The Times Literary Supplement: " romantic and family saga, a Bildungsroman, a portrait of a society, the series is also not quite any of these things."
Date: Sep 9 2015
Elena Ferrante: closet conservative or radical feminist?
At rush hour on public transport, you’d be forgiven for thinking that everyone around you has resorted to the same sort of bland escapism. There’s a flurry of fat paperbacks, each boasting a sentimental family snapshot complete with a seascape, seen through a slight haze of baby blue or green or pink. It’s not only the covers that make Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (really one vast novel, chopped into four) look approachable: built around a central friendship between two women growing up in post-war Italy, they are seemingly realist tales full of family intrigues and love affairs and rivalries. Yet the whiff of soap hasn’t fooled the critics, who for several years now have been spilling superlatives all over Ferrante. Her name (a pseudonym) is fast becoming a Bolaño-style talisman.
The Story of the Lost Child is the fourth and final instalment in a series the author says originated in “the most daring, the most risk-taking” of her previous books, La figlia oscura (2006; The Lost Daughter). That book does indeed contain many elements of the Neapolitan novels in microcosm: vivid evocations of heat and dirt and bodies; fraught, ambivalent intimacies between women; families in which the possibility of violence feels routine; a runaway wife and mother; a lost doll; a lost child. There’s even a narrator who, having escaped her impoverished Neapolitan origins in favour of “bourgeois decorum, proper Italian, a good life, cultured and reflective”, constantly fears that she or her daughters might “slowly sink into the black well I came from” – Naples itself “seemed a wave that would drown me”. Each of the three novels Ferrante published before the Neapolitan series is short, sharp, claustrophobic, wrought tightly around a few characters, often trapping the reader in domestic spaces from which most of the wider context is shut out, or inside the mind of a troubled protagonist. For those who have read all her books, the Neapolitan novels can resemble a magic trick: watch the invisible author (Ferrante’s determination to remain hidden is by now notorious) crack open one of her small, dark, violent stories, and out comes a sprawling, teeming world reminiscent of a nineteenth-century novel, a span of six decades within which ten families collide against the sociopolitical panorama of post-war Italy. A romantic and family saga, a Bildungsroman, a portrait of a society, the series is also not quite any of these things. There is nothing pointedly obscurantist in their style, their language, their plot (quite the reverse, in fact), and yet the underlying nature of the books remains stubbornly elusive – which may help to account for their power to win so many different readers.
What we have before us purports to be an account by Elena Greco (Lenù), a writer in her sixties, born in 1944 in a poor part of Naples referred to only as “the neighborhood”, of her life and those of the people she grew up with, particularly her closest friend, Raffaella Cerullo, or Lila. Lila’s unexplained (but apparently long predicted) disappearance, at sixty-six, is what sets the story going, and we are given to understand that she has always been the primary motive force in the author’s life, going right back to their early childhood. The two girls (Lila the child of a shoemaker, Lenù of a porter) are very bright, but Lila, in Lenù’s account, is the more gifted, the original, adventurous thinker of the two. She is also the one who is deprived of an education. Lenù, with the support of teachers and the halting compliance of her parents, stays at school and eventually makes a kind of escape from the neighbourhood, marrying the well-connected son of a prominent professor and becoming a writer, while Lila remains behind, designs shoes, keeps shop, abandons an early, wretched marriage, works in a sausage factory, learns computing and manages a business. Her fortunes rise and fall within a charged tangle of power struggles dominated by the local camorristi, amid the wider political turbulence roiling Italy during the 1960s and 70s. Lenù is both sustained and tormented by how much of her own success, indeed how much of her mental landscape, seems to depend on Lila. Alongside this evolution of a complicated friendship, a great deal else happens: literary, political and criminal careers are made and destroyed; activism surges and is crushed; there are affairs, murders and suicides and assassinations, beatings and rapes (both commonplace within marriages: “Smash my face when you want”, Lila tells her husband on her way out, responding to his threat, “I’ve got a callus there”).
