The Quietus

25 Years Of Troubling Love: Ferrante’s Women & The Fight For Privacy

Lauren Strain , March 5th, 2017 13:41

For two decades, Italian author Elena Ferrante maintained her privacy – until a recent article claimed to reveal her ‘true’ identity. Twenty-five years after the publication of her first novel, Lauren Strain considers the example that her fight for selfhood – and the struggles of the women in her novels – sets for us today. 

“I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful.”

Consider the motivations of a man who, on reading this statement, sets out to deprive the speaker of that freedom they have found.

This was the pursuit of journalist Claudio Gatti, who in an incendiary article published by the New York Review of Books last October, announced his belief that the pseudonymous Italian author Elena Ferrante was, in fact, a translator named Anita Raja. He’d spent months rooting through real estate records and other financial data, including anonymously obtained details of payments to Raja from her publishers.

Ferrante, the author of three unsettling novellas and the globally popular Neapolitan Novels series, has maintained an avowed silence as to her ‘real’ identity since she began publishing in 1992, insisting that everything a reader may wish to know about a writer is contained within the work itself. As a result she has been able to create for herself a rare and precious thing, especially for a woman in the media spotlight: an autonomous creative space free of judgement or expectation, in which to work without scrutiny or boundary. It is something she explains the value of several times in Frantumaglia, a volume of letters and interviews that her publishers, Edizione E/O, describe as a “twenty-five-year history of an attempt to show that the function of an author is all in the writing” but which Gatti argues provides grounds to unmask her.

That a woman’s word is neither believed nor respected is hardly a surprise. But what’s been particularly nauseating about Gatti’s and other journalists’ efforts to ‘out’ Ferrante is that, if you’re even slightly familiar with her work, you’ll know that her whole output is an examination of the lives of women who are denied their right to self-determination.

Spirited, clever and aspirant, Ferrante’s women grow up in oppressive neighbourhoods polluted by fear and fascistic family ties. Under relentless pressure to behave one way, to look another – to be who others want them to be rather than what they choose for themselves – they commonly experience a sense of brokenness, of coming apart. They fragment, dissolve and sometimes even disappear completely.

In Ferrante’s debut novel, Troubling Love, artist Delia tries to trace the final movements of her mother, Amalia, who after a life suffocated by the demands of men – a husband who beat her and a lover who never stopped pursuing her – has drowned herself in the sea. In My Brilliant Friend, the first instalment in the Neapolitan series, childhood best friends Lenù and Lila both endure frightening feelings of disintegration at the hands of their violent, 1950s Naples community. Most famous are Lila’s episodes of “dissolving margins”, when things seem literally as well as inwardly to blur (“she had often had the sensation of moving for a few fractions of a second into a person or a thing or a number or a syllable, violating its edges”), but Lenù also experiences similar dysmorphic terrors: “sometimes I had the impression that, while every animated being around me was speeding up the rhythms of its life, solid surfaces turned soft under my fingers or swelled up,” she writes. “It seemed to me that my own body, if you touched it, was distended… I felt squeezed in that vise along with the mass of everyday things and people… as if everything, thus compacted, and always tighter, were grinding me up, reducing me to a repulsive cream.” This horror of a loss of solidity echoes Ferrante’s earlier novel, The Days of Abandonment, where a wife left reeling from her husband’s sudden departure must gather all her strength to overcome a profound internal shattering.

But while many of these nightmarish passages suggest the threat of breakdown, the books also offer the possibility that Ferrante’s women, by withdrawing from the language and roles expected of them, are able if not to resist then at least to evade their oppressors. Troubling Love‘s Amalia, leaving home in strangers’ clothes, indulging in forbidden behaviours and concealing her tracks, denies her pursuers’ desires and eludes capture. Lila’s final vanishing, meanwhile, fulfils a long-held intention: “She wanted not only to disappear herself… but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind”, writes Lenù in My Brilliant Friend.

There is a sense in which, by becoming unreachable, unknowable and even unintelligible, perhaps these women can claim for themselves a space outside of the viciously patriarchal culture they inhabit. It’s an idea Ferrante puts forward herself in an interview included in Frantumaglia: “The disappearance of women should be interpreted not only as giving up the fight against the violence of the world but also as clear rejection,” she tells Belgium’s De Standaard. “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.”

Surely it is possible, too, to see Ferrante’s absenting of herself from the media circus as a rebuke of this kind. In remaining pseudonymous and participating only on her own terms (she answers select interviews in writing, via her publisher), the author enacts a sort of dissolution of her own. It is interesting to see this refusal to engage as a political act; of a piece with the concerns of her work, and perhaps even an extension of it.

Which is to say that, when Gatti so clinically peels back Ferrante’s skin, he also rolls back a 25-year project, a body of work that spans a quarter of a century. When he invades Ferrante’s hard-fought space, he tramples, too, on the content of her seven novels and the lives that they narrate. It is this that makes the reveal of Ferrante’s identity more than just gossip, and symbolic of the very struggles that lie at the heart of her stories.

The dogged determination on the part of critics to forcibly expose a woman who has chosen a particular way of life has been a useful reminder that, still, in 2017, those who follow their own path face expectation to conform, even from people who would consider themselves permissive. Fortunately, in Ferrante’s case the work itself is armoured against this kind of assault, since its other key theme, alongside her women’s battle for autonomy, is the futility of anyone’s attempt to define them. Over the course of 1500 pages, Lenù’s resolution at the outset of My Brilliant Friend to not let Lila “win,” to “write all the details of our story” and record the definitive version of their history, proves impossible; and in Troubling Love, Delia, giving up the search for her mother, finds that she “couldn’t impose on her the prison of a single adjective.” Ultimately, Ferrante’s canon asks the question: Who knows Lila but Lila? Who knows Lenù but Lenù? Who knows Ferrante but Ferrante? Who knows you, but you?

