The New Yorker



The Italian novelists Elena Ferrante and Nicola Lagioia discuss writing and “the elusive subject that is women” in Ferrante’s forthcoming book “Frantumaglia.”

The following is an excerpt from an e-mail correspondence, which took place last year, between the Italian novelists Elena Ferrante and Nicola Lagioia, whose English-language début, “Ferocity,” will be published in the spring of 2017, by Europa Editions. The full correspondence will appear in Elena Ferrante’s “Frantumaglia: An Author’s Journey Told Through Letters, Interviews, and Occasional Writings,” translated by Ann Goldstein, to be published in November.

Nicola Lagioia: One of the most powerful aspects of “My Brilliant Friend” is the way in which the interdependence of the characters is rendered. Each time Lila vanishes from the horizon of Elena’s experiences, she nevertheless continues to act in her friend, and presumably the opposite is also true. Reading your novel is comforting because this is what occurs in real life. The people who are truly important to us, the people we’ve allowed to break us open inside, do not stop questioning us, obsessing us, pursuing us, and, if necessary, guiding us, even if they die, or grow distant, or if we’ve quarrelled. This interdependence extends throughout the entire world of the two friends—to Nino, Rino, Stefano Carracci, the Solara brothers, Carmela, Enzo Scanno, Gigliola, Marisa, Pasquale, Antonio, even Professor Galiani. To escape is impossible; they constantly reappear in one another’s lives. When you think of what such bonds are made of, they might seem to be a curse—but shouldn’t they also be considered a blessing? In some cases I confess I have envied these characters.

Elena Ferrante: Where do I start? In my childhood, my adolescence. Some of the poor Neapolitan neighborhoods were crowded, yes, and rowdy. To gather oneself, so to speak, was physically impossible. One learned very early to have the greatest concentration amid the greatest disruption. The idea that every “I” is largely made up of others and by the others wasn’t theoretical; it was a reality. To be alive meant to collide continually with the existence of others and to be collided with, the results being at times good-natured, at others aggressive, then again good-natured. The dead were brought into quarrels; people weren’t content to attack and insult the living—they naturally abused aunts, cousins, grandparents, and great-grandparents who were no longer in the world.

Of course, today I have small quiet places where I can gather myself—but I still feel that the idea is slightly ridiculous. I’ve described women at moments when they are absolutely alone. But in their heads there is never silence or even focus. The most absolute solitude, at least in my experience, and not just narrative experience, is always, to paraphrase the title of a very good book by Hrabal, too loud. To the writer, no person is ever definitively relegated to silence, even if we long ago broke off relations with that person—out of anger, by chance, or because the person died. I can’t even think without the voices of others, much less write. And I’m not talking only about relatives, female friends, enemies. I’m talking about others, men and women who today exist only in images: in television or newspaper images, sometimes heartrending, sometimes offensive in their opulence. And I’m talking about the past, about what we generally call tradition; I’m talking about all those others who were once in the world and who have acted or who now act through us. Our entire body, like it or not, enacts a stunning resurrection of the dead just as we advance toward our own death. We are, as you say, interconnected. And we should teach ourselves to look deeply at this interconnection—I call it a tangle, or, rather, frantumaglia—to give ourselves adequate tools to describe it. In the most absolute tranquility or in the midst of tumultuous events, in safety or danger, in innocence or corruption, we are a crowd of others. And this crowd is certainly a blessing for literature.

Maybe capturing the fluidity of existences on the page means avoiding stories that are too rigidly defined. The long story of Elena Greco is marked everywhere by instability, maybe even more than the stories of Delia, Olga, or Leda, the protagonists of my earlier books. What Elena lays out on the page, at first with apparent assurance, becomes increasingly less controlled. In “My Brilliant Friend,” I wanted everything to take shape and then lose its shape. In her effort to tell the story of Lila, Elena is compelled to tell the story of all the others, including herself, encounters and clashes that leave very varied impressions. The others, in the broad meaning of the term, as I said, continually collide with us and we collide with them. Our singularity, our uniqueness, our identity are continually dying. When at the end of a long day we feel shattered, “in pieces,” there’s nothing more literally true.

Lagioia: If it’s true, as I’ve read in more than one article, that “My Brilliant Friend” presents no possibilities for transcendence (at least in the way transcendence is rendered in most twentieth-century literature), what do we make of Lina’s smarginature, her episodes of dissolving boundaries—that is to say, those moments when the world goes off its axis, appearing in its unbearable nakedness, a chaotic and shapeless mass, “a sticky, jumbled reality” without meaning? They are revelatory instants, and the revelations are consistently terrible.

Ferrante: I’m always surprised when someone points out as a flaw the fact that my stories contain no possibility of transcendence. Here I’d like to move on to a statement of principle: since the age of fifteen, I haven’t believed in the kingdom of any God, in Heaven or on Earth—in fact, wherever you place it, it seems dangerous to me. On the other hand, I share the opinion that most of the concepts we work with have a theological origin. Theology helps us understand the origins of the dregs we even now resort to. As for the rest, I don’t know what to tell you. I’m comforted by stories that emerge through horror to a turning point, stories in which someone is redeemed as confirmation that peace and happiness are possible, or that one can return to a private or public Eden. But I tried to write a story like that, long ago, and I discovered that I didn’t believe in it. I’m drawn, rather, to images of crisis, to seals that are broken. When shapes lose their contours, we see what most terrifies us, as in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” and Clarice Lispector’s extraordinary “Passion According to G.H.” You don’t go beyond that; you have to take a step back and, to survive, reënter some good fiction. I don’t believe, however, that every fiction we orchestrate is good. I cling to those that are painful, those that arise from a profound crisis of all our illusions. I love unreal things when they show signs of firsthand knowledge of the terror, and hence an awareness that they are unreal, that they will not hold up for long against the collisions. Human beings are extremely violent animals, and the violence they are always ready to use in order to impose their own eternal, salvific life vest, while shattering those of others, is frightening.

