The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante, Ann Goldstein (Translator) (Europa Editions): A national bestseller for almost an entire year, The Days of Abandonment shocked and captivated its Italian public when first published. It is the gripping story of a woman’s descent into devastating emptiness after being abandoned by her husband with two young children to care for. When she finds herself literally trapped within the four walls of their high-rise apartment, she is forced to confront her ghosts, the potential loss of her own identity, and the possibility that life may never return to normal.
The wonderful thing about being a reader is that even when you’re familiar with the classics of English literature, there are still bookshelves all over the world to explore. These writers, featured in Radio 4’s Reading Europe series, are some of the most famous novelists in their own countries – but the rest of the world has yet to discover them.
Here’s why you should read them.
Italy: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Ferrante fever has been sweeping Europe for the past few years, and reached a fever pitch when journalist Claudio Gatti claimed to have “unmasked” the reclusive author. However, fans remain more interested in her novels than her life stories. In My Brilliant Friend, we’re introduced to Elena and Lila, whose friendship is one of the most believable in fiction – they’re not braiding each other’s hair at sleepovers, they’re jealously competing to escape the neighbourhood of Naples and trying to avoid the attentions of local gangsters.
Look out for: Lila’s wedding – it’s so tense and troubling that it makes the wedding sequence in The Godfather look like it was guest directed by Richard Curtis.
The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante
When Leda’s daughters leave home to be with their father in Canada, Leda anticipates a period of loneliness and longing. Instead, she feels liberated, and decides to take a holiday by the sea, in a small coastal town in southern Italy. But after a few days of calm and quiet, things begin to take a menacing turn. Leda encounters a family whose brash presence proves unsettling, at times even threatening. When a small, seemingly meaningless, event occurs, Leda is overwhelmed by memories of the difficult and unconventional choices she made as a mother and their consequences for herself and her family.
The Neapolitan Novels Series by Elena Ferrante is a collection of 4 books, the first of which is ‘My Brilliant Friend’, Book 2 is called ‘The Story of a New Name’, Book 3 is ‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’, and the final novel in the series is called ‘The Story of the Lost Child’.
The story opens with ‘My Brilliant Friend’ and the reader gets to know and love the two friends, Elena and Lila, but it is about so much more than their friendship. It’s also about their families, and their homes, and about Naples. It’s about loyalty and passionate hatred as well as love. Lila is both devil and angel, capable of great love but equally ruthless. At times I wondered if I liked her or loathed her, but I was always fascinated by her, as are all of the characters who surround her in the book. She has hidden depths which she guards fiercely.
The two women remain friends throughout all 4 novels, though sometimes don’t speak to one another for several months at a time following a quarrel. The first book is about their childhood, their education, their friendships with families in their neighbourhood and the rivalry between local families and gangs. In ‘The Story of a New Name’ the second book Elena and Lila are now in their twenties and Elena’s education still drives her on to ever more ambitious heights, but her friend Lila marries young. The young women share an unshakable bond yet are capable of hurting each other deeply. At times events literally took my breath away! There is so much pain and loss throughout the 4 novels, but such a depth of feeling, of understanding, and a closeness which at times appears to be shattered beyond repair. When I was reading the novels, I couldn’t put them down. It was like watching a film unfold, and not wanting it to end. I joined the little girls on their journey in the first book, and stayed with them in their 20’s and 30’s and 40’s and beyond. I cared about both of them, I hated them, I loved them, sometimes I was disappointed in them but I was continuously fascinated. At other times I was incredulous at their behaviour, and yet always wanted them to remain friends. Ferrante has a real handle on human emotions and on madness and passion and fear as well as depths of great love, and of powerful bonds which people form between one other.
Ferrante received numerous literary awards for the series, and I’m so excited that HBO have picked it up and are going to serialise it in a 32 part drama series, it’s currently being filmed in Italy and won’t be on our screens for a year or two, but will be well worth the wait I’m sure!
An interesting fact about Elena Ferrante is that no one really knows who she is – or maybe ‘he’ is. Elena Ferrante is just pseudonym and the identity of the author has never been known, and is a well kept literary secret worthy of its own plot for a novel!
I loved the books. I was enthralled. I adored the protagonist, Elena and her best friend Lila, as children, and then I loved them as women both so vivid in their own separate ways, I felt their pain, I felt their joy, I felt their losses and their triumphs, and I really wanted a pair of Cerrulo shoes!! I hated reaching the end of the 4th novel and wanted more, in fact for me the ending was a disappointment. I remember reading the first novel and thinking the second couldn’t possibly be as good, but it was, and then I thought the 3rd one wouldn’t be as good, but it was, and so it went on, like a long movie being played out in my imagination. I could imagine all of the vivid characters so clearly because Ferrante’s writing was so visual, and I felt every word of it.
August 10, 2017
(…) Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, translated by Ann Goldstein, was so good it ruined me for other books for a long time. Darker and tighter than the sprawling My Brilliant Friend, it drills into the psyche of Olga, a woman spiraling out of control after her husband leaves her and their two young children. In one scene, Olga tells her daughter to poke her in the thigh with a knife to keep her from being distracted. Ants infest the apartment, the dog dies from insecticide, the hot summer days give everything a sheen of violence. A lot happens in a short space. But there’s more to women in translation than Ferrante, no?
About a year ago, after seeing Suicide Squad, my longest-time friend started talking about this Italian author who wrote under a pseudonym, raving in particular about her novel concerning a woman being left by her husband. I forgot the name of the writer–but there were enough details to remember (female, Italian, pseudonym) that I could piece together who she was.
I finally got around to picking up The Days of Abandonment in late June, and took it with me on a recent trip to New York. Just as we were landing in New York, my seat neighbor inquired if the book was good, and I recited the above regarding the recommendation. He told me he had read My Brilliant Friend and the other trilogy. I told him I was surprised it was published in 2002, but that I hadn’t heard of it until now. He said he thought it was because Hollywood had come knocking.
The Days of Abandonment is a first-person narrative from the perspective of Olga, a 38-year-old mother of two (Gianni and Illaria), recently left by her husband, Mario. To get more detailed, Mario leaves her for a younger woman, the identity of whom is unexpected, and sort of obvious at the same time. Olga basically falls apart, and the novel is about her going crazy. It culminates in a sort of nightmare day from the hell, after which she gains some form of clarity on her situation.
Ultimately, it is a very satisfying novel, and sprinkled with that sort of European attention to detail and simplicity of style that feels effortless. The opening line is a perfect example, immediately reminiscent of another European master (Camus):
“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” (9)
Okay, that is not nearly as simple as the opening of The Stranger, but that same sense of the immediate impact of sorrow is struck. The novel takes the shape of 47 relatively short chapters of varying length, which feel more like sketches of scenes. It seems to take place over the course of six months, but the primary action in the novel is the day that comes right around month four (Saturday, August 4th), chapter 18 – 34, pp. 88-151. A great deal of this section has to do with the locks on the front door. She manages to lock herself and her family inside of their apartment because she cannot undo the locks. She has a special set installed, with two keyholes that have to be turned just right. As a person that has had to call a locksmith to get into his apartment after his key broke off in the door, at least once, maybe twice, I could identify highly with this section. However, it goes a little bit too far! Here is one example I randomly flipped to:
“But I knew immediately, even before trying, that the door wouldn’t open. And when I held the key and tried to turn it, the thing that I had predicted a minute before happened. The key wouldn’t turn.
I was gripped by anxiety, precisely the wrong reaction. I applied more pressure, chaotically. I tried to turn the key first to the left, then to the right. No luck. Then I tried to take it out of the lock, but it wouldn’t come out, it remained in the keyhole as if metal had fused to metal. I beat my fists against the panels, I pushed with my shoulder, I tried the key again, suddenly my body woke up, I was consumed by desperation. When I stopped, I discovered that I was covered with sweat. My nightgown was stuck to me, but my teeth were chattering. I felt cold, in spite of the heat of the day.” (117)
She has a new set of locks installed after a set of earrings from Mario’s grandmother go missing. She has a vaguely unpleasant, vaguely sexual experience with the two men installing the locks, particularly the older of the two. The book is filled with such vignettes. Her complicated feelings about herself as a sexual being culminate in an encounter which ends up becoming an unlikely, ambivalent romance.
Her relationship with the family dog, Otto, is also worth comment. Otto is arguably a bigger character than either of the children, because she feels more saddled with him than the children. It seems as if Mario was the one to get him, but does not take him with him, and she resents the additional responsibility. But as always tends to happen, she develops a bond with the animal–however, not before a somewhat shocking incident in the park following another woman’s reproach after he scares her and her baby:
“When he didn’t stop I raised the branch that I had in my hand menacingly, but even then he wouldn’t be silent. This enraged me, and I hit him hard. I heard the whistling in the air and saw his look of astonishment when the blow struck his ear. Stupid dog, stupid dog, whom Mario had given as a puppy to Gianni and Ilaria, who had grown up in our house, had become an affectionate creature–but really he was a gift from my husband to himself, who had dreamed of a dog like that since he was a child, not something wished for by Gianni and Ilaria, spoiled dog, dog that always got its own way. Now I was shouting at him, beast, bad dog, and I heard myself clearly, I was lashing and lashing and lashing, as he huddled, yelping, his body hugging the ground, ears low, sad and motionless under that incomprehensible hail of blows.
‘What are you doing?’ the woman murmured.
When I didn’t answer but continued to hit Otto, she hurried away, pushing the carriage with one hand, frightened now not by the dog but by me.” (54)
There could be many more things to say about this novel, but I don’t believe in spoiling several of the smaller details. For example I found this feature in the New Yorker by James Wood which covers much of the same ground of this review, but divulges a few more details. It is also probably much better written because it was composed and edited as part of a day job, rather than a hobby masquerading as an entryway into the limited commercial landscape of art. Suffice to say, sometimes spoilers are necessary to explain my estimation of a novel’s worth, but I think the halfway point of a story is (generally) a fair boundary. It spoils nothing to say however, that anybody who has ever been dumped or left to their own devices–especially those left in Olga’s unfortunate position–will find some measure of solace in this work. Regardless of one’s perspective, there is great humanity and truth within it, and a likely catharsis for the reader.
