There is a savage honesty to the work of Elena Ferrante that is both unsettling and comforting at once. Here is an author who has poured every ounce of herself onto the page.
None of us are privy to the writing habits of the reclusive Naples writer but upon reading her work, it feels like it must come in a torrent. A violent reaction to the page with no thought or idea not stretched to its absolute limit.
It’s this honesty and clarity of thought about subjects traditionally darted around, coupled with the sweeping epic feel of her Neapolitan novels in particular, that has led a legion of readers to look Ferrante’s way. The author notoriously refuses to promote her work and has broken her no interviews rule just twice, both this past year: once for an email exchange with the New York Times, and last month, through her publishers, for a sit down with the Paris Review.
Perhaps it’s this almost anonymity that gives Ferrante the power to write so ferociously about abandonment, to cut to the very core of how we measure ourselves, and to walk with a flashlight into the abyss of thoughts we daren’t whisper or daren’t open our eyes to.
At the beginning of My Brilliant Friend, the first of the Neopolitian novels, we are with the story’s narrator Elena, and are quickly introduced to Lila. This is a friendship that shapes lives, which bends behaviour and sweeps up raging jealousy. We stay with them as Lila establishes her brilliance in school and her abandon on the street, and Elena decrees that she simply must stay with this brilliant person, she must remain with her even in the shadows to fulfil her life.
Throughout the three novels Lila is captivating and infuriating. Her brash brilliance and early understanding of how she can manipulate people is maddening. But circumstances change and Elena ekes out the chances Lila will never have, such as education to escape the dusty Camorra-dominated neighbourhood. Lila firstly becomes a figure of sadness as the gross desires of the men around her begin to take hold, but she then emerges as a woman of fist-shaking rebellion and recklessness. Lila refuses to accept her fate, and her intellect and fearlessness leave a trail behind her.
Picking up the breadcrumbs on that trail is often Elena. The psychological effect of her brilliant friend is pronounced and at times crushing. The story of Elena and Lila asks us to confront our base desire to be seen by those we admire, by those we love. The complexity of friendship has rarely been laid bare like this. As we try to keep up with the tempestuous journey of these two women, we face the challenges they face. Ferrante’s work has that immeasurable quality of letting a reader care about her characters while all the time asking themselves the same questions these characters face.
While the searing honesty of Ferrante’s writing remains the strongest part of her work, this should not detract from the scale of her books, particularly the Neapolitan novels. We are taken through entire lives and meet a vast array of characters. The social and political upheaval of postwar Italy is dissected often in dialectical verbal wars. Ferrante’s sombre yet searing tone about taboo subjects is the engine that will forever drive her, but she is attentive to a reader and has masterfully managed to combine plot and soul.
It seems perverse in a way to keep coming back to catch-all words like honesty, heart and soul when describing Ferrante’s work, as if I’m doing her a disservice to herald her power over her prose. Her sentences crack like a whip and the pace is unrelenting . Consider the beginning of The Days of Abandonment – a novel given its English translation in 2006 by Ann Goldstein:
“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table.”
You are immediately plunged into the heart of Olga, the book’s protagonist, who discovers her husband is seeing a girl he used to tutor. The business speak with which Ferrante delivers the rupture to the character on the opening line of the book – an April afternoon, right after lunch, announced, clearing the table – plunges us into Olga’s heartbreak, which shakes her confidence and belief in everything. The raw candour with which we observe the disintegration of a marriage and one woman’s struggle to recover her sense of identity is jarring, yet ultimately it becomes inspiring.
Perhaps that’s Ferrante’s greatest accomplishment, to make us shift uneasily in our seats, to make us wince and pause and confront dark thoughts that have swirled, yet at the same time make us care about the likes of Olga and Elena and her brilliant friend.
That brilliant friend, with typical cutting candour, tells Elena that “each of us narrates our lives as suits us” as Elena adopts yet another brave face.
We can be grateful that Ferrante has narrated hers. We may never know how much of these firebrand novels is autobiographical and it will never matter; this Naples writer has created books that are framed by searing honesty about important subjects.
It is the recluse who has the most to say. Ferrante has only stories to tell, as she has explained: “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.”
There is no weight of personality here or staking out of positions, there are no clever tricks to neatly tie a bow around chapters. There are merely books with something important to say. And that’s why they’ve found readers.