WOMEN ON THE VERGE: The Fiction of Elena Ferrante
By James Wood
Elena Ferrante, or “Elena Ferrante,” is one of Italy’s best-known least-known contemporary writers. She is the author of several remarkable, lucid, austerely honest novels, the most celebrated of which is “The Days of Abandonment,” published in Italy in 2002. Compared with Ferrante, Thomas Pynchon is a publicity profligate. It’s assumed that Elena Ferrante is not the author’s real name. In the past twenty years or so, though, she has provided written answers to journalists’ questions, and a number of her letters have been collected and published. From them, we learn that she grew up in Naples, and has lived for periods outside Italy. She has a classics degree; she has referred to being a mother. One could also infer from her fiction and from her interviews that she is not now married. (“Over the years, I’ve moved often, in general unwillingly, out of necessity. . . . I’m no longer dependent on the movements of others, only on my own” is her encryption.) In addition to writing, “I study, I translate, I teach.”
And that is it. What she looks like, what her real name is, when she was born, how she currently lives—these things are all unknown. In 1991, when her first novel, “Troubling Love,” was about to be published in Italy (“L’Amore Molesto,” its original title, hints at something more troubling than mere trouble), Ferrante sent her publisher a letter that, like her fiction, is pleasingly rigorous and sharply forthright. It lays out principles she has not deviated from since. She will do nothing for “Troubling Love,” she tells her publisher, because she has already done enough: she wrote it. She won’t take part in conferences or discussions, and won’t go to accept prizes, if any are awarded. “I will be interviewed only in writing, but I would prefer to limit even that to the indispensable minimum”:
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. . . . I very much love those mysterious volumes, both ancient and modern, that have no definite author but have had and continue to have an intense life of their own. They seem to me a sort of nighttime miracle, like the gifts of the Befana, which I waited for as a child. . . . True miracles are the ones whose makers will never be known. . . . Besides, isn’t it true that promotion is expensive? I will be the least expensive author of the publishing house. I’ll spare you even my presence.
It is hard to argue with the logic of this withdrawal, and the effortful prying of the Italian press—Why have you chosen this privacy? Are you hiding the autobiographical nature of your work? Is there any truth to the rumor that your work is really by Domenico Starnone?—has about it the kind of repressed anger that attends a suicide. Ferrante is probably right when she claims that an author who does publicity has accepted, “at least in theory, that the entire person, with all his experiences and his affections, is placed for sale along with the book.” Our language betrays us: nowadays, you triumphantly sell a novel to a publisher; thirty years ago, a publisher simply accepted that novel.
As soon as you read her fiction, Ferrante’s restraint seems wisely self-protective. Her novels are intensely, violently personal, and because of this they seem to dangle bristling key chains of confession before the unsuspecting reader. There are four novels available in English, each translated by Ann Goldstein, an editor at this magazine: “Troubling Love,” “The Days of Abandonment,” “The Lost Daughter,” and now “My Brilliant Friend” (all from Europa Editions). Each book is narrated by a woman: an academic in “The Lost Daughter,” and a writer in “The Days of Abandonment.” The woman who tells the story of her Neapolitan youth in “My Brilliant Friend” is named Elena, and seems to cherish the possibilities of writing and being a writer. More than these occasional and fairly trivial overlappings with life, the material that the early novels visit and revisit is intimate and often shockingly candid: child abuse, divorce, motherhood, wanting and not wanting children, the tedium of sex, the repulsions of the body, the narrator’s desperate struggle to retain a cohesive identity within a traditional marriage and amid the burdens of child rearing. The novels present themselves (with the exception of the latest) like case histories, full of flaming rage, lapse, failure, and tenuous psychic success. But these are fictional case histories. One can understand that Ferrante has no interest in adding her privacy to the novelistic pyre.
