The Neapolitan Quartet – Book One
Translated by Ann Goldstein
2012, pp. 336, Paperback
$ 18.00 / £ 10.99
A modern masterpiece from one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense, and generous-hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila. Elena Ferrante’s inimitable style lends itself perfectly to a meticulous portrait of these two women that is also the story of a nation and a touching meditation on the nature of friendship. The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain best friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists, the unforgettable Elena and Lila. Ferrante is the author of three previous works of critically acclaimed fiction: The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love, and The Lost Daughter. With this novel, the first in a quartet, she proves herself to be one of Italy’s great storytellers. She has given her readers a masterfully plotted page-turner, abundant and generous in its narrative details and characterizations, that is also a stylish work of literary fiction destined to delight her many fans and win new readers to her fiction.
Read it now:
Struggling to find a good summer read? At Euphemism, we think that no season is complete without a good book or two—that’s why today we’re offering up a recommendation from our own Zeph Webster, here to help you in the search for your next literary adventure. In this installment of #YellingAboutBooks!, Zeph reviews Elena Ferrante’s intriguing novel My Brilliant Friend (Europa Editions 2012):
“Anyone familiar with the world of contemporary literature is likely highly aware of Elena Ferrante’s presence, and frankly, anyone who isn’t should be. Ferrante, the pseudonym of an anonymous Italian author, has become something of an obsession in the world of contemporary fiction, inspiring think pieces and conspiracy fodder in the New York Times, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, and more.
My Brilliant Friend is the first entry in the author’s Neapolitan quartet, a series of novels spanning the 60-year friendship of Elena and Lila, introduced to us in My Brilliant Friend as two strikingly intelligent and charismatic Italian girls. Elena is our narrator, but both girls are our subjects, for Lila is to readers and characters alike a magnetic and unpredictable personality, worthy of adoration, envy, and suspicion. We come to know Lila’s trenchant and often dark understanding of life from Elena’s thoughts and memories, slowly connecting with Elena’s place away from the pedestal, yet always wanting more, knowing that what makes Lila the tremendous figure she is is not only unattainable, but unknowable.
What makes My Brilliant Friend worthy of the intellectual hype it’s received is neither the shadow of its author nor its plot—what makes it a spectacular piece of literature is the magic of the prose itself. Ferrante’s mastery of detail, imagery, and syntax is a refreshing reminder of what writing should do: transport, tantalize, inspire, and cause to wonder. Ultimately, we’re duped into believing that the contents of what lies between the covers are greater than the sum of its parts; though constructed entirely of words, novels like My Brilliant Friend are so clearly and distinctly more than words can describe.”
What do you think of My Brilliant Friend? Have you read any of the other books in this quartet? Let us know all about it, and which books you’d like to Yell (or hear) about in our next installment of #YellingAboutBooks!
by GD Dess
JULY 29, 2017
WRITERS FROM Charlotte Brontë, Virginia Woolf, Jane Bowles, and Mary McCarthy to Emma Cline, Ottessa Moshfegh, Sheila Heti, and Robin Wasserman have written remarkable novels about female friendship, but no one has tackled the complex search for female personal identity, and the construction of a feminine self through lifelong friendship, that is at the core of Elena Ferrante’s project in the quartet of works known as the Neapolitan novels: My Brilliant Friend (2011), The Story of a New Name (2012), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2013), and The Story of the Lost Child (2015).
The ferocity of Ferrante’s writing style is what strikes most readers first. Her language is muscular, never orotund. It feels spoken, almost confessional. There appears to be no mitigation between her consciousness and the words on the page. In a 2015 interview in the Paris Review she said that sincerity is “the engine of every literary project.” She went on to say that she strives for literary truth in her writing, which she defines as “entirely a matter of wording” and “directly proportional to the energy that one is able to impress on the sentence.” This is a skill Ferrante says she has acquired over the years.
Not everyone agrees. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Tim Parks, the writer, critic, and translator of many leading Italian authors (Alberto Moravia, Antonio Tabucchi, Italo Calvino) claimed he can’t read more than 50 pages of Ferrante’s writing and finds it “wearisomely concocted, determinedly melodramatic.” He cites the scene of a fight between two neighbors. The women grapple with each other and roll down the stairs “entwined.” One of their heads hits the floor of the landing — “a few inches from my shoes,” reports Elena, “like a white melon that has slipped from your hand.” Parks comments: “As in a B movie, a head hits the floor a few inches from our hero’s shoes. Then comes the half-hearted attempt to transform cartoon reportage into literature: ‘like a white melon that has slipped from your hand.’” He finds Ferrante makes “no effort of the imagination,” simply “announces melodrama.” Indeed, he is “astonished that other people are not irritated by this lazy writing.”
James Wood has suggested that Ferrante’s writing is influenced by second-wave feminist writers such as Margaret Drabble and Hélène Cixous, and Ferrante has acknowledged her familiarity with the work of Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva. In a 2015 interview, when asked what fiction or nonfiction has most affected her, Ferrante also names Donna J. Haraway and “an old book” by Adriana Cavarero, Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood (1997). This is a useful clue. In her book, Cavarero directly addresses the subject of female identity. She posits that identity is not an innate quality we master and express, but rather the outcome of a relational practice, something given to us from another, in the form of a narratable “life-story.”
