The following is an excerpt from an e-mail correspondence, which took place last year, between the Italian novelists Elena Ferrante and Nicola Lagioia, whose English-language début, “Ferocity,” will be published in the spring of 2017, by Europa Editions. The full correspondence will appear in Elena Ferrante’s “Frantumaglia: An Author’s Journey Told Through Letters, Interviews, and Occasional Writings,” translated by Ann Goldstein, to be published in November.
Nicola Lagioia: One of the most powerful aspects of “My Brilliant Friend” is the way in which the interdependence of the characters is rendered. Each time Lila vanishes from the horizon of Elena’s experiences, she nevertheless continues to act in her friend, and presumably the opposite is also true. Reading your novel is comforting because this is what occurs in real life. The people who are truly important to us, the people we’ve allowed to break us open inside, do not stop questioning us, obsessing us, pursuing us, and, if necessary, guiding us, even if they die, or grow distant, or if we’ve quarrelled. This interdependence extends throughout the entire world of the two friends—to Nino, Rino, Stefano Carracci, the Solara brothers, Carmela, Enzo Scanno, Gigliola, Marisa, Pasquale, Antonio, even Professor Galiani. To escape is impossible; they constantly reappear in one another’s lives. When you think of what such bonds are made of, they might seem to be a curse—but shouldn’t they also be considered a blessing? In some cases I confess I have envied these characters.
Elena Ferrante: Where do I start? In my childhood, my adolescence. Some of the poor Neapolitan neighborhoods were crowded, yes, and rowdy. To gather oneself, so to speak, was physically impossible. One learned very early to have the greatest concentration amid the greatest disruption. The idea that every “I” is largely made up of others and by the others wasn’t theoretical; it was a reality. To be alive meant to collide continually with the existence of others and to be collided with, the results being at times good-natured, at others aggressive, then again good-natured. The dead were brought into quarrels; people weren’t content to attack and insult the living—they naturally abused aunts, cousins, grandparents, and great-grandparents who were no longer in the world.
Of course, today I have small quiet places where I can gather myself—but I still feel that the idea is slightly ridiculous. I’ve described women at moments when they are absolutely alone. But in their heads there is never silence or even focus. The most absolute solitude, at least in my experience, and not just narrative experience, is always, to paraphrase the title of a very good book by Hrabal, too loud. To the writer, no person is ever definitively relegated to silence, even if we long ago broke off relations with that person—out of anger, by chance, or because the person died. I can’t even think without the voices of others, much less write. And I’m not talking only about relatives, female friends, enemies. I’m talking about others, men and women who today exist only in images: in television or newspaper images, sometimes heartrending, sometimes offensive in their opulence. And I’m talking about the past, about what we generally call tradition; I’m talking about all those others who were once in the world and who have acted or who now act through us. Our entire body, like it or not, enacts a stunning resurrection of the dead just as we advance toward our own death. We are, as you say, interconnected. And we should teach ourselves to look deeply at this interconnection—I call it a tangle, or, rather, frantumaglia—to give ourselves adequate tools to describe it. In the most absolute tranquility or in the midst of tumultuous events, in safety or danger, in innocence or corruption, we are a crowd of others. And this crowd is certainly a blessing for literature.
Maybe capturing the fluidity of existences on the page means avoiding stories that are too rigidly defined. The long story of Elena Greco is marked everywhere by instability, maybe even more than the stories of Delia, Olga, or Leda, the protagonists of my earlier books. What Elena lays out on the page, at first with apparent assurance, becomes increasingly less controlled. In “My Brilliant Friend,” I wanted everything to take shape and then lose its shape. In her effort to tell the story of Lila, Elena is compelled to tell the story of all the others, including herself, encounters and clashes that leave very varied impressions. The others, in the broad meaning of the term, as I said, continually collide with us and we collide with them. Our singularity, our uniqueness, our identity are continually dying. When at the end of a long day we feel shattered, “in pieces,” there’s nothing more literally true.
Lagioia: If it’s true, as I’ve read in more than one article, that “My Brilliant Friend” presents no possibilities for transcendence (at least in the way transcendence is rendered in most twentieth-century literature), what do we make of Lina’s smarginature, her episodes of dissolving boundaries—that is to say, those moments when the world goes off its axis, appearing in its unbearable nakedness, a chaotic and shapeless mass, “a sticky, jumbled reality” without meaning? They are revelatory instants, and the revelations are consistently terrible.
Ferrante: I’m always surprised when someone points out as a flaw the fact that my stories contain no possibility of transcendence.
Read Nicola Lagioia's full conversation with Elena Ferrante in The New Yorker.