Los Angeles Review of Books: "An engrossing, wildly original contemporary epic about the demonic power of human (and particularly female) creativity checked by the forces of history and society."
Date: Aug 27 2013
Elena Ferrante's 2012 My Brilliant Friend begins with an epigraph from Goethe’s Faust, spoken by the divinity: “Man’s active nature, flagging, seeks too soon the level;/ Unqualified repose he learns to crave.” This could refer to narrator Elena Greco: thoughtful, cautious, willing to seek reasonable compromises with life to gain her share of happiness. (Born into the austerity and sufferings of post-World War II Naples, Elena cannot take for granted happiness or even simple “repose.”) But the passage continues: “Whence, willingly, the comrade him I gave,/ Who works, excites, and must create, as Devil.” This spirit of demonic invention is embodied in Elena’s comrade-rival Lila Cerullo, Ferrante’s greatest creation to date, an incandescent figure deformed — but not contained — by the prejudices and limits of patriarchal postwar Italy. The Story of a New Name, published this month by Europa Books, is the second fat installment of a projected trilogy about Elena and Lila, two girls of unusual talent and drive born into an impoverished, violent neighborhood. “[A] single novel that, because of its length […] is being published in several volumes,” according to Ferrante, these books follow Elena and Lila from their childhood beginnings in Naples, through adulthood and into old age in a modernizing Italy. One of them abandons the society and class they were born into, one stays; one tempers anger in order to attain higher education and the upward mobility it permits, the other’s internalized rage, a “poisoned fury” in her stomach, proves debilitating.
“We lived in a world,” an adult Elena recalls 1940s Naples,
in which children and adults were often wounded, blood flowed from the wounds, they festered, and sometimes people died […] Our world was like that, full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection. With these words and those years I bring back the many fears that accompanied me all my life.
“Blood,” she continues:
In general it came from wounds only after horrible curses and disgusting obscenities had been exchanged. That was the standard procedure. My father, though he seemed to me a good man, hurled continuous insults and threats if someone didn’t deserve, as he said, to be on the face of the earth.
Physical violence is constant, often in the form of domestic abuse routinely (but sometimes startlingly — one father throws his daughter out a second-floor window) visited by men on their wives and children. But if the women are less violent, their rage is no less potent: “[W]hile men were always getting furious, they calmed down in the end; women, who appeared to be silent, acquiescent, when they were angry flew into a rage that had no end.”
The books are at once juicy, engrossing historical novels — so crowded with characters they require a prefatory family tree to keep the names straight — and searingly intense parables of artistic creation. Lila fascinates Elena, along with nearly everyone she encounters, in her brilliance and unpredictability. Her “quickness of mind was like a hiss, a dart, a lethal bite.” Her intelligence is so dazzling as to sometimes appear as a kind of black magic or witchcraft; she more than once seems, in fits of rage, to cause spontaneous combustion in objects, and she can be a frightening adversary: “You’d better go, we’re witches here […] [A]ll he has to do is touch me and he’ll burn: it’s I who hurt people.” Within these realist historical novels lie hints of a primal supernatural. Lila becomes a thwarted creator possessing powerful — albeit largely suppressed — talents, and wielding transformative forces. And Elena, due in part to Lila’s influence, herself becomes an artist, one who “must create.”
These latest novels mark a new phase for Ferrante. Her previous novels — Troubling Love (1999, English trans. 2006), The Days of Abandonment (2002, trans. 2005), and The Lost Daughter (2006, trans. 2008) — can themselves be read as an informal trilogy of intensely raw, slim novels (the longest well under 200 pages) about lost and abandoned daughters and mothers. The first, Troubling Love, a less fully accomplished trial run for the superb two that follow it, begins with a middle-aged woman, Delia, recounting the apparently accidental drowning of her mother, Amelia. An investigation into her mother’s death leads Delia on a hallucinatory journey into Naples: rough-hewn, violent, inimical — the hometown she had intended to leave for good upon entering the professional middle class of Rome. This simple plot — a vanished mother, a seeking daughter, an unwished-for return to the scene of a childhood trauma — also sets a template for Ferrante’s next two novels. Each of her three works could plausibly have been titled The Lost Daughter, featuring as they all do a woman who grapples with the love, hatred, closeness and revulsion she feels for her own mother, sometimes for her children, and often for the Naples where she was born and raised. The novels are fiercely compressed and confessional, erupting with emotions and images charged by stifled feelings.
