The Most Famous Female Writer of Europe?

15. 3. 2017

Elena Ferrante, „My Brilliant Friend”, „The Story of a New Name”, „Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay”, „The Story of the Lost Child”, Penguin

It would seem today that a strategy which could be described as “anonymous fame” is impossible. Some time ago, it was achieved by Thomas Pynchon, who published novels while refusing to participate in book promotions, interviews, or photo opportunities—but it is an exception confirming the rule saying: There is no novel without an author. Some writers openly confess that the novel is only half of success—the other half has to be built by the author’s personality. So how is it possible to publish books today and become a widely known, acclaimed writer without even showing your face? Elena Ferrante managed to achieve that.

Who is she? We should really start by asking the question if she exists at all. For rumor has it that there is no such person in flesh and blood— that the actors behind the “Ferrante” project are, depending on the version you choose to believe in, a group of ghost-writers, the writer Domenico Starnone (taking up similar themes in his novels), the translator Anita Raja (Starnone’s wife and at the same time… Ferrante’s publisher).

But in the very few interviews conducted by email, Ferrante admits to her existence and explains her absence in the media through shyness and dislike for contemporary times, where a colorful personality of the author supposedly means more than his or her books. She describes her writing agenda in simple terms: “I believe that once books are written, they don’t need authors. (…) I very much love these strange volumes, both ancient and modern, which don’t have an author known by name and yet live their own life until today.”

If we put together the few and uncertain pieces of information about her life, we will receive a portrait of a writer who was born in Naples in the 1940s, graduated in classical literature at one of Italian universities, got married, had children, parted with her husband and began to write. Her first novel, published in 1991, was Troubling Love: about a woman returning to her native Naples for her mother’s funeral. This book already reveals the themes which will then haunt her and return in later books: patriarchal culture passed on from generation to generation, also on the backs of the mothers, toxic love. The book was accepted for publication and the writer unambiguously expressed her attitude to marketing in an email: “I will be your cheapest author. I will save you even my presence.” The book met with mixed reviews. Ferrante published two more novels and she slowly paved the way for her strange fame—which really took off only in 2012, after the publication of the English translation of My Brilliant Friend, first of four volumes of the Naples saga. The last book from the cycle, The Story of the Lost Child, was listed by the New York Times as one of five best fiction books of the year. Such people as Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith speak admiringly about her writing. On the other hand, many people criticize her books, denying them any artistic quality.

And little wonder, for her four-volume cycle, consisting of My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child do not succumb to an easy assessment. The story, covering several decades, of a difficult friendship between two women, Elena and Lila, from a poor district of Naples trying to find their place in the world of rapid cultural and political changes in the second half of the 20th century is written in such a way that time and again we are haunted by the question if we are reading insightful prose based on an ambitious concept or only clever pulp pretending to be the former.

Where do these doubts come from? There is a number of reasons. Elena Ferrante herself says in one of the few interviews that the most important thing in fiction is to follow an un-travelled path, avoiding clichés meant for mass consumption. But she is not quite successful in that. Her saga amply uses ready-made patterns from love stories and the plot is sometimes remindful of soap operas. On the one hand, the books are characterized by a certain honesty—if we define it as a quest for authenticity, an attempt at a rendering the multi-dimensionality of the world and the human mind, courage in taking up difficult themes, including those regarding human sexuality. On the other hand, Ferrante seems to shrink from saying anything really courageous or even shocking—her books exhibit a certain smoothness normally associated with bestsellers. This smoothness is accompanied by a kind of naiveté (the female narrator constantly probes her psyche, which can be interesting, but sometimes becomes affected and annoying).

Ferrante is often compared to Karl Ove Knausgard, who also made his name as an author of a novelistic cycle—in the six-volume My Struggle he also plays with his own biography (or even, as he admits himself, he describes his own life) showing the birth of a writer. But he is much more drastic than the Italian author, he does not use pop culture clichés and finally—which is perhaps a matter of subjective judgment—writes in such a way that it is difficult to part with his books, while Ferrante’s prose often seems too verbose— downsizing it would not do it any harm. “Among the many methods to which writers resort in order to tell the story of the world, I prefer using a precise, clear, and honest narrative, describing facts from everyday life in a fascinating way,” said the author in one of the interviews, but has she really been successful in that? Anyway, comparisons with Knausgard’s novelistic cycle seem somewhat exaggerated.

Nevertheless, her books have many virtues and sometimes they are great. First, Ferrante has an uncanny feel for the female psyche and is capable of rendering its complexity. This is best seen in the figure of Lili, by far the most interesting protagonist of the cycle. Lili is a prototype of today’s emancipated, strong (but also sensitive) women taking their fate in their own hands—the best contemporary representative of this species is Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larson’s novels. In fact, the saga is largely about Lili—Ferrante’s narrator, Elena, uses her as a mirror to look at herself, fascinates her, attracts and repulses her, herself being much less interesting, rather conformist and quite weak. It is Lili who represents authentic feminine strength. She does not let anyone subdue her, although the times she must live in (the cycle starts in the 1940s in Naples) do not favor female freedom. We meet the two protagonists as girls functioning in a masculine, even macho world of these times, governed by the principle of ancestral revenge, filled with dubious interests of local mafiosi, with neighborhood brawls, poverty, and violence against women regarded as an norm by other women.

