July 25, 2015
I’ve heard it said that only women can fully appreciate the achievement of Elena Ferrante, the pseudonymous Italian novelist of obsessively guarded privacy. It is certainly true that I have never experienced the agony of childbirth. I have never known the adolescent trauma of inexplicable bleeding. Nor have I felt what life is like for a single woman – an abandoned wife or one that has left her husband – forced to deal with her grief and fury. I have not felt the love-hate that Ferrante’s protagonists harbour against their mothers and children, or their jealousy of younger, more attractive women. I have not suffered the sexual indignities and outrages her characters endure.
All that is indisputable, yet I have the decidedly unfashionable conviction that writing of the first order – and Ferrante is an outstanding writer – transcends the limitations of gender, just as it is capable of transcending the barriers of class and even (in many if not most instances) those of language. In that sense, great writing is essentially neuter.
It is possible that the few flaws, the moments of excessive melodrama or one instance of improbable sentimentality that I have discovered in these three short novels are no more than chimeras glimpsed by a male sensibility. I do not think that is so, but others will perhaps disagree strenuously.
All three of these short works – the longest is just shy of 200 pages – pre-date the first of Ferrante’s celebrated cycle of Neapolitan novels, the fourth and final volume of which is to be published in September. They are intense and at times discomforting texts that stand halfway between the anecdotal nature of most short stories and the scope and amplitude of fully developed novels. If they were conceived and written in the order in which they were originally published in Italy, they reveal how Ferrante managed to perfect her art, to avoid some of the technical and perhaps imaginative difficulties inherent in such compressed works of fiction.
The timescale in each is purposefully restricted: one day in Troubling Love, the months between spring and winter in The Days of Abandonment, and a couple of weeks in high summer in The Lost Daughter. Each is narrated by a woman facing a crisis in her life, which forces her to return to the past, at times in a shocking manner.
Troubling Love was first published in 1999. It begins with a characteristically arresting sentence: “My mother drowned on the night of May 23rd, my birthday…” The bulk of the novella is focused on the day of the old lady’s funeral in Naples. Her daughter Delia, the narrator, roams the city, remembering her childhood in a slum tenement, constantly conscious of her ambivalence towards her mother. Ultimately, she discovers her own confused obsession with the man who was supposed to have become her abandoned mother’s lover.
There are several highly melodramatic episodes scattered throughout: a remarkably explicit description of a sexual bout; a chase on Naples’ funicular; and a vivid episode set in the crumbling basement of a former pastry shop. Ferrante’s uncompromising directness and her unflinching gaze cannot be faulted, yet Troubling Love carries overtones of occasional contrivance that the later texts manage largely to avoid.
The Days of Abandonment (2002) begins in an equally striking way. “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” What follows are Olga’s disbelief, her painful and in a way humiliating discovery about the identity of her husband’s lover, her fury – at her children as much as at her husband – and her near-disintegration. Yet she is forced to acknowledge aspects of her inner self that she has pushed to the back of her mind.
This work is better constructed and, therefore, aesthetically more successful than its predecessor, despite one over-the-top and improbable episode when Olga manages to lock herself, her children and her dead dog inside her flat – the telephone had been cut off long before – and the (to my mind) novelettish consequences of their rescue.
On the other hand, The Lost Daughter (2006), which begins (and in a sense ends) with a car crash, seems to me close to perfection. Leda, who had left her husband and daughters years earlier, encounters a voluble and fundamentally sinister Neapolitan family at a seaside resort. She is dragged into their lives as she observes them, particularly a graceful young woman called Nina, married to a brute it turns out, and Nina’s young daughter. The plot is focused on an ugly rag doll the disconsolate child loses, which Leda, guilt-ridden on account of her daughters, finds and filches. Marvellous stuff this: Ferrante knows her (or maybe his) Freud through and through and works wonders with it.