The novelist’s characters have been called “difficult women.” She would say they are simply women with desires.
(…) The incredible success of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which have been greeted by her fans with the kind of rush-to-the-bookstore avidity usually reserved for writers like J. K. Rowling, speaks to a hunger among readers who continue to crave depictions of women as real, as flawed, as people who can’t be constrained by a predetermined narrative. ‘‘We were starved for this as a literary subject, and we didn’t even know it,’’ says the novelist Elliott Holt, who studied with Messud at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop in 2003. Ferrante’s novels explore the lifelong relationship between Elena and Lila, two women who grew up in a Naples slum and followed divergent trajectories, whose friendship is complex in just the way Woolf might have wanted. They’re notable not just because they portray the friendship between two women in detail, but because they do so on an epic scale, in a four-book series that amounts to more than 1,600 pages in English translation. The women are alternately supportive and competitive, particularly when their individual ambitions place them in each other’s way. Their relationship isn’t primarily nurturing or caretaking; it’s fierce and untrammeled. They’re more than capable of evoking the full range of emotions.
Ferrante’s work has reopened a conversation around a fiction of complicated women, but Messud has been quietly answering Woolf’s call for years. The relationships she focuses on are almost exclusively between women, depicted intimately and intensely: Danielle and Marina, the uncomfortably competitive best friends in ‘‘The Emperor’s Children’’; Nora and Sirena, the glamorous artist with whom she becomes obsessed, in ‘‘The Woman Upstairs.’’ Her protagonists, unusually for women in fiction, tend not to be wives or mothers. More often they’re figures who might be considered unpalatable, unattractive or — indeed — angry. Her work quietly seethes at the idea that a woman needs to be ‘‘likable’’ — or that a man should be the judge of her likability. More than that, it offers a space for women to be, as she puts it, ‘‘appetitive’’: to love inappropriately, to be ambitious, to simply want more. (…)
I have been reading / re-reading Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia, Simone White’s Of Being Dispersed, and Jane Lewty’s In One Form to Find Another / and hating myself / for lingering on what I repeat and repeat to myself / what I write down in a diary that is not a diary / that I keep as a poem / as writing. “No one understands narrative I drink champagne / and refuse help No one understands narrative / It offends me” It’s bitchy / floral and maybe petulant / wrong and not wrong. I am constantly interested in what such feeling is nipping at / at what it’s critiquing: the poem or the story or the body that ends / that ends safely / in sun and scenery. That “makes sense of it all” with satisfaction, recognition, and comfort.
What happens to the body or the poem that instead chooses refusal, fragmentation, and disappearance? “Her happiness costs her a lot,” remarks Hélène Cixous in Reading with Clarice Lispector about a girl, a narrator of Lispector’s who has no choice but to insist that her drink is delicious, though she feels in her body it is not. What happens to the body that does not or cannot write something that can be confirmed or denied? Do you believe it more or less? Does it matter? Rather, can you believe that, perhaps, this is how the body has lived? What is duration when it is also an event / a life. What if the poem cannot translate or does not want to translate an event / a life / reality in a way that makes you feel good / for having read the poem / for having perfectly (or violently) quoted the poem / its climatic moment / its climatic clarity amidst trauma and body and life?
In Frantumaglia, Ferrante fiercely describes how suffering and pain is relayed through the lives of two of her early narrators, Delia and Olga (featured in Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment), as well as by herself, by her mother, by the voices she creates and comes into chaotic contact with. Such emotions in the othered body, Ferrante says, bust apart expectations of linear experience and of the linear processing of experience. Ferrante insists her narrators speak / that there are beings who speak from a life in unfathomable motion. “Delia and Olga tell their stories from within that whirling,” says Ferrante. “Even when they slow down they don’t distance themselves, they don’t contemplate, they don’t carve out external spaces for reflection. They are women who tell their story from the middle of a dizzy spell.” Do we listen to the bodies thrashing and writing this way? Do we resent them for not making it clear to us / for not giving us the well-worn couplets wrapped in kind of viral awe we have come to expect? Do we listen to them if they don’t carry Elena Ferrante’s / Anne Carson’s name recognition / if they haven’t “earned” “strangeness”? Frantumaglia and Ferrante does the good work of troubling / developing a beautiful swamp of these questions and concerns with her existence and the “documentation” of it. Alexander Chee, in his review of Frantumaglia at New Republic, details the elaborate layers of Ferrante’s movements and writing, as well as how the potential unmasking of Ferrante’s “true identity” merely plays into increasing the texture of both fictional / true layers.
“[Anita] Raja was born in Naples, the daughter of a German immigrant, but her family moved to Rome when she was three. Her ancestors were not among the Neapolitan poor of postwar Italy, but rather experienced Polish pogroms and Nazi persecution. If Ferrante is Raja, and the Ferrante who spent the majority of her life in Naples—the city she has said she feels ‘in my gestures, my words, my voice, even when I put an ocean between us’—is also an invention, it would mean Frantumaglia is a metafiction, her most experimental text yet, a massive prank on criticism and the media: all of it done to show us how badly we read what we read, how badly women writers are treated, and how badly the press operates. It would mean her mother’s frantumaglia was not verifiably her mother’s; her childhood impressions the impressions of a fictitious child, not necessarily herself. That everything pointing us to some glimpse of her life was just a misdirection, so that the real woman behind Ferrante could remain hidden—and, one day, teach us that it never mattered who she was or where she was from.”
The prospect of this, that Ferrante could create a landscape in which she is completely herself to art and completely herself outside the reaches of art is so affirming, so filled with permission that is as artistic as it is challenging as it is radical as it is forceful. It almost makes me weep. It does. To be naked in the Earth / art / does not mean a body owes you anything / except itself as it is / as it moves through the Earth / art / flinching or free. Strong as violets / strong as life.
A DISORIENTING READING LIST FROM JAC JEMC
In the realm of book blurbs, “losing oneself in a story” is one of the most unavoidable clichés. See also: “gripping reads,” “page-turners,” a book you “can’t put it down.” The specific experience of “losing oneself,” though, has a dissociative implication. Why is this the measure of a book’s worth? Why is the best-case scenario being able to leave one’s self behind? What happens when we, as readers, lose ourselves to a story that has also become disoriented in some way? Where do these circles of the Venn diagram overlap?
As a reader, my favorite way of losing myself is by investing myself in a storyline that falters in its security. I love the feeling of being knocked off-kilter, unsure of what’s to be trusted. This often coincides with the methods of communication getting scrambled in some way. Maybe the narrator changes the way they’re speaking and that alters my relationship to how literally I’m supposed to take their words. Maybe a certain expectation had been set as to the type of story I was being told, and it becomes clear that the story is shifting its course. Maybe reality appears to unhinge and allow in more possible varieties of event than had previously been expected.
I become engrossed in figuring out some new version of logic and regaining my equilibrium. Some fiction does you the service of providing answers, some allows you room to interpret, and some stays open until the very end, lingering in uncertainty. Whether I’ve worked my way out of the maze or not by the end, it is these disorienting texts that interest me the most. Below are six titles that have done just this for me.
Elena Ferrante, Troubling Love
Everyone loves the Neapolitan Quartet, and for good reason, but my favorite of Ferrante’s books is Troubling Love, a disgusting ride in a broken down elevator of a book, opening onto different hallucinatory floors. The viscera of this book had me longing for a grosser literature that didn’t ignore the body in the way it usually does. The narrator, Delia, is unsure of her memories in a way that feels familiar and dangerous. Her mother is not who Delia thought she was and these revelations have both Delia and the reader wondering who to trust. Every scene feels like it might be a dream, and, the reader is forced to proceed with a tentative faith, testing possibilities and reconciling that all of the truths might exist at once.
Reviewer Lynda Woodroffe
Mother and housewife Olga, 38, is left by her husband Mario, 40, for a girl they have both known since she was fifteen. Olga and Mario have two children and a dog, and live in a flat in a tower block in Turin. This is a story of a midlife crisis; of Mario who questions his male power, and Olga, whose fantasy life gets popped like a balloon.
Throughout her marriage Olga spent most of her time pleasing her husband, feeding his every whim to ensure that he remained hers. Like every woman who believed the myth of the princess who wins her prince, Olga became the housewife who lived her life through her husband and children – an unlived life, a life without appreciation and gratitude, a life of unmet needs, and neglect for personal development and talent: ‘I had put aside my own aspirations to go along with his. At every crisis of despair I had set aside my own crises to comfort him … I had taken care of the house, I had taken care of the meals, I had taken care of the children, I had taken care of all the boring details of everyday life…’ (p63).
But when Mario saw Carla, someone younger and fresher, he wanted her, so he went for her and won her. And this is where the story starts, with the opening line of the book reading: ‘One April afternoon… my husband announced that he wanted to leave me…’
The trauma at being abandoned and becoming a single parent led to many negative reactions for Olga. She neglected her children, forgot to feed them, did not notice when her son was ill, and leant heavily on her daughter for support. In the following weeks she nosedived from a lack of focus to complete breakdown, through an agonizing loss of her sense of self and her short-term memory. She embarked on a fantasy world, unable to conceive of the mess her now empty life had become, rearing up like a void before her. She neurotically scrubbed the flat clean before letting out the dog, who needed walking. When it returned it was ill and eventually died, probably from ingesting rat poison. In her self-deprecation, she believed she killed the dog and, perhaps, poisoned her own son: ‘Give back to me a sense of proportion. What was I? A woman worn out by four months of tension and grief; not, surely, a witch who, out of desperation, secretes a poison that can give a fever to her male child, kill a domestic animal….’ (p118).
