Ghostly moves (From Elena Ferrante’s novel The Story of the Lost Child)

We locked ourselves in her office and sat at the computer, a kind of television with a keyboard, very different from what she had showed me and the children some time before. She pressed the power button, she slid dark rectangles into gray blocks. I waited, bewildered. On the screen luminous tremors appeared. Lila began to type on the keyboard, I was speechless. It was in no way comparable to a typewriter, even an electric one. With her fingertips she caressed gray keys, and the writing appeared silently on the screen, green like newly sprouted grass. What was in her head, attached to who knows what cortex of the brain, seemed to pour out miraculously and fix itself on the void of the screen. It was power that, although passing for act, remained power, an electrochemical stimulus that was instantly transformed into light. It seemed to me like the writing of God as it must have been on Sinai at the time of the Commandments, impalpable and tremendous, but with a concrete effect of purity. Magnificent, I said. I’ll teach you, she said. And she taught me, and dazzling, hypnotic segments began to lengthen, sentences that I said, sentences that she said, our volatile discussions were imprinted on the dark well of the screen like wakes without foam. Lila wrote, I would reconsider. Then with one key she erased, with others she made an entire block of light disappear, and made it reappear higher up or lower down in a second. But right afterward it was Lila who changed her mind, and everything was altered again, in a flash: ghostly moves, what’s here now is no longer here or is there. And no need for pen, pencil, no need to change the paper, put another sheet in the roller. The page is the screen, unique, no trace of a second thought, it always seems the same. And the writing is incorruptible, the lines are all perfectly straight, they emit a sense of cleanliness even now that we are adding the filthy acts of the Solaras to the filthy acts of half of Campania.

From Elena Ferrante’s novel The Story of the Lost Child. English translation by Ann Goldstein.

There’s a lot going on in this passage, in which the heroines of the so-called Neapolitan Novels, Elena and Lila, write an essay together using a personal computer’s word processing program (it’s the first time for Lila; I haven’t done the math here, but I think this episode might happen around 1982 or ’83). From the outset, from the earliest pages of My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante’s heroines have been preoccupied by writing, and in many ways these novels perform their own metatextual self-critiques. Not only does this passage show the experience of writing refreshed by a new technology, it also shows shows that authorship  is a shared, collaborative process, a synthesis (and fracture)—and not the act of a solitary genius. And in its final sentence, the passage points to a willed purity of writing, a stable resistance to the abjection and filth and evil that unceasingly threaten our narrator’s existence.

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