It might seem odd to use the word rapturous to describe a reaction to a piece of literary criticism, but I can’t think of a better one to account for the pleasure I felt reading “The Function of Pettiness at the Present Time.” The essay was possibly the only criticism of the Neapolitan novels that captured (could, I now think, ever capture) my experience of living with—and within—those four volumes.
Sarah Blackwood and Sarah Mesle nail it for me when they ask: “What if you know something about a text that you can only share at great cost, or simply don’t want to share?” What if what you know has to do with a friendship so like Lila and Lenù’s in its intensity that the novel seems to explain what went wrong in the friendship, theirs and, as I’ll say, mine.
There is for me something uncanny about the language of Blackwood and Mesle’s reading, something uncannily close to the story of my friendship with Naomi Schor, a passionate relationship that has nothing to do, in our case, as Jewish middle-class girls from New York, with social mobility; but a great deal to do with pettiness, or rather the “narrative force of small details.” This connection is more than intimate on several levels, not least because Naomi’s most important book is her 1987 Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine, in which she magisterially links the detail to gender in a discourse quite different from that of the pettiness piece, but to the same point: “The detail does not occupy a conceptual space beyond the laws of sexual difference: the detail is gendered and doubly gendered as feminine.”
I’ve been working for a ridiculously long time on a memoir about my friendships with three women who died in the first decade of the twenty-first century. One of the reasons for my embarrassing slowness has to do with figuring out really how to get at what happens in friendship, some friendships, and especially my friendship with Naomi. My Brilliant Friend illuminated my difficulty by its example; and ultimately, clarified by the brilliance of the pettiness essay, will give me a way out, a way to understand why this was the most formative friendship of my life, and finish the damn book, already.
Detail of a detail of the cover of Reading in Detail.