Answers to questions from Merve Emre
Dear Elena (if I may),
Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I am a great admirer of your writing. I am also grateful to you for writing the kinds of novels every literature professor dreams about teaching. For the past two years, I have assigned the Neapolitan novels in my class on contemporary fiction; it is rare to encounter novels that my students are desperate to keep reading and that also evoke so many urgent, illuminating conversations about genre, form, history, class politics, feminism—everything I want my students to enjoy thinking about in and out of the classroom.
On a more personal note, I have found myself returning to Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay many times since having my two children. No other novel I have read captures the vicissitudes of motherhood with such precision: the power and the vulnerability of caring for others, the intimacy and distance between mother and child. It was painful to realize when I became a mother that my mother had a separate life, a different self, before she became my mother; painful, too, to realize that my children might not appreciate this about me until too late. Your novels have helped me think with greater clarity about what it means to be a mother and what it meant to be a daughter. For that, I am grateful too.
Merve Emre: The television series My Brilliant Friend opens with a shot of an iPhone 7—Lenu’s cell phone—ringing in the dark. It was a shocking opening for me. The novels have very little engagement with media forms and technologies that are not books: no one sees a movie, no one listens to music, no one reads articles on the computer. What does reading mean to you?
Elena Ferrante: You’re right, the two friends belong to the world of print books, as do I, who invented them. Elena realizes late that she doesn’t have a musical education, for example. Her escape from the neighborhood is centered completely on literacy: reading and studying are the only tools available for breaking the boundaries within which she happened to be born. But don’t forget that Lila, although she’s the first to see the great value of books, will be a pioneer in electronic media.
ME: What does reading mean to you?
EF: Reading is an extraordinary exercise. It doesn’t come naturally; it requires commitment—you have to transform pages crammed with signs into worlds full of life. But once reading has become an intellectual necessity, you can no longer do without it. I’m a very involved, disciplined, collaborative reader. I never abandon a book; even if I don’t like it, I read it to the last line. I always learn something. And I get enthusiastic—perhaps excessively so—when a book is a happy surprise. I recently read a novel that I thought was excellent. I read it in Italian, but I’d like to try to read it in English; I liked its tone very much. It’s called Outline, by Rachel Cusk.
ME: There are moments in previous interviews where you betray an impatience toward literary criticism and, in particular, literary theory for its relentless drive to interpretation and argument. Yet you are an extraordinarily attentive and sensitive reader and strong interpreter of your own fiction and the writing of others. What are your ethics of criticism? How do you believe professionalized readers should write about or teach literature?
EF: I don’t like the impressionistic type of critical work. I don’t like it when a text is taken as an occasion for talking about something else. I prefer works that concentrate on the page, that rigorously analyze the expressive strategies of the writer. A good critical work says to the reader: here’s where the author started from, here’s where he wanted to take me, here are the means he used, here are the goals he was aiming for, here are his debts to tradition, here’s why I liked or hated it.
ME: In Frantumaglia, you hint at your disappointment with the film adaptations of your novellas. What made you decide to let RAI adapt My Brilliant Friend? What kinds of audiences do you want the televisual adaptation of your work to reach?
EF: I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I had no role in the production decisions. The means by which a film comes to be made are unknown to me. But I’ve always been curious to see what happens to my characters and my stories when they leave the page and venture into other media. I like it when they become audiobooks, plays, films. In fact, the more they enter into people’s lives through these other media, the more it seems to me that they are alive and in good health. Naturally I reserve the right to have an opinion on the works that originate in my texts. But I have to say that, even when I don’t like the result, I don’t suffer. Books, once they’re written, can sustain anything: writing makes them in a certain sense invulnerable.
ME: Why did you choose Saverio Costanzo as the director?
EF: I didn’t choose in this case, either, I’ve never had that power. But I have to say that choosing would have been a real problem. I’m a devoted moviegoer, I love films, but I have no expertise in that area. I get excited about films that are very different from one another, films made by people who have nothing in common. If I really did have to decide I would never manage it. I merely proposed a list of names, directors whose work I have a lot of respect for. Among them was Costanzo. When I found out he’d been chosen, I was very pleased.
ME: When I spoke with Saverio last week, he described a process of creating characters on screen that he called “conveying density”: a way of representing a character’s consciousness without explicitly psychologizing her actions, so that a viewer could sense a great and unexplored depth to her every statement, glance, gesture. He suggested that this was a practice of character creation to which you also ascribed; indeed, a practice you had taught him to create continuity between the representation of characters in the novel and on the screen. Can you explain how density works in the novels and how you imagine it working on the screen? Or if “density” is not the right word, can you discuss the difference for you between representing consciousness and psychologizing it in your fiction?
EF: I fear that in a short space I’m in danger of appearing confused. The definition of psychologies is an essential part of the narrator’s work. They focus the motivations both superficial and profound that guide the actions and reactions of the characters in the course of the story. But what decides the success of a character is often half a sentence, a noun, an adjective that jams the psychological machine like a wrench thrown into the works and produces an effect that is no longer that of a well regulated device, but of flesh and blood, of genuine life, and therefore incoherent and unpredictable. In films that effect is produced, I think, by a flash in the gaze, by an involuntary grimace, by an unexpected gesture. It’s the moment when the psychological framework breaks and the character acquires density.