At a time when women’s control over their bodies in even ‘progressive’ societies is increasingly challenged, when they are dismissed and degraded by their political leaders, Ferrante’s refusal to allow others jurisdiction over her image sets an emboldening example for women everywhere. While she stresses that her work is not written with an expressly feminist or other ideological message (“I don’t like stories that are a programmatic enactment of the theory of the group one belongs to,” she says in a letter to her publisher), her comments made on a more personal level about the precarity of women’s position seem to carry a clear warning.

“Girls like my daughters appear convinced that the freedom they’ve inherited is part of the natural state of affairs and not the temporary outcome of a long battle that is still being waged, and in which everything could suddenly be lost,” she said in an interview with Vanity Fair in 2015, later expanding in The Gentlewoman: “even in those areas where many of our rights are safe, it’s still hard to be a woman who challenges the way in which even the most cultured and forward-thinking men represent us.”

We encounter these men in the pages of Ferrante’s novels, in the figures of Donato and Nino Sarratore, whose learning and cultivated airs do not prevent them from abusing the women around them. We encounter them in the workplace, in education and at the highest levels of society. And we encounter them, too, in our current year, in “the premier literary-intellectual magazine in the English language,” striving to undo an entire life’s work.

Arcade

 by VICTOR XAVIER ZAROUR ZARZAR

The love told of in L’amore molesto is a maddening kind of love. It can be, like the Italian word used to describe it, annoying, bothersome, irritating—nasty, even. Or, borrowing from the English translation of the novel, troubling. This love, between a mother and a daughter, is, one might say, the most primal kind of love. It is the original love. And while Ferrante’s novel does not reveal what love itself is, it certainly makes it clear that the act of loving and being loved is a viscous affair. One we cannot escape from, as it adheres to the self as skin does to flesh. We can only, this novel suggests, try to understand it, or rather, mold it and reimagine it in an effort to make it coherent—palatable. It is precisely this imaginative exercise that stands at the center of Ferrante’s first published novel, which opens with the death of a mother. Unlike Camus’s Meursault, Delia knows the exact date and place of her mother’s death: “Mia madre annegò la notte del 23 maggio, giorno del mio compleanno, nel tratto di mare di fronte alla località che chiamano Spaccavento, a pochi chilometri da Minturno” (8). This death, like the eponymous love, is primordial, inasmuch as it sets in motion Delia’s investigation of her mother’s last days. L’amore molesto, thus, opens with one of the essential tropes of the detective novel, and it borrows from the genre in that the action must move backwards in order to move forward. Yet Delia’s examination of her mother’s death is really a proxy for her investigation of the maternal figure (sagoma—figure, outline, contour, shape—is a word that repeatedly comes up in the novel) and the relationship that it bears to her past, present, and future self.

It is no coincidence that the event which inaugurates this process happens on the day of Delia’s birthday. Amalia’s death is the necessary catalyst for Delia’s rebirth, which can only be realized through the separation from the maternal womb. The occasion arrives, we might think, belatedly (forty five years, to the day). We see echoes here of Irigaray’s 1981 essay on mother-daughter relationships: “what I wanted from you Mother, was this: that in giving me life, you still remain alive” (quoted in Hirsch 137).  Only through death can life come, and as the novel opens with this event, Delia must revisit the imaginary and real places of her childhood. Images of regression abound in the novel. Most prominent, perhaps, is the sea, the perennial trope of things generative. It is at once the place where Amalia’s life ends, and the place where, at the end of the book, Delia will come to have her own version of an epiphany. But it is the in-between—the journey to this epiphany—that takes up the bulk of the book. We learn that although Delia had left her native Naples years ago to live in Rome, she never succeeded in shaking off her mother’s influence. Whenever her mother visited her and took to clean the apartment, Delia confesses, she felt, curled up in bed, like a “bambina con le rughe” (16). This infantilization continues throughout the book, originating from Delia’s fear of abandonment—her constant clinging to her mother and the jealousy she feels at the thought of having to share her affection: “La sua socievolezza mi infastidiva” (17). What troubles her (what maddens, upsets her) about Amalia’s sociability is the realization that her mother is a woman of her own who is capable of giving herself over to other people besides her daughter. It must be said, however, that it is Amalia’s rapport with men that most troubles her daughter, as little to nothing is made of her affection for other women, not even her other daughters.

This fear of abandonment is present in Delia from her early childhood days, when she would impatiently wait for her mother by the window: “l’ansia diventava così incontenibile che debordava in tremiti del corpo” (29). In the face of this overflow, the child’s reaction, to lock herself in a closet, is telling. She sees this as “un antidote efficace” (32). The closet, an enclosed and dark space, is strongly suggestive of a womb in which the little girl takes refuge when overpowered by the fear of losing her mother. Such a tight space provides comfort and, of course, harks back to the prenatal stage, when mother and daughter inhabited the same body, neither separated by the act of birth nor estranged from each other by the phallocentric apparatus. It gives Delia a sense of grasp over her mother that she never truly achieves in reality. When she finally loses her, Delia’s first instinct is to hold on to her dead body “per non finire chissà dove” (56). Although it is clear that she will, in fact, end up somewhere, the fear expressed in this statement shows the extent to which daughter has molded her own self in association with, as well as against, the image (the figure) of the mother.

