The show is interested in two characters only: the relationship between the girls. All the other characters are instrumental to this unfolding engagement. There is no other interiority but theirs and only a dawning interiority for Lila. The first season is done. What am I supposed to do? Episode 7 was a bit of a slog. Too much boy and not enough Lenu and Lila. Each girl picks a less violent male she doesn’t desire to fend off a more violent male who arouses rage. In the case of Lila and Marcello, the beautiful, rich-boy bully, it’s more than rage. It’s also sexual attraction. Who has not hated a person you also wanted to fuck? She tells him she will kill him if he replaces her with another attraction. At the same time, she agrees to marry her smitten boy if he promises to keep Marcello away from her. She doesn’t want to be in Marcello’s power. It would be worse than being in the power of her brother and father, who are dominating but at least afraid of her. Lenu lets a boy feel her up because she can use him to scare off the twitching mustache letch who molested her the summer before and whose son she wants. It’s confusing. It’s all confusing. The less violent males turn out to have their own agendas, and they are not really less violent, only more smitten and temporarily bendable.
It’s enjoyable and painful to see Lenu in love with the letch’s son, a surly, baby intellectual with unshaved fuzz. Her eyes grow soft and hazy. Impulsively she presses his hand to the table, wanting him to stay at the wedding party, even after he has declined to publish a piece she has written for his little journal. She has been burning to see her name in print. The boy has been told Lenu is a better writer than him, and the piece has been polished by Lila so it’s a combination of their talents. Lenu is deeply disappointed. You can see the light go out of her eyes and the air leave her chest, but when you want someone, what’s one more piece of power you let them have over you? You tell yourself they are not a jealous bastard, and you grab their hand. He walks out, anyway.
In episode 8, the season finale, Lila and Lenu are back together, and we see what we have seen from their first moments together: each for the other is the only person in the world who speaks the same langauge. Not to share a language is isolation of a deranging sort. To share a language is to share an inner and outer world of understandings. To the girls, the phrase, “normal life” translates into “male control that will block all exits or produce so much trauma the exits won’t be visible. Lila decides to go entirely underground, where she has mostly lived with the exception of Lenu, and marry a man she does not love in order to leave the home of her father and brother. It’s a conscious choice and in making it Lila sees what she is turning into. Lenu comes to see it, too. It’s spoken of by the girls in their funny, truncated bursts of dialogue and sudden avowals of belief in each other. The scene of Lenu bathing Lila before her fake happy wedding is breathtaking. “Stand up,” Lenu says to Lila, and she rises, naked, and we see the glory of youth’s body she is going to trade away. The mind that has devised the trade puts at risk the the thing in her that ticks away, the cascade of language, depositing more and more along a restless shore. The teacher who discovered the genius in the little girl thinks Lila’s great gifts have been scattered and swept away. She won’t allow her into her apartment. Benj DeMott
On November 27, film critic David Edelstein was fired from his job at “Fresh Air” for a remark he made on Facebook. I will have much more to say about this going forward. He made a joke about butter, a reference to “Last Tango in Paris,” after Bernardo Bertolucci died. I am thinking about something Edelstein said in his apology for the remark: “I . . . would never make light of rape, in fiction or in reality.” This is a fair statement, but it also suggests you can’t make a joke about rape, period, and it suggests jokes and comedy “make light of” things. The joke didn’t work because the target seemed to be Maria Schneider, who had famously made public the engineered humiliation she had experienced on the set of “Last Tango” when she was 19. Jokes and comedy do not necessarily “make light of” things. Jokes and comedy can tap the most serious feelings we have about ourselves and the world. Brando, too, said in interviews he had felt humiliated by Bertolucci. It was cold during the shooting of his one, full frontal nude scene, and his parts shrunk. The scene was scrapped. Schneider said she thought Bertolucci was in love with Brando and that originally her part was supposed to be played by a boy. I think you can tell a joke about anything if you find the frame that does not beat up the people who have already been beaten up. Edelstein could have made an excellent joke involving butter about Brando’s cold-weather weenie and Bertolucci’s crush on Brando. If he had thought in these terms. It’s the not thinking in these terms that is not funny because it is so commonplace and generally unremarked upon.