Meanwhile, in the fog of her unreality, Olga self-harmed to stay present:
‘“Why did you put that clip on your arm?” asked her daughter Ilaria. … The tiny pain it caused me had become a constitutional part of my flesh…
“It helps me remember. Today is a day when everything is slipping my mind, I don’t know what to do.”
“I’ll help you.”
“Really?” I got up, took from the desk a metal paper cutter. “Hold this…. If you see me getting distracted, poke me…. Prick me until I feel it”.’ (p133)
In an attempt to relieve the pain, to create a distraction and to tell herself that she was still attractive, Olga seduced an undesirable neighbour, Carrano, a man who could play romantic music, but who could not make love. This led to self-disgust and frustration with whom she had become. She questioned her own identity and blamed herself for the loss of her marriage, asking herself obsessively what had happened in those ten years of matrimony: ‘For Mario I – I shuddered – had never been Olga. The meanings, the meaning of her life – I suddenly understood – were only a dazzlement of late adolescence, my illusion of stability.’ (p124)
Later, in discussion about custody of the children, her husband told her that she had to have the children more often because ‘…. You’re their mother’. (p185) Is he not their father?
Ferrante does not hold back on her characterization of abandonment. It is detailed and upsetting to say the least. Olga is so isolated and lost and this, I feel, is surprisingly universal. Ferrante describes what all women may feel following such an abandonment: that their lives will never be the same again.
While Olga’s life indeed never will be the same again, her mid-life crisis may be the end of the first part of her life and a time for change and, perhaps, betterment. Carl Jung believed that this time of life was a normal part of adult maturation, an opportunity for change. Jung (1971) identified five stages of life resulting in individuation, which arrived between the ages of 38 and 44 and which he called a creative illness. This crisis was the primary task of the second half of life.
The late adolescence that Ferrante’s Olga mentioned in this book (p124) is also synonymous with the Intimacy v. Isolation conflict listed in Erik Erikson’s psychosocial theory about the development of the personality (1950, p.255), whereby ‘.. the young adult, emerging from the search for and the insistence on identity, is eager and willing to fuse his identity with that of others … the avoidance of such experiences because of a fear of ego-loss may lead to a deep sense of isolation and consequent self-absorption’.
Erikson’s stages suggest that Olga’s regret at the loss of this seemingly ecstatic time can transform into another stage, the midlife crisis, which occurs during the 35-64 years and is a time for questioning the meaning and purpose of one’s life.
This devastating but short story gives us a cameo of a woman in the throes of change through loss, disbelief, to mistrust, and, hopefully, of a woman who will learn through her dismal experience and become fulfilled by her later discoveries. Elena Ferrante, author of seven other books about Italian women (particularly of Neapolitan women) and their lives and relationships, does not fail in her accurate sketches, which will resonate with all women across the world.
Lynda Woodroffe is a psychotherapist based in North West London and a member of the Contemporary Psychotherapyeditorial board.
Struggling to find a good summer read? At Euphemism, we think that no season is complete without a good book or two—that’s why today we’re offering up a recommendation from our own Zeph Webster, here to help you in the search for your next literary adventure. In this installment of #YellingAboutBooks!, Zeph reviews Elena Ferrante’s intriguing novel My Brilliant Friend (Europa Editions 2012):
“Anyone familiar with the world of contemporary literature is likely highly aware of Elena Ferrante’s presence, and frankly, anyone who isn’t should be. Ferrante, the pseudonym of an anonymous Italian author, has become something of an obsession in the world of contemporary fiction, inspiring think pieces and conspiracy fodder in the New York Times, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, and more.
My Brilliant Friend is the first entry in the author’s Neapolitan quartet, a series of novels spanning the 60-year friendship of Elena and Lila, introduced to us in My Brilliant Friend as two strikingly intelligent and charismatic Italian girls. Elena is our narrator, but both girls are our subjects, for Lila is to readers and characters alike a magnetic and unpredictable personality, worthy of adoration, envy, and suspicion. We come to know Lila’s trenchant and often dark understanding of life from Elena’s thoughts and memories, slowly connecting with Elena’s place away from the pedestal, yet always wanting more, knowing that what makes Lila the tremendous figure she is is not only unattainable, but unknowable.
What makes My Brilliant Friend worthy of the intellectual hype it’s received is neither the shadow of its author nor its plot—what makes it a spectacular piece of literature is the magic of the prose itself. Ferrante’s mastery of detail, imagery, and syntax is a refreshing reminder of what writing should do: transport, tantalize, inspire, and cause to wonder. Ultimately, we’re duped into believing that the contents of what lies between the covers are greater than the sum of its parts; though constructed entirely of words, novels like My Brilliant Friend are so clearly and distinctly more than words can describe.”
What do you think of My Brilliant Friend? Have you read any of the other books in this quartet? Let us know all about it, and which books you’d like to Yell (or hear) about in our next installment of #YellingAboutBooks!
by GD Dess
JULY 29, 2017
WRITERS FROM Charlotte Brontë, Virginia Woolf, Jane Bowles, and Mary McCarthy to Emma Cline, Ottessa Moshfegh, Sheila Heti, and Robin Wasserman have written remarkable novels about female friendship, but no one has tackled the complex search for female personal identity, and the construction of a feminine self through lifelong friendship, that is at the core of Elena Ferrante’s project in the quartet of works known as the Neapolitan novels: My Brilliant Friend (2011), The Story of a New Name (2012), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2013), and The Story of the Lost Child (2015).
The ferocity of Ferrante’s writing style is what strikes most readers first. Her language is muscular, never orotund. It feels spoken, almost confessional. There appears to be no mitigation between her consciousness and the words on the page. In a 2015 interview in the Paris Review she said that sincerity is “the engine of every literary project.” She went on to say that she strives for literary truth in her writing, which she defines as “entirely a matter of wording” and “directly proportional to the energy that one is able to impress on the sentence.” This is a skill Ferrante says she has acquired over the years.
Not everyone agrees. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Tim Parks, the writer, critic, and translator of many leading Italian authors (Alberto Moravia, Antonio Tabucchi, Italo Calvino) claimed he can’t read more than 50 pages of Ferrante’s writing and finds it “wearisomely concocted, determinedly melodramatic.” He cites the scene of a fight between two neighbors. The women grapple with each other and roll down the stairs “entwined.” One of their heads hits the floor of the landing — “a few inches from my shoes,” reports Elena, “like a white melon that has slipped from your hand.” Parks comments: “As in a B movie, a head hits the floor a few inches from our hero’s shoes. Then comes the half-hearted attempt to transform cartoon reportage into literature: ‘like a white melon that has slipped from your hand.’” He finds Ferrante makes “no effort of the imagination,” simply “announces melodrama.” Indeed, he is “astonished that other people are not irritated by this lazy writing.”
James Wood has suggested that Ferrante’s writing is influenced by second-wave feminist writers such as Margaret Drabble and Hélène Cixous, and Ferrante has acknowledged her familiarity with the work of Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva. In a 2015 interview, when asked what fiction or nonfiction has most affected her, Ferrante also names Donna J. Haraway and “an old book” by Adriana Cavarero, Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood (1997). This is a useful clue. In her book, Cavarero directly addresses the subject of female identity. She posits that identity is not an innate quality we master and express, but rather the outcome of a relational practice, something given to us from another, in the form of a narratable “life-story.”
Cavarero first makes this point in “The Paradox of Ulysses,” using the scene from the Odyssey in which Ulysses listens to a blind rhapsode recount his exploits in the Trojan war and weeps, because for the first time he has become aware of the meaning of the story of which he is the hero. She then provides a “lived” example: the story of Amalia and Emilia, two women who meet at an adult education class devoted to raising the consciousness of women.  Emilia talks about herself constantly, telling Amalia that she has lived a repressed life. Yet she cannot shape a coherent narrative: “she wasn’t able to connect any of it up.” Amelia helps her by writing the story of her life based on what she has heard. “Once I wrote the story of her life […] she always carried it in her handbag and read it again and again,” and, like Ulysses, she was “overcome by emotion.” The story of Emilia’s life set down in writing by Amelia made her recognize that “my ‘I’ exists.” She needed this ontological affirmation of herself.
Cavarero’s conception of the formation of the feminine “I” factors directly into Ferrante’s writing. In a 2016 interview, Ferrante explained that “the female ‘I’ in particular, with its long history of oppression and repression, tends to shatter as it’s tossed around, and to reappear and shatter again, always in an unpredictable way.” Most of her female characters do, in fact, harbor an “other” violent “I,” one that emerges from anger, resentment, or a deep psychological wound. In The Days of Abandonment (2002), a pre-Neapolitan novel, the narrator, Olga, “accidently” feeds her husband pasta with crushed glass in it after he tells her he is leaving her; later, she physically attacks him in the street when she sees him with his new lover. In The Lost Daughter (2006), the violence is more subtle. Leda, a divorced mother of two, is vacationing at the beach. She befriends a mother, Nina, and her young daughter Elena. One day, spontaneously, Leda steals the little girl’s doll.  She tells us she took the doll because it “guarded the love of Nina and Elena, their bond, their reciprocal passion. She was the shining testimony of perfect motherhood.” While Nina and her daughter endure no end of pain and suffering because of the doll’s disappearance, Leda hides the doll in her apartment. It becomes a talisman, bringing back memories of her unhappy married life and the pain she caused her daughters by abandoning them and her husband for another man. The theft of the doll is a symbolic reenactment of shattering the “perfect motherhood.” And the violence she inflicts on the mother and daughter, seeing them suffer as she suffered, yields a perverse pleasure that assuages her wounded psyche.
