“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 began this wanting to write about sex in Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. How is Lenù’s coming-of-age connected to her two sexual encounters with Donato Sarratore, a man who desires and arouses her, but for whom, there is never any question, she feels no love? There’s the first time, on her fifteenth birthday, when he fondles her as she lies in the kitchen: “I was terrified by that behaviour, by the horror it created, by the pleasure I nevertheless felt.”1 And the second, when she’s seventeen, in which he overcomes her resistance by producing in her “a desire so demanding and so egocentric that it cancelled out not only the entire world of sensation but also his body, in [her] eyes old, and the labels by which he could be classified—railway-worker-poet-journalist, father of Nino, Donato Sarratore.”2 This description follows a precise and lovely account of female pleasure, Ferrante’s writing at its best. It needs to be well written because it’s also, we soon learn, a sample of Lenù’s first book, the one that scandalizes and captures the Italian public with its description of sex between a young girl and an older man on a beach.
Why—and this was my real why as I started this line of questioning—were Ferrante’s new Anglo-American fans not more unhappy with the centrality of this scene? Ferrante was being celebrated in London and New York in 2015, a year of rising condemnation of sexually predatory behavior, old rock stars and politicians being outed for their Donato-like ways, young athletes reproached for the things their fathers got away with. What did it mean that liberal intellectuals in this moment celebrated a work of fiction whose core scene depicts acts for which this same audience would want to prosecute a real Donato?
One response: these scenes are not to be taken literally precisely because they align Lenù’s pleasure with a form of artistic creation. Sex with Donato is a place Lenù returns to later as evidence of her own vulnerability:
. . . sex in itself, that unmediated demand for orgasm, no, I couldn’t be drawn into that. I was unprepared; it disgusted me . . . . Suddenly I thought of what had happened with Donato Sarratore. Not so much the evening on the beach in Ischia, which had been transformed into the episode in the novel, but the time he had had appeared in Nella’s kitchen . . . and he had kissed, touched me, causing a flow of pleasure against my very will.3
This questioning of her own will is where Lenù deliberately locates her birth as an artist, carefully distinguishing herself from Lila in her ability to experience pleasure at a level she does not fully understand. In this context, these scenes are not real endorsements of young girls having sex with older men—or generally, I think, of good sex being with people we don’t like, or don’t know. Read figuratively, they announce creativity being something that doesn’t have to make sense, that doesn’t belong simply above the line, in the world of rational behavior.
It’s not clear, of course, how quickly we want to put Ferrante on the side of aesthetics, embodiment, and the left side of the brain; with Edmund Burke and against Thomas Paine; or, in more recent terms, with Rita Felski and against critique. But it’s easier to grasp what might be radical about this aspect of Ferrante’s project if we keep the literal in mind a little bit longer. Whether it’s predatory or not, good sex easily hits a narrative dead end when it tells us nothing about love. This is true of almost any great fictional sex you want to name, recent or historical. There’s Heathcliff’s violent Victorian sexiness, which is forced to become part of a love story if it is to speak at all; Hardy’s poignant portrait in Jude the Obscure of sex with Arabella; D.H. Lawrence’s careful reworking of that dynamic in Sons and Lovers. A recent essay about internet dating by Emily Witt makes the bind, even for non-fictional and contemporary writing, painfully obvious: while Witt has always been more interested in love and writes fluently about her failed dates in this context, her “friend,” who really was just in it for the sex, and for whom anonymity has worked brilliantly, can say nothing except that, happily, internet dating has left her “really good at sex.”4 That is to say: even if it’s possible to get beyond all the clichés, contracts, and tautologies that make it difficult to name good sex that’s just sex in a heterosexual world, one risks having nothing at all to say about it once one gets the words out. As soon as we start writing about it, we begin tracking its causes, counting our losses, asking what it stood for, what risks it involved; saying what the story was really about. Or we are reduced to silence and tautology.
Queer theory offers an important line of resistance to this pathology. Critics including Leo Bersani, Michael Warner, and David Halperin, writing partly to free gay men from the heavy machinery of psychological explanation rolled out in the early 2000s to explain why they might be having unsafe sex, have advocated reading sex as its own form of explanation. Halperin’s recent essay “What is Sex For?” takes this argument back to Aristotle by identifying a category error there in the lining up of sex and love, arguing that sex without love or its possibility has been misrepresented from the very beginning as an inadequate response to the problem of desire. In fact, he argues:
The sexual institutions of the gay male world . . . afford their patrons the unique and precious possibility of being wanted only for sexual ends—and, thus, of being sexually valorized in and through their bodies, of acquiring undeniable value as an integral means to the sexual pleasure of others . . . . Being the object of other people’s erotic desire confers on the sexual value of your body a judgment that is not only positive but also infallible, that acquires the authority of truth itself. That may make being desired or being wanted just as necessary, just as affirming . . . as being loved.5
Halperin ends this essay not just by defending gay bathhouses, but by pointing out that one thing we all stand to gain from the acknowledgement of sexual subjectivity without pathology is an acknowledgment that love is something quirkier, queerer than we normally grant.