Yet the scale is deceptive, and so is the apparent realism: these books, despite their sprawl of minor characters and subplots, of geography and history, in several ways retain the claustrophobic intensity that marks Ferrante’s earlier works. There is a peculiar economy of motif and metaphor, a density of connection in which the same symbolic objects – a lost doll, a broken bracelet, a dented bowl – return again and again, like fetishes, and similar imagery recurs to describe sex, pregnancy, computers, social realities, political decline, earthquakes, mental breakdown (Lila secretly suffers a condition she terms “dissolving margins”, in which boundaries of every kind seem to become unfixed). At the same time, the actual style is often (far too consistently to attribute to any faults in Ann Goldstein’s translation) almost determinedly inelegant, creating an impression of looseness and haste, capable in places of great subtlety but frequently rejecting it in favour of an obsessive recounting. “I had puffy cheeks and an enormous nose”, Lenù thinks in The Story of the Lost Child, during the final month of pregnancy:
“My bosom and stomach seemed to have consumed the rest of my body, I saw myself without a neck, with short legs and fat ankles. I had become like my mother, but not the one of now, who was a thin, frightened old woman; rather, I resembled the venomous figure I had always feared, who now existed only in my memory. That persecuting mother was unleashed. She began to act through me, venting because of the difficulties, the anxieties, the pain the dying mother was causing me with her frailties, the gaze of a person who is about to drown. I became intractable, every complication seemed like a plot, I often started shouting. I had the impression, in my moments of greatest unhappiness, that the chaos of Naples has settled even in my body, that I was losing the capacity to be nice, to be likable.”
Though so many characters interact, fall in love, attack each other, work and scheme together, actual dialogue is rare and often breaks out only for half a page or so before being reabsorbed into a paratactical tumble: speech, feelings, events spill out amid a flood of commas, reminding us that this is a retrospective and yet urgent telling, as if Lenù is scrambling to put down everything she can remember before, like Lila herself, it is lost to her for good. Again, we are trapped inside a single mind – or perhaps in a rivalrous, shifting relation between two minds, two sensibilities: Lenù’s and Lila’s.
As in Ferrante’s earlier novels, the boundary between the mind and what’s outside it is alarmingly porous – and both are spheres of extreme violence. In Volume Two, The Story of a New Name, when Lila is escaping her unhappy marriage through an affair, she keeps notebooks that we know about because she eventually gives them to Lenù for safekeeping. She takes down details of violent crimes reported in the local press, elaborating on them with lurid inventions as if imagining what might happen to her when her husband finds her out – “eyes dug out of their sockets, injuries caused by a knife to the throat or internal organs, the blade that pierced a breast, nipples cut off, the stomach ripped open from the bellybutton down, the blade that scraped across the genitals”. This recalls the memorable scene in Ferrante’s second novel, I giorni dell’abbandono (2002; The Days of Abandonment), in which the protagonist comes across the husband who’s deserted her, walking in the street with his twenty-year-old lover. She imagines tearing off the earrings the girl wears, once her own: “I wanted to drag along her beautiful face with the eyes the nose the lips the scalp the blond hair . . . as if with a hook I’d snagged her garment of flesh, the sacks of her breasts, the belly that wrapped the bowels and spilled out through the asshole”. “Because what is the face”, she thinks, “a cover, a disguise, rouge for the insupportable horror of our living nature.” Later, returning to herself, the wife describes her period of apparent instability as one of acute perception: “I had an excessive reaction that pierced the surface of things”. Partly because they contain so many lives and places and events, the Neapolitan novels have, superficially, a more cheerful and robust quality. Yet here, too, the surface of things often seems fragile: violence is both physical and psychic, both a brutal reality and a rupturing of the thin skin of what appears to be ordinary life, revealing something still uglier underneath.
What is most striking about Ferrante’s treatment of politics, once she pans out far enough to allow it into the frame, is that it too is subject to this physicalizing impulse. Here the political is not only personal but visceral, and not just because she covers a period of such bloody upheaval. (This is one of several ways you can tell Ferrante is a classicist: as well as the odd sly reference to, say, weaving in the daytime and unpicking at night, there is a pervasive sense that the ills of the state, the community, the family, are interconnected and will be played out in dramatic, violent fashion.) All the characters, but the women first of all, feel in their bodies and reflect in even their small thoughts and reactions the constant blows of the system in which they live. Lila especially, as Lenù notes in Volume Three, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, has “transformed into political objectives her rages old and new . . . has connected, is connecting, our personal knowledge of poverty and abuse to the armed struggle against the fascists, against the owners, against capital”. That gives Lila a disgust with any form of politics that ignores the concrete, or that makes itself seem more attractive by concealing how intractable the obstacles to it are. In The Story of the Lost Child, she reproaches Lenù for taking an apartment in the more upscale part of town, where the sea is merely “a bit of color. Better if you’re closer, that way you notice that there’s filth, mud, piss, polluted water”. Ever since the second volume, Lila has been questioning the ideas Lenù tends to spout about change and reconciliation: the conflict between rich and poor, Lila says, is “a fight to the death”. What’s more, as she points out in Volume Three, talk of some imagined “working class” often obscures the actual men and women, covered in wounds from the knives in the sausage factory, who “spend eight hours a day up to the waist in the mortadella cooking water”.