Invariably damaged, Ferrante’s narrators and protagonists suffer from injuries that tend to shift, disconcertingly, from the figurative to the literal, from the psychological to the bodily. When someone bears a wound in Ferrante’s work, it is difficult to say definitively if it is psychological or physical, linguistic or somatic, because, according to Ferrante, these realms are never separate. “I tend to throw into words — for the most part vainly — my entire body,” she has commented. One consequence is that Ferrante seems to view language and writing as at once wounded and wounding, and as a means for better understanding past injuries. Discussing her novels, Ferrante comments that the ones she prefers “seemed to me the ones that most decisively stuck a finger in certain wounds I have that are still infected, and without a safe distance.” “At other times,” she adds, apparently discussing unpublished work, “I’ve written about clean or happily healed wounds, and I did so with the regulation detachment and the right words. But then I discovered that that is not my path.” This is for her a primary goal of fiction—to “stick a finger” into an infected and open wound, to prod it and remind oneself where and why it hurts.
Ferrante’s comments invite biographical inquiry: what are these still-infected wounds explored by her novels? For now, however, we can know little beyond the evidence of the fictions themselves, for “Elena Ferrante” is a pseudonym for an author who has, somewhat incredibly for someone of her renown, managed to keep her identity hidden. Through her Italian publisher, she has engaged in occasional written interviews from which we learn that she is, assuming no deeper deception, a Naples-born woman who has “a degree in classical literature,” who works or has worked in academia — “I study, I translate, I teach” — and who lived for some time in Greece. In addition to a strong interest in classical mythology and literature — the figure of Dido, the self-sacrificing Queen of Carthage, is a significant reference within My Brilliant Friend, for example — she admits “that I am slightly interested in psychoanalysis, and fairly interested in feminism.” Naturally, her secrecy has guaranteed that almost nothing published about her fails to speculate about the reasons for and effects of her pseudonymity. For her part, Ferrante attributes it to "a somewhat neurotic desire for intangibility.” She writes a book, she asserts, “to free myself from it, not to be its prisoner.” “I would like only to decide myself what part of me should be made public and what instead should remain private.” All this is to say: don’t bother checking for her Twitter feed.
Since we can’t know about Ferrante’s own unhealed wounds, we can only consider those of her characters. One central category could be described as maternal injuries: injuries by and of mothers, sometimes inflicted by children, sometimes constituted by those children. The Lost Daughter begins with its 48-year-old narrator, Leda (remember that Ferrante is a classicist), a divorced scholar and teacher of English literature, explaining how she passed out while driving home from a beach vacation on the coast and woke up in a hospital room: “The only serious injury was in my left side, an inexplicable lesion.” The novel, in narrating the events of this unrestful holiday, eventually explains how she acquired the injury — but this proves an answer that does not solve or salve, so much as prod and stick a finger in.
Every daughter in these books seeks, with the passion of instinctive necessity, to separate herself decisively from her mother, which proves impossible because the daughter’s identity and body are constituted quite literally out of the mother’s. Each daughter carries traces of her own mother within her. In Troubling Love, Delia imagines her own teenaged mother, running through a dark city underpass in Naples, followed by aggressive men “making obscene remarks.” (Frightening sexual harassment on streets and busses is a leitmotif for Ferrante.) As Delia retraces her mother’s steps, “[s]he ran in my head. Was it possible that I, passing through there, carried her in my aging, unsuitably dressed body? Was it possible that her sixteen-year-old body, in a homemade flowered dress, was passing through the shadowy light by means of mine?” In The Days of Abandonment, the 38-year-old narrator, Olga, a frustrated writer, recalls her feelings of helpless dissolution when she had nursed her infant children. “I was like a lump of food that my children chewed without stopping: a cud made of a living material that continually amalgamated and softened its living substance to allow two greedy bloodsuckers to nourish themselves.” The Lost Daughter’s Leda observes:
The women of my family swelled, dilated. The creature trapped in their womb seemed a long illness that changed them […] It seemed to me that little Bianca, right after her beautiful birth, had suddenly changed and treacherously taken for herself all my energy, all my strength, all my capacity for invention.
