Translated by Ann Goldstein
Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
You might know Elena Ferrante as that anonymous Italian author nobody knows anything about. In the only interview she’s given—conducted by her publishers and featured in the Paris Review—Ferrante explains that the reason she has completely shunned public life and uses a pen name is so readers focus on her words and not her persona. Unlike most authors, who are pressured to tweet and post about their new publications and reviews, and who sheepishly implore friends and fans to attend their readings, Ferrante says her anonymity has allowed her to avoid “the self-promotion obsessively imposed by the media.” Self-promotion feels cheap because it cheapens the work of art; the focus becomes the author and not the author’s books. While avoiding this trap, Ferrante has been able to write some truly phenomenal books—so phenomenal that she herself has become a phenomenon.
After the opening pages of Ferrante’s first novel, Troubling Love, I got it—her ubiquitous praise was well deserved. Rage is a word frequently used to describe Ferrante’s voice, but a more appropriate term is power. Her writing is powerful. She’s powerful. And she’s powerful because she’s precise, without a hint of self-indulgence. Restraint is what makes her strong. Her sentences are buzzing, sizzling, as if the words themselves were “unstable, like a carbonated drink that, if shaken, bubbles up and overflows”—to borrow an apt simile from Troubling Love. Instead of focusing on plot or ideas, Ferrante is more concerned about the right word, the right rhythm of a sentence, the right tone. “Without the right words,” she says, “without long practice in putting them together, nothing comes out alive and true.” For years she wrote stories based on childhood memories, memories of “crude family acts of violence,” and eventually she developed her narrator, Delia. But Ferrante found each of these stories unsatisfying. Then came the character Amalia, Delia’s mother, and what was “previously fragmented became whole.”
Troubling Love begins with a shock: “My mother drowned on the night of May 23rd, my birthday, in the sea at a place called Spaccavento, a few miles from Minturno.” The dry delivery, the banal details of the date and location of the drowning, all combine to reflect the state of shock and calm one experiences upon the first wave of trauma. And what’s more traumatic than the loss of one’s mother? No matter how old one is, no matter how independent, this loss makes it impossible not to feel alone in the world. It’s an inevitable existential crisis, at any age. (And we can hear an echo of Camus’s infamous opening line of The Stranger: “Maman died today.”) And it seems this is what Troubling Love is trying to uncover: not trauma itself, but previously repressed childhood memories that are brought to the surface following the trauma of her mother’s death.
In the opening scene, Delia has traveled from Rome to Naples, where she grew up, to attend the funeral of her mother. Despite the tradition of male pallbearers, Delia is helping to carry her mother’s coffin. Unlike her two sisters, Delia can’t cry. But she suddenly feels “a warm flow between” her legs. It’s as if her tear ducts are blocked, and so fluid flows out elsewhere. After cleaning herself in a bar bathroom, she emerges to be verbally assaulted by an obscene old man known as Caserta. It’s all a captivating shock for the reader, and there is hardly time to recover. As Delia learns more about the relationship between her mother and Caserta, she’s constantly assaulted, mainly by odors; the word odor is used over a dozen times throughout the novel—the odor of burned fabric, the odor of oil paints, the odor of a man’s worn shirt, sweat mixed with deodorant.
Delia’s heightened sensitivity seems to have roots in her traumatic childhood, when she “had seen blood between cries and insults.” Her father, a painter who always felt “people didn’t appreciate him as they should,” was a jealous, violent man. Caserta helped sell his paintings, but when he suspected that Caserta and his wife were having an affair, Delia watched her mother be “battered by slaps, punches, kicks.” This past is why she “had made a clean break with all my relatives in order to avoid, at every encounter, hearing them lament in their dialect the evil misfortune of my mother and make vulgar threats toward my father.”
The Neapolitan dialect—a dialect that for Delia inherently contains both coarseness and violence—is a common presence in Ferrante’s books, something her narrators are always aware of, and trying to distance themselves from. Yet they can’t ever escape their past. And so it is by remembering her mother that Delia finally discovers herself: “I realized with unexpected tenderness that in fact I had Amalia under my skin, like a hot liquid that had been injected into me at some unknown time.” And there’s an example of the most impressive aspect of Ferrante’s writing: the airtight sentences, and her startlingly original, bull’s-eye accurate metaphors and similes. When looking at old photographs she thinks: “Those images of us from so long ago were yellowed, cracked, like the figures of winged demons in certain altarpieces that the faithful have defaced with pointed objects.”
Such sentences leave nothing in the mind but the impression of the image itself. Taken in combination, in accumulation, they make reading Ferrante an intense experience. My brow knits as I turn the pages, and remains furrowed for hours afterward.
Ferrante’s second novel, The Days of Abandonment, also deals with trauma, this time the trauma of being abandoned by a loved one, and abandoning oneself. Olga is thirty-eight when her husband Mario leaves her, providing only a vague explanation that “soft voices, a sort of whispering, were urging him elsewhere.” Mario says that he is struck by “a sudden absence of sense,” but it is Olga who experiences the deterioration of her mind and its senses, after she discovers he’s left her for another woman. Ferrante perfectly captures the poisoned mental state one experiences after being dumped, the pain and humiliation of adultery: Olga “felt so violently the bitterness of loss, an intolerable grief, the anxiety of falling out of the web of certainties, and having to relearn life without the security of knowing how to do it.” In such a state, she begins to change. Within a month, she stops wearing make-up. She goes “from using a refined language, attentive to the feelings of others, to a sarcastic way of expressing myself, punctuated by coarse laughter. Slowly, in spite of my resistance, I also gave in to obscenity.” Here is the presence of language again, and it’s a way of providing emotional protection through vulgarity.
