Elena Ferrante
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THE ABSENCE OF EDGE: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet

Perhaps you would like to talk this week about Ferrante. No! Especially, men, do not talk about Ferrante. Perhaps there are some other men who would like to hear what you have to say about Ferrante. Do not tell them, though. This week, men have said all they get to say about Ferrante. Men are done now. We cannot listen to any more men say anything else about Ferrante, forever. Or definitely not for this week.

– Los Angeles Review of Books, October 2016

 

Early on in The Information, Martin Amis’s twenty-year-old novel about an envy-ridden male friendship, the hero embarrasses himself at a literary lunch by posing a problematic question: whether men prefer to read male writers, and whether women prefer to read women.

He said, ‘Is this without interest? Nabokov said he was frankly homosexual in his literary tastes. I don’t think men and women read and write in exactly the same way. They go at it differently.’
[…]
‘Oh please. What is this?’ said the female columnist. ‘We’re not talking about motorbikes or knitting patterns. We’re talking about literature for God’s sake.’

Amis’s sympathies are still mostly with his hero, at this point: the chorus of indignation to which all his lunch companions rush to contribute is too hasty and self-righteous, too facile in its dismissal. In the real world, countless studies have in fact shown this hypothesis to be true. Even so, the question feels awkward, or dangerous. We want to believe in the universality of human experience, in the perfect impartiality of taste. The idea that we make value judgments based on an author’s sex, or ours, is one we would rather not admit – indeed, Nabokov’s provocative claim to being ‘frankly homosexual’ in this regard has always seemed to me to be a wilful misdirection, a sleight of hand aimed at escaping the far more serious charge that he simply doesn’t rate women as writers. Our instinct is to share the disgust of those diners: we don’t discriminate on this basis, surely; we’re talking about literature, for God’s sake.

Yet reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels – the current, globally bestselling stories of an envy-ridden female friendship – seems often to pose the same question, and no less problematically.

As if surrendering to the inevitable, the publishers have done all they can to market these books, condescendingly, at women – with their comically bad cover designs, all stock images of happy couples and little fairy-winged girls pasted clumsily onto soft-focus landscapes. And the novels’ theme, above all else, is the female condition: not merely the nature of friendship between women but of female relationships and experiences of every kind; of marriage, of motherhood, of sexual desire; of societal expectations of women, and violence against them. ‘It would be accurate, though perhaps reductive, to call these books feminist’, Rachel Donadio has written wisely. ‘It is enough to say that they bring a scrutiny and an intensity rare in contemporary literature – or in any literature, for that matter – to exploring in intimate, often excruciating detail the full experience of being a woman’. Ferrante herself has described her entire ‘experience as a novelist’ as having ‘culminated… in the attempt to relate, in a writing that was appropriate, my sex and its difference.’

Moreover, the novels are renowned for their accuracy in relating that experience. Great writers and journalists have described them variously as ‘an unconditional masterpiece’, a ‘singular achievement in feminist literature, indeed in all literature’, and ‘the greatest achievement in fiction of the post-war era’. Critics have compared Ferrante favourably to Balzac, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Austen and Dickens. Readers profess to such verisimilitude that they become almost unconvinced that this can really be fiction: ‘I began to doubt it,’ wrote Joanna Biggs in the London Review of Books, ‘when I talked about them with other people – mostly women.’ Before the author’s recent unmasking – ‘Elena Ferrante’ was always known to be a pseudonym – many assumed that the novels were deeply autobiographical, or at least expressed the view, as one Italian newspaper put it, that two things could be said with categorical certainty: that the writer had an intimate knowledge of Naples, and that she was a woman. Her knowledge rang too true for it to be otherwise.

All of which means that, faced with his own unfashionable indifference, the male reader needs to question his prejudices, and his empathy. I found myself, as I read Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, experiencing frequent interest and occasional admiration but above all a sort of regular bemusement, tinged with fear. What exactly, in these novels, was I missing? Was my enthusiasm for them inevitably limited by my lack of shared experience? Or worse – did it simply, inculpatingly, betray some chromosomal bias, some deep misogyny, when they left me cold?

