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?

Ferrante has written that the Brilliant Friend sequence (likely to extend at least to a fourth book) should be considered “a single novel,” published serially for reasons of length and duration — the full story, once completed, will span more than sixty years. The spread is both temporal and lateral. Ferrante’s earlier novels were minimal and dramatic, interior monologues with only a few other walk-on characters. But the cast of the Brilliant Friend books is huge, featuring whole families and friendship networks, with lists at the beginnings to keep readers clear on the difference between the Solaras and the Sarratores, Michele and Marcello and Manuela, the porter’s family and the shoemaker’s family and the family of the pastry chef.

These people and the relationships between them define the few blocks of inner-city Naples that Ferrante calls “the neighborhood,” a district of scruffy two-room tenements bounded by a main road in one direction and a railroad in the other, with a three-mouthed tunnel that is rumored to lead to the sea. “As far back as I could remember,” Elena says of her childhood,

I had never left the four-story white apartment buildings, the courtyard, the parish church, the public gardens. I had never felt the urge to. Trains passed continuously on the other side of the scrubland, trucks and cars passed up and down along the stradone, and yet I can’t remember a single occasion when I asked myself, my father, my teacher: where are the cars going, the trucks, the trains, to what city, to what world?

In form, the novels seem more or less straightforward, moving chronologically through childhood and adolescence to adulthood and middle age. But they are also subtly confounded, right from the beginning, in several ways. Elena, though clearly the author’s stand-in, is not at all the novels’ star: that role goes to her “brilliant friend,” Lila Cerullo, a girl with looks “more beautiful than a Botticelli Venus” and a mind so quick and unforgiving it resembles “a hiss, a dart, a lethal bite.” Unlike Elena, Lila drops out of formal education at eleven. But it is she we see “lighted up like a holy warrior” while thrashing the boys at mental math and getting the point of Beckett immediately from a book that Elena uses only to swat mosquitoes. “Man’s active nature, flagging, seeks too soon the level,” reads the first novel’s epigraph, from Faust. “Whence, willingly, the comrade him I gave, / Who works, excites, and must create . . .” Lila’s energy and intelligence do not make life easy either for her or for the people around her. The first thing we learn about her — in a prologue at the beginning of the first book — is that in 2010 or so, when she’s in her mid-sixties, she will just up and disappear one day from her flat in Naples.

Whether it’s Lila’s influence (Elena sometimes seems unclear as to where she ends and her friend begins) or some other “evasive thing,” every episode of Elena’s story has an odd porosity to it, a phenomenological blending of psychic and concrete space. It starts on the first page of My Brilliant Friend, when Elena and Lila are eight and playing in the “violet light” of a warm spring evening in the courtyard outside their buildings. Lila — “terrible, dazzling” already — pushes her friend’s doll through a gap in the grate over a cellar window into what the girls believe is the lair of an ogre named Don Achille, “a spider among spiders, a rat among rats, a shape that assumed all shapes.” Lila then proposes that they plunge into the black hole of the stairwell that leads to the real-life Don Achille, a wartime racketeer and fascist who is now the local moneylender, a hated figure whom all the children are forbidden to approach. “We climbed slowly toward the greatest of our terrors of that time, we went to expose ourselves to fear and [to] interrogate it.” Don Achille is both a mythical and an everyday character: the confrontation becomes the founding moment of the girls’ friendship and of the discoveries they go on to make together.

From the start Elena and Lila sense that all is not well in the world around them but can’t quite express the feeling in words. Everyone in the neighborhood is poor and tired and angry. The men are prone to sudden bursts of violence — in My Brilliant Friend, Lila’s father, a shoemaker, throws her out a window, breaking her arm. The women, though apparently “silent, acquiescent,” are no exception: “when they were angry [they] flew into a rage that had no end.” Struggling to understand the situation, Elena, whose child-voice is entirely without cuteness, arrives at the following explanation:

I imagined tiny, almost invisible animals that arrived in the neighborhood at night, they came from the ponds, from the abandoned train cars beyond the embankment, from the stinking grasses called fetienti, from the frogs, the salamanders, the flies, the rocks, the dust, and entered the water and the food and the air, making our mothers, our grandmothers as angry as starving dogs.