Cavarero first makes this point in “The Paradox of Ulysses,” using the scene from the Odyssey in which Ulysses listens to a blind rhapsode recount his exploits in the Trojan war and weeps, because for the first time he has become aware of the meaning of the story of which he is the hero. She then provides a “lived” example: the story of Amalia and Emilia, two women who meet at an adult education class devoted to raising the consciousness of women.  Emilia talks about herself constantly, telling Amalia that she has lived a repressed life. Yet she cannot shape a coherent narrative: “she wasn’t able to connect any of it up.” Amelia helps her by writing the story of her life based on what she has heard. “Once I wrote the story of her life […] she always carried it in her handbag and read it again and again,” and, like Ulysses, she was “overcome by emotion.” The story of Emilia’s life set down in writing by Amelia made her recognize that “my ‘I’ exists.” She needed this ontological affirmation of herself.
Cavarero’s conception of the formation of the feminine “I” factors directly into Ferrante’s writing. In a 2016 interview, Ferrante explained that “the female ‘I’ in particular, with its long history of oppression and repression, tends to shatter as it’s tossed around, and to reappear and shatter again, always in an unpredictable way.” Most of her female characters do, in fact, harbor an “other” violent “I,” one that emerges from anger, resentment, or a deep psychological wound. In The Days of Abandonment (2002), a pre-Neapolitan novel, the narrator, Olga, “accidently” feeds her husband pasta with crushed glass in it after he tells her he is leaving her; later, she physically attacks him in the street when she sees him with his new lover. In The Lost Daughter (2006), the violence is more subtle. Leda, a divorced mother of two, is vacationing at the beach. She befriends a mother, Nina, and her young daughter Elena. One day, spontaneously, Leda steals the little girl’s doll.  She tells us she took the doll because it “guarded the love of Nina and Elena, their bond, their reciprocal passion. She was the shining testimony of perfect motherhood.” While Nina and her daughter endure no end of pain and suffering because of the doll’s disappearance, Leda hides the doll in her apartment. It becomes a talisman, bringing back memories of her unhappy married life and the pain she caused her daughters by abandoning them and her husband for another man. The theft of the doll is a symbolic reenactment of shattering the “perfect motherhood.” And the violence she inflicts on the mother and daughter, seeing them suffer as she suffered, yields a perverse pleasure that assuages her wounded psyche.
Of all Ferrante’s female protagonists, the narrator of the Neapolitan novels, Elena Greco, is the least interesting. Nevertheless, she is the direct descendent of the women Ferrante has been writing about for decades: they are all divorced or separated, vaguely middle aged, educated, industrious; for the most part they have risen above the poverty of their youth, but have had to fight for the nominal bourgeois social station they now inhabit. They are no strangers to rage, resentment, and existential angst, and they all attempt to discover themselves, to become who they are, or who they continually hope to be.
In The Days of Abandonment, Olga is abandoned by her husband and graphically chronicles her descent into a temporary psychotic state after his departure. As she struggles to remain “healthy” while surviving the dissolution of her married identity she ponders what will become of her. “What was I?” she wonders, and tells us: “This was the reality that I was about to discover, behind the appearance of so many years. I was already no longer I, I was someone else.” And this someone else wanted “to be me.”
We find this same struggle to recognize oneself in The Lost Daughter. Its narrator, Leda, tells us: “I had a sense of dissolving, as if I, an orderly pile of dust, had been blown about by the wind all day and now was suspended in the air without a shape.” While Elena is shrewder and more calculating than Ferrante’s previous heroines, her desires are more banal — “I want to get a driver’s license, I want to travel, I want to have a telephone, a television, I’ve never had anything” — and directed solely toward attaining success and the bourgeois lifestyle that accompanies it. But, while she wants these things, she keeps her wants suppressed and hidden from those around her, and asks herself if this is because she is “frightened by the violence with which, in fact, in [her] innermost self, [she] wanted things, people, praise, triumphs.”
In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, after she is published and married and successful, a reflective Elena informs us she has always been fascinated by the word “become”: “Become. It was a verb that had always obsessed me […] I wanted to become, even though I had never known what. And I had become, that was certain, but without an object, without a real passion, without a determined ambition.”
At one point, Elena’s mother-in-law gives her some books on Italian feminism by Carla Lonzi, one of the founders of the Rivolta Femminile, an Italian feminist collective. Elena says she knows well enough what it means to be a woman, and puts them away. But one day she picks up Lonzi’s seminal manifesto, “Let’s Spit on Hegel,” and it leaves her agape: “How,” she wonders “is it possible […] that a woman knows how to think like that. I worked so hard on books, but I endured them, I never actually used them, I never turned them against themselves. This is thinking. This is thinking against. I — after so much exertion — don’t know how to think.” Weary of her marriage, of domestic banality, Elena is suffocated by the life she chose. She tries to imagine what another life could be, wonders how she can create her “I,” but her imagination fails her. She is jealous of her sister-in-law who is single, attends political meetings, and is active in feminist causes.
Elena’s life careens from one thing to another; it is always “complicated” and hurried. She develops an “eagerness for violation” and chooses to engage suitors: “I was attracted by any man who gave me the slightest encouragement. Tall, short, thin, fat, ugly, handsome, old, married or a bachelor, if the [man] praised an observation of mine […] my availability communicated itself.” But, despite her education and exposure to “literary” texts, her desire to “become” someone doesn’t lead her to seek the causes of her taedium vitae, or to transform herself and transcend her current situation: it leads only to a man other than her husband. Once again, Ferrante references Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, whose heroine experiences a similar restlessness after marriage. No sooner is Emma Bovary ensconced in her country house with her husband than she finds herself unhappy — burdened with household chores and so disappointed in marriage that she begins to wish she was back in the convent in which she was raised. She dreams of escaping her fate. “But how,” Emma wonders, “to speak about so elusive a malaise, one that keeps changing its shape like the clouds and its direction like the winds?”