ME: There is an irritating tendency in contemporary writing on motherhood to position motherhood as a psychological impediment to literary creativity—as if a child must steal not only time and energy from his mother but also language and thought. Your novels are ambivalent on motherhood as a creative experience and an experience conducive to literary creativity. (For a short time, Lila transforms motherhood into an act of grace; Lenu’s greatest professional success comes after she becomes a mother even though she complains about her obligations.) How do you think about representing the interplay between (creative) production and (physical) reproduction? What is the relationship between time spent taking care with one’s words and time spent taking care of one’s children?
EF: I very much like the way you’ve formulated the question. But I want to say that it’s not right to speak of motherhood in general. The troubles of the poor mother are different from those of the well-off mother, who can pay another woman to help her. But, whether the mother is rich or poor, if there is a real, powerful creative urge, the care of children, however much it absorbs and at times even consumes us, doesn’t win out over the care of words: one finds the time for both. Or at least that was my experience: I found the time when I was a terrified mother, without any support, and also when I was a well-off mother. So I will take the liberty of asserting that women should in no case give up the power of reproduction in the name of production. Although the difficulties are innumerable, the two can coexist. “Giving birth” is our specificity, belonging only to women, and no one should dare to take it away from us. Men use the metaphor of birth to speak of their works. For us giving birth is not a metaphor—neither when we give birth to children nor when we give birth to books, ideas, images of the world. We know how best to do both.
ME: Can you say a little bit more about being a terrified mother? What is the nature of this terror for you?
EF: I’m afraid of mothers who sacrifice their lives to their children. I’m afraid of mothers who surrender themselves completely and live for their children, who hide the difficulties of motherhood and pretend even to themselves to be perfect mothers. I prefer mothers who proceed consciously through trial and error, looking for an equilibrium but knowing that any equilibrium is precarious.
ME: Despite the emphasis on female friendship in the reception of the novels, Lila and Lenù end up as singular, lonely characters. Yet the promise of literary and artistic collaboration between women—women reading together, women writing together—is a persistent and seductive fantasy across the novels. Collaboration emerges as a source of artistic bliss and temporary enchantment as well as an opportunity for solidarity among women. How have your experiences with collaboration across media (adaptation) and language (translation) approached or fallen short of this fantasy?
EF: Yes, and it’s not always easy. In general it seems easier for women to collaborate with men. There’s probably a very old habit of submitting to the authority of men, or of developing suitable behavior for pretending to accept it, and meanwhile pursuing our particular aims. Certainly it’s more complicated to recognize the authority of another woman; tradition in that case is more fragile. And yet the path is this: once the expertise of the other woman is recognized, we have to learn to collaborate. It works if, in a relationship between the person in charge and the subordinate, the first wants the other to grow and free herself from her subordinate status, and the second gains her autonomy without feeling obliged to diminish the other. Conflicts are inevitable, but we have to persist. It should never be forgotten that women are stronger together and can achieve astonishing results.
ME: Can you say more about why it is difficult to recognize the authority of another woman?
EF: Although things are changing, in some corner of our brain we continue to think that true authority is male, and that every woman with authority has it only because males have given it to her. It’s as if in that tiny corner we were saying to ourselves: why do I submit to a woman when I could replace her if I go to the true source of power? It’s a trend that should be fought against, by demonstrating through the excellence and force of our works that female authority isn’t a concession from men, doesn’t have value only in the women’s space to which they tend to relegate us, but is an autonomous quality and an asset that is fundamental for the whole human race.
ME: In a previous interview with the Times, you suggested that the children who showed up at the auditions for My Brilliant Friend were “spectators who hope to become actors, either for play or a shot at deliverance.” Last week when I spoke to Saverio, I also spent an afternoon with Ludovica, Elisa, Gaia, and Margharita, the four girls who play the parts of Lila and Lenu. Something that struck me about them is that they have all read your novels—I imagine they are among your youngest readers. For them, the experience of learning to embody your characters has also served as a literary education. (Elisa, for instance, is now reading Little Women; Margharita has moved on to Elsa Morante.) What might young readers—young women readers in particular—learn from the Neapolitan novels?
EF: I don’t know how to answer you. I hope the books communicate the urgent need for solidarity between women. Not only that. I’d like the youngest readers to take from them the necessity of being properly prepared: not in order to be co-opted into male hierarchies but in order to construct a world different from the one we know, and to govern it. Reading good books, always studying, regardless of the work she intends to do, should be a part of every girl’s plan for her life. The only way not to let what we’ve gained be taken away from us is to be smart and capable, to learn to design the world better than men have so far done.
