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Open Letters Monthly: "Reading Ferrante is like holding one of those hearts, without ever understanding what brought it to life in the first place."

Date: Sep 1 2015

Goethe’s play Faust begins with a colloquium of archangels, although it only takes a moment for the devil to fart on their piety. Mephistopheles announces that unlike God’s obsequious “staff” — Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael — he cannot praise the universe or anything in it, least of all human beings, who seem to him a “rather sorry sight.” God disagrees, and the famous wager is struck. The Lord invites his rival to seduce a professor named Dr. Faust, to “lead him down, if you can grasp him,/ Upon your own abysmal course,” confident that in the end Faust’s goodness will prevail against the devil’s cheap temptations.

Mephistopheles is equally confident that it won’t, and he boasts that when he’s through with him Faust will willingly eat dust, “As my relation does, the famous snake.” God does not try to match or reprimand this swagger. More surprisingly, he suddenly seems unconcerned by the outcome of the bet. If Faust joins the snakes, then so be it, God says. “I never hated those who were like you.” And then, before the heavens close and the tragedy begins, he gives a speech in honor of the devil’s place in creation:

"Therein thou’rt free, according to thy merits;
The like of thee have never moved My hate.
Of all the bold, denying Spirits,
The waggish knave least trouble doth create.
Man’s active nature, flagging, seeks too soon the level;
Unqualified repose he learns to crave;
Whence, willingly, the comrade him I gave,
Who works, excites, and must create, as Devil."

This speech, in the American poet Bayard Taylor’s mid-nineteenth century translation, forms the epigraph to the first volume of the Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s internationally celebrated novel, My Brilliant Friend. By extension, it forms the epigraph to her entire Neapolitan series, which has been greeted with rapture by readers around the globe, including me. The fourth and final volume, The Story of the Lost Child, has just been published in English.

I didn’t give much thought to Faust when I began to read the Neapolitan Novels, which was a mistake. I was lost in the books themselves, like the bewildered editor in Book Two, The Story of a New Name, who praises Elena Greco’s first novel by saying,

The story is good, a contemporary story very well expressed, the writing is always surprising; but that’s not the point. It’s the third time I’ve read the book and on every page there is something powerful whose origin I can’t figure out.

This is how it is with all great writing — there is something powerful whose origin you can’t figure out. I can think of many novelists whose prose is more startling or beautiful than Ferrante’s, whose plots and structures are more ingenious, whose anger at the systemic abuse of women and the poor is as explosive, whose depiction of motherhood is as unsentimental, and whose exposure of the hidden threads that turn the individual into the puppet of the state is as rigorous. But I don’t love most of their books like I love Ferrante’s, because they don’t make me feel what she does, which is that I am in the presence of “a bare and throbbing heart” (Leave). This is how Elena Greco — one of the main characters in the Neapolitan series, as well as the narrator — describes what a novel should be. Greco, clearly a surrogate for Ferrante herself, believes (and thus perhaps Ferrante does too) that a writer’s job is to “learn everything about the world with the sole purpose of constructing living hearts.” Reading Ferrante is like holding one of those hearts, without ever understanding what brought it to life in the first place.

Ferrante’s novellas, Troubling Love (1999), The Days of Abandonment (2002), and The Lost Daughter (2006) are feverish miniatures. By contrast, the Neapolitan Novels form a sprawling epic that spans the 1950s to the present day. Most of the educated men in the Novels, the intellectuals and the activists — Nino Sarratore, Franco Mari, Pietro Airota, Armando Galiani — believe that writing fiction has nothing to do with the serious work of trying to change the class system, raise the status of women and workers, and wrestle the Italian state out of the hands of criminals. They believe in argument, or action. Ferrante is not so sure. She is interested in power itself, not just the social structures that it invents. This is where Faust comes in.

Goethe’s devil is a creature of the European Enlightenment and of Romanticism, not the Holy Lands. His Hebrew is rusty, and so is his ancient Greek. Today a CEO would probably call him a “disruptor,” and try to get him on payroll immediately, despite his talent for trouble. His job is not to do battle with God for custody of human souls but to prevent people from getting too comfortable with themselves or the state of the world. Thus he offers Faust what he craves most, which is to escape from his tired faustpt1routines, his library, his reputation, and his name, flee his students, and discover what a decade of study has not been able to reveal, namely “what secret force/ Hides in the world and rules its course.” The professor has lost faith in humanism as well as God. He is sick of “rummaging in phrases,” of the academic techniques of argument and persuasion. He doesn’t want to “juggle words,” but to act and to feel—to feel “a new world grow in me,” as he once did in prayer.

