The Promise in Elena Ferrante
by Jia Tolentino
In a year so crammed with both cultural stasis and accelerated political mania that it resembled nothing else so strongly as a trash fire, there was Elena Ferrante, oasis of the terrifyingly good. The pseudonymous Italian author has made a quiet, graceful transition from cult fame to widespread obsession, and rightly: she’s equally pulpy and brilliant, her plots setting fire to “the female experience” in all its traps and correspondent pleasures while her style accumulates a cold philosophical divinity, increasingly cerebral and bloodless as it becomes bloodier and wild.
At a time where—on the internet, at least—backlash against feminine voices is matched only by women’s insistence on keeping our voice, Ferrante is a third path out of a battle you didn’t expect to find yourself fighting. Her work is more than this, of course, in the way that all great female writers are more than the adjective that still tends to precede them. But I have loved Ferrante’s work this year for one thing in particular: Each of her narrators is a woman whose life has been carved out by other people’s ideas of what a woman should be—let’s call this the original position of “the female experience”—but whose story is defined by violent rejections of this position, a willingness to sacrifice identity to instincts, to shut out all other judgment except for her harsh, dark, freeing own.
I rarely identify with anything, but I identify with this. In a recent New York Times interview, conducted by email to preserve her studiously hidden identity, Ferrante describes her characters, “her women,” as “strong, educated, self-aware and aware of their rights, but at the same time subject to unexpected breakdowns, to subservience of every kind, to mean feelings.”
Ha, yes. Are those your women, too? Are your women just like you?
If you haven’t had one of these women push these books upon you yet, here’s what Ferrante is like. On romance, from Days of Abandonment:
As a girl, I had fallen in love with Mario, but I could have fallen in love with anyone: a body to which we end up attributing who knows what meanings. A long passage of life together, and you think he’s the only man you can be happy with, you credit him with countless critical virtues, and instead he’s just a reed that emits sound of falsehood, you don’t know who he really is, he doesn’t know himself. We are occasions. We consummate life and lose it because in some long-ago time someone, in the desire to unload his cock inside us, was nice, chose us among women.
That’s the kind of talk you order shots after! Here’s another bit from The Lost Daughter, on the unique pleasures of motherhood:
A woman’s body does a thousand different things, toils, runs, studies, fantasizes, invents, wearies, and meanwhile the breasts enlarge, the lips of the sex swell, the flesh throbs with a round life that is yours, your life, and yet pushes elsewhere, draws away from you although it inhabits your belly, joyful and weighty, felt as a greedy impulse and yet repellent, like an insect’s poison injected into a vein.
There’s a harshness here that many identify as second-wave feminist, but to me Ferrante’s aggression reads slightly different: James Wood calls it a “post-ideological savagery,” this rough, lucid ambivalence in her point of view. Another example, from Troubled Love:
…The way Amalia too, perhaps, had for her whole life dreamed of behaving: a woman of the world who bends over without having to place two fingers at the center of her neckline, crosses her legs without worrying about her skirt, laughs coarsely, covers herself with costly objects, her whole body brimming with indiscriminate sexual offerings, ready to joust face-to-face with men in the arena of the obscene.
This description would echo for third-wave, post-feminism, anti-feminism or indifference to the subject altogether. And that’s another reason I love her: Ferrante’s work, which revolves around identity and is too clear-sighted not to be political, is nonetheless an immense foil for identity politics, the dominant stench of the internet’s qualming, megalomaniacal swamp.
There’s a certain heuristic online these days that stems from a somewhat impossible idea that every narrated experience should contain, account for, and address every other one out there. There is no breed of reaction that deadens me more, for example, than, “Great, but I wish this had been written from my perspective.” And social media, generally, feels like the only place where an otherwise reasonable person might hear someone say, “Here’s how I feel about something that happened” and immediately start screaming, “BUT WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO SAY ABOUT ME.”