Lenù, on the other hand, admits, in Volume Two, to an uneasy awareness that she tends to “reduce everything to my own individual battle, to the effort to be successful”. Certain kinds of political rhetoric come to her ready-made, like her hard-won intellectual pretensions; they’re just another way to flee the limitations of her upbringing. When young, she envies in other people the ability to feel connected to “the questions of the world”, to experience them “as crucial and not purely as information to display at an exam, in view of a good grade”. She and her contemporaries are in many ways excluded, stuck in the margins of larger historical change. Yet even in the moments when the two women specifically reject any thought of outside events, those events, words, ideas still mark them: “What did I care anymore about . . . the death of Ulrike Meinhof, the birth of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the electoral advances of the Communist Party?” Lenù, in Volume Three, recalls thinking during an affair that will end her marriage. “The world had retreated. I felt sunk inside myself, inside my flesh, which seemed to me not only the sole dwelling possible but also the only material for which it was worthwhile to struggle.” Their neighbourhood, their class origins, are also figured again and again as things they sink inside, things they can’t escape.
It is in part this sense of entrapment, of being dragged back down into the deprivation and fear and “filth” from which you came, that has led certain readers to view the books as defeatist or conservative in their implications. In an article for The Point magazine, Jon Baskin argued that “it may prove a mistake to presume, as some critics have, that Ferrante’s novels endorse ways of thinking familiar from leftist theory or even from liberal politics as we typically understand them”. He noted that though it may resemble a Bildungsroman (in fact a Künstlerroman, the story of its narrator’s development as a writer), the series is more like the inverse, tending to take the self apart. The problem with Baskin’s claim that we should find in the Neapolitan novels a way of thinking that is “skeptical not only of critical theory’s vocabulary but also of its utopian aspirations” is that it relies on the assumption that complexity, or “opacity”, must be inherently conservative, that to acknowledge deep and intractable problems is to suggest that we can only surrender in the face of them. Ferrante, Baskin concluded approvingly, continually brings her narrators back “from the comfortable certainties of understanding, to the painful struggle of thinking”, and her fiction “does not promise to change our lives, only to restore us to them”. The implication seems to be a choice between a naive faith in the possibility of a kind of rationalist progress and a confrontation with the harsher realities, an acceptance that there will only be an endless cycle of pain, violence, injustice, confusion – pessimism of the intellect and the will.
Among the critics Baskin disagrees with is Dayna Tortorici, whose analysis in n+1 of the first three Neapolitan books is among the most insightful I’ve encountered. She reads Ferrante’s series in the light of a strand of Italian feminist thought that gained strength in the later period in which the books are set, laying out the concept of “entrustment” espoused by the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, who replaced “sisterhood” with symbolic mother-daughter relationships in an attempt to give themselves a set of specifically female role models without reference to the dominant modes of intellectual or political thought. It’s a convincing interpretation of the relationship between Lenù and Lila, which, though often filled with envy, resentment and ambivalence, is also formative and generative, even freeing at times, for both of them. It is the less schooled Lila who teaches Lenù things that might actually be useful to her. When, in Volume Three, Lenù first encounters feminist texts such as Carla Lonzi’s Let’s Spit on Hegel, she recognizes an ability to “think against” that Lila has always had, while she herself has been busy focusing almost exclusively on how to please the authorities around her: “How is it possible . . . that a woman knows how to think like that”, she wonders. “I worked so hard on books, but I endured them, I never actually used them, I never turned them against themselves”.
One reason why readers of these novels can come to such different conclusions about them is that they are insistently dialectical – Lenù’s positions keep shifting and we hear many versions of what Lila may think or do as well. One moment Lenù suspects Lila has become a Communist militant, taking part in secret killings, the next Lila is advancing her standing in the neighbourhood by working for the Solaras, the Camorrist thugs they have both loathed and feared since childhood. Lila is the one who, not escaping the neighbourhood, digs further in and seeks ways to thrive within its parameters. She despises writing that covers up ugly realities, and people who try to break with their origins, to keep their hands clean. But she also consistently fantasizes about her own disappearance, a particular kind of resistance for which the urge seems to grow stronger over time. A gifted writer, she doesn’t have the desire to publish her own work, to leave part of herself behind, and although she does manage to teach herself computing and thus, for a while, becomes a powerful local figure, running her own company, she also dwells, towards the end of the final book, on the contradictions of computers, which look like an escape from the material, but are nothing of the kind: “electronics seems so clean and yet it dirties, dirties tremendously, and it obliges you to leave yourself everywhere as if you were shitting and peeing on yourself continuously: I want to leave nothing. My favourite key is the one that deletes”.