Enter Mephistopheles. It is Good Friday, but the deal he offers makes no mention of heaven or hell, salvation or damnation, or even of the soul. It is a kind of metaphysical labor contract. The devil promises to steep Faust in wild sensation until he decides that he’s had enough, that he’s ready to “recline in peace,” at which point their roles will be reversed. Faust, “stagnant” and domesticated, will become the devil’s slave. Agreed! says the professor, delighted that his days of “unqualified repose” are behind him. He eagerly opens a vein and signs his name in blood.

There are no such contracts in Ferrante’s novels, although there are many women who want to access the secret force that hides in the world and rules its course. Amalia, in Troubling Love, drowns herself to escape the men who stalked and controlled her all her life, even in her old age. As a younger woman, she knew how to use a gesture, a laugh, a look, a dress, or a word to elude those controls, if only for a moment. So does Olga in The Days of Abandonment, who sheds every form of middle class propriety when her husband abruptly leaves her and their children. Gradually, she “gave in to obscenity,” and her descent into sexual disaster and public defecation made this novel a bestselling scandal in Italy and elsewhere. For Olga, who is a novelist, yielding to obscenity is like writing with the left hand, the weak and unaccustomed hand that she uses when she sits down at her desk to work. She intuits that the left hand is the one that can “fight fear” and “hold off humiliation” for the very reason that it is disobedient. It knows nothing of decorum or law, which is why the Gospel of Matthew insists that on the day of judgment God will tell sinners to take the first left all the way to hell. Yet only this sinister hand, the one that God uses to marshal the damned, can save Olga from killing herself like Amalia or like the abandoned woman of Olga’s Neapolitan childhood, the poverella, who drowned herself in the sea.

And then there is Ferrante herself, who has managed to conceal her true identity from the global media for more than fifteen years. Surely she insists on the anonymity of a pseudonym because she too wants to write with the left hand, which is always on the side of the secret. All of the women she has invented share this impulse, but none more fully than Rafaella Cerullo, the elusive center of the Neapolitan Novels, and the fullest expression of the ideas that Ferrante has been exploring since Troubling Love.

The first thing that we learn about Rafaella in the Prologue to My Brilliant Friend, called “Eliminating All the Traces,” is that at the age of sixty-six she has realized her lifelong ambition to disappear. The second thing we learn is that her name is not Rafaella. At least this is not the name by which she is called by her oldest friend, Elena Greco, called Lenù, the narrator of all the Neapolitan books. In the impoverished neighborhood in Naples where the two girls grew up, Rafaella is known to everyone as Lina. Only Lenù calls her Lila, and only Lenù knows why she set out to erase herself. “I’m the only one who knows what she means” when she says that she wants to vanish, Lenù says:

"She never had in mind any sort of flight, a change of identity, the dream of making a new life somewhere else. And she never thought of suicide….She meant something different: she wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found. (Brilliant 20)"

Nothing ever is, with the exception of My Brilliant Friend (2012), The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014), and The Story of the Lost Child (2015).

The premise of the Neapolitan Novels is that Elena Greco is their author. She writes them, as she explains in My Brilliant Friend, after Lila disappears, in an effort to recover “all the details” of their friendship. Paradoxically, what characterizes Lila above all is presence. Even as a six year old, the shoemaker’s daughter is the smartest, fastest, most beautiful, courageous, daring, inventive and charismatic child in the neighborhood. “Lila,” Lenù recalls, “was too much for anyone.” The force of her will is such that “every prohibition lost substance in her presence. She knew how to go beyond the limit without ever truly suffering the consequences.” She is a “holy warrior” with “a gaze that appeared not very childlike and perhaps not even human” who throws stones at the boys with deadly accuracy, confronts the fearsome head of the local Camorra (the Neapolitan Mafia), easily outshines all of her classmates, writes and illustrates an unforgettable story called The Blue Fairy, and begs her father to allow her to remain in school rather than going to work in the shoe repair shop. He refuses, and throws her out the window of their apartment when she protests. She is ten years old. “I haven’t hurt myself,” Lila assures Lenù as she picks herself up off the ground with a broken arm.