After even a day of this, Ferrante’s vantage point—critically effulgent, rigidly contained within the view of the individual—can feel like medicine. Her narrators are painfully perceptive, also, and honest—two qualities that the internet should ostensibly encourage in all of us but often just imposes as a permanent, damaging veneer. Ferrante’s anonymous persona, her ego-less viewpoint, her all gut-and-brilliance characters, comprise one of 2014’s only counterpoints to the ethos of constant skepticism and correspondent self-justification that seems to be defining, more and more, how we live.
In the last year and a half of editing on the internet, I can conservatively estimate that I’ve read about 1,500 personal essays, nearly all of them written by women, all of them written for an online and majority-female audience. In the aggregate, I can tell you that this feels like reading one single essay that never ends.
The kind of essay I’m thinking of is definitely about “women’s issues,” whatever that has come to mean in the internet in 2014. (To me “women’s issues” means “whatever happens to women that does not happen to men in the same way,” which is the same thing as saying “everything,” which is the same as saying nothing at all.) There are feelings in this essay, probably, and probably feelings about identity, being a woman. The timeline of female writers being allowed and asked to write in certain ways is relatively short, and the edge of it right now combines both the noose-tight identity politics of this moment and the general Feelings Vibe that the “women’s issues” of history and labor and cultural conditioning and publishing budgets have wrought.
I like this essay, to be clear. I haven’t wanted to stop reading it. I appreciate feelings, because I don’t have many, and I’ve never been interested in perspectives that can only punch down. But the essay, endless and beautiful, also revives my fear that much of the goodness women are spinning is still gold from the unique straw of a super shitty deal. I wonder if I would find the essay less promising if there weren’t so many “women’s issues” to write them about. I wonder if I would find this such a natural fit for myself if it weren’t the case that prestigious media outlets with budgets to pay for time and research and reporting heavily favor (white) men.
Anyway, women’s writing will be the business of inwardness as long as it’s still risky for women to walk around alone. There’s no way around it—this great, beautiful, wide-open prison of a life where existing often means getting boiled down to your gender’s vulnerability, whether by a free drink or a wage gap or a slice of that physical violence that is perpetrated in phenomenal numbers almost entirely by the gender that is not your own. I understand why, if you’re a female writer, you might find yourself retreating to a room of your own because hey! Look, you have one—and sometimes the uncharted territory your heart ends up finding is itself, purely, and the great underlying mystery figuring out how other people see you.
The internet intensifies this and every equation by reducing large subconscious factors to their smallest possible end. It’s great that previously stifled voices can be loud now; it’s a step back for those two steps forward when much of online discussion starts to feel prefaced by a writer’s overcorrections for having at one point in the past not being taken seriously. Women’s writing has its version of this. “Having been required for purposes of employment and functionality to maintain an off-the-charts emotional sensitivity to other people’s opinions,” I often read off the page in different versions of this essay, “I will now have to live like this for the rest of my life.”
But these things run under the surface. The women’s essay has to hide its essential nature, which is (in Ferrante’s words) that “I was overwhelmed with myself. I, I, I.” The internet matches egocentrism with faux demurral, every flex comes with a denial, and there are so many paragraphs that start with things like:
Now, ladies, don’t get me wrong.
“Ladies” optional, obviously, but in my inbox implied. It continues:
I know what you’re probably thinking: anyone who [UNREMARKABLE ACTION] must surely be [SYNONYM FOR UNLIKABLE]. But maybe it’s fine that my life has contained [TOTALLY NORMAL THING]. Maybe MORE lives should be open to containing [AFORESAID NORMAL THING].
I dislike and distrust this paragraph, but I understand why it shows up so often, even in essays about feelings, which are the last thing that a person needs to justify. I understand that the now-don’t-get-me-wrong paragraph is really a please-don’t-hate-me paragraph, which is really a please-don’t-call-me-a-motherless-cunt-in-the-comments paragraph. If you present your personal experience for public consumption on the internet with even a whisper of audacity (a word which is distributed unevenly) you are prey to a hostile universe bristling to punch you with the identity-politics hammer like a tributary Whack-a-Mole.