As soon as we see the mustache twitching, we know Lenu is in the line of fire. Lila’s father’s sale of her to a beautiful man is a homoerotic exchange. The father is jonesing for this man from the moment he steps into his world. Maybe every exchange of this kind is two men fucking through the proxy of the girl. Maybe all male supremacy is men fucking each other in various ways. The question of male feelings about themselves as men is a blob of dullness that keeps expanding, no matter what Lila does to fend it off. It is gray goo. It is one of those giant balls that comes rolling at you in an Indiana Jones movie. You run, and you run, and there it is. If you are a male human, and you are not able to enter the story of these two girls as if the story is about you, then you are the ball in the Indiana Jones movies. This show is saying everything I am saying in every shot. It is so beautiful and so sad. Go, Lenu, ride those waves, read those books, stroke through that water, go get your friend, cry your eyes out so you know you’re alive.
I watch “My Brilliant Friend” with my hands over my mouth, ready to cover my eyes at a stroke of violence. Lila’s father. Has a word ever been more poisonous to say and feel its smoky meaning disappear in the air than the word, “man”? What is a man? No one cares. I don’t care. Lenu and Lila don’t care, and it is like not caring about Trump and his government. They could kill you, and they’re still so fucking uninteresting. I hate this episode, but I couldn’t stop watching it. I can’t stop watching a minute of this series. I worry it’s about to end, but I don’t want to look at the bar across the bottom to see how much time is left. There are too many men in this episode and things men say and do that circle women. Lila is a fly in a spider’s web. The more she buzzes, the more the silk circles her until she can’t move. She can’t move because she’s so alive, and the men want her aliveness inside them and then they want it to stop. She’s so alive and yet she can’t leave the town. She’s a kid. She’s maybe 15. Who asks a girl of 15 to get married? She is afraid of the world, and somehow Lenu is not. The thing that brought tears to my eyes is when Lenu tells Lila she is leaving for the summer. She has a chance to escape and swim in the sea, a whole summer away, and Lenu can’t think of anything but the guilt she feels in leaving Lila to fend for herself against her father, her brother, and the Marcello who has come for her. She can’t kill them all, and she knows that, and the knowledge is like dying when you are still alive. It’s pretty much what it means to be female in this town at this time and during all times and still now in many places, and there is a double consciousness always working, the thinking: This can’t be happening to me, and: This is happening to me, and I can’t find a way out because there is no way out. Lenu has been offered one, and what does Lila say? She says, “Brava.” She says, “You go, girl, go into the world I can’t venture into. Feel joy. Feel joy for the two of us.” But the thing is, it’s impossible to feel joy if you are the female who has gotten away and you know it’s a fluke, and it doesn’t change the condition the others live in, that you live in. There is no getting away because the other women are inside you, and yet you have to get away because you can only make one run for it.
I wrote this in memory of Robert Massa, who died of AIDS in 1994 and was much loved at the Voice, where we worked together for many years. It was set to music for an AIDS event by Gordon Beeferman.
The last time I saw my friend he was sleeping in his living room, and a Beethoven piano sonata was playing. He was thirty-six and dying of AIDS. I sat beside his bed and spoke into his good ear. He dove for air and huffed out words. On an alphabet board he spelled, “I don’t feel cheated.” Later he spelled, “I wish I had written more,” as if to say he had cheated himself. I said, “All writers feel that way.” He wanted ice cream, and I brought him a pop from the freezer. It dripped on his hands, and I wiped them with a cloth. I thought how alive we are until almost the last moment. I said, “You have inspired much love in your odd, shy way. How do you explain it?” He said, “I’m not demanding.”
