Reviews — From the October 2014 issue

The Secret Sharer

Elena Ferrante’s existential fictions

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Discussed in this essay:

My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante. Europa Editions. 336 pages. $17.

The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante. Europa Editions. 480 pages. $18.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, by Elena Ferrante. Europa Editions. 400 pages. $18.

Little is known about the writer Elena Ferrante. It’s assumed the name is pseudonymous, but only her Italian publisher could say for sure. From Fragments, a short collection of letters and written answers to readers’ questions, published in 2012, we do gather a few facts: she comes from Naples but no longer lives there, has a classics degree, was once married, and is a mother. These details correspond with the outline of the story she gives to Elena Greco, the narrator of her remarkable novel sequence — My Brilliant Friend (2012), The Story of a New Name (2013), and now Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay — about the friendship between two women born into working-class Neapolitan families in the Forties. In Italy, rumors circulate that “Elena Ferrante” is the work of a male writer, or even writers, an Ern Malley–type hoax. This is not impossible, though if it’s true I feel sorry for the man, or men, behind it. They’ve worked so hard for so long that they must be either sanctified or deranged.

Photograph from Naples by Charles Traub, whose monograph Dolce Via was published last year by Damiani.

Photograph from Naples by Charles Traub, whose monograph Dolce Via was published last year by Damiani.

Before the Brilliant Friend books, as they’re called in Italy, Ferrante was known, there and abroad, for three slender, dreamlike novels of feminine disintegration, translated into English by Ann Goldstein and very well reviewed in the U.S. press. The Days of Abandonment, published in 2002, remained on the bestseller list in Italy for almost a year and was the first to be translated, in 2005. It was followed in 2006 by Ferrante’s debut, Troubling Love, and then, in 2008, by The Lost Daughter. All are available in Italian in an omnibus paperback called Cronache del mal d’amore — “Tales of Lovesickness.”

Ferrante’s popularity in Italy, Goldstein suggested in a conversation with James Wood, has to do with the way she writes frankly but with literary elegance about shame, disgust, sexual humiliation, “the stink of motherhood,” and the endless labor of feminine self-beautification. In her novels, children chew up their mothers like “a cud made of a living material that continually amalgamated and softened its living substance.” A child stuffs the mouth of her doll with worms. A grown daughter wears her dead mother’s underpants, “much mended and with ancient elastic that showed here and there through the torn seams.” “In Italian fiction,” Goldstein said, “for women to be writing about these kinds of inner things, these very personal things, was unusual. And still is, to an extent.”

For English-language readers, the attraction must be slightly different. The sexual candor and surrealism and sometimes lurid confessional tropes may seem almost retro to those who grew up with Sylvia Plath, Dorothy Dinnerstein, and Kathy Acker; as Wood put it in The New Yorker last year, Ferrante’s novels are “marked, somewhat belatedly, by . . . second-wave feminism.” Feminine experience, as second-wave feminism made plain, often involves moments of self-disgust along with loathing of one’s poor mother and beloved children, and Ferrante’s early work explores these near universal emotions with forms drawn from classical tragedy. Femininity, in its shadings, becomes an aspect of the ancient stain.

In the Brilliant Friend books (which Goldstein also translated), however, Ferrante develops this implicit, aestheticized feminism into something startlingly historical as Italy’s post-war boom, or miracolo economico, gives way to the unrest of the late Sixties and Seventies, the so-called Years of Lead, when assassinations and terrorist attacks by political extremists on both the right and the left shook the country. Wifehood and motherhood, together with her education and the upheavals of the day, transform Elena Greco, the daughter of a housewife and a porter from the deep south of a patriarchal Catholic country, into a revolutionary feminist pamphleteer. She reads the far-left Lotta Continua movement’s newspaper and Carla Lonzi’s furious essay “Let’s Spit on Hegel” (“Spit on Hegel. Spit on the culture of men, spit on Marx, on Engels, on Lenin”). It’s always possible that Ferrante was not herself “marked” as a young woman by Lotta Continua and Carla Lonzi, that her knowledge of this period comes only from book research — Rachel Kushner, for example, writes about the same period in The Flamethrowers. Except that Kushner’s take is cool, chic, art historical. Ferrante’s has the heat and roughness of the period’s actual art.

In 2011, the Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra asked Ferrante whether she minds readers trawling the books for evidence of her “hypothetical personality.” “No, no regrets,” she replied. “To my way of seeing, digging up the personality of the writer from the stories he offers . . . is nothing other than a good way of reading.” And when people ask about autobiographical input, she answers: “If by autobiography you mean drawing on one’s own experience to feed an invented story, almost all of it. If, however, you are asking if I’m telling my personal story, none of it.” As honest writers of all sorts always should respond.

Ferrante lived, she added, with the idea of the Brilliant Friend books for many years before the story became clear enough for her to “feel” it, as she put it, “in each of its moments or places,” to get inside what she calls the “cavities” of her characters. Over that period, the story absorbed elements from her own past, from things observed in the life around her and from other stories she had been told. And yet, as she confessed in a letter to her publisher, even then the story, in a way, was not finished. The story itself, its words and characters, are, she said,

only tools with which you circle around the evasive thing, unnamed and shapeless, which belongs only to you, and which is a sort of key to all the doors. . . . The question of every story is always: is this the right story to seize what lies in the depths of me, that living thing which, if captured, spreads through all the pages and animates them?

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