Elena Ferrante Writes Fiction That Feels Autobiographical. But Who Is She?
By Mona Simpson
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions) In the first novel of Elena Ferrante’s three-volume and still ongoing series, two young girls in an impoverished neighborhood of postwar Naples own in common their most treasured possession: an American book. The little Italian girls read Little Women and extract a dream of success. The girls in Little Women are poor too, and the most bookish one of them ends up supporting the family and making a name for herself as a writer. “In that last year of elementary school, wealth became our obsession. We talked about it the way characters in novels talk about searching for treasure. Then, I don’t know why, things changed and we began to link school to wealth. We thought that if we studied hard we would be able to write books and that the books would make us rich. Wealth was still the glitter of gold coins stored in countless chests, but to get there all you had to do was go to school and write a book.”
This is a fairytale—for readers. Two poor girls in a bleak neighborhood, with an atmosphere of brutality, discover a book from half a world away. In a literary variation on the Cinderella myth, someone writes the story of her world, and that document, rather than a prince with a gaudy glass slipper, initiates a transformation. We see the previously endangered child living in comfort by the end. That is also the story of David Copperfield, and also, in many ways, of its author; and of Louisa May Alcott, too, who wrote her novel “in record time for money” and died a wealthy spinster. David Copperfield, Little Women, and Elena Ferrante’s three Neapolitan books—My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay—are five stations on the long line of novels that are written as if they were autobiography, specifically the autobiography of a professional writer. With these stories, a part of the reader’s pleasure derives from the idea that the book in her hands has helped to enact the very transformation that affords its hero or heroine (and implicitly its author) a happy ending. Of course, in the cases of Dickens and Alcott, as with most long-dead authors, it is easy to trace the parallels of the characters’ and the authors’ biographies and see where they overlap and diverge. With living authors, the dissection is more complicated.
There are a number of reasons a writer may waffle on the question of which events in the book match up with her life. Most writers receive the question of whether something in their fiction “really happened” as an accusation, without being exactly sure what they are being accused of. There can be the egotistical concern that a writer is considered less “creative” if what she has done is “simply” to document what happened in “real life.” But everybody knows, or should, that just because something happened does not guarantee dynamite on the page. Effervescent dinner parties recorded and transcribed read like somber autopsies. Also, a writer may wish to preserve some privacy—not only for herself, but also to protect the people she is already betraying. Still, the connection between writing and reality is impossible to ignore. This is not just a question of “realism,” or of the sort of undramatized alignment with actual events that fills the six volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. Consider Tolstoy. Levin’s proposal to Kitty in Anna Karenina (which takes place over a board game) mirrored Tolstoy’s own proposal, and the scene in which the young fiancé insists on showing his bride-to-be the diaries recounting his extensive youthful debaucheries also came straight from Tolstoy’s life. He seems not to have gone to any great lengths to disguise identities—the maid in Levin’s house, Agafya Mikhaylovna, has the precise name of one of his own maids, and in the early drafts of War and Peace the central family was called “the Tolstoys.” According to one of his biographers, Tolstoy performed his work in progress for his family and friends. The biographer makes it sound like a party: “Doctor Bers arranged an evening at the house. … Tolstoy was to read aloud from his novel. … [T]he more pages he read, the more vividly they all began to recognize themselves. ‘Mama?’, the hostess ecclaimed. ‘Marya Dmitriyevna Akhrosimov is you!’” Alice Munro, the great Canadian short-story writer, shares with Elena Ferrante the themes of a workingclass upbringing, its concomitant striving and messy sexuality. Her novel, published as Lives of Girls and Women, was submitted to her publisher under the title Real Life. When asked about how much of her work was autobiographical, Munro has said, “I guess I have a standard answer to this … in incident, no … in emotion—completely. In incident up to a point too.” Alice Munro is now 83 and at the time of her Nobel Prize last year she was living with her daughters, one of whom had written a memoir called Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing Up With Alice Munro, in which there are many paragraphs that go like this: “That summer, the summer of 1974, I joined my mother and my sisters in the furnished apartment high on a hill overlooking Kootenay Lake. A description of what it was like living there can be found in Munro’s story ‘Providence.’ ” This penetrating book examines the problems of being Alice Munro’s daughter and a writer herself without in any way condemning Munro. “Sometimes I even feel as though I’m living inside an Alice Munro story,” her daughter writes. In 1997, Munro asked her daughter if she’d like to write her biography. Alice Munro babysat her grandson while her daughter Sheila “tried to write.” But of course this story is not yet over. Sheila Munro’s work may still come. That is the way Elena Ferrante would write it. Usually, no matter what an author says, readers can sense what feels true—from an intricacy of detail, from certain intensities, and most of all from the repetition of tropes through a writer’s career. When you have read all of Ferrante, some positions recur so often that they seem to be part of the author’s essential psychological toolkit, rather than character-specific inventions. There is always a bookish woman from Naples, for example, now living in a northern Italian city, Turin or Pisa or Florence. She works as a writer or a professor. This woman may leave her nice-enough husband for love, a particular love that is tinged with a romantic connection to her creative and professional aspirations. There is a continuous tension in her between Italian and the Neapolitan dialect. The woman is compelled or repulsed by her mother’s body, and fears her own body will turn into it. There is a recurring obsession with lost dolls, which are somehow connected to mothers too, as in My Brilliant Friend, where the narrator loves the doll for whom her crippled mother once—“on a happy day”—made a dress. These details seem to conform to the facts. Elena Ferrante was born in Naples. She is a writer. She has enjoyed success. But beyond that it is impossible to discuss exactly what, in Ferrante, is “taken from life,” because almost nothing about the writer is known. Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym that the author has used since the publication of her first novel, Troubling Love. She has given some explanations in Fragments, a collection of stray interviews, essays, and letters. She claims that she works with “events, feelings, emotions that belong to me very intimately.” She goes on to say that it’s paramount to her “to preserve the freedom to dig deeply, without self-censorship, into my stories.” More: “When one writes truthfully, the ties most at risk are precisely the close ones of blood, of love, of friendship. The people who stay near us in writing, to the point of accepting even the most cruel and devastating effects, can be counted on the tips of one’s fingers.” Each of these complications—the devastation caused to people close to the writer who could abandon the writer after she writes about them “truthfully,” self-censorship, preventing herself from “digging deeply”—is a problem experienced by “Elena,” one of the two friends in the Neapolitan series, who writes and publishes a novel. Ferrante admits that the number of books she has written and rewritten is greater than the number she has published. She says those that she has published are the ones that “most decisively stuck a finger in certain wounds I have that are still infected.” After reading her most recent novel, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, in part about the harrowing experience of a woman publishing a first novel, it is tempting to wonder whether the author, whoever she is, is playing out the road not taken or whether there was a conventional publication, under her real name, that wounded her into pseudonymity. “I don’t want to accept an idea of life where the success of the self is measured by the success of the written page. … [E]ver since a bad period when I was very young, and consumed by a frenzy of writing, I’ve tried to consider writing not as the only way of acting in the world but as one of the three or four actions that give weight to my life. … I study, I translate, I teach.” Ferrante’s “Elena” is not the star of the books she narrates. She is twinned, from My Brilliant Friend on, with Lila, the co-owner of Little Women and the girl she considers more talented and charismatic. Compared with Lila, Elena is ordinary, pretty, and a grind. Except for A Passage to India, I cannot think of another major novel with a lifelong friendship as its central subject. Ferrante gives the parallel trajectories of the girl who leaves and the girl who stays equal weight in My Brilliant Friend and its sequels. Since these books are not only about a friendship but also a dialectical exploration of the female life lived and the one spent studying and writing about life, they are raw, violent, and powerful. They undermine the myth of the writer as a self-making genius. We see two talented, ambitious girls who want work and love. But for these twin aspirations, both deeply desired, the trajectory of the female writer diverges from that of the male. David Copperfield and Karl Ove Knausgaard want success and love too, but both those ends will be helped by the character’s success in becoming a writer. (The one who seems to have suffered for Knausgaard becoming a writer is his wife.) For the lady writer, though, it is a different story every step of the way. Ferrante writes not only about sex and domesticity, but also about the interplay of Elena’s literary ambition with her sexuality, her frustrations, her seductions, and how all this plays out in a marriage. The shifting relations between Ferrante’s two girls are endless. They begin their friendship with Lila dominating, as the skinny, dirty daughter of the shoemaker who wins all the competitions in school. But when both girls earn a chance to test for a scholarship to a citywide sixth grade—a chance that itself requires books purchased and summer tutoring—the parents of Elena agree to try. The shoemaker refuses and throws his daughter out a window “like a thing.” Elena, the