* * *

The ‘Neapolitan quartet’ of four books is really one novel, telling the story of two lives. It opens in the present day with the narrator Elena, a sixty-six year old writer, learning that her childhood friend Lina (whom she calls Lila) has disappeared. Angrily convinced that the disappearance is deliberate and selfish – the relationship is embittered, though we don’t yet know why – Elena determines to retrace their shared life story in every detail, from their earliest days together in their poor suburban neighbourhood of Naples up through their adolescence, education, relationships and careers, in a bid to tell ‘everything that still remained in my memory’, and avenge Lila’s act of erasure.

The friendship is real but rivalrous. The earliest twinned moments in their recollected childhood – when Lila maliciously throws Elena’s beloved doll into a cellar, then takes her hand and goes to fetch it from the darkness – are a model of their lifelong relationship, which lies on the fault-line between adoration and envy. Where Lila goes, Elena devotedly follows, at once appalled by her strong-mindedness and in awe of it. Both girls have ambitions and academic talents that seem certain to lift them out of their squalid neighbourhood and their class, but to Lila – the even poorer, scruffier daughter of a shoemaker – such talents come apparently as naturally as her sharp tongue or her quickness to rile. Elena, meanwhile, has to work doggedly not to be outdone, and even when her own successes start to eclipse Lila’s, she never fails to feel inferior or dependent. In later life Elena becomes ostensibly the more accomplished, achieving the specific success they dreamed of together as children – becoming a famous writer – and swapping the Naples suburb and its rough dialect for the smart northern cities and literary Italian. Lila, held back by poverty and her own stubbornness, never finishes school nor leaves the old neighbourhood, but Elena is sure that her friend would have outclassed her achievements if she had only chosen to attempt them; and even the books she now writes seem only to be successful when they repurpose Lila’s life stories or plagiarise her childhood texts. ‘I was second in everything,’ Elena writes in one of her earliest memories. ‘I hoped no one would ever realise it.’

The envy flows both ways, of course. Though we have less access to Lila’s direct stream of thoughts it’s clear that she shares in these insecurities and competitiveness: it is Lila who throws away Elena’s (prettier) doll, after all. My Brilliant Friend – the title of the opening novel – is the phrase each might use accurately to refer to the other, and its tone is simultaneously one of loving admiration, and bitterness. Despite mutual affection, each woman’s happiness comes to be inversely co-dependent on the other’s:

I liked to discover connections like that, especially if they concerned Lila. I traced lines between moments and events distant from one another, I established convergences and divergences. In that period it became a daily exercise: the better off I had been in Ischia, the worse off Lila had been in the desolation of the neighbourhood; the more I had suffered upon leaving the island, the happier she had become. It was as if, because of an evil spell, the joy or sorrow of one required the sorrow or joy of the other; even our physical aspect, it seemed to me, shared in that swing. In Ischia I had felt beautiful […] but Lila now had retaken the upper hand, satisfaction had magnified her beauty…

The whole quartet of novels is essentially the long story of those ever-paired, oscillating fates. Even as their lives take increasingly different paths, their narratives are like two points sketching a double helix: spiralling, constantly intertwined; their experiences repeatedly overlapping, each by turns ascendant while the other declines.

Much praise is given to the Neapolitan novels in this regard for displaying the unique complexity of female friendship. I’m resistant to these claims of singularity. The idea that such fraught platonic bonds are somehow uniquely feminine – that they represent Ferrante’s ultimate portrayal of her ‘sex and its difference’ – seems either supercilious or self-glamourising; in envy and affection, if nowhere else, are we really so gendered, so unequal? On the other hand, by accounting, in such unhurried detail, the full span of two women’s lives, Ferrante really does often demonstrate cogently the disparity of their experience – just that the difference is not interior, but in how they are pressed upon, often viciously, from outside. The best of these novels are their frequent disclosures of the sheer difficulty of life as a woman: the impossible expectation to be sexually active and yet virginal; the desire to bring up one’s own children and to have a life independent of them; the constant conflicting impulses for protection and self-sufficiency; and everywhere – everywhere – the violence of all kinds that is forever being meted out against them.