In Troubling Love, the daughter’s struggle for autonomy and self-differentiation has specifically Gothic overtones: Delia looks at a photo of herself and is startled to see her mother. In the later novels, a sense of uncanny doubling imbues the language, but more ambiguously. Part of the power of Ferrante’s writing lies in its self-awareness of language as inherently uncanny, charged with uncontrollable forces beyond the agency of any speaker or writer. Each of her protagonists traces a personal journey out of Naples, a journey that occurs simultaneously within the registers of geography, psychology, family, class, and the linguistic. In what must have posed a particular challenge for Ferrante’s able translator, Ann Goldstein, her work is continually concerned with diglossia, the shifting tensions between Neopolitan dialect and the proper Italian of the educated-professional class. This Neopolitan dialect is, in every novel, associated with obscenity, the erotic, childhood, violence, and the voice of the mother. (Ferrante has commented that “[a]s a child, as an adolescent, the dialect of Naples frightened me.”) Dialect possesses uncanny characteristics for Ferrante’s educated protagonists, who in their ascent out of the working class have “surmounted” dialect (to use the technical Freudian term), in so doing infusing it with the explosive force of the disavowed. Dialect is the idiom of cursing mothers and grandmothers from the old neighborhood, a shameful but vital reminder of their continued unrefined existence. In a climactic scene of confrontation in The Lost Daughter, Leda “heard her behind me, hissing insults in dialect, terrible as the ones my grandmother, my mother used to utter.” Troubling Love’s Delia hears on the streets on Naples “the buzz of dialect sounds that I deciphered unwillingly. It was the language of my mother, which I had vainly tried to forget.”
These characters want to “forget” dialect, to learn to speak exclusively in a more cultured and cosmopolitan Italian; they cannot, in part because dialect continues to offer a sub-rational link to sources of authentic identity. Dialect is particularly linked with both “obscenity” and the erotic. When Delia is sexually harassed on the streets on Naples by a strange man, she is “hit by a stream of obscenities in dialect, a soft river of sound that involved me, my sisters, my mother in a concoction of semen, saliva, feces, urine, in every possible orifice.” But she also recognizes that she cannot seem to do without dialectical obscenities. “The sound of obscenities uttered in dialect” are for her “the only obscenities that could fit together sound and sense in my head in such a way as to make concrete a sex that was troublesome in its aggressive, pleasure-seeking, and sticky realism: every other formula outside of that dialect seemed to me insignificant, often lighthearted.” Olga in The Days of Abandonment, after her husband Mario leaves her for a much younger family friend, explains, “Obscenity came to my lips naturally; it seemed to me that it served to communicate […] that I was not one to be taken in by fine words. As soon as I opened my mouth I felt the wish to mock, smear, defile Mario and his slut.”