This modern-day malady from which Emma and Elena suffer, “malaise,” is related to ennui — what we prosaically refer to as boredom. It is the “noonday demon” of the ancient Christian fathers, and Baudelaire’s “delicate monster.” What Flaubert’s and Ferrante’s characters are trying to articulate is a presentiment that the eternal return of days — days filled with chores and the petty needs of others — can’t be all there is. What nags at them is the feeling that strikes us all when, in a funk, we ask ourselves: Is this really my life? Is this all there is? What would “more” be?
Elena’s own malaise remains similarly unnamable. Ferrante allows Elena to bemoan her unhappy life for well over a thousand pages, to wallow in the “cycle of ennui,” from which there may sometimes be no escape except the one offered by Flaubert. Of course, Elena doesn’t meet a tragic end. Ferrante does finally allow her to free herself (at least temporarily) from her lifelong predicament and shows us, briefly, what living without “the monster” would be like. This demonstration takes place late in the last volume of the tetralogy, at which point Elena has gained literary recognition, abandoned her husband and her children, and has been living with her lover, Nino, for a year and a half: “It was then that — we said to each other — our true life had begun. And what we called true life was that impression of miraculous splendor that never abandoned us even when everyday horrors took the stage. […] We hurried to dinner, to good food, wine, sex.” So “true life” appears to be nothing more than the commonplaces of bourgeois material success. Elena includes Nino in her declaration, but he doesn’t seem to have bought into this view. While she is waxing exuberant about the “true life” they are leading, he is busy having sex with the nanny. Soon, the couple separates. As Elena discovers, her notion of “true life” is just as misguided as Emma’s belief that “certain portions of the earth must produce happiness — as though it were a plant native only to those soils and doomed to languish elsewhere.”
What is deeply disappointing about Elena is her inability to transform herself — even though she seemingly has the intellectual capacity for it. We feel that if she had perhaps dedicated herself more to intellectual and spiritual matters instead of “cultivating resentment” she might have progressed toward some sort of enlightenment. At times, we feel the tension between her lucid self-awareness and latent self-actualization. Ferrante keeps us teetering with anticipation of change as we read page after page of Elena’s ruthless psychological insights, and witness her pathological excavation of her feelings. We keep hoping for a catharsis that never comes. One could argue, with reference to Adorno, that the “jargon of authenticity” she employs in search of her ever-elusive “I” is nothing more than narcissism.
The truly interesting character in the Neapolitan novels is Lila. She is a marvel. Unconventional, volatile, aggressive, ambitious, by turns emotionally stingy and generous, she is both intellectually gifted and entrepreneurial. She is self-possessed and unpossessable. By the time she is an adolescent, it is apparent to Elena that Lila “took the facts and in a natural way charged them with tension; she intensified reality as she reduced it to words, she injected it with energy.” While Elena worries about her appearance and her attractiveness to boys, Lila has already apprehended how the world works. From an early age, she is keenly aware of both the social and political injustices people of her impoverished class (whom the cruel, bitter teacher Maestra Oliviero refers to as “plebs”) are forced to suffer; and she also grasps, with Roquentin-like perspicacity, the meaninglessness of existence.
At 15, just before Lila is married, Elena, proud of her book learning, attempts to impress her friend with her knowledge of theology. Lila responds tartly: “You still waste time with those things? […] There are microbes everywhere that make us sick and die. There are wars. There is a poverty that makes us all cruel. Every second something might happen that will cause you such suffering that you’ll never have enough tears.” Throughout her childhood and youth, Lila takes more beatings than MMA champion Ronda Rousey. Her father throws her out the window and breaks her arm. Her brother pummels her over a disagreement about the shoes they are designing. “Every time Lila and I met,” says Elena, “I saw a new bruise.” Her boyfriend, and later husband, Stefano, beats her relentlessly, sometimes even punching her in the face. He rapes her on their honeymoon, from which she returns black and blue, and her married life is characterized by systematic abuse. Elena is continually amazed at her friend’s capacity for suffering, but Lila explains: “What can beatings do to me? A little time goes by and I’m better than before.”
Lila is “capable of anything.” Within the first year of her marriage, she embarks on a reckless affair with the love of Elena’s life, Nino. She then leaves her husband, an act unheard of in those days, to move in with him. As Nino says, “[S]he doesn’t know how to submit to reality […] and takes no account of police, the law, the state.” When they break up she takes another lover, with whom she founds a business and makes a success of herself. When, in The Story of a New Name, the Mafioso Michele Solara and his brother want to use her photograph to sell shoes that she has designed, Lila defaces the picture; using glue, scissors, paper, paint, she “erases” herself, refusing to allow others to use her image, refusing to be appropriated for any purpose. In the final volume, The Story of the Lost Child, even after having had great success in the computer business, she tells Elena, “I want to leave nothing, my favorite key is the one that deletes.”
Like Elena, Lila writes. Over the years, she amasses volumes of notebooks of her thoughts and observations, and in The Story of a New Name she gives them to Elena to keep her husband from finding them. Lila makes Elena promise she won’t read them. Naturally, Elena devours the texts. She is overwhelmed and “diminished” by them. She devotes herself to learning passages by heart — “the ones that thrilled me, the ones that hypnotized me, the ones that humiliated me. Behind their naturalness was surely some artifice, but I couldn’t discover what it was.” Eventually, she throws the notebooks off the Solferino bridge into the River Arno, in order to free herself from feeling Lila “on me and in me.” But she can’t erase Lila from herself.
Late in life Lila begins another writing project, one she will not share with Elena, which once again makes Elena feel inadequate. When Elena then suggests she may write about Lila, Lila says, “Let me be.” She tells Elena to write about someone else, “But about me no, don’t you dare, promise.” Lila wants nothing more than to disappear, while Elena “wanted her to last […] I wanted it to be I who made her last.” She wants to write her life-story.
