Dread. Fear. Pain. Self-loathing. Two autobiographical novelists — one an enigma, the other a reluctant celebrity — are unflinching in their catalogue of life’s daily torments. Yet they also evoke the ambition and restlessness of the human spirit.
By: Heather Mallick Columnist, Published on Sat Apr 25 2015
The semi-autobiographical novels of Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard are piled in front of me on a kitchen scale. Together they weigh two kilograms, stand as high as a hedge and are so good they make other writers sigh heavily and wonder about another line of work.
Ferrante and Knausgaard, an Italian and a Norwegian writing from different genders, cultures and motives, have bitten off a huge chunk of human experience and chewed it so thoroughly that one feels sated after reading.
And there’s more to come. The final volumes, in Italian and in Norwegian, are still being translated into English. Reading them each year as they appear is like watching a child grow, immensely pleasurable at the time but twinned with warning that it will all come to an end.
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Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, the four-volume story of a female friendship of magnificent intensity, begin in the eternally poor Naples of the 1950s. They include My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. Book 4, The Story of the Lost Child, will appear this fall. The series is written in sequence as Elena Greco and her bosom friend Lila Cerullo have a rotten time of it, and then it gets worse.
Knausgaard’s six-volume My Struggle was not structured in sequence. It began with Knausgaard in adulthood. Vol. 2, A Man in Love, was about his marriage; Vol. 3,Boyhood Island, about childhood; and Vol. 4, Dancing in the Dark, about adolescence. Knausgaard wants to have sex with a girl. Clueless about the mechanics of his own body — if you want proof that children need sexual information classes in school, Karl Ove is Student Zero — he’s doomed.
He’s as sexually inept at 18 as Ferrante’s men are in their 30s. All his efforts reek of failure and shame.
I would describe these novels as photographs of lives, but highly blurred ones, like the ones you take of speeding cars.
We have no idea who “Elena Ferrante” actually is. She uses a pseudonym and is easier to label as the Elena Greco heroine of the novels. We know the basic facts of the author’s life: she grew up in Naples, is a mother, may have been married, has a classics degree and teaches.
“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?” wrote the American poet Muriel Rukeyser. “The world would split open.” She’s right.
The price of being a brilliant, sensitive and candid woman is so high in Italy that Ferrante did the writing, and left it at that, flatly refusing the humiliating self-promotion demanded by nervous publishers. She feared her book would be dismissed as a mere woman’s book about “petty love affairs.”
That hurt. “Ferrante” won’t be photographed or show up to accept prizes, doesn’t give speeches, and will very rarely do interviews and only in writing. That’s it. “I will be the least expensive author,” she told her publisher. “I’ll spare you even my presence.” The impression one has is that she might be violently attacked. Naples, still run by the Camorra, doesn’t forgive snitches.
Knausgaard, painfully shy, has trouble getting through lunch with strangers. But he forces himself to give interviews and to tour internationally, I suspect because he thinks it would be rude not to. Scandinavians are courteous people who keep their suffering to themselves.
Both authors had terrible childhoods and were victims of male violence and non-stop contempt. As the American critic Joshua Rothman has written, the theme of both writers is fear. Men and women deal with it differently.
Rothman writes: “Knausgaard is ironic, Ferrante more serious; Knausgaard is leisurely, Ferrante propulsive; Knausgaard is an esthete, a noticer of moments, while Ferrante is a dramatist, an orchestrator of scenes.” Both writers are swimming against local currents. Ferrante is the tougher one.
Ferrante and Knausgaard have taken on the biggest subject, being alive, but they write at length about daily torment. Knausgaard is the greater writer because he writes about the hugeness of being human combined with the minutiae of dailiness. He has a coffee, he walks alone along the sidewalk. Nothing happens really.
If Ferrante walks along a sidewalk, she’s braced to be hounded, or fondled, or possibly brained. To go by the Neapolitan Novels, it was, and remains, horrible to be born female. Women are born second-best, badly educated, ill paid if even allowed to work, beaten by lazy, coddled, sexually incontinent husbands and loaded with children they raise alone.
To go by My Struggle, being Norwegian is just as bad except everyone’s taller, more reticent and it’s cold and dark. In rural Norway, one accepts pain stoically; in Naples, one lashes out. The two writers have different burdens and different aims.
