Great novels can feel intrusive-to the characters, the readers, the writer. Most of the time though, we acknowledge the layer of artifice that separates fiction from real life. To borrow Zadie Smith’s analogy, many writers hide their “scaffolding”; it’s rarer to find one who completely dismantles it. Sometimes it feels like the writer and her “authorly” reservations (but what will the reviewers say?!) impede the creation of truly uninhibited literature. What would happen then, if an author’s identity no longer factored into their text? What would be the result of complete anonymity; of a page free of it’s writer and the limitations she may impose? The result might look something like the novels of Elena Ferrante.
Little is known about the Italian novelist. Ferrante, believed to be a pseudonym, has never given a face-to-face interview. She has answered journalists’ questions sparingly and only through written correspondences. From these interviews and several published letters we gather that Ferrante was born in Naples, is a mother, and may have once been married. Other than these details, Ferrante believes that “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors”. Rather, anonymity “produces a space of absolute creative freedom”.
Anonymity has allowed Ferrante to write about popular themes with uncommon candor. Abandonment, motherhood, divorce, friendship, rivalry — these are not new terrains. Instead of functioning as polished devices though, Ferrante’s themes are obsessions, intensified by their extremity and singular focus. For example, in The Days of Abandonment, one of Ferrante’s six translated novels, Olga’s husband suddenly announces he is leaving her. After he moves, Olga is plagued by the fear of turning into the poverella, a woman she remembers from her youth who, after having been abandoned by her own husband, “became transparent skin over bones”. Olga recounts, “she twisted a handkerchief with whitened knuckles, cursing the man who had fled from her like a gluttonous animal up over the hill of the Vomero. A grief so gaudy began to repel me. I was eight, but I was ashamed for her”. Olga’s fear becomes a fixation. Ferrante’s characters are obsessed with losing control of their physical body, turning into someone (or something) else-it is a symptom of their unravelment.
In The Days of Abandonment’s almost tragi-comic apex, Olga finds herself locked in her apartment with her dying dog and two children. When Olga’s daughter dresses in her clothing and makeup and, claiming similarities (“We’re identical”), presents herself to her mother, Olga reacts, “I was already no longer I, I was someone else, as I had feared since waking up, as I had feared since who knows when. Now any resistance was useless, I was lost just as I was laboring with all my strength not to lose myself, I was no longer there”. The inner dialogues of Ferrante’s characters often spiral into irrationality. A locksmith’s instruction on the proper way to turn a key becomes rife with sexual innuendo; a child’s dress-up game turns into a commentary on the disintegration of her mother’s body.
The unreliability of Ferrante’s characters feels uncomfortably relatable though, perhaps because it is rooted in the very familiar trauma of sudden change and imbalance. Their disorientation is the result of losing something solid; a marriage, a friendship, a sense of self. In the characters’ struggle to regain fortitude, they turn inward with an almost dizzying extremity.
“If after what Mario had done to me, after the outrage of abandonment preceded by that long period of deception, I was still I, persisting in the face of the turmoil those months, here in the heat of early August, and was resisting, resisting so many disconnected adversities, this meant that what I had feared most since I was a child-to grow up and become like the poverella, that was the fear I had harbored for three decades-had not happened, I was reacting well, very well, I was holding tight around the parts of my life, compliments, Olga, in spite of everything, I wasn’t leaving myself.”
But Olga’s stream-of-consciousness, her erratic run-on sentences, belie the stability she claims to possess. Olga must put all her energy into trying to make her explanations and reassurances real as they lose their solidity. As one reviewer put it, “There is something particularly brilliant about Ferrante’s combination of control and abandon in her novels.”
Lest you think Ferrante’s work only covers domestic hardships and emotional degradation, her Neopolitan novels prove much more expansive in scope and setting. Of the four-book series, three have been published in English with the fourth expected to come out in 2015. The novels follow the friendship of Lila Cerullo and Eleno Greco, two girls from the same working-class neighborhood in Naples. While Elena is studious and pretty, she considers cat-like Lila naturally gifted. When Elena’s parents pay for her to continue her studies and Lila’s do not, the girls’ paths drastically diverge; Elena commits herself to academia, publishes a successful novel, and moves from Naples, while Lila becomes further entrenched in neighborhood warfare and rivalries. She leads the life Elena fled from yet also envies for, if nothing else, its drama (Lila’s life is, after all, the stuff of novels). But neither girls follow a single up-down trajectory; the success of one seems dependent on the detriment of the other.
Although both brilliant in their own right, Elena harbors feelings of inadequacy compared to the incandescent Lila. Elena believes her success is the product of hard work rather than natural intellect, and she attributes many of her accomplishments to Lila’s influence. In the first book of the series, Elena reacts to a teacher’s praise on an essay she wrote; “In the end what did it prove? It proved how fruitful it had been to study with Lila and talk to her, to have her as a goad and support as I ventured into the world outside the neighborhood”. She continues, “Of course, what I wrote about Dido belongs to me; but didn’t I work it out with her, didn’t we excite each other in turn, didn’t my passion grow in the warmth of hers?”
The essay in question argued that a city without love becomes evil in nature. In a written interview, Ferrante echoed the same idea as her fictional character. Ferrante explains that in the Aeneid when Aeneas leaves, “Dido kills herself, and Carthage, potentially a city of love, becomes a city with a mission of hatred. Individuals and cities without love are a danger to themselves and to others.” This could easily apply to Naples, a city Ferrante (and Elena Greco) finds incapable of redemption, but the idea extends further than that. Love is central to her work-its presence or, more often, absence, seeps through every page.
Ferrante’s novels ultimately ask that most dismal of questions: What happens when we deprive a person of something essential? Love, intimacy, security. What does someone devoid of these things look like? The answers she provides are not the calm, reflective creations of memoirs. Rather, they are characters who “stick fingers into open wounds”, created by an author who likely does the same. But what else would one expect from a woman who believes that, “when one writes, one must never lie. In literary fiction you have to be sincere to the point where it’s unbearable, where you suffer the emptiness of the pages”. All the better for Ferrante’s readers.
Magdalena Mora. Graduated from Macalester College and currently lives in Austin, Texas.
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