I understood only later that I can be quietly unhappy, because I’m incapable of violent reactions, I fear them, I prefer to be still, cultivating resentment.
I began to show up in class not only inattentive but unprepared, and I lived in fear that the teachers would call on me. Which soon happened. Once, in the same day, I got low marks in chemistry, art history, and philosophy, and my nerves were so frayed that right after the last bad grade I burst into tears in front of everyone. It was a terrible moment: I felt the horror and the pleasure of losing myself, the fear and the pride in going off the rails.
I said nervously that I was a student of Professor Galiani, and without even letting me finish, he laughed, exclaimed, “Elena?” “Yes.” “In this house we all know you, our mother never misses a chance to torment us by reading us your papers.” The boy’s name was Armando and that remark of his was decisive, it gave me a sudden sense of power. I still remember him fondly, there in the doorway. He was absolutely the first person to show me in a practical sense how comfortable it is to arrive in a strange, potentially hostile environment, and discover that you have been preceded by your reputation, that you don’t have to do anything to be accepted, that your name is known, that everyone knows about you, and it’s the others, the strangers, who must strive to win your favor and not you theirs. Used as I was to the absence of advantages, that unforeseen advantage gave me energy, an immediate self-confidence.
Isolated from the shouting around us, its coarse dialect, we felt exclusive, he and I alone, with our vigilant Italian, with those conversations that mattered to us and no one else. What were we doing? A discussion? Practicing for future confrontations with people who had learned to use words as we had? An exchange of signals to prove to ourselves that such words were the basis of a long and fruitful friendship? A cultivated screen for sexual desire? I don’t know. I certainly had no particular passion for those subjects, for the real things and people they referred to. I had no training, no habit, only the usual desire not to make a bad showing. It was wonderful, though—that is certain.
We gazed at the constellations, praising the portentous architecture of the sky with trite formulas. Not all of us, Lila didn’t. She was silent, but when we had exhausted the catalogue of worshipful wonder, she said that the spectacle of night frightened her, she saw no structure but only random shards of glass in a blue pitch. This silenced us all, and I was vexed: she had that habit of speaking last, which gave her time to reflect and allowed her to disrupt with a single remark everything that we had more or less thoughtlessly said.
Everything in the world was in precarious balance, pure risk, and those who didn’t agree to take the risk wasted away in a corner, without getting to know life. I understood suddenly why I hadn’t had Nino, why Lila had had him. I wasn’t capable of entrusting myself to true feelings. I didn’t know how to be drawn beyond the limits. I didn’t possess that emotional power that had driven Lila to do all she could to enjoy that day and that night. I stayed behind, waiting. She, on the other hand, seized things, truly wanted them, was passionate about them, played for all or nothing, and wasn’t afraid of contempt, mockery, spitting, beatings. She deserved Nino, in other words, because she thought that to love him meant to try to have him, not to hope that he would want her.
In her notebooks I found notes on how she was reading the difficult texts: she struggled to advance, page by page, but after a while she lost the thread, she thought of something else; yet she forced her eye to keep gliding along the lines, her fingers turned the pages automatically, and by the end she had the impression that, even though she hadn’t understood, the words had nevertheless entered her brain and inspired thoughts. Starting there, she reread the book and, reading, corrected her thoughts or amplified them, until the text was no longer useful, she looked for others.
Like that, a swift back and forth: a polemical exercise that they both obviously enjoyed, maybe a friendly habit of long standing. I recognized in them, father and daughter, what I had never had and, I now knew, would always lack. What was it? I wasn’t able to say precisely: the training, perhaps, to feel that the questions of the world were deeply connected to me; the capacity to feel them as crucial and not purely as information to display at an exam, in view of a good grade; a mental conformation that didn’t reduce everything to my own individual battle, to the effort to be successful.
Although since childhood we girls of the neighborhood had wanted to become wives, growing up we had almost always sympathized with the lovers, who seemed to us more spirited, more combative, and, especially, more modern. On the other hand we hoped that the legitimate wife would get gravely ill and die (in general she was a very wicked or at least unfaithful woman), and that the lover would stop being a lover and crown her dream of love by becoming a wife. We were, in short, on the side of the violation, but only because it reaffirmed the value of the rule.
I was engaged to someone who hadn’t come and wasn’t coming to ask for my hand, who lived very far away, who taught but wasn’t paid, who was publishing a book but wasn’t famous? She became upset as usual, even though she no longer got angry at me. She tried to contain her disapproval, maybe she didn’t even feel capable of communicating it to me. Language itself, in fact, had become a mark of alienation. I expressed myself in a way that was too complex for her, although I made an effort to speak in dialect, and when I realized that and simplified the sentences, the simplification made them unnatural and therefore confusing. Besides, the effort I had made to get rid of my Neapolitan accent hadn’t convinced the Pisans but was convincing to her, my father, my siblings, the whole neighborhood. On the street, in the stores, on the landing of our building, people treated me with a mixture of respect and mockery.
I understood that I had arrived there full of pride and realized that—in good faith, certainly, with affection—I had made that whole journey mainly to show her what she had lost and what I had won. But she had known from the moment I appeared, and now, risking tensions with her workmates, and fines, she was explaining to me that I had won nothing, that in the world there is nothing to win, that her life was full of varied and foolish adventures as much as mine, and that time simply slipped away without any meaning, and it was good just to see each other every so often to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.