Lagioia: For Lila and Elena, getting an education is the only really worthy way to escape the condition of inferiority. Despite the many troubles they confront in the course of their lives, rarely do the two friends lose faith in the power of learning. What do you think of Italy today, full of university graduates who are adrift? It’s true that some of these youths don’t have the almost desperate relationship with education that Lila and Elena do, and that for the next generations (for their daughters Dede and Elsa, for example) there might be other tools with which to cross the shadow line. And yet, all in all, education strikes me as a means of emancipation unlike any other.

Ferrante: First of all, I would not reduce education to a mere tool of emancipation. Education has been considered essential mainly to social mobility. In post-Second World War Italy, education cemented old hierarchies, but it also allowed for a modest assimilation of the deserving, so that to some extent those who remained at the bottom could say to themselves, “I ended up here because I didn’t want to study.” Lenù’s story demonstrates this use of education for upward mobility. But there are also signs of dysfunction: some characters study and still they stumble. In other words, there was an ideology of education that no longer functions today. Its failure has become obvious: the directionless graduates are dramatic evidence that the long crisis in the legitimization of social hierarchy based on the credentials of an education has come to a head.

But the story also demonstrates another way of understanding education: for Lila, deprived of the opportunity to complete her education—at a time when this was crucial especially for women, and for poor women—and projecting onto Lenuccia her own ambitions of sociocultural ascent, education becomes the manifestation of a permanent anxiety about intelligence, a necessity imposed by the relentlessly chaotic circumstances of life, a tool of daily struggle. While Lena, in short, is the tormented omega of the old system, Lila embodies the crisis and, in a certain sense, a possible future. How will the crisis be resolved in our own tumultuous world? I’m not sure—we’ll have to see. Will the contradictions of the educational system become increasingly evident, signalling its decline? Will education be refined and accessible without any connection to the ways we earn a living? Will we have more cultured diligence and less intelligence? Let’s say that in general I’m captivated by those who produce ideas, rather than by those who comment on them. I’d feel better in a world of imaginative creators of grand ideas—even if this seems to me, admittedly, a formidable goal.

Lagioia: Someone who is truly rooted in life doesn’t write novels. The relationship between Elena and Lila seems to me archetypal, in the sense that many friendships and rivalries function according to this dynamic: it is, if you will, the dynamic that binds artists to their muses, although the muse in this particular case is anything but ethereal. On the contrary, she is earthly to the core, committed to confronting life, to clashing with it wholeheartedly. It’s Lila who feels the things of the world in a more visceral way. And yet, for that very reason, she cannot bear witness in the way Elena can. Although Elena fears that sooner or later her friend will manage to write a marvellous book, a book capable of objectively restoring the balance between them, that can’t happen.

That is one of the paradoxes that seem to bind Elena to Lila. How can one try to undo it, or live with it? To bear witness on behalf of someone who will not do so herself might seem either a generous act or one of enormous arrogance. Or again—and this is the most painful hypothesis—it becomes a weapon to render the people we love harmless, even if it means that we crush them. What relationship do you have with writing from this point of view?

Ferrante: Writing is an act of pride. I’ve always known that, and so for a long time I hid the fact that I was writing, especially from the people I loved. I was afraid of exposing myself and of others’ disapproval. Jane Austen organized herself so that she could immediately hide her pages if someone came into the room where she had taken refuge. It’s a reaction I’m familiar with: you’re ashamed of your presumptuousness, because there is nothing that can justify it, not even success. However I state it, the fact remains that I have assumed the right to imprison others in what I seem to see, feel, think, imagine, and know. Is it a task? A mission? A vocation? Who called on me, who assigned me that task and that mission? A god? A people? A social class? A party? The culture industry? The lowly, the disinherited, the lost causes? The entire human race? The elusive subject that is women? My mother, my female friends? No—by now it’s blindingly obvious that I alone authorized myself. I assigned myself, for motives that are obscure even to me, the job of describing what I know of my era, that is—in its simplest form—what happened under my nose, that is to say the life, the dreams, the fantasies, the languages of a narrow group of people and events, within a restricted space, in an unimportant language made even less important by the use I make of it. One tends to say: let’s not overdo it, it’s only a job. It may be that things are like that now. Things change, and the verbal vestments in which we wrap them change. But pride remains. I remain, I who spend a large part of my day reading and writing, because I have assigned myself the task of describing. And I cannot soothe myself by saying: it’s a job. When did I ever consider writing a job? I’ve never written to earn a living. I write to bear witness to the fact that I have lived and have sought a yardstick for myself and for others, since those others couldn’t or didn’t know how or didn’t want to do it. What is this if not pride? And what does it imply if not “You don’t know how to see me and see yourselves, but I see myself and I see you”? No, there is no way around it. The only possibility is to learn to put the “I” into perspective, to pour it into the work and then go away, to consider writing something that separates from us the moment it’s complete: one of the many collateral effects of an active life.