. I felt loved, coddled, to my affection for him was added a crescendo of admiration. [...]

We spent the entire day together, the only one in our lives, I don't remember any others. He dedicated himself to me, as if he wanted to communicate in a few hours everything useful he had learned in the course of his existence. He showed me Piazza Garibaldi and the station that was being built: according to him it was so modern that the Japanese were coming from Japan to study it -- in particular the columns -- and build an identical one in their country. But he confessed that he liked the old station better, he was more attached to it. Ah well. Naples, he said, had always been like that: it's cut down, it's broken up, and then it's rebuilt, and the money flows and creates work. [...]

He took me on Via Costantinopoli, to Port'Alba, to Piazza Dante, to Via Toledo. I was overwhelmed by the names, the noise of the traffic, the voices, the colors, the festive atmosphere, the effort of keeping everything in mind so that I could talk about it later with Lila, the ease with which he chatted with the pizza maker from whom he bought me a pizza melting with ricotta, the fruit seller from whom he bought me a yellow peach. Was it possible that only our neighborhood was filled with conflicts and violence, while the rest of the city was radiant, benevolent?

He took me to see the place where he worked, in Piazza Municipio. [...] We went to the city hall, he greeted this person and that, everyone knew him. With some he was friendly, and introduced me, repeating yet again that in school I had gotten nine in Italian and nine in Latin; with others he was almost mute, only, indeed, yes, you command and I obey. Finally, he said that he would show me Vesuvius from close up, and the sea.

It was an unforgettable moment. We went toward Via Caracciolo, as the wind grew stronger, the sun brighter. Vesuvius was a delicate pastel-colored shape, at whose base the whitish stones of the city were piled up, with the earth-colored slice of the Castel dell'Ovo, and the sea. But what a sea. It was very rough, and loud; the wind took your breath away, pasted your clothes to your body and blew the hair off your forehead. We stayed on the other side of the street in a small crowd, watching the spectacle. The waves rolled in like blue metal tubes carrying an egg white of foam on their peaks, then broke in a thousand glittering splinters and came up to the street with an oh of wonder and fear from those watching. What a pity that Lila wasn't there. I felt dazed by the powerful gusts, by the noise. I had the impression that, although I was absorbing much of that sight, many things, too many, were scattering around me without letting me grasp them. My father held tight to my hand as if he were afraid that I would slip away.

-- Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, pp. 136-38 (translation by Ann Goldstein)
I read this pseudonymous Italian author's Days of Abandonment earlier this year, thanks to critic James Wood, who singled out her Neapolitan trilogy as among the best books he read last year. This is the first volume of that trilogy, and I am inhaling it in much the same way as I did her earlier book. Ferrante, whoever she is, grew up in Naples, where this book unfolds, and it follows an extraordinary friendship between the increasingly classics-oriented narrator, who is named Elena (Ferrante apparently studied classics), and an even more brilliant friend she calls Lila. The city of Naples and their violent neighborhood are drawn with concise and vivid lines. This passage struck me for two reasons, because I was reminded of my own growing up, beginning to see the world beyond my childhood home, and because my own daughter is approaching adolescence.


Anonymous said...

A tardy note of thanks. I know exactly where I first learned of this series of novels--right here. I was intrigued enough to try this volume and now await the fourth and final. Far and away the most impressive work I've found in years.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks for that. Glad you are enjoying it as much as I am!