“The Days of Abandonment” is Ferrante’s most widely read novel in English, with good reason. It assails bourgeois niceties and domestic proprieties; it rips the skin off the habitual. Olga is thirty-eight, is married to Mario, lives in Turin, and has two young children, Ilaria and Gianni. “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” The calm opening sentence belies the fury and turmoil to come. Olga is blindsided by Mario’s announcement. First, there are the obvious responses: loathing, jealousy, despair. She yells without control at Mario:
“I don’t give a shit about prissiness. You wounded me, you are destroying me, and I’m supposed to speak like a good, well-brought-up wife? Fuck you! What words am I supposed to use for what you’ve done to me, for what you’re doing to me? What words should I use for what you’re doing with that woman! Let’s talk about it! Do you lick her cunt? Do you stick it in her ass? Do you do all the things you never did with me? Tell me! Because I see you! With these eyes I see everything you do together, I see it a hundred thousand times, I see it night and day, eyes open and eyes closed!”
What menaces Olga more deeply is the threatened dissolution of her self. What does her life amount to, without the intact family unit? “What a mistake it had been to close off the meaning of my existence in the rites that Mario offered with cautious conjugal rapture,” she reflects. “What a mistake it had been to entrust the sense of myself to his gratifications, his enthusiasms, to the ever more productive course of his life.” She is haunted by the memory of a dark figure from her Neapolitan childhood, a woman who lived in her apartment building, whose husband left her, and who, in her abandonment, lost all identity: “Every night, from that moment on, our neighbor wept. . . . The woman lost everything, even her name (perhaps it was Emilia), for everyone she became the ‘poverella,’ that poor woman, when we spoke of her that was what we called her.” Young Olga was repelled by “a grief so gaudy,” and is desperate, in her own abandonment, not to act like the poverella, not to be “consumed by tears.”
Over the next few weeks, Olga struggles to hold on to reality. The children must be looked after, the dog walked, the bills paid. One day, she sees Mario with his new lover, and realizes that it is Carla, a twenty-year-old who is the daughter of an old friend; Mario had tutored her. Olga violently assaults her husband, knocks him down in the street, tears his shirt. Meanwhile, at home, everything is disintegrating. Ants have invaded the apartment; Gianni has a fever; the phone stops working because the bill hasn’t been paid; the front-door lock won’t work; the dog gets sick. Ferrante turns ordinary domestic misery into an expressionistic hell; she can pull a scream out of thin air. These small trials become a huge symbolic judgment. When Olga sprays insecticide to kill the ants, she does so uneasily, “feeling that the spray can might well be a living extension of my organism, a nebulizer of the gall I felt in my body.” Her inability to open the front door strikes her as the overwrought emblem of a sexual failure; the workmen who had installed the new lock had seemed to insinuate that locks “recognize the hand of their master.” “I remembered the sneer with which the older one had given me his card, in case I should need help,” Olga tells us. “I knew perfectly well what lock he wished to intervene in, certainly not that of the reinforced door.”
The literary excitement of “The Days of Abandonment” lies in the picture it gives of a mind in emergency, at the very limits of coherence and decency, a mind that has become a battlefield between reason and insanity, survival and explosion. Here Olga watches Carrano, her downstairs neighbor, a single man, a mild, shy, graying professional cellist:
So I stood silently watching him from the fifth floor, thin but broad in the shoulders, his hair gray and thick. I felt an increasing hostility toward him that became more tenacious the more unreasonable I felt it to be. What were his secrets of a man alone, a male obsession with sex, perhaps, the late-life cult of the cock. Certainly he, too, saw no farther than his ever-weaker squirt of sperm, was content only when he could verify that he could still get it up, like the dying leaves of a dried-up plant that’s given water. Rough with the women’s bodies he happened to encounter, hurried, dirty, certainly his only objective was to score points, as in a rifle range, to sink into a red pussy as into a fixed thought surrounded by concentric circles. Better if the patch of hair is young and shiny, ah the virtue of a firm ass. So he thought, such were the thoughts I attributed to him, I was shaken by vivid electric shocks of rage.