Against Lila’s wishes Elena writes and publishes a book about the two of them, which she titles A Friendship. It is — implausibly — only 80 pages long. The book is a success and revives Elena’s sagging career, but after its publication, the two women never speak again and Lila disappears. Thus, contrary to Cavarero’s contention, which invokes Ulysses listening to his own life-story, Lila doesn’t need a life-story written about her in order to affirm her “I.” If another were to write her life-story, she would be turned into “fiction,” taken possession of. And just as she never let anyone possess her throughout her life, she has no intention of allowing that to happen once she is gone. She won’t participate in a practice that reduces her ontological presence to words on a page, a fetishized object between covers. By vanishing, she asserts her right to live a “mere empirical existence.” It is a brilliant move on Ferrante’s part to allow her subject to refuse subjugation to the art of “story telling,” even as she (and Elena) tell her story in the very book we are reading.
Long before the end of the novel, Elena goes to visit Lila, who is at her nadir, a proletariat slaving away at a sausage factory right out of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Elena has come to brag about her success as a writer: “I had made that whole journey mainly to show [Lila] what she had lost and what I had won.” Instead, she finds Lila
explaining to me that I had won nothing, that in the world there is nothing to win, that her life was full of varied and foolish adventures as much as mine, and that time simply slipped away without any meaning, and it was good just to see each other every so often to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.
And indeed, Ferrante’s searching Elena and elusive Lila will continue to echo each other, and to resonate for readers, in all their irreducible complexity.
 The story of Amalia and Emilia recounted by Cavarero first appeared in Sexual Difference: A Theory of Social-Symbolic Practice, one of the most famous books of Italian feminism. Sexual Difference may also have influenced Ferrante’s thinking about the friendship between Elena and Lila, the two main characters in the Neapolitan novels. The social practice of “entrustment,” the idea that one woman “entrusts” herself symbolically to another woman is one of the major ideas of Italian feminism. In My Brilliant Friend, Elena tells us of her decision to reject her mother as a model and give herself over to Lila: “I decided that I had to model myself on that girl, never let her out of my sight.” This practice is viewed as necessary “because of the irrepressible need to find a faithful mediation between oneself and the world: someone similar to oneself who acts as a mirror and a term of comparison, an interpreter, a defender and judge in the negotiations between oneself and the world.”
 Children are regularly treated brusquely, beaten, and/or suffer from benign, and not-so-benign, neglect in Ferrante’s novels. In the essay “What an Ugly Child She Is,” Ferrante responds to a Swedish publisher’s refusal to publish The Days of Abandonment because of the “morally reprehensible” way in which the protagonist treats her children. In that novel, Olga is chiefly guilty of neglect and indifference, abruptness and aloofness in her treatment of them; she does not harm them physically, although she is a bit rough in removing the makeup from her daughter who has, to her disgust, made herself up to look like her.
In defense of her portrayal of Olga’s behavior, Ferrante references Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and the scene in which Emma Bovary, upon being pestered for attention by her young daughter, Berthe, angrily shoves the girl with her elbow, causing the child to fall against a chest of drawers and cut herself. The wound begins to bleed. She lies to the maid, telling her: “The baby fell down and hurt herself playing.” The wound is superficial. Emma stops worrying about what she had done, forgives herself for her abusive behavior, and chides herself for being “upset over so small a matter.” And then, still sitting by her daughter’s side as she recuperates, adding insult to injury, she thinks: “It’s a strange thing […] what an ugly child she is.”
Ferrante comments that only a man could write such a sentence. She claims (“angrily, bitterly”) that men “are able to have their female characters say what women truly think and say and live but do not dare write.” She says her attempt has been, “over the years, to take that sentence out of French and place it somewhere on a page of my own.”
She does create a scene similar to Flaubert’s in The Lost Daughter. Leda, the narrator, tells us that when her daughter was young, she gave her a doll that had belonged to her since infancy. Leda expected her daughter to love the doll. But her daughter strips the doll of her clothes and scribbles over her with markers. When Leda discovers her sitting on the doll one afternoon, she loses her temper, “gives her a nasty shove,” and throws the doll over the balcony. It is run over and destroyed by the passing traffic. Leda’s only (ominous) comment about this incident: “How many things are done and said to children behind the closed doors of houses.”
“We can’t stop talking about Elena Ferrante” we said to each other throughout 2016—on social media, in the classroom, in pressing the Neapolitan novels upon friends and relatives. This collection of essays on Ferrante emerges from a conference panel at the Modern Language Association convention in Philadelphia in January, 2017, convened by the Prose Fiction Division. The pseudonymous Italian writer, who chooses not to reveal herself beyond her writing, had come to new popularity in the US in the past few years, and we found we had a lot to say about feminism, rage, women’s friendships, genre clashes, and bad sex, amongst other topics. We still can’t stop talking about Ferrante, and we trust that when you read these lively, provocative essays, you too will join the chorus.
—Hester Blum, MLA panel moderator
I began this wanting to write about sex in Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. How is Lenù’s coming-of-age connected to her two sexual encounters with Donato Sarratore, a man who desires and arouses her, but for whom, there is never any question, she feels no love? There’s the first time, on her fifteenth birthday, when he fondles her as she lies in the kitchen: “I was terrified by that behaviour, by the horror it created, by the pleasure I nevertheless felt.”1 And the second, when she’s seventeen, in which he overcomes her resistance by producing in her “a desire so demanding and so egocentric that it cancelled out not only the entire world of sensation but also his body, in [her] eyes old, and the labels by which he could be classified—railway-worker-poet-journalist, father of Nino, Donato Sarratore.”2 This description follows a precise and lovely account of female pleasure, Ferrante’s writing at its best. It needs to be well written because it’s also, we soon learn, a sample of Lenù’s first book, the one that scandalizes and captures the Italian public with its description of sex between a young girl and an older man on a beach.