The Story of the Lost Child picks up at the point where Lenù, now in her thirties, is leaving the father of her children for a man with whom she has been infatuated for years. It follows her return to Naples, back into Lila’s orbit, through the period in which each has another child, and through various professional and personal travails, including one from which Lila cannot meaningfully recover. It is more frustrating than the previous volumes – its scope appears to shrink as it approaches the present day, following the ageing of the characters and increasing permanence of their disappointments, mirroring the political alternatives outside as they shrivel and vanish. The tension between autonomy and a kind of fateful pessimism, always implied in the series, begins to favour the latter more than ever, in a way that can seem more heavy-handed than previously: perhaps, Lenù thinks at one point, being born in Naples is “useful for a single thing” – “to have always known, almost instinctively, what today, with endless fine distinctions, everyone is beginning to claim: that the dream of unlimited progress is in reality a nightmare full of savagery and death”. Still, the final book is not meant to stand by itself, and it continually circles back around the images and ideas of the earlier instalments. Covering a far greater time span than the previous books, it skips and races through, speeding up, the way life appears to do with age.
For all its outward signs of a revival of nineteenth-century realism, this is a series that could only have been written after postmodernism, after the systems novel: it shares with some of the current crop of autofictional books, such as Ben Lerner’s 10:04 (2014), a very contemporary combination of a move inwards and a more insistent move outwards, using a semi-constructed self as a surprisingly flexible tool to test ideas and push them to the fore. What could be a solipsistic collapse instead allows you to conjure, or perhaps reconnect to, an imagined community. Lerner’s narrator sees in the Manhattan skyline the “material signature” of “a collective person who didn’t yet exist, a still-uninhabited second person plural to whom all the arts, even in their most intimate registers, were nevertheless addressed”. Ferrante, in a Paris Review interview, has envisioned an equivalent mode of authorship, pointing out that “there is no work of literature that is not the fruit of tradition, of many skills, of a sort of collective intelligence”. For both, the possibilities of literature implicitly offer ways to imagine other social and political possibilities. The trappings of realist narrative can be mined or discarded, but either way they don’t restrict what ideas and systems can be examined.
Lila often criticizes Lenù’s writing for its neatening, falsifying impulses, and in this final volume the barriers between life and representation continue to collapse. Explaining her own erratic behaviour to her friend in narrative terms, Lila seems to be both apologizing and accusing the friend-author who’s just outside the frame, pulling her strings: “Only in bad novels people always think the right thing, always say the right thing, every effect has its cause . . . everything at the end consoles you”. The question of consolation, comfort reading, an easily extracted meaning, is one that often surfaces when books attract both critical admiration and popular success. Tortorici observes that the apparent “middlebrowness” of Ferrante’s books, with their soap-operatic plotting and sometimes formulaic reversals of roles and fortunes, allows them a power to theorize that they wouldn’t otherwise have. Those chick-lit-looking paperbacks delivering doses of transhistorical rage amid gossipy entertainment seem an appropriate encapsulation of Ferrante’s sensibility – the glittering sea full of putrid rubbish, the home-cooked meal hiding shards of glass, the gorgeous young woman just a sack of churning guts and blood like everybody else. It is as if Ferrante shared the fantasy once aired by the film director John Waters, who hoped to cram the most subversive possible message into the most mainstream product.
Ferrante has elegantly sidestepped authorial celebrity by maintaining her pseudonym, but she doesn’t go in for the brand of defensiveness infamously displayed by Jonathan Franzen when he objected to being recommended by Oprah Winfrey. In an interview conducted via correspondence with the New York Times last year, Ferrante was asked about “the best thing that you hope readers could take away from your work”. Without disclaimers about the irreducibility of literature or any such thing, she simply offered up the Ferrante version of self-help: “that even if we’re constantly tempted to lower our guard – out of love, or weariness, or sympathy or kindness – we women shouldn’t do it. We can lose from one moment to the next everything that we have achieved”. That can’t begin to sum up her books, but it’s telling that she doesn’t mind providing a message, even if not the consoling sort that often fills this kind of space. It’s one that’s bleak: not hopelessly, but – dare I say it – radically so.