Women On The Verge - Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante, or “Elena Ferrante,” is one of Italy’s best-known least-known contemporary writers. She is the author of several remarkable, lucid, austerely honest novels, the most celebrated of which is “The Days of Abandonment,” published in Italy in 2002. Compared with Ferrante, Thomas Pynchon is a publicity profligate. It’s assumed that Elena Ferrante is not the author’s real name. In the past twenty years or so, though, she has provided written answers to journalists’ questions, and a number of her letters have been collected and published. From them, we learn that she grew up in Naples, and has lived for periods outside Italy. She has a classics degree; she has referred to being a mother. One could also infer from her fiction and from her interviews that she is not now married. (“Over the years, I’ve moved often, in general unwillingly, out of necessity. . . . I’m no longer dependent on the movements of others, only on my own” is her encryption.) In addition to writing, “I study, I translate, I teach.”

And that is it. What she looks like, what her real name is, when she was born, how she currently lives—these things are all unknown. In 1991, when her first novel, “Troubling Love,” was about to be published in Italy (“L’Amore Molesto,” its original title, hints at something more troubling than mere trouble), Ferrante sent her publisher a letter that, like her fiction, is pleasingly rigorous and sharply forthright. It lays out principles she has not deviated from since. She will do nothing for “Troubling Love,” she tells her publisher, because she has already done enough: she wrote it. She won’t take part in conferences or discussions, and won’t go to accept prizes, if any are awarded. “I will be interviewed only in writing, but I would prefer to limit even that to the indispensable minimum”:
I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t. . . . I very much love those mysterious volumes, both ancient and modern, that have no definite author but have had and continue to have an intense life of their own. They seem to me a sort of nighttime miracle, like the gifts of the Befana, which I waited for as a child. . . . True miracles are the ones whose makers will never be known. . . . Besides, isn’t it true that promotion is expensive? I will be the least expensive author of the publishing house. I’ll spare you even my presence.
It is hard to argue with the logic of this withdrawal, and the effortful prying of the Italian press—Why have you chosen this privacy? Are you hiding the autobiographical nature of your work? Is there any truth to the rumor that your work is really by Domenico Starnone?—has about it the kind of repressed anger that attends a suicide. Ferrante is probably right when she claims that an author who does publicity has accepted, “at least in theory, that the entire person, with all his experiences and his affections, is placed for sale along with the book.” Our language betrays us: nowadays, you triumphantly sell a novel to a publisher; thirty years ago, a publisher simply accepted that novel.

As soon as you read her fiction, Ferrante’s restraint seems wisely self-protective. Her novels are intensely, violently personal, and because of this they seem to dangle bristling key chains of confession before the unsuspecting reader. There are four novels available in English, each translated by Ann Goldstein, an editor at this magazine: “Troubling Love,” “The Days of Abandonment,” “The Lost Daughter,” and now “My Brilliant Friend” (all from Europa Editions). Each book is narrated by a woman: an academic in “The Lost Daughter,” and a writer in “The Days of Abandonment.” The woman who tells the story of her Neapolitan youth in “My Brilliant Friend” is named Elena, and seems to cherish the possibilities of writing and being a writer. More than these occasional and fairly trivial overlappings with life, the material that the early novels visit and revisit is intimate and often shockingly candid: child abuse, divorce, motherhood, wanting and not wanting children, the tedium of sex, the repulsions of the body, the narrator’s desperate struggle to retain a cohesive identity within a traditional marriage and amid the burdens of child rearing. The novels present themselves (with the exception of the latest) like case histories, full of flaming rage, lapse, failure, and tenuous psychic success. But these are fictional case histories. One can understand that Ferrante has no interest in adding her privacy to the novelistic pyre.

“The Days of Abandonment” is Ferrante’s most widely read novel in English, with good reason. It assails bourgeois niceties and domestic proprieties; it rips the skin off the habitual. Olga is thirty-eight, is married to Mario, lives in Turin, and has two young children, Ilaria and Gianni. “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” The calm opening sentence belies the fury and turmoil to come. Olga is blindsided by Mario’s announcement. First, there are the obvious responses: loathing, jealousy, despair. She yells without control at Mario:
“I don’t give a shit about prissiness. You wounded me, you are destroying me, and I’m supposed to speak like a good, well-brought-up wife? Fuck you! What words am I supposed to use for what you’ve done to me, for what you’re doing to me? What words should I use for what you’re doing with that woman! Let’s talk about it! Do you lick her cunt? Do you stick it in her ass? Do you do all the things you never did with me? Tell me! Because I see you! With these eyes I see everything you do together, I see it a hundred thousand times, I see it night and day, eyes open and eyes closed!”
What menaces Olga more deeply is the threatened dissolution of her self. What does her life amount to, without the intact family unit? “What a mistake it had been to close off the meaning of my existence in the rites that Mario offered with cautious conjugal rapture,” she reflects. “What a mistake it had been to entrust the sense of myself to his gratifications, his enthusiasms, to the ever more productive course of his life.” She is haunted by the memory of a dark figure from her Neapolitan childhood, a woman who lived in her apartment building, whose husband left her, and who, in her abandonment, lost all identity: “Every night, from that moment on, our neighbor wept. . . . The woman lost everything, even her name (perhaps it was Emilia), for everyone she became the ‘poverella,’ that poor woman, when we spoke of her that was what we called her.” Young Olga was repelled by “a grief so gaudy,” and is desperate, in her own abandonment, not to act like the poverella, not to be “consumed by tears.”

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