SOME THOUGHTS ON ELENA FERRANTE: THE LONG AND THE SHORT OF IT
by Jonathan Gibbs
Last night I was at Foxed Books in West London for the London launch for Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third in her ‘Neapolitan novels’ – a projected sequence of four books telling the intense, dialectical relationship between two women over, thus far, thirty years. What with Ferrante being a non-public author, it was up to others to do the promotional duties, and I was asked to join Joanna Walsh, who chaired, and Catherine Taylor to read from and discuss her work.
Walsh has written on Ferrante for the Guardian, while Taylor and I both reviewed the new book, she for The Telegraph and I for The Independent. It was a great evening, with what I hope was an interesting discussion, both for those that already knew Ferrante’s writing and those that didn’t, and some incisive comments from the floor.
As might be hoped, most of the talk was less about the enigmatic Ferrante herself, as about the books. As a critic, I have to say, it is a joy to be able to talk about the writer without the sense that they are listening in, and might stalk up to you at another launch, months hence, and throw a glass of wine in your face. (If it’s true, as the hints would have it, that Ferrante’s decision to absent herself from the public gaze is at least partly down to constitutional shyness, then I guess she doesn’t read her reviews.) Ferrante, so far as the critic is concerned, may as well be dead. Or, as the final two lines of one of her novels read:
Deeply moved, I murmured:
“I’m dead, but I’m fine.”
One theme that recurred over the evening, and that I think worth reiterating, is the highly specific Italian-ness of her books: the overwhelming, overweening importance of family; and, one circle further out from that, of ‘the neighbourhood’. These are facets of the Neapolitan novels that simply couldn’t be successfully transplanted to any other setting, not even really to, say Italian New York. And yet there is nothing foreign about them. The effect on the characters’ lives of ‘family’ and ‘neighbourhood’ in Ferrante’s books is at once universally recognisable and highly localised.
In preparation for the talk I read the two Ferrante books that I hadn’t read before (and, in fact, re-read another, The Days of Abandonment), and this drilled home for me one other aspect of her oeuvre, thus far, that is worth mentioning.
We currently have six books by Ferrante available in English, all translated by Ann Goldstein: three shorter ‘standalone’ novels and the three longer ‘Neapolitan’ novels, with the fourth and supposedly final one coming in Italian next year.
(There is, I’m delighted to discover, also an as-yet-untranslated illustrated children’s book, La Spiaggia di Notte (The Beach at Night, orThe Night Beach) – a story narrated by a child’s doll when it is abandoned overnight on the beach by her five-year-old owner when the girl’s dad brings her a kitten as a present. Dolls are important in Ferrante’s work – as was touched on at the event, and as anyone who has read either My Brilliant Friend or – particularly – The Lost Daughter,with its doll lost on the beach, will know. The sooner we have this book translated the better.)
It’s worth pointing out how different the three standalone novels are from the Neapolitan ones, in length not least. In order of original publication – but with English pagination – the books are:
Troubling Love (1992) 139pp
The Days of Abandonment (2002) 188pp
The Lost Daughter (2006) 125pp
My Brilliant Friend (2011) 331pp
The Story of a New Name (2012) 471pp
Those Who Leave and Those Two Stay (2013) 414pp
(NB My Brilliant Friend in Italian is called L’Amica Geniale – TheBrilliant Friend – which gives an ambiguity to the question of who exactly the phrase is describing – Lila or Elena – that isn’t really there in the translation. Also NB In Italian, the quartet, or sequence of novels, is called L’Amica Geniale; ‘The Neapolitan Novels’ seems to be an invention of Europa Editions.)
The first three books have been collected in a single Italian edition, entitled Cronache del Mal D’Amore (roughly, Chronicles of Love-Sickness), coming in at 508pp, little more than the longest of the Neapolitan novels.
These novels certainly work as a loose thematic trilogy, all of them written in the first person, all inward-focused; all covering a short period of time, during which the narrator, always a woman, undergoes what might once have been classed a nervous breakdown – and usually triggered by a particular life event. In Troubling Love, this is the death of the narrator’s mother; and in The Days of Abandonmentthe departure of her husband.
In The Lost Daughter, on the other hand, it is the narrator who left her husband and two children (although she later returned to them). Here it is her obsessive interaction with a big Italian family on a beach holiday that triggers her moment of self-abandonment, which might be described as a belated panic over her desertion of her children, triggered by her growing attachment to the sight of a young mother with her young daughter.
These three books are sharp, jagged psychological thrillers, that would be shocking even if they didn’t twist our preconceptions of ‘the feminine’ quite so viciously. They are visceral, direct and highly charged. At the Ferrante event they were compared, variously, to Hitchcock (Taylor, on Troubling Love) and Polanski (Richard Skinner, on The Days of Abandonment). I wrote last year about how the crucial sex scene in Days of Abandonment that felt, “in all its clarity and candour and muckiness, like the truest possible expression of what I feel (what I fear) must be going on in that other mind, during sex”.
There’s a wonderful quote from Ferrante, found in the non-fiction collection Fragments – it’s taken from an interview in 2002, when the two books she mentions were the only two she had published:
Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment seemed to be the ones that most decisively stuck a finger in certain wounds I have that are still infected, and without a safe distance. At other times, I’ve written about clean or happily healed wounds [in novels she chose not to publish], and I did so with the regulation detachment and the right words. But then I discovered that that is not my path.
The thing is: all of this stuff is in the Neapolitan novels, too, but spread out; shared, to a certain extent, among the characters; and interspersed with all kinds of other narrative elements that never make it into the early books.
The ‘Lovesickness’ novels (as you might label them) have no sense of the wider social world that gives the Neapolitan books their secondary throb – the primary one being that same human, feminine, raw quality they all share. In the early books the world of work, the world of men, the world of universities and loan sharks and organised crime is barely there – it is always just off-screen.
Rather, it is there in the women’s situations, but because the books treat such a short period in their lives – periods when their lives are turned inwards, not outwards – their social situation is not given time to change, to be influenced by those other, external forces.
Each of those early novels eventually pulls the finger out of the wound; you get the sense of the healing process beginning, just beyond the final sentence… and that’s the strange thing about the Neapolitan novels: the possibility of closure is forever delayed.
Each of the novels starts from a ‘now’ in which the narrator tells us that Lila, her ‘brilliant friend’, has disappeared, after which she decides to settle her account with her through writing the book… but we don’t yet have any inkling as to what that final reckoning will look like.
These are hugely impressive books, written on a huge scale, that move from the tiniest Naples interior to the wider canvas of international revolutionary politics (while also, as Joanna Walsh pointed out, remaining largely domestic in their setting: i.e. her characters are women, and are confined to a certain social place, even as they push against that), but in a weird way it’s not yet quite clear how good they are. Rather, they are good books, but how good will the whole thing be? That will depend, I think, on how Ferrante, at the end of the sequence, leaves the ‘wound’ of Lila and Elena’s relationship.