Those Like Us

On Elena Ferrante

Path of Figs, 2012. Giulia Bianchi.

Elena Ferrante. Troubling Love. Europa Editions, 2006 (published in Italy, 1992).
The Days of Abandonment. Europa Editions, 2005 (2002).
The Lost Daughter. Europa Editions, 2008 (2006).
My Brilliant Friend. Europa Editions, 2012 (2011).
The Story of a New Name. Europa Editions, 2013 (2012).
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. Europa Editions, 2014 (2013).

Whenever I hear someone speculate about the true identity of Elena Ferrante, the pseudonymous Italian novelist of international fame, a private joke unspools in my head. Who is she? the headlines ask. Don’t you know? I whisper. In my joke I’m sitting opposite someone important. The person promises not to tell, so I say:

She’s Lidia Neri.

She’s Pia Ciccione.

She’s Francesca Pelligrina. Domenica Augello. Different names, every time, but the reaction is the same: a momentary light in the listener’s eyes that fades to bored disappointment. An Italian woman from Naples, whose name you wouldn’t know. Who did you expect?

One answer ends in o: the first name of a man. Whether to goad Ferrante out of privacy or because they think it’s true, the Italian newspaper L’Unità has accused the novelist Domenico Starnone of penning her books. If Starnone is behind Ferrante’s work, I would like to meet him. No man I know would write so well and not take credit for it.

Since the English-language publication of My Brilliant Friend, the first of the addictive Neapolitan novels that have inspired what publicists call “Ferrante fever” in American readers, Ferrante has caused a minor crisis in literary criticism. Her novels demand treatment commensurate to the work, but her anonymity has made it hard. The challenge reveals our habits. We’ve grown accustomed to finding the true meaning of books in the histories of their authors, in where they were born and how they grew up, in their credentials or refreshing lack thereof. Forget the intentional fallacy; ours is the age of the biographical fallacy. All six of Ferrante’s novels published in English to date (translated by the dexterous Ann Goldstein) are narrated in the first person, which invites this kind of reading. Surely work of such intimacy and length must be — as if all novels weren’t — true.

But there’s a greater obstacle still, which is that the novels are too good. Book reviewing is a game of outperforming the author, a small and practical agon. A young writer gets an assignment — a poorly written novel or a decent one; if she’s lucky, a fairly good one — and to make her name draws life from the host, like a gestating child, as if the goal of reviewing were not to explicate or describe a text but to produce another, better one altogether. Heaping praise is one thing, and praise for Ferrante is not hard to find: she is a master of our time, “the best contemporary novelist you have never heard of,” the “Italian Alice Munro.” But there is no outdoing Ferrante, and the best critical work on her novels has the humility of someone who knows it. “Writing about the Brilliant Friend books has been one of the hardest assignments I’ve ever done,” Jenny Turner wrote for Harper’s, and the admission is a relief. The most one can hope to do in writing about Ferrante is to ignore her. Fixating on her identity is one way to postpone reading — to kill time until the words come.

Ferrante’s first three novels, Troubling Love (originally published in 1992), The Days of Abandonment (2002), and The Lost Daughter (2006), are often described as difficult to read. At turns too quick and too slow, they’re demanding books, complicated by dizzying ruptures in time and distended by stretches of joylessness. James Wood confessed he struggled to connect “the old work” with the later Neapolitan series, which in contrast was “like water, really, it has a lovely, fresh easiness about it.” You could say the old work is more like menstrual blood: clotted, burdensome — not lovely, not fresh.

Troubling Love invites the comparison. The book begins with a period at a funeral: Delia, an anxious but tough woman who draws comic strips, has returned to her native Naples after learning that her 63-year-old mother, Amalia, has mysteriously drowned. There are no signs of foul play — the body shows only some bruising, “a result of the waves that, though gentle, had pushed her all night against some rocks at the edge of the water” — but something doesn’t add up. Days before Amalia was discovered floating near the shore, wearing nothing but an expensive new bra Delia doesn’t recognize, she had placed a few strange calls to her daughter. She shouted obscenities in dialect and hung up giggling, a man’s voice audible in the background; the next day she called to say she was being followed and needed help, only to reassure her daughter, “Go to sleep. I’m going to have a bath now.” When the funeral procession begins, Delia is struck by the freedom she feels at her mother’s death; as if on cue, she feels “a warm flow” between her legs. The city follows suit, dissolving around her into a scatological stew. The facades of buildings liquefy and sag; the tearful embraces of fellow mourners produce “an unbearable sensation of wetness that extended from their sweat and tears to my groin.” Finally she reaches a bathroom and stops the flow, grateful for her black dress. But she’s knocked back by a memory of Amalia: “In the shadows I saw my mother, her legs spread, as she unhooked a safety pin and, as if they were pasted on, removed some bloody linen rags from her sex; without surprise she turned and said to me, calmly, ‘Go on, what are you doing here?’ I burst into tears for the first time in many years.” Tired, Delia cleans herself as best she can and goes in search of some tampons. A man inexplicably yells after her “a stream of obscenities in dialect, a soft river of sound that involved me, my sisters, my mother in a concoction of semen, saliva, feces, urine, in every possible orifice.”

The novel proceeds as a kind of detective story, as Delia tries halfheartedly to solve the mystery of her mother’s death but is distracted by the greater puzzle of her life. Her only clues are Amalia’s final moves — where did the bra come from? Who was the man? — and her own memories, which are as useful to her as bits of scrambled tape. Her emotional quest maps neatly onto a geographic one, and certain locations — the funicular stop, the lingerie store — trigger imagistic recollections that are both false and not, like dreams. The deeper she travels into the old town of her youth, the more comes back to her: violent fights between her parents, accusations of an affair. At the end of the road lies a memory of childhood molestation whose sudden revelation usurps the surface plot. It’s a satisfying point of closure for Delia, who concedes the impossibility of knowing her mother (“I would never know. I was the only possible source of the story: I couldn’t nor did I want to search outside myself”), but a disappointing one for the reader, who’s left wanting by the boilerplate Freud. Return to the crumbling remains of home, and there lies trauma.

