by Elena Ferrante
Penguin Random House, 2016, 400 pp.
Elena Greco, the narrator of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, is an author with a double identity: she’s written both a high theoretical feminist tract and a “dirty” novel. The dirty book is really more like a bildungsroman containing one scene of “sex on the beach.” But that scene gets all the attention, reaching women who rarely have the time or energy to read. One childhood friend furtively praises Elena for capturing all the sad “filthiness” of relations between men and women. Another, who now works at a gas station, confides that she’s eager “to get to the dirty pages.” “The dirty pages,” Elena repeats to herself, with stunned disappointment.
Elena’s career exemplifies two cultures in women’s writing that are not supposed to mix: the unimpeachably high, where abstract desires are worked out in texts accessible only to educated elites, and the thrillingly low—writing that, driven by big, vulgar passions, grips the popular imagination but is not to be taken seriously. It is the difference between reading Virginia Woolf and Cosmopolitan, or between Shulamith Firestone and pop feminism. For Elena, in 1970s Italy, being caught on the wrong side of this divide produces anguish. You can lay claim to equality on the plane of ideas, but try to popularize these notions and you end up with a blue story, or its contemporary equivalents: feminist merch and the “empowering” memoirs of female rock stars. While women have made advances in serious literature and feminist thought in the last century, building a mass movement often still looks like a game of diminishing returns.
Unlike Elena Greco, Ferrante herself makes those two tendencies—high-mindedness and explosive popular appeal—work in a combination that no feminist novelist has managed before. Her fiction embraces the low kind of storytelling, with fast plots that draw you into the world of the novel and give you a stake in its politics and corruption. But she lends this energy to areas of experience frequently overlooked in literary fiction, like friendships between women (epitomized by Elena’s lifelong rivalry with and devotion to her friend Lila), as well as the more familiar themes of love and intrigue. Her works have met with the kind of reaction usually reserved for products of mass culture, big dramas in which every audience member finds someone to root for.
The seven novels Ferrante has published in English since 2005—Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love, The Lost Daughter, and the four Neapolitan novels—are so involving that it is hard not to look for the source of their appeal in the storyteller herself, who writes nonetheless under a pseudonym and prefers not to share any details of her personal life. Frantumaglia, a new collection of her interviews, emails to her publisher, and occasional writing, brings us no closer to finding out who she is, or explaining her work through her biography. (The Italian investigative journalist Claudio Gatti recently claimed to have unveiled her true identity, yet found “no traces” of the author’s personal life in her fiction.) What the collection does show is how Ferrante pulled away from a male-dominated literary tradition by using what is most powerful in women’s writing, and what it means to form a self.
The writings collected in Frantumaglia start in 1991 with Ferrante’s first letter to her Italian publisher Sandra Ferri. The beginning of the correspondence is the beginning of “Elena Ferrante,” the first recorded use of a name she invented to counter the side effects of becoming a celebrated novelist. She announces that she won’t be making any appearances to promote her book, which she jokes will save them money. “I’ll spare you even my presence,” she promises. There is no Elena Ferrante beyond the printed page. The whole framing of the book insists art is more coherent than the artist. The volume’s title, “frantumaglia,” means a “jumble of fragments,” and Ferrante keeps coming back to the idea that we are all “fickle agglomerations” of bits and pieces. It’s better that way; she loves the ancient texts that, because they had “no definite author,” took on “an intense life of their own.”
Although she dispenses with her specific identity, she asserts her gender identity strongly in the very next letter, dated 1992, which touches on the dissonance of reading while female. Most of what women read is written by men, and expresses only what men think and feel about each other, about ideas, even about women. For women readers, these texts are built on shifting sands: we swap ourselves in for the leading characters, but on re-reading discover that we were never actually there at all. Even the writer who has influenced Ferrante most, the Italian novelist Elsa Morante, put male characters at the center of her novels. In the 1992 letter, Ferrante goes back through Morante’s work “searching for an unequivocally female passage on the mother figure,” only to realize she had been “hear[ing] the male voices as disguised versions of female voices and feelings.” Her reading of Arturo’s Island, Morante’s tale of a motherless boy outgrowing his family, is all too recognizable: “Arturo was a girl, it had to be,” she tells herself. Women’s experiences are implied in the evocation of universal human experiences, as lived and recorded by men, but specifically female experience might as well not exist. (This might pose an epistemological problem for men too; I wouldn’t know and Ferrante doesn’t trouble herself with the question either.)