Once her mother has been taken by the sea, Delia is unanchored, even more so because she is abruptly confronted with her aging mother’s sexuality. The provocative underwear that Amalia was wearing when she drowned is presented as a clue that will advance the structure of the mystery, as well as tangible evidence of Delia’s suspicions (and fears) that her mother was, in fact, a sexual being. L’amore molesto is perhaps at its darkest and most poignant in the moments when we witness the ways in which the obsessive jealousy of Delia’s violent father (who, very tellingly, remains nameless) is mirrored in Delia herself. Certainly the parallels hold only to a very limited extent; Delia’s father remains steeped in, and a representative of, a patriarchal oppressive society. Nevertheless, Delia’s own policing of her mother’s life is many a time presented as a paternal inheritance. By paternal inheritance I do not only mean what her father in particular has passed on to her, but also what she has absorbed from the Neapolitan society in which she grew up. Such a society has not only set women against—and as the possession of—men, but it has also altered male relationships, making men alternate between a fiery protectiveness of what is perceived as one’s property and a complicity in the state of dominance. A simple ride on the tram, the novel suggests, suffices to witness this condition:

I passeggeri in piedi si curvavano su di noi respirandoci addosso. Le donne soffocavano tra i corpi maschili, sbuffando per quella vicinanza occasionale, fastidiosa anche se all’apparenza incolpevole. I maschi, nella ressa, si servivano delle femmine per giocare in silenzio tra sé e sé. Uno fissava una ragazza bruna con occhi ironici per vedere se abbassava lo sguardo. Uno pescava un po’ di pizzo tra un bottone e l’altro di una camicetta o arpionava con lo sguardo una bretella. (597)

Yet, in this world, Ferrante reminds us that it is not only men who police the female body, but even women themselves. Even when Delia recognizes that such a fiercely protective and territorial attitude was all but self-obliterating to her father, she internalizes his fears about Amalia’s body, especially when it is displayed in public: “Allora mi prendeva la smania di proteggere mia madre dal contatto con gli uomini, come avevo visto che faceva sempre mio padre in quella circostanza. Mi disponevo come uno scudo alle sue spalle e me ne stavo crocefissa alle gambe di lei […]” (612 emphasis mine).

Of course, this acquired anxiety damages Delia’s own relationship with her mother. Female as they are, Delia and the women around her have grown up speaking the language of the aggressor; they have been defined in terms that are fundamentally alien to their condition, and this has led to an estrangement both from themselves and from one another. Delia is aware of this fact (perhaps she is more critical of it in her mother than in herself) and alludes to it when she writes: “Forse adesso ero sotto quel cavalcavia perché […] di nuovo mia madre, prima che diventasse mia madre, fosse incalzata dall’uomo con cui avrebbe fatto l’amore, che l’avrebbe coperta col suo cognome, che l’avrebbe cancellata col suo alfabeto” (1428). In this sense, the English translation of the novel might take on a new meaning if we are willing to read troubling as a verb instead of an adjective: Troubling Love is about men troubling the love between women. The effacement instigated by the imposition of a phallocentric language obscures the relationships between women and renders communication more difficult. Having been oppressed and conditioned by the males around her, Delia must find a different way, a more feminine way perhaps, of understanding her relationship with her mother. This search can be formulated in terms of Kristeva’s chora or Cixous’s écriture feminine; thus, Delia’s main and most difficult task is to try to understand the mother-daughter relationship in intimate terms that are removed from those imposed by the men around her.

To what extent is this possible? Delia carries this inheritance like a burden. Her relationship to her mother has been so damaged that it, too, has become a burden.  Ferrante literalizes this burden in the scene of the funeral: “Durante il funerale mi sorpresi a pensare che finalmente non avevo più l’obbligo di preoccuparmi per lei. Subito dopo avvertii un flusso tiepido e mi sentii bagnata tra le gambe” (67). As brilliant as this literary move is, there is many ways in which we can read Delia’s particularly violent period at her mother’s funeral. On the one hand, menstruation is a common signifier for the life that did not come to be realized; on the other hand, it is the ultimate affirmation of the possibility to create life. We are told that the discharge is particularly powerful (“Il flusso di sangue era copioso”). Its potency sets Delia, living and bleeding, in stark contrast with her mother, whose coffin she decides to carry on her shoulders along with other men, even if “le donne non portano bare in spalla.” The coffin, of course, becomes the literalized burden, a sort of object correlative. “Quando la bara era stata deposta nel carro,” Delia writes, “e questo si era avviato, erano bastati pochi passi e un sollievo colpevole perché la tensione precipitasse in quel fiotto segreto del ventre” (92). If the coffin precipitates and increases the blood flow, it is because, as mentioned above, Amalia’s death has become the rebirth of her daughter, and, in performing the ritualistic carrying of the coffin, Delia is, in a way, going through her own rite of initiation: a second first-menstruation, characterized by its force. This connection does not escape Delia, who very directly—and effectively—juxtaposes her and her mother’s situations: “Mia madre era stata sotterrata da becchini maleducati in fondo a un interrato maleodorante di ceri e di fiori marci. Io avevo mal di reni e crampi al ventre” (147).

There is certainly also the element of a bodily sense of release. On a superficial narrative level, Delia connects the realization that she does not need to worry about her mother anymore to her menstruation (“non avevo più l’obbligo di preoccuparmi per lei”), and thus presents it as a sort of breathing out and letting go. But it is more complicated than that. We learn that Delia is not able to shed a single tear for her mother. Her body, I would argue, finds a psychosomatic outlet for this bottled-up and unresolved anxiety in the stream of blood (in this book, bodily fluids—semen, urine, blood, tears, sweat—are as ubiquitous as they are almost undistinguishable from one another). In other words, Delia, at this point, is still reluctant to face many aspects of her relationship with Amalia. Although her journey has begun, she must still come to a fuller understanding of the inner mechanisms of her and her mother’s psychological rapport. And it is precisely as if her body, at that moment, were alerting her to something, for it is first and foremost through the physical experience—the sensual, and by extension, the sexual—that this understanding can come about.