Of all Ferrante’s female protagonists, the narrator of the Neapolitan novels, Elena Greco, is the least interesting. Nevertheless, she is the direct descendent of the women Ferrante has been writing about for decades: they are all divorced or separated, vaguely middle aged, educated, industrious; for the most part they have risen above the poverty of their youth, but have had to fight for the nominal bourgeois social station they now inhabit. They are no strangers to rage, resentment, and existential angst, and they all attempt to discover themselves, to become who they are, or who they continually hope to be.
In The Days of Abandonment, Olga is abandoned by her husband and graphically chronicles her descent into a temporary psychotic state after his departure. As she struggles to remain “healthy” while surviving the dissolution of her married identity she ponders what will become of her. “What was I?” she wonders, and tells us: “This was the reality that I was about to discover, behind the appearance of so many years. I was already no longer I, I was someone else.” And this someone else wanted “to be me.”
We find this same struggle to recognize oneself in The Lost Daughter. Its narrator, Leda, tells us: “I had a sense of dissolving, as if I, an orderly pile of dust, had been blown about by the wind all day and now was suspended in the air without a shape.” While Elena is shrewder and more calculating than Ferrante’s previous heroines, her desires are more banal — “I want to get a driver’s license, I want to travel, I want to have a telephone, a television, I’ve never had anything” — and directed solely toward attaining success and the bourgeois lifestyle that accompanies it. But, while she wants these things, she keeps her wants suppressed and hidden from those around her, and asks herself if this is because she is “frightened by the violence with which, in fact, in [her] innermost self, [she] wanted things, people, praise, triumphs.”
In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, after she is published and married and successful, a reflective Elena informs us she has always been fascinated by the word “become”: “Become. It was a verb that had always obsessed me […] I wanted to become, even though I had never known what. And I had become, that was certain, but without an object, without a real passion, without a determined ambition.”
At one point, Elena’s mother-in-law gives her some books on Italian feminism by Carla Lonzi, one of the founders of the Rivolta Femminile, an Italian feminist collective. Elena says she knows well enough what it means to be a woman, and puts them away. But one day she picks up Lonzi’s seminal manifesto, “Let’s Spit on Hegel,” and it leaves her agape: “How,” she wonders “is it possible […] that a woman knows how to think like that. I worked so hard on books, but I endured them, I never actually used them, I never turned them against themselves. This is thinking. This is thinking against. I — after so much exertion — don’t know how to think.” Weary of her marriage, of domestic banality, Elena is suffocated by the life she chose. She tries to imagine what another life could be, wonders how she can create her “I,” but her imagination fails her. She is jealous of her sister-in-law who is single, attends political meetings, and is active in feminist causes.
Elena’s life careens from one thing to another; it is always “complicated” and hurried. She develops an “eagerness for violation” and chooses to engage suitors: “I was attracted by any man who gave me the slightest encouragement. Tall, short, thin, fat, ugly, handsome, old, married or a bachelor, if the [man] praised an observation of mine […] my availability communicated itself.” But, despite her education and exposure to “literary” texts, her desire to “become” someone doesn’t lead her to seek the causes of her taedium vitae, or to transform herself and transcend her current situation: it leads only to a man other than her husband. Once again, Ferrante references Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, whose heroine experiences a similar restlessness after marriage. No sooner is Emma Bovary ensconced in her country house with her husband than she finds herself unhappy — burdened with household chores and so disappointed in marriage that she begins to wish she was back in the convent in which she was raised. She dreams of escaping her fate. “But how,” Emma wonders, “to speak about so elusive a malaise, one that keeps changing its shape like the clouds and its direction like the winds?”
This modern-day malady from which Emma and Elena suffer, “malaise,” is related to ennui — what we prosaically refer to as boredom. It is the “noonday demon” of the ancient Christian fathers, and Baudelaire’s “delicate monster.” What Flaubert’s and Ferrante’s characters are trying to articulate is a presentiment that the eternal return of days — days filled with chores and the petty needs of others — can’t be all there is. What nags at them is the feeling that strikes us all when, in a funk, we ask ourselves: Is this really my life? Is this all there is? What would “more” be?
Elena’s own malaise remains similarly unnamable. Ferrante allows Elena to bemoan her unhappy life for well over a thousand pages, to wallow in the “cycle of ennui,” from which there may sometimes be no escape except the one offered by Flaubert. Of course, Elena doesn’t meet a tragic end. Ferrante does finally allow her to free herself (at least temporarily) from her lifelong predicament and shows us, briefly, what living without “the monster” would be like. This demonstration takes place late in the last volume of the tetralogy, at which point Elena has gained literary recognition, abandoned her husband and her children, and has been living with her lover, Nino, for a year and a half: “It was then that — we said to each other — our true life had begun. And what we called true life was that impression of miraculous splendor that never abandoned us even when everyday horrors took the stage. […] We hurried to dinner, to good food, wine, sex.” So “true life” appears to be nothing more than the commonplaces of bourgeois material success. Elena includes Nino in her declaration, but he doesn’t seem to have bought into this view. While she is waxing exuberant about the “true life” they are leading, he is busy having sex with the nanny. Soon, the couple separates. As Elena discovers, her notion of “true life” is just as misguided as Emma’s belief that “certain portions of the earth must produce happiness — as though it were a plant native only to those soils and doomed to languish elsewhere.”
What is deeply disappointing about Elena is her inability to transform herself — even though she seemingly has the intellectual capacity for it. We feel that if she had perhaps dedicated herself more to intellectual and spiritual matters instead of “cultivating resentment” she might have progressed toward some sort of enlightenment. At times, we feel the tension between her lucid self-awareness and latent self-actualization. Ferrante keeps us teetering with anticipation of change as we read page after page of Elena’s ruthless psychological insights, and witness her pathological excavation of her feelings. We keep hoping for a catharsis that never comes. One could argue, with reference to Adorno, that the “jargon of authenticity” she employs in search of her ever-elusive “I” is nothing more than narcissism.
The truly interesting character in the Neapolitan novels is Lila. She is a marvel. Unconventional, volatile, aggressive, ambitious, by turns emotionally stingy and generous, she is both intellectually gifted and entrepreneurial. She is self-possessed and unpossessable. By the time she is an adolescent, it is apparent to Elena that Lila “took the facts and in a natural way charged them with tension; she intensified reality as she reduced it to words, she injected it with energy.” While Elena worries about her appearance and her attractiveness to boys, Lila has already apprehended how the world works. From an early age, she is keenly aware of both the social and political injustices people of her impoverished class (whom the cruel, bitter teacher Maestra Oliviero refers to as “plebs”) are forced to suffer; and she also grasps, with Roquentin-like perspicacity, the meaninglessness of existence.
At 15, just before Lila is married, Elena, proud of her book learning, attempts to impress her friend with her knowledge of theology. Lila responds tartly: “You still waste time with those things? […] There are microbes everywhere that make us sick and die. There are wars. There is a poverty that makes us all cruel. Every second something might happen that will cause you such suffering that you’ll never have enough tears.” Throughout her childhood and youth, Lila takes more beatings than MMA champion Ronda Rousey. Her father throws her out the window and breaks her arm. Her brother pummels her over a disagreement about the shoes they are designing. “Every time Lila and I met,” says Elena, “I saw a new bruise.” Her boyfriend, and later husband, Stefano, beats her relentlessly, sometimes even punching her in the face. He rapes her on their honeymoon, from which she returns black and blue, and her married life is characterized by systematic abuse. Elena is continually amazed at her friend’s capacity for suffering, but Lila explains: “What can beatings do to me? A little time goes by and I’m better than before.”
Lila is “capable of anything.” Within the first year of her marriage, she embarks on a reckless affair with the love of Elena’s life, Nino. She then leaves her husband, an act unheard of in those days, to move in with him. As Nino says, “[S]he doesn’t know how to submit to reality […] and takes no account of police, the law, the state.” When they break up she takes another lover, with whom she founds a business and makes a success of herself. When, in The Story of a New Name, the Mafioso Michele Solara and his brother want to use her photograph to sell shoes that she has designed, Lila defaces the picture; using glue, scissors, paper, paint, she “erases” herself, refusing to allow others to use her image, refusing to be appropriated for any purpose. In the final volume, The Story of the Lost Child, even after having had great success in the computer business, she tells Elena, “I want to leave nothing, my favorite key is the one that deletes.”
Like Elena, Lila writes. Over the years, she amasses volumes of notebooks of her thoughts and observations, and in The Story of a New Name she gives them to Elena to keep her husband from finding them. Lila makes Elena promise she won’t read them. Naturally, Elena devours the texts. She is overwhelmed and “diminished” by them. She devotes herself to learning passages by heart — “the ones that thrilled me, the ones that hypnotized me, the ones that humiliated me. Behind their naturalness was surely some artifice, but I couldn’t discover what it was.” Eventually, she throws the notebooks off the Solferino bridge into the River Arno, in order to free herself from feeling Lila “on me and in me.” But she can’t erase Lila from herself.
Late in life Lila begins another writing project, one she will not share with Elena, which once again makes Elena feel inadequate. When Elena then suggests she may write about Lila, Lila says, “Let me be.” She tells Elena to write about someone else, “But about me no, don’t you dare, promise.” Lila wants nothing more than to disappear, while Elena “wanted her to last […] I wanted it to be I who made her last.” She wants to write her life-story.
Against Lila’s wishes Elena writes and publishes a book about the two of them, which she titles A Friendship. It is — implausibly — only 80 pages long. The book is a success and revives Elena’s sagging career, but after its publication, the two women never speak again and Lila disappears. Thus, contrary to Cavarero’s contention, which invokes Ulysses listening to his own life-story, Lila doesn’t need a life-story written about her in order to affirm her “I.” If another were to write her life-story, she would be turned into “fiction,” taken possession of. And just as she never let anyone possess her throughout her life, she has no intention of allowing that to happen once she is gone. She won’t participate in a practice that reduces her ontological presence to words on a page, a fetishized object between covers. By vanishing, she asserts her right to live a “mere empirical existence.” It is a brilliant move on Ferrante’s part to allow her subject to refuse subjugation to the art of “story telling,” even as she (and Elena) tell her story in the very book we are reading.