Ferrante has recounted often the pull that the literary tradition exerted on her when she was beginning to write. “When I was young, my goal was to write with a masculine tone,” she told an Italian newspaper in 2002. “It seemed to me that all the great writers were male and hence it was necessary to write like a real man.” In 2007, after the first of the Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend, was published, she regretted that she “learned to write by reading mainly works by men and constantly redoing them.” She preferred female characters written by men—like Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina—to those written by women. In her early efforts she tried to compensate, she says, by giving her female characters extravagant stores of courage and determination. And in her published work, women are often resolved where men turn out to be cowards. The bravery of schoolgirls provides the opening of My Brilliant Friend, as Lila dares Elena to retrieve her lost doll from a dangerous and frightening neighbor. Of course Elena lives up to the test and proves she’s tough, too, by throwing out Lila’s doll in retaliation.
Women who want to write such characters, Ferrante was to discover, start with a disadvantage. One of the most arresting pieces in the book appears under the title “The Weight of Language.” It’s nominally a brief essay about Emma Bovary’s cruelty toward her child, Berthe, which is distilled in her remark that “it’s strange how ugly this child is.” But truly the essay is an act of self-defense: Ferrante traces her work back to Flaubert’s, to prove a point to her Swedish publisher, who dropped The Days of Abandonment because, he claimed, its protagonist Olga acted in a “morally reprehensible” way toward her children. In that particularly rage-fueled novel, Olga starts to find her children a burden when their father leaves her and her own mental health deteriorates. Ferrante suspects, in the essay, that her own mother sometimes harbored toward her a hostility like Emma Bovary’s, or Olga’s; but then she doesn’t trust Flaubert or the male literary tradition to confirm those suspicions. “In certain phases of my life,” she considers, “I’ve imagined that only a man could conceive” Emma’s cruelty:
and only a man without children, a peevish Frenchman, a bear shut up in his house honing his complaints, a misogynist who thought of himself as both father and mother just because he had a niece.
Just as she had once heard a female voice in Morante’s male characters, she now wondered if there was really a bachelor lurking in Emma Bovary, a writer who knew nothing about being a mother. She directs her rage at both the publisher and at Flaubert. If a man is allowed to put these sentiments in the mouth of a woman, Ferrante argues, why shouldn’t she?
Putting her finger on what men’s writing lacked, however, was far from straightforward. In Frantumaglia, Ferrante often turns to fable or dreams and visions to throw a bridge over the void of female experience. She finds the metaphors and symbols that encode a woman’s being jumbled and mystifying. In a 1995 interview, she puzzles over Elsa Morante’s line that “No one, starting with the mother’s dressmaker, must think that a mother has a woman’s body.” Thinking about this lack of sense anguishes her:
I had imagined scissors that refused to cut, measuring sticks that lied about length, basting that didn’t hold, chalk that didn’t leave a mark. The mother’s body produced a revolt among the dressmaker’s tools, an annihilation of her skills. Dressing oneself and dressing other women was easy; but dressing the mother was to lose the war with the shapeless.
What she’s describing isn’t a fully formed thought yet; it’s still too laden with symbols that open themselves to blunt interpretations. The passage could almost have been lifted from one of Angela Carter’s erotic, violent retellings of fairy tales. But in The Days of Abandonment, which followed seven years later, Ferrante embedded the same horror in a realist novel. Olga decides that her marriage failed because sex with her husband was tainted after she gave birth to their children. In her fury, she put shards of glass in his food, assaults him in the street. “I was the body of incest,” she realizes bitterly, “I was the mother to be violated, not a lover.”
It may be limiting to imagine the mother’s body as a site of revulsion, especially when writers like Maggie Nelson in The Argonauts have celebrated the same transformations in poetic terms as the “summer of our changing bodies.” Troubling Love begins with a drowned mother; The Days of Abandonment opens with a deserted one. Elena disdains her mother and is terrified of inheriting her limp, a disability that would prove some sort of biological destiny. Yet Ferrante writes against the dominant story of what’s wrong with motherhood: Flaubert didn’t understand the fear and rage of maternity (with its threat of turning you into your own mother, your husband’s mother), he only saw feminine cruelty. Where cruelty is an attempt to wield power, rage is a reflection of interiority; it humanizes that icon of resentment—the woman who has given birth to children.