From this point forward, their fortunes diverge. Lenù’s parents are no wealthier or more literate than Lila’s, but they scrape together the money for her to continue to attend school, and she turns out to be a talented as well as diligent student who wins the support of her teachers in Naples and then a full scholarship to university in Pisa. When she graduates, she marries a professor from an élite family, Pietro Airota, and becomes a public intellectual and a novelist with an international reputation. Lila, by contrast, goes to work in the family business at the age of ten, marries a local grocer with ties to the Camorra at sixteen, has a child two years later, and never leaves the violent and claustrophobic neighborhood of her birth. At the time of her disappearance, she lives with her adult son in the apartment where she was raised.

None of these constraints diminish Lila’s creative power. She is the incandescent light to which all of the characters in these novels are drawn, from the local pastry maker to the vegetable vendor, the housewives, the professors, the politicians, the union organizers, and the neighborhood Camorrists, the elegant Solara brothers, who spend their murderous lives trying to figure out how to buy her. Everyone agrees that Lila is bad, and incurably lawless, but like Michele Solara, they also agree that she thestoryofanewnamecan accomplish things that others cannot even imagine. “You think you hired a worker?” Solara asks a sausage factory owner named Bruno Soccavo, who gives Lila a job in his slaughterhouse after she leaves her husband:

It’s not true. This woman is much, much more. If you let her, she’ll change shit into gold for you, she’s capable of reorganizing this whole enterprise, taking it to levels you can’t even imagine. Why? Because she has the type of mind that normally no woman has but also that not even we men have. (Leave)

Alchemist. Holy warrior. Blue Fairy. There is something magical about Lila, something permanently renegade and alien to the social order, whether she is the affluent and leisured wife of a successful grocer or a single mother living in two rooms, working eight hours a day emptying pigs’ intestines while being groped by her boss, threatened by Fascists, excommunicated by her parents, and afraid that the brutal husband she left for another man will find her and cut her eyes out before slitting her throat. No one would prosecute him if he did.

The most important thing about Lila’s magic is that it is contagious. As a child she designs shoes so alluring and rare that they seem to come from “some world parallel to ours” that only she has visited (Brilliant). Her vivid drawings of these shoes inspire her brother, Rino, to do battle with their father — the man who threw his daughter out the window, remember — in order to persuade him that they should stop repairing other people’s footwear and begin making their own: Cerullo Shoes, designed by Lila. A few years and several complications later, this is exactly what happens. As usual, the complications stem from the Solaras, the local loan sharks and fixers, who finance the factory and the shoe shop in a rich neighborhood in Naples, and as a result end up controlling Rino and his parents for the rest of their lives. Decades later, Rino dies a pauper and a heroin addict. You can probably guess who runs the heroin trade. The “mind’s dreams have ended up under the feet,” Lila laments, in the final scenes of My Brilliant Friend. Yes, but then her mind dreams something else.

A photograph, for example. When the Solaras decorate the shoe store they hang an enormous wedding photograph of Lila on the wall. She is an arrestingly beautiful girl, and they know that her image will perfume the shop with glamour. Lila reluctantly accepts this plan, on the condition that she can decide how the photo is displayed. The Solaras agree, and Lila quickly grasps a roll of black paper, a pair of scissors, and a box of pins:

"Then, with that expression of extreme concentration which enabled her to isolate herself from everything around her, she went back to the panel. Before our astonished and, in the cases of some, openly hostile eyes, she cut strips of black paper, with the manual precision she had always possessed, and pinned them here and there to the photograph. (Name)"

By the time Lila’s alterations are done, the “body of the bride…appeared cruelly shredded. Much of the head had disappeared, as had the stomach.” Everyone is aghast, except for Lenù, who helped Lila to cut and pin the paper, and Michele Solara. “I like it,” he says. “You’ve erased yourself deliberately and I see why: to show the thigh, to show how well a woman’s thigh goes with those shoes.”

No, that is not why. Lila lost interest in her shoes the minute the Solaras, whom she has always despised, slipped their feet into them. She never designs another pair again. Only Lenù realizes that by bruising and mutilating her image, Lila “had suddenly found … an opportunity that allowed her to portray the fury she directed against herself, the insurgence, perhaps for the first time in her life, of the need — and here the verb used by Michele was appropriate — to erase herself.” A few weeks later, the image spontaneously bursts into flame and burns to ash. The shop girl blames the Devil.