Long before the end of the novel, Elena goes to visit Lila, who is at her nadir, a proletariat slaving away at a sausage factory right out of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Elena has come to brag about her success as a writer: “I had made that whole journey mainly to show [Lila] what she had lost and what I had won.” Instead, she finds Lila
explaining to me that I had won nothing, that in the world there is nothing to win, that her life was full of varied and foolish adventures as much as mine, and that time simply slipped away without any meaning, and it was good just to see each other every so often to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.
And indeed, Ferrante’s searching Elena and elusive Lila will continue to echo each other, and to resonate for readers, in all their irreducible complexity.
 The story of Amalia and Emilia recounted by Cavarero first appeared in Sexual Difference: A Theory of Social-Symbolic Practice, one of the most famous books of Italian feminism. Sexual Difference may also have influenced Ferrante’s thinking about the friendship between Elena and Lila, the two main characters in the Neapolitan novels. The social practice of “entrustment,” the idea that one woman “entrusts” herself symbolically to another woman is one of the major ideas of Italian feminism. In My Brilliant Friend, Elena tells us of her decision to reject her mother as a model and give herself over to Lila: “I decided that I had to model myself on that girl, never let her out of my sight.” This practice is viewed as necessary “because of the irrepressible need to find a faithful mediation between oneself and the world: someone similar to oneself who acts as a mirror and a term of comparison, an interpreter, a defender and judge in the negotiations between oneself and the world.”
 Children are regularly treated brusquely, beaten, and/or suffer from benign, and not-so-benign, neglect in Ferrante’s novels. In the essay “What an Ugly Child She Is,” Ferrante responds to a Swedish publisher’s refusal to publish The Days of Abandonment because of the “morally reprehensible” way in which the protagonist treats her children. In that novel, Olga is chiefly guilty of neglect and indifference, abruptness and aloofness in her treatment of them; she does not harm them physically, although she is a bit rough in removing the makeup from her daughter who has, to her disgust, made herself up to look like her.
In defense of her portrayal of Olga’s behavior, Ferrante references Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and the scene in which Emma Bovary, upon being pestered for attention by her young daughter, Berthe, angrily shoves the girl with her elbow, causing the child to fall against a chest of drawers and cut herself. The wound begins to bleed. She lies to the maid, telling her: “The baby fell down and hurt herself playing.” The wound is superficial. Emma stops worrying about what she had done, forgives herself for her abusive behavior, and chides herself for being “upset over so small a matter.” And then, still sitting by her daughter’s side as she recuperates, adding insult to injury, she thinks: “It’s a strange thing […] what an ugly child she is.”
Ferrante comments that only a man could write such a sentence. She claims (“angrily, bitterly”) that men “are able to have their female characters say what women truly think and say and live but do not dare write.” She says her attempt has been, “over the years, to take that sentence out of French and place it somewhere on a page of my own.”
She does create a scene similar to Flaubert’s in The Lost Daughter. Leda, the narrator, tells us that when her daughter was young, she gave her a doll that had belonged to her since infancy. Leda expected her daughter to love the doll. But her daughter strips the doll of her clothes and scribbles over her with markers. When Leda discovers her sitting on the doll one afternoon, she loses her temper, “gives her a nasty shove,” and throws the doll over the balcony. It is run over and destroyed by the passing traffic. Leda’s only (ominous) comment about this incident: “How many things are done and said to children behind the closed doors of houses.”
More Talk: A Response / David Kurnick
“We can’t stop talking about Elena Ferrante” we said to each other throughout 2016—on social media, in the classroom, in pressing the Neapolitan novels upon friends and relatives. This collection of essays on Ferrante emerges from a conference panel at the Modern Language Association convention in Philadelphia in January, 2017, convened by the Prose Fiction Division. The pseudonymous Italian writer, who chooses not to reveal herself beyond her writing, had come to new popularity in the US in the past few years, and we found we had a lot to say about feminism, rage, women’s friendships, genre clashes, and bad sex, amongst other topics. We still can’t stop talking about Ferrante, and we trust that when you read these lively, provocative essays, you too will join the chorus.
David Kurnick’s “More Talk” was originally offered as a response to the panel’s essays by Christina Lupton, Pamela Thurschwell, and Sarah Blackwood and Sarah Mesle. It still serves that purpose wonderfully.
—Hester Blum, MLA panel moderator
So it turns out that this panel’s title is in no way straightforward. One of the through-lines in these pieces is the idea that Ferrante is hard to talk about, and that she is most interesting precisely where she finds a way to write what we cannot speak. I’ll try to make clear why I think of that most interesting feature of Ferrante’s work as its realism.
Christina Lupton puts Ferrante in bed with the queer theoretical resistance to the demand that sex be meaningful: as she puts it, Ferrante is “game for giving us just sex, [for] situating Lenù’s experience at this narrative impasse”—at a place that is “difficult to grasp representationally.” More important for Lupton, this kind of good sex—founded on an ignorance about our partner and about the conditions of our own pleasure—is a more accurate model to describe the Anglophone feeling about Ferrante than love, since it allows us to own our ignorance of the contexts from which she writes. Pam Thurschwell, relatedly, draws attention to the “hallucinatory states,” the “gaps” in the texture of the real, that preoccupy Lessing and Ferrante. She reminds us that Ferrante’s term for such cognitive, political and personal blockage, one that gives a title to her non-fiction book, is frantumaglia, a word that also names the felt impasse between writing and motherhood. It’s important that in Thurschwell’s account Lessing offers a vision of women’s writing as constituting its own justification, while Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet is less clear on whether writing redeems anything. No transcendence is Thurschwell’s watchword here—even (again queer-theoretically) No Future.
Among the overlaps between Lupton’s and Thurschwell’s accounts is that they make our pleasure in Ferrante into a theoretical and political problem: for Lupton, our pleasure might be premised on our distance from, even our blithe ignorance about, the Southern European context in which Ferrante writes (this is not, I would guess, the way most Anglophone Ferrante enthusiasts want their fandom described). For Thurschwell, the pleasure in Ferrante is more confounding still, since it’s hard even to understand its source: the Quartet is relentlessly unconsoling, a punishing litany of personal and political resolutions that never arrive. Thurschwell’s Waiting for Godot joke is also a provocation to think about the genres in which we inhabit historical hope and frustration: Berlant’s cruel optimism describes middlebrow culture’s processing of deferred political hope, and it’s clear that Ferrante’s Quartet borrows much of its addictive quality from its formal proximity to soaps and TV serials. But Ferrante’s books are fully conversant with Beckettian high seriousness: we might recall the series’ epigraph from Goethe’s Faust, the references to difference feminism, the allusions to the Aeneid. The books shouldn’t be as much fun as they are: they demand that we ask how we get pleasure from these scenes of damaged life, and what such highbrow signals have to do with that pleasure. Lupton’s and Thurschwell’s questions are asking valuably uncomfortable questions: they put our enjoyment of Ferrante adjacent to literary tourism on the one hand and to prestige-TV binge-watching on the other. This may not exhaust the political and cognitive implications of Ferrante’s novels. But after reading these pieces it becomes necessary to think about how those implications consort with our rituals of liberal self-congratulation.
Sarah Blackwood and Sarah Mesle are most overtly concerned with the pleasure they take in Ferrante, and the irrelevance of most official Ferrante-talk to that pleasure. For them, the difficulty isn’t that it’s hard to talk about Ferrante, but that it’s hard to talk about her well, or in a way that doesn’t “entirely miss the point.” One of the provocations of their piece is that they don’t so much specify what they take the point to be as name some of the forums in which Ferrante talk feels un-pointless to them. On the phone, via texts, in bars, in secret Facebook groups, in certain on-line venues: these are places where it’s possible to talk Ferrante without subjecting her to deadening “criticism.” It will have escaped no one’s notice that MLA panels do not feature on this list. One of the things Blackwood and Mesle are asking is whether in gathering to think about Ferrante we are betraying the “schloop” of reading her; whether in doing so we—or rather they, since this is a pressure unequally felt by women—must obey the demand “to transcend gender’s petty differences,” to pretend that everything is fine even though one of the hard-to-miss points of the Neapolitan Quartet is that everything is not fine. Blackwood and Mesle too position us collectively at an impasse, where it’s hard to know what, here and now, we could say about Ferrante: we just.
By this metric, we’ve all already said too much. (By the metric of “men shut up,” of course, I’m way over my time limit). But I think it’s possible to take these sketches of the impasse as critical provocations, as offering us new questions to put to Ferrante’s work and a new description of her achievement: how is it that the main narrative feature of these books about personal and political impasse is fluency? Why are these books that are so hard to talk about so impossible to stop talking about? For all its emphasis on what escapes structure or refuses intellectual coherence, Ferrante’s Quartet is a formidably structured piece of fictional patterning. This feature of the books, which I think anyone who loves them feels viscerally, is easy to overlook, partly because of our focus on the charismatic critical object constituted by Lenù and Lila’s friendship. The focus is understandable, but I think we miss the texture of that relationship if we isolate it from the socio-historical narrative environment in which it is embedded. In the Frantumaglia collection, there’s a moment in an interview with the novelist Nicola Lagioia in which Lagioia praises Ferrante’s portrayal of the women’s bond and then observes that “this interdependence [between Lila and Lenù] extends throughout the entire world of the two friends: Nino, Rino, Stefano Carracci, the Solara brothers, Carmela, Enzo Scanno, Gigliola, Marisa, Pasquale, Antonio, even Professor Galiani. Despite the fact that their rules of attraction are not so intense as those that bind Elena and Lila, they all remain in the same orbit. To escape each other is impossible.”
