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James Wood, Ann Goldstein discuss Ferrante on Out Loud at The New Yorker [Transcript]

Thomas Pynchon is famous, in part, for avoiding the literary limelight. In Italy, there’s a novelist even more publicity-shy than Pynchon. Almost nothing is known about Elena Ferrante, even her real name. Readers must make due with her novels, from TROUBLING LOVE and THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT to her most recent book, MY BRILLIANT FRIEND. In the magazine this week, James Wood tells us what he thinks of all of them. Her English translator is Ann Goldstein, who happens to be an editor for The New Yorker. James Wood and Ann Goldstein recently spoke about Elena Ferrante with the editor of the Page Turner blog, Sasha Weiss. ( Listen here. )

Sasha Weiss: James, let’s start by talking about the mystery of Elena Ferrante. What do we know about her, and why do you think she’s so protective of her identity?

James Wood: We know very little about her. From what I can tell from written interviews she has given, she thinks that the book speaks for itself; she’s done everything that she can do, which is to write it. She believes that to make oneself available for publicity is essentially to sell oneself alongside the book, and I think alongside those very principled reasons there is perhaps the more acute fact of the texts themselves, which are very personal. I don’t mean that they’re autobiographical, but they deal with subjects like divorce, and child abuse, not wanting children, motherhood, and so on, which inevitably incite readerly prurience and curiosity.

SW: And also I can imagine that anonymity allows her to enter into very taboo subjects. (JW: Yes.) I mean, she’s very brave in some of the subjects that she tackles. And says things that are almost unutterable for a lot of people.

JW: Yes, absolutely. And so you quite understand why you might want to write a novel in which someone is profoundly ambivalent about having children, say, and not want a lot of journalists to say, “Aha! This is a woman who never wanted children and is a lousy mother,” I mean, these things are always dangers.

SW: And, Ann, have you had contact with Elena Ferrante herself, and if not, how does it work to do the translations?

Ann Goldstein: I haven’t had any contact with her. Only her publishers actually know who she is, her Italian publishers, and if I have questions I write to them, and they convey the questions to her.

SW: Ferrante’s not well-known here, maybe we could begin, to give us a sense of her prose, with you reading a short passage from one of the books you’ve translated.

AG: Okay, this is from MY BRILLIANT FRIEND. It’s not the very beginning, but it’s the beginning of her talking about her friendship with Lila. The book is about the friendship between two girls.

“My friendship with Lila began the day we decided to go up the dark stairs that led, step after step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille’s apartment. I remember the violet light of the courtyard, the smells of a warm spring evening. The mothers were making dinner, it was time to go home, but we delayed, challenging each other, without ever saying a word, testing our courage. For some time, in school and outside of it, that was what we had been doing. Lila would thrust her hand and then her whole arm into the black mouth of a manhole, and I, in turn, immediately did the same, my heart pounding, hoping that the cockroaches wouldn’t run over my skin, that the rats wouldn’t bite me. Lila climbed up to Signora Spagnuolo’s ground-floor window, and, hanging from the iron bar that the clothesline was attached to, swung back and forth, then lowered herself down to the sidewalk, and I immediately did the same, although I was afraid of falling and hurting myself. Lila stuck into her skin the rusted safety pin that she had found on the street somewhere but kept in her pocket like the gift of a fairy godmother; I watched the metal point as it dug a whitish tunnel into her palm, and then, when she pulled it out and handed it to me, I did the same.”

SW: Can you tell us a little bit about what her reputation in Italy is?

AG: I mean there aren’t that many, sort of, strong women writers in modern Italian literature who write in this kind of literary way about, you know, you might almost say they’re “women’s subjects” or something—divorce, marriage, as you said, children—and I think that, although it’s not so unusual in American or English fiction, in Italian fiction, for women to be writing about these kind of inner things, these very personal things, was unusual. And still is, to an extent.

SW: And she’s wildly popular, right?

