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This complicated fear, of both being misunderstood and humiliated, is telling. We have to learn, rather, to speak with pride of our complexity, of how in itself it informs our citizenship, whether in joy or in rage. And this fragmentation needs self-care. Our share-all world has made protecting the private seem almost like a perversion, a deviance, an act to view with suspicion. More than once she cites Italo Calvino, who says: By rejecting her authorial persona as a public body, she forces us to readjust our biases, refuses to let us apply the same language, the same discussion, to her work.
T he great explorer Thor Heyerdahl, when asked to consider the question of borders, answered: But I have heard that they exist in the minds of some people. There are time gaps between sections. There is a lot that goes unspoken. This seems to require you, as the author, to have a lot of trust in the reader.
Can you talk a bit about this relationship of trust between author and reader? When I was writing this, I had no agent or publisher, and was far from even thinking about having readers. Lucky You is definitely not for everyone, but I would never want to write a book for everyone. Literature that indulges the tastes of the reader is a degraded literature.
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My goal is to disappoint the usual expectations and inspire new ones. The books themselves, along with their marketing materials, quite clearly encourage it. But what if the alleged correspondence between Elena Ferrante and Elena Greco were just a diversion? What if the characteristics we identify in the latter, and implicitly attribute to the former, were only a carnival mirror shielding a deeper but less obvious commonality, the one between Ferrante and the brilliant friend herself, Lila Cerullo: The loss finds full narrative disclosure only in the fourth installment of the cycle, Story of the Lost Child , with an uncanny doubling, as both Lila and her daughter abandon the scene with hardly a trace.
In fact, Lila consciously erases any remnant of her existence; she decides to disappear, choosing an autonomous destiny that ambiguously overlaps with the fate of the entire city in which she has been living—and struggling—her whole life. Like Lila, the city offers no index, defies any conclusive description, blurs contours, and subtracts itself from external gaze. In the same vein, Lila, with her disappearance, chooses absence over the courageous and stubborn presence that marked her life—at least as it was narrated by Elena Greco.
Instead of infighting and openly challenging the violent tensions of the rione , Elena will build and solidify her presence through assiduous work toward a radically different emancipation model. By becoming a public figure as a writer, she aims at the acquisition of literary authority and intellectual respectability, a status seemingly unharmed by the quarrels of her poor neighborhood. It could be a perfect motto for Lila. By withstanding subjugation, she preserves the constitutional fluidity of her life, culminating in her choice to disappear.
There is an expression in Italian whose double meaning is untranslatable: In common usage, it means, instead: Rejection means shunning the games of those who crush the weak. It is a form of magic she has been training for her entire life. And yet this exorcism is not the confession of a failure, but the beginning of a journey: It is precisely when Elena Greco emerges as a public figure that the assumed existential parallel between her and Elena Ferrante proves to be misleading.
Through her writing talent, Elena Greco resolves to become a public persona. She sets out to fight her personal battles by following an intellectual model intimately connected to so many of the glories and delusions of the 20th century. She chooses impegno engagement —a form of intellectual commitment to present time—which distinguished the lives and works of numerous left-wing Western European writers in the postwar period, alongside the widely popular theories of Marxist philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Antonio Gramsci.
Although in different ways, the two philosophers argue for the necessary conjunction of intellectual responsibility with political action. The space and impact this model had in Italian civil society had no correspondence in English-speaking countries. For the majority of postwar intellectuals in Italy, the Communist party represented the only alternative to the restoration of conservative forces after World War II.
As it historically appeared in Italy, the intellettuale impegnato is predominantly a male model, not without narcissistic connotations. Yet Elena initially embraces it in her personal battle to excel, to find a suitable position in a field barely accessible to women, which eventually enables her to articulate original views and gain an intellectual credibility that are fully her own.
She is no stock character, for she elaborates her individual ideas on gender inequality partly by emulation of other characters, female and male alike, partly by reflections on her own experience. To do so we have to avoid every ideological conformity, every false show of thought, every adherence to a party line or canon.
Nowhere does she put it more clearly than in her New York Times interview, collected in Frantumaglia: Instead, I chose absence. Publishing dates, the only guiding criterion of this disparate volume, chart the emerging intellectual stature of Ferrante over the past 25 years, along with her literary achievements, the resounding noise triggered by her personal withdrawal from the media circus, and all the hype surrounding her global success.
Present in all the interviews included in Frantumaglia are the obligatory questions that journalists ask Ferrante regarding her real identity. Her provisional conclusion on this pivotal issue, which might have appeared not too long ago as a relic of old-fashioned literary snobism, looks politically timely today: The demand for self-promotion not only diminishes the role of the works in every possible sector of human activity; it now rules everything. Unlike her character Elena Greco, she avoided concentrating on the public construction of her figure as an author, exploring instead an alternative mode of communication with the reading public based on writing alone.
Her absence is both a story of self-education and a form of resistance to subjugation by any model imposed from the outside—a path that echoes that of her character Lila. In a interview for the Italian daily La Repubblica , Ferrante claims: The impression of superimposition between author and character, however, was not a feature of the original version of the collection published in Italy, in which the dialectal term forming the title stands alone, with no subtitle.