Not by chance does Delia only manage to cry when, later that day, she remembers her own menstruating mother:

Vidi nella penombra mia madre a gambe larghe che sganciava una spilla di sicurezza, si staccava dal sesso, come se fossero incollati, dei panni di lino insanguinati, si girava senza sorpresa e mi diceva con calma: «Esci, che fai qui?». Scoppiai a piangere, per la prima volta dopo molti anni. Piansi battendo una mano quasi a intervalli fissi sul lavandino, come per imporre un ritmo alle lacrime. (119)

Delia’s imposition of a rhythm to her tears is reminiscent of Kristeva’s chora and the assumption that a more feminine language would be lyrical, highly attentive to rhythm, more instinctual and inextricably linked to the body. Regardless of whether one reads it in psychoanalytic terms, one can see how Ferrante’s highly curated prose in L’amore molesto is in itself a receptacle of meaning, detached from content. It is in the utterance itself, in the reimagining and wording of her past, that Delia will arrive at some sort of realization, as she acknowledges when, toward the end, she writes: “Dire è incatenare tempi e spazi perduti” (1763). The truth hides in the dark corners of her utterances (and we cannot fail to observe how comfortably this novel inhabits dark spaces). It also hides in the hidden spaces of the body. Delia remains profoundly marked by this scene because of its visceral quality, and it is the experience of inhabiting a female body in a male context that connects mother and daughter. Later in the book, the furtive quality of the moment discussed above will be replicated, though overturned, when Amalia accidentally walks into Delia’s room and catches her looking at her genitalia in a little mirror. This connection between the two women—with the burden it represents for Delia—is seemingly unbreakable. Any distance that she might try to impose between herself and her mother seems to ultimately vanish. Delia’s intense desire to dettach from her mother and finally become herself is shown in the juxtaposition between: “accadeva dopo che negli anni, per odio, per paura, avevo desiderato di perdere ogni radice in lei, fino alle più profonde […] Tutto rifatto, per diventare io e staccarmi da lei” (776), and, later in the book, “mi resi conto con tenerezza inattesa che invece avevo Amalia sotto la pelle, come un liquido caldo che mi era stato iniettato chissà quando” (1094). But part of Delia’s anxiety seems to come from the fact that the same was not true for her mother—that she did not have Amelia under her skin.

If there is constant regression in the book, brought about by compulsive remembrance, it is shown most glaringly in those moments when Delia wishes to connect with and understand her mother’s body, perhaps as a means to return to the prenatal stage. She promptly smells the brassiere that Amalia was wearing when she died. Similarly, when going through her mother’s apartment, she notices: “Di lato alla tazza c’era una busta della spazzatura semicolma. Dentro non c’erano rifiuti; c’era invece quel lezzo di corpo affaticato che conservano i panni sporchi o fatti di tessuto invecchiato, intrisi in ogni fibra degli umori di decenni” (247). She finds her mother in that stench, and later tries to inhabit her body by wearing her underwear. This act is executed as compensation for all those years she was denied the maternal body; not only would Amalia not allow her daughter to touch her, but she also remained “morbidamente ambigua come sapeva essere” (543). This maternal interdiction stands behind Delia’s desire to inhabit her mother’s body. The book is filled with such moments. Even when using her mother’s face cream, Delia remarks on the trace her mother’s finger has left. She goes on to erase it and leave her own trace on top of it. “Ciò che di lei non mi era stato concesso,” writes Delia, “volevo cancellarglielo dal corpo. Così niente più si sarebbe perso o disperso lontano da me, perché finalmente tutto era già stato perduto” (774). The desire for the annihilation of the other remains a fundamental part in the development of the self, and in this moment Delia seems to be reenacting Freud’s fort/da game. In other words, rather than submissively enduring her mother’s absence, Delia takes it on herself to anticipate the loss—take charge of it—by enabling it herself, and thus, in a way, keeping her mother all to herself.

Elizabeth Bishop told us how to be better equipped for loss. Practice losing farther, losing faster, she said. And although she remained skeptical about the results of such practice when it came to the big loss, she nonetheless kept losing compulsively. Delia, too, exemplifies the back and forth freighted with tension between losing and clinging. Language, in this context, is particularly relevant. Although I have mentioned that the women in L’amore molesto are forced to define and speak themselves with the language of the oppressor, Neapolitan dialect is, on one level, associated with Amalia. It is one of the fundamental aspects of her upbringing that Delia most staunchly attempts to leave behind: “Era la lingua di mia madre, che avevo cercato inutilmente di dimenticare insieme a tante altre cose sue” (149). But more than the language of her mother, Neapolitan becomes associated with the abuse inflicted on her mother by Naples and its men. For Delia, every iteration in Neapolitan becomes a reenactment of the violence inflicted on her and her mother. For this reason, she has tried—unsuccessfully—to detach herself completely from it by adopting a curated Italian (here, we are assuming, too, that Delia, and not Ferrante, is the author of the novel). Neapolitan becomes a narrative technique that enables both anamnesis and analepsis. Even before Delia comes back to her native Naples, she experiences a moment of regression after one of the cryptic calls she gets from her mother the night before her death. During this call, Amalia utters obscenities at her daughter over the phone: “Quelle oscenità mi causarono una scomposta regressione” (46).

In a way, then, even before the death that marks the beginning of a journey, Delia is propelled into her past life by the appearance of dialect. But this is not a joyful, nostalgic dialect, Ferrante warns us. It is a dialect that, in the book, is almost exclusively spoken in obscenities, yelled in insults, grunted and spat at passing women. It is tainted with abuse, as exemplified in one of the novel’s most disconcerting moments, when Caserta, “in un sibilo incalzante e sempre più sguaiato,” directs at Delia “un fiotto di oscenità in dialetto, un morbido rivolo di suoni che coinvolse in un frullato di seme, saliva, feci, orina, dentro orifizi d’ogni genere, me, le mie sorelle, mia madre” (131). This passage, perhaps more than any other in the text, highlights the interconnectedness of the bodily, the spoken word, and the ways in which the latter is used as a tool to suppress the former. The only other instance in the entire novel where the word fiottoappears is when Delia speaks of her menstruation—“quel fiotto segreto del ventre.” The word emphasizes the forceful discharge of both Delia’s body and Caserta’s oppressive words. Fiotto, a gush or spurt, conveys the sense of a sudden overflow, which the word “stream,” as used in the English translation, does not. More than that, the word juxtaposes the public setting of Caserta’s abuse (he is, after all, yelling at her in the street, in broad daylight) to the most intimate nature of menstruation, thus signaling just how engrained violence is and the extent to which aggression can penetrate into the darkest crevices of the self. This becomes more evident by the involvement of “me, my sisters, my mother.” Ferrante is being loud and clear: this is not an isolated event, but rather a singular occurrence of a common fact that involves the aggression perpetrated on women. In that moment, Caserta becomes everyman, in the way that Delia becomes everywoman. The frullato, a smoothie (or as Goldstein translates it, a concoction), takes this image even further, alluding to the consumption of this violence, the way in which these women—porous women—have to absorb abuse on a daily basis “dentro orifizi d’ogni genere.” This ingestion, Ferrante suggests, is as commonplace as the ingestion of food; it enters and is exchanged by bodies in the way that “semen, saliva, feces, and urine” are. Insults are the currency that Neapolitan men seem to trade in.

