Vanity Fair: This is Ferrante at the height of her brilliance.
Date: Aug 28 2015
In the first part of Elena Ferrante’s conversation with Vanity Fair, the elusive author spoke frankly about the dangers of writing while female, how the personal is political, and the inspiration behind The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth and final novel in her Neapolitan series. Here, the notoriously straight talking writer discusses her attraction to abandonment, knowing when it’s time to throw away what you’ve written, and her unwavering decision to publish under a pseudonym. “I simply decided once and for all,” Ferrante told me, “to liberate myself from the anxiety of notoriety and the urge to be a part of that circle of successful people, those who believe they have won who-knows-what.”
Vanity Fair: When you set out to write the Neapolitan novels, did you know the entire arc?
Elena Ferrante: No. I knew only the basic stages of the story and even those as if through a fog. But that’s been true for all of my books.
Do you normally have a very clear picture of what shape the work will take?
I never know exactly what shape a story will take. What is clear to me, always, is that the writing must never lose sight of truth as its ultimate goal. Page after page, the drive to capture what is true, and not what resembles the truth, shapes the work. If, even for a few passages, the tone becomes false—that is, too studied, too limpid, too regimented, too well-phrased—I am obliged to stop and to figure out where I started to go wrong. If I can’t, I throw everything away.
You have been praised for your spare, muscular prose. There are no pyrotechnics, the language never draws attention to itself, and the effect is powerful. Do you start in this more spare and dialed-back register, or is the work in earlier drafts messier and more emotional?
I tell stories about middle-class women who are cultivated and capable of governing themselves. They have the tools to reflect on themselves. The slow, detached language I use is theirs. Then something breaks and these women’s boundaries dissolve, and the language with which they are attempting to say something about themselves also is loosed, unbounded. From that moment, the problem—a problem that is, above all mine, as I write—becomes how to re-discover, step by step, the measured language they started with and, with it, the kind of self-governing ability that stops my characters from falling into depression, into self-degeneration, or into dangerous feelings of revenge, aimed at themselves or at others.
Was there one novel in the series that was more difficult to write? Is there one that you feel most connected to or proud of?
The entire series, in each of its four installments, was, for me, a satisfying labor. Perhaps because of the themes it addresses, the most difficult to write was the third. And, again due to its thematic considerations, the second was the easiest. But the first and the fourth are the ones to which I dedicated myself without reserve, every day mixing different genres, pleasure and pain, obscurity and clarity. I love them very much for this reason.
Did you know from the beginning that there would be four books? If not, when did it become clear to you?
Six or seven years ago when I started working on these books I was convinced that a single, albeit long, volume would be enough. But when I got to the story of Lila’s wedding, I realized that I was going to need an exorbitant number of pages. I never thought of them as separate novels. While there are four volumes, for me, the Neapolitan novels are one compact story, one very long novel.
What do you do to relax?
I devote myself to boring domestic chores.
Do you ever find yourself working against a certain kind of writing or writers?
I am curious about work that is very different from mine. I devote special attention to books that I could never write myself. If something feels foreign to me, but not annoyingly so, I try to study it to understand how it was made and what I can learn from it. It has never occurred to me to argue with other writers.
Are you making a conscious choice when you sit down to write to create characters who won’t play by the rules of polite society, or is it as Grace Paley puts it, “It’s not that you set out to oppose authority. In the act of writing, you simply do.”
I deliberate a lot over what I would like to do with writing. I have always read a great deal in order to borrow what I need from tradition. But then, when I start working I just write, without worrying if something seems too trivial or refined, comfortable or uncomfortable, obedient or rebellious. The problem is one and only one: to tell a story in the most effective way.
Where do you actually physically work?
Wherever I can. The important thing is that it is a little corner somewhere. That is to say, a very small space.
The subject of abandonment appears in a lot of your work. What is it about abandonment that strikes such a chord with you?
Abandonment is an invisible wound that does not heal easily. As a storyteller, I am attracted by it because it synthesizes the general precariousness of all we consider constant, the deconstruction of everything that seemed “normal.” Abandonment corrodes those certainties within which we believed we lived safely. Not only have we been abandoned, but we may not hold up when faced with the loss; we abandon ourselves, we lose the consistency that we have gained via the sweet habit of entrusting ourselves to others. So, to get through it, you must find a new equilibrium while at the same time acknowledging a new fact—namely, that everything you have can be taken from you, and with it your will to live.
Have you ever abandoned a book?
I have abandoned many books, and some when they were already completed. The reason is always the same: I put aside everything that, even if the pages are well manicured and beautiful, strikes me as lacking truth.
The theme of erasure—erasing one’s self, being erased by the culture—also reappears in the novels. What is it about disappearing, or being disappeared that you find so compelling?
I have always been fascinated by those people who, faced with a world so full of horrors it can seem intolerable, claim that the human condition is unchangeable, that nature is a monstrous machine, that humanity has produced an endless cycle of inhumanity even when animated by good intentions, and then back away. The problem is not what other people do to you. The problem is to stand impotent before the horror that afflicts the majority of people, the most precarious of our fellow human beings. Every day we find ourselves faced with the intolerable, and no promise of utopia—whether it be political, religious, or scientific—is capable of calming us. Each generation is obliged to verify this horror anew for itself, and to discover that it is impotent. So either you take a step forward or you take one back. I’m not talking about suicide. I’m talking about refusing to engage, about removing oneself from the picture. The sentence, “No, I will not,” when it comes from the depths of the intolerable, seems to me to be weighty, full of meaning, with everything to recount, always.
It’s interesting that you yourself have—by choosing to keep details of your identity secret—in a sense, erased yourself. Could you write as honestly if you were a public figure? Or does it matter not at all?
No, if you write and publish you are hardly erasing yourself. Indeed, I have my private life and as far as my public life goes I am fully represented by my books. My choice was something different. I simply decided once and for all, over 20 years ago, to liberate myself from the anxiety of notoriety and the urge to be a part of that circle of successful people, those who believe they have won who-knows-what. This was an important step for me. Today I feel, thanks to this decision, that I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful.
Still, I am curious why would an author—especially one so successful and critically acclaimed as you are—choose to remain anonymous?
I have not chosen anonymity. My books are signed. Rather, I have withdrawn from the rituals that writers are more or less obliged to perform in order to sustain their book by lending to them their author’s expendable image. And it’s worked out fine so far. My books increasingly demonstrate their independence, so I see no reason to change my position. It would be deplorably incongruent.
The writer never wants the reader to feel their presence, never wants to call attention to themselves, and yet a careful reader should be able to detect here and there a few of the creator’s fingerprints. What direction might you offer the reader desperate to find you in the work (beyond telling them to piss off)?
As far as I know, my readers do not despair at all. I receive letters of support for my little battle in favor of the centrality of the work. Evidently, for those who love literature, the books are enough.