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.
GD Dess is the author of the novel Harold Hardscrabble.
 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.”