The Neapolitan Quartet, by Elena Ferrante

In Italy, I have decided to read Italian things. In 2018 that means Elena Ferrante.

I don’t need to tell you who she is, because if you’re the sort of person who reads a blog like mine, you know who she is. Years ago, I started My Brilliant Friend — the first volume of a quartet that is really one long novel — but I stopped reading. I’m anti-hype, by temperament not conviction. This prejudice has ruined as many opportunities as it has saved me botherations, it’s not admirable or contemptible, it’s just the way I am. The volume of the conversation around Ferrante scared me away like some nocturnal animal frightened by the din of garbage cans at his scavenging ground. But now I’ve come nosing back, and this time I made it to the end.

The books exacted an intensity of concentration from me — when I should have been sleeping, eating, working — that only a certain type of novel can. Narrative tension alone doesn’t hold my attention like that. But when narrative tension is married to a certain kind of raw psychological drama concerning death, isolation, meaning, or freedom — as in Dostoevsky, Simenon’s “romans durs,” or the Neapolitan Quartet — I’m helpless. I’d like to write books like that. I think of them as existential thrillers.

Ferrante’s existential thriller is the story of a lifelong friendship, begun in the 1950s, in a violent, impoverished neighborhood in Naples, and carried on through acts of love and betrayal until the early 2000s. The inner occasion for the first-person writing of the novel is that when one of the friends, Lila, disappears, the other, Elena, sits down to capture in writing all she can remember about her friend. Their friendship is agonistic but true. Elena has always admired Lila, whose intelligence and effortless excellence in all pursuits, but especially in writing, represents an ideal that both electrifies Elena’s ambitions and remorselessly devalues her accomplishments. The ideal is mostly virtual: Elena’s imagination of what Lila could have done, in slightly different circumstances, often makes her suspect that what she, Elena, has in fact done is worthless. But of the two, Elena is the one who appears — outwardly — successful. She has used education, marriage, and writing to escape the deadly gravity of Naples.

The novel hews closely to its subject, to the friendship itself, which defines the book’s structure and limits rather than any conventions of narrative pattern. Within that structure, the novel takes up and puts down a variety of genres, the romance, the crime story, the bildungsroman, and others, contextualizing them all within the friendship itself, a structure more tenacious and complex than any individual plot. In Frantumaglia, a volume of letters and interviews, Ferrante writes (italics mine):

Verisimilitude is the real that has long since found a reassuring symbolism. The writer, on the other hand, has the job of describing what escapes the story, what escapes the narrative order. We have to get as far away as possible from verisimilitude and instead shrink the distance to the true heart of our experience.

The Neapolitan Quartet escapes “the narrative order” by repeatedly not ending where you think it might. I read in another interview somewhere (I can’t find it: maybe I made it up, but it’s true anyway) an observation by Ferrante that the book could have a “happy ending” if she had chosen to end it at any number of points. More, it could have had a cadenced resolution — happy or unhappy — at numerous points, because it folds the complete structure of other story-types into something larger than story, because it continually sublates narrative order into something which narrative can, at best, articulate — the shape of a human relationship seen as a whole, in the richness that defies the simplifications of judgment and the poverty that preserves ambiguity.

What I love about this book, about all existential thrillers, is the way their frame of narrative tension — the reversals and revelations, betrayals and recognitions, fights and seductions — function like the frame of a picture, to emphasize all they do not contain, to open onto an unsettling view, bottomless and dark. The “thriller” aspect is an intentionally inadequate container for the “existential” aspect. They are 3am books: books you stay up to 3am reading, that also leave you with the kind of thoughts you would have if you woke up at 3am.

Ongoingness, by Sarah Manguso

Ongoingness is subtitled “the end of a diary.” It’s also about the end of Sarah Manguso, about how motherhood reconciled her to death. Prior to parturition, she kept a journal for 25 years. It was her “defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it.” In her diary she built dikes against forgetfulness. I sympathize. I have a diary too, whose hours I keep with a desperation that smells of fear. If I miss a day, it feels as if the day failed to reach its destination. Is it pathetic to see the page as the destination of the day? You can imagine the diarist, ink-stained and bespectacled, looking up at the end of life and realizing he, too, had missed it; he had embalmed it before it was gone. After she gave birth, Manguso’s diary habits changed. “[T]he baby became a little boy,” she says, “who needed me more than I needed to write in the diary.” She decided that “the best thing about time passing is the privilege of running out of it, of watching the wave of mortality break over me and everyone I know.” Maybe I need to have a baby?