Troubling Love is Ferrante’s weakest novel. Like many classic detective stories, it resolves itself through evidence unavailable to the reader, a trick that compensates for its sleight of hand by restoring confidence in the protagonist. (What makes Sherlock Holmes a durable hero, argues Franco Moretti, is his ability to solve cases the reader literally cannot; linchpin clues are disclosed only in his final monologues.) But this is not what Ferrante is up to, and control seems slightly beyond her reach. Delia’s breakthrough offers little reward for the reader’s efforts: the conflation of past and present challenges basic comprehension, and unmarked shifts in subject send the reader flipping back in search of a pronoun’s referent. This is standard fare for an experimental novel, which a generous reader would say Troubling Love is; Ferrante shows chiefly through form how repressed memories can produce false ones, and how stable identities can slip under pressure. (Amalia and Delia appear in queasy double vision, like haloed figures straining to merge.) But the price may be too high for some of Ferrante’s readers, especially those spoiled by the clarity of her later work. The writing is also not her best, featuring uninspired metaphors — the unstable streets of Delia’s memory are “like a carbonated drink that, if shaken, bubbles up and overflows” — and a predictable refrain of menstrual imagery.

Troubling Love has many flaws, but its ability to elicit strong reactions speaks to its inchoate power. One New York Times reviewer confessed he was moved to tear the book in half, presumably out of rage or frustration (“It’s the first time a novel ever made me get physical”). The novel also blocks out, as if with a palette knife, themes, figures, and scenes to which Ferrante will return: distrust in physical appearances; fear of regression into the coarse dialect of one’s origins; the attempted self-discipline of a woman slipping into madness. “I reproached myself,” Delia says. “I had done too many things that I shouldn’t have: I had started running, I had given into anxiety, my frenzy had become excessive. I tried to calm myself.” This shaky claim on control is shared by almost all of Ferrante’s women, who falter and catch themselves: Focus, they say. Work — routine — is a detergent for the mind, lifting the stain of another person’s unwelcome encroachment.

Olga, who narrates The Days of Abandonment, is 38 years old. She is living in Turin with her two children and her husband, Mario, when he confesses, on an April afternoon, that he wants to leave her. Her first reaction is muted; she hates spectacles, “noisy emotions, always on display” — the behaviors of her family that as a young woman she defined herself against. “I had learned to speak little and in a thoughtful manner . . . to draw out as long as possible the time for reaction, filling it with puzzled looks, uncertain smiles . . . to wait patiently until every emotion imploded and could come out in a tone of calm.” Such manners were indispensable during previous marital crises, but their currency has expired. Mario has left for good, and Olga’s veneer of calm is soon corroded by anguish and jealousy. She begins to hiss when she speaks, abandons the careful routine of applying makeup. In the course of a month she gives in to obscenity, which now comes naturally to her lips: “As soon as I opened my mouth I felt the wish to mock, smear, defile Mario and his slut.” Her bitterness drives away friends, and the small revenge of her bad-mouthing offers no consolation; her contempt is a check no one will cash. Increasingly worried for her ability to manage her children, she approaches daily tasks with a desperate vigilance: “Be careful to salt the pasta, be careful not to salt it twice, be careful to note the expiration date on food, be careful not to leave the gas on.” She nevertheless feels as though she’s losing control of her body, her moves like those of a sleepwalker.

Olga’s youth, like that of many intelligent women, was marked by contempt for her sex. In the early days of her abandonment she recalls a figure from her childhood in Naples, a neighbor who lost her mind with grief after her husband left her. Every night the neighbor sobbed loudly. Olga’s mother and her friends whispered in pity, calling her “the poverella” — the poor thing. “The poverella was crying, the poverella was screaming, the poverella was suffering, torn to pieces by the absence of the sweaty red-haired man.” As a child Olga was disturbed, disgusted, by this woman. “A grief so gaudy began to repel me. I was eight, but I was ashamed for her.” Girls — imperious, unforgiving, not yet women — still believe in the choice to be otherwise. In high school, Olga reacts similarly to a novel assigned by her French teacher:

I made an arrogant statement: these women are stupid. Cultured women, in comfortable circumstances, they broke like knick-knacks in the hands of their straying men. They seemed to me sentimental fools: I wanted to be different, I wanted to write stories about women with resources, women of invincible words, not a manual for the abandoned wife with her lost love at the top of her thoughts. I was young, I had pretensions. I didn’t like the impenetrable page, like a lowered blind. I liked light, air between the slats. I wanted to write stories full of breezes, of filtered rays where dust motes danced. And then I loved the writers who made you look through every line, to gaze downward and feel the vertigo of the depths, the blackness of inferno. I said it breathlessly, all in one gulp, which was something I never did, and my teacher smiled ironically, a little bitterly. She, too, must have lost someone, something. And now, more than twenty years later, the same thing was happening to me.

Becoming the poverella was Olga’s greatest childhood fear. That she should become this woman who despite her character, her intelligence, her work, constricts her existence to the shallow contentment of marriage — this is the betrayal. “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,” Olga thinks. The novel she hated in high school is the one she now begins to write in her head, though it contains touches of the “vertigo of the depths, the blackness of inferno” she admired. For a moment she narrates her movements in the third person — then stops, fearing madness. “Don’t regress, don’t lose yourself, keep a tight grip,” she reproaches herself. “Above all, don’t give in to distracted or malicious or angry monologues. Eliminate the exclamation points. He’s gone, you’re still here.”