With her narrative, Ferrante investigates the absence of the beloved person, in the terms analyzed above, not only from a psychological perspective, but also as an anthropological and somehow transhistorical category, without indulging in essentialisms of sorts. Her novels work through the mourning for an intimate loss—almost always that of a woman.
This disappearance radically shatters everyday life as they always knew it. It acquires a profound literary necessity through the multilayered depiction of historical contingency—as in the case of postwar Naples for her Quartet. Disappearance signals the loss of the object of desire: The author narrates their choices as a subtraction , literally the action of taking away a quantity from another to obtain a difference.
Their absence is synonymous with their difference: And the absorption had become that book, an object that contained me. Now I was there, exposed , and seeing myself caused a violent pounding in my chest. Painful difficulties and contradictions between her private behavior and public pronouncements arise, especially in the last two novels. Elena Greco proudly chooses presence despite all the difficulties and personal setbacks, as one of the hallmarks of her literary and intellectual success.
In the New York Times interview mentioned above, Ferrante claims: Today it has become an unpredictable heuristic tool, acquiring persuasive cognitive penetration and unsettling literary force in her novels. It brings about a fictional short circuit with the narrative disappearance of characters she is creating out of writing alone, an idiosyncratic interaction that dismantles traditional literary dynamics that we as readers are used to accepting. Yet Ferrante is not there with them. In the Quartet, Ferrante resolutely refrains from taking sides between Elena and Lila.
Ferrante fans and curious readers can join DeSanti for an in-depth exploration of the Neapolitan books during the Aspen Summer Words writing conference and literary festival this June. The Neapolitan novels seem like unlikely bestsellers. What do you think accounts for the unanticipated success of these books? The best bestsellers, in my view, are those created by word-of-mouth and the pleasure we take in sharing what resonates with us. These are the books that stand the test of time. And with that, her ability which is masterful to locate and bring forth an epic drama that unfolds over a lifetime.
In terms of the two women at the center of these novels this reaches a depth not before seen in fiction. Their world is an easy one to enter, but then the scope grows and grows. From a cup of coffee in a pastry shop with a bedeviled history to the way a writer creates her voice, renounces it, and circles back again to re-making it: That difficult, ultimate, affirming-of-being, but in a feminine context.
From your perspective as an editor, why are these books significant in the publishing landscape? What the popularity of these novels suggests to us — confirms, really — is that what we come back to, again and again in literature, is strong and steadfast, regardless of all of the things we worry about in the industry. One way these novels are significant is the way they transmit nuanced emotion over time and place and bring to light what we have not yet seen or examined.
This is a quality peculiar to literature. So, many in publishing had to sit back and take notice. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies, but in the publishing of these books, Europa reminds us that we can still befriend our deepest passions as well. Can these novels be compared to any other books that have come across your desk over your editing career?
I have worked on some wonderful books, but these novels stand apart which is why I am championing them as a reader. To survive, literature must be a joint project among writers, publishers, and readers. Well, again, it goes against the grain. We have a culture of literary celebrity that has become entrenched. All of that trivia that authors and publishers and all have done it, sometimes with the best intentions have tried to merchandise.
We see that it is valued by others. To authors, I hope Ferrante has sent a new message: Find your own way. You are known as a champion for new voices and diverse points of view in literature. Do you think these books have helped to widen the scope of what publishers might be willing to consider? Will we start to see more translations, or books centered on women and female friendship? What I really wish for is that her work will allow writers — men and women — to feel more empowered to do what is truly their own.
She has thrown open a door to many new wings of literary endeavor, should we choose to venture in. I think it is because they speak to us so intimately, but are also highly social — showing us so many interrelations and co-creations, how we make and un-make one another, find and mirror each other — in all kinds of ways.
Reviews - Elena Ferrante
What is it about these novels that feels so different, and so important? What do they crystallize about this moment in history, especially for women? I want to hear what others have to say about this. It was at the suggestion of her editors in fact, Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, that this book even came to fruition. It chronicles the time from when her first book, Troubling Love was published in Italy , through the publication of the final installment in the Neapolitan Quartet, The Story of the Lost Child in America in For readers who are new to Ferrante, this correspondence demonstrates the thoughtful and precise way she utilizes language.
She puts so much thought and care into every phrase, and that is part of why I find it so addicting to read. It is widely known that Elena Ferrante is a pen name, and the user of that nom de plume has taken great pains to ensure that her true identity is concealed. She does not take part in any in-person or audio interviews, and requires all correspondence to be funneled through her editors. In what universe do people care so much about the identity of an author that they would go to such extremes? To what extent is an artist allowed privacy and the choice of a non-public life? This cult of discovery is troubling on many levels.
First, once one releases a work of art into the world, is that person then obligated to have any further involvement in the work? There seems to exist, in some perspectives, an umbilical connection between a work and its creator, that the personality branding of the person who wrote the book must carry some weight on the book itself. There runs an undercurrant of sexism here — suggesting that this writer must be revealed because it is so difficult to believe a woman capable of creating such a vivid and expansive world.