In a spasm of self-hatred and need, Olga throws herself at poor Carrano: the scene in which she sadistically seduces him, at once requiring and repulsing his desire, is a tour de force of squalor. Yet Carrano surprises Olga, later in the book, with his gentleness and generosity, and becomes one of the unexpected agents of Olga’s eventual survival, her successful race against dissolution.
Ferrante has said that she likes to write narratives “where the writing is clear, honest, and where the facts—the facts of ordinary life—are extraordinarily gripping when read.” Her prose has indeed a bare lucidity, and is often aphoristic and continent, in Ann Goldstein’s elegant, burnished English. But what is thrilling about her earlier novels is that, in sympathetically following her characters’ extremities, Ferrante’s own writing has no limits, is willing to take every thought forward to its most radical conclusion and backward to its most radical birthing. This is most obvious in the fearless way in which her female narrators think about children and motherhood.
Ferrante’s novels could be seen as marked, somewhat belatedly, by the second-wave feminism that produced, among other writing, Margaret Drabble’s fiction of female domestic entrapment and Hélène Cixous’s theory of l’écriture féminine, in the nineteen-seventies. (L’écriture féminine, or feminine writing, is the project of inscribing the feminine into the language of a text.) Yet there is something post-ideological about the savagery with which Ferrante attacks the themes of motherhood and womanhood. She seems to enjoy the psychic surplus, the outrageousness, the terrible, singular complexity of her protagonists’ familial dramas. Olga’s plight might seem familiar enough, in particular her apprehension that, in throwing her all into being a mother, she has become dangerously null, while her “ever more productive” husband has only blossomed in the outside world.
But the rhetoric with which she expresses her despair and revulsion around motherhood is perhaps less familiar. There is little room for ideological back-and-forth when children are seen as hideous enemies from a horror film: “I was like a lump of food that my children chewed without stopping; a cud made of a living material that continually amalgamated and softened its living substance to allow two greedy bloodsuckers to nourish themselves, leaving on me the odor and taste of their gastric juices. Nursing, how repulsive, an animal function.” As Olga follows her train of thought, she becomes convinced that the “stink of motherhood” clung to her and was partly responsible for her husband’s defection. “Sometimes Mario pasted himself against me, took me, holding me as I nearly slept, tired himself after work, without emotions. He did it persisting on my almost absent flesh that tasted of milk, cookies, cereal, with a desperation of his own that overlapped mine without his realizing it. I was the body of incest. . . . I was the mother to be violated, not a lover. Already he was searching for figures more suitable for love.” There is a foul brilliance in how Ferrante sticks with the logic of Olga’s illogic, so that an ordinary enough complaint about the difficulty of raising children becomes an outsized revulsion, and the stink of motherhood leads inexorably to the incestuous end of all marital eros. But this wayward rigor, engrossing in its own right, also makes absolute sense within the context of Olga’s raging jealousy.
Leda, the narrator of “The Lost Daughter” (published in Italian in 2006, and in English in 2008), is a forty-seven-year-old academic who, like Olga, has had to manage both motherhood and professional advancement. She is no longer married to her scientist husband, who lives in Toronto, where her two grown daughters, Marta and Bianca, have also gone to live. About her daughters Leda has ambivalent and often sharply hostile thoughts. Did she, she wonders, really want her children, or was her body simply expressing itself, as a reproducing animal?
I had wanted Bianca, one wants a child with an animal opacity reinforced by popular beliefs. She had arrived immediately, I was twenty-three, her father and I were right in the midst of a difficult struggle to keep jobs at the university. He made it, I didn’t. A woman’s body does a thousand different things, toils, runs, studies, fantasizes, invents, wearies, and meanwhile the breasts enlarge, the lips of the sex swell, the flesh throbs with a round life that is yours, your life, and yet pushes elsewhere, draws away from you although it inhabits your belly, joyful and weighty, felt as a greedy impulse and yet repellent, like an insect’s poison injected into a vein.