This elicits one of Ferrante’s most interesting responses: “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 . . . The idea that every ‘I’ is largely made up of others and by the other wasn’t theoretical; it was a reality. To be alive meant to continually collide with the existence of others and to be collided with.”1 In the Quartet, this becomes as much a narrative as a psychic principle, so that the women’s relationship serves as a portal for others to plug into and out of and thereby to create differently scaled visions of the collective. Think, for one example, of how consistently the duo of Lila and Lenù gets expanded by the addition of Carmela, who silently but durably becomes a semi-permanent member of their unit, particularly at moments of strategic decision-making around neighborhood or national politics (how to position themselves vis-à-vis the Solara brothers, how best to respond to Pasquale’s imprisonment)—in the process sketching how the intensely psychologized closure of two becomes the proto-political feminist aggregate of three. Think, in a different but related register, of how the rivalry and imitation embedded in the central women’s relation gets refracted in Lila’s relation to Alfonso, who in imitating Lila comes into a new version of himself and into newly dangerous relation to Michele Solara; think of how Alfonso’s femininity, which the young Lenù reads in his neat clothing and understands in relation to his slightly elevated class position (he is the son of Don Achille) makes him first a heterosexual object for the young girls, then yet another kind of third for the women, and finally a victim of Naples’ increased violence in the wake of the hard drug trade. Think, in other words, of how breathtakingly supple Ferrante’s narrative grammar is, how relentlessly relational and propulsive a form she gives to every narrative situation, how reliably the central partnership between Lila and Lenù functions as a generator of these narrative totalizations, these widenings of the social and referential frame. Milan and Pisa, Vietnam and IBM, African immigration and the U.S. academy, French theory and the Red Brigades—all of these will find their way into the narrative texture through just such recombinatory expansions.
As we’ve seen, Ferrante’s name for the energy that sponsors this movement is frantumaglia, and I want to close by sketching some of the ways that word’s multiple meanings might color our conversation today. “We are . . . interconnected,” Ferrante says in the interview with Lagioia. “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.”2 This characterization of frantumaglia as a word for an internalized collective is a crucial expansion of its meaning: earlier she has spoken of it as a dialect word her mother used to capture “a disquiet not otherwise definable . . . a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in the muddy water of the brain.” It also names a “sense of loss, when we’re sure that everything that seems to us stable, lasting, an anchor for our life, will soon join that landscape of debris.”3 The term is clearly associated with Lila’s recurrent fear of “dissolving boundaries,” her sense of a volcanic instability at the heart of historical, interpersonal—even physical and perceptual—existence. The same sensation finds its way into the experience of the narrators of Ferrante’s three earlier novels, where it is overtly associated with a specifically female experience of psychic and physical dissolution—as when Olga, the narrator of The Days of Abandonment, remembers a school friend who “made bodily noises according to how she felt, with her throat, her ass”—a memory of “the ferocity of women” that Olga “feels . . . in [her] flesh” so powerfully that she needs to sit down on a bench to prevent the sensation that she is about to “dissolve into liquid.”4
Over the course of the collection that bears its name, then, frantumaglia becomes a name for a state of affective confusion; a name for a phenomenological crisis that Ferrante identifies as indicatively female; a name for an availability or vulnerability to the other whose clearest fictional instantiation is the relation of Lila and Lenù; finally, a name for the collective itself, the tangle and tumult of interconnectedness. It should be clear that none of these definitions takes final precedence; the point is rather that each implies or entails the others. This experience of frantumaglia might seem to demand a classically modernist narrativization, one that would do mimetic justice to the experience of cognitive blockage and interruption through techniques of fragmentation, interruption, and imagistic density. And in fact Ferrante’s earlier novels are organized along recognizably modernist lines; with their pained lyricism and their psychic claustrophobia, each of the three earlier books powerfully take up residence in the region of the cognitive and emotional tangle.
Things work otherwise in the Neapolitan Quartet, though. One way to assess the achievement of the series is to recognize that it metabolizes that modernist kernel, takes it up not as some final principle but as a motor of formal and geopolitical expansion. And the potent effect of this narrative poetics is to make Ferrante’s feminist conception of interpersonal relation identical to her realist ambition to multiply the terms of geopolitical relation. Foremost among the remarkable things Ferrante’s novels do, then, is to challenge the stubborn academic consensus according to which modernism is the “smarter” and “harder” other to a stodgy and naïve realism: as intelligent and forceful as the earlier novels are, it is the more accessible Quartet that unquestionably represents the more radical formal innovation, precisely in finding a way to make the tangle of incomprehension not the endpoint of narrative movement but the very engine of a realist endeavor to imagine and populate a historically evolving world.5
Lila is indeed a figure of silence and refusal, the kind of character about whom one wants to say, “I just.” But she also represents for Lenù the imperative of more talk, of social experiment, of intellectual achievement, of artistic construction, of structural understanding. In a scene in the series’ final volume, the women discuss the publication of one of Lenù’s books, and Lila expresses her confusion at the workings of the literary world: “I told you that I don’t understand anything.” Lenù’s internal response is contemptuous: “If you can’t connect your story of the shoes with the story of the computers, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be done.”6 The words are perhaps the most concise version imaginable of realism’s sense-making project. It matters that they emerge as Lenù attempts to assert her superiority over her less sophisticated friend. But as any reader familiar with the novels’ insistent dialecticism will expect, Lenù immediately goes on to question the vehemence of her response, the quality of her writing, the value of her education. The realist project, in other words, belongs not to either of these women—it resides not in Lila’s pained silences or in Lenù’s A-student facility—but in the attempt to get them in the room together. The exchange—and it seems to me that it condenses the books’ central dynamic—asks us not to take impasse as the Neapolitan Quartet’s final meaning but rather to trace where impasse lives in specific social and historical worlds. The lines ask us to connect the neighborhood’s violence to the appropriation of women’s intellectual work; to connect post-War Italy’s prominence in the style industries to Naples’ underdevelopment; to connect one woman’s frustrated intellectual vocation to the advent of digital technologies; to connect those zeros and ones to the social engineering project Lila undertakes in that same neighborhood. We may not have thought there were new ways to comply with the realist injunction—new ways to narrate the impasses these pieces have drawn our attention to, to connect personal, historical, and geopolitical scales and see all of them thrillingly operative at every moment. But I take it that Ferrante is saying, and that the Neapolitan novels are demonstrating, that that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
David Kurnick teaches nineteenth-century literature at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. He is the author of Empty Houses: Theatrical Failure and the Novel (Princeton, 2012) and has written about contemporary fiction for boundary 2 and Public Books.
“We can’t stop talking about Elena Ferrante” we said to each other throughout 2016—on social media, in the classroom, in pressing the Neapolitan novels upon friends and relatives. This collection of essays on Ferrante emerges from a conference panel at the Modern Language Association convention in Philadelphia in January, 2017, convened by the Prose Fiction Division. The pseudonymous Italian writer, who chooses not to reveal herself beyond her writing, had come to new popularity in the US in the past few years, and we found we had a lot to say about feminism, rage, women’s friendships, genre clashes, and bad sex, amongst other topics. We still can’t stop talking about Ferrante, and we trust that when you read these lively, provocative essays, you too will join the chorus.
—Hester Blum, MLA panel moderator
In a famous formulation, Matthew Arnold described criticism as “the best that is known and thought in the world.” Arnold’s words here imply a sense of progress, publicness, hierarchy—that, by bringing ideas to light, we can test and evaluate, mutually agree upon, their “bestness.” Arnold’s articulation remains a useful standard; even as much modern criticism has moved beyond or against his broader ideas about what’s good or “best,” criticism’s basic structure of evaluative argument still remains central to academic life and exchanges. And yet, this structure, it seems, cannot hold many forms of knowledge. What if a text, a series of novels, say, generates knowledge and experiences that can’t be contained within the consensus making world of criticism or that comes to knowledge from a felt sense, hard to describe or explain? What if you come to know something about a text that you can only share at great cost, or simply don’t want to share? What if you know something about a text because of something dark, bad, shameful, or unacceptable, that you know about yourself?
In this essay we assert that Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels turn us towards other modes of engagement: not the best that might be thought, but, in fact, the pettiest. Part of what we love about the books is that they are about people—particularly the critic Lenù—coming to understandings of the world that they can’t put up for evaluation. These are good books about people acting badly, most often in variously petty ways. Reading these novels about bad feeling has made us feel good. But reading evaluative criticism about them has made us feel, strangely, bad. We have found in the case of the Neapolitan novels, that the border between our thinking and feeling became even more vexed and blurry than usual. By thinking in this essay through the good and bad feelings the novels contain, describe, and generate, we hope to come to a clearer understanding of our own sense of the possibilities and limits of criticism, as it applies to these novels, and to our lives as critics, in this fraught present time more generally.
What does it mean to call something petty, or to be petty yourself? Pettiness has to do with being out of scale. We might understand pettiness as a relation between attention and object of attention: you are being petty when a small or seemingly irrelevant detail generates disproportionate irritation; you are also being petty when irritation leads you to pay disproportionate attention to a small detail.
This petty state is often where we found ourselves in response to much criticism about the Neapolitan novels. Something about it irritated us. Criticism about these novels felt inadequate to the largeness of our feeling and thinking about these novels. The only talk about Ferrante we liked was private, non-argumentative. The critical takes, the arguments about authorship, the interpretive discussions placing the novels in various literary contexts and genealogies: all of it, bizarrely for people who passionately do critical work for a living, seemed mostly useless and entirely missing of the point. However: what was the point we so felt everyone else was missing? And why was it all so irritating?
Part of the problem, of course, is the Neapolitan novels’ popularity and their ability to generate, basically, a fandom: when an object lives in your fanatical heart, it can be irritating to find it discussed, analyzed, praised elsewhere. It is irritating because it is irritating to discover that your heart is not the only place where that object’s truth might be revealed.
Another possibility is that the irritation is a historical symptom. The years of Ferrante fever in the United States have coincided with the collapse of things more generally—politically, psychologically, informationally. We exist in a state now where the ability to demonstrate or assert what is “best that is known” is under particular stress. It’s clear that criticism in our present time—the best that is known, consensual knowledge—has a vital role.