In a culture where fame is seen as the pinnacle of a career, for someone to eschew such recognition may be difficult to understand. Over and over again, interviewers make comparisons between her and famous Italian authors, and ask if she and those other authors are the same person. She never answers these questions, nor gives any particular details that might clarify any part of her identity.
That is part of what is so interesting about Frantumaglia — you can try to read the personal into her answers, but ultimately what matters is the creative process and its products. Wondering whether characters, descriptions, or plots in any of her stories are autobiographical is a waste of energy. She rarely does interviews, and when she does, they are via email.
The Italian author has said in written interviews that she would stop publishing books if her real identity were revealed. Her Neapolitan series has been called a tour de force and a modern masterpiece. The first of the four-book series is My Brilliant Friend, which illustrates the childhood of two young girls growing up in a poor town outside Naples, Italy. I have never read anything that so accurately portrays what it feels like to go through puberty as a young girl. These novels are less epic in nature than the Neapolitan books—they feel like an intense dive into the psyche of women at critical points in their lives rather than a sprawling bildungsroman.
These novels are angrier. They are jam-packed with quiet fury, brimming with an outrage that makes itself known instead of moving surreptitiously beneath the surface. The answers are mainly good news: And while achieving the internality of the book is too high an order for this series, its ability to conjure up the world of children confused at the happenings around them is its own achievement. Elena Elisabetta De Palo , seen briefly in a framing device, receives a call that her old friend has gone missing, and, knowing that this disappearance had been a long time coming, finally sits down to write the story of their intertwined lives.
We shift back in time to the dusty and sun-drunk Naples of the s, where Elena played as a child by Elisa Del Genio spent her girlhood, in the perpetual company of the bright but troublesome Lila Ludovica Nasti. But this device is less than necessary. And their frolics in a community whose rules they barely understand make far more potent points about the innocence of youth, and how it falls away, than the voice-over ever could. Book one in the series follows Lila and Elena from their first fateful meeting as year-olds through their school years and adolescence.
Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists. Seven years ago, it took just one book for an as-yet-unknown Italian novelist to become one of the most prominent personalities of the early 21st century.
It was a saga with numerous allusions to Italian history, anchored by geography to a small corner of Naples, and these facts seemed to condemn in advance its success as an export. Nearly two years ago, Italian journalist Claudio Gatti published a scoop, identifying Raja as Ferrante, after having scoured her tax returns and deciding that her assets exceeded that of the average income of a person in her profession.
Against all odds, the supposed revelation of the identity of Ferrante provoked a worldwide scandal. For her readers, Ferrante must be allowed to remain anonymous, should she wish to be. An international outcry rose up, from enraged readers who sought to protect the writer they love, and whose anonymity they wish to preserve.
Tiger Hills : For fans of Elena Ferrante, a sweeping saga about family and fortune
Nothing of the like had ever been seen before. Published in America by Europa Editions, the books are the successful result of an editorial policy that favors demanding work and patience over instant gratification. For literary professionals, it is a sign that in a time of faint-heartedness, there is still another path to follow: Rather than publishing feel-good books for silly entitled people, you can reach a wide audience betting on real literature.
Aside from the thirst for long narratives, which we also see in the incredible boom in TV series, readers of the world seem to want to read about genuine feelings. Lila gives up her studies to work in the family shoe factory, while Elena decides to receive a classical education and ends up leaving Naples to seek her professional fortune elsewhere. The proliferation of plot points and the multitude of characters, at a time when the hallmark is simplicity, is a further enticement. The fact remains that the book is first and foremost a war machine: Behind her mask, the novelist distills her public statements with the stinginess of a pharmacist.
The interviews she has given may be counted on one hand, and they have been exclusively conducted via email, with her Italian publisher as intermediary. Her desire for anonymity is non-negotiable. For her, once a book has been finished, it must stand on its own. She confides the profound joy she gets from writing and speaks of the pleasure she feels in responding to the curiosity of her readers through the volumes she writes. Far from having shut herself in an ivory tower, she discusses metoo and launches a stirring appeal for the enduring gains of feminism.
She compares the experiences of the great Hollywood actresses to those of the poor women of Naples, in a particularly stirring defense. Finally, she gives some unprecedented clues that may help us understand not who she is, but something that all in all is the same: Only when I began to work on that first text did I understand that there would be two, three, four volumes. No, I never plan my stories. A detailed outline is enough for me to lose interest in the whole thing. Even a brief oral summary makes the desire to write what I have in mind vanish.
I am one of those who begin to write knowing only a few essential features of the story they intend to tell. The rest they discover line by line. I started in and spent a year, more or less, completing the entire story, with its various turning points.