Like Delia in Troubling Love, Olga finds her physical reality warped by the intensity of her thoughts. Her response is to restore faith in the surface of things, starting with her face. When Mario announces his intention to stop by the apartment, Olga hurriedly cleans the house. She washes off her makeup, applies it again — no use. (“Look, I have pimples on my chin and forehead, I’ve never been lucky in my life.” A touching, insightful detail: so much of beauty is timing and luck.) Her need to look beautiful morphs into a violent need to tear down all that is false. One afternoon, Olga sees Mario on the street with his new lover, Carla. Overtaken by “a black mania for destruction,” she slams into him, tears the sleeve from his shirt, knocks him down, kicks him as he covers his face. Glistening at Carla’s ears are his mother’s earrings, earrings that had been hers and that Mario stole from her house. Olga grabs at the air, determined to rip them from Carla’s lobes. Ablaze, her words reel:

I wanted to rip them off her, together with the ear, I wanted to drag along her beautiful face with the eyes and the nose and the lips and the scalp the blond hair, I wanted to drag them with me as if with a hook I’d snagged her garment of flesh, the sacks of her breasts, the belly that wrapped the bowels and spilled out through the asshole, through the deep crack crowned with gold. And leave to her only that which in reality she was, an ugly skull stained with living blood. . . . Because what is the face, what, finally, is the skin over the flesh, a cover, a disguise, rouge for the insupportable horror of our living nature. And he had fallen for it, he had been caught. . . . He had stolen my earrings for love of that carnival mask.

This young woman — so beautiful, so eager to please, who thinks herself the first to be so clever as to win a man by loveliness — what is she but a soft garment of flesh, a sack of wasted guts like the rest? Female ugliness is human ugliness is primordial ugliness, to Olga. As the fight ends, an eerie disembodiment removes her from the scene. Carla is unscathed; Olga sedated by exhaustion. She knows she has reached a point of no return. “What could I do, I had lost everything, all of myself, all, irredeemably.”

The poverella of Olga’s childhood died by her own hand. She drank poison, thinking her husband would rush to her bedside. But he was in another city with his new lover, his new life. She survived, then drowned herself. One day in August, Olga climbs the stairs and hallucinates the poverella on the steps — a glimpse into the abyss.

The next morning she wakes to find the apartment has tilted on its axis. Gianni, her son, is vomiting violently; the dog lies in a puddle of shit streaked with blood. Olga finds a can of insecticide and worries she poisoned the house in her sleep. The telephone is broken, she can’t work the lock on the front door. It’s as if the poison of the poverella has seeped into the prison of her apartment. Survival depends on endurance, attention.

This episode spans eighteen harrowing chapters of The Days of Abandonment, and they are a painful achievement in style. Scenes begin with short sentences — air between the slats — but then words crowd Olga’s head and collide with quickening speed, building up a paratactic velocity: “I began to clean my face with a cotton ball, I wished to be beautiful again, I felt an urgent need for it. Beauty brightens things, the children would be glad, Gianni would draw from it a pleasure that would cure him. . . . What is a face without colors, to color is to conceal, there is nothing that can hide the surface better than color. Go, go, go.” Breathless self-interruptions ward off the interruptions of others, real or imagined. At one point Olga hands her daughter a metal letter opener and instructs her to poke her with it whenever she gets distracted. How will I know? the girl asks. “You can tell. A distracted person is a person who no longer smells odors, doesn’t hear words, doesn’t feel anything.” When Olga returns to sense, it is with a deep gash in her thigh.

The Days of Abandonment takes part of a long tradition of feminist writing about “crazy” women — one that runs from Ovid’s Metamorphoses to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Woman Destroyed, from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre to Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper to Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina, all the way to Kate Zambreno’s Heroines. Often these works reimagine tragic figures of classic myth, and find in female madness an ecstatic dissolution or transcendence. Hysteria is reclaimed as an affirmation of woman unbound. These stories are fine, but not always for me; like Olga, I have too much pride to embrace the type. In The Days of Abandonment, Ferrante offers an alternative — one that doesn’t minimize the symbolic power of female malady but captures the double consciousness of a destroyed woman who doesn’t want to be “a woman destroyed.” Olga is, without doubt, a hysteric: she’s nervous, emotionally excessive, and prone to dissociation. But she resists this hysteria with a pride and tenacity I recognize. Becoming the poverella doesn’t mean breaking like a knick-knack in the hands of a man, as Olga once thought — it means seeking triumph in spectacular self-destruction, like Dido on the pyre. To resist the poverella is not to resist her fate, but to pass through it like a crucible: become the poverella, then become Olga again. A person with a name, not a martyr.

In the middle of The Lost Daughter, Ferrante’s third novel, a young mother asks a middle-aged woman, without inflection, “So it passes.” “The turmoil,” she adds. They’re talking about young children, raising them and the desire to leave them. “My mother used another word,” says the other, “she called it a shattering.” The Italian word is frantumaglia — “fragmentation,” literally — and Ferrante returns to it again and again.

The older woman in this scene, Leda, who narrates The Lost Daughter, bears some resemblance to Olga. She’s 47, an academic, divorced with two daughters: an older iteration of the same character. Now that her children have grown and left the house, Leda feels newly youthful. In August, she decides to vacation alone on the Ionian coast. There she establishes a simple routine — walk to the beach every day, grade papers under her umbrella, pack up, return to her apartment. One afternoon she sees a young woman, “no more than twenty,” playing with a little girl and her doll on the beach. They’re part of a big group, a large Neapolitan family similar to Leda’s own, but the young mother seems to inhabit another world: she is tranquil and steady amid her family’s chaotic activity. Leda begins to watch her day after day, mesmerized by the woman’s tenderness toward her child: “They laughed together, enjoying the feeling of body against body, touching noses. . . . If the young woman was pretty herself, in her motherhood there was something that distinguished her; she seemed to have no desire for anything but her child.” Naturally it’s a projection, but Leda envies the young mother’s serenity.

One day she walks past mother and daughter up close. From here the view is less idyllic: the mother is “not as young, the waxing at her groin had been badly done, the child she held in her arms had a red runny eye, a forehead pimpled with sweat, and the doll was ugly and dirty.” Leda goes back to her grading, but the beach breaks into panic — the child has disappeared. Leda, who recalls having lost and found her own daughter on the beach years ago, intuitively finds the missing girl and returns her to her mother. Finally, they’re introduced. The woman’s name is Nina, her daughter’s Elena. But the doll, with whom Elena played endlessly and “to whom Nina paid attention as if she were alive, a second daughter,” has gone missing, and Elena sobs inconsolably. The family combs the beach but finds nothing. The sky darkens, the sand turns cold. Leda leaves the beach feeling disturbed. In her bag, with her books, is the doll.

