by Valerie Popp
Last September, during a sultry late-summer lunch hour in Manhattan, I had a street encounter that very nearly moved me to tears. I was crossing Broadway near Lincoln Center with a copy of Elena Ferrante’s just-released novel The Story of the Lost Child in my hand. Suddenly someone seized my arm and yelped. Good New Yorker that I am, I was girding myself for a confrontation when the arm-grabber spoke.
“Have you finished that yet?”
Turning, I saw that my assailant was a petite woman with a blonde pixie cut. She gestured to my book as she balanced a collapsing vanilla ice cream cone in one hand and an irascible toddler in the other.
“I just started it,” I replied. “But she’s so good!”
“She’s so good!” the cone-eating pixie echoed. “I just love her!” And she smiled and pulled her child down the sidewalk, and I smiled and returned to work, amazed that someone had taken a moment, on New York’s pugilistic streets, to grab my arm about a book.
There is something raw about how women have responded to Ferrante’s work, especially the Neapolitan quartet. Forget the Instagram joys of “Hot Dudes Reading” (joys which are bounteous, I admit). Everywhere I look I see women with Ferrante’s novels. Hunched over copies of My Brilliant Friend on the subway. Snatching up copies of The Story of a New Name from front tables at the Strand. Peppering tweets with the hashtag #ferrantefever. Pondering questions about Lila as frenemy and Nino as liberal mansplainer extraordinaire. If you’ve ever sat in a humanities class, you’ve definitely met a Nino.
Yet, I can’t help but feel that the present frenzy over Ferrante is misguided. When I consider the importance of her work, my first thoughts aren’t about the subjects that seem to enthrall everyone else: violence, sex, love, motherhood, the contours of female friendship between narrator Lenu, who rises from poverty to become a celebrated novelist, and her beautiful, “brilliant friend” Lila, whose ambitions are stunted. Rather, what fascinates me about Ferrante’s novels is the verisimilitude with which she portrays the working-class woman writer’s life.
A confession is probably in order here. I’m a literary critic, and I’m also the first person in my family to attend college and graduate school. My father is a retired auto mechanic and my mother is an aide at my old junior high. Unlike Lenu’s family in the Neapolitan novels, my family never actively discouraged my schooling. Instead, we joke that our clan went from “GED to PhD” in one generation. But it’s a fact that my parents do not, and cannot, fully comprehend what it means to be a professional writer and thinker. My background also means that I am part of an underrepresented group in higher education. First-generation academics graduate with more debt. They tend to take longer to earn their degrees. Lacking the financial and social capital of their peers, they often flail in relentless job markets where schmoozing and/or having the ability to wait out a year (or three) in economic precarity can mean the difference between a plum tenure-track post and a feeling of failure. And, as I can attest, first-generation academics often struggle to find genuine community in the disciplines they inhabit. This is especially true of literature, where not only are you surrounded by privileged colleagues, but many of the books you read, review, and teach promulgate a worldview that doesn’t have any space for you in it.
So I find that reading Elena Ferrante’s work affords me a rare pleasure: the pleasure of recognition. Here in the United States, the working-class dimensions of Ferrante’s work tend to get elided, ignored, or attenuated into something charming and “primitive” that the literary coterie—who, for the most part, are middle- or upper-class born—can admire from a distance (witness the New York Times’s smugly voyeuristic travel piece on exploring Ferrante’s “disheveled” Naples). Yet I’d argue that Ferrante’s novels about women like Lila and Lenu are a potent reminder that working-class women’s perspectives are out there, even if we can’t always hear each other, even if we’re sometimes embarrassed and alone, even if we feel exasperated by a system that valorizes experiences and credentials that we can never claim.
To be sure, our voices are getting louder these days. There’s the lyrical Sarah Smarsh.Linda Tirado. Lynsey Hanley over in the UK, writing about rising from a council estate to the middle class. Or Guardian columnist Rebecca Carroll, who spoke with Ferrante’s translator Ann Goldstein at the 2016 Pen World Voices Festival. During her exchange with Goldstein, Carroll recounted talking with novelist Sherman Alexie about the “alienation” of being educated and working-class: “We wondered – does that make us better people that we have gotten education, have traveled, eaten at various places around the world and read books?” If you have “bootstrapped” yourself up into the elite, not a day goes by when you don’t ask yourself that question. You are always aware of how your education (supposedly such an equalizing, empowering gift) has alienated you from yourself, your family, and the community where you were born.
And here’s something else. If you’re a woman, that feeling is worse. A lot worse.