Then I began to revise, and I discovered with great pleasure that from the first page, the text was expanding; it grew and grew, becoming more detailed. It was a completely new experience for me. As a child, I liked telling stories and finding effective words for the small audience of kids of my age who gathered around me. It was electrifying to sense their encouragement, to feel that my listeners wanted me to continue, to pick up the story again the next day, the next week. It was a thrilling endeavor and an exciting responsibility. I think I felt something similar between and Once I was cut off from the media clamor — which was possible thanks to the absence that I chose starting in — that childhood pleasure returned: While readers were reading the first volume, I was refining and finishing the second; while readers were reading the second, I was refining and completing the third; and so on.
In the case of this very long story, things went differently. The first draft rolled along without running into any obstacles: The pure pleasure of telling a story dominated. Also, the work that ensued in the following years was surprisingly easy, a kind of permanent party. The honing of the four volumes, their polishing for publication, was essentially faithful to the first rough drafts and at the same time expanded and complicated the material.
No crisis, in other words, no doubts, very few cuts, few rewritings, a cascade of new inserts. My greatest fear is of suddenly feeling that to devote so much of my life to writing is meaningless. I need a lot of determination, a stubborn, passionate adherence to the page, not to feel the urgency of other things to do, a more active way of spending my life. Of course, when I write, I draw on parts of myself, of my memory, that are agitated, fragmented, that make me uncomfortable.
A story, in my view, is worth writing only if its core comes from there. One has to be very fortunate not to be touched even slightly by violence and its various manifestations in Naples. In the past, I used to think that only in Naples did the lawful continuously lose its boundaries and become confused with the unlawful, that only in Naples did good feelings suddenly, violently, without any break, become bad feelings.
Today it seems to me that the whole world is Naples and that Naples has the merit of having always presented itself without a mask. Since it is a city by nature of astonishing beauty, the ugly — criminality, violence, corruption, connivance, the aggressive fear in which we live defenseless, the deterioration of democracy — stands out more clearly. I do use the novelistic, but relatively sparingly.
The emotional bond we establish with characters is generally what makes their story seem like an endless series of misfortunes. In life, as in novels, we are aware of the pain of others, we feel their suffering, only when we learn to love them. Here I will decline to give you my reasons — I prefer that readers find their own way. I can only emphasize that that event was always, even before I began to write, one of the few definite and inevitable stops on the narrative journey that I had in mind.
In life, as in novels, we are aware of the pain of others. We feel their suffering only when we learn to love them. Lila, in my intentions, is never enthusiastic. She applies her intelligence to whatever, for one reason or another, comes into the field of action that she herself is given, starting from the moment she is forced to leave school.
If one wanted to put it schematically, the only long-range project that really excites Lila is the life of her friend. I believe that they have put a spotlight on what women have always known and have always been more or less silent about. Patriarchal domination, even — despite appearances — in the West, is still very entrenched, and each of us, in the most diverse places, in the most varied forms, suffers the humiliation of being a silent victim or a fearful accomplice or a reluctant rebel or even a diligent accuser of victims rather than of the rapists.
Just causes in particular are damaged by excesses. Even though the power of [offenders] large and small at the center of the world or on its peripheries lies in not being ashamed of the various forms of rape they subject us to and, by means of a repulsive stratagem, in making us think that it is we who should be ashamed. A certain disdain for the feminism of mothers and grandmothers has spread among the younger generations in recent years. There is a conviction that the few rights we have are a fact of nature and not the product of an extremely hard cultural and political battle.
I can decide to reuse some of the powerful devices of popular literature, but I do so, like it or not, in an era completely different from the one in which that literature performed its task. I mean that with some regret, I can in no way be Dumas. Rummaging in the great historical warehouse of the novel and the anti-novel is today, in my opinion, a duty for anyone who is by profession a narrator. That book is at the origin of my love for writing. Certainly, female writing exists, but mainly because even writing is powerfully conditioned by the historical-cultural construction that is gender.
That said, gender has an increasingly wide mesh, its rules have been relaxed, and it is more and more difficult to reconstruct what has influenced and formed us as writers. The literary apprentice, in short, passes through channels that are hard to identify. So I would avoid saying that I was formed by this or that author. We are in a period of great change, and the presentation of gender is at risk of being not only unconvincing but not really valid. Living is a permanent disruption for writing, but without it, writing is a frivolous squiggle on water.
Unexpected events, meaningful contradictions, sudden swerves in the language, in the psychology of the characters. When one is in love, one writes very well. And, in general, if someone does not have experience of life, what does he or she write about? That said, life, when it has the force of a tidal wave, can devour the time for writing. Motherhood, in my experience, is certainly capable of sweeping away the need to write. Naturally, if the need to write is strong, you sooner or later find an arrangement that leaves you some room.
But that holds for all the fundamental experiences of life. The metaphor of birth applied to literary works has never seemed convincing to me. The metaphor of weaving seems more effective. Writing is one of the prostheses we have invented to empower our body. Weaving says all this well. We work for months, for years, weaving a text, the best that we are capable of at the moment. Yes, friendship has to do with love but is less at risk of being spoiled. Sexual friendship is more widespread today than in the past, a game of bodies and elective affinities that tries to keep at bay both the power of love and the rite of pure sex.