We might take this important insight back to Ferrante in a number of ways. At the level of content, she’s a writer game for giving us just sex, situating Lenù’s experience at this narrative impasse, birthing her as a writer at just that juncture where there may be nothing to know or to diagnose about her pleasure. If she has something new to tell us about love’s queerness it is because she’s willing to recognize sex as very loosely jointed to, if not utterly divorced from it. But that’s not where I’m going to go with the rest of my discussion. Because: somewhere between my original interest in the Donato dilemma in Ferrante and our MLA panel in early 2017, Ferrante hit the news. Writing about sex in Ferrante, a project I was already uneasy about, began to feel even more perverse in the face of all the love that was being professed for her fiction. You’ll have read many of these defences of her anonymity, or written them, so I’ll offer just one, Alexandra Schwartz’s from the New Yorker:
To fall in love with a book, in that way that I and so many others have fallen in love with Ferrante’s, is to feel a special kinship with its author, a profound sort of mutual receptivity and comprehension. The author knows nothing about you, and yet you feel that your most intimate self has been understood. The fact that Ferrante has chosen to be anonymous has become part of this contract, and has put readers and writer on a rare, equal plane. Ferrante doesn’t know the details of our lives, and doesn’t care to. We don’t know those of hers.6
Reading such outpourings of love for Ferrante, I stood corrected: it was love we’d been talking about. Here I was, thinking of sex as the bypassing of psychological explanation in her novels, something being cleared out of the path of love, but how crass; how wrong. In fact, we loved Ferrante—and therefore did not want to know anything about her.
The funny thing for me about this equation is not just that Schwartz’s defence sounds an awful lot like David Halperin’s of good sex. It’s also that on my home turf, eighteenth-century studies, there’s been a lot of talk recently about love for literature. Loving literature, Deidre Lynch has argued, has a relatively short history—one that takes us directly back to the habits of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century men who developed quaint habits of affection; fond relationships to their libraries and their favored authors, and novels, and characters. Love for literature, her genealogy tells us, is closely correlated with wanting more: more knowledge, more closeness, more possession, more books.7 Fans of fiction have wanted from the very beginning to open up big veins in history from which lots of stuff could spill. To wonder, as Adela Pinch reminds us, at Keats’s heart not burning on the fire.8 To see where Jane Austen really lived; to hold and own a first edition, to get it signed; to re-read a favorite novel every single year. In fact, literary love, with which we might or might not want to be associated when we look more closely at it, can be defined as Halperin suggests of love more generally, as a queer place, generative of narratives of loss and longing and possession more often than feelings of fulfilment. But one thing is certain: it is driven by the desire for knowledge.
Which brings me back around, of course, to sex. For if it is the case that, whatever our intense Anglo-American relationship to Ferrante’s fiction is, it stands only to suffer from knowing more about Ferrante herself, is it not, in fact, better defended as good sex than love? If knowledge (of class, gender, age, her beating heart, her house (it turns out she has many)) is irrelevant to the perfectly satisfactory conditions of loving these novels, then are we not talking about an experience of reading that finds its human analogy not in Lenù’s relationship to Nico, or Lila, but to Donato Sarrtore? Perhaps it is we, the impleasured readers, who are most in need of a vocabulary for that kind of non-pathological pleasure of which the discourse of literary love has deprived us—and which Ferrante may be seeking in some way to restore to us. I posit this partly as a fan of the sexuality without psychology thesis I’ve taken in this discussion from queer theory. But I ask it also on the basis of a number of conversations that I’ve had around the world in the last years about authors “loved” most out of their native context: Knausgaard in New York, Ferrante in London, Paul Auster in Denmark, Bolaño amongst my Scottish political, world literature colleagues. I always get into these conversations wrong, at the wrong angle. It matters to me that Ferrante is middle-class and spurned by her Southern European readers; that Knausgaard’s Proustian meditations are the direct result of Norwegian funding for the arts and therefore, precisely, not universal; that Auster, as I keep telling my Danish friends, really is not the last word on American society. But then maybe it doesn’t. Because maybe there are ways of reading so satisfactory unto themselves—so pleasurable, as Lenù puts it, that they “cancel out the other labels by which things could be classified”—so revealing of ourselves to ourselves that they bypass love as an epistemology. Perhaps this is just good sex. And perhaps this is good.