For the narrators of Ferrante’s earlier novels, life appears to be a painful conundrum of attachment and detachment. What seems appalling to Leda is that her daughters are so umbilically connected to her own flesh and at the same time are always pushing “elsewhere,” are so alien and other. Thus she feels for them “a complicated alternation of sympathy and antipathy.” When her daughters were six and four, Leda abandoned them for three years. “All the hopes of youth seemed to have been destroyed, I seemed to be falling backward toward my mother, my grandmother, the chain of mute or angry women I came from.” Suspended on a chain of maternity—grandmothers, mothers, daughters, all flesh of one’s own flesh—the only thing is to sever the links and get out. Leda feels it is the way to survive: “I loved them too much and it seemed to me that love for them would keep me from becoming myself.” She remembers standing in the kitchen, her daughters watching her, pulled by them but more strongly pulled by the world outside the home:
I felt their gazes longing to tame me, but more brilliant was the brightness of the life outside them, new colors, new bodies, new intelligence, a language to possess finally as if it were my true language, and nothing, nothing that seemed to me reconcilable with that domestic space from which they stared at me in expectation. Ah, to make them invisible, to no longer hear the demands of their flesh as commands more pressing, more powerful than those which came from mine.
Ferrante may never mention Hélène Cixous or French feminist literary theory, but her fiction is a kind of practical écriture féminine: these novels, which reflect on work and motherhood, on the struggle for a space in which to work outside the work of motherhood, necessarily reflect on the achievement of their own writing. To get these difficult words onto the page is to have subdued the demands of the domestic space, quieted for precious intervals the commands of children, and found “a language to possess finally as if it were my true language.”
Before the writer is an adult, she is a child. Before she makes a family, she inherits one; and in order to find her true language she may need to escape the demands and prohibitions of this first, given community. That is one of the themes that connect Ferrante’s latest novel, “My Brilliant Friend,” with her earlier work. At first sight, her new book, published in Italy in 2011, seems very different from its anguished, slender predecessors. It’s a large, captivating, amiably peopled bildungsroman, apparently the first of a trilogy. Its narrator, Elena Greco, recalls her Neapolitan childhood and adolescence, in the late nineteen-fifties. There is a kind of joy in the book not easily found in the earlier work. The city of Elena’s childhood is a poor, violent place (the same city is found in Ferrante’s first novel, “Troubling Love”). But deprivation gives details a snatched richness. A trip to the sea, a new friend, a whole day spent with your father (“We spent the entire day together, the only one in our lives, I don’t remember any others,” Elena says at one point), a brief holiday, the chance to take some books out of a library, the encouragement of a respected teacher, a sketched design for a beautiful pair of shoes, a wedding, the promise of getting your article published in a local journal, a conversation with a boy whose intellect is deeper and more liberal than your own—these ordinary-seeming occurrences take on an unexpected luminosity against a background of poverty, ignorance, violence, and parental threat, a world in which a character can be casually described as “struggling to speak in Italian” (because mostly people in this book are using Neapolitan vernacular). If Ferrante’s earlier novels have some of the brutal directness and familial torment of Elsa Morante’s work, then “My Brilliant Friend” may remind the reader of neorealist movies by De Sica and Visconti, or perhaps of Giovanni Verga’s short stories about Sicilian poverty.
Elena meets her brilliant friend at school, in the first grade. Both children are from relatively impoverished households. Lila Cerullo is the daughter of Fernando Cerullo, a shoemaker; Elena’s father works as a porter at city hall. Lila first impresses Elena because she is “very bad.” She is feral, quick, unafraid, vicious in word and deed. For every act of violence meted out to her, Lila has a swift response. When Elena throws stones back at gangs of boys, she does so without much conviction; Lila does everything with “absolute determination.” No one can really keep pace with that “terrible, dazzling girl,” and everyone is afraid of her. Boys steer clear of her, because she is “skinny, dirty, and always had a cut or bruise of some sort, but also because she had a sharp tongue . . . spoke a scathing dialect, full of swear words, which cut off at its origin any feeling of love.” Lila’s reputation grows when it is discovered that she taught herself to read at the age of three: there is a wonderful scene, indeed the equal of something by Verga, when Lila’s schoolteacher excitedly calls in her mother, Nunzia Cerullo, and asks Lila to read a word she has written on the blackboard. Lila correctly reads the word, but her mother looks hesitantly, almost fearfully, at the teacher: “The teacher at first seemed not to understand why her own enthusiasm was not reflected in the mother’s eyes. But then she must have guessed that Nunzia didn’t know how to read.”