Eileen Myles read from a memoir in progress and Ariana Reines read a poem, wearing a dress with a pattern of a city on fire. All of this felt exactly right. The books steering literature in new directions — to new forms, new concerns — almost invariably have a woman at the helm, an Elena Ferrante, a Rachel Cusk, a Zadie Smith. We consigned ourselves to books written by women and published in the 21st century. And we limited our focus to fiction, but not without some grief.
Memoir has emerged as a potent political and literary force in recent years see the terrain-shifting work of Maggie Nelson, for example.
Smith are some of the most distinctive voices working today. The books we selected are a diverse bunch. They are graphic novels, literary fiction and works inflected with horror and fantasy. They are wildly experimental and staunchly realist. This is not a comprehensive list, far from it. We hope it will be seen as a start — a way to single out these extraordinary books and the ability of fiction to challenge and reimagine the world. Every one of these books features a woman at the center.
You could say these books are on the vanguard, but to suggest just one vanguard feels so insufficient. What makes these books so rich is their plenitude, the variety they contain and embody. The books are also social novels of remarkable and subtle power, offering a history of postwar Italy and the terrorism of the Camorra. But everything comes filtered through the personal lives of Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco, ordinary women who would never make it into the history books.
Lila and Elena grew up in the slums of Naples, in a clinch so ardent and dangerous that to call it friendship feels hideously inadequate. The series carries us through 50 years, as the women rescue and betray each other, struggle to escape the slums and their mothers, and become mothers themselves.
Ferrante captures the barely contained violence of domestic life and is taboo-shattering in her unsparing and relentless exploration of the secret lives of women — their ambivalence and shame. Despite international acclaim, you have firmly chosen to remain out of the public eye, concealing your true identity and writing under a pseudonym. Your Neapolitan novels focus on the lives of two girls, Lenu, our narrator, and her brilliant friend, Lila. The book is just as much about the shifting political, economic, and cultural forces at play in Italy during this period.
These potentially intimidating themes are brought back to earth by delivering them through the lives and experiences of the two extraordinary characters and their evolving relationship. Your work is enormous in its scope and deeply layered, while still managing to be relatable. You have written a book that is unsentimental yet has a great, bursting heart, a series that explores the light and dark of friendship and the machinations of power. You capture the intense interior experiences of living in a society that works to confine you, and you also beautifully articulate the divine rage and rebellion which seethes within those subject to these oppressive experiences.
Elena Ferrante, I love you because your work is transcendent. You defy definition and you irreverently rebel against attempts to categorize your writing. You gave me a new understanding of what art can be. So no more excuses: Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym, not a real name.
And that mystery brings up a lot of emotional discussions about the real person behind it and the nature of the books. The beginning of the first book disappointed me as it is written in kind of a crude childish manner. The story is set in a poor and run-down neighbourhood of Naples, full of violence. The protagonist, Elena Greko, annoyed me all the way to the middle of the first book. But the style of storytelling changed as the heroines grew up and their view of the world developed. The deep voice and the great narration of Hilary Huber, reading the text of English translation of the novel, also dragged me in.
Only much later, when I read about the earthquake in Naples I realised why so many things in this book attracted me and pushed me away the same time. I saw the scenes of the earthquake for real — the crowds of people, the destruction, the overall life put to halt for a long time — I saw it all in Armenia when I was a little child. This whole environment in the book reminded me the small town in Armenia where I spent the first years of my childhood. I was lucky in a way. But a lot of the attributes of the environment seemed familiar either from my own memories or from stories told by my parents and relatives.
It shows naked feelings, feelings that hurt deeply and keep alive. She doubts herself all the time, but at the same time, she is brave enough to write about corruption and crime without having a second thought about the criminals who can recognise themselves in her writing. I am sure, this book could be an excellent subject for a dissertation on shame and vulnerability if Brene Brown got to it.
You either love it or hate it. The initial claim was that Cline stole part of the book from her ex using spyware. But the story of the lawsuit reads to a casual observer almost like a blackmail attempt, for which Cline has just countersued. In the second, post-Weinstein version of the complaint, those pages were gone, but the damage to the writer is done. It was a book about being a certain kind of girl. It was a story about the banality of young female anger and violence.
These novels, too, were a portrait of a lifelong female friendship or frenemy-ship , set against the backdrop of a community that experienced poverty and domestic and mob violence. That felt new and thrilling. So naturally, Literary Men were suspicious. Finally, she was doxxed by Claudio Gatti, a swaggering male journalist who claimed to have discovered her purported identity.
Snooping through real estate and other holdings, he pinpointed her as Anita Raja, married to Italian novelist Domenico Starnone. This is what Ferrante avoided by being anonymous, and what Gatti and others foisted onto her. Both of these novelists achieved something rare in the literary world: Both female authors were each then further punished by an unwanted act of privacy invasion. But at least temporarily and at least for some readers, Cline is reduced to the ex-girlfriend of the guy suing her.