narrator, points out that all the fathers in their neighborhood beat their daughters—her own included. Lina’s father just has a more violent temper. Elena continues in school and the skinny Lina, the tomboy, becomes beautiful. She chooses the gentleseeming grocer’s son, not the loan shark’s heir who has always loved her. They make a handsome, wealthy couple. They have a convertible. To the neighbors they look like “Soraya and the Shah of Persia, Jack and Jackie.” Elena feels like a failure. An essay that she submits to a journal for publication is rejected. Meanwhile Lina and her new husband move into a new condominium with a lavish bathroom, and Elena, still a poor student, comes over to bathe in the luxurious tub. Lina shows her uncanny sense of culture by designing the family shoe store in downtown Naples not as a retail shop, but as an arty salon. One believes her cool. She seems to be winning. The first novel ends with a wedding, like a Shakespearean tragicomedy, where you feel him shoving his characters into the happy ending that his audience required. In a bold move, the wedding scene that ends My Brilliant Friend continues in the next volume, The Story of a New Name, Lina’s triumph now cast in a more equivocal light. We had already learned, for example, that “the wine was not the same quality for all the tables.” The sons of the loan shark crash the reception, one of them wearing the shoes Lila designed for her husband: he has scorned her creation and given it away. We now see her flee the party, her groom following. With these developments, Ferrante shrewdly undermines the traditional notion of the wedding plot not only as a happy ending, but also as the defining factor—either way—for the future of the bride. The two girls determine each other’s lives more than their husbands do. Their work, their educations, and their sexualities all develop in response—rivalrous, idolatrous, or collaborative—to each other. Lina has an idyllic affair with a boy from the neighborhood whom Elena has always loved. On the night of its consummation, Elena gives up her virginity to the boy’s father, a known philanderer, who had to move his family out of the neighborhood when they were children because a woman he seduced in the same apartment building went mad. Elena chronicles this desperate act later when she writes a novel. She completes the project in twenty days (one might say “in a frenzy of writing,” as Alcott wrote Little Women). She doesn’t try to make money from it, though; she gives it to her boyfriend as a present, on the night he proposes. He almost forgets the handwritten manuscript in the restaurant. Like the given-away shoes at Lina’s wedding, the manuscript is a thing without value in the eyes of a man. The second book ends with Elena on top. She finishes her degree, she is engaged to be married to a young professor from a good family, she has sold her book—but her standard of reference is still Lina, toward whom she feels admixtures of guilt and awe. Elena is disappointed with the averageness of her adult peers, who grew up in the world she struggled so hard to enter. Owing to her education, she finds herself living in a world completely different from that of her childhood; and one of the confounding convictions these books emphasize is how little disparity there seems to be in the general level of intelligence, depth, or grace of Elena’s friends from then and now. Yet while Elena meets the editor of her first novel in Milan, Lina is ruining her hands working in a brutal and unsanitary sausage plant. When Elena is up, Lina is at her lowest—the tale is a seesaw, the balance is always shifting. In the courtyard of the factory, where Lina works amid the stink of “animal fats, flesh, nerves,” she comes alive, talking to her friend about “Boolean algebra,” and the new computer languages she is, in 1967, already learning. If the second volume undermines the marriage plot, the third upends the literary fairytale. The Brilliant Friend novels, as they are called in Italy, employ a retrospective first person, as Dickens did in David Copperfield, adding to the impression of autobiography. For a few pages, we see Elena in her sixties, in 2010, writing “at a good pace, without wasting time rereading.” She tells us that the last time she saw Lina was five years earlier in Naples. Since then Lina has disappeared. At their last meeting, Lina said:“Write, if you want, write about Gigliola, about whoever you want. But about me no, don’t you dare, promise.” Even after Elena promises, Lina doesn’t believe her. “I’ll come looking in your computer. I’ll read your files. I’ll erase them.” This is how we learn that the novel Elena wrote—we never learn its title—is not in fact My Brilliant Friend (the way the novel Jo March wrote is indeed Little Women). Both novels—Elena Greco’s and My Brilliant Friend—portray the old neighborhood and the heroine’s loss of virginity on the beach in Ischia. So the novels overlap, except that Elena has excised Lina, as if she never existed. Ferrante captures the quiet pride that comes from a first book: “In a few months there would be printed paper sewn, pasted, all covered with my words, and on the cover the name, Elena Greco, me, breaking the long chain of illiterates, semi-literates, an obscure surname that would be charged with light for eternity. In a few years—three, five, ten, twenty—the book would end up on those shelves, in the library of the neighborhood where I was born, it would be catalogued, people would ask to borrow it to find out what the daughter of the porter had written.” But her young academic