Why did she take it? Leda doesn’t know. “I saw her abandoned in the sand . . . and I picked her up,” she offers. “An infantile reaction, nothing special, we never really grow up.” Leda’s sympathy for abandoned things runs deep. Her own mother had threatened to leave when Leda was a child, and though she never did, Leda lived in fear of her departure. She was careful never to lose her own doll, whom she called Mina, Mammina, Mammucia — a mother substitute. “My mother had rarely yielded to the games I tried to play with her body,” Leda remembers. “She immediately got nervous, she didn’t like being the doll.” Eager to give what her mother denied, Leda offered herself as her daughters’ doll: they yanked combs through her hair, brushed her teeth, gave her “medicine” when she played sick. (“A mother is only a daughter who plays,” she thinks.) In taking the doll, Leda may be punishing Elena for her moment of inattention, or the girl’s mother for hers. She may be reclaiming her own mother, now dead, in the form of the doll. But above all the episode dredges to the surface, both of Leda’s mind and of the novel itself, the time when she abandoned her own young daughters.

Of that time, Leda says, “all the hopes of youth seemed to have been destroyed, I seemed to be falling backward toward my mother, my grandmother, the chain of mute or angry women I came from. Missed opportunities. Ambition was still burning.” She felt in love with “anyone who said I was smart, intelligent, helped me to test myself.” As she looks at the doll sitting on her couch — slightly deformed, smelling of seawater and dirt — Leda reflects on her own motherhood. She remembers the decisive moment when she and her husband picked up two hitchhikers, a British couple deeply in love who had abandoned their lives to be together. They stayed with Leda and her husband for the night, and the woman, named Brenda, asked Leda about her work on English literature. Leda gave her a hastily photocopied article she’d written, and Brenda took it, circulating it without Leda’s knowledge to the academics she knew. The exposure brought Leda unexpected opportunities, and in time she decided to leave her husband and daughters to pursue a career and an affair. She returned three years later and resumed her family life. But to Leda, the rupture feels irreparable.

When Leda runs into Nina again, the mother is exhausted by her daughter’s tantrums. Elena won’t relent as long as her doll is missing. The two women begin to talk. On an impulse Leda mentions that she once abandoned her daughters, and Nina reacts uncertainly, intrigued. Leda begins to see Nina regularly, always intending to return the doll — she’d found it on the beach, she’d say — but never doing so. She feels a need to maintain their bond, and fears any kind of complication. She hopes to explain herself to Nina in a way she couldn’t to her daughters. “How foolish to think you can tell your children about yourself before they’re at least fifty,” she thinks, remembering the time she tried to speak candidly of her decisions. The girls didn’t care, didn’t listen; they hardly remembered anything, anyway. “To say: I am your history, you begin from me, listen to me, it could be useful to you. . . . Nina, on the other hand — I am not Nina’s history, Nina could even see me as a future. Choose for your companion an alien daughter. Look for her, approach her.”

Entwined around the absent doll, the relationship that forms between Leda and Nina is difficult to untangle. Leda sees the doll as “the shining testimony of perfect motherhood,” the guardian of the bond between Nina and Elena, mother and daughter. By subtracting it Leda can insert herself — whether as a mother substitute or a daughter substitute is not entirely clear. The erotic power invested in the doll (which, it occurs to Leda, will trump “all the eros that [Elena] would feel as she grew up”) is transferred to Leda and Nina. They are drawn to each other’s beauty and intelligence, and once, as if by instinct, Nina kisses Leda on the lips. It’s possible to glean from this a boring lesbian Oedipal plot, but a truer paradigm lies in a concept from Italian feminist thought of the 1970s and ’80s called affidamento or “entrustment.”

An Italian critic once asked Ferrante, by correspondence mediated through her publisher, “Have you had a psychoanalytic type of education? A feminist kind?” The answer was no. Ferrante denied having any expertise in psychoanalysis, and wrote that to attribute a feminist outlook to her was an exaggeration. She was, she suggested, too shy for strong positions. “Owing in particular to limitations of character, which I’ve struggled to accept . . . I’ve never exposed myself publicly, or taken sides: I don’t have the physical courage that, in general, is required for these things.” But “within this timid frame,” she wrote, “I can say that I am slightly interested in psychoanalysis, and fairly interested in feminism, and that I am sympathetic to the ideas of difference feminism.” In another letter to her editor, later published in a book of collected interviews called La Frantumaglia (2003) — translated this time as “fragments” — Ferrante wrote about her ambitions for Troubling Love: “Should I make an offering to the feminine theme of learning to love one’s mother? . . . Actually, thinking about it, I’d really like to do this. . . . I’ll find a way to develop my theme to the point where I can cite Luce Irigaray and Luisa Muraro.” Muraro, an Italian feminist and historian largely unfamiliar to American readers, was a founder of the Libreria delle Donne di Milano, or Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, in 1975, a group whose writings shaped the Italian interpretation of Irigaray’s theory of sexual difference. The concept of entrustment was one of their chief contributions to feminist theory.

In the 1970s, American radical and mainstream feminism called for sisterhood. Hierarchies and competition were the constructions of men, went the thinking, and sisterhood was the great leveler. Camaraderie would undo the self-hatred and mutual hostility women had cultivated over centuries of subordination. But differences between women were undeniable, and not only on grounds of race, class, and sexuality. The regime of sameness also failed to comprehend differences in strength and personality, taste and desire. Missing from sisterhood, the Italians argued, were mothers and daughters, and they questioned whether the insistence on sisterhood — to them most manifest in the political fight for “equality” inherited from the youth movement — was a reaction to “the obliteration of the mother in our society.” Men were the ones who saw women as equals once the mother was removed: after the mother all women were losers, equally available for domination.

The Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective therefore encouraged women to seek out symbolic mothers and symbolic daughters, and to build a tissue of preferential relationships. To entrust oneself, Muraro wrote, meant to “tie yourself to a person who can help you achieve something which you think you are capable of but which you have not yet achieved.” (In her introduction to Sexual Difference, a collection of the Bookstore’s writings, Teresa de Lauretis described entrustment as a relationship “in which one woman gives her trust or entrusts herself symbolically to another woman, who thus becomes her guide, mentor, or point of reference — in short, the figure of symbolic mediation between her and the world.”) For a woman to entrust herself to another woman — a symbolic mother, likely but not necessarily older, who possesses “something extra” — meant to bridge the gap a woman feels between “her aspiration to a free existence and the privacy of her sexed body.” Women did not wish to think about motherhood all their lives, for example, but neither did they want to treat maternity as “a dilemma” in conflict with freedom or deny it as a source of truth. Nor did they want to enter the social world at the expense of their most elementary experiences, those associated with the body and sexuality. Emancipation had created space for women to pursue bigger lives than the ones their mothers had lived, but this required a kind of asexual presence: to be at ease among men a woman had to remove the threat of her body from the scene (unless her body, and its availability, was what she wished to broadcast). Such equality was far from freedom. “Only by reference to those like us,” wrote the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, “will we be able to rediscover and therefore support those contents of our experience which social reality ignores or tends to cancel out as scarcely relevant.” The goal was not a static separatism, but a way into the social world of men through a common world of women: a world in which women could aid, validate, and learn from one another as they formed their identities among but independent of men. Even more ambitiously, they sought through the concept of entrustment to create a new symbolic register — one defined not by the Father, the phallus, the singular truth of Irigaray’s critique, but by the mother-daughter relationship.

Recall Olga: “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.” What happens when instead a woman entrusts herself to another woman? In The Lost Daughter, Leda had once entrusted herself to a stranger, Brenda, whose intervention came as a kind of rescue. Leda recognizes in Nina a similar desire for something more, and envisions herself in the mother role: “I had endowed [Brenda] with a power that I wanted in my turn to have. She perhaps had realized it and, at a distance, with a minimal gesture, had helped me, leaving me then to take responsibility for my life. I could do the same.”

If only it were so simple. Under her warmth and familiarity lies something suspect about Leda, making her the first, though perhaps not the last, unreliable narrator in Ferrante’s work. The Bookstore Collective hoped that bonds of entrustment would mine “the fertility of the primary emotions linked to the ancient relationship with the mother,” and thereby find a means of positive expression. But primary emotions are deep and volatile. Relationships between mothers and daughters are not always beneficial, and one would not need a symbolic mother if one’s phenomenal mother sufficed. The Lost Daughter, in echo of The Days of Abandonment, ends with a stab wound from a domestic object. Mothers and daughters — real and symbolic ones — inflict scars in turn.

There’s a tendency to view these three early novels as preparatory studies. To me they’re more like Ferrante in concentrate: the dreamlike density of Troubling Love is thinned in The Days of Abandonment with doses of clarity, and further diluted in The Lost Daughter to yield something close to potable. With My Brilliant Friend, the blood and poison that threatened to swallow characters whole expands into something voluminous and clear, of staggering depth and breadth: an ocean, in which many people, memories, and emotions — all given frequent breath — can swim.

In the faces of the old it’s difficult to trace the lineaments of their youth,” thinks Delia in Troubling Love. “At times we can’t even imagine that they had a youth.” To do so is the project of Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, four novels spanning more than a thousand pages that constitute a single work: My Brilliant Friend (2011), The Story of a New Name (2012), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2013), and The Story of the Lost Child (2014), still forthcoming in English.

All her principal figures are here: the poverella, the educated young woman who wishes to excise dialect like a tumor, the young mother burning with ambition, the old one who warns of drowning on a full stomach, the thickset husband, the encouraging teacher, the missing doll, the city itself. In the Neapolitan books they coexist not in memory, as in Ferrante’s early work, but in the same temporal frame. My Brilliant Friend sweeps through a decade with easy intimacy, the kind that makes one feel safe and whole, and with an empathy born of omniscience that none of us has in life. As the books continue — covering twenty, thirty, fifty years — engrossing minor dramas between neighborhood characters play out on a national stage. Exchanges of dialogue are rare, short, and precious; large swaths of the story are paraphrased bits of memory pieced together by the narrator, 66-year-old Elena Greco. She reflects with animating warmth on the history of two women, her and her best friend, Raffaella Cerullo, and the difficult friendship that formed the center of their lives.

My Brilliant Friend begins with a frame narrative — a necessary container. Elena, whom friends and family call Lenuccia, or Lenù, receives a phone call from her best friend’s son Rino, who says his mother has disappeared. With her she took every trace of herself: clothes, books, movies, computer. She even cut her own face out of every photograph in the house. Lenù had known for years that her friend, whom others called Lina and she Lila, preferred total elimination to death. But the moment of its arrival leaves Lenù angry. “She wanted not only to disappear herself . . . but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind. I was really angry. We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write — all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.”

Their story begins in August 1944 — it is perennially summer in Ferrante’s novels — when Lenù and Lila are born. Their neighborhood is an unnamed corner of Naples, a site of poverty, madness, and casual violence, associated always with images of poison, muck, dirt, odor, grease, “lavas of water and sewage and garbage and bacteria” that fester in an enervating heat. More than a place, the old neighborhood is shorthand for the generations who never escaped it: women “with tight lips and stooping shoulders,” chewed up by men, pregnancy, children, poverty, beatings, and sadness; men ruined by violence and the corruption of neighborhood gangsters, monarcho-fascists with ties to the Camorra who bleed the city dry. “Men returned home embittered by their losses, by alcohol, by debts, by deadlines, by beatings, and at the first inopportune word they beat their families, a chain of wrongs that generated wrongs.” From a young age Elena dreams of escape, investing all her energy and self-worth into her performance in school. She pays attention, does everything with great diligence, takes pride in being the smartest in her class. She likes pleasing the teacher, “pleasing everyone.” But her sense of self is destabilized when the teacher discovers that Lina Cerullo, daughter of the shoemaker and most hated child in the neighborhood — an insolent girl with skinny limbs marred by cuts and bruises — had taught herself to read and write. Lenù is wounded by the demotion, but what haunts her is greater than jealousy; following the revelation of Lila’s brilliance, Lenù begins to fear that she will wake up crippled like her mother, whom she sees as a lopsided collection of flaws: a lame leg, a large body, a wandering eye. To ward off that fate she attaches herself to Lila: “If I kept up with her, at her pace, my mother’s limp, which had entered into my brain and wouldn’t come out, would stop threatening me. I decided that I had to model myself on that girl, never let her out of my sight, even if she got annoyed and chased me away.”