AG: She’s very popular. I mean, in the beginning, of course, the fact that no one knew who she was, naturally there were tons of articles, especially with her first few books. I mean, the press was full of stuff, you know—Who is she? So I think, you know, of course that added to her popularity. But I think that that wouldn’t have kept her popular if she wasn’t also a really good novelist. I do think, actually, that Ferrante must be a woman.

SW: I was going to ask that, because there are a lot of rumors that she’s not.

AG: A lot of men have been proposed as Ferrante, but I do find it hard to think that a man would have written these novels.

SW: James, how did you get into Ferrante?

JW: A friend of mine told me about DAYS OF ABANDONMENT a couple of years ago, and I read it but I didn’t read anything else until…reviewing her, and then I read everything else that I could in English. And, particularly in that novel but it’s true also about THE LOST DAUGHTER, there’s this amazing, brutal honesty. You know, it reminded me sometimes of a sort of a novelization of Plath’s Ariel poems, that sense, a sort of last fight for honesty and for survival—psychic survival—plus, this amazing ability that she has to turn very ordinary things, like the dog dying, or being able to get the key in—

SW: The lock, the lock thing is awesome.

JW: …into a kind of Impressionistic Hell, in which everything is suddenly, flamingly symbolic.

SW: Maybe we could dwell on the lock for a minute. What happens with the lock?

JW: Perhaps it should be said that DAYS OF ABANDONMENT is narrated by a woman whose husband just announces at the beginning of the book that he’s leaving her and that he’s in love with someone else, so he goes off, and she’s left with the dog and two small children, and she decides anyway that she should get new locks because she doesn’t want the husband to be able to come and go as he wishes in the apartment.

But it’s very well dealt with, because I think Ferrante subtly suggests that the narrator may be, shall we say, hysterically misreading the nature of what’s going on. In other words, these two workmen come and they install the new lock, and as far as the narrator is concerned these workmen are making sexually suggestive jokes—you know, the lock will only respect the hand of the master, and seem to be winking at her—and I think it’s left nicely unresolved, in the novel, as to whether this is actually happening or whether this is a slightly insane construction that the narrator is putting on the situation, the two workmen and the absurd symbolism of the lock, of the key going into the lock and so on. In general I think her narrators are not unreliable in the sort of standard way in which we think of unreliable narration, where we’re constantly looking for misreadings. But I think every so often she just suggests that there’s some loss of control that we as a reader should be alert to.

SW: It is one of those things where she sort of, you feel with her that you’re also losing control in some way, as you read with her. And then she pulls back and she says, “I was losing control,” and you sort of think, Yes, I realize, you know? [Laughs]

JW: Yes, exactly right. No I couldn’t agree more. Actually, I know that, I think Alice Sebold says, you know, that she read the book in one gulp. I actually found it so intensely difficult to read, for just that reason, that I had some sort of vertiginous feeling whenever I opened it that I actually had to close it often.

SW: No, I know what you mean. [Laughs]

AG: You know, I did the original translation and then I had to go back several times, really, to revise it. (JW: Yes.) And I found it very difficult sometimes to go back to it.

JW: I’m sure. I found it as a reader difficult to go back to. In a way, the new book is the stranger—I mean, I can see connections with the earlier works. (AG: Yeah.) There’s a moment in the new novel where the narrator says, you know, I never really liked my mother, and I found her body repulsive, and you think, Aha! This is Ferrante. We’re back in that world again. [All laugh] But by and large I found her work quite difficult to write about, because I found it hard to connect the new novel with the old work, because the new book is so…it just has a wonderful…it’s just, it’s like water, really, it has a lovely, fresh, easiness about it and you just…that was a book I couldn’t stop reading, actually. [Laughs]

SW: How do you connect them, Ann?

