“We can’t stop talking about Elena Ferrante” we said to each other throughout 2016—on social media, in the classroom, in pressing the Neapolitan novels upon friends and relatives. This collection of essays on Ferrante emerges from a conference panel at the Modern Language Association convention in Philadelphia in January, 2017, convened by the Prose Fiction Division. The pseudonymous Italian writer, who chooses not to reveal herself beyond her writing, had come to new popularity in the US in the past few years, and we found we had a lot to say about feminism, rage, women’s friendships, genre clashes, and bad sex, amongst other topics. We still can’t stop talking about Ferrante, and we trust that when you read these lively, provocative essays, you too will join the chorus.
—Hester Blum, MLA panel moderator
“I’m always surprised when someone points out as a flaw the fact that my stories contain no possibility of transcendence.”1
Behind this short essay hovers a general question about what two brilliant, cranky novelists, who are simultaneously feminist and uncompromisingly critical of feminism; bitter and enabling of hope; grounded in historical realism and radically experimental, might have to offer an audience at this terrifying political moment. This moment for me, is characterized by the structuring misogyny of November 2016’s election season. (For me this boiled down to: boasting about sexual assault does not make you unelectable. In fact, it probably gets you a few more votes.) I find myself returning to the image of women, in the privacy of voting booths, voting for Donald Trump. I know there are comprehensible reasons why women voted for Trump. No one needs to explain this to me; I read those articles too. But that image will not leave my mind. A Lessing or Ferrante could make something out of this voting booth scene. They are good on women making bad mistakes about men, and on how the outside becomes the inside—how the publically sanctioned state of subjection to masculine culture is internalized, even by strong, politicized, self-critical women. Writing this paper, for me, meant engaging with the voting booth scene. Thinking about Elena Ferrante and Doris Lessing after Trump’s election means asking questions like what the hell happened to feminism?
I remember feeling similar things watching the TV series Mad Men a few years ago. At some point I realized Mad Men was actually Waiting for Godot, but for feminism. First feminism doesn’t arrive, once, and then it doesn’t arrive again. Ferrante’s and Lessing’s novels, amongst other things, are great guides for the business of trying to understand the ways in which feminism keeps not arriving.
In this essay, I offer a few brief points of contact between Ferrante and Lessing. The connection I will address least explicitly here is how their writing has been represented as coextensive with their lives, not just by critics who make the wearily familiar collapse between a woman writer’s life and her work—but also through explicit moves on both of their parts—moves which simultaneously fend off and invite this collapse. Although they appear to be polar opposites—Lessing mined her life for her work over the years, and novels such as The Golden Notebook invite speculation about which real life people characters are based on, while Ferrante explicitly tried to avoid having her identity exposed—they also share a skilled manipulation of the masculinist critical assumption that all women’s writing will inevitably be autobiographical. They make lemonade from essentialist lemons.
Other obvious connections: Ferrante and Lessing both focus on women involved in radical politics and radical sexual relations whose strongest primary relation is with another woman, and who may or may not be “free women” as the ironically titled embedded novel in The Golden Notebook proclaims. As Margaret Drabble writes in a review of Ferrante:
“Ferrante takes on many of the issues raised in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962) . . . . Lessing’s novel was a heady mix of feminism (a label that she disclaimed), Marxism and madness. Ferrante takes us into similar territory, as she, too, endeavours to combine the personal with the political. (Her descriptions of Lina’s crazy moments of ‘dissolving boundaries’ recall the passages evoking Anna Wulf’s madness.)”2
Ferrante and Lessing are both fascinated by hallucinatory states that break down the boundaries and structures that uphold imprisoning, conventional social forms, including relations between the sexes, or adherence to the Communist party line. The threat of madness is central to The Golden Notebook but I’m also thinking of the strange fugue-like interludes exploring the ghostly house in The Memoirs of a Survivor, and many other moments in Lessing’s work.