Why—and this was my real why as I started this line of questioning—were Ferrante’s new Anglo-American fans not more unhappy with the centrality of this scene? Ferrante was being celebrated in London and New York in 2015, a year of rising condemnation of sexually predatory behavior, old rock stars and politicians being outed for their Donato-like ways, young athletes reproached for the things their fathers got away with. What did it mean that liberal intellectuals in this moment celebrated a work of fiction whose core scene depicts acts for which this same audience would want to prosecute a real Donato?
One response: these scenes are not to be taken literally precisely because they align Lenù’s pleasure with a form of artistic creation. Sex with Donato is a place Lenù returns to later as evidence of her own vulnerability:
. . . sex in itself, that unmediated demand for orgasm, no, I couldn’t be drawn into that. I was unprepared; it disgusted me . . . . Suddenly I thought of what had happened with Donato Sarratore. Not so much the evening on the beach in Ischia, which had been transformed into the episode in the novel, but the time he had had appeared in Nella’s kitchen . . . and he had kissed, touched me, causing a flow of pleasure against my very will.3
This questioning of her own will is where Lenù deliberately locates her birth as an artist, carefully distinguishing herself from Lila in her ability to experience pleasure at a level she does not fully understand. In this context, these scenes are not real endorsements of young girls having sex with older men—or generally, I think, of good sex being with people we don’t like, or don’t know. Read figuratively, they announce creativity being something that doesn’t have to make sense, that doesn’t belong simply above the line, in the world of rational behavior.
It’s not clear, of course, how quickly we want to put Ferrante on the side of aesthetics, embodiment, and the left side of the brain; with Edmund Burke and against Thomas Paine; or, in more recent terms, with Rita Felski and against critique. But it’s easier to grasp what might be radical about this aspect of Ferrante’s project if we keep the literal in mind a little bit longer. Whether it’s predatory or not, good sex easily hits a narrative dead end when it tells us nothing about love. This is true of almost any great fictional sex you want to name, recent or historical. There’s Heathcliff’s violent Victorian sexiness, which is forced to become part of a love story if it is to speak at all; Hardy’s poignant portrait in Jude the Obscure of sex with Arabella; D.H. Lawrence’s careful reworking of that dynamic in Sons and Lovers. A recent essay about internet dating by Emily Witt makes the bind, even for non-fictional and contemporary writing, painfully obvious: while Witt has always been more interested in love and writes fluently about her failed dates in this context, her “friend,” who really was just in it for the sex, and for whom anonymity has worked brilliantly, can say nothing except that, happily, internet dating has left her “really good at sex.”4 That is to say: even if it’s possible to get beyond all the clichés, contracts, and tautologies that make it difficult to name good sex that’s just sex in a heterosexual world, one risks having nothing at all to say about it once one gets the words out. As soon as we start writing about it, we begin tracking its causes, counting our losses, asking what it stood for, what risks it involved; saying what the story was really about. Or we are reduced to silence and tautology.
Queer theory offers an important line of resistance to this pathology. Critics including Leo Bersani, Michael Warner, and David Halperin, writing partly to free gay men from the heavy machinery of psychological explanation rolled out in the early 2000s to explain why they might be having unsafe sex, have advocated reading sex as its own form of explanation. Halperin’s recent essay “What is Sex For?” takes this argument back to Aristotle by identifying a category error there in the lining up of sex and love, arguing that sex without love or its possibility has been misrepresented from the very beginning as an inadequate response to the problem of desire. In fact, he argues:
The sexual institutions of the gay male world . . . afford their patrons the unique and precious possibility of being wanted only for sexual ends—and, thus, of being sexually valorized in and through their bodies, of acquiring undeniable value as an integral means to the sexual pleasure of others . . . . Being the object of other people’s erotic desire confers on the sexual value of your body a judgment that is not only positive but also infallible, that acquires the authority of truth itself. That may make being desired or being wanted just as necessary, just as affirming . . . as being loved.5
Halperin ends this essay not just by defending gay bathhouses, but by pointing out that one thing we all stand to gain from the acknowledgement of sexual subjectivity without pathology is an acknowledgment that love is something quirkier, queerer than we normally grant.
We might take this important insight back to Ferrante in a number of ways. At the level of content, she’s a writer game for giving us just sex, situating Lenù’s experience at this narrative impasse, birthing her as a writer at just that juncture where there may be nothing to know or to diagnose about her pleasure. If she has something new to tell us about love’s queerness it is because she’s willing to recognize sex as very loosely jointed to, if not utterly divorced from it. But that’s not where I’m going to go with the rest of my discussion. Because: somewhere between my original interest in the Donato dilemma in Ferrante and our MLA panel in early 2017, Ferrante hit the news. Writing about sex in Ferrante, a project I was already uneasy about, began to feel even more perverse in the face of all the love that was being professed for her fiction. You’ll have read many of these defences of her anonymity, or written them, so I’ll offer just one, Alexandra Schwartz’s from the New Yorker:
To fall in love with a book, in that way that I and so many others have fallen in love with Ferrante’s, is to feel a special kinship with its author, a profound sort of mutual receptivity and comprehension. The author knows nothing about you, and yet you feel that your most intimate self has been understood. The fact that Ferrante has chosen to be anonymous has become part of this contract, and has put readers and writer on a rare, equal plane. Ferrante doesn’t know the details of our lives, and doesn’t care to. We don’t know those of hers.6
Reading such outpourings of love for Ferrante, I stood corrected: it was love we’d been talking about. Here I was, thinking of sex as the bypassing of psychological explanation in her novels, something being cleared out of the path of love, but how crass; how wrong. In fact, we loved Ferrante—and therefore did not want to know anything about her.