It is undoubtedly a conscious decision on Ferrante’s part not to incorporate any Neapolitan dialect in her novel. There is not one word of dialect in the book, and the narrative constantly distances itself from Neapolitan in different ways and on varying degrees. In the passage cited above, for instance, Delia narrates speech by saying she was reached by a “fiotto di oscenità in dialetto.” We do not know what these obscenities sound like in dialect, but their seamless incorporation into the narrative might make the lack of reported speech less conspicuous. This technique places more distance between the reader and the event that is being described, while, in a sense, suggesting that there is less distance between the narrator and the narrative, for the former has absorbed the latter. This last point might be pertinent insofar as we argue that Delia is trying to distance herself as much as she can from Neapolitan dialect, but is ultimately helpless as she was born into it, and is thus enveloped by it, at least subconsciously. At any rate, there is, on a conscious plane, a clear refusal to allow Neapolitan dialect any direct and active role in the narration. We see this even more clearly in those instances where Ferrante does report speech that is spoken in dialect; here, however, instead of transcribing the actual words, she reports them in standard Italian.

During her conversation with Caserta on the phone, we are told that he says: “«Non sono Amalia», in falsetto, e poi riprese in un dialetto strettissimo: «Lasciami all’ultimo piano la busta coi panni sporchi. Me l’avevi promessa. E guarda bene: troverai la valigia con le tue cose. Te l’ho messa lì»” (314). This is misleading; it might give off the impression that Delia is citing verbatim what Caserta has said, while, in reality, she is filtering his words through her own consciousness. What Caserta says in dialect, she translates into Italian. We must ask: why this insistence on keeping Neapolitan out of the picture? We get an answer in one of the moments when Delia herself narrates her speech in dialect: “Nei suoni che articolavo a disagio, c’era l’eco delle liti violente tra Amalia e mio padre, tra mio padre e i parenti di lei, tra lei e i parenti di mio padre” (149). Dialect, as I stated before, bears the imprint of the abuse that Delia and her mother have suffered. By trying to keep it at bay from her own life, and thus from her narrative, Delia is making an effort to distance herself from the violence, all the while showing how impossible it is. Dialect, like love, is viscous—it sticks to Delia and will not let go of her, just like her past: “Le oscenità in dialetto – le uniche oscenità che riuscivano a far combaciare nella mia testa suono e senso in modo da materializzare un sesso molesto per il suo realismo aggressivo, gaudente e vischioso” (1391).

This last passage links, once again, the linguistic and the bodily, enabling us to read in Delia’s aversion to Neapolitan not only a refusal to re-inhabit the violent spaces of her childhood, but also a fear of facing her mother’s sexuality, the “sesso molesto per il suo realismo aggressivo, gaudente e vischioso.” There are, in fact, no examples of joyful or satisfying sexuality in L’amore molesto. All sex seems to be just that, molesto. There is, of course, the image of Amalia as a liberated woman who enjoys her sexuality, but we only see this through the anxious memory of Delia, whose one sexual encounter with Antonio after the funeral is described in painfully awkward terms. There is an overflow (here, too) in Delia’s body, but contrary to what we would think, there is no gratification. We learn that her sexuality has been one of many ways in which she has tried to inhabit her mother’s skin. If she let Antonio touch her as a child, it was only because she wanted Antonio to become his father, so that she could become Delia: “Ero io ed ero lei. Io-lei ci incontravamo con Caserta” (1732). Similarly, when Antonio’s grandfather molests the five-year-old Delia, she reports to her father the incident, but as if it had happened between Caserta and Amalia. This last fact repositions the narrative and comes as a realization toward the end of the novel. On the one hand, Delia confesses to the own unreliability of her memory, while, on the other, by admitting to herself, and, by extension, to readers, that she was partly responsible for her parents’ divorce and Amalia’s punishment, her jealousy and desire to replace her father (and all men) come to the surface. It is implied, of course, that coming to the surface is the beginning of coming-to-terms.

So how exactly does this coming-to-terms happen, if indeed it does? I would suggest that it is through Delia’s recreation of her childhood in the period after her mother’s death that the process of detachment begins. The novel remains, in this aspect, unresolved, yet there is an inkling of hope that Delia might actually be able to—eventually—separate herself from her mother’s figure. This recreation, or simply the aspect of creation, is central to L’amore molesto. We must not forget that Amalia was a seamstress, and it is precisely through her profession, through creating garments, adapting fabrics to changing times and fads—by making something where nothing was, that Amalia is able to delineate the contours of her own identity, much as she would delineate the contours of dresses—the figures—on large pieces of fabric: “Mi piacque insperatamente, con sorpresa, quella donna che in qualche modo s’era inventata fino alla fine la sua storia giocando per conto suo con stoffe vuote” (1333). This is the ultimate legacy that she bequeaths to her daughter, whose uses her own kind of fabric—memories—to fabricate a story with which to make sense of her life. We soon find out that Amalia’s provocative underwear was, in fact, meant as a gift for her daughter. In light of this, we can argue that what she is giving Delia after her death is really a new skin, under which Amalia herself will live no longer.

