There is something vaguely unsettling about seeing a photo of yourself that you didn’t realise it was being taken. There you are, seen from the perspective of another.
While it might seem like a kind of vanity to be interested in a photo of yourself, this fascination isn’t really anything to do with pride or conceit. Rather, it is the strangeness of seeing ourselves as others would that is so compelling. While we are used to seeing ourselves in the mirror, where we tend to set our faces in the same mould each time – it is rare to see our completely natural selves; in profile, laughing, reading to a child or engaged in conversation.
To some small degree, it answers the question of what people see, at least physically, when they see you.
Literature can offer a similar glimpse of the self, although, this time, it is the inner self that is exposed. It is the writer’s role to speak the truth of the human condition, without shame or censorship, and this truth is not usually a unique one, but a universal one. Writers expose the shame, the vulnerability, the awkwardness and the malice of their characters, at the same time lifting a veil on human nature. In their characters, we can recognise thoughts and desires that we might not have admitted to ourselves.
Like a photo, these moments of recognition can be unsettling.
In the Neapolitan series, Elena Ferrante is unapologetically, and sometimes brutally, honest in the way she exposes the deepest thoughts of the central characters, Lila and Lenu. And through this honesty, broader truths become clear.
In some ways, Lila and Lenu are hard to like – at times they are competitive, single-minded, jealous, volatile and often mean. In the first scene of the series in which the two appear together, Lila throws away Lenu’s beloved doll, setting up their relationship that moves in tides between love and, if not hate, then at least dislike, throughout the four books.
However, ultimately, it is the truth of their unpredictable moods, their insecurities and vulnerabilities, that endears them to readers. It is also in their flaws that readers can see a small, hidden part of themselves and their own relationships, which might not be as fiery as that between Lila and Lenu, but do contain a grain of the jealousy and competitiveness of the two characters.
In particular, Lena’s doubts and insecurity, no matter how much success she achieves, is sometimes excruciating, but in some ways, familiar. Even at the age of 50, after publishing numerous books and gaining wealth and fame, she lives in fear that Lila will write something better. It is hard to imagine that many readers would not have felt those same doubts and anxieties, and reacted in ways that were similarly shameful, or at least, less charitable than they might have hoped.
In the Ferrante Fever documentary about the Neapolitan series that was part of the recent Italian Film Festival in Melbourne, award-winning novelist Elizabeth Strout spoke about the honesty with which Ferrante writes. Rather than being repulsed by the cruelty that is at times displayed by Lila, Strout admired her for her strength and complexity.
“Lila is vivid – she makes these books for me,” she said, describing Ferrante’s story as “honest” and “brave”.
And perhaps that is the beauty of this lifting of the veil. It is a relief to share in an unguarded moment, even in the life of a character in literature. Just like the beauty of an unexpected photo, in which there was no time to pose or pout, it is refreshing to see or read the honesty that has been captured. In a world in which our lives are carefully curated for the benefit of social media contacts and we all become a little less known and knowable, it is a relief that these moments of truth still exist in an unexpected photograph, and in Ferrante’s work.