At this point, I think I’ve been to every NYC-based Elena Ferrante event and while all of them were amazing, last night’s was my favorite by far. I mean, come on: JHUMPA freaking LAHIRI and translator Ann Goldstein chatting it up about Ferrante’s writing? The only way it could’ve been better was if Elena Ferrante walked onstage and revealed her true identity. As I learned last night, that scenario is unlikely to ever happen.
I took a whole bunch of notes! Here we go:
During every Ferrante discussion, Ann Goldstein shuts down the idea that Lila was unsuccessful compared to Lenu. I love it! I never understand when people claim Lenu is the more successful friend – Lila took over every place she worked, then started a hugely successful computer business. Yaaas, Ann Goldstein, shut that shit down.
Jhumpa Lahiri has Ferrante Fever; she is a Ferrante fangirl. Lahiri had already begun learning Italian when someone sent her an English copy of Ferrante’s first book, The Days of Abandonment. Lahiri loved it and immediately re-read it, this time in Italian. She said Ferrante’s writing is what pushed her over the edge of her desire to immerse herself in Italian. Since encountering Ferrante’s work, Lahiri began only reading in Italian and hasn’t read any books in English in more than four years.
Jhumpa Lahiri wrote fan letters to Ferrante…and Ferrante wrote back! Lahiri wrote two letters to Ferrante:
1) The first letter was about Ferrante’s decision to be present only in her writing.
2) The second letter was about her reading of Ferrante’s work, the themes that stood out to her, and the power of literature and text. Since a major theme of Ferrante’s writing is motherhood and abandonment, she also wrote about her surprise at people’s negative reactions to a mother abandoning her child in one of her (Lahiri’s) own books.
Elena Ferrante replied to Jhumpa Lahiri’s letters with a “personal manifesto.” According to Lahiri, Ferrante’s response went in depth about her decision to remain anonymous and her refusal to participate in the publicity machine “where the author’s life becomes the work and the work becomes the author’s life.” A direct quote from Ferrante’s letter: “Who wants to know me as an author has to read me: I am my writing.”
Lahiri says smarginatura is the most important concept to understand when reading Ferrante. This is one of those foreign words that doesn’t fully translate to English, but for the Neapolitan series translation, Ann Goldstein came up with “dissolving margins” (Goldstein talks about smarginatura on this podcast). If you read the series, you’ll recognize that phrase as the condition Lila suffers from, that blurred sense of reality (think of the earthquake scene). Lahiri explained that this concept comes up repeatedly throughout the series and even appears in the last line of the final book.
Lahiri’s personal connection to smarginatura. Lahiri said, “I write to become nothing but my words. I obliterate myself.”
Books are main characters in Ferrante’s work. Lahiri asked, “What is it that remains concrete in Ferrante’s world? It’s language, it’s the book – life does not. Books are characters in her work. Books are a means of escape and self-realization for Ferrante’s characters.” Ann Goldstein added that in the Neapolitan series, books are used to separate the characters, which goes back to the dissolving margins concept. In the series, Lenu uses her first published novel to separate herself from her family, and her second novel to separate herself from her marriage.
Dialect as a metaphor for Ferrante. Lahiri spoke at length about the use of dialect in the series, especially how Ferrante notes that dialect is being spoken but doesn’t write out the dialect itself (apparently this is also true of the books in Italian). “The dialect is there but it’s not there; Ferrante is there but she’s not.”
The one who stayed and the one who left. Lahiri pointed out that the entire series is about the fusion between Lila and Lenu and what they are without each other. “What is the journey of the person who wants out? What is the destiny of the one who stays?”
My favorite quote of the night. Jhumpa Lahiri, with an interjection by Ann Goldstein: “Every book has a mother – most of them have dolls.”
Reading Recommendation! For writing that is similarly “extraordinarily powerful and disturbing,” Lahiri recommended Hungarian writer Agota Kristof.