I read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy this year. I read it twice, actually. It made me want to quit writing.
That sounds like the kind of cutesy thing you could say about any book you love, but in fact the reality of it was terrible, a sensation that lasted for days, a blend of nausea, fog, and loss. How can I explain it? Reading those books — My Brilliant Friend, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of a New Name — it was as if I had spent my whole life training to be a world-class swimmer, waking up at dawn to do laps, eating the right stuff — and then, all of the sudden, swimming in the ocean one day, I had been joined briefly by a dolphin and realized, oh, of course, that’s what swimming actually is.
That is: There’s a difference between naturalism and naturalness. Naturalism is still a mode. Ferrante’s early books are great, but they’re modal, full of the effects a novelist can use, beautifully deployed, but effects. By the Neapolitan trilogy, those effects are gone. As a consequence it has less immediate line-to-line dazzle than what we’re used to calling great fiction these days, The Flamethrowers, for example, or even The Days of Abandonment, but what she buys with the sacrifice is a consuming naturalness. There’s not a single moment of falseness across all the thousand pages of the books. In general, even the best novelists enter their texts; the great ones do it almost imperceptibly, but still, behind Walter’s love of birds in Freedom, for instance, you just sense Jonathan Franzen’s love of birds, a weak but noticeable magnetic draw from character to author. Whereas Ferrante works so closely to her characters’ motivations, more closely than any novelist I’ve ever read, that it means the books are not so much realistic as that they are a reality. The result is intoxicating, art with all the beauties of a made thing and the authenticity of a discovered one. It’s like a garment without seams that fits perfectly, or like those Vija Celmins rocks. It’s like the opposite of the Pompidou Center.
The last 20 years have seen the ascent of James Wood’s idea that what the novel offers uniquely is an encounter with another consciousness, and now we’ve arrived at the cultural triumph of his particular theodicy, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Ben Lerner. Those (wonderful) authors get rid of the problem of the novel by entering it overtly, and while that allows an magical nearness to them, it’s a solution that’s also an impoverishment, because it foregoes plot. An acceptable loss, you might say. I wonder. Wood’s pressure toward interiority almost seems to me to forget the structure of life, which is so crucially at once internal and external. Life has actions in it. In reading a novel, it’s profound to experience the self-in-other in memory or contemplation, but it’s sometimes just as profound to experience the self-in-other during moments of decision. In Ferrante, we have both — they’re told in the first person, but they’re the story of more than a single person, of many equally weighted people. The plotting of their stories is so skillful, indeed so unplotted, in the sense that life is unplotted, in the sense that we don’t know the future, that as readers we suddenly exist both in other actions and in their actors’ consciousness of them. Not the latter alone.
I read a lot of things in 2014, and I would like to imagine I’ll look back on the year and remember rereading Patrick O’Brian, whose achievement as an author of historical fiction I consider as great as Hilary Mantel’s, or Six Memos for the Next Millennium and Mythologies, which have both been rattling in my mind since winter, or the mysterious and beautiful 10:04, or the funniest book I read all year, a fantastic self-published novella that if there were justice in the world would upend pro sports, Goodell vs. Obama by PFT Commenter, or the fifth volume of Marcel Proust, finally I’m almost done.
But realistically, Ferrante is who will stay with me.
It’s considered unsophisticated to be normative about authors. Leave it to Buzzfeed, leave it to the Mike Trout zealots. I get that, but at the same time I also think it’s important to believe in greatness, and I don’t think it’s always wrong to calibrate it. I don’t know if Ian McEwan is greater than Don DeLillo, or whatever. What I do know is that before 2014, I thought Philip Roth was the greatest novelist alive. Now, for me, he’s second.