Naples and the girls’ neighbourhood are seen to be particularly dangerous (‘I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence’, Elena writes): the boys have fun by throwing rocks at the girls on their daily walk to school, for example; or after an argument with her father, perhaps about her wish to keep studying, Lila is thrown, literally, out of the house through a window, breaking her arm. But there is something frighteningly pervasive and universal about the aggression to which they are constantly exposed. In one of its most horrific instances, Lila is raped by her new husband, who seems possessed of an urge to violence that comes from nature itself:

At that point, almost against his will, the tone of Stefano’s voice rose: “Now you’re really pissing me off, Lina.”
He repeated that remark two to three times, each time louder, as if to assimilate fully an order that was coming to him from very far away, perhaps even from before he was born. The order was: be a man, Ste’; either you subdue her now or you’ll never subdue her; your wife has to learn right away that she is the female and you’re the male and therefore she has to obey.

The Neapolitan quartet is fundamentally, as Joan Frank has put it, ‘nothing less than one long, mind-and-heart-shredding howl for the history of women (not only Neapolitan women), and its implicit j’accuse…’ Its strength is showing how women attempt to lead the most ordinary of lives in a world determined to do violence against them.

* * *

That essential fragility is represented throughout these books by one metaphor, which continually recurs. In her darkest moments, and admitted only to her great friend, Lila experiences something she calls ‘dissolving margins’, when the very ‘outlines of people and things suddenly dissolved, disappeared’:

This sensation was accompanied by nausea, and she had had the impression that something absolutely material, which had been present around her and around everyone and everything forever, but imperceptible, was breaking down the outlines of persons and things and revealing itself.

Elsewhere, we learn that ‘she had often had the sensation of moving for a few fractions of a second into a person or a thing or a number or a syllable, violating its edges.’ At a firework party one New Year’s night she sees, with horrific vitality, ‘her brother break’ –

There, amid the violent explosions, in the cold, in the smoke that burned the nostrils and the strong odor of sulfur, something violated the organic structure of her brother, exercising over him a pressure so strong that it broke down his outlines, and the matter expanded like a magma, showing her what he was truly made of. Every second of that night of celebration horrified her, she had the impression that, as Rino moved, as he expanded around himself, every margin collapsed and her own margins, too, became softer and more yielding.

The sensation is particularly acute on occasions like this, which, though Lila may not realise it at the time, will prove fateful junctures in her development. On that night of her rape, for example, she fears ‘the potential distortion of her husband’s body’ – ‘she was afraid of waking up and finding him formless in the bed, transformed into excrescences that burst out because of too much fluid, the flesh melted and dropping, and with it everything around…’. And at times, even the physical world seems to reify her fears. Alone in the kitchen one day, she sees a copper pot spontaneously explode: ‘the rim was lifted and twisted and the pot itself was all deformed, as if it could no longer maintain its appearance as a pot […], as if its shape had decided abruptly to cede.’

The Neapolitan quartet is fundamentally concerned, like any bildungsroman, with self-discovery. So these episodes are fevered epiphanies, frantic realisations that the shapes of things are not what they seemed; that the identities of essential co-protagonists in life, once assumed to be dependable, were in fact flimsy and ill-defined. They represent not just the obvious recognition that people change – that the loving brother can become the bitter rival, or the gentle husband the vicious thug – but the understanding that all identity is soft, endlessly vulnerable to remoulding from outside.

The heroines learn that that force is particularly acute in the irresistible bearing other people have on their lives. Their own osmotic relationship – in which they are ‘continuously forming, deforming, reforming’ each other – is merely the most prevalent of many such interdependencies: thus Elena’s permanent fear of turning into her aging, crippled mother is realised when in motherhood she develops the same lameness in her leg, or in her vision of her own daughter’s similarities with her father, as if they were cohabiting one existence: ‘She was a girl of eighteen, she had a feminine softness, but at every gesture, every step, she seemed to enter and exit Pietro’s body as if it were her ideal dwelling.’ Perhaps this, too, is supposed to be an especially female experience. Certainly there are societal dimensions uniquely felt by women, as in Lila’s discovery of the feeling that her own name has been subsumed by her husband’s – ‘falls into it, is sucked up by it, is dissolved in it’ – and that in so doing she herself ‘had lost her shape and had dissolved inside the outlines of Stefano, becoming a subsidiary emanation of him.’ ‘To be a woman,’ Meghan O’Rourke concluded in her reading of these novels, ‘is to be permeated, at all times, by what surrounds you.’