It matters little whether Amalia actually had a sexual relationship with Caserta—or whether she did in fact cheat on her husband when Delia was young. What matters is that Delia can conjure up experiences—lived or imagined—from her past and fabricate something out of them. If childhood is a tissue of lies that endure in the imperfect, then it is the acknowledgment of this fact, perhaps, that constitutes truth. This is the shape that Delia’s ultimate realization takes: “La storia poteva essere più debole o più avvincente di quella che mi ero raccontata. Bastava tirare via un filo e seguirlo nella sua linearità semplificatoria” (1789). The story that Delia creates in her mind about her mother’s last hours might, for all that matters, have not happened at all; what counts is that it was formulated, that it took the shape of a story. The book ends on an ambiguous note. After drawing on her ID so as to make herself look like her mother, Delia writes: “Amalia c’era stata. Io ero Amalia” (1860). This complete identification with the mother figure might, on a more literal level, be taken as an assertion of the impossibility of ridding oneself of that figure. I would suggest, however, that it is only because she has finally come to terms with her own story, and because she can fully embrace the mother figure and identify with it, that Delia can finally delineate the contours of her own identity. That final act strikes me as more humorous, reflective of a more mature Delia who has left her mother and her old self not in the past, but in the imperfect. That is, in the continuous existence of things left behind.

 

Works Cited

Ferrante, Elena. L’amore Molesto. Roma: Edizioni e/o, 1999. Print.

Hirsch, Marianne. The Mother/daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989. Google books.

European Literature Network

My Feverish Ferrante Summer: Three #RivetingReviews of Elena Ferrante’s early novels by Rosie Goldsmith

Over three days this summer, before the unmasking of the identity of Italy’s most famous writer,Elena Ferrante, I sat down on our terrace in Italy to read and review for you Ferrante’s first three novels translated into English. My Italian friends insisted they were even better that The Quartet. They were right. And The Lost Daughter is the best of all of them.

I’ve decided to publish my reviews as I wrote them this summer, before the unveiling. She will always be for me ‘the writer Elena Ferrante’. I read and reviewed the complete Neapolitan Quartet exactly a year ago, on the same terrace, overlooking the mountains of the Alpi Apuane in Northern Tuscany. They disturbed and excited me. Ferrante today plays a large role in my literary life and I suspect she always will. No one rivets me quite like Elena Ferrante.
So here are my #RivetingReviews of Elena Ferrante’s first three novels in English – all translated by the incomparable Ann Goldstein, all published in the UK by Europa Editions.

 

THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT (I Giorni dell’Abbandono)

(2002 Italian/2005 English)

The narrator Olga is thirty-eight, a burgeoning writer, a mother of two children, married to Mario, a successful academic and living in Turin.

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarrelling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children, and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me… closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink.

So begins this ground-breaking, earth-shattering novel, with the breakdown of Olga and Mario’s ‘happy’ marriage after fifteen years; the first novel from Ferrante to be translated into English, setting out for us the confident tone, bold ideas, razor-sharp observations and precipitous literary heights that reverberate through all her work; as if, with these early novels, she is building up to her War and Peace, her Anna Karenina (Ferrante obviously loves Tolstoy) – the famous Naples Quartet. Olga is ofcourse originally from Naples. Ferrante’s defining links with Naples are ever-present.

The women we meet in her novels are all in some way like Olga – obsessive, fearless and trying to understand the absence of sense – the phrase that Mario uses about this own life and their marriage when he leaves her. But Olga is the one to examine this absence, not Mario, who quickly moves on to a new life, leaving her to imprison herself within the four walls of her mind, her life and her home in Turin.

‘Happiness’ is rare in Ferrante’s books and marriages are rarely ‘happy’. The breakdown of this marriage and this woman’s life is described in intimate detail. Olga documents her personal hell after discovering her husband’s infidelity; the depths of her self-degradation; the cruelty, obscenity, perversion and violence she becomes capable of; her animal madness and the monster she unleashes in herself as she goes to the darkest depths of myself and before she is able to return to some kind of adult normality. Ultimately she does not follow her much-read Anna Karenina to her death but instead enters a whirlpool sucking me in, emerging to find a form of enlightenment, not happiness but enough ‘sense’ to live with.

No other writer I know delves as deeply into a woman’s heart and mind as Ferrante, and with such beautiful, lyrical and scorchingly hot prose. As a reader I feel I’m swimming in a whirlpool of excruciating honesty.

Olga is different from Ferrante’s later heroines in that she is initially likeable and straightforward. A protagonist you care for, can like and feel sympathy with when her beloved husband leaves her and her children.

Life had been drained out of me like blood and saliva and mucus from a patient during an operation.

But as always Ferrante ends up risking the alienation of her readers by making her characters quite unpleasant and unlikable in their self-destruction and self-analysis. I doubt Ferrante cares. She doesn’t need to care. This is immersive, essential, honest, painful and vital writing. No wonder, I often think, she wishes to remain anonymous. This way she enjoys total artistic freedom.

What can we deduce about the identity of Ferrante from this book, and the issues and style that reappear in future novels? She knows about motherhood, marriage and children; about friendship, grief, academia, the writer’s life, publishing; she knows about clothes, dressmaking and fabrics (!); she knows Italy and especially Naples and has obviously travelled internationally.

How literary and lyrical Olga is! Like the women in most of Ferrante’s novels she loves words, books and writing. I myself jotted down whole chunks of her novels, so as to imprint their depth and detail on my brain. For example, this, on grief: I was the sentinel of grief, keeping watch along with a crowd of dead words. And on writing: I spent the warm mornings of early autumn sitting on a bench in the rocky garden, writing. In appearance they were notes for a possible book, at least that’s what I called them. I wanted to cut myself to pieces—I said to myself—I wanted to study myself with precision and cruelty, recount the evil of these terrible months completely. And finally: In order to write well, I need to go to the heart of every question, of a smaller, safer place. Eliminate the superfluous. Narrow the field. To write truly is to speak from the depths of the maternal womb.

