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Tiny Camels: "The books are full of blood – menstrual as well as that spilled through violence – and the women are as awful to each other as the men are to them..."

Date: Sep 2 2015

To Lutyens & Rubinstein last night to help launch the final instalment of Elena Ferrante’s quartet of Neapolitan novels, The Story of the Lost Child, along with Cathy Rentzenbrink (The Last Act of Love), Tessa Hadley (The London Train etc), and Susanna Gross, literary editor of the Mail on Sunday. We had a fascinating discussion, with help from the attentive audience, though as was pointed out by I think Cathy, this was largely because by the end we were less certain of our thoughts and opinions on the books and its author than we had been at the beginning.

I’ll say a little about my personal take on the books in a moment, but perhaps the best way of sharing something of the spirit and content of the evening would be to introduce the four passages that each of us chose to read. This was very much unplanned: we only decided to do it when we met up just before the event, but of course we all had our favourite bits marked in our copies and knew precisely what we’d like to read. What was so fun about this element was that it was different to a standard author reading, where – and I know I’m guilty of this – the author reads a bit they’ve probably read a dozen times, because they know it works, or it’s funny, or has got some sex in it. (And the humour, or comedy, of Ferrante is something that got discussed: Susanna said she remembered precisely the two points in the four books that made her laugh, and we agreed that while the books aren’t funny as such, and are full of violence, pain and misery, still there is something of the human comedy that runs through them; if their 1,600 pages were simply unremitting tragedy and trauma then we wouldn’t skip through as eagerly and easily as we – most of us – do.)

We read our passages in the order they came in the books, and introduced them by saying what the books and the author meant for us personally.

Susanna read from the second book, The Story of a New Name, from when the still teenage Elena has taken Lila along to her professor’s house for an evening of intellectual debate. Lila, the spikily intelligent but essentially unschooled best friend, says not a word all evening, while Elena tries valiantly to keep up and ingratiate herself, but once they’re out in the car, Lila sounds off to her husband, Stefano:

If you were up there, Ste’, all you’d see is parrots going cocorico, cocorico. You couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying and they didn’t even understand each other. You know what the O.A.S. is, you know what the opening to the left is? Next time, Lenù, don’t take me, take Pasquale, I’ll show you, he’ll put them in their place in a flash. Chimpanzees that piss and shit in the toilet instead of on the ground, and that’s why they give themselves airs, and they say they know what should be done in China and in Albania and in France and in Katanga. You too, Lenù, I have to tell you: Look out, or you’ll be the parrots’ parrot. She turned to her husband, laughing. You should have heard her, she said. She made a little voice, cheechee, cheechee. Show Stefano how you speak to those people? You and Sarratore’s son: the same. The world brigade for peace; we have the technical capacity; hunger, war. But do you really work that hard in school so you can say things just like he does? Whoever finds a solution to the problems is working for peace. Bravo. Do you remember how the son of Sarratore was able to find a solution: Do you remember, do you – and you pay attention to him? You, too, you want to be a puppet from the neighbourhood who performs so you can be welcomed into the home of those people? You want to leave us alone in our own shit, cracking our skulls, while all of you go cocorico, cocorico, hunger, war, working class, peace?

Susanna was brilliant at giving vent to Lila’s spite and invective in those cocoricos and shits and pisses – and in fact there was talk too of the great swearing throughout these books – but of course the passage also gives a flavour of the relationship at the heart of the books. Ferrante shows eloquently how how it is possible to hate someone and wish them ill even as you love them, just as it is possible to desire someone and at the same time be disgusted by them.

Cathy read from the beginning of The Story of the Lost Child, in a section that shows how Elena, even when she is a published author, still has to speak up to be heard and noticed in the literary world – something that Cathy said resonated greatly with her personally.

Elena has been at a conference with her lover, Nino (that very same ‘son of Sarratore), where he was presenting a paper, and they have been offered a lift to Paris by a French couple that Lila had got chatting to while Nino was off gladhanding and brownnosing.

