by Franco Baldasso
Last fall’s noisy dispute around Elena Ferrante’s biographical identity ignited a wealth of contrasting yet instructive reactions. Whether troubled or newly admiring or indifferent to the apparent divergences between the empirical author’s life and that of her character Elena Greco, readers and critics did not venture to question the assumed existential parallel between the two. The books themselves, along with their marketing materials, quite clearly encourage it. But what if the alleged correspondence between Elena Ferrante and Elena Greco were just a diversion? What if the characteristics we identify in the latter, and implicitly attribute to the former, were only a carnival mirror shielding a deeper but less obvious commonality, the one between Ferrante and the brilliant friend herself, Lila Cerullo: namely, the unbearable loss of their presence?
The formulation and answering of this question was greatly assisted by the publication, in the same season, of Ferrante’s first work of nonfiction, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey. Thanks to the scattered pieces comprising the collection—interviews, unsent letters to critics and readers, pages expunged from the author’s novels—we can further appreciate the author’s intellectual prowess and talent as a storyteller by measuring not only the affinities, but also the distance, between her and the character who shares her first name. The carnival mirror emerges from Frantumaglia quite cracked, yet it is through such minute gaps that one of the underlying themes of all of Ferrante’s work becomes visible.
From the opening pages of My Brilliant Friend, the story told by Elena Greco is haunted by the loss of Lila Cerullo. The loss finds full narrative disclosure only in the fourth installment of the cycle, Story of the Lost Child, with an uncanny doubling, as both Lila and her daughter abandon the scene with hardly a trace. In fact, Lila consciously erases any remnant of her existence; she decides to disappear, choosing an autonomous destiny that ambiguously overlaps with the fate of the entire city in which she has been living—and struggling—her whole life. At the end of the Neapolitan Quartet, the boundaries of Lila’s character lose their edges and seemingly overlap with the contours of Naples, a city that is obsessively present throughout the four books with its uncanny beauty, unrestrained violence, and blatant lack of social justice. Naples’s unresolved contradictions are before our very eyes throughout. Like Lila, the city offers no index, defies any conclusive description, blurs contours, and subtracts itself from external gaze. In the Quartet’s last pages, however, Naples’s obsessive presence fades away from our view; its countless voices, vigorous yet enervating, turn into a distant echo. In the same vein, Lila, with her disappearance, chooses absence over the courageous and stubborn presence that marked her life—at least as it was narrated by Elena Greco.
While Lila never leaves Naples, establishing the city’s contours as the ultimate extension of her vitality, her friend Elena chooses an utterly different path to establish her own presence. The Neapolitan Quartet is also the novel of Elena’s conquest of personal independence and her emancipation from the suffocating air of the rione, from the family-ism and gender inequality that the city of Naples epitomizes, like a Pandora’s box open to the bluest sky. Elena’s liberation from the restrictions of her city is hardly straightforward and never definitive. Exemplified by her tortuous relationship with her mother, Elena’s emancipation is an ongoing repudiation of her own origins, which runs parallel to and recurrently intermingles with Lila’s struggles. To be complete, however, Elena’s emancipation needs to transcend her origins and Naples’ very boundaries—and essentially free herself from Lila’s shadow. Instead of infighting and openly challenging the violent tensions of the rione, Elena will build and solidify her presence through assiduous work toward a radically different emancipation model. By becoming a public figure as a writer, she aims at the acquisition of literary authority and intellectual respectability, a status seemingly unharmed by the quarrels of her poor neighborhood. Nevertheless, Elena’s new role requires her subjugation to other dynamics, more opaque and no less pervasive: such as the commodification of intellectual labor in the literary market and media circus. Crucially, Lila might admire, envy, even misunderstand and aggrandize her friend’s intellectual authority, yet she grasps that such a path is not for her, as it would not allow her the continuous shift of direction that best characterizes her life and exuberant vitality. To the novels’ characters and readers alike, Lila’s charisma and gravitational power lie in her creative resistance, in her obstinate refusal to accept subjugation of any sort. Her strange magnetism derives from her unique noncompliance to any steady configuration, or, to borrow a key term from Italian contemporary philosophy’s biopolitical debate, to any stable “form-of-life.”
ELENA GRECO’S STORY SEEMS TO MIRROR ELENA FERRANTE’S EXPERIENCE. YET FERRANTE IS NOT THERE. INSTEAD, SHE HAS CHOSEN LILA’S PATH.