Lila possesses a quick and natural intelligence, which manifests in feverish spurts of imagination and cruel capability: “Her quickness of mind was like a hiss, a dart, a lethal bite,” Elena recalls. Elena’s mind is more mimetic and persistent. She has an immense memory bolstered by stubborn self-discipline and an ability to expand on what she reads with great eloquence. Both girls possess an organic brilliance, but Lila’s is more entrancing to Lenù, and Lenù’s to Lila. Their insecurities follow predictably: Lenù fears that she is incapable of original thought, her mind a repository for other people’s words. Lila fears that her natural facility will cease to suffice and that she will fall behind her friend. Their anxieties both enable and hinder their intimacy. Each guards her privacy carefully, sometimes to protect herself from the other’s influence and sometimes to obscure the differences between them. Each, assuming the other is ahead, pushes herself beyond the boundaries of the familiar. School, maturity, love, and sex become games of escalation, part of a lifelong cold war that drives them to both great achievement and emotional darkness. But their competitive energy can also take the form of eager collaboration, as they restore to each other an authentic intellectual energy that wanes in the other’s absence. In elementary school, Lenù is mesmerized by a “book” Lila writes called The Blue Fairy — a story written on a few pages of graph paper bound with a dressmaker’s pin. They read Little Women together and make a plan to write a novel and get rich. Writing, they imagine, will be their way out of the neighborhood.

But writing will prove a way out only for Lenù. At the end of fourth grade, both girls find themselves qualified to attend middle school, but Lila’s parents won’t allow it and Lenù goes off alone. Lila stays involved in her friend’s education and life: she becomes Lenù’s tutor, drilling her in Latin and Greek, encouraging her through high school, pushing her to pass the exams that will allow her to go on to university. Meanwhile, Lila throws herself into her father’s shoemaking business, establishing a pattern she will persist in for decades. Whenever her world narrows, Lila seeks freedom in her confinement. She pours her energy into a constricted space and makes it feel large, enchanted by the enthusiasm only she can generate. She can convince Lenù of the importance of any activity she’s immersed in, so much so that Lenù feels her own life small by comparison with Lila’s grandeur.

Lila wins the race to maturity among the girls of the neighborhood by marrying at 16. In The Story of a New Name, she struggles to free herself from the victory that has become a cage. She trains her mind on passionate work: the grocery her husband owns, the shoe store he financed, the language of computers that might spell her way out. “Whatever happens,” Lila says to Lenù, “you’ll go on studying.” Lenù laughs nervously and says sure, but at a certain point school is over. “Not for you,” Lila says, “you’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.”

Some readers have described the bond between Lila and Lenù as familiar but ineffable, and in the absence of adequate vocabulary call it “female friendship” — an ambiguous catchall that’s slightly evocative of a slumber party. The phrase doesn’t do this psychically complex relationship justice, and though perhaps “entrustment” doesn’t either, it comes closer. Lila and Lenù wish to break the mold their mothers made for them, and to model themselves after what they imagine each other to be. Over the course of their “long sisterhood,” as Elena calls it, they alternate between playing the symbolic mother and the symbolic daughter. The story this dynamic produces is all too rare: a fully embodied heterosexual bildungsroman for women, in which sex and love and intellect are given equal space, with no two-dimensional heroines, no religious redemption, no suicide.

Such an outcome would have pleased the Italian feminists. My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name offer proof that mining the symbolic wealth of the mother-daughter relationship can inscribe in the world of men — the world of books, of fame, of world-historical significance — the social existence and worth of women: what kindles their intelligence, what will they possess beyond the will to subservience and procreation. But as in The Lost Daughter, entrustment is a difficult road toward a sense of ease. The mother-daughter relationship, in its symbolic and material manifestations, is nurturing, formative, enabling — but it’s also obstructive, scarring, parasitic. Like real mothers and daughters, Lenù and Lila need distance from each other to disentangle their identities. Like real mothers and daughters, they police each other: each feels resentful, even paranoid, when the other steps outside her established identity. Like real mothers and daughters, each expects the other to live the life that she, owing to inevitable compromises, could not. And like real mothers and daughters, Lenù and Lila take things from each other — sometimes unintentionally. Shortly after Lenù publishes her first novel, at 23, her elementary school teacher dies, leaving to Lenù all her old school notebooks and the only copy of Lila’s The Blue Fairy. Flipping through the pages of her friend’s story, Lenù feels sick to her stomach: she realizes Lila’s story was the secret heart of her book. “Anyone who wanted to know what gave it warmth and what the origin was of the strong but invisible thread that joined the sentences would have had to go back to that child’s packet, ten notebook pages, the rusty pin, the brightly colored cover, the title, and not even a signature.” Even the pact of their friendship is sealed in childhood by an act of mutual theft: Lila throws Lenù’s doll Tina into the cellar of a neighbor’s building, and so Lenù throws Lila’s doll Nu. “I felt an unbearable sorrow,” Elena remembers. “I was attached to my plastic doll; it was the most precious possession I had. . . . For me the doll was alive.” From the moment they surrender their dolls, those first mother substitutes, they live for and against each other.

For a while, they try not to. Some of the most affecting scenes in My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name are those in which Lenù molds her interests after those of men and teachers she wants to impress. In high school, a professor invites her to a party at her house, to which she brings Lila for company. The atmosphere dazzles Lenù, but Lila feels estranged; she stands alone and stares at the books on the living-room wall, uneasy among these traces of middle-class wealth. Leaving her friend behind, Lenù joins a group of boys on the balcony for an animated discussion of politics she doesn’t understand. “I listened spellbound,” she remembers. “Their words were buds that blossomed in my mind into more or less familiar flowers, and then I flared up, mimicking participation; or they manifested forms unknown to me, and I retreated, to hide my ignorance.” The debate is a wash of proper nouns: colonialism, neocolonialism, Gaullism, Fascism, France, Beirut, Algeria, Saragat, Fanfani, Moro, the Christian Democratic Congress, Sartre the pessimist. How much the boys knew: “They were the masters of the earth,” Lenù thinks. “What were Gaullism, the O.A.S., social democracy, the opening to the left; who were Danilo Dolci, Bertrand Russell, the pieds-noirs”? Despite her unsure footing, she leaps in to speak:

Then I heard myself utter sentences as if it were not I who had decided to do so, as if another person, more assured, more informed, had decided to speak through my mouth. I began without knowing what I would say, but, hearing the boys, fragments of phrases read in Galiani’s books and newspapers stirred in my mind, and the desire to speak, to make my presence felt, became stronger than timidity. I used the elevated Italian I had practiced in making translations from Greek and Latin. . . . I said I didn’t want to live in a world at war. We mustn’t repeat the mistakes of the generations that preceded us, I said. . . . Lila, who was next to me, didn’t say a word.