If you’re a smart girl growing up in a poor community, myriad social and economic responsibilities stand between you and your books. There are brothers and sisters to discipline or bail out of jail or feed or tutor, hell, perhaps parents to discipline or bail out of jail or feed or tutor. Boyfriends or girlfriends who require your emotional labor. Teachers who expect obedience and leadership in addition to your stellar GPA, and of course you need to be smiling and gracious and leaning in until your vertebrae are pretzeled. Because the truth is that unlike smart, poor boys, smart, poor girls don’t have the Junot Diaz model. They can’t really elect to be loner geek geniuses. Well, they can, but if they dare to abandon the many types of affective labor that they, as poor women, are expected to perform, they suffer profoundly for it—socially, academically, economically. That suffering is seldom discussed in feminist literature in any sustained or meaningful way, but it is critical to Ferrante’s work. As Ferrante’s narrator Lenu incisively observes when she tells her family that she is leaving Naples for university in Pisa: “it seemed to me that in their eyes I was no longer me but a stranger who had come to visit at an inconvenient time.”
Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels expose the daily compromises, negotiations, self-effacements, and self-delusions that underpin social mobility. In doing so, the novels give an exuberant middle finger to the linearity of the conventional rags-to-riches narrative. So yes, Lenu does well on her school exams, but her results are almost an afterthought; the true story is not her fine academic performance but rather her efforts to find enough literal and figurative nourishment to study. Unable to read in her family’s noisy, tumultuous flat, Lenu seeks refuge in Lila’s home, where she has food, light, silence, and new books. At the same time, we are never permitted to forget the steep cost of these luxuries, as Lila “pays” for Lenu’s room of her own by giving her body over to her wealthy husband Stefano. Such transactions, Ferrante suggests, are nothing new for working-class women. The problem is that novels rarely document them.
Or take the instance when Lenu’s mentor Professor Galiani invites her to an intellectual soiree and Lenu is tormented by her lack of suitable clothing. Reading that passage, I couldn’t help but be struck by how crisply Ferrante articulates what dozens of think pieces about first-generation students fail to grasp. All Professor Galiani can see is that she is giving Lenu, her protégée, a chance for advancement, and all Lenu can think about is that she doesn’t have the right dress: “Probably it didn’t even occur to Professor Galiani that I had nothing to wear. In class I wore a shapeless black smock. What did she expect there was, the professor, under that smock: clothes and slips and underwear like hers? There was inadequacy, rather, there was poverty, poor breeding.”
Poor students know this sensation well, the humiliating admixture of official acceptance and unofficial prohibition. It’s getting the admissions letter and the scholarship but not having enough cash for the winter trip home. It’s having a free ticket to the fancy dance but looking in your closet and seeing empty hangers. If you were/are a first-generation student, these situations aren’t fiction. They’re memories. When I was a freshman at Yale, I once cried in front of a bank branch manager because my work-study check hadn’t cleared and I overdrew my checking account trying to buy a pair of shoes for a formal. I will always remember sitting there in the bank and weeping and clutching the bag with my dumb, cheap heels, feeling ashamed and panicked that my parents would find out. The bank manager, a kindly man, somehow restored the money to my account so that I had enough money to last me until my check cleared. But for me, it was one more sign that I didn’t belong at Yale. Ferrante’s novels are wonderfully uncompromising when it comes to portraying the “violence” of these small moments of class dislocation. Such experiences are “like a yank: to be dragged by the arm, forced to do a thing that, although it appeals to you, you know is not suitable.”
Ferrante’s books confirm that the act of writing can have profound socioeconomic and political implications for the people who must navigate such slights and inequalities. What do you do when you marry a man outside of your class? How do you make small talk with all of his boarding school relatives and friends? How do you respond when all of your classmates’ parents are at graduation and your relative tells you that she wishes that you had not left the stradone, the barrio, that you were “not supposed to do this” with your considerable intellectual gifts- this being the life of a writer, a scholar, a humanist. Nobody tells you these things, nobody talks about these things. What’s more, you can read an orientation guide during your first week of school, even a special “first-generation” packet, you can watch uplifting videos and speeches from fellow first-generation grads, but let’s be real: there’s no pamphlet for the emotional component of upward social mobility. You learn those lessons haltingly, painfully, unevenly, looking backward all the while, and knowing that but for one exam, one book, one teacher’s intervention, your life might have turned out oh-so-differently. That’s what separates you from your classmates or colleagues. And that, perhaps, is the most resonant gift that Ferrante’s writing offers to those of us who’ve made Lenu’s journey. Whether or not Ferrante based Lenu’s move from Neapolitan squalor to Florentine literary aristocracy on her own life is irrelevant. In centering her series on working-class women like Lenu and Lila, Ferrante reminds us that our lives, too, are art.