ME: Your readers have an extraordinary desire to open imagined channels of communication with you; to write about their experiences reading your novels. (For example, I recently saw a play in which four Ferrante readers become so absorbed by the Neapolitan novels they start transforming into the characters and writing about their transformations—a kind of magical realist fan fiction.) How do you make sense of the fervor with which the Neapolitan novels have been greeted? Has the reception of the novels surprised you? Has it revealed to you anything you did not already know about their distinctiveness?
EF: I think that writers never really know what book they’ve written. We tell a story and try to do our best, pouring onto the page our experience, our literary sensibility, without sparing ourselves. I realized very slowly that the book contained in itself much more than what I thought I had written. Certainly I wished to describe a friendship that lasts a lifetime. Certainly I knew clearly that Lila would contain the worst and the best of what I know about my sex. But only in time, for example, did I discover how effective the neighborhood was, and the figures who populate it. Or the seductive banality of Nino Sarratore.
ME: The actresses wanted me to ask you a question on their behalf: Have you seen them on screen and, if so, did you glimpse the characters you created in their performances? Did they capture the sensibilities of Lila and Lenu?
EF: I’ve seen the first two episodes. The child Lila is perfect, which will make things hard for the actresses who have to continue the story. The child Elena also effectively sets up the character of the narrator, which is in many ways indecipherable.
ME: One of the most illuminating parts of Frantumaglia for me is your exchange with Mario Martone and the incredible detail with which you attend to the structure of individual scenes, lines, costumes, sets as they are described in his script for Troubling Love. Can you give me some examples of scenes, lines of dialogue, or actor directions from My Brilliant Friend that you discussed at length with Saverio? Were there instances where you resisted or vetoed his initial interpretation of a scene? (In our conversation, Saverio mentioned the beginning (the frame narrative) and the end (the banquet).)
EF: My experience with Martone was brief. He sent me the screenplay, I sent him my impressions on reading it. I did the same thing with Costanzo, in the same way, but the work went on much longer, the exchanges of letters were more numerous. My task was to read and annotate the eight treatments and the eight screenplays that Costanzo and his collaborators were writing. I confined myself to saying what I thought when I felt that the story wasn’t working. Maybe in more than a few cases I was overly frank. Maybe I intervened, with some presumptuousness, in irrelevant details. The problem is that I’m not an expert, and I thought the whole time that stories and screenplays were the film, that every line was therefore crucial. In reality the set is really the important place. The work of writing is a point of departure, it merely traces a map that is to help the director give form—an enormous amount of work—to the story through images.
ME: People frequently ask you about your literary-historical influences, but I am curious about your engagement with contemporary art and literature. What living writers do you enjoy reading? What films do you enjoy watching? What music do you enjoy listening to?
EF: I would have to give a very complex answer, talking about various stages of my life. I’ll answer you some other time.
ME: The novels are not written in Neapolitan dialect. Lorenzo Miele (the executive producer) and Saverio described a densely mediated process of reconstructing and translating the dialect for the television show: hiring a historical linguistic to recreate the 1950s idiom, sending the script to you to check it, then sending it to Ann Goldstein to translate it into English for HBO. Can you talk a little bit about the complications—and perhaps the betrayals—of this layered translation? From the perspective of an Italian spectator, does dialect offer new possibilities for representation?
EF: Yes, in the book there is no dialect but a dialectal cadence strengthened at times by brief insertions of Neapolitan. The film, on the other hand, needed the dialect of the neighborhood, that is, a dialect that was harsh, pre-television, and that in Elena, and also in Lila, would later yield to average educated Italian. That work was done in the screenplay and gives, at least to the Italian viewer, the opportunity to rediscover what impoverished, essentially dialect-speaking Italy was like.
ME: Were there any subplots you discarded from the novels? Were there characters you initially thought you would develop as more rounded, substantial presences that you relegated to a minor status?
EF: No. The book kept all the elements that were present in the first draft. It was a very rare instance, for me, of a story written without structural reconsiderations.
ME: For the past two months, my son has developed an obsession with The Beach at Night despite my sense that he was not the target audience for it. Why did you decide to write a children’s book? How did it differ from writing a novel like My Brilliant Friend, which is focalized through a child’s point of view?
EF: I wrote The Beach at Night for a four-year-old friend of mine who, to her great disappointment, had just had a little sister. It originated in a book I had just finished, “The Lost Daughter.” I was very surprised that my little book was considered unsuitable for young children—my friend had liked it. I’ve always believed that stories for children should have the same energy, the same authenticity, as good books for adults. It’s a mistake to think that childhood needs syrupy fables. The traditional fairy tales weren’t made with cotton candy.
ME: My son also just had a little brother. He is also disappointed by it. Perhaps he’s a better reader than I’ve given him credit for.
Elena Ferrante’s answers translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
In its November 4 issue, the New York Times Magazine published a feature by Merve Emre on the novels of Elena Ferrante and the HBO adaptation of My Brilliant Friend. Emre’s article included excerpts from an interview with Ferrante—the only interview the author has granted to an English language outlet on the occasion of the TV series premiere on November 18. Below, by agreement with Ms. Emre, is the complete text of their exchange, conducted over email in September 2018.