So the way out of it is sometimes that damn paragraph, that terrible thing women tend to have already learned to do. To say, “Now don’t get me wrong, I know what you’re thinking. I’m always considering you.”
That’s the way a lot of women have been asked to claim their ideas, the way solidified by the internet, which is an ego-rewarding space circumscribed by judgment and thus a natural fit for anyone who has been socialized into the preventative (and sometimes fake) humility dance. The internet matches up so well with the condition of having really thought about yourself—how you look, how you might seem.
And I admire and love and hate this tendency as it manifests for women: it’s so selfish and so selfless, so unstable and so tremendously real. In writing it’s the difference between Ferrante and Franzen, between Wild and Bill Bryson. It’s also why I’ll take the former every time. At some point it seems all the same at the bottom, the essay and the please-don’t-hate-me paragraph and Ferrante, all of it, a bunch of women in whatever ways they’re able asking some version of, “Can I fucking live?”
It’s not, of course, all the same in practice. On the internet, can I live is a fairly real question; the online persona and the online personal essay seem often to be begging for agreement, even and especially when none of it is due. But in fiction, the “conversation” is blessedly limited, the “can I live” rhetorical. A book is not there to validate anyone else’s personal history; it’s the story, that’s it.
We might envy women in fiction, who live in fortresses, answering to no one. And I think the primary barrier protecting them from judgment is less their actual fictionality and more the fact that their experience is represented by someone else: the author, the narrator. If the narrator happens to be (like in Ferrante) the woman herself, then even better, because the only judgment she is put in dialogue with is her own. Beautifully—and this is one of those truths that fiction conveys better than real life—this level of emotional autonomy doesn’t mean that these women get a pass. In books like Ferrante’s, it’s the opposite: these fictional women drive down a straighter, more honest road than the one where any comments section or please-don’t-hate-me paragraph will lead you.
I’ve read a lot of these books this year. Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation narrator, tracking her husband’s fling down at the office to scream at her on the street. Merritt Tierce’s coke-queen Love Me Back narrator who spends her child’s infancy in a vortex of neon all-nighters: the service industry work, the anonymous sex, the piles of drugs. Jamie Quatro’s I Want to Show You More: the affairs the narrator delights in, that ruin her. And of course all of Ferrante: the woman in Days of Abandonment who unravels after her husband leaves her, who beats her dog and neglects her children; the woman in The Lost Daughter who leaves her husband and kids. Lila and Lenu in the Neapolitan novels, submitting to beatings and watching each other get beaten, tugging back and forth on a rope of jealous, conniving inspiration all the way to the end.
There was a plain unflinching honesty in these stories that is not permissible on the internet without dissembling or disclaimers. These female narrators know that blame isn’t neatly unpacked on the self in a paragraph; they have the enviable clarity that comes from not having to make yourself palatable. Sometimes while reading I thought about how awful it would be if any of these stories were told first-person, by these narrators’ real-life-equivalents—they exist, surely—online. How horrible that would be for them, how much protective narcissism one would have to muster to do it. How awful for a life to appear as if it requires the approval of strangers more than the applied heart and intelligence of the individual herself.
In that New York Times interview, Ferrante urges something ambiguous and weighty. “Even if we’re constantly tempted to lower our guard—out of love, or weariness, or sympathy or kindness—we women shouldn’t do it,” she says. “We can lose from one moment to the next everything that we have achieved.”
Reading this, I thought, yes, I am losing my sight and my discipline, my sense of who needs to be answered to and who doesn’t, and never will, at all. As Ferrante suggests, this is a danger that beckons harder to women—there’s love and weariness and empathy in the please-don’t-hate-me paragraph, isn’t there—but it’s a human quandary, too. Whatever practices we give into, we’ve given into. Whatever we cave to has made us cave.