In later life, both women will suffer in secret from hallucinatory moments of existential extremity that seem to have their roots in early childhood, when reality and imagination were not yet fixed categories. Elena at eight, for example, on the loss of her doll:

Sometimes I had the impression that, while every animated being around me was speeding up the rhythms of its life, solid surfaces turned soft under my fingers or swelled up, leaving empty spaces between their internal mass and the surface skin. . . . I had a bad taste in my mouth, a permanent sense of nausea that exhausted me, as if everything, thus compacted, and always tighter, were grinding me up, reducing me to a repulsive cream.

One of the patterns that develops over the course of the three novels is that of Elena anguished, Elena retreating, Elena growing herself a fresh version of the stubbornness that keeps her going.

Lila, for her part, will later confess to Elena about the episodes of “dissolving margins” that have haunted and hobbled her since adolescence, when “the outlines of people” close to her suddenly disappear. The first attack came when she was fourteen and at a party with her “adored” older brother Rino: “She seemed to see him for the first time as he really was: a squat animal form, thickset, the loudest, the fiercest, the greediest, the meanest. . . . She had perceived for the first time unknown entities that broke down the outline of the world and demonstrated its terrifying nature.”

Although the historical, geographical, and social location of the novels is absolutely specific, Ferrante has said that she isn’t much interested in what she calls “traditional sociology.” It’s all there, of course, structuring the limits of her fictional world. But in her way of writing, outward reference is softened, giving visibility to subtle, inward, intimate movements of thought and feeling instead.

By and by, the girls do pass beyond the boundaries of the neighborhood. Such is the movement of their times. In My Brilliant Friend, Elena’s father shows her how to cross the city after she gets a place at the classical high school: “He took me on Via Costantinopoli, to Port’Alba, to Piazza Dante, to Via Toledo. I was overwhelmed by the names, the noise of the traffic, the voices, the colors, the festive atmosphere . . . Was it possible that only our neighborhood was filled with conflicts and violence, while the rest of the city was radiant, benevolent?” Lila, we know, never made it to high school: her father wanted her to help him at his work. But she does go into town on the weekends with her brother’s friends to see the dandies on the Via Chiaia. A year or two later, once her “delicate, unusual beauty” has blossomed, she and her fiancé, a grocer, dress up “like movie stars” to go on excursions in his open-top car.

The second book, The Story of a New Name, begins at Lila’s wedding feast — paid for, Lila is horrified to discover, by her fiancé’s business partner, a local gangster — and proceeds to a hotel just up the coast, in Amalfi, where Lila’s husband starts beating and raping her on their wedding night. She puts up with it to begin with, then runs away with her little son to the coastal suburb of San Giovanni a Teduccio, where she gets a job in a salami factory. Elena, meanwhile, has moved on from high school to an elite university in Pisa, where she meets her future husband, the son of a prominent intellectual family, big in the Italian Socialist Party. Shortly after graduating, in the space of a few weeks, she writes a novel, which is published to wide acclaim. As readers soon realize, however, the triumph is not unambiguous. Nor does it face entirely to the future. Nor is it hers alone.

Elena’s novel — which, like the old neighborhood, remains nameless — is basically a coming-of-age story, but with a profound strangeness in it, “a dark force crouching in the life of the protagonist, an entity that had the capacity to weld the world around her, with the colors of a blowtorch: a blue-violet dome where everything went well for her, shooting sparks.” There is “a mystery in the writing that only true books have,” says one admirer. “On every page,” says another, “there is something powerful whose origin I can’t figure out.”

Elena has just returned from her first trip to Milan when she realizes what the origin of this power must be. The “secret heart” of her novel, the hidden source of the “strong but invisible thread that joined the sentences,” came from a buried memory of a story that Lila wrote when the girls were ten, “The Blue Fairy,” itself a retelling of the encounter with Don Achille, “the evasive thing, unnamed and shapeless” at their friendship’s source. “Her child’s book had put down deep roots in my mind,” Elena says, “and had, in the course of the years, produced another book, different, adult, mine, and yet inseparable from hers, from the fantasies that we had elaborated together in the courtyard of our games, she and I continuously formed, deformed, reformed.”

Elena decides to return to Lila the only copy of “The Blue Fairy” in existence and “to tell her, you see how connected we are, one in two, two in one.” She finds the factory at the end of a dirt path strewn with rubbish. There’s a bonfire and an overwhelming stench of burning animal, a stench that gets more sickening the closer she gets. She searches in carcass-boiling, meat-stripping, sausage-stuffing, then finds her friend heaving sides of meat from the gigantic fridges, eyes feverish, hands swollen and covered in cuts. The women embrace and Elena tells Lila about “The Blue Fairy.” “It was good just . . . to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.” As Elena walks out of the factory and back to her new life, however, she turns to see Lila standing by the bonfire, glancing through the pages of her story before throwing it in.