The outpouring suspends Lenù in elation and fear; to participate this way is all she wants. But Lila insists they leave, and only later in the privacy of her notebooks does she admit her humiliation that night — she felt stupid, invisible, unremarkable. When her husband arrives to drive the girls home, Lila mocks Lenù mercilessly. “So they all talk just so, so they dress and eat and move just so. They do it because they were born there. But in the heads they don’t have a thought that’s their own, that they struggled to think. . . . You, too, Lenù, I have to tell you: Look out or you’ll be the parrots’ parrot.” She turns to Stefano, laughing. “You should have heard her, she said. She made a little voice, cheechee, cheechee.” The words burn, marking the beginning of the “first break and long separation” between the two friends.

Years later, Lenù reflects that Lila was right. “Become,” she thinks. “It was a verb that had always obsessed me. . . . I had become, that was certain, but without an object, without a real passion, without a determined ambition.” What were those years of education but an effort to become unlike herself? “No one knew better than I did what it meant to make your own head masculine so that it would be accepted by the culture of men,” she thinks. “I had done it, I was doing it.” At 29 years old, encouraged by her sister-in-law, Lenù reads for the first time Carla Lonzi’s 1970 feminist pamphlet, Let’s Spit on Hegel:

Every sentence struck me, every word, and above all the bold freedom of thought. I forcefully underlined many of the sentences, I made exclamation points, vertical strokes. Spit on Hegel. Spit on the culture of men, spit on Marx, on Engels, on Lenin. And on historical materialism. And on Freud. And on psychoanalysis and penis envy. And on marriage, on family. And on Nazism, on Stalinism, on terrorism. And on war. And on the class struggle. And on the dictatorship of the proletariat. And on socialism. And on Communism. And on the trap of equality. And on all the manifestations of patriarchal culture. And on all its institutional forms. Resist the waste of female intelligence. . . . Restore women to themselves. . . . How is it possible, I wondered, that a woman knows how to think like that. I worked so hard on books, but I endured them, I never actually used them, I never turned them against themselves. This is thinking. This is thinking against. I — after so much exertion — don’t know how to think. . . . Lila, on the other hand, knows. It’s her nature. If she had studied, she would know how to think like this.

The self-recognition is overwhelming. Like an incantation, Lonzi drains all the terminology Lenù admired as a student of its enchantment: spit on colonialism, neocolonialism, Gaullism, Fascism — on all the manifestations of patriarchal culture, even its language. Lenù feels an urgent need for words that describe her life — the life of a writer with two young daughters, with education but no knowledge, a husband but no happiness. She calls Lila, eager to talk about her reading. “But it was a fiasco,” she remembers. “She listened but then she laughed at titles like The Clitoral Woman and the Vaginal Woman, and did her best to be vulgar: What the fuck are you talking about, Lenù, pleasure, pussy, we’ve got plenty of problems here already.”

Lila’s inability to understand is partly the product of an emerging class difference, one that widens between the women as they age. But it also feels generational, as if Lila, trapped in the old neighborhood like Lenù’s mother, has joined the ranks of mute and angry women who know firsthand the condition their daughters describe but feel alienated, even enraged, by the obfuscating theoretical language they use to dissect it. Of all the women pained by this discrepancy, Lenù’s mother, Immacolata — mentioned by name only once in the first three books — is the most furious. “My dear,” she hisses at her daughter one morning, “you came out of this belly and you are made of this substance, so don’t act superior and don’t ever forget that if you are intelligent, I who carried you in here am just as intelligent, if not more, and if I had had the chance I would have done the same as you, understand?” The only way she can understand her mother is through understanding Lila when Lila says, in different words, the very same thing.

In 1980, five years after the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective first opened its doors, its members started a reading group. They were still in search of “a female symbolic” — a language through which they could describe their newfound knowledge without bending to the demands of a borrowed one. Without a female language, women’s politics was weak: endlessly forced to justify itself according to “the politics of victimization and vindication,” unable “to speak starting from itself.” Novels, they thought, might contain a solution. Perhaps sexual difference expressed itself in “special linguistic forms in the writing of female authors,” even those who defended themselves against gendered interpretations of their work. They set out reading their favorites: Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Plath, Ingeborg Bachmann, Anna Kavan, Virginia Woolf, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Elsa Morante. The list came to be known as “the mothers (of us all).”

Reading “the mothers,” the women developed an idiosyncratic reading style. Wiping away the distinction between life and literature, they substituted themselves for characters, authors, and figures in the authors’ biographies, “giving birth to new, strange novels: we kept searching for the right combination” that would tell them what it was they were looking for. The answer came during an argument about Austen. Over time, two camps had emerged within the group: the strong readers, or “scholastics,” who offered the most convincing interpretations and argued hardest over what to read next, and the rest, who waited for consensus to emerge before giving an opinion. One meeting, a woman who didn’t want to read Austen but again found herself among the minority interrupted the debate: “The mothers are not the writers; they are really here among us, because we are not all equal here.” These words at first “had a horrible sound” — “sour, hard, stinging.” Like many feminists, the members of the Bookstore Collective had learned to fear hierarchies, and they wondered whether this rupture spelled the end of their political work. But after the fear came relief: it wasn’t a coincidence that the disparities between the women had been named in relation to the mother. This was the “symbolic” they’d been searching for — a source of authority of female origin. Women who succeeded, dominated, or loomed large were not “honorary men,” leaving the others to languish in weakness and passivity. Rather, mothers and daughters existed in a separate sphere, one that counted the achievement of one woman as a validation of all. Without such “gendered mediation,” as they called it, “the wealth possessed by one woman might be resented by another as something stolen from her.” Reconsidered in the context of the mother, however, “disparity, made recognizable and usable, becomes a means of enrichment.”