The funny thing for me about this equation is not just that Schwartz’s defence sounds an awful lot like David Halperin’s of good sex. It’s also that on my home turf, eighteenth-century studies, there’s been a lot of talk recently about love for literature. Loving literature, Deidre Lynch has argued, has a relatively short history—one that takes us directly back to the habits of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century men who developed quaint habits of affection; fond relationships to their libraries and their favored authors, and novels, and characters. Love for literature, her genealogy tells us, is closely correlated with wanting more: more knowledge, more closeness, more possession, more books.7 Fans of fiction have wanted from the very beginning to open up big veins in history from which lots of stuff could spill. To wonder, as Adela Pinch reminds us, at Keats’s heart not burning on the fire.8 To see where Jane Austen really lived; to hold and own a first edition, to get it signed; to re-read a favorite novel every single year. In fact, literary love, with which we might or might not want to be associated when we look more closely at it, can be defined as Halperin suggests of love more generally, as a queer place, generative of narratives of loss and longing and possession more often than feelings of fulfilment. But one thing is certain: it is driven by the desire for knowledge.
Which brings me back around, of course, to sex. For if it is the case that, whatever our intense Anglo-American relationship to Ferrante’s fiction is, it stands only to suffer from knowing more about Ferrante herself, is it not, in fact, better defended as good sex than love? If knowledge (of class, gender, age, her beating heart, her house (it turns out she has many)) is irrelevant to the perfectly satisfactory conditions of loving these novels, then are we not talking about an experience of reading that finds its human analogy not in Lenù’s relationship to Nico, or Lila, but to Donato Sarrtore? Perhaps it is we, the impleasured readers, who are most in need of a vocabulary for that kind of non-pathological pleasure of which the discourse of literary love has deprived us—and which Ferrante may be seeking in some way to restore to us. I posit this partly as a fan of the sexuality without psychology thesis I’ve taken in this discussion from queer theory. But I ask it also on the basis of a number of conversations that I’ve had around the world in the last years about authors “loved” most out of their native context: Knausgaard in New York, Ferrante in London, Paul Auster in Denmark, Bolaño amongst my Scottish political, world literature colleagues. I always get into these conversations wrong, at the wrong angle. It matters to me that Ferrante is middle-class and spurned by her Southern European readers; that Knausgaard’s Proustian meditations are the direct result of Norwegian funding for the arts and therefore, precisely, not universal; that Auster, as I keep telling my Danish friends, really is not the last word on American society. But then maybe it doesn’t. Because maybe there are ways of reading so satisfactory unto themselves—so pleasurable, as Lenù puts it, that they “cancel out the other labels by which things could be classified”—so revealing of ourselves to ourselves that they bypass love as an epistemology. Perhaps this is just good sex. And perhaps this is good.
I run a Facebook group called “What Would Virginia Woolf Do?” (a twisted joke about one of my literary and feminist heroines) of super candid, super smart women over forty, and we’re all huge readers. The group started as a private forum for me and some girlfriends to bitch and moan about perimenopausal woes, but it has grown into so much more: a vibrant community where we “discuss, support, and share things that we may not care to share with the men and children in our lives.”
On March 8, 2017, in commemoration of International Women’s Day, a Woolfer posted a list put out by the New York Public Library of 365 published female authors from all around the globe to keep us inspired all year round. Their list is inspiring, but we were shocked by how many of our truly beloved favorite women writers were left off, so we created our own, and we think it’s so good, and so important, that it’s worth sharing:
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
Dorothy Allison, Bastard out of Carolina
Isabel Allende, House of Spirits
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
Jane Austen, Persuasion
Jane Austen, Lady Susan
Djuna Barnes, Nightwood
Lynda Barry, Cruddy
Jane Bowles, Two Serious Ladies
Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
Charlotte Brontë, Villette
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
Frances Burney, Evelina
Octavia Butler, Lilith’s Brood
A.S. Byatt, The Children’s Book
Ann Carson, The Autobiography of Red
Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus
Willa Cather, My Antonia
Jung Chang, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China
Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street
Laurie Colwin, Happy All the Time
Lydia Davis, Break It Down
Simone De Beauvoir, The Second Sex
Joan Didion, The White Album
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
Margaret Drabble, The Waterfall
Margaret Drabble, The Millstone
Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad
George Eliot, Middlemarch
Nora Ephron, Scribble Scribble
Jennifer Cody Epstein, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment
Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine
Jenny Erpenbeck, The Old Child
Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate
Elena Ferrante, The Neapolitan Novels
Melanie Finn, The Gloaming
Marilyn French, The Women’s Room
Mary Gaitskill, Bad Behavior
Cristina Garcia, Dreaming in Cuban
Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm
Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman
Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies
Jean Hegland, Into the Forest
Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt
Alice Hoffman, White Horses
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle
P.D. James, Devices and Desires
Erica Jong, Fear of Flying
Miranda July, No One Belongs Here More Than You
Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
Nicole Kraus, The History of Love
Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies
Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth
Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Doris Lessing, The Diary of a Good Neighbour
Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook
Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star
Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
Daphne du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel
Grace Metalious, Place
Mary McCarthy, The Group
Elizabeth McCracken, The Giants House
Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding
Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces
Nancy Mitford, Love in a Cold Climate
Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love
L.M. Montgomery, Emily of New Moon
Toni Morrison, Beloved
Alice Munro, Collected Stories
Iris Murdoch, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine
Alissa Nutting, Tampa
Joyce Carol Oates, Blonde
Flannery O’Connor, Everything That Rises Must Converge
Jenny Offill, Dept. Of Speculation
Mary Oliver, Upstream
Tillie Olsen, I Stand Here Ironing
Tillie Olsen, Tell Me a Riddle
Cynthia Ozick, The Pagan Rabbi
Cynthia Ozick, The Shawl
Grace Paley, Collected Stories
Gail Parent, The Best Laid Plans
Gail Parent, Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in NY
Ann Patchett, Bel Canto
Elena Poniatowska, Tlatelolco
Annie Proulx, The Shipping News
Mary Rakow, The Memory Room
Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter series
Lore Segal, Her First American
Marie Semple, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
Denzy Senna, Symtomatic
Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries
Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book
Mona Simpson, Anywhere But Here
May Sinclair, A Cure of Souls
Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres
Patti Smith, Just Kids
Zadie Smith, On Beauty
Murial Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club
Barbara Trapido, Brother of the More Famous Jack
Joanna Trollope, Other People’s Children
Joanna Trollope, The Rector’s Wife
Ann Tyler, The Homesick Restaurant
Alice Walker, The Color Purple
Helene Wecker, The Golem and the Jinni
Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent
Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth
Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country
Isabel Wilkerson, Warmth of Other Suns
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
E.H. Young, Miss Mole
A few years ago, I collaborated with a friend to write about the double standards young girls face in Bangladesh. We wrote about how it’s a health risk for young boys to smoke, but immoral and scandalous for girls to do the same; how the girls we interviewed aren’t allowed to make plans after a certain time of the day, while their younger brothers come and go as they please. The article received 2.5k shares online when it was published in this newspaper’s SHOUT magazine. The irony? I wrote it under a pseudonym. I didn’t have the courage, at the time, to tag my name onto something so controversial yet so relevant to my own life.
Anonymity can be liberating. The pen names Currer and Ellis Bell, respectively, allowed Charlotte and Emily Bronte to use influences from their local neighbourhood to craft Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. George Elliott, the famed writer of Middlemarch, was actually Mary Anne Evans. The aliases allowed these women to break into a literary market that was rigidly male-dominated at the time, giving us some of the seminal works of 19th-century western literature. In the decade that followed, Charles Dodgson disrobed the identity of a mathematician to write Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as Lewis Carroll. The gender-neutral initials of EL James allowed the writer of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy to engage with a particularly notorious topic. And closer to home, Rabindranath Tagore composed poetry in the literary language of Brajabuli as Bhanusimha, a name he found in the torn leaves of an old library book.
The removal of a name tag brings on the freedom to shift genres, write from the perspective of a different gender, or tackle topics that are particularly sensitive or experimental. This makes the pseudonym itself a powerful and useful tool. But it’s troubling to think of how we, as readers, often make writers feel like they can’t use their own identity for their work. A talented young writer I know prefers to use a pseudonym for his published fiction pieces. He doesn’t want to have to answer probing questions, from relatives in particular, about what his stories might mean about his personal life. Why these questions? Why do fictional works lead to assumptions about an author’s private life? Given that this is a concern I’ve heard on several occasions, it forces us to notice how the hasty judgments and prying nature typical of our society are stifling the creative spirit of so many aspiring young artists in our midst.
“You’re missing out on the perspective that an opposite sex can provide. Much, much more importantly, you’re closing yourself off to a plethora of ideas that have nothing to do with gender, because there’s no such thing as a woman’s topic or a man’s topic, contrary to archaic belief.
And then there’s the battle of the sexes. Joanne Rowling, as we know, was advised by Bloomsbury to use the initials JK for the Harry Potter series to appeal to a wider audience—boys in particular, who are seemingly more likely to read books by male authors. This was later supported by a 2014 Goodreads survey, which found 90 percent of men’s 50 most read books that year to have been written by men. Eighty percent of a woman writer’s audience was similarly found to comprise of women.
It’s one thing to respond better to a writer of one’s own gender; even natural, one might say. But to deliberately choose not to read works written by a certain kind of author deprives both parties. You’re robbing an artist of the chance to share the product of their hard work with you, work that might be just the kind of thing you’re looking for. You’re missing out on the perspective that an opposite sex can provide. Much, much more importantly, you’re closing yourself off to a plethora of ideas that have nothing to do with gender, because there’s no such thing as a woman’s topic or a man’s topic, contrary to archaic belief. Some of the biggest bestsellers of the past few years span a range of topics written by women. Gillian Flynn created an entire genre of mystery/thriller, writing from both a man and a woman’s perspective, in Gone Girl. Zadie Smith has been detangling the nuances of race, identity and academia since the publication of White Teeth to more recently Swing Time. And authors like Jhumpa Lahiri and Arundhati Roy have become icons in their rich portrayal of South Asian history. On the flipside, some of the most iconic women in literature have been created by men, from Anna Karenina (Tolstoy) to Madame Bovary (Flaubert) to Binodini (Tagore). Even Hazel Grace Lancaster (John Green), if you like your YA fiction.
Casual Vacancy was the first book JK Rowling published in her own name after the end of the Harry Potter series. It didn’t work out so well, unfortunately. But, instead of hanging it up simply as a hit-and-miss, readers were quick to pass the judgment that all she’s capable of handling is the magical world. Hence the creation of Robert Galbraith, a nom de plume she took up yet again, for a fairly successful crime series known as the Cormoran Strike novels (starring a gritty male detective, FYI).
But perhaps the most extreme example of pseudonyms gone wrong is that of Elena Ferrante. An Italian writer who kept her identity hidden since her first book of the Neapolitan Novels, Ferrante, in many of her interviews, has repeatedly emphasised how the pseudonym allows her to concentrate on her writing, to make her literary identity exclusively about her work. Last year, however, an Italian journalist set about revealing her real name, which set off a media explosion into the personal sphere that she had determinedly preserved since 1992.