Ferrante became the wife of another novelist. All this recalls another agonizing literary moment from recent years: After her speech, her friend and presenter Daniel Handler made a crude racist joke. And even though readers have rallied around all three these writers in the face of insults, the effect is still discouraging.
Famously, Elena Ferrante has annulled her own authorial identity: Who invented Marianne and Elinor and their mother and the many female characters who appear, disappear, reappear? She might well have been commenting on her own best-selling novels: Everything, including her computer, photos of herself, birth certificates, telephone bills, receipts, had gone.
And yet, like Italian identity, each personality displays seemingly immutable defining traits. This collection of essays on Ferrante emerges from a conference panel at the Modern Language Association convention in Philadelphia in January, , convened by the Prose Fiction Division. Behind this short essay hovers a general question about what two brilliant, cranky novelists, who are simultaneously feminist and uncompromisingly critical of feminism; bitter and enabling of hope; grounded in historical realism and radically experimental, might have to offer an audience at this terrifying political moment.
For me this boiled down to: In fact, it probably gets you a few more votes. I find myself returning to the image of women, in the privacy of voting booths, voting for Donald Trump. I know there are comprehensible reasons why women voted for Trump. No one needs to explain this to me; I read those articles too. But that image will not leave my mind. A Lessing or Ferrante could make something out of this voting booth scene. They are good on women making bad mistakes about men, and on how the outside becomes the inside—how the publically sanctioned state of subjection to masculine culture is internalized, even by strong, politicized, self-critical women.
Writing this paper, for me, meant engaging with the voting booth scene. In this essay, I offer a few brief points of contact between Ferrante and Lessing. They make lemonade from essentialist lemons. As Margaret Drabble writes in a review of Ferrante:. Ferrante takes us into similar territory, as she, too, endeavours to combine the personal with the political.
Ferrante and Lessing are both fascinated by hallucinatory states that break down the boundaries and structures that uphold imprisoning, conventional social forms, including relations between the sexes, or adherence to the Communist party line. The dissolution of these boundaries, although dangerous to the individual, can also be productive, even revelatory. It is the man here who has the power to break the social order. Further, Anna says this to her analyst who she knows will disapprove of this allegory of self-destruction as new creation. However, Lessing and Ferrante are both drawn to these gaps.
They simultaneously valorize and fear a violent and disturbing experimentation with the self. For Ferrante Lila is the main carrier of this possibility; in Lessing by contrast, the gap emerges from the impasse of the heterosexual relation. My mother left me a word in her dialect that she used to describe how she felt when she was racked by contradictory sensations that were tearing her apart. It was the word for a disquiet not otherwise definable, it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain.
This split claims that one precludes the other: This structuring dichotomy was critiqued by, but also replicated in, some of the s and 80s psychoanalytic and poststructuralist feminism that interests Ferrante. Lessing and Ferrante, engage this division in interestingly productive ways, even as they apparently resign themselves, and their characters, violently, even shockingly, to its dictates.
After reading one section—a suicide fantasy, Tommy says:. What can constitute the best that art can do for this historical moment? Anna cannot decide whether there is any point to writing novels rather than engaging with politics; those who do keep writing novels grapple with formal question of representing the chaos and dread of modern existence amidst the collapse of the Communist ideal and postwar nuclear fears. Do the times call for modernist experiment and fragmentation, or realism? The Golden Notebook , of course, provides both.
Tommy leaves Anna, goes home, and shoots himself. Although he survives his suicide attempt he is blinded. The novel seems to want its readers to ask this question, even as it defuses the answer both by redeeming Tommy he becomes happier, more self-sufficient, more political, living as a blind person—he even finds love and by revealing that the Tommy story was fictional—part of an embedded novel rather than a framing narrative.
There is a parallel between this incident and the complex dynamics in Ferrante around women, writing, and motherhood. A kind of No Future gesture? Another way of putting this question might be: They demand to be read in contradictory ways: I grew up in a beach town; the salt water is in my blood. From board books to wordless picture books, from classic middle grade novels to contemporary YAs, from evocative literary fiction to adult thrillers, there are beachy books for every type of reader.
See my note above about Italian beaches! The feelings that these books provoked in me were strong and visceral, inflamed and tender in their ebb and flow. As a woman, my vicarious anger has an undercurrent of resignation, because each injustice and pointed strike at Lila and Elena — the character — but also, all of the other Neapolitan women in the books rings a little too true to feel like emotional manipulation.
For all that they are exceptional, though, the neighborhood has indelibly tagged them. Lila, despite her potential, is never able to leave, while Elena, despite a fancy education and a high-class marriage, is still condescended to because of her background, never allowed to forget how she is different. Lila begins chafing at her vows and new identity her new name before the ceremony is even over, and the rest of this installment is, for her, about how she struggles to carve out necessary freedoms for herself, both inside and outside of her marriage.
Meanwhile, Elena has left the neighborhood to attend secondary school and university. Academically, there is no denying her talent, but she has what we would, now, instantly identify as impostor syndrome, in spades, and she is nearly undone on multiple occasions by a crippling sense of inauthenticity.