Knausgaard grew up in the mandated Norwegian style: self-denying, full of shame, shrinking in a crowd of shrinkers. He wanted to be a great writer in a country where greatness is shunned, but did it by writing his autobiographical novels in a burst of courage, self-loathing, rage and utter truthfulness.
He is a living breathing scandal in Norway and now lives with his family in rural Sweden, only venturing out for little festivals of misery and misunderstanding. Knausgaard feels uncomfortable in his own company. He doesn’t do well with other people either, and can’t seem to sense the love his readers have for him.
The Italian novels are soaked in dread. Whatever Greco and her friend Lila Cerullo do — go for a walk, come home, go to school, eat, marry, not marry, look out a window — something awful awaits. The power of the writing is that it all seems perfectly plausible. The squalor is riveting.
Sensitive people like Greco and Knausgaard are always punished. Canadian writers aren’t treated well either. No wonder they’re often timid.
Both writers shocked me. Elena Greco is the “brilliant friend,” the woman who will escape Naples and do great things, while Cerullo will drop out of school and depend on men. Marriage is the only option.
The shock is the slow discovery as the story progresses of how bad sex is for both women. “Lila is really made badly,” Lila’s sinister lover Nino says to Elena, who realizes that this means that Lila does not take pleasure in the male’s thrusting; she needs rubbing, moving, using hands and tongue. In other words, Lila is normal, Nino brutish.
Elena does some hard thinking about her own kind husband, Pietro. He basically lands on her and grinds away sweatily and monotonously.
Then comes the dreariness of child-rearing. Then comes work in a sausage factory, spending “eight hours a day standing up to your waist in the mortadella cooking water … to have your fingers covered with cuts from slicing the meat off animal bones” and to be called to the drying salami room to be squeezed, grabbed and entered by a boss smelling of meat.
Men are bad at sex, family is a chore, work is hellish, passion dies, mothers resent their children, fathers are hateful, mothers are trapped in their own era. So young people must take the warnings of Knausgaard and Ferrante and build better lives, perhaps alone.
And yet people like life, they want to be alive. I kept thinking of a line Knausgaard and Ferrante might rather like.
It comes from Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo’s magnificent 2012 study of life in the Mumbai slums. The suffering there dwarfs any European discontent, but Boo describes a young boy who feels the same way the two writers do in their absorption in the interest of living each day.
At one point, the boy, being beaten by his mother, wonders if he has a life. He thinks, “If what is happening now, you beating me, is to keep happening for the rest of my life, it would be a bad life, but it would be a life, too … A boy’s life could still matter to himself.”
The personal events that Knausgaard and Ferrante write about at great length and in immense detail are universal. They sound like this boy. They live every moment; they are not bored but filled with emotion and striving.
Said Virginia Woolf, it is “very, very dangerous to live even one day.”
The quotable Ferrante and Knausgaard
On praise vs. loathing:
“He called me ‘a girl concerned with hiding her lack of talent behind titillating pages of mediocre triviality’.”
— Elena Greco gets a male review in Vol. 3 of the Neapolitan Novels
“There is no worse fate than being subjected to bloody praise.”
— Karl Ove Knausgaard gets a male review in Vol. 2 of My Struggle
On the ages of man:
“The fetus in the belly, the infant on the changing table, the forty-year-old in front of the computer, the old man in the chair, the corpse on the bench? Wouldn’t it be more natural to operate with several names since their identities and self-perceptions are so very different?”
— Karl Ove Knausgaard in Vol. 3 of My Struggle
“Children don’t know the meaning of yesterday, of the day before yesterday, or even of tomorrow, everything is this, now; the street is this, the doorway is this; the stairs are this, this is Mamma, this is Papa, this is the day, this the night. I was small and really my doll knew more than I did.”
— Elena Greco in Vol. 1 of the Neapolitan Novels
“I’ll bloody show the whole sodding f—ing world who I am and what I am made of. I’ll crush every single one of them. I’ll render every single one of them speechless. I will.”
— Karl Ove Knausgaard vows to become a writer in Vol. 4 of My Struggle
“In a single burst, I wrote a story that in the space of a few months became, surprisingly, a book. [My mother] attacked me in very low but shrill tones, hissing with reddened eyes … ‘she thinks she’s somebody because she writes books … my dear, you came out of this belly.’”
— Elena Greco becomes a writer in Vol. 3 of the Neapolitan Novels