I remembered the publisher in Nanterre and my short, scholarly story about the male invention of women. Until that moment I hadn’t talked about myself to anyone, even Nino. I had been the smiling but nearly mute woman who slept with the brilliant professor from Naples, the woman always pasted to him, attentive to his needs, to his thoughts, but now I said with false cheer: it’s Nino who has to return, I have an engagement in Nanterre; a work of mine is about to come out – or maybe it’s already out – a half essay, half story; I just might leave with you, and stop in at the publisher’s. The two looked at me as if only at that moment had I actually begun to exist, and they went on to ask me abut my work. I told them, and it turned out that Colombe knew well the woman who was the head of the small but – as I discovered at that moment – prestigious publishing house. I let myself go, I talked with too much vivacity and maybe I exaggerated a little about my literary career. I did it not for the two French people but, rather, for Nino. I wanted to remind him that I had a rewarding life of my own, that if I had been capable of leaving my children and Pietro, then I could also do without him, and not in a week, not in ten days, but immediately.

We talked about whether Ferrante is a feminist writer, or the books feminist books, with the general conclusion that they were in no way so programmatic, but that certainly the books were full of the rage of being a woman… being a woman in a patriarchal society, I was about to add, but in fact that phrase wasn’t used; it was just the rage of being a woman that was asserted. The books are full of blood – menstrual as well as that spilled through violence – and the women are as awful to each other as the men are to them, and those women seem permanently ready to throw themselves on the mercy of the men that hit, put down and cheat on them. There is no feminist message to be pulled from the books, but the spirit of feminism and political anger suffuses them.

Tessa read from one of the most brilliant and striking sections of the final book, when Lila and Lenù are sheltering in a car after Naples is struck by a huge earthquake (the real, factual earthquake of 23 November 1980 that killed nearly 3,000 people) and Lila has what she calls an experience of dissolving boundaries. It’s something she’s had before, and Elena the author has mentioned it in the books before, but this is the first time (the two of them are in their 30s) that Lila confides to Elena about it:

She used that term: dissolving boundaries. It was on that occasion that she resorted to it for the first time; she struggled to elucidate the meaning, she wanted me to understand what the dissolution of boundaries meant and how much it frightened her. She was still holding my hand tight, breathing hard. She said that the outlines of things and people were delicate, that they broke like cotton thread. She whispered that for her it had always been that way, an object lost its edges and poured into another, into a solution of heterogeneous materials, a merging and mixing. She exclaimed that she had always had to struggle to believe that life had firm boundaries, for she had known since she was a child that it was not like that – it was absolutely not like that – and so she couldn’t trust in their resistance to being banged and bumped. Contrary to what she had been doing, she began to utter a profusion of overexcited sentences, sometimes kneading in the vocabulary of the dialect, sometimes drawing on the vast reading she had done as a girl. She muttered that she mustn’t ever be distracted: if she became distracted real things, which, with their violent, painful contortions, terrified her, would gain the upper hand over the unreal ones, which, with their physical and moral solidity, pacified her [and here Tessa paused and asked us to consider how weird and brilliant this idea was: that it is the unreal things that feel solid to Lila, while the real things are scary]; she would be plunged into a sticky, jumbled reality, and would never again be able to give sensations clear outlines. A tactile emotion would melt into a visual one, a visual one would melt into an olfactory one, ah, what is the real world, Lenù, nothing, nothing, nothing about which one can say conclusively: it’s like that. And so if she didn’t stay alert, if she didn’t pay attention to the boundaries, the waters would break through, a flood would rise, carrying everything off in clots of menstrual blood, in cancerous polyps, in bits of yellowish fiber.

Um. Wow. When people ask me about Ferrante, I usually advise them to start not with My Brilliant Friend, but with her standalone novel The Days of Abandonment, which is full of this kind of visceral, psychological existential horror. Start with that, and then you’ll know what she, as an author, is capable of. For it’s true that there is less of this in the first volume of the Neapolitan novels – some people say they’ve tried it and given up because it just seems like the story of a childhood, that it doesn’t have all that much depth or compulsion. To which I’d say, these books do many things, and some patience is needed – and although there are things in there to keep you going, the politics, the intellectual portrait and debate, the soap opera machinations of the family saga plot, these will not be to everyone’s taste.