About the old women in Naples, Ferrante’s Story of a New Name narrator writes, “They had been consumed by the bodies of husbands, fathers, brothers, whom they ultimately came to resemble.” She worries about the patterns of her violent community re-forming her, despite her best efforts: “Would all that I was learning… dissolve, would the neighborhood prevail again, the cadences, the manners, everything be confounded in a black mire?” She is “suddenly sure that, without being aware of it, I had intercepted Lila’s feelings and was adding them to mine.”
The neighborhood might be prevailing: the cadences, the manners, the black mire. I worry that the internet makes us feel personally responsible to an audience, when we are responsible only to the people who love us—or, to the people we want to be responsible to, which is one way to figure out who we really love. That radical contract glimmers in the center of Ferrante’s writing. And even still, her characters forget their agency, shirk their responsibility, displace their needs and desires—as we ourselves do often, nearly always personally, almost never in any real sense online.
It’s not that Elena Ferrante presents a way of living separate from identity politics. Rather, she reinvigorates their essence while providing a powerful way through. She gets reviewed both very specifically about what she has to say About the Female Experience—”nothing less than one long, mind-and-heart-shredding howl for the history of women and its implicit j’accuse” (Joan Frank, San Francisco Chronicle)—and also for what she has to present about human life writ large through the specific. Her writing has “no limits” (James Wood), it is an “unconditional masterpiece” (Jhumpa Lahiri), her books “ask uncomfortable questions about how we live, how we love, how we singe an existence in a deeply flawed world” (Sydney Morning Herald).
Ferrante’s writing is so self-apparently brilliant, she’s so instinctive at presenting the perspective of the individual, that the most human possible conclusion emerges: your life may not be like that, but if you’d been born there, to that family, in that house, it would have been.
This is the fundamentally democratic flag waved by literary fiction in general. It took me a long time—maybe until I started working on the internet—to realize that the good idea of Anything Issues are People Issues was both startlingly uncommon and also poorly understood. And it’s not just on the internet where taking something “personally” means a defensive rather than open stance. Last year, for example, I taught a Nora Ephron essay, a pillar of this kind of essay, to freshmen at the University of Michigan, two days after teaching a football essay from GQ that the female half of the classroom had discussed with ease. One of the boys raised his hand when I asked for comments on Ephron. With a type of authority only bred in the lacrosse community, he said, “I didn’t relate to this. It sort of seemed like women’s issues.”
I suggested that, if a person is only interested in that which directly corroborates his life and viewpoints, he would miss out on pretty much everything, and that as a mode of understanding, “I hear you, but I’d prefer to be hearing me” is no way to live. My classroom looked at me as if I were a subway preacher; that student left me feedback at the end of the semester saying that my “feminist attitudes were highly inappropriate for the learning environment.” (I never once called myself a feminist in class.)
So I balk at the idea of “women’s issues” at the same time that I know these incidents among a thousand mundane others are all the proof of concept I need. I know you have to identify a bind to break it. But it’s harder to pinpoint where you’re at on the continuum that starts when something holds you captive and ends when you are—or can pretend that you are—free.
The answer, I think, is only found through particulars, where Ferrante is so magnificent. Her characters—singular; their sense of identity and self-presentation dissolved and shifting—form a case for representation being best served by that which is first non-representative. Her work carries a strong suggestion that judgment retreats when there are no hands outstretched for it, that the best way to anticipate and recognize other people’s perspectives is just to apply the most incendiary honesty you can muster to your own. She turns “the” female experience into a female experience, which turns into a human experience, full stop.
That’s the empathetic alchemy that every story should be inviting, and that’s my hope for this beautiful never-ending essay about “women’s issues,” whatever the hell that means. It’s the reason I’m still reading it and why I’m writing part of it right now, too. I want to say that we can still be smart about what’s individual, what’s representative, what we are responsible for and to whom. I want to say that if Elena Ferrante is any indication, the light that we squirm under can be something else instead.