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.
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.