My passage was one towards the end of the book, when Elena has left Naples for Turin for the second and final time. It offers, I suggested, an insight into how the books operate as a portrait of a city, and of a class, as well as of a neighbourhood, or a female relationship:

I rented an apartment on the Po, near the Isabella Bridge, and my life and that of my third daughter immediately improved. From there it became simpler to reflect on Naples, to write about it and let myself write about it with lucidity. I loved my city, but I uprooted from myself any dutiful defence of it. I was convinced, rather, that the anguish in which that love sooner or later ended was a lens through which to look at the entire West. Naples was the great European metropolis where faith in technology, in science, in economic development, in the kindness of nature, in history that leads of necessity to improvement, in democracy was revealed, most clearly and far in advance, to be completely without foundation. To be born in that city – I went so far as to write once, thinking not of myself but of Lila’s pessimism – is useful for a single thing: to have always known, almost instinctively, what today, with endless fine distinctions, everyone is beginning to claim: that the dream of unlimited progress is reality a nightmare full of savagery and death.

Are these books, is this one long novel a portrait of a city? Yes, but not just that.

Of a particular neighbourhood? Yes, but.

Is it the narrative of a social class? Yes, but.

Is it a political document? A feminist one? Yes, but.

Is it a story of Italy’s sickening acceptance of organised crime, and political corruption, but told from the inside, from a domestic point of view? Yes, and.

Is it the story of a friendship? Yes, but.

A family saga? A soap opera? Yes, but.

A story about writing, about what is won and lost when one embarks on that vocation? Yes, but.

An existential and psychological drama? Yes, that too.

What is so compelling and gratifying about these books is that they are all of things, but, finally, no single one of them wins out. None of them is allowed to dominate, or subsume, or recuperate the others. It’s not, in the end, essentially, any single one of them – not even the story of a friendship.

And, as I neared the end of the fourth book, it began to strike me how deeply strange the whole project is.

Remember: the first book opens with Lila’s disappearance, the disappearance of a woman in her 60s – the complete disappearance: not just of her, but of all her clothes, her shoes, books, toiletries, everything she owned – cleared out, vanished. At the end of the prologue Elena Greco, the writer of the following 1,600 pages, writes:

I turned on my computer and began to write – all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.

At the end of the book, Elena looks again at the book she has written, that has taken her “months and months and months” and asks herself what she’s really achieved. Things happen in the fourth book that shows there is a huge amount about and of Lila that she doesn’t understand, just as she didn’t know the half of the Solara brothers’ criminal activities, or what Pasquale, the committed Communist, got up to that landed him in jail. Sixteen hundred pages, and all we are left with are gaps, absences, disappearances. And what’s weird is that none of this is recuperated or rationalised or tied up.

Lila’s very disappearance disappears for much of the book. You forget it. Elena forgets it.

And another thing: Elena Greco, the author of these pages, is successful writer, with, we learn, 13 novels and two volumes of essays to her name – and one of those novels is a book called A Friendship which is about her relationship with Lila. She’s already written the story of her friendship with Lila – it’s only 80 pages long! – and one of the last, possibly her last book, but Lila refuses to talk to her about it.

If she’s already written that story, then what is this? We are very used to narratives that end with the hero reaching the point where her or she can begin to write his/her story (Proust being the highest example; there are thousands of lesser ones) but this book is not like that. Elena doesn’t write herself to a place of creativity. She writes herself to exhaustion, to blankness, to failure.

A final point: all of this weirdness, this unresolvedness, this unrecuperability and unredeemability is partly down to Ferrante’s absence from the field. It’s worth saying and saying again and again that her anonymity is as pertinent and powerful and significant as her true identity is irrelevant.

She says this over and over in her interviews (collected as Fragments, previously available as a free digital book, but coming out in print form early next year): that although her original reason for remaining anonymous was personal and psychological (constitutional, she says), the resulting authorial absence does a brilliant job of freeing the books as texts. When I say that you can’t even resolve the Neapolitan novels to being essentially the portrait of a female friendship, I’m fully aware that, had Ferrante so much as put an author portrait on her book jacket, or done one interview in her home, or a café nearby, or given any personal account of herself whatsoever, that might not be the case. Ah, you’d think, looking at her photo, or clocking the rug hung on her study wall, or noting that she drinks earl grey tea rather than a cappuccino… that’s what she’s on about.

The books we have, but the project is unknown. (Compare to Knausgaard, where we know, completely and utterly, what he was trying to do with his long work – this is why I don’t think the two writers compare.)

The Neapolitan novels are an unqualified success, but at what, I couldn’t begin to say.