Over the fifteen hundred or so pages of the Neapolitan Novels, this pattern repeats many times. Lenù is the patient and disciplined woman who applies herself to the task of becoming educated, learning to speak in refined Italian rather than in dialect, read books and newspapers, translate Greek and Latin, memorize textbooks, pass exams, write articles and novels, and most difficult of all, to hold her own with people who have grown up in wealthy and cultured families where these achievements are not considered a heroic repudiation of desperate circumstances, but a basic condition of life, like breathing. Lila is the impatient and flammable woman who does none of these things. Throughout her life she moves restlessly from task to task — writing stories, designing shoes, setting up a business, organizing a union, programming computers, researching the history of Naples — without ever allowing herself to be claimed and absorbed by any of them. As soon as the shoes or the photograph or the union any other aspect of her ingenuity is put to work, assigned a purpose and a proper place, she withdraws.

At the very end of The Story of the Lost Child, Lenù realizes that what distinguishes Lila from the other talented people she has known is the “gratuitousness” of her intelligence. Lila

"possessed intelligence and didn’t put it to use but, rather, wasted it, like a great lady for whom all the riches of the world are merely a sign of vulgarity…. She stood out among so many because she, naturally, did not submit to any training, to any use, or to any purpose. All of us had submitted and that submission had — through trials, failures, successes — reduced us. Only Lila, nothing and no one seemed to reduce her."

It’s not quite accurate to say that Lila never puts her intelligence to use. She gives it to everyone else for free and without expectation of a return, which is what it means to say that something is gratuitous. It is an act of grace.

Again and again, Lila shows people a new view of their lives, and leaves them to decide what to do with it. When Lila disfigures her photograph in The Story of a New Name, Lenù feels that her friend “was seeing something that wasn’t there, and that she was struggling to make us see it, too.” “I was suddenly happy,” Lenù writes, ferrantestoryofanewname“feeling the intensity that invested her, that flowed through her fingers.” The image that Lila creates that day is a “seductive, tremendous form,” like a “goddess,” and it fills the shop with energy for the taking. Naturally, the Solaras think that the energy only serves them, and that its purpose is to create profit. It does, but it also creates Lenù’s happiness, Lila’s liberty, and Alfonso Carraci’s realization that he is gay. “Something that had been silent in him awakened, in the brightly lit shop,” Lenù realizes, although she doesn’t yet know what it is. He “concealed inside himself another person,” and at this moment that person begins to step out of hiding.

Everything that Lila touches releases potential, which is why she frequently suffers from what she calls “dissolving margins” (Brilliant). During these episodes, she sees matter convert back to energy, to pure and unharnessed possibility. She too seems to dissolve, “moving for a few fractions of a second into a person or a thing or a number or a syllable, violating its edges.” There are times when these temporary metamorphoses exhaust Lila to the point of collapse. But they also show her the secret force that hides within forms that appear to be finished, hardened by tradition and use, and that the act of exposing this force to others is like arranging for a goddess to attend the opening of a shoe store, or perhaps a devil, but in either case, an astonishing and revelatory visitation that shifts the vision of all see it. If we take seriously the premise that Lenù wrote the Neapolitan Novels — and who would dare to do otherwise? — then this presence is what gives her books their power, because it is Lila who teaches Lenù to write.

The more successful she becomes, the more Lenù fears that her professors have taught her to master words “to the point of sweeping away forever the contradictions of being in the world, the surge of emotions, and breathless speech” (Leave). She suspects that she has achieved nothing more than to learn to manipulate conventions that suffocate her. Of everyone she knows, including all the esteemed scholars and intellectuals, she feels that only Lila is able to be fully present within writing, so that when you read her words you hear her and no one else. The way Lila talks, edits a manuscript, writes letters and diaries, and leaps intuitively from one idea to another as though her mind has wings all make Lenù feel that she has escaped herself and is “running a hundred paces ahead with an energy and also a harmony that the person left behind didn’t know she had” (Brilliant). Later in life, Lenù puts what she has learned from Lila to use by becoming a literary editor. Lila, as usual, leaves the scene.