When she speaks among her educated friends, she always feels like she is pretending at intelligence, only hiding her poor vulgarity; when she as at home in Naples she simultaneously desires to impress with her accomplishments and be accepted as one of them, unchanged. Discovering feminism in an official capacity, Elena incisively observes the relationships between women and men in her writing and is struck by the messiness of applying what should be clear-headed logic on the subject to her own relationships with men.
In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay , it is an undeniably strained relationship, but the strength in their bond is something beyond amiable appeasement and shared interests. There is something deeper and more elemental that binds them. At times, you wonder why they still bother being friends, with the various trespasses, minor and otherwise, that they commit against each other. The official reunion is ostensibly a happy one, but many of their interactions remain terse.
Elena, who has always written from the perspective of someone who is constantly compared to her friend and found wanting, now feels increasingly compelled to justify herself and her choices to Lila in the flesh. Raising their children together, Elena struggles with how, despite their wildly different paths, they have still ended up in the same place. She interrogates the decisions that led her, a moderately successful woman with her own notoriety, to still have been so moved by men that her and Lila, now both raising children as single women, appear on the surface level to have minimized themselves and their ambitions so to remain comfortably in the neighborhood, just as all of the other girls without the same intelligence and drive did.
How meta is this exactly? Or that it was Elena herself whose writing had those characteristics, but her bouts of inferiority blinded her to it? Or is it Ferrante, herself, at the top line, voicing her authorial insecurities through her character? In any case, the writing is magnificent. I have tried to touch on a few reasons why I find them so excellent, but even more than those definable things there is just something about them overall that makes them unforgettable.
The Godfather Award for Best Sequel: I felt as though MBF did all of the grunt work of establishing place and characters so, so many characters , so that TSOANN could really get going with telling a focused, atmospheric story. Though Elena and Lila will always be connected, I thought that Elena really came into her own and established an identity separate from Lila in this second novel, which made me really interested to see how much further they develop separately in the third and fourth books as well. The end of the book provided a pretty good cliffhanger in which one of the two protagonists is at the start of a great success and the other one has sunk into abject conditions.
The two protagonists are now in their twenties. Marriage appears to have imprisoned Lila. Meanwhile, Elena continues her journey of self-discovery. The two young women share a complex and evolving bond that brings them close at times, and drives them apart at others. Each vacillates between hurtful disregard and profound love for the other.
With this complicated and meticulously portrayed friendship at the center of their emotional lives, the two girls mature into women, paying the cruel price that this passage exacts. Seeing Elena come into her own. By the end of the novel, however, Elena has spent several years away from their childhood neighborhood, forming a new though faltering adult identity for herself as a person distinct from her parents, siblings, childhood friends and former acquaintances. Elena still has moments in which she does not believe in the solidity of her new hard-won success and independence.
The fluid and complex portrayal of romantic relationships. For the first time in this novel we see the protagonists, Elena and Lila, grappling with the often unsavory realities of actual grown up romantic relationships, whether in first person or through the entanglements experienced by their friends. Italy has a plethora of dialects and accents through which you can identify someone as coming from a particular region or even city. She even struggles to hide her Neapolitan accent so as not to be ridiculed for it. Some of the most violent and raw scenes in the novel occur with the characters yelling at each other in dialect, as if there was violence intrinsic in the local language itself.
Certain segments dragged or seemed relatively unnecessary both to further character development or to move the plot forward. Striving to make a better life for themselves, they work hard at school but Lila is stopped in her tracks when forced to give up her education and work for the family shoe making business. I preferred this volume to the first more sex, more violence, and the women are becoming real adults , but its definitely part of an ongoing tale and requires starting at the beginning.
Last year, I finally joined the Elena Ferrante fan club. Then, as tends to happen, I started to doubt myself. Would my reading pleasure be diminished by the fact that, as the months moved on, I was forgetting the numerous character names that took me so long to get to grips with in the first volume? Once again, it is Lila who appears to suffer the most, and yet who remains an aspirational figure, effortlessly talented and captivating. The bus ride starts from a Naples train station one stop removed from the main train station; the dead end last stop with rows of worn graffitied regional trains parked side by side almost in the dark.
Once you leave Naples, the Naples-Torregaveta bus ride is almost entirely along the coast, like the Almalfi Coast route but less winding and less steep. This bus ride requires almost no attention from the bus driver, who frequently had his eyes off the road. While I was stranded there for 20 minutes, I saw three different wedding groups having their photos taken and as the novel relates, it was not a Capri crowd.
It was the best image I took in Naples, during my last few hours there. At the time, the only reference I had was to the book cover of the first novel, which I had not yet read, and so I had no idea the location would also signify something in the novel. The Story of a New Name is a whirlwind of a novel, which may seem unusual, in that nothing particularly revolutionary happens in its pages.
Two poor girls grow up in a crime-ridden, violent neighborhood of Naples in the s, using their intelligence, street skills and friendship with each other to fight their way through a rough childhood and adolescence. The two main characters of the novels, Elena and Lila Lina , forge a friendship that is unlikely and at times unlucky.