But what’s clear is that to Lila, in all respects, such intrusions are abhorrent. The very language of this recurring metaphor – the ‘deformation’ and ‘distortion’, the ‘violation’; her own ‘yielding’ – attests to her sense of its brutality and unjustness, and it is no overstatement to say that she dedicates her whole existence to resisting it. In a key scene, Lila effectively attacks, albeit artistically, a huge photograph of her that has been displayed in a shop: attaching rough strips of black paper all over the canvas, she literally dissolves her own margins, breaking her image apart until she is left with a kind of impressive surrealist grotesque, a mass of shapes punctuated by the occasional flash of the woman behind it – one eye, a hand, a bit of leg. It is even clearer, in the aftermath of the recent exposure of Ferrante’s real identity, that this is a metaphor for the author’s act of self-effacement, too: the anger of readers who feel the writer’s anonymity should have been preserved is probably heightened by the (even if unconscious) recognition that this was always integral to her theme. Lila, like ‘Ferrante’ herself, wants the basic privilege of being permitted to control her own identity. Her disappearance at the start of the novel is the ultimate exertion of that claim – and Elena’s mammoth biography of a narrative is the ultimate bid to deny it. All three women understand that definition is power. The drawing of margins, or indeed the bending or breaking of them, is an act of authorship, and one they wish to reserve for themselves.

* * *

Here’s the problem: the dissolution of margins also serves as the perfect metaphor for the shortcomings of the prose. The novels’ 1200 pages are heavy with incident, but the writing is formless: it lacks edge. The narrative unfurls with hypnotic pace, drenched with high emotion and unravelling in soapy twists; but the style is breathless, open and wide-eyed, and it asks more questions than it answers – at times, literally.

In a bid to convey Elena’s innocent grappling with the world, the prose is often reduced to a frantic stream of interrogatives:

Why had I never told Lila plainly what I felt for Nino? … Why, then, even when I advanced, was I so quick to retreat? Why did I always have ready a gracious smile, a happy laugh, when things went badly? Why, sooner or later, did I always find plausible excuses for those who made me suffer?

Or it focuses so tirelessly on reciting anecdote in depth that it drops colour in favour of simple instruction, often opening its chapter-long episodes of reporting with bald statements of what to expect:

A period of unhappiness began.

During that period I felt strong.

This entire period had a similar character.

A complicated period began.

That night began the long, painful period that led to our first break and a long separation.

And when it leaves exposition for high emotion, its other favoured mode, its usual recourse is to cliché:

But in the end there was only the hostile thought that I was washing her, from her hair to the soles of her feet, early in the morning, just so that Stefano could sully her in the course of the night. I imagined her naked as she was at that moment, entwined with her husband, in the bed in the new house, while the train clattered under their windows and his violent flesh entered her with a sharp blow, like the cork pushed by the palm into the neck of a wine bottle.

(We should be grateful, at least, that that train wasn’t shuddering into a tunnel.)

Even the girls’ neighbourhood, where most of the action takes place, is left oddly undescribed; and the portrayal of Naples as a whole, much vaunted by critics, does little to distinguish it from any other setting. With the exception of a brief moment in Elena’s youth when she first ventures into the city and catches sight of Vesuvius and sea, there is nothing different or uniquely evocative in the text beyond the purely cartographical, its colourless incantations of street names:

I crossed Via Garibaldi, went along the Tribunali, at Piazza Dante took a bus. I went up to the Vomero, first to Via Scarlatti, then to the Santarella. Afterward I descended in the funicular to Piazza Amedeo.