husband (who is writing a book about Bacchic rites!) asks her to revise the pages where the protagonist loses her virginity on the beach. “You yourself said that that part is a bit risqué,” he says. In that stray comment lay the beginnings of self-censorship. If the episode upset her Socialist husband, what would her conservative family think? She works on the manuscript to eliminate what she could that might offend. She thinks she’ll never write another book. She worries that her book isn’t original, that she’s stolen the idea from Lina. Elena gives a reading at a Milan bookstore, where a man starts talking about Elena’s “risqué pages.” All anyone seems interested in are those pages! Later, in the elevator, the professor who introduced her makes a pass at her. Soon there is the horror of a bad review, which calls the author “a girl concerned with hiding her lack of talent behind titillating pages of mediocre triviality.” As luck would have it, the harshest review appears in Italy’s most widely read paper, which titled the piece “Salacious Memoirs of an Ambitious Girl: Elena Greco’s debut novel” and with it, runs her picture. An old boyfriend tells her that her book is “petty” compared with the Revolution. The novel is also reviewed by the man, twice her age, who took her virginity. (He calls her novel “the cheap version of the already vulgar Bonjour Tristesse.”) And worst of all, Lina, when pressed after reading a draft of Elena’s attempt at a second novel says, “[I]t’s an ugly, ugly book and the one before it was, too.” Some fairytale! Greco’s experience of the literary life can be seen as a fictional manifesto on the miseries of publishing: the doubt, the shame, the humiliation, the insults from those one would have hoped to impress or even seduce. No wonder the author behind the Neapolitan books claims that “writing with the knowledge that I don’t have to appear produces a space of absolute creative freedom. … [I]f I were deprived of it, I would feel abruptly impoverished.” Elena Greco certainly seems impoverished. She is not only stalled in her writing (her second book is rejected by the woman who championed her first), she is also estranged from her husband, who fails to appreciate her as a writer and would be happier if she stopped writing altogether. And unlike her childhood friend, she feels that she has missed out on what she considers life: “I had been too wretched, too crushed by the obligation to excel in school. I had hardly ever gone to the movies. I had never bought records, yet how I would have liked to. I wasn’t a fan of any singers, hadn’t rushed to concerts, collected autographs; I had never been drunk and my limited sexual experiences had taken place uncomfortably, amid subterfuges, fearfully.” Lina once again seems ascendant. Having fallen to a state of terrible health and borderline sanity while working in the sausage factory, she is now living an unconventional life with her son and a man with whom she has a deep intellectual—but no erotic— connection. She is earning money and enjoying prestige in the old neighborhood, working for the loan shark’s son who always loved her. She and her partner are the first people in their region to understand the potential uses of computer encryption. Elena, internally blocked by the pains of publication and the stultifying conventions of an academic marriage, is so insecure that when she sees her novel on a shelf of the bookstore when visiting home, she has to look in the other direction, feeling “pride and fear, a dart of pleasure that ended in anguish.” By now she has read and studied the classics. Her ambitions have changed. She understands what genuine literature is. She no longer wants only to get rich and leave the neighborhood. She wants to make “something of value.” Whether she can or not is anyone’s guess by the close of this volume, but the probability of her happiness seems slight. The Neapolitan novels are not Ferrante’s first books. In English, she has published Troubling Love, The Lost Daughter, and Days of Abandonment. While her claim on our serious interest is owed to the Brilliant Friend novels, the earlier books do contain moments of intensity and glory, and are the productions of a distinct sensibility. What they lack, in contrast to the Neapolitan books, is the world: their internality threatens to swallow the events, which are told from deep inside a consciousness that the author knows intimately but which affords the reader almost no narrative handles. (Imagine a nearly insane Mrs. Dalloway without the contextual help of MPs, London, or ex-colonial Peter.) The indirection and the overwhelming dependence on a voice, hanging untethered in a contextless atmosphere—a stance popular in contemporary literary fiction, which leaves to the movies the task of providing the sort of full descriptions we once found in Hardy—did not work as well for Ferrante. But the Neapolitan novels are something else, an altogether different order of art. Sometimes this happens: a writer works steadily and diligently and then there is a leap into the extraordinary. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay has been eagerly anticipated as the concluding volume of what had been for a long time called a trilogy. But there are still decades to cover in the saga of two girls from an impoverished neighborhood who try to get out and to make it, by way of the classical if increasingly unlikely means of betterment through education. We must be grateful. When this viscerally populated epic is complete it will give us what readers want most from prose fiction: a full world.