As much as we’d like to believe that times have changed, these subtle instances of gender bias, intrusiveness, and hasty judgments continue to stifle creative pursuits in our midst even today. We’re all too quick to judge that a woman can write about only a woman and a man about just a man, that an author of magical realism cannot handle crime fiction, and that reading an author’s works entitles us to pry into what is off limits.
But the joke’s on us—the loss, of missing out on fascinating, manifold literary realms, entirely ours.
Jilted wives, drunk uncles & seagreen chiffon — it’s wedding season!
It’s wedding season. These days, that doesn’t mean a few DJ-ed buffets at the local rental hall. Going to a wedding, more and more often, means getting on a plane to some far-flung destination, driving to the middle of nowhere to drink specialty cocktails in a rustic chic barn, and taking silly-sexy pictures in a photo booth so as to capture the one use of your very expensive bridesmaid dress or groomsmen’s suit.
If you’re feeling exhausted, bored, or financially depleted, take heart — literature has come up with weddings that can far outweigh the horror of the parties you’ve been to. These 11 novels remind us that, at the very least, we can be happy that the bride and groom came willingly and without the baggage of a still-living spouse, and the guests, while drunk, were not also out to kill.
There is something perversely satisfying about seeing an event that is so heavy with expectations get trashed, and in these cases, it is illuminating too. These authors don’t accept weddings as the flower-strewn manifestation of assured romantic bliss. They take one of humanity’s oldest customs and scrutinize and question it, and the results, while not always pretty, are always interesting.
2. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
The first book of Ferrante’s Neapolitan series concludes with Lila’s wedding to Stefano Carracci, who is the heir to the local grocery store and, in what should have been a huge red flag, the son of Don Achille, the man who terrified Lila and Elena as children. Before the boozy wedding feast is over, young Lila — and she is still so very young — realizes that Stefano is just like his father and the wedding was a terrible mistake, one that will haunt her for the rest of her life.
Nicholas Hytner: Late to the party, I read Elena Ferrante over Christmas and I’d happily read her again this summer, on the terrace of a farmhouse overlooking the foothills of the French Alps.
A reading list in defence of the ‘global novel’
If by chance you are still looking for a summer reading list, Adam Kirsch’s brilliant, and short, inquiry, The Global Novel: Writing the World in the 21st Century, may provide one. Many of these are beloved texts that have been around for years, but his particular line of analysis to defend “the global novel” brings them together in a pattern that makes a reread a relook: Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, Roberto Bolano’s 2666, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island, and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels.
Stripped for export?
Take Murakami, around whom speculation settles as a yearly ritual in the days leading to the announcement of the Nobel Prize, but whose writing is sometimes criticised back home in Japan for Japanese prose that is, as Kirsch puts it, “stripped for export”. It is not that simple. Comparing Murakami’s magnum opus 1Q84 to Pamuk’s Snow, Kirsch notes that while the plot and the characters of the latter are necessarily particular to Turkey, “the urban isolates of 1Q84 could almost as easily be living in New York or London” as in Tokyo. This, he concludes, is not a distortion inflicted by Murakami’s vaulting ambition to be something to everyone, but is perhaps a reflection of the common threads in our lives and curiosities worldwide.
He calls Adichie’s and Hamid’s novels “migrant literature”, different from the immigrant literature of writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri, whereby “America is a stage of life rather than a final destination” in the characters’ lives. As a contrast, there are the novels of Ferrante, whose success as a global writer is intriguing. Her novels are very strongly located in Naples, she uses local dialects in the original Italian, and she refuses to reveal her identity, thereby denying her overseas publishers the big marketing essential, the book tour.
In their particularity, her novels speak to common human emotions, of course, but they also, Kirsch helps us understand, suggest we must “see fates in an international perspective”, just as the other books listed here do. His tour is an invitation to read some of these books, and work out our individual appraisals of the appeal, and importance, of the global novel.
It’s hot as something down here in the South, and Chris and Annie are back to talk about what they read in June. It was a light month of the highest quality. Also, Chris Pine: hot or not? And happy anniversary, Harry Potter.
+ The End We Start From by Megan Hunter (on sale November 7)
+ Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson (on sale July 11)
+ Heating and Cooling by Beth Ann Fennelly (on sale October 10)
+ Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (on sale (on sale September 12)
+ Theft by Finding by David Sedaris
+ The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante
+ Marriage of a Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu
Hey, did you know that we read and recap books in literally every episode of this podcast, not just the ones labeled “Reading Recap”? I just want to make sure that you do because we have so many recommendations for you all the time always and want you to enjoy!
The wonderful thing about being a reader is that even when you’re familiar with the classics of English literature, there are still bookshelves all over the world to explore. These writers, featured in Radio 4’s Reading Europe series, are some of the most famous novelists in their own countries – but the rest of the world has yet to discover them.
Here’s why you should read them.
Italy: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Ferrante fever has been sweeping Europe for the past few years, and reached a fever pitch when journalist Claudio Gatti claimed to have “unmasked” the reclusive author. However, fans remain more interested in her novels than her life stories. In My Brilliant Friend, we’re introduced to Elena and Lila, whose friendship is one of the most believable in fiction – they’re not braiding each other’s hair at sleepovers, they’re jealously competing to escape the neighbourhood of Naples and trying to avoid the attentions of local gangsters.
Look out for: Lila’s wedding – it’s so tense and troubling that it makes the wedding sequence in The Godfather look like it was guest directed by Richard Curtis.