But worst is the occasional, wholesale abdication of any attempt to give shape to experience at all. Most disappointingly, this can happen at moments ripe for description that might better reveal the mysteries of the author’s ‘sex and its difference’. This, for example, is Elena’s memory of childbirth, in full:

I had atrocious labour pains, but they didn’t last long. When the baby emerged and I saw her, black-haired, a violet organism that, full of energy, writhed and wailed, I felt a physical pleasure so piercing that I still know no other pleasure that compares to it.
[…]
“It was a wonderful experience,” I told her.

Definition is the principal task of writing, but one this narrative consistently eschews.

Apparently, this is intentional. Ferrante has said of all her novels,

it’s always a woman writing, and this writer always struggles to organise, in a text, what she knows but doesn’t have clear in mind

In other words, this imperfect rendering of reality is supposed to be true to the narrator’s abilities and experience. But it’s not just that. It’s that these novels set forth a rejection of literariness, reveal a suspicion of writing itself.

Elena, the narrator, models her writing on the paragon of Lila’s prose – a grounded, free-flowing, conversational style, untrammelled by context or learning. In Lila’s few written texts – in a fairy-tale she wrote as a child, in her letters and diaries – ‘she expressed herself in sentences that were well constructed, and without error, even though she had stopped going to school, but – further – she left no trace of effort, you weren’t aware of the artifice of the written word’. Elena, by contrast, struggles to write, forever afraid that she has failed to reduce her prose to such purity, and that what’s left is a contrivance, obscuring the view of the truth. She thinks that the very act of drawing margins around it is a sort of betrayal of her experience:

I realised in a flash that the memory was already literature and that perhaps Lila was right: my book – even though it was having so much success – really was bad, and this was because it was well organised, because it was written with obsessive care, because I hadn’t been able to imitate the disjointed, unaesthetic, illogical, shapeless banality of things.

Lila shares this view. She criticises her friend’s writing for its inevitable embellishments, its failure to remain perfectly prosaic:

The white expanse of the moon, she said ironically, sometimes it’s better to say nothing than to talk nonsense. And she added that the moon was a rock among billions of rocks, and that, as far as rocks go, the best thing was to stand with your feet planted firmly in the troubles of the earth.

Vehemently rejecting Elena’s supposed literariness, Lila not only renounces what had once been their shared dream – to become writers, and escape – but she stays in the old neighbourhood and eventually trains herself in a new language, purer still – the language of computers. ‘The day will come when I will reduce myself to diagrams,’ Lila explains at one point, and her reinvention as an entrepreneur programmer is the realisation of that pledge. The company she creates is called – even in the original Italian – Basic Sight. It’s one of the ironies of the text that this business name, which could stand, in both women’s minds, for the quintessence of great writing, merely hints more accurately at their failure to produce it. They think Basic Sight means an unencumbered clarity of vision; but it only highlights a primitiveness of perception.

And sadly, the author subscribes to this view too. In one of her few detailed interviews, with the Paris Review, Ferrante starts by professing the importance of style, argues that ‘the most urgent rhythm of the sentence, what tone best suits’ the rendering of those experiences – that only this way can she hope to create something ‘alive and true’, because ‘literary truth is entirely a matter of wording’ and of ‘the energy that one is able to impress on the sentence’. Then moments later she describes her work on the Neapolitan novels. She notes that ‘the writing went smoothly’, that she didn’t ‘have to pay much attention to the individual words or sentences’, and she is pleased, because

the greater the attention to the sentence, the more laboriously the story flows. The state of grace comes when the writing is entirely at the service of the story. With the Neapolitan Novels, that happened immediately, and it lasted. Months passed, the story spun out rapidly, I didn’t even try to reread what I had written. […] the material arranged itself in a sort of tranquil crush…

Ferrante believes, like both her characters, that writing obscures. She fears that it will stand in the way of reality, so she seeks that state of grace in which the story falls, naked and artlessly, like the words miraculously appearing on Lila’s early computer screen, as if from the sky.

* * *

But a tranquil crush is yet another dissolving – and it risks leaving behind no substance, nothing tangible, at all. Take, for example, Lila’s shoes.