And yet the collapse that makes criticism urgent has another side effect too: it makes us crabby. And thus a variety of other forms of knowing and interpreting—gossip, subtweets, textspeak, side eye, backchannels—strike us as also, at the present time, particularly useful. These petty modes are insufficient to the role of understanding either literature or our present, and yet they are still, we would claim, necessary. At the very least, as we will show, they are necessary to a fuller understanding of the Neapolitan novels. The novels’ pettiness is substantive and specific; they are an expression of petty feeling all the way down.
The question the novels seek to answer—what happened to Lenù’s friendship with Lila?—is not a critical question; what went wrong is not a matter of reason or clarity. For what would it mean to evaluate a friendship in terms of “the best that is known?” How, in friendship, literature, and politics, do we evaluate what’s good, what’s interesting, what helps and what hurts? What standards guide our judgements, where do the standards come from, and whose power do they support or undercut?
Lenù is a critic and a novelist, and yet neither of those modes of writing or evaluation have helped her answer the most urgent questions she has. For Lenù, criticism is not even an objective mode of evaluation: instead, it manifests narratively mostly as a series of bad boyfriends and bad moms, counterweighted for a while, Nancy Meyer-ishly, by increasingly nice apartments. In other words, as a life.
The Neapolitan novels are about marriage, women’s friendship, creative life, and politics. Although Lenù has built her adult life out of writing in and for publics, the prose we are reading seems deeply private: it is the material she cannot share with the world around her. It is significant that the content of the novels—an exploration of a specific friendship under conditions of poverty and patriarchy—takes a form that we might describe as a “backchannel” between Lenù and the reader. Backchannels in our contemporary world run the gamut from geopolitical intrigue to bitching with friends: Jared Kushner emailing furtively with Russian politicians, but also the more everyday flows of information in secret Facebook groups, DMs, gossipy texts. They are a place where people put knowledge they are not supposed to share; express irritation about things that are not supposed to irritate them; and indulge hysterics over things that are not supposed to be funny. In backchannels you reveal the aspects of yourself—aspects that feel unlikely to be legitimated by a wider public—to the people you believe are already on your side. Essential to this form, too, is the response it assumes: agreement and, crucially, reciprocity. Putting your worst or most outrageous self, your secrets, in a backchannel anticipates that the reader will reflect their illegitimate selves, their secrets, back to you.
If we think of the novels as backchannels, we can imagine them as bringing to light the question of what “can’t” be brought to light, and why. The novels are soul-baring but in an intimate, secretive, whispering sort of way, and they elicit intimate, secretive conversation in us, their readers. Lenù is telling us things about herself that she does not want to be known. So what is lost in responding to this voice in the idiom of criticism? Because criticism’s task is so fully on the side of illumination, publics, consensus, it seems categorically to violate the intimate mode the novels’ form both takes and encourages us to inhabit. Criticism’s idiom is optimism—the idea that, even in critique, it can produce new knowledge, better understanding. The backchannel’s idiom, to the contrary, in its expectation of the reciprocation of illegitimate knowledge and feeling, is pettiness.
Let’s consider one moment that illuminates how the novels understand the intersection of petty feelings, politics, evaluative consensus, and the backchannel form. Home for Christmas at a time she initially considers a pinnacle of her life, Lenù’s daughters lead their husbands and boyfriends over to the bookshelf and take down her books. They read them aloud, “ironically,” and laugh with one another over their mother’s self-seriousness, her prose’s belief that it might change the world. Their critical pettiness is hurtful, of course, but the true pain comes from the fact that Lenù recognizes some truth about herself in their insufficiently private backchannel. Overhearing them laugh about her books, Lenù realizes that her entire critical and creative life might be “reduced merely to a petty battle to change [her] social class.”
In this moment, crucially, Lenù cares less that her daughters are being petty gossips and more about the prospect that not only her creative work but also her politics have been small and wrong because they focused too particularly on her life rather than on substantive social change. While writing about the politics of literature, she has in fact mostly been focused on herself and her own comforts.
While it might be a surprise to Lenù to discover the pettiness of her own ambitions, it is not surprising to us: by this point in the series, we have spent many pages in close company with Lenù’s petty, selfish emotions, the petty details of her daily life. We have cheered on her petty battle to improve her life in any limited way that she can, just as we are invited not to condemn her daughters for their pettiness toward their mother. The novels succeed in being generous toward their characters’ bad acting not despite but because the novels pay close attention to details, because, in fact, they celebrate, out-of-scale attention. Dwelling in pettiness is how the novels generate their pleasure. They invite us to respond with our own out-of-scale fears, irritations, and concerns, rather than with our big-picture understanding.
Consider, for example, how Ferrante structures her novels to insist on the narrative force of small details. Lila’s marriage is over at its beginning because she focuses, obsessively, on a profoundly “trivial” detail: the sociopathic Marcello Solara shows up at her wedding wearing shoes she had made by hand, which he had long pursued and she had long refused to give or sell to him. What’s more, she realizes, her new husband Stefano is the one who has given them to him. Lila’s white hot rage over this detail is out of proportion, most others in her community agree—Stefano, the Solara brothers, even Lila’s brother all encourage her to look at the big picture, to give up caring about this small thing so that a larger social and economic prosperity can be secured. But we readers see the situation more clearly: the shoes are the big picture—they are her art, the “small” thing she thought she could keep out of the marriage market even as she consented to its broader practice. The novel emphasizes this interpretation to us by treating the discovery of the stolen shoes as a cliffhanger, meriting the weight of the whole first novel’s concluding sentence. And the men know this too, know that the shoes are of great significance, even as they speciously urge her to not be petty.
Lila cannot let the drama of the shoes go because the shoes’ significance is one of the only forms of power she has: we would call her exercise of this power “sideways,” a way of grasping for small, satisfying but rarely honorable victories inside a conscripted life. Denied, by virtue of gender and class, official means of social power, she engages in a sort of social guerrilla warfare.
Our sense has been that the pleasure of the novels comes from its petty details, but that criticism demands a sort of direct frontal interpretive attack that is counter to both the sideways power the novels describe and praise, and to our readerly experience of them. Criticism does often make space for trying to understand “sideways power”—as subversion, as critique, as counter-narrative. But, we would argue, once elevated and illuminated by criticism, conscripted and sideways power can suddenly look ennobling when, really, it very much is not.
The novels’ frank interest in its characters as dishonorable bad actors set within an even more dishonorable and bad-acting social world, its attention to the pettiness and petty details this scenario generates, is what makes us love them. The Neapolitan novels are the 1500 pages that Lenù writes to herself, to us, when all the other ways she has of communicating—direct political writing, literary criticism, even literature—have become dissatisfying to her. The novels are the place where she puts her pettiness: they are her secret Facebook group, the corner into which she has been backed and from which she speaks. What would it mean, as critics, to join her there?
There seemed to us, thus, to be a mismatch between the novels’ dissatisfaction with public writing and the act of publicly writing about them. As critics tried—in essays, even in Facebook threads—to fit their encounters with the novels’ pettiness into critical forms, the pettiness lost its vitality, was in fact called out as petty, which was, in our experience, irritating.
We tried to scratch the itch of our irritation in our own writing about the Neapolitan novels. It’s only now, thinking through our motivating questions about pettiness, that we’ve realized how our critical modes shadowed the content of the novels: they are somewhat bad-acting, ignoble refusals. Refusals to engage in the productive, consensus-building arguments of criticism, refusals to consider the big picture, refusals to elevate ourselves beyond our petty complaints.
Our goal, we realize now, was to create in readers the irritation we were experiencing: the irritation of having an insight or objection that could not be spoken within criticism’s evaluative rules of play. We wanted to make polemic claims without making argumentative ones—that is, we wanted to make arguments while making it difficult or impossible for anyone to argue with or against us. We wanted to say something that asserted itself as the best without subjecting itself to the test of bestness.
Consider our claim that “taste is just another name for misogyny.” We made this assertion in a listicle of sorts that we created to express our deep love for the Neapolitan novels’ infamously trashy book covers. Rendered in pastels, featuring imagery seemingly drawn straight from the Christian women’s romance section of the bookstore, the book covers, everyone seemed to agree, were at odds with the rigor and insight of the novels themselves.
Our essay sought to interrupt what seemed to be a consensus opinion that the covers were, obviously, “bad.” But we didn’t want to argue that they were, in fact, “good.” We wanted to poke at what we maintain are the misogynistic value claims about good and bad taste. Critics seemed to agree, no matter where they were writing, that the “cheesy romance novel” quality of the covers was antithetical to good writing, good thinking, or even a good account of anarchic emotional life (and thus that if the covers had any merit, it was ironic, still buying into the same standards of taste). Yet, we argued, this was wrong. We wrote:
the Neapolitan novels, which are about poor women with restricted access to education (and the class mobility that aesthetic taste enables), look like books that might be sold to poor women with restricted access to education. Note that literati readers love to identify with the characters, Lila and Lenù, who are women who use reading to escape their lives. So why are we so unwilling to consider ourselves to be anything like the women who are Lila and Lenù’s real world reading counterparts? Why are we so determined to stand against their reading practices and aesthetic tastes?
Our answer to this question is what we’d like to focus on here:
This sentence stages our most polemic claim—“taste is just another name for internalized misogyny”—as a truth claim at the foundation of an argument rather than the argument itself. More, the claim can’t hold, argumentatively: it is out of scale with itself. It contains a multitude of debatable assumptions about how taste, culture, gender, and even psychology work, yet we were uninterested in debating any of them. Because the very fact of having to debate them, carefully, with evidence and expertise, dissipates the deep feelings—of love, of irritation—that the covers cause us to feel and, importantly, what the discussion of the covers lead us to know but to know other than through agreed upon standards of argument. The knowledge, here, came from the accrued feeling of living for years in a world that finds a pastel aesthetic distasteful. Criticism’s carefulness would defuse the power of experience behind this claim.
