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À mon chevet: 'Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta'

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

book cover
I came out of the bookshop, I stopped in Piazza Cavour. The day was fine, Via Foria seemed unnaturally clean and solid in spite of the scaffolding that shored up the Galleria. I imposed on myself the usual discipline. I took out a notebook that I had bought recently, I wished to start acting like a real writer, putting down thoughts, observations, useful information. I read l'Unità from beginning to end, I took notes on the things I didn't know. I found the article by Pietro's father in Il Ponte and skimmed it with curiosity, but it didn't seem as important as Nino had claimed. Rather, it put me off for two reasons: first, Guido Airota used the same professorial language as the man with the thick eyeglasses but even more rigorously; second, in a passage in which he spoke about women students ("It's a new crowd," he wrote, "and by all the evidence they are not from well-off families, young ladies in modest dresses and of modest upbringing who justly expect from the immense labor of their studies a future not of domestic rituals alone"), it seemed to me that I saw an allusion to myself, whether deliberate or completely unconscious. I made a note of that in my notebook as well (What am I to the Airotas, a jewel in the crown of their broad-mindedness?) and, not exactly in a good mood, in fact with some irritation, I began to leaf through the Corriere della Sera.

I remember that the air was warm, and I've preserved an olfactory memory -- invented or real -- a mixture of printed paper and fried pizza. Page after page I looked at the headlines, until one took my breath away. There was a photograph of me, set amid four dense columns of type. In the background was a view of the neighborhood, with the tunnel. The headline said: Salacious Memoirs of an Ambitious Girl: Elena Greco's Début Novel. The byline was that of the man with the thick eyeglasses.

I was covered in a cold sweat while I read; I had the impression that I was close to fainting. My book was treated as an occasion to assert that in the past decade, in all areas of productive, social, and cultural life, from factories to offices, to the university, publishing, and cinema, an entire world had collapsed under the pressure of a spoiled youth, without values. Occasionally he cited some phrase of mine, in quotation marks, to demonstrate that I was a fitting exponent of my badly brought-up generation. In conclusion he called me "a girl concerned with hiding her lack of talent behind titillating pages of mediocre triviality."

I burst into tears. It was the harshest thing I had read since the book came out, and not in a daily with a small circulation but in the most widely read newspaper in Italy. Most of all, the image of my smiling face seemed to me intolerable in the middle of a text so offensive. I walked home, not before getting rid of the Corriere. I was afraid my mother might read the review and use it against me. I imagined that she would have liked to put it, too, in her album, to throw in my face whenever I upset her.

-- Elena Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (translation by Ann Goldstein), pp. 53-55
I have taken a break from Balzac's La Comédie Humaine to read the third volume of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, published in Italian last year (see Part 1 and Part 2). Toward the end of the second novel, the protagonist, Elena Greco, describes how she came to write her first novel, about the disturbing way that she lost her virginity. In all aspects except the date of publication, this corresponds to Ferrante's first novel L'amore molesto, just in 1992 instead of the 1960s. The protagonist is on the verge of marrying into one of the leading intellectual families of Italy, the Airotas, who have helped her to publish that first novel, which becomes an emblem of the opening of Italian society in that turbulent decade. Men start to speak openly to her about their sexual exploits, all of her friends and acquaintances in the old neighborhood in Naples read the book, focusing on its "risqué pages," and reviews appear, alternately condemning and exalting her as the model of the liberated woman. Worst of all, her mother becomes furious with her when she learns that the wedding will happen at city hall instead of in a church. The Italian author known as Elena Ferrante has just published a fourth volume this year, called Storia della bambina perduta, so we have that to look forward to as well.

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