“A story begins when, one after another, our borders collapse,” Ferrante writes in Frantumaglia. It could be a perfect motto for Lila. Like the eccentric protagonists of Luigi Pirandello’s groundbreaking play Six Characters in Search of an Author, Lila refuses to be a character fixed once and for all. By withstanding subjugation, she preserves the constitutional fluidity of her life, culminating in her choice to disappear. Remarkably, Elena Greco’s story of their friendship begins only after all the borders have collapsed. Lila’s story can start because of her attempt at self-erasure, the final sign of her unyielding commitment to otherness. “The disappearance of women,” Ferrante argues, “should be interpreted not only as giving up the fight against the violence of the world but also as clear rejection. There is an expression in Italian whose double meaning is untranslatable: ‘Io non ci sto.’ Literally it means: I’m not here, in this place, before what you’re suggesting. In common usage, it means, instead: I don’t agree, I don’t want to. Rejection means shunning the games of those who crush the weak.”
For Elena, instead, writing Lila’s story and their decades-long relationship is something akin to casting a spell, maybe even to conducting an exorcism. It is a form of magic she has been training for her entire life. Elena encapsulates her friend’s irresistible vitality in a character, so as to control her haunting presence—in a phase of her existence when ghosts from the past are more pressing than real people. And yet this exorcism is not the confession of a failure, but the beginning of a journey: “a writer’s journey,” as in Frantumaglia’s subtitle. Such a journey is not Lila’s anymore; it is only Elena’s.
It is precisely when Elena Greco emerges as a public figure that the assumed existential parallel between her and Elena Ferrante proves to be misleading. Through her writing talent, Elena Greco resolves to become a public persona. She sets out to fight her personal battles by following an intellectual model intimately connected to so many of the glories and delusions of the 20th century. She chooses impegno (engagement)—a form of intellectual commitment to present time—which distinguished the lives and works of numerous left-wing Western European writers in the postwar period, alongside the widely popular theories of Marxist philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Antonio Gramsci. Although in different ways, the two philosophers argue for the necessary conjunction of intellectual responsibility with political action. In fact, the debate over the intellettuale impegnato (engaged intellectual) is a conspicuous component of postwar cultural, intellectual, and political history in France and Italy, and it is only partially comparable to the Anglo-American concept of “public intellectual.” In Italy, the intellettuale impegnato was clearly linked to the Communist Party and, to a minor extent, the Socialist Party. The space and impact this model had in Italian civil society had no correspondence in English-speaking countries. For the majority of postwar intellectuals in Italy, the Communist party represented the only alternative to the restoration of conservative forces after World War II.
Many of the Quartet’s characters strive to approximate this model with their public actions and personal behavior, each of them in highly idiosyncratic ways. Elena Greco’s Neapolitan teachers, her boyfriend Franco along with other students at the Scuola Normale di Pisa (Italy’s equivalent to Harvard), the entourage of academic excellence and intellectual prestige constituting Pietro’s family (which backs Elena once she marries him), and even the infamous Nino: all get personally involved in this political season. Pietro embodies the crisis of this intellectual model and Nino its progressive corruption, as they both equally steer clear of a real confrontation with the previous generation’s responsibility. As it historically appeared in Italy, the intellettuale impegnato is predominantly a male model, not without narcissistic connotations. Yet Elena initially embraces it in her personal battle to excel, to find a suitable position in a field barely accessible to women, which eventually enables her to articulate original views and gain an intellectual credibility that are fully her own.
In fact, Elena’s feminism is not ideologically predetermined; its acquisition does not have the trajectory of a destiny. She is no stock character, for she elaborates her individual ideas on gender inequality partly by emulation of other characters, female and male alike, partly by reflections on her own experience. As Ferrante is at pains to explain in Frantumaglia, “Every woman novelist, as with women in many other fields, should aim at being not only the best woman novelist but the best of the most skilled practitioners of literature, whether male or female. To do so we have to avoid every ideological conformity, every false show of thought, every adherence to a party line or canon.” Like her male counter-models and the men of her life, Elena’s struggle is not devoid of narcissistic undertones either. It is not by chance that in the Neapolitan Quartet, Elena’s anxieties to live up to the many expectations that her public persona implies often overwhelm her and recurrently take central stage.
Elena Ferrante’s own choice in this regard is precisely the opposite. Nowhere does she put it more clearly than in her 2014 New York Times interview, collected in Frantumaglia: “I didn’t choose anonymity; the books are signed. Instead, I chose absence. … This choice created a small polemic in the media, whose logic is aimed at inventing protagonists while ignoring the quality of the work, so that it seems natural that bad or mediocre books by someone who has a reputation in the media deserve more attention than books that might be of higher quality but were written by someone who is no one.” Still, this decision has a history: from this angle, the disparate pieces collected in Frantumaglia can be read as the intellectual history of Ferrante’s choice of public “absence,” to abandon the stage—or rather, to desert TV studios—and let her works speak instead of her. Through her “absence,” Ferrante questions both the commodification of intellectual engagement as a media event and its debased, male-dominated forms.