Dialect, the obscene, Naples: these categories all designate that which must be left behind in order to enter the middle class in Florence, Rome, or Turin, but which persist as embodiments of an unrefined authenticity. “[W]ho knows, maybe it was I alone who was obscene now,” Olga comments, half in dismay, half exulting in her newfound verbal and erotic powers. These novels bear the imprint of classic second-wave feminist criticism and theory; Simone de Beauvoir’s story collection The Woman Destroyed is a recurring intertext of Days of Abandonment, for example, and in that novel, Olga’s “obscene” language could be a manifestation of Hélène Cixous’s declaration, in her “The Laugh of the Medusa,” that “[a] woman’s body, with its thousand and one threshholds of ardor […] will make the old single-grooved mother tongue reverberate with more than one language […] with a force never yet unleashed”[i]
With My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante shifted from compressed interior psychological fiction, confined within a single narrator’s vividly claustrophobic consciousness, to a new mode of expansive, multi-character historical Bildungsroman. (My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name — entitled My Brilliant Friend, Vol. 2 in its Italian edition — each begins with a daunting genealogical character list, grouped according to nine primary families: “The Cerullo family (the shoemaker’s family)”; “The Greco family (the porter’s family)”; and so on.) These books in many ways do mark a departure from the previous work. They are less anguished, their pace is slower, and they offer a far broader, more panoramic vision that connects the microcosm of Elena’s and Lila’s particular lives to Italy’s postwar national experience of industrialization, modernization, social class, and shifts in norms of sexuality and gender. In short, they are historical novels in a classic mode, as well as Bildungsromane or Künstlerromane that narrate Elena’s gradual development into an intellectual and a successful author.
Despite the break preceding these new historical novels (or single meta-novel), however, My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name are unmistakably still productions by the author of The Days of Abandonment. Although the books remain deeply interested in mother-daughter relations, the focus now shifts from those vertical bonds to the horizontal connections of peer friendship: primarily Elena and Lila’s, but also their ties to a cast of friends, classmates, and lovers. Partly due to slightly less-supportive parents, and partly, perhaps, because as a girl in Naples of this era, it may be more profitable to in effect “seek […] the level” as a very intelligent second-best in the class than to dazzle as an intimidatingly brilliant number one, Lila drops out of elementary school while Elena proceeds to middle school and then later onward to university on a scholarship. Yet even as the two girls’ bond of friendship frays from the pressure of their increasingly different lives, Elena never doubts that her own success is rooted, in some fundamental way, in her tie to Lila. As Elena comments, “I devoted myself to studying and to many things that were difficult, alien to me, just so I could keep pace with that terrible, dazzling girl.” Later she observes that “[i]t was as if, because of an evil spell, the joy or sorrow of one required the sorrow or joy of the other.” “Lila’s world, as usual, rapidly superimposed itself on mine.” The girls share a mutual obsession with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and the novel that the adult Elena eventually writes, to acclaim, is indebted to and even derivative of a story entitled “the Blue Fairy” that Lila wrote as a child and later burned. Elena and Lila are rivals and, in effect, collaborators: “Her life continuously appears in mine,” Elena remarks movingly toward the end of The Story of a New Name, “in the words that I’ve uttered, in which there’s often an echo of hers, in a particular gesture that is an adaptation of a gesture of hers.”
My Brilliant Friend concludes with a cliffhanger at Lila’s wedding; The Story of a New Name charts the paths of the two girls and their peers into the 1960s, the fate of Lila’s troubled early marriage, and Elena’s eventual success at university and finally as a novelist with the book inspired by Lila’s abandoned childhood creation. In these thousand or so pages, so far, occur some episodes and sections that made me wonder if the endlessly expansive form of a multi-book saga had encouraged Ferrante to sacrifice too much of the lean economy of her earlier novels. Yet by the end of The Story of a New Name, you feel that the novels have more than earned their amplitude. They contain so much — even if possibly too much — making the previous novels appear a bit too minimalist and Modernist by comparison. (You call 175 pages a novel?) Ferrante conjoins Elena’s practical realism with Lila’s creative rage and Romantic rebellion — Elena’s Catherine to Lila’s Heathcliff — to create an engrossing, wildly original contemporary epic about the demonic power of human (and particularly female) creativity checked by the forces of history and society. It is also an unforgettable tale — surely at some level autobiographical, even if I am only guessing — of the lifelong difficult friendship of two women who learn, together, how to represent and shape their world through the mastery of language: “I, I and Lila, we two with that capacity that together — only together — we had to seize the mass of colors, sounds, things and people, and express it and give it power.”