This force is what brings her environment -and indeed her friend Elena, the narrator — to oscillate between heedless devotion and uncomprehending animosity towards her. The reader too is pulled into this seesaw of emotions, as frustrated as her environment yet compelled to try to understand her, unable to leave her and return to peace. The world the books describe is ugly, mostly chaotic, often violent. It is a world where nobody is surprised if a woman is beaten by her husband; he is only continuing the corrective work her brother and father have started.
Children are not protected from violence or deprivation, teenage girls marry for the status it will convey, and the local mafia, sure of their impermeable status, walks the streets harassing young women. And yet the world of those Neapolitan streets is also vivacious, alive, smelly, ugly, and real. It simply seems to be an absorbing, fascinating account of two intertwined female lives. It will exhaust you and annoy you, but you will sail through until the last page and then heave a sigh of relief. And get yourself back to the library to check out volume three. And yet, this structure, it seems, cannot hold many forms of knowledge.
What if you know something about a text because of something dark, bad, shameful, or unacceptable, that you know about yourself? These are good books about people acting badly, most often in variously petty ways. Reading these novels about bad feeling has made us feel good. But reading evaluative criticism about them has made us feel, strangely, bad. We have found in the case of the Neapolitan novels, that the border between our thinking and feeling became even more vexed and blurry than usual.
By thinking in this essay through the good and bad feelings the novels contain, describe, and generate, we hope to come to a clearer understanding of our own sense of the possibilities and limits of criticism, as it applies to these novels, and to our lives as critics, in this fraught present time more generally.
What does it mean to call something petty, or to be petty yourself? Pettiness has to do with being out of scale. We might understand pettiness as a relation between attention and object of attention: This petty state is often where we found ourselves in response to much criticism about the Neapolitan novels. Something about it irritated us. Criticism about these novels felt inadequate to the largeness of our feeling and thinking about these novels.
The only talk about Ferrante we liked was private, non-argumentative. The critical takes, the arguments about authorship, the interpretive discussions placing the novels in various literary contexts and genealogies: And why was it all so irritating? Another possibility is that the irritation is a historical symptom. The years of Ferrante fever in the United States have coincided with the collapse of things more generally—politically, psychologically, informationally.
And yet the collapse that makes criticism urgent has another side effect too: And thus a variety of other forms of knowing and interpreting—gossip, subtweets, textspeak, side eye, backchannels—strike us as also, at the present time, particularly useful. These petty modes are insufficient to the role of understanding either literature or our present, and yet they are still, we would claim, necessary. At the very least, as we will show, they are necessary to a fuller understanding of the Neapolitan novels. What standards guide our judgements, where do the standards come from, and whose power do they support or undercut?
In other words, as a life. Backchannels in our contemporary world run the gamut from geopolitical intrigue to bitching with friends: Jared Kushner emailing furtively with Russian politicians, but also the more everyday flows of information in secret Facebook groups, DMs, gossipy texts. They are a place where people put knowledge they are not supposed to share; express irritation about things that are not supposed to irritate them; and indulge hysterics over things that are not supposed to be funny. In backchannels you reveal the aspects of yourself—aspects that feel unlikely to be legitimated by a wider public—to the people you believe are already on your side.
Essential to this form, too, is the response it assumes: Putting your worst or most outrageous self, your secrets, in a backchannel anticipates that the reader will reflect their illegitimate selves, their secrets, back to you. The novels are soul-baring but in an intimate, secretive, whispering sort of way, and they elicit intimate, secretive conversation in us, their readers.
So what is lost in responding to this voice in the idiom of criticism? While writing about the politics of literature, she has in fact mostly been focused on herself and her own comforts. We have cheered on her petty battle to improve her life in any limited way that she can, just as we are invited not to condemn her daughters for their pettiness toward their mother. Dwelling in pettiness is how the novels generate their pleasure. They invite us to respond with our own out-of-scale fears, irritations, and concerns, rather than with our big-picture understanding.
Consider, for example, how Ferrante structures her novels to insist on the narrative force of small details. But we readers see the situation more clearly: And the men know this too, know that the shoes are of great significance, even as they speciously urge her to not be petty. Denied, by virtue of gender and class, official means of social power, she engages in a sort of social guerrilla warfare.
Our sense has been that the pleasure of the novels comes from its petty details, but that criticism demands a sort of direct frontal interpretive attack that is counter to both the sideways power the novels describe and praise, and to our readerly experience of them. The novels are the place where she puts her pettiness: What would it mean, as critics, to join her there? We tried to scratch the itch of our irritation in our own writing about the Neapolitan novels.
Refusals to engage in the productive, consensus-building arguments of criticism, refusals to consider the big picture, refusals to elevate ourselves beyond our petty complaints. Our goal, we realize now, was to create in readers the irritation we were experiencing: We wanted to make polemic claims without making argumentative ones—that is, we wanted to make arguments while making it difficult or impossible for anyone to argue with or against us. We wanted to say something that asserted itself as the best without subjecting itself to the test of bestness.
Yet, we argued, this was wrong.