There is always a place in Ferrante’s novels when she breaks through her “character’s armor of good education and good manners,” a change of register Ferrante relishes: “I enjoy upsetting her self-image, her will, and revealing another, rougher soul underneath, someone raucous, maybe even crude.” Yes, crude—once Mario admits he left Olga for another woman, she indulges in the questioning of sordid details: “Do you lick her cunt?” she asks. “Do you stick it in her ass? Do you do all the things you never did with me?” When her husband chides her for her foul language, she explodes: “You wounded me, you are destroying me, and I’m supposed to speak like a good, well-brought up wife? Fuck you!”
Abandoned, Olga goes on living in a disoriented haze. “Exhausted, exasperated,” she takes care of her household duties, shops, cooks, and cleans, alone. “Deadlines, taxes, the post office, the bank.” She feels “like a lump of food” that her 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.” Her awareness deteriorates slowly, then quickly. Did she leave the coffee burning on the stove? Did she leave the door to their apartment open? She can’t remember. Things descend until the day she accidentally locks herself inside her apartment—with a sick son, incessant daughter, and poisoned dog—and this is where she hits bottom.
And from bottom, one can only go up. Eventually she understands, “Sometimes we’re good, at times detestable.” And she moves on. She realizes that existence is “a start of joy, a stab of pain, an intense pleasure, veins that pulse under the skin, there is no other truth to tell.”
But Ferrante is a supreme artist, and as it is the artist’s job to explain otherwise ineffable truth, she has more truths to tell.
The Lost Daughter, Ferrante’s third novel, is the book that she says made her “feel the most guilty.” Like the first two novels, Ferrante’s third also begins with trauma, this time a car accident. Unlike the first two books, the trauma that Ferrante explores in her third is not direct—not the death of a mother or the abandonment of a wife, and not even the trauma of the car accident. Rather, it seems to be about the trauma of parenthood itself—“the bond that strangles.”
After all, a child “is a vortex of anxieties,” and so simply being a young mother is what has traumatized Leda, the narrator of The Lost Daughter. Years later, she understands that loving is what she needed to escape. She had loved her daughters too much, and she believed that her love for them would keep her from becoming herself, and so she left her family to see what her “real possibilities” were. But after three years of living with a renowned English academic and making a go at her career, Leda abruptly returned to Italy and took her daughters back, raising them alone. Later, she explains: “Sometimes you have to escape in order not to die.” This idea of a life stolen by the demands of motherhood often haunts the minds of Ferrante’s characters.
Move ahead twenty years, Leda’s grown daughters move away and rather than feel sad in the empty nest, Leda confesses she actually feels “light.” Unlike Olga, Leda “no longer had the constant bother of shopping and doing the laundry.” She’s free from the demands of motherhood, and so she decides to spend August reading and writing in a village on the Ionian coast.
On vacation, Leda is free to be herself. She plans to lounge all day in a chaise on the beach but there’s a large clan of obnoxious Neapolitans staying near her, speaking in the dialect that serves as one of Ferrante’s motifs. Listening to the family, Leda thinks, “They were just like the relations from whom I had fled as a girl. I couldn’t bear them and yet they held me tight, I had them all inside me.” Such is the power that language has over Ferrante’s narrators: “Languages for me have a secret venom that every so often foams up and for which there is no antidote.” The venom of the dialect of her youth. These Neapolitans represent that which Leda has tried to escape: her mother’s influence, which she not only tried to rid herself of, but also tried to avoid instilling in her own daughters. Expressing loathing for Naples and Neapolitans, Leda says: “I didn’t think the city could contain life forms different from those I had known as a child, violent or sensually lazy, tinged with sentimental vulgarity or obtusely fortified in defense of their own wretched degradation.” Yet when Leda hears a mother and child in the group speak to a doll in the same Neapolitan dialect, she claims she “loves” it, that their speech “enchants” her.
The child is Elena, the mother is Nina, and it is Leda’s attraction to Nina that brings her closer to the Neapolitan family. Nina’s husband is a laconic and imposing man who oozes violence, without ever acting violently, and his sister, Rosaria, is strong and loud and seven months pregnant. Being in close proximity to such people makes Leda realize: “Despite my breaking away, I haven’t gone very far. If I wanted, in a moment I could go back to being just like this woman, Rosaria.”
Leda becomes involved in their lives. First indirectly, by observing their family dramas from a distance. Then little Elena gets lost on the beach and the family panics. Leda is the one who finds the child, which allows her to become intimate with Nina, who reminds Leda of herself when she was a young mother. Later, Leda creates family dramas herself, by doing—as Ferrante explains in her interview—“a reckless gesture whose meaning escapes her and that she surely can’t decipher.” Because of this action, Leda’s vacation is anything but relaxing and productive.
Through her distressing involvement with the Neapolitan family, Leda is able to explore her past as a young mother, to understand why she left her children, and why she returned. She’s able to accept who she is now, as she enters the next phase of her life, without children. She understands that people do things without understanding why they do them.
In the beginning of The Lost Daughter, Leda says, “The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can’t understand.” These things we don’t understand are what Elena Ferrante writes about. After reading her early novels, one thing was clear: I wanted to dive into a sea of Ferrante, and never stop swimming.