Elena, who had enjoyed her status as the cleverest girl in the class, has to fall in behind the brilliant Lila, who is as smart at school as she is on the street: she comes in first on all the tests, and can do complicated calculations in her head. The two girls seem destined, through education, to escape their origins. In the last year of elementary school, they become obsessed with money, and talk about it “the way characters in novels talk about searching for treasure.” But “My Brilliant Friend” is a bildungsroman in mono, not stereo; we sense early on that Lila will stay trapped in her world, and that Elena, the writer, will get out—like the academic who, in “The Lost Daughter,” describes her need to leave violent and limited Naples thus: “I had run away like a burn victim who, screaming, tears off the burned skin, believing that she is tearing off the burning itself.”
In this beautiful and delicate tale of confluence and reversal, it is hard to identify the moments when a current changes course. Perhaps one occurs when Elena’s schoolteacher, Maestra Oliviero, tells her that she must take the test for admission to middle school, and that her parents will have to pay for extra lessons to prepare her. Elena’s parents, after some resistance, say yes; Lila’s say no. Lila tells Elena she is going to take the test anyway, and no one doubts her: “Although she was fragile in appearance, every prohibition lost substance in her presence.” But Lila eventually loses heart, and does not go to middle school. When Elena later mentions the brilliant Lila to Maestra Oliviero, the teacher asks her if she knows what the plebs are. Yes, Elena says, the people. “And if one wishes to remain a plebeian,” Maestra Oliviero continues, “he, his children, the children of his children deserve nothing. Forget Cerullo and think of yourself.”
This warning casts its shadow over the rest of the novel like a prophecy in classical tragedy. In a powerful scene near the end of the book, Lila Cerullo, now sixteen and on the verge of marrying a grocer’s son, decides that she wants to take the wedding invitation in person to Maestra Oliviero. Elena accompanies her. The old teacher affects not to recognize the brilliant girl who never made it to middle school, and turns to Elena: “I know Cerullo, I don’t know who this girl is.” With that, she shuts the door in their faces. At Lila’s wedding—where, in a characteristically vivid detail, the guests become restive when they realize that the “wine wasn’t the same quality for all the tables”—Elena looks at the modest company and recalls the schoolteacher’s question:
At that moment I knew what the plebs were, much more clearly than when, years earlier, she had asked me. The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts. The plebs were my mother, who had drunk wine and now was leaning against my father’s shoulder, while he, serious, laughed, his mouth gaping, at the sexual allusions of the metal dealer. They were all laughing, even Lila, with the expression of one who has a role and will play it to the utmost.
This is where “My Brilliant Friend” ends, with Elena watching the horizon, and Lila being watched by Elena. One girl is facing beyond the book; the other is caught within its pages. Elena Greco, like the women who narrate Ferrante’s earlier novels, is a survivor; like them, she has had to wrench her survival out of the drama of attachment and detachment. She feels a kind of survivor’s guilt, as if she had robbed the promise of her riches from Lila’s treasury. A final irony is coiled in the novel’s title, the biggest reversal, a shift in perspective that has taken a whole novel to effect. Before the wedding, when Elena is helping Lila with her wedding dress, the two girls briefly discuss Elena’s continued schooling. Lila urges Elena to keep on studying; if necessary she—soon to be a comfortably married woman—will pay for it. “Thanks, but at a certain point school is over,” Elena says with a nervous, doubtless self-deprecating laugh. “Not for you,” Lila replies ardently, “you’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.” ♦