AG: Well, I mean, I think the writing is actually, in a way, quite similar. It’s much more expansive, obviously, and there are many more characters, but I think that the sensibility is the same, the sort of self-analysis, the sort of going into yourself. There’s a line I just noticed, “We went to the source of our fear,” when they climb up the stairs, so I think there is, I mean, maybe those are sort of superficial connections, but I don’t think it’s that different, in a sense. Although I do know quite a few people who started to read MY BRILLIANT FRIEND and were very disappointed, they said, this is not THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT! [All laugh] and abandoned it, and then, in at least one case, went back to it and said, It’s wonderful, you know, once you get going you realize it’s the same writer.

SW: Let’s go back to Ferrante as a feminine, if not an actual female, writer—although, Ann thinks she is. We’ve alluded to her, sort of, disdain for the cult of motherhood, and her expressions of ambivalence about motherhood, so let’s talk about that.

JW: I think Ann mentioned earlier that although some of these subjects of course have been dealt with by women writers in Britain and America, still I think it’s unusual to find such—your word was “unutterable”—such unutterable honesty about the ambivalence a woman might have in relation to motherhood. In particular I notice, in her work, there’s a very strong sense of the contradiction inherent in having a child that’s inside you and that’s your flesh, and clearly made by you, in a way that isn’t the case for men, in the same way, but that is pushed out of you and then embarks on its own life.

And I found, reading her, that this drama of attachment and detachment—how to stay attached to someone but also how to detach from, say, a child, or husband, in order to have your own identity—is a really constant theme, and I think that goes on in the new book, too, because I think it’s profoundly about forging an identity, and in order to do that leaving Naples, leaving a community, and in some ways leaving also this very close relationship with the brilliant friend of—or so it seems—of the title, the book’s title. But. On the motherhood thing, there are extraordinary things in THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT and THE LOST DAUGHTER about—

SW: Children as parasites.

JW:…children as parasites, being revolted, repelled by one’s children, being disappointed in them, finding them ignorant and pretentious; it’s not something you encounter very often.

SW: James, you used the word “lightness” earlier, and I mean I’ve only read THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT, but there is this kind of dissonance—I was talking to Ann about this before—between the hardness and severity and almost barbarity in moments of the content, and then the lightness of the prose. It’s an interesting effect, and I wonder, Ann, if you could talk about how you think she achieves that, being so close to the language itself.

AG: She does write sentences that in English aren’t really sentences. I mean, Italian can do this, where things can pile up in a sentence. That doesn’t sound like lightness but it does kind of work.

JW: I was struck by that in reading her, and I wanted to ask you, because you know she does this sort of light run-on sentence. (AG: Mhm.) It’s not heavy run-on, where you’re very conscious of it, but it’s definitely a run-on sentence, and I was thinking, what the Italian of that is.

AG: “Run-on.” [All laugh] I mean, what we would think of as a run-on. But of course Italian can do that, I mean, for one thing there are genders, so you can have an adjective not near its noun, because you know from the ending that it goes with that noun, but in English you can’t do that. Things have to be closer together or connected by clauses, like, “who is,” “that is,” “that was,” whatever. But they’re very full sentences, so that’s why I’m surprised that it sounds light.

JW: I mean maybe “lightness” is the wrong word. They’re sometimes quite aphoristic, (AG: Yeah.) and very memorable, too. And they’re also…the first novel was a little different, I think, in this regard. The first novel is more obviously literary, but in the later books it’s interesting what she doesn’t do, actually, and maybe this is one definition of the “lightness.” Compared to, say, a lot of American fiction—this is going to sound very judgmental—but there’s a lot less showing off. If you look at the new novel, for instance, there’s not much metaphor or simile of a particularly, you know, brilliant nature, you know, there’s not much figurative language, and when she’s putting detail in, I think the detail is always extremely well chosen but it’s not there for density of exhibition, if you can bear that phrase. I don’t know, I was just struck by…well, in a word, I was struck by how classical it is, actually. It’s maybe lean, rather than light. But I sense it’s going to sound nonsense to Ann [Laughs] because she’s aware of the sentences piling up, but we’re not so much in English, maybe.

AG: As Italian writing, maybe I should go back to saying, it is light, because Italians often write very complex sentences, full of clauses and phrases and…not exactly run-on in the way that hers are. I mean, hers pile up but every word has a place, and is doing something. And so I think in that sense, maybe that’s what accounts for its light density [Laughs] or dense lightness.