In the latest novel, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, we witness Elena and Lila’s growing estrangement. As both struggle, neither very successfully, with the demands of motherhood, they see each other even less, and when they do meet up or speak on the phone, there is much that goes unsaid. Lila, Elena thinks, probably sees her as “the stereotype of the successful intellectual and as a cultured and well-off woman, all children, books, and highbrow conversation with an academic husband,” which from the outside is exactly what she is. And Elena suspects Lila of secretly killing people, of being an ultra-leftist urban guerrilla: “She would know how to devise the most effective plan, she would reduce the risks to a minimum, she would keep fear under control, she would be able to give murderous intentions an abstract purity.”

The book is centrally concerned with politics and political activism and its effects on the inner lives of the characters. Both Elena and Lila find themselves involved in the explosive events that followed Italy’s Hot Autumn of 1969, “the underground war that occasionally erupted into the newspapers and on television — plans for coups, police repression, armed bands, firefights, woundings, killings, bombs, and slaughters.” Ferrante’s handling of this difficult material is sensitive, inward, and devoid of slogans or programmatic clichés, even at the meeting of the students’ revolutionary committee. Lila tells the students that she “knows nothing about the working class,” but she adds that she does know “workers, men and women . . . , from whom there [is] absolutely nothing to learn except wretchedness. Can you imagine . . . what it means to spend eight hours a day standing up to your waist in the mortadella water? . . . If you imagine this, what do you think you can learn?”

By the end of the book, however, Lila has returned to “the old neighborhood” and is poised, as Elena sees it, “between backwardness and modernity.” She had started studying computers when she was working in the salami factory and gets a job as technical director of a data-processing center, earning more than her boyfriend at 420,000 lira a month. “But it’s a boring job,” she tells Elena, “still too slow, you waste a lot of time, let’s hope that the new machines get here soon — they’re a lot faster . . . You understand, Lenù, what happens to people: we have too much stuff inside and it swells us, breaks us . . . The day will come when I reduce myself to diagrams, I become a perforated tape and you won’t find me anymore.” It’s the mid-Seventies, and already she can see that computers will be the future of everything. And already she is frustrated by their limitations and looking ahead to the day she disappears.

Writing about the Brilliant Friend books has been one of the hardest assignments I’ve ever done. When I began, I thought I felt this way because I loved them so much and didn’t know where to start with all my praising. Then I had to fight a deep desire not to mention the things I most liked in the novels so I could keep them to myself. Now my view of the matter is that somehow Ferrante so thoroughly succeeds in her aim of seizing at “the evasive thing” that she has stirred up something from the depths of her mind that touches and spreads through mine.

It has to do, presumably, with femininity, with having been a girl who loved reading and was supposed to know that you have to let the boys keep winning at math. It has to do too with the less gendered but even more bodily experience of living in and through a mind. And it has to do, profoundly, with living in a mind and being touched by another one: delighted, exasperated, confused, envious, sorrowful, appalled. As the years go by, the women in these novels allow the holes in their friendship to spread, yet Elena feels the presence of Lila constantly, an almost physical pressure, a disturbance in the air. Telling her own story, she thinks, is easy enough: “the important facts slide along the thread of the years like suitcases on a conveyor belt at an airport.” But involving Lila, “the belt slows down, accelerates, swerves abruptly . . . The suitcases fall off, fly open, their contents scatter here and there. Her things end up among mine.”

“May I point out something?” Lila says to Elena in one of the women’s scarce, increasingly ill-tempered phone conversations in the Seventies. “You always use true and truthfully, when you speak and when you write. Or you say: unexpectedly. But when do people ever speak truthfully and when do things ever happen unexpectedly? You know better than I that it’s all a fraud and that one thing follows another and then another.”

This, in a nutshell, is Lila’s problem, perhaps her tragedy. She thinks so fast and with such ferocious rigor; she sees connections and discerns so many fine distinctions; she’s impossible and overwhelming — “too much for anyone” and, most of all, for herself. But Elena keeps thinking about her, putting her on the page. Great novels are intelligent far beyond the powers of any character or writer or individual reader, as are great friendships, in their way. These wonderful books sit at the heart of that mystery, with the warmth and power of both.

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