Ferrante’s self-effacement continues with the very title of her first nonfiction book. “Frantumaglia” is an untranslatable word that Ferrante claims she owes to her mother’s personal version of Neapolitan dialect. It literally means “a jumble of fragments,” which she describes as a precondition of her writing. Publishing dates, the only guiding criterion of this disparate volume, chart the emerging intellectual stature of Ferrante over the past 25 years, along with her literary achievements, the resounding noise triggered by her personal withdrawal from the media circus, and all the hype surrounding her global success. Present in all the interviews included in Frantumaglia are the obligatory questions that journalists ask Ferrante regarding her real identity. Her decision to let her books speak for themselves—with no interference from their author’s biography—is supported by literary and personal reasons, which are stated throughout the volume. Ferrante’s most articulated response, however, is to be found in the dialogue with her editors first published in The Paris Review in the spring of 2015. Her provisional conclusion on this pivotal issue, which might have appeared not too long ago as a relic of old-fashioned literary snobism, looks politically timely today: “I’m still very interested in testifying against the self-promotion obsessively imposed by the media. The demand for self-promotion not only diminishes the role of the works in every possible sector of human activity; it now rules everything.”
Ferrante’s decision to desert the public sphere allowed her to pursue otherwise unviable narrative possibilities. Unlike her character Elena Greco, she avoided concentrating on the public construction of her figure as an author, exploring instead an alternative mode of communication with the reading public based on writing alone. Her absence is both a story of self-education and a form of resistance to subjugation by any model imposed from the outside—a path that echoes that of her character Lila. In a 2014 interview for the Italian daily La Repubblica, Ferrante claims: “It’s not a small thing to write knowing that you can orchestrate for readers not only a story, characters, feelings, landscapes but the very figure of the author, the most genuine figure, because it’s created from writing alone, from the pure technical exploration of a possibility.”
FERRANTE RELUCTANTLY ADMITS, “I LOVE LILA MORE, BUT ONLY BECAUSE SHE FORCED ME TO WORK VERY HARD.”
Because of the unique space of creative freedom Ferrante has carved for herself, Frantumaglia’s subtitle—A Writer’s Journey—bears only partial witness to the complexity of Ferrante’s choice of absence. Yet this subtitle openly reinforces the impression that her path overlaps with Elena Greco’s. The impression of superimposition between author and character, however, was not a feature of the original 2003 version of the collection published in Italy, in which the dialectal term forming the title stands alone, with no subtitle. A more fitting description of Frantumaglia would instead be “autobiography of a character,” of a unique literary character called Elena Ferrante presented as the author of her novels, whom readers around the world have loved as possibly her own most fascinating and controversial literary creation.
Yet Ferrante’s authorial absence not only occasioned her literary experiments, the “pure technical explorations of a possibility,” it also became a generative force, one of the fundamental questions her novels address, each from its unique standpoint. With her narrative, Ferrante investigates the absence of the beloved person, in the terms analyzed above, not only from a psychological perspective, but also as an anthropological and somehow transhistorical category, without indulging in essentialisms of sorts. As a trigger for storytelling, absence defies literary and genre restrictions; the universality of this experience extends beyond the circumstantiated account of recent Italian history and social structures that constitute the setting and ambiance of Ferrante’s stories, as her international success attests.
Ferrante’s authorial absence found a correspondence in the very fabric of her stories, in a narrative device that is both highly idiosyncratic and universal. Her novels work through the mourning for an intimate loss—almost always that of a woman. From the elusive Amalia in Troubling Love, to the many lost daughters of her fiction, to the missing Lila at the beginning of My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante’s stories are occasioned by a disappearance, which leaves other characters bereft not just of a person they deeply loved, but of something essential they are unable to explain. This disappearance radically shatters everyday life as they always knew it. “Disappearance” in Ferrante is never an occasion for abstract philosophical speculation, but always features narrative contours and context. It acquires a profound literary necessity through the multilayered depiction of historical contingency—as in the case of postwar Naples for her Quartet. Disappearance signals the loss of the object of desire: embodied by a full-fledged character always exceeding its simple biography, ambiguously imposing its absence over the entire story.