In subsequent volumes of the cycle girls grow up and of course they have to define themselves as women through the men who will take them as wives, meaning possessions. Elena manages to avoid rapid marriage, but Lili is less fortunate. Forced by her family, she quickly drops out of school and already as a teenager marries a brutal meat tycoon from the neighborhood. Still, she does not intend to lead a life of a docile wife at his side. She constantly rebels against the rules imposed on her, she provokes conflicts, and her husband tries to subdue her in the only way known to him and being a norm in the patriarchal Naples of those times, namely beating. He rapes his wife on their wedding night. But she keeps her head high, she defies him and makes successive attempts at ending this failed relationship—and one of these attempts is successful. Descriptions of women fighting for their rights, depicting their path from being treated like objects in the patriarchal world to empowerment, is another great virtue of Ferrante’s writing. After all, the second half of the 20th century was a period full of events forever changing female reality. The Italian writer makes an ample use of that, leading us through the successive stages of the cultural revolution and attempts at rejecting the patriarchal shape of culture, and at the same time describing— perhaps somewhat naively at times—the strongly politicized reality of these times not only in the aspect of the history of women.

An important place is left for class struggle and the growth of the labor movement. And this theme gives us a literary gem—the description, in The Story of a New Name, of Elena’s and Lili’s meeting in the meat factory were the latter works. Looking for Lili, Elena journeys through successive rooms like through circles of hell, smelling the stench of meat, seeing the miserable, tired and—as it later turns out—sexually molested female workers. Indignation at such reality sparks the labor movement, but it is controlled by forces connected with the mafia. Unfortunately, for many reasons the new order brings disappointment for women.

Also interesting is the juxtaposition of the class perspectives—Lili represents the world of workers and as we know from previous volumes, despite her outstanding intelligence she quickly finished her education to become a wife, while Elena rapidly climbs the ladder of social advancement: She becomes a university graduate, enters the world of intellectuals, and marries one of them. This class rift does not destroy the extraordinarily friendship—in fact, when describing the moment of the two women meeting in the factory, Ferrante excellently captures the truth about life, which defies the cost-and-benefit analysis or any social prejudices, including class ones. She writes: “I realized that although in good faith and with kindness, I came here full of pride and that I travelled such a long way to show her what she lost and what I gained. But she saw that at the very moment I stood in front of her, and now, risking a clash with colleagues and financial punishment, she is making me aware that I have gained nothing, that there is nothing to gain in the world, that her life, just like mine, is full of diverse adventures which cannot be pigeonholed—that time simply flows without any order and that it is nice to meet and hear how the crazy sounds of one mind echo in the crazy sounds of another.”

Ferrante brilliantly portrays the story of a friendship not succumbing to any rules. This extraordinary acquaintance spread over the years constantly walks the thin line between fascination, obsession, and dislike on the one hand and longing, true devotion, and admiration on the other. In this sense, Ferrante shows that friendship between women is deeper and more important than elusive, less inspiring love. For Lili is the reason for which the main protagonist of the cycle, Elena, starts to write and for the whole period of creation she is her greatest literary inspiration. She also serves as a constant reference point in the narrator’s life: Elena constantly compares their biographies, plans, and dreams, she looks at herself in the biography of her friend, and although her life is more successful by ordinary standards, she envies Lila her fortitude and strength. She also constantly tries to understand her, so that—as we may guess—she could understand herself. Lili seems to be the crazy, irrational, rebellious element to her own conformist, docile personality. “Our ways parted and we became distant from each other. Despite that, even when we were living in different cities and almost never met, even when she said nothing about herself as usual and I was at pains not to ask her about anything, her shadow inspired me, depressed me, filled me with pride or humiliated me, it never left me alone. Today, I need this stimulus even more when I’m writing. I would like her to be at my side, in fact this is what I write for,” the narrator confesses at some point.

This passage shows another thing in which the writer is great—she is really capable of making her characters come to life. Almost all of them are complex, both good and bad, humiliated and humiliating, strong and weak at the same time. They toss about on the pages of the Naples cycle like bees in a hive, they scream, they cry, they fight and inflict blows—besides constructing characters who are very much alive, Ferrante has perhaps also managed to reflect Italian mentality. Perhaps if they were more restrained in loving, succumbing to the impulses of their hearts, becoming pregnant and having affairs… Perhaps if the naive passages were replaced with insightful ones and the narrative profusion was somewhat pruned… Is Ferrante brilliant—like the eponymous friend, her alter ego from the first part of the tetralogy? Or is she closer to a clever marketing concoction exploiting the fact that people like mysteries? Perhaps it is a mark of genius that it is impossible to tell.

Patrycja Pustkowiak

is a writer and journalist, author of the novel Nocne zwierzęta (Night Animals), shortlisted for the Nike Literary Prize and nominated for the Gdynia Literary Prize. 

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