Until just last week, one thing I didn’t think I needed to have was Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness. Her name was not unknown to me. If you care about the contemporary essay, particularly the “lyric essay,” you probably know of her too. I’d only read 300 Arguments, a slight if entertaining collection of aphorisms. While I was in the London Review Bookstore in search of a paper copy of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, I saw Ongoingness. I won’t say I bought it for its cover, but its cover was the proximate cause. A few blocks away in a pub, I read it in one go. It’s made to be read that way. It’s 88 pages long, each page devoted to a thought, some thoughts only a few sentences long.


I enjoy the talk of diaries; I appreciate being made to face the pathological nature of diary-addiction; but I’m not sure I buy Manguso’s conclusion. From the mysticism of finitude expressed in the joy of watching the wave of mortality break over her, she turns to the consolations of pseudo-immortality. This is from the last page of the book: “light . . . shines triumphant from the next of the living, and when their time is up, their potential spent, the light will move along to the next brightest, and the next.” Like all forms of pseudo-immortality, however, the drawback of reproduction is that it’s not, in fact, immortality. Not even on its own terms. The species will end. It will end well before the heat-death of the universe. At best, participation in the passing on of genes is a temporary reprieve.

I guess I’m team diary? It seems to me that if the diary as a tool for attending to the present can be replaced by a child who will carry on your “light,” then it was never a tool for attending to the present in the first place.

Like most people, I think, I spend a lot of time in my head, just hanging out inspecting the contents of my memory. I do that in bed; while riding public transit, queuing up, cooking, working out, taking walks; in those moments between bouts of focus when I stare at the wall. The untended memory drifts toward regret. I have a tendency to ruminate on shame and inadequacy. What I would prefer to do in my head is look over the more interesting of my perceptions and contemplate the brighter of my thoughts. For me, writing in a diary is about selecting those perceptions and thoughts, putting them on the shelves for idle handling throughout my days.

Franz Kafka was also an inveterate diarist. In his biography of Kafka, Reiner Stach compares him to “a photographer who spends the evening sorting through the optic yield of the day.” Kafka had his doubts about the practice. He came to suspect there was an inverse relationship between his prospects for romantic fulfillment and his writing. He struggled with the idea that a commitment to literary observation entailed a commitment to almost metaphysical bachelorhood, bachelorhood not just as alienation from the nuclear family but as alienation from the human race. Would he always be the gargoyle watching from the cornice?

Stach describes a joint vacation Kafka took with Max Brod. They had decided to keep travel journals. The idea excited Kafka because note-taking seemed a better way of taking something genuinely personal home from the trip — his impressions — than buying souvenirs or taking photographs. “But Brod was skeptical and instantly put his finger on the drawback,” writes Stach:

The danger of taking such extensive notes is that one misses out on many impressions that one might have made for even more interesting notes. Isn’t writing while traveling like closing one’s eyes, Brod wondered, after which one has to keep refocusing one’s attention.

Kafka appears to have recognized that this problem is more universal than travel writing: it applies to life itself. Could he commit to literature in a serious way and still participate in life? Wouldn’t it be like closing his eyes? In fact, as he slept his afternoons away and retreated from the life of his family into the silent watches of the night, hadn’t he closed his eyes already? Such thoughts could lead to fearful reflections, like this passage in a letter:

[W]hat frail or even nonexistent ground I live on, over a darkness from which the dark power emerges according to its will and, heedless of my stammering destroys my life. Writing sustains me, but isn’t it more accurate to say that it sustains this kind of life? […] Writing is a sweet and wonderful reward, but for what? In the night it became clear to me, as clear as a child’s visual instruction, that it is the reward for serving the devil.

Kafka never married or had children, though he did end his days in the care of a woman he loved. I wonder if he looked up at the end, considered his life, and decided he’d missed it? Maybe. Maybe I should have baby…