Over the twenty-five-year period that Frantumaglia spans, Ferrante is often asked to name the female writers from whom she draws inspiration. Morante’s House of Liars and Arturo’s Island, Madame de Lafayette’s The Princess of Clèves, she answers, early on. Alice Munro, Clarice Lispector, Shulamith Firestone, Luce Irigaray, she says a few years later. As the years wear on, she’s more reluctant to name names: as she looks to a broader tradition of women’s writing, her standard response becomes that there are too many accomplished authors to list. For Ferrante, that also meant embracing pulpy stories by writers who are long forgotten. “If we have to cultivate our narrative tradition, we should never renounce the entire stock of techniques that we have behind us,” she declared in 2015, “We have to dig deep into our difference.”
You can see the influence of that buried tradition in Ferrante’s fiction. Her novels aren’t carried along by the inventiveness of their language or the originality of their conceits, but by quick-thinking characters who are swept up in even faster-moving stories. Her plots run on the same volatile fuel as the human interest features in women’s magazines like Woman’s Weekly, Woman’s World, and, more recently, websites like XO Jane. These are tales of women who survive abandonment by their husbands, overcome the ravages of disease, the devastation of losing a child; stories we read with a mixture of hungry sympathy and schadenfreude.
As early as 1995, she’d become “less ashamed of how much I like the stories in the women’s magazines I find around the house: trash about love and betrayal, which has produced in me indelible emotions, a desire for not necessarily logical plots, a taste for strong, slightly vulgar passions. It seems to me that this cellar of writing, a fund of pleasure that for years I repressed in the name of Literature, should also be put to work, because it was not only with the classics but there, too, that the desire for storytelling developed, and so does it make sense to throw away the key?”
Ferrante’s novels unfold through sequences of the same sorts of outrages, desolations and hard-won triumphs. In The Days of Abandonment, Olga’s husband announces over dinner one night that he is leaving her; then comes the unbearable twist that her rival is a teenage girl he used to tutor. Elena Greco spends all her life pining for Nino Sarratore, a neighborhood boy who, like her, makes good, becoming an academic and prominent political commentator. But then he gets her (married) best friend Lila pregnant. Years later Elena deserts her husband, and everything she has, for Nino. Then one day, she discovers him almost absent-mindedly having sex with another woman. He’s cheating on her with the housekeeper. You can imagine these events storyboarded in a photo-romance, a form that Ferrante says was one of her early pleasures. The indignities are so clear, the ironies so impossible to miss that they defy the kind of complex thinking that her characters are so plainly capable of—which adds, of course, to their stock of indignities.
This fast-paced narrative style has given Ferrante’s novels a kind of effortless appeal; Frantumaglia, however, is a different beast. In her interviews and emails, she is prickly and cautious, as though fending off incursions into the worlds she has bequeathed her readers. Writing anonymously, she holds reality at arm’s length, for the sake of demanding more. She speaks as if for all women when she declares, “Only when a man publicly recognizes his debt to a woman’s work, without the condescending kindness typical of those who feel themselves superior, will things really start to change.”
Nevertheless, Frantumaglia allows flashes of vision that make the novels fit newly into place. Two of its three clearest themes are: one, that female characters must be more than lovely absences or figments of a man’s imagination and, two, that women should feel free to claim the power of gripping genre writing for their own purposes. In her fiction, you can see the two combine with the potent effect that women characters feel so present, so involved, and so constantly animated that the books read like an accelerated simulation of life, as something more than fictional or something nearly unfictional.
The impossible-to-ignore third major theme in Frantumaglia—the one that has attracted most attention—is Ferrante’s own anonymity. The author’s sense that a self is a bundle of fragments is the element that, finally, justifies the terrific speed of narrative on an intellectual level. Ferrante’s stories, so rapid and all-enveloping, pull together the “shapelessness” that threatens all women, the shapelessness she sees in the figure of the Mother. Olga’s marriage breaks down because of her shapelessness. Lila feels her “boundaries dissolving” when her sense of self is weakest. But Ferrante does not obsess over fracture—there is no time for that. These books are propelled by force of plot rather than force of character. You can only see someone—as Elena tries to see Lila by writing the history of their friendship—when they are bound up in a tide of events.
To be a woman is to live in a state of flux. At her wisest, Ferrante’s writing reverses literary tradition so that it’s the experience of being a woman that becomes the universal: “We are tornadoes that pick up fragments with the most varied historical and biological origins.” Caught up in the swiftness of her narratives, who could deny that?
Laura Marsh is Story Editor at the New Republic.