Nothing and no one seemed to reduce her, says Lenù of her brilliant friend. Again, this is not quite true. Of the many losses that take place in The Story of the Lost Child, the disappearance of Lila’s four-year-old daughter, Tina, is by far the most appalling. Her body is never found, and no one knows whether she was abducted by strangers, murdered by the Solaras in retaliation for Lila’s attempts to expose their criminality, or met with an accident on the neighborhood’s busy stradone. Lila never believes that the sparkling child who inherited her mother’s ability to turn matter into energy could be dead. Grief doesn’t reduce Lila’s creative ferocity, but it does accelerate her desire to vanish so that she too will never be found. As Lenù says, this isn’t a desire to commit suicide or start a new life elsewhere under a different name. It’s a desire to step into the secret and stay there.

Sometimes Lenù feels sorry for her friend, worrying that self-loathing made her scrub herself from the carbon record. But then Lenù picks up one of the dozen or more books that she wrote over the course of her life and finds its pages empty — the jargon is dead, the ideas are dated, she can no longer hear her voice. In the final pages of The Story of the Lost Child, she receives a package in the mail, and inside she finds Tina and Nu, the two dolls that Lila and Lenù lost as children. They dared each other to throw them in a cellar used by the Camorra, one of the many tests of courage that Lila devised, but when they descended into the darkness to search for them, the dolls were not there. Lenù does not know what to make of their shocking return. Does it mean that Lila found the dolls that day, six decades earlier, and hid them all her life in order to fill her friend’s heart with fear and wonder? Or does it mean that she has only recently found them in “one of the many dimensions that we don’t know yet but Lila does,” and put them in the mail to prove “that she was well and loved me, that she had broken the confines” of the body and of the human world?

Before Tina was the name of Lila’s daughter, it was the name of Lenù’s doll. The two women have always been bound together in this way, and not just because they loved the same man, raised each other’s children, borrowed each other’s names, and faceted one another’s brilliance. Defending her decision to hide her identity, Ferrante wrote in a letter to her publisher that a good novel is “a sort of nighttime miracle, like the gifts of the Befana.” Only some of the life it contains can be sourced to its author, the rest comes from a secret reserve. All of Ferrante’s novels are about the attempt to recover someone who is lost — a mother, a daughter, a friend — and in a sense they are all co-authored by the intense pressure exerted by that missing person, just as Lila invests Lenù with the power to invent the Neapolitan Novels by withdrawing from life so that she is part of the night, on the side of the gift.

Years after Goethe wrote Faust, he coined the term Weltliteratur to describe literature that speaks to the world rather than to a nation. He thought that over time, national literatures would become obsolete. They haven’t, despite the rise of literary translation and the globalization of the publishing industry. FausNevertheless, some books do speak to the world, and Ferrante’s are among them. Despite their name, the Neapolitan Novels are not just about the ancient port city of Naples, which bears the traces of every major Mediterranean empire since the Greeks, or about Italy, Europe, or the West. From the very beginning, Lila insists on placing the story in the largest possible context:

"We are flying over a ball of fire. The part that has cooled floats on the lava. On that part we construct the buildings, the bridges, and the streets, and every so often the lava comes out of Vesuvius or causes an earthquake that destroys everything. There are microbes everywhere that make us sick and die. There are wars. There is poverty that makes us all cruel. Every second something might happen that will cause you such suffering that you’ll never have enough tears…. it was the Devil who invented the world, not the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. (Brilliant 261)"

How is this to be borne? Ferrante depicts many people who are trying to reorganize society so that the ratio between suffering and tears is more endurable. But whether they know it or not, their efforts rely on Lila, the gratuitous woman who dissolves herself in order to energize the world she left behind.

There are two stacks of books at the front of my desk these days. One contains all of Ferrante’s writing. The other, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s. One writer insists on anonymity, the other confesses all. Both have seized the attention of readers around the world. Arguably, the Neapolitan Novels and My Struggle are the preeminent works of world literature of our time. There is Knausgaard, writing as fast as he can in order to access the fraction of his mind where his secrets live. And there is Ferrante, whoever she is, writing about the invisible gifts that make creativity possible. Perhaps this is what a Faustian bargain looks like at the beginning of the twenty-first century.Goethe’s play Faust begins with a colloquium of archangels, although it only takes a moment for the devil to fart on their piety. Mephistopheles announces that unlike God’s obsequious “staff” — Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael — he cannot praise the universe or anything in it, least of all human beings, who seem to him a “rather sorry sight.” God disagrees, and the famous wager is struck. The Lord invites his rival to seduce a professor named Dr. Faust, to “lead him down, if you can grasp him,/ Upon your own abysmal course,” confident that in the end Faust’s goodness will prevail against the devil’s cheap temptations.