There’s a Shakespearean feel to several scenes in this episode. A Sharks and Jets thing happens in the town as factions assemble, and sex, history, and politics enter the lives of the girls. People stop in the street to confer about power. People have to talk to each other in person because there is no other way to communicate, and it’s sexy, with bodies proximate in time and space. Lila is in her father’s shop, scheming to get rich with her brother through their secret shoe business. Money is flowing into the town and always has, and now the girls learn how the rich got powerful as black marketeers during the war and remain in league with mafia types. In the rise of the pushed-around poor against the cut-throat rich, the sexes join, with Lila at the hub. All the boys want her and they want her ideas. They will pay attention to her now that they can’t take their eyes off her. It’s the first time in the series we get to see more of the males and their complexity, even Lenu’s father comes alive as he tours his daughter through Naples, meeting people in the streets and seeming happy and chatty as he shows her off. She’s never seen him this way, and she finally beholds the sea she did not get to that time the girls ventured out and retreated before they could arrive. Lenu has started high school, and at first as usual she’s shy and unsteady without Lila. She makes a vow to herself to study hard. She needs to outdo Lila—who has already finished reading the Aeneid in Greek—at something. And Lenu earns an A for her translation but not before the teacher questions whether she has plagiarized the work. “No,” she tells him, sharply, clear about what she can master. Naples is teeming. It’s a real city, and it’s wonderful to see Lenu wandering around, learning to be alone and unprotected in public space, the crucial arena for a life of freedom. She has this on Lila. Their rivalry is beautiful, not something to see as a corruption of their love. It is partly the nature of their love, of all love. We fall in love with the people we want to be, at least in some ways, and as we rub against them, the edges of our separate selves blend a little. That’s the title of this episode, and it represents many things about aliiances of power in the town as well. Lila explains to Lenu, “We don’t know anything about power.” She is saying they have to study the world as much as books, and several of the boys in their circle have the knowledge they need. Lila will go anywhere to get a leg up on fear. She says that knowledge will help them control the fear they live in. That may or may not be true in her case. It may only be something she says and wants to believe. Lenu may be a better student of Lila’s words than Lila can be of them. She has attracted one of the rich, thug boys, the one she threatened to stab as she held a knife to his throat. He’s coming for her, and he has the added challenge for Lila of being beautiful, and we all know where beauty leads. Maybe beauty is more implacable than who owns the means of production in the town. In any case, every ingredient that makes a Skakespeare tragedy and comedy and history play is in this brilliant episode that flies at us like the fire works war in the final scene, joyous and terrifying. Everyone is awake.
The episode opens with Lenu discovering blood in the toilet. She thinks she is going to die, and she is right. Another girl explains it’s her period. She can get pregnant. Lila has moved away from Lenu. There are girls who work in shops and girls who go to school. The romance of childhood is the mystery of life. How does it work? How will I fit into it? By now the girls are thirteen or so, and the mystery is solved. Life is a bird lying on a dusty road, knocked out of the sky by a stone thrown in spite. Lenu doesn’t know how to study without Lila. She doesn’t know how to live without the romance of her relationship to this girl, who understands the grammar of existence. You have to start with the verb, she will ultimately explain to Lenu, showing her how to master Latin, as they sit side by side on the curb in the dark, outside their apartments. It is the most tender and beautiful scene imaginable, the girls finding their way back to each other. Lenu has discovered that Lila is secretly studying. She is reading her way through the library that has opened in the town, signing the names of other members of her family to the cards, in order to borrow more books. What do you do when you have found and lost the most interesting human being you have ever encountered? The one who finds cracks of light where other people, including you, see only a cinderblock wall? You do everything in your power to win her back and in the absence you measure the space inside you she inhabits and act as you think she would. Lenu’s face has broken out in acne. She thinks she is ugly and that Lila is beautiful. Lila gives off a sexual power with the force she shows and the force she hides. She’s a bit scary to everyone, and she uses it to stay separate and conduct her secret life. Lenu’s breasts are developing, and boys are eyeing her. Two confront her in a toilet and one offers her ten lire to show him her breasts. She holds out her hand and takes the money, curling her fingers around the coin. You can’t tell what she’s thinking when she lifts her sweater. She has the blank face of a sex worker, waiting for the moment to pass into another moment when she will spend the money on a pastry. She is testing what her body can give her and how she can parcel it out. In a voiceover, the adult Lenu believes she was channeling Lila in that moment. We think she is also testing herself in the realm of boys and what they want. One of the genius aspects of the show is the way it forces male viewers to identify with the female characters. There is no other place to go. In the entire episode, only an elderly male librarian is kind or decent to Lenu. When her grades are failing, her father loses patience with her. Other boys and men form a backdrop of large and small aggressions to each other and to girls. The rich boys drive around in a car and compel a poorer girl from the town to get in. She doesn’t want to. Everyone watches and lets it happen. Lila is enraged and calls it an “abduction.” Later, when these same boys will harass Lenu and one grabs her arm, breaking her bracelet, Lila will hold a knife at his throat and threaten to stab him if he ever touches her again. We can see the boy is turned on by Lila’s lack of fear. Fear is the medium the girls exist in. Also anyone who is poor and has been targeted for abuse. There is only one path out of this world for Lenu, and it is by following the crumbs laid down by Lila, who may not, herself, get out. It is through linking arms with women who want you to fly away. Once again Lenu’s grade school teacher intervenes with her parents and convinces them to allow her to go to high school. In its brilliant specificity, the story of Lila and Lenu is the story of every female life still being lived.