Our second essay on Ferrante simply asserted, over and over, that men (all men)—after one specific man outed Elena Ferrante’s real identity—should shut up, just shut up, about Ferrante “forever, or at least for this week.” Where the piece about the book covers at least gestured toward the possibility of an argument, this essay refuses argumentative structure in the most fundamental way. Where the piece about the book covers made a deliberately broad polemic claim about how misogyny shapes taste, this piece instead makes a deliberately impossible claim and supports it only with a shrug and an exclamation point: “Sorry!”
The satisfaction of writing a piece like this is difficult to overstate. The exposure of Ferrante—and particularly the smug tone that exposure took—was something that made us angry, and yet writing an essay explaining why would not have resolved that feeling, partly because to write that essay would have been to enter into an argumentative exchange that would simply elicit more of the writing that angered us in the first place. Instead, our goal was to make a context in which even well-meaning exchange was disabled.
And, it seems, many others felt this way as well: the piece was a tremendous success by a couple of metrics. Its page views and audience reach showed that it resonated, and that it resonated partly because it did something so entirely different from the many argumentative claims cultural critics jumped to articulate in the week after the explosive unveiling of Ferrante’s identity.
We might also measure the forcefulness of its impact in another way, one that we hope shows that we are not making an ideological or political claim about the positive value of this mode of writing: it’s the only thing we’ve ever run in Avidly that ever provoked a rape threat.
What to do with this, we really don’t know—would a clearer argument, more engagement, have prevented the rape threat? Probably not. But it does seem clear that something about the shamelessness of how the original piece made an unsupportable claim, the refusal to inhabit “legitimate” modes of exchange, is part of what provoked it.
From pettiness to rape threats, obviously the underlying concern of this essay has been how gendered experience shapes criticism. Despite the fact that scholarship has worked for decades to describe how gender enters into criticism, it remains an unresolved question, and we would posit that this may be because the form of criticism itself disallows admission of the emotional experience in which gender most forcefully resides. Claiming that gender is an emotional experience is not at all to deny that is also an embodied, interpretive, and economic one—instead it is to say that all these conditions combine to generate an emotional state, and that often the state of those who fall under the sign “woman,” and who seek to speak about that experience, is one primarily of irritation: not quite a wound, but a rawness. (Perhaps that’s why so many of us spend so much money on salves.)
Criticism would agree that misogyny is omnipresent and yet rarely makes space for the sort of sweeping claims that might capture the irritated experience that such omnipresence generates—for example, criticism cannot (and this is not only a weakness) hold the claim that taste is only internalized misogyny, even though the omnipresence of internalized misogyny makes that claim feel true, and the feeling is politically and critically necessary if we are to capture the experience of gender. The Neapolitan novels feel weirdly capacious to us because they have allowed space for ugly feelings to exist, and importantly not only in their fictional depiction. One thing that this ugliness has allowed us is new purchase on the experience of reading, interpreting, and practicing criticism as women. It seems to us, personally, and as women, that to love these novels is to hate how most everyone else talks, argues, and makes claims about them. In fact, to love these novels, as women, might be to hate everyone; that hate might be one of the best (yet still limited) tools we have to understand how gender continues, obstinately, to shape individuals’ entrance into interpretation.
Because obviously these books are gendered, are about gender, are written through, read in, and talked about in a condition of gender. This is difficult to talk about, because gender too is all petty differences. When we leave pettiness for criticism, we feel a pressure to transcend gender’s petty differences into a space where interpretation and meaning can be debated, discussed, and agreed upon. But the thing that’s just true—this is another sweeping, untenable, and necessary claim—is that women lose more, and have more to lose, in that space.
One thing that they lose, often, is their petty experiences of womanhood, which could also be (but so rarely is) called “knowledge.” What we “know” about these novels, what we glean about how, for instance, they bind the life of the mind to the fucked-up-ness of the marriage plot, has to do with the fact that we read and think and write about them from a world still largely dictated by the fucked-up-ness of the marriage plot—a plot which in our current moment inscribes ever more lives. What we know about what the novels say about labor, writing, friendship, and political movements comes similarly from personal, and often unflattering or uncomfortable, knowledge accrued through women’s just-below-the-radar-of-legitimacy experience.
Here it is worth saying that “woman” is obviously a troubling category. 2017 is a year when the world has emphasized both how radically women are vulnerable as women, with pussies to be grabbed, and also has made the violence that white, straight, middle-class women do to others crystal fucking clear. (Trump’s voting block depended precisely upon the pettiness of white women.) Further, we can’t even use the word “woman” without mobilizing a language that is inherently false, and heterosexist, in its understanding of what it means to be human. Perhaps “woman” is a word that should have no force in criticism. Many people think this, and we see their point.
Yet we—we, the writers of this piece—are uncomfortable with the way this formulation allows human knowledge, here literary criticism, to hopscotch yet again over the responsibility to understand the particularities of women’s experiences, in the way that science and medicine and economics and history often have done. (Here we are reminded of Virginia Woolf’s repeated quests in A Room of One’s Own to learn about the history of women: returning to the shelves of knowledge again and again, she finds hundreds of years of nothing there.)
And more, we think of Lila, in the Neapolitan novels, speaking in public about the abuse and harassment experienced in the factory, and the sexual form it takes for women, and then facing, in private, Enzo’s well-meaning concern: does this happen to you? he asks. Admitting the forcefulness of woman as a sign, here, its universality, would be for Lila tantamount to taking on another womanly task: comforting men who, like Matthew McConaughey looking mournfully at pictures of rape victims in True Detective, are burdened with the difficulty of living as men in a world where men do, over and over, such terrible things to women. We love Lila for being too tired to give a shit. Exhausted, she lies to Enzo: oh no, nothing untoward ever happens to her at her workplace, just because she’s a woman, just because it happens to every woman. Nope: everything is fine.
This is the tension of the sign of “woman”: that it is out of scale, simultaneously universal and particular, simultaneously useful and an obstacle, outmoded. We have to talk about it, and yet can’t: the reasons we can’t are always already undone by the misogynistic structures that adhere white women to patriarchy and also give a gendered form to the basic selfish pettiness of the human, beyond gender. Gender has never been the “best that is known or thought.” This has historically almost always been a problem for criticism. And yet in the Neapolitan novels, it is also an opportunity.
6: The Present Time
The Neapolitan novels, in form and content, necessitated for us a consideration of pettiness: of how pettiness, gender, criticism, and politics interact. By way of conclusion, we’d note another sphere where pettiness’s forceful ambivalent power seems necessary to consider: the election of Trump, the world’s pettiest candidate, over Hillary Clinton, a candidate who (because she is a woman, rather than for her questionable politics) was evaluated in the most petty way.
The number of ways pettiness infused the 2016 election are legion and beyond our scope here (although it’s worth considering Hillary as a sort of real world analog of the Ferrante covers). We’d like to mention just one: how this campaign illustrated not just how much the world hates women speaking in public but how much the world hates, even, women speaking, in private, to one another. Hillary’s email backchannel was the issue that lost the election: America decided that it would rather give a sociopath the nuclear codes than endure the fact of two women, Hillary and Huma, talking to each other: about what? Privately sharing recipes for quiche?
This is a petty account of the 2016 election, and nevertheless a true one. Democracy, like criticism, relies on a belief in evaluative meritocracy, and the secret talk of women (and other marginalized groups) shows the limits of this belief.
In speaking about pettiness we are not making a value claim: we are making a significance claim. Pettiness is important, but it is not necessarily good. It is not, as we have said, ennobling. Terrible people use it to terrible ends; brilliant people use it to brilliant ends. But assuming that pettiness is something that critics can “get over” on their way to “knowledge” is a mistake, and it is partly a mistake because “getting over pettiness” repeats the very political, often misogynistic, blindness it aims to reveal. In a better world maybe we wouldn’t need pettiness. But that seems not to be where we live.
Pettiness is a strategy used by many different people who must scavenge for legitimacy at the boundaries of “the best that is known and thought.” It’s useful not just for “women,” but also it is useful for “women,” and particularly for understanding the small and distasteful categories of gendered experience still rarely countenanced in traditions of criticism. In the places where criticism about categories of sex and gender are carried out—seminar rooms, lecture halls—the caretaking labor of ordering snacks, vacuuming, and finding ziplock bags for the graduate students to take home leftovers reveal structures that are powerfully gendered, raced, and classed. These are acts that produce and reproduce the contexts where criticism can take place, and yet like most reproductive experience (biological and social) goes irritatingly unnoticed.
Getting back to the questions that have animated our inquiry—But what was the point that others were missing? And why was it all so irritating?—we might now answer simply, and more than a little elliptically, that the irritation itself was the point everyone else was missing. Here were these novels that delivered an avalanche of petty details about living under patriarchy, and thematized the failure of evaluative criticism to soothe these irritations. The novels represented these huge, often traumatic, things—rape, loss, poverty, abuse, marriage, friendship—through a sort of particularized, petty dailiness that was revelatory because it was so true to the grinding quality of these experiences. And, more, the novels suggested that this irritation wasn’t something to be gotten over on the way to producing the best of what has been thought in the world, but rather the thing that makes for better, more honest readers of relationships, art, truth, and the world.
The unattractiveness of the novels’ irritations, their details, the stinginess of them, infuses us with a kind of ecstatic bitterness that is the opposite of consensus making or persuasion. It is aligned with the lived-ness of gender, with the deauthorization of all those whose lives never stand as common sense. This bitterness reminds us that it is always a privilege to have the luxury of leaving pettiness behind.
This is the third in a quartet of essays on Elena Ferrante’s writing. See also the first, second, and fourth essays in the quartet, by Christina Lupton, Pamela Thurschwell, and David Kurnick, respectively.