 

TROUBLING LOVE (L’Amore Molesto)

(1992 Italian; 2007 English)

Like all ‘classics’, you imagine Ferrante to have been around ‘for ever’, but she hasn’t and has only existed in English for ten years. But what a distinctive style, from this very first novel (in Italian). Before she wrote it, she extracted the promise of anonymity from her Italian publishers EDIZIONI E/0 – who have honoured her promise. Ferrante wrote to them:
I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t. This anonymity she believed would give her a space of absolute creative freedom, a freedom all the more necessary because her books stick “a finger in certain wounds I have that are still infected.

In this novel, ‘the troubling love’ described is that between mothers and children, husbands and wives, men and women – and, as we know from Lina and Elena, in the Quartet – between women too; describing the violence, passion and cruelty of this love with torrential prose and exquisite elegance. Naples is dirty, dark, passionate, loud and dramatic. No one is content. Relationships are unhappy.

What is the source of the seething suffering that Ferrante exposes in each novel? Why is she so raw and bleeding? The more I read her books the more I want to interview her, to know about her, because I simply can’t imagine that at least some of what she writes stems from truth. There is a relentless, ruthless drive to the writing; a breathlessness, as if she’s whispering to us, let’s make the pages burn with my writing, let’s make the men suffer who torment us.

 This is not just feminism or any -ism but a unique view of life, which is so daringly honest that thousands of readers round the world are saying ‘thank you’ (and some ‘no, thank you’!). Ferrante always digs deep and says things that others dare not say. The storylines are riveting (what an achievement) but it’s the pace and lack of pauses and paragraphs in the narrative that make you turn the page in breathless anticipation. Then there’s the thrill of that first sentence of each novel:
My mother drowned on the night of May 23rd, my birthday, in the sea at a place called Spaccavento, a few miles from Minturno.

The abuse, violence, obscenity, humiliation, fetishes and disgust of ‘Troubling Love’ are ‘real’ but at a poetic remove. Delia, the 45- year oldest daughter of Amalia – whose death is the pivot of the novel – is the narrator. She relates horror upon horror of her family life while simultaneously reliving it and analysing it. By writing the horrors down she understands, we understand, why they happen. This is the confessional novel at its most profound and painful. It is a novel of recovered memory.

Delia revisits her past and the people closest to her. A single act, when she was five, changed their lives for ever. We get a portrait of Amalia, a beautiful and vital mother who refuses to allow a brutal, psychopathically jealous husband to take over her mind and body (whilst she enjoys the fetishist attentions of another man). It is a portrait of a child’s spiteful blame and jealous love of a mother. Delia blames Amalia for ruining her life and reducing it to that of a dessicated, loveless automata. She explores her complex love-hate relationship with her mother by going back, digging deep and confronting the men who dominated both their lives. There are also moments of joyful release, bursting out of the novel like fireworks, but at heart it is very troubling.

Delia’s empathy and identification with her mother, and her cruel judgement of her, mean that by the end of the novel the two selves, mother and daughter, collide in a spectacular firework finale.

 

 

THE LOST DAUGHTER (La Figlia Oscura)

(2006 Italian/2008 English)

Three Ferrante novels in three days! I feel as though I’ve been galloping through a long night, through hail and rain and snow and lightning and tropical storms. The cumulative effect of reading Ferrante in one gulp is exhaustion and elation. I am convinced now – more than I ever was reading The Quartet (and observing the passion and fame that now surrounds her) – that Ferrante is a major biographer of women’s lives. No, she is not a man. No man could ever write in this way about the unexplored, unexplained (till now), mysterious, hidden, shameful and exultant inner, intimate lives of women and about their sexual, emotional and creative yearnings.

Ferrante has told me things about myself, and the women I share this planet with, that I have never heard before or – to be honest – wanted to confront. We critics speak of her writing as ‘raw’ and honest. I don’t warm to her women much; they wouldn’t be my friends: in fact, the more I read her, the more distanced I feel from the Ferrante-archetype she seems to be describing in each novel.

Leda is the narrator here. Is she perhaps Elena Ferrante? Of all the novels this is my favourite. All her novels are different; they are also all the same. The protagonists are intelligent, questioning mothers, daughters and wives who are also writers or academics. They were born in Naples and spend much of their later lives questioning their identity and shaking off their origins. The women often have similar names – Elena, Leda, Lina. There are always dramatic turning points and revelations and confrontations – mostly with themselves. Often their lives are ‘perfect’ on the surface but, as they themselves reveal, they are ‘imperfect’ beneath. The stories are visceral and shocking. In each novel, the protagonist turns herself inside out.

Leda is nearly fifty, a successful, internationally respected Professor of English Literature at Florence University. She was born in Naples but left to study. She married another academic and had two daughters, Bianca and Marta, who though they never appear in the novel are described in such great detail that we feel we know them too. Leda divorced a long time ago, her daughters live in Canada with her ex (who seems, for once, a nice man with not too many flaws – unusual for men in a Ferrante novel!) and Leda lives a comfortable existence alone as an academic.

When my daughters moved to Toronto, where their father had lived and worked for years, I was embarrassed and amazed to discover that I wasn’t upset; rather, I felt light, as if only then had I definitively brought them into the world. For the first time in almost twenty-five years I was not aware of the anxiety of having to take care of them. The house was neat, as if no one lived there, I no longer had the constant bother of shopping and doing the laundry.