Ferrante portrays her characters as both supremely realistic, in the long-standing tradition of the European novel, and as allegories of loss (the mother, the daughter, the brilliant friend), whose retrieval, or lack thereof, soon becomes other characters’ dominating obsession. In a certain sense, disappearance is the true moment when all the “borders collapse,” and in which her stories’ characters are born, as they are forced to enter in a new life’s cycle, a sort of rebirth. “The loss of love,” writes the author in an early piece published in Frantumaglia, “is the common experience closest to the myth of the expulsion from the earthly paradise.” In other words, it is through this loss, which Ferrante describes explicitly as a sottrazione (subtraction) that human history originates—not unlike in her own stories.
By disappearing, by erasing their traces and thus inflicting a more piercing loss, Ferrante’s characters, such as Lila in My Brilliant Friend or Amalia in Troubling Love, actively impose on others their choice for absence. The author narrates their choices as a subtraction, literally the action of taking away a quantity from another to obtain a difference. Their absence is synonymous with their difference: profoundly affecting, if not devastating, other characters’ existences, such as Lila’s lifetime friend Elena Greco or Amalia’s daughter Delia. It does not come as a surprise, then, that in Ferrante’s novels the narrators are not characters who impose their absence by disappearing, but the ones who have been abandoned. Elena and Delia’s mourning prompts the tales of their absent friend and mother, stories which uncomfortably turn into a creeping criticism of their own lives.
Ferrante’s authorial absence engages readers in a similar way. With a piercing irony, Ferrante distances herself from the Neapolitan Quartet’s narrator, Elena Greco, in the precise moment when the accord of the two voices seems most firm and well-defined. In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, when Elena Greco glimpses for the first time her newly published novel in a book store’s window, she is truly unable to contain her trepidation: “But the effort of finding a form had absorbed me. And the absorption had become that book, an object that contained me. Now I was there, exposed, and seeing myself caused a violent pounding in my chest.” In the instant when Elena Greco follows in the footsteps of her author—describing the contrasting drives within her chest after seeing her novel in a bookstore—the character-narrator goes in exactly the opposite direction of Ferrante, resolving to become an intellettuale impegnato, a public figure. The story of Elena Greco’s engagement with her own times is a major plotline of the Quartet that grows in intensity and complexity, even beyond her choice to work for public recognition and visibility. Painful difficulties and contradictions between her private behavior and public pronouncements arise, especially in the last two novels. Elena Greco proudly chooses presence despite all the difficulties and personal setbacks, as one of the hallmarks of her literary and intellectual success. In so doing she embodies a model antithetical to the ethics of writing professed in Frantumaglia.
In the New York Times interview mentioned above, Ferrante claims: “Today what counts most for me is to preserve a creative space that seems full of possibilities, including technical ones. The structural absence of the author affects the writing in a way that I’d like to continue to explore.” Ferrante’s authorial absence was born decades ago as a polemical stance against the commodification of writing and life, countering a prescriptive intellectual environment that ultimately narrowed down women’s participation in the public sphere. Today it has become an unpredictable heuristic tool, acquiring persuasive cognitive penetration and unsettling literary force in her novels.
Ferrante’s absence multiplies the sense of bereavement at the center of her stories. It brings about a fictional short circuit with the narrative disappearance of characters she is creating out of writing alone, an idiosyncratic interaction that dismantles traditional literary dynamics that we as readers are used to accepting. By implicitly suggesting—but not forcing—readers to associate Elena Greco with her real persona, Ferrante highlights the ironic distance between her own nonconformist intellectual practice and her character’s urge to become a public figure. Readers, encouraged by Ferrante to empathize with Elena Greco’s search for Lila, experience the character’s confrontational relationship with her brilliant friend. They not only endure the pain of Lila’s disappearance, but also undergo Elena’s anxieties to live up to the difficult standards set by Lila with her uncompromising difference, the radical resistance to subjugation which best describes her. Readers are supported in this feat by the impression that they are not alone in this troubling quest, as Elena Greco’s story mirrors Elena Ferrante’s experience. Yet Ferrante is not there with them. Instead, she has chosen Lila’s path, challenging power dynamics—first of all, the burden of personal biography over her own writing—and leaving readers completely alone to confront Elena Greco’s ghosts.
In the Quartet, Ferrante resolutely refrains from taking sides between Elena and Lila. Still, in a Frantumaglia interview, she reluctantly admits, “I love Lila more, but only because she forced me to work very hard.” Ferrante’s preference for absence turns into an artistic ethics, one which implicitly disavows the character that readers are led to take for an alter ego. The kind of intellectual engagement Ferrante pursues aligns her instead with Lila’s path: the intransigent resistance to the gaze of the other, to the economics and power dynamics shaping lives—female or male alike—through forced self-promotion. As it is for her character Lila, Ferrante’s “I’m not here” means at the same time, “I don’t want to.”