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The Guardian: "Ferrante is a master of the unsayable"

Date: Jun 12 2014

At the beginning of The Story of a New Name, the second of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, published in English last September by Europa Editions, Luna throws a box into the river. Luna, the narrator, is a writer, but the notebooks in the box belong to her friend, Lila, who left school aged 12, marrying a mere four years later.

She's the recipient of many prizes in her native Italy, but Google Ferrante and you'll find nothing more than a few fuzzy photos, and the barest of biographical detail. "I've published six books in 20 years." she said in a rare interview. "Isn't that sufficient?"

She was born in Naples, perhaps around the same time as the two heroines of her Neapolitan books, growing up in the aftermath of the second world war. Her powerful, nuanced, urgent take on this old story of female friendship shot through with rivalry begins with the first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend (published in English in 2012). In this book, the girls identities are unstable, and they repeatedly swap roles: when Luna is beautiful, Lila is not, and when Luna temporarily abandons school, it seems Lila could become the scholar. The moment Luna first commits to their friendship is also an act in imitation of Lila's cruelty. Lila is what Luna suppresses.

"Lila was too much for anyone," says Luna, whose full name, like the pen name of her creator, is Elena. Lila, who experiences moments of existential nausea which she calls "dissolving margins", is seeking "a structure that could fully contain her, all of her, without her cracking or the figures around her cracking." My Brilliant Friend begins with a middle-aged Lila's seeming crackup, and disappearance.

Ferrante's notorious reclusiveness has led to speculation in Italy: are these her personal stories? Or is it the opposite: could she be a man, disguising her gender for greater credibility? In Fragments, a tellingly slim collection of her interviews and public correspondence, Ferrante admits the books have autobiographical elements, but she also insists that a good novel remains mysterious as "the gifts of Befana", a Neapolitan Mother Christmas who takes, perhaps significantly, the form of an old woman.

"To write clearly is to speak from the depths of the maternal womb," writes Ferrante in her hallucinatory divorce novel, The Days of Abandonment, but these are words spoken by a visitation, and who knows the motives of hauntings? James Wood, in the New Yorker, identified Ferrante's work with Écriture Féminine, defined by critic Elaine Showalter as "the inscription of the feminine body" in writing, but Ferrante's women are never so aware of their bodies as when they are alienated from them. It's a constant fight to stay within the bounds of acceptable femininity. Slim, "moviestar" Lila emerges from a skinny tomboy, a "demanding ghost", while Luna's body "expanded like pizza dough", and she is terrified she'll come to resemble her lame mother, just as the older women in the neighbourhood resemble their husbands.

Luna and Lila are not so much written on the body as through negotiations with its image, like Lila's glamorous wedding photo, which recurs as a traded totem until Lila does violence to her own image, resurrecting it as a piece of art. Creation is destructive, for Lila especially.

"I thought of beauty as a constant effort to eliminate corporeality", says Olga, the protagonist of The Days of Abandonment. Olga's shabby sexual experiences are further "degraded" by the coarse language she finds herself using. Words are tied to the body with a knot of disgust, hardly linked to Catholicism, which perhaps surprisingly is seldom apparent in the books. Instead, during episodes of "dissolving margins", Lila uncovers a polytheistic universe of local gods: "reddish animals … unknown entities that broke down the outline of the world."

Ferrante writes with a constant case of "dissolving margins". Her descriptions pursue details of forms until their centres cannot hold. Her take on Naples privileges the non-visual (perhaps Ferrante is as shortsighted as her Neapolitan namesake): the scent of greenery on razed railway banks, of flowers and new clothes. The city is also evoked through the network of her characters' increasingly complex relationships, which must be reiterated each time they appear.

Behind the Neapolitan novels is a sense of "the violence in every house, every family" based in an unspeakable "before": the brutality and betrayals of the second world war.

Luna, brought up speaking not Italian, but Neapolitan, becomes fluent in the language of schoolbooks. When "language itself in fact, had become a mark of alienation" she leaves the city for university. Groped on a bus, Luna reverts to dialect: "I said unrepeatable words … what was the use of years of middle school, high school, university, in that city?"

Language can transport you, literally, but fine words have their particular violence. Luna's neighbour, Melina, is driven mad not because she loves a married man, but because he seduced her with poems expressing love he couldn't, or wouldn't, deliver in the flesh.

Some violence is necessary: Ferrante insists her heroines do not so much "suffer" as "struggle". Luna, tearing through social barriers, accepts an invitation to her teacher's house: "a great pleasure, but also an act of violence," but Ferrante sees no solution in conflict. Fight too hard and you'll fall through the gaps in reality, into madness, like la povrella, the jilted wife who haunts Olga in The Days of Abandonment, like Melina, seen "in the stradone, eating the soft soap she had just bought".

Ferrante is a master of the unsayable. Words go under water, surface, disappear again. If Luna minds her language, Lila says what she likes, but nothing that can be published.

That's why Elena throws Lila's notes away: though hope remains in the box, what Lila had to say must have been unbearable.

The third instalment of Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, will be published in September 2014 by Europa Editions. The series is translated by Ann Goldstein.

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