The novel begins with a bang (typical Ferrante) – a car crash. Within just two pages Leda describes how she crashed her car after returning from her summer holiday and lands in hospital, with her family and friends gathered around her, even coming all the way from Toronto. She survives, the only serious wound in her left side, an inexplicable lesion. But why did she crash the car? At the origin, she tells us, was a gesture of mine that made no sense… because it was senseless.

Leda decides that she won’t talk to anyone about this gesture except ‘us’. For the rest of the novel she confides in us (her readers) the details of her summer on the beach and her growing obsession with a young Neapolitan woman, Nina, and her toddler daughter, Elena, playing together on the beach with a doll. Who is the lost child here? Leda, Elena or Nina, or indeed Bianca and Marta? Prepare to gallop through the wind, rain and sun to find out. And then go and lie down (as I had to!).

Reviewed by Rosie Goldsmith

 

Rosie Goldsmith is Director of the European Literature Network. She was a BBC senior broadcaster for 20 years and is today an arts journalist, presenter, linguist, and with Max Easterman a media trainer for ‘Sounds Right’.

The Sidney Morning Herald

Elena Ferrante review: Three novellas that show the Neapolitan’s development

July 25, 2015

Andrew Rieme

<i>The Days of Abandonment</i>, by Elena Ferrante.

I’ve heard it said that only women can fully appreciate the achievement of Elena Ferrante, the pseudonymous Italian novelist of obsessively guarded privacy. It is certainly true that I have never experienced the agony of childbirth. I have never known the adolescent trauma of inexplicable bleeding. Nor have I felt what life is like for a single woman – an abandoned wife or one that has left her husband – forced to deal with her grief and fury. I have not felt the love-hate that Ferrante’s protagonists harbour against their mothers and children, or their jealousy of younger, more attractive women. I have not suffered the sexual indignities and outrages her characters endure.

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Tweed’s

Elena Ferrante, Part 1: The Early Novels

Translated by Ann Goldstein
Europa Editions
Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal

 

You might know Elena Ferrante as that anonymous Italian author nobody knows anything about. In the only interview she’s given—conducted by her publishers and featured in the Paris Review—Ferrante explains that the reason she has completely shunned public life and uses a pen name is so readers focus on her words and not her persona. Unlike most authors, who are pressured to tweet and post about their new publications and reviews, and who sheepishly implore friends and fans to attend their readings, Ferrante says her anonymity has allowed her to avoid “the self-promotion obsessively imposed by the media.” Self-promotion feels cheap because it cheapens the work of art; the focus becomes the author and not the author’s books. While avoiding this trap, Ferrante has been able to write some truly phenomenal books—so phenomenal that she herself has become a phenomenon.

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Moonlolly in the city

Troubling Love – book review

Posted on

If, like me, you’ve fallen hard for Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and the idea of waiting another three months for the final instalment is unbearable, Troubling Love is the perfect fix to tide you over. Or perhaps you’ve yet to be introduced to Ferrante; in which case I’m massively jealous because you have the biggest treat in store for you! Stop wasting your time reading this review and pick up My Brilliant Friend asap. And you might as well order Books II and III while you’re at it, because you’re not going to be able to stop reading…

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Jezebel

The Promise in Elena Ferrante
The Promise in Elena Ferrante
by Jia Tolentino

In a year so crammed with both cultural stasis and accelerated political mania that it resembled nothing else so strongly as a trash fire, there was Elena Ferrante, oasis of the terrifyingly good. The pseudonymous Italian author has made a quiet, graceful transition from cult fame to widespread obsession, and rightly: she’s equally pulpy and brilliant, her plots setting fire to “the female experience” in all its traps and correspondent pleasures while her style accumulates a cold philosophical divinity, increasingly cerebral and bloodless as it becomes bloodier and wild.

At a time where—on the internet, at least—backlash against feminine voices is matched only by women’s insistence on keeping our voice, Ferrante is a third path out of a battle you didn’t expect to find yourself fighting. Her work is more than this, of course, in the way that all great female writers are more than the adjective that still tends to precede them. But I have loved Ferrante’s work this year for one thing in particular: Each of her narrators is a woman whose life has been carved out by other people’s ideas of what a woman should be—let’s call this the original position of “the female experience”—but whose story is defined by violent rejections of this position, a willingness to sacrifice identity to instincts, to shut out all other judgment except for her harsh, dark, freeing own.

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Open Letters Monthly

Peer Review: Elena Ferrante’s Hunger, Rebellion, and Rage

By

 

Elena Ferrante is such a badass! — Elif Batuman

The critical response to Italian novelist Elena Ferrante has been so uncannily consistent it’s enough to make you suspect collusion. (To what end, though? Good question: I’ll come back to that.) The following statements, for example, have become axiomatic, a critical credo recited with every invocation of her fiction:

1. She is mysterious.
2. She is angry.
3. She is honest.

The first of these points is certainly true: little definite is known about Ferrante, including her real name or even whether she is in fact a woman. The second and third, however, are assumptions, inferences from the voice that speaks from her novels, which signals the fourth, sometimes implicit, pillar of Ferrante criticism: that the author and her creations are one.

Ferrante has published six novels. The first to appear in English translation was The Days of Abandonment in 2005; right out of the gate, Janet Maslin’s New York Times review established both the tone and the substance of what has become the standard Ferrante narrative:

Using the secret of her identity to elevate this book’s already high drama, the author (Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym) describes the violent rupture of a marriage with all the inner tranquility that you might associate with Medea.

In short, we don’t know who she is, but we know, and welcome, the literary quality of her anger: “the raging, torrential voice of the author is something rare.”

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The Seattle Times

“Troubling Love”: Groping for answers in a forgotten past

Judging by her first two novels, Italian author Elena Ferrante has a rare talent for sucking readers into a roiling cauldron of grief, rage, guilt and desire.

In “Troubling Love,” Ferrante’s first novel (but her second to be translated into English), a woman named Delia is stunned to learn that the drowned body of her mother Amalia, clad only in an expensive piece of lingerie, has been found in the sea near a small Italian town.

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