The dissolution of these boundaries, although dangerous to the individual, can also be productive, even revelatory. In The Golden Notebook, Anna says to her Jungian analyst, Mother Sugar:
“If I’d said, Yesterday I met a man at a party and suddenly he said something, and I thought, Yes, there’s a hint of something—there’s a crack in that man’s personality like a gap in a dam, and through that gap the future might pour in a different shape—terrible perhaps, or marvellous, but something new—if I said that, you’d frown.”3
This is, of course, tentative because hypothetical—Anna is here ascribing a visionary state of being to an imaginary man (one who is also met in a scene of an imagined pick-up at a party; revelation is eroticized, and not dependant on the woman’s own agency. It is the man here who has the power to break the social order). Further, Anna says this to her analyst who she knows will disapprove of this allegory of self-destruction as new creation. However, Lessing and Ferrante are both drawn to these gaps. They simultaneously valorize and fear a violent and disturbing experimentation with the self. For Ferrante Lila is the main carrier of this possibility; in Lessing by contrast, the gap emerges from the impasse of the heterosexual relation. The break that ignites a different future, at the end of The Golden Notebook, involves the lovers, Saul and Anna, going mad—but their shared madness, and their support for each other works to gets them past their writers’ blocks—makes it possible for them to split up (or maybe split apart) and to write again. Amanda Anderson in Bleak Liberalism uses the passage I’ve just quoted as one example of the tension in The Golden Notebook between modernist experimentation and a humanist recuperation of the self in Lessing’s work.4
Ferrante also speaks of this kind of creative and debilitating madness, calling it frantumaglia, a word she says she takes from her mother:
My mother left me a word in her dialect that she used to describe how she felt when she was racked by contradictory sensations that were tearing her apart. She said that inside her she had a frantumaglia. . . It was the word for a disquiet not otherwise definable, it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain . . . The frantumaglia is an unstable landscape, an infinite aerial or aquatic mass of debris that appears to the I, brutally, as its true and unique inner self. The frantumaglia is the storehouse of time without the orderliness of a history, a story.5
The frantumaglia is the part of us that escapes any reduction to words or other shapes, and that in moments of crisis dissolves the entire order within which it seemed to us we were stably inserted.6
It is important that Ferrante claims the word that describes this destabilizing, personal, but also politicalcrisis, as a maternal legacy, tied in to women speaking and the dissolution of speech. Frantumaglia is connected to maternity in the books via an old, by now perhaps almost critically exhausted, dichotomy between maternity and writing (which also maps loosely on to other familiar gendered dichotomies, such as that between the body and representation, or altruism and ego). This split claims that one precludes the other: you can be a good mother OR a good writer; you can have a novel or a baby, but not both. This structuring dichotomy was critiqued by, but also replicated in, some of the 1970s and 80s psychoanalytic and poststructuralist feminism that interests Ferrante. (One can imagine we might find it in Lenu’s book that becomes a feminist classic). Lessing and Ferrante, engage this division in interestingly productive ways, even as they apparently resign themselves, and their characters, violently, even shockingly, to its dictates.
In a central scene of the Free Women section of Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, the character Molly’s unhappy, unanchored son, Tommy, in his early 20s comes to see Anna, who is in the position of a second mother to him. Anna lets him read her writing notebooks / diaries that are on her kitchen table. After reading one section—a suicide fantasy, Tommy says:
“Do you realize the whole of this notebook, the blue one, is either newspaper cuttings or bits like the blood and brain bit, all bracketed off, or crossed out; and then entries like buying tomatoes or tea?”7
Tommy’s intervention dramatizes the ongoing aesthetic-generic-political problems the left and the novel itself face: What can constitute the best that art can do for this historical moment? Anna cannot decide whether there is any point to writing novels rather than engaging with politics; those who do keep writing novels grapple with formal question of representing the chaos and dread of modern existence amidst the collapse of the Communist ideal and postwar nuclear fears. Do the times call for modernist experiment and fragmentation, or realism? (The Golden Notebook, of course, provides both.) But more starkly still, Tommy’s reading of Anna’s notebooks provokes an action beyond an aesthetic-political crisis. Tommy leaves Anna, goes home, and shoots himself. Although he survives his suicide attempt he is blinded. Are Anna’s notebooks to blame for this in some way? Does women’s writing drive children to suicide? The novel seems to want its readers to ask this question, even as it defuses the answer both by redeeming Tommy (he becomes happier, more self-sufficient, more political, living as a blind person—he even finds love) and by revealing that the Tommy story was fictional—part of an embedded novel rather than a framing narrative.