They are important because the first novel in the quartet is a sort of inversion of the Cinderella tale, in which Lila seeks to lift herself out of poverty by designing her own pair of princely shoes. Her father is a cobbler with a small workshop, and she sees that with enough imagination and grit she might create better shoes than she has ever seen; that she could brand them, launch a fashionable boutique, and make a fortune for herself and her family. Much of the first novel revolves around her attempt. And it ends, in high drama, with an act of betrayal, when Lila sees, at her own wedding, her prototype shoes, long since lovingly purchased by her new husband, on the feet of the local Camorrist to whom she’d made him promise never to give them.

And yet, for all this, we never truly see them. The narrator and fellow characters constantly attest to the shoes’ uniqueness but are strangely incapable of finding words for the task. We are told repeatedly of Lila’s ‘beautiful designs, drawn on graph paper, rich in precisely coloured details’; we are told in countless ways that ‘although they were normal shoes, they didn’t resemble any that were seen in the neighbourhood, or even those of the actresses in the photo novels’. They are ‘light but also strong’. They have a ‘fringe’, and ‘stitches’, and somewhere on their surface we know they have ‘a gilded pin’. Looking over them with his professional eye, Lila’s father notes only that with their ‘wide tip they’re very original’ – and that, again, he has ‘never seen anything like them on anyone’s feet’. But no reader of these novels could possibly describe them.

Compare, on the other hand, another fictional shoe, in another poor Italian neighbourhood, on the other side of the world. In Don DeLillo’s Underworld, which is set in a similar period among the Neapolitan diaspora in The Bronx, the young hero visits his Jesuit headmaster and is taught a valuable impromptu lesson, about writing and life, when the priest asks him to name the parts of his boot.

“Name the parts,” I said. “All right. Laces.”
“Laces. One to each shoe. Proceed.”
I lifted one foot and turned it awkwardly.
“Sole and heel.”
“Go on.”
I set my foot back down and started at the boot, which seemed about as blank as a closed brown box.
“Proceed, boy.”
“There’s not much to name, is there? A front and a top.”
“A front and a top. You make me want to weep.”
“The rounded part at the front.”
“You’re so eloquent I may have to pause to regain my composure. You’ve named the lace. What’s the flap under the lace?”
“The tongue.”
“Well?”
“I knew the name. I just didn’t see the thing.”
He made a show of draping himself across the desk, writhing slightly as if in the midst of some dire distress.
“You didn’t see the thing because you don’t know how to look. And you don’t know how to look because you don’t know the names.”

The boy and the priest continue at length until they have verbalised each constituent part: the cuff, the vamp, the counter, the quarter, the welt, the eyelets, the aglet, the grommet. But this is not just a lesson in vocabulary, because by the end, we know the shoe intimately. The point is that ‘basic sight’ always falls short. DeLillo understands that the world is as blank as a brown box without the language to draw its edges and add colour to its form; that no reality – neither a shoe, nor an emotion – will ever be fully perceptible without the words to contain and make it whole. ‘Everyday things lie hidden,’ the priest explains. ‘Because we don’t know what they’re called.’

In a funny way, you sense the Neapolitan novels’ failures in this regard are known and almost reassuring to their author. Elena sits down to write with the vengeful desire to deny Lila her disappearance and capture her with this text – but her continuing love and admiration for Lila prevent her from really wanting to succeed. She prefers to believe that her friend’s uniqueness is beyond representation in words. ‘I knew – perhaps I hoped –’ Elena writes in a moment of clarity, ‘that no form could ever contain Lila’; so that even as she attempts to define her, she wills her to escape definition.

And Ferrante seems to feel the same: these novels’ thesis, for all their length and professed honesty and thoroughness, seems to be that it’s simply impossible to delineate the complexity of these women and their experiences. Instead Ferrante offers a litany of questions, a rush of incident, and a wash of vague prose. I don’t know – perhaps the quartet’s delighted readers have found, in this absence left by the author, more space for themselves. Perhaps the lack of definition in the picture gives them more room to imagine themselves into it. I know only my own, frustrated curiosity and the questions it constantly posed.

How much better might I have empathised with or understood these women if the prose had made them real? How much more vividly might I have felt Lila’s pain, if I could only have seen her shoes?


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