JW: I think you’ve put it exactly how I wanted to put it, which is, you know in American prose, particularly at the moment, there’s such an emphasis on surplus, you know? (AG: Mhm.) On exuberance, or excess, and with her prose it’s not about that at all; it’s about each word having its place and being the right word. And yet it’s not in any way a sort of minimalist style.

SW: She reminds me—I hope this isn’t a crazy comparison—she reminds me of a much more troubled Alice Munro, in a way. [Laughs] Some of the austerity, and some of the themes, but Alice Munro is a more calm, placid temperament as a writer, it seems like to me.

And maybe this is a stretch, too, James, but I was sort of moved by what you said in the piece about a sort of pragmatic écriture féminine, you know, she manages to write about these horrible travails of motherhood, but that the writing really stands the testament to having not exactly surmounted them, but created the space to be able to write in these ways. And maybe—I mean, this may be wildly fanciful—maybe that’s part of the lucidity, too. It’s like you feel the words have been wrenched from some very difficult place with a lot of difficulty, but they really have to count.

JW: I think that’s right, and it would be yet another reason why she doesn’t want to get her own authorship involved in the publicity sense, in the books, because it is there in a very natural way in the books themselves. If we use THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT as an example, the narrator seems to be a writer who hasn’t written for a while and, who, towards the end of the book does begin to write, as a way of clarifying and mastering what’s happening to her. And there is, in fact, a very lovely little moment where she says, you know, now the children are back at school I’ve been sitting and thinking this through, and I think Ferrante has the phrase “I thought, I wrote.” It’s just one little moment, but you suddenly realize that the book, as I suggested, is a kind of meditation on its own achievement, on its own writing, that it got written, that these books were written in the face of these difficulties that the author—well, I won’t say that the author seems to have been through, but let’s say that the books have been through, right? That they come out of some context in which words have had to be wrested from a lot of turmoil. And that’s inescapable, it’s just there as a fact of the books, I think.

SW: Another thing I wanted to ask you both about, which Ferrante made me think of, is about the consolations of painful art, and whether they offer consolation. I mean, this is sort of a little bit unrelated but I was reading about Michael Haneke’s new film, AMOUR, which is about a very painful look at old age, and the crumbling domesticity of this couple who’s dying, and one reviewer said, it’s hard to know if I could really recommend it to a friend, but it is this great work of art, and I think, I mean, my experience of reading Ferrante, it’s quite painful and difficult to look at, she’s looking in this very frank and savage way about things that are savage in us. So I just wonder if you might speak to what we’re drawn to in that kind of work.

JW: Personally, I find the first novel, TROUBLING LOVE, I find it to be a distressing and distressed novel, in a way that actually I find difficult to extract much consolation from it. It is like an incurable wound.

AG: It is a distressing novel, I agree. [All laugh]

JW: But, I think DAYS OF ABANDONMENT, for all the reasons we’ve been mentioning, and certainly THE LOST DAUGHTER, too, have about them some sense of achievement, of, you know, the consolation of a form encircling something painful, and just the satisfaction that form itself brings to things, plus of course the high level of analysis. I mean, I think surely honesty is its own virtue and its own consolation, because it’s so rare in life.

When I was a teenager I was growing up in a rather austere Christian household, sort of very scriptural, with a lot of emphasis on the Bible and a kind of hostility to fiction, and instinctively as a teenager what I think I was drawn to in fiction was when I opened a book I felt that anything could be said in it, inside it. That this was an arena in which people were thinking, and therefore, because the mind is free, the arena itself is free. Any thought could be expressed. And that was absolutely opposed to the regime of my household. And in Ferrante’s case that’s an extraordinary virtue of the work, because there’s an honesty there that you’re not going to get from your friends, that you’re not going to get from society.

SW: So should we read Ferrante even though she may hurt us?

JW: Because she may hurt us.

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