There is a parallel between this incident and the complex dynamics in Ferrante around women, writing, and motherhood. The Neapolitan Quartet focuses on the expropriation of women’s writing in various forms (by men, but also by Lenù). Numerous examples abound: Lenù’s conviction that everything she writes has been stolen from Lila; Lenù destroys Lila’s notebooks that Lila has given her to protect, but she also watches in horror while Lila burns the rescued manuscript of her story “The Blue Fairy.” Men also often steal women’s writing or systematically ignore it: Nino, jealous of Lenù’s skill with words, makes sure her article is never printed in the paper; Pietro doesn’t read Lenu’s novel, etc.
Writing, then, and maybe even moreso, stolen writing, is of central importance to identity in the books. For Lenù, Lila, is the woman who doesn’t write or rather who is suspected of writing secretly, a writing that would be magical if it existed—that would be more like life than writing, like presence. For Lenù writing matters, but Lila matters even more. As Lenù’s daughter Dede says:
“It’s impossible to have a real relationship with you, the only things that count are work and Aunt Lina; there’s nothing that’s not swallowed up inside them.”8
With Dede’s accusation it seems that children always must be secondary. They, like women’s writing at other points in the books, are easily expropriated, passed along to others or lost (even as the hard material work of maternity and housekeeping in the poverty stricken neighborhood, is also brutally represented). This expropriation happens most obviously and tragically, in the mysterious disappearance of Lila’s daughter Tina that gives The Story of the Lost Child, the final novel in the quartet, its title.
Tina’s disappearance is also connected by Lila to women’s writing. Toward the end of the book Lila tells Lenù that she thinks Tina’s kidnapping was a case of mistaken identity—that the kidnappers might have thought Tina was Lenù’s daughter because of a newspaper story about her novel that exposed the criminal Naples of their upbringing. In this newspaper story Lenù was photographed with Tina, mislabelled as her own daughter. “They thought they were stealing your daughter and instead they stole mine.”9 In Lila’s version of the story of the Lost Child—not definitive by any means—women’s writing is deadly for the child; it eclipses her, makes her become forgotten, makes the bad mother (the mother who writes) a target for revenge. Lenù’s novel, then, in Lila’s telling, kills a child, or at least makes her disappear. Does women’s writing, then, in Ferrante and Lessing, threaten the reproduction of the social order by erasing children? A kind of No Future gesture?10 How might we relate this question to the lost dolls that arrive, mysteriously, at the end of the book, after Lila has absented herself from Lenù’s writing, and from her life? Another way of putting this question might be: are the dolls more like novels or more like children in the economy of the novels? And does our answer to this question affect how we understand the source of Lila’s enthralling power for the novels and for Lenù?
Despite the obvious differences in class, in nationality, in the historical situations from which they write, Lessing’s and Ferrante’s works have a lot in common. They demand to be read in contradictory ways: as romance, as feminist how-to books, as inspiration, as histories of radical politics that fail, and fail in relation to feminism, as books that people love with a passion that may at times seem excessive. In Ferrante and Lessing we can recognize a version of Lauren Berlant’s cruel optimism; every woman in the novels lives with and desires objects or structures, or perhaps, genres, that prevent her from flourishing, objects such as heterosexual romance, maternity, publishing novels, or party politics.11 As these appear to be the only structures on offer, Ferrante’s and Lessing’s novels act out the breakdown of the structures that hold up their characters’ worlds when they gesture towards frantamuglia. But if in The Golden Notebook, at the end, women’s writing might be one tentative possibility for a portal through which the “future might pour in a different shape,”—the shape of the novel The Golden Notebook—in the Ferrante (of no transcendence) the stakes of writing for women are not so clear. Lila, and Lila’s lost child, will continue not to be there; or perhaps, like feminism itself, not to be there yet.