I confess that this anecdote and its contents — the theory of the “symbolic mother,” the concept of a “female symbolic,” the school of difference feminism (unfashionable in egalitarian America), and écriture féminine in the French tradition — made no sense to me until I read Ferrante. Not that it’s so crystalline now: a convenient difficulty of difference feminism, for anyone asked to explain it, is its insistence on being inexplicable in legible (“male”) terms. But Ferrante’s novels animate these ideas with a generous clarity. In her work, you can see how the mother-daughter paradigm operates in all relationships between women without reducing them to cardboard. You can feel the inefficacy of words that structure but don’t describe your world. Even Lila and Lenù’s power struggle is mediated, like that of the women of the Bookstore, through their understanding of literary texts: so much of their friendship is contained in that first imbalance in skill, when Lila learns to read and write before Lenù. Ferrante writes some beautiful sentences, but it’s almost her ordinariness — the middlebrowness of her writing — that allows her to carry such theory so far. The Neapolitan books are riddled with formulas: love triangles, sudden reversals, fabricated cliffhangers marking the return of tertiary characters. Strings of commas generate an unstoppable forward momentum — the reader doesn’t read so much as fall through the pages — and much of what grips our attention could be called gossip. The Turin daily La Stampa called the novels “a soap opera,” a telling if unfair accusation. In the hands of a gifted writer, it’s sometimes the most conventional stories — those that bear the features of pleasure genres, including their much-hated feminine strains “chick lit” and “soap opera” — that make the best vehicles for radical thought. With this Ferrante has given intellectual and literary women an invaluable gift: books that speak to them in a language their mothers can understand.

In this Ferrante is not without precedent. Among the “mothers” of the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective reading list was the novelist Elsa Morante, from whom Ferrante takes her name. Morante’s most famous book, La Storia, or History (1974), was an unorthodox historical novel spanning 1944 to 1948. Its novelty was in its structure: each chapter begins with a time line of History in the grand sense — scientific discoveries, declarations of war, the decisions of Great Men. The section marked 1941 opens with “JANUARY: Continuation of the disastrous winter campaign of the Italian troops sent to invade Greece” and ends with “DECEMBER: Leningrad does not surrender. . . . This further extension of the world conflict will increase to forty-three the number of belligerent nations.” What follows are ordinary stories — histories with a small h — of women, children, peasants, animals. Morante dedicated the book with a line from the Peruvian poet César Vallejo’s “Hymn to the Volunteers of the Republic”: Por el analfabeto a quien escribo, “For the illiterate to whom I write.” She wanted the book to reach beyond elite readers and “be accessible to and read by the general public — the poor general public,” as Lily Tuck writes in her foreword to History. Morante released it in paperback, fixing a low cover price at the expense of her own advance. Within a year, the book had sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Tuck describes a New York Times article reporting on the sensation in Italy: “For the first time since anyone can remember, people in railroad compartments and espresso bars discuss a book — the Morante novel — rather than the soccer championship or the latest scandal. The critics write endlessly about the meaning of La Storia, and the reasons for the exceptional stir it is causing.”

The Morante novel, the Ferrante novel. By the time The Story of the Lost Child appears in English this fall, with its comically ditzy cover — two girls in fairy wings sitting on the beach, facing the shore — the Neapolitan books will likewise have reached hundreds of thousands of readers. And like History, the Neapolitan novels will form an unorthodox piece of historical fiction, a chronicle of postwar Italy with almost no dates, few intrusive headlines, and no Great Men. Here, too, history is only a shadow: where Morante extracts the record of textbooks and offers it to the reader like a supplement, Ferrante removes it almost entirely, leaving only the margins, the losers, the women, their fragments. Both Ferrante and Morante wish to make their work accessible, and they do so with a conviction that suggests deeper motives than faux populism and guilt. As writers, they understand that all histories — even fictional ones — are indebted to the living actors whose names never made the record: the people, like Lila, who wrote history through the movements of everyday life.

In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, during a period of separation, Lenù suspects that Lila is behind a recent spate of bloody antifascist actions in Naples. Out of poverty Lila has taken work in a sausage factory, and with the encouragement of some students has begun to organize the workers. Lenù imagines Lila reappearing “triumphant, admired for her achievements, in the guise of a revolutionary leader, to tell me: You wanted to write novels, I created a novel with real people, with real blood, in reality.” The fantasy contains something of the truth: the authorial power that Lenù wields over characters, Lila wields over people. Occasionally, when Ferrante returns to the frame narrative and allows Lenù to reflect on her writing, Lenù considers this. “I wish she were here,” she thinks of Lila, “that’s why I’m writing. I want her to erase, add, collaborate in our story by spilling into it, according to her whim, the things she knows, what she said or thought.” But they have already collaborated in the creation of their shared history, as Lenù knows well. Once, presumably after reading the sex scenes in Lenù’s first novel, a bully of the neighborhood says, “In my opinion you and Lina made a secret agreement: she does nasty things and you write them, is that right?” Though Lenù is offended, the man is right, if in a different way than he means. Without Lila, Lenù would have nothing to write.

Like Lenù, Ferrante knows that authorship is never the isolated work of an individual artist; the author owes everything to those she remembers. “There is no work of literature that is not the fruit of tradition, of many skills, of a sort of collective intelligence,” she told the Paris Review. “We wrongfully diminish this collective intelligence when we insist on there being a single protagonist behind every work of art.” No doubt the media will take her words literally and accuse Elena Ferrante of being a group of writers. But she already is, and this is her point. The name Elena Ferrante is not a credit but an homage — to Elsa Morante, to the feminist collectives, to the literary tradition before her, to her mothers. There’s more truth in this name than any other she could give.

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