Peer Review: Elena Ferrante’s Hunger, Rebellion, and Rage
Elena Ferrante is such a badass! — Elif Batuman
The critical response to Italian novelist Elena Ferrante has been so uncannily consistent it’s enough to make you suspect collusion. (To what end, though? Good question: I’ll come back to that.) The following statements, for example, have become axiomatic, a critical credo recited with every invocation of her fiction:
- She is mysterious.
- She is angry.
- She is honest.
The first of these points is certainly true: little definite is known about Ferrante, including her real name or even whether she is in fact a woman. The second and third, however, are assumptions, inferences from the voice that speaks from her novels, which signals the fourth, sometimes implicit, pillar of Ferrante criticism: that the author and her creations are one.
Ferrante has published six novels. The first to appear in English translation was The Days of Abandonment in 2005; right out of the gate, Janet Maslin’s New York Times review established both the tone and the substance of what has become the standard Ferrante narrative:
Using the secret of her identity to elevate this book’s already high drama, the author (Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym) describes the violent rupture of a marriage with all the inner tranquility that you might associate with Medea.
In short, we don’t know who she is, but we know, and welcome, the literary quality of her anger: “the raging, torrential voice of the author is something rare.”
The English version of The Days of Abandonment was followed by translations of Troubling Love (2006) and The Lost Daughter (2008). But Ferrante only began to attract significant attention in 2012 with the publication of My Brilliant Friend, the first in a projected trilogy (now, it seems, to be a quartet) continued in The Story of a New Name (2013) and, most recently, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014). The serial revelations of this unsentimental saga of two friends, Lila and Elena, growing up and then apart in a rough part of Naples in the mid 20th century, have turned Ferrante into a cult favorite among readers and critics alike, “her name, assumed or not,” as Megan O’Grady observes in a recent Vogue profile, a “secret handshake.”
James Wood’s 2013 New Yorker essay “Women on the Verge” exemplifies the Ferrante phenomenon. Best known for his admiration of the deliberate prose artistry of Flaubert and his animosity towards the imaginative and linguistic flourishes of what he has dubbed “hysterical realism,” Wood seems an unlikely champion for a novelist who gives the appearance of spilling her guts on every page. Nonetheless, he is emphatically a fan. He writes about her with his characteristic blend of erudition and aphoristic pithiness:
Compared with Ferrante, Thomas Pynchon is a publicity profligate. It’s assumed that Elena Ferrante is not the author’s real name. . . 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. . . . 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.
Wood quotes from a letter Ferrante wrote to her publisher in which she takes a stand for artistic integrity free of celebrity: “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.” Yet as Maslin cannily observed, Ferrante must know that mystery is the best publicity, and Wood’s own supposition about her privacy fetish is more personal than principled: “As soon as you read her fiction,” he observes, “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.
This reading of what Wood admits are “fictional case histories” is, strictly speaking, pure speculation, given how little we actually know about the author, but that doesn’t stop him or those who come after from ringing changes on the notion that the novels are “confessional” — an interpretation that reflects a long tradition of assuming that women’s fiction is autobiographical and judging the writer by her protagonist. Charlotte Brontë sought (and failed) to deflect such readings by using a pseudonym; while the sex of the author of Jane Eyre was still in doubt, reviewer Elizabeth Rigby proved the justice of her fears with her stinging pronouncement that “if we ascribe the book to a woman at all, we have no alternative but to ascribe it to one who has, for some sufficient reason, long forfeited the society of her own sex.” Only a fallen woman, that is, could conceive of and write in the voice of a character such as Jane, “the personification of an unregenerate and undisciplined spirit.” A few years later, knowing full well who she was, Matthew Arnold declared that the author — not the narrator — of Villette had “a mind full of hunger, rebellion and rage.”
It’s odd to find ourselves, 150 years later, meeting the same assumption that the story a woman novelist tells — the mind she exhibits in her writing — must be a direct reflection of her own. The vital difference between that Victorian response and Wood’s, however, is that while Rigby and Arnold were horrified at what they found in Brontë’s work — fierce discontent at the conditions of life told through a narrative designed to arouse and enrage in its turn — Wood is exhilarated by Ferrante’s fiction. “It assails bourgeois niceties and domestic proprieties,” he says of The Days of Abandonment; “it rips the skin off the habitual.” The novel’s “literary excitement,” he elaborates,
lies in the picture it gives of a mind in emergency, at the very limits of coherence and decency, a mind that has become a battlefield between reason and insanity, survival and explosion.
What Wood finds particularly “thrilling about her earlier novels” is Ferrante’s resistance to conventional models of femininity:
in sympathetically following her characters’ extremities, Ferrante’s own writing has no limits, is willing to take every thought forward to its most radical conclusion and backward to its most radical birthing. This is most obvious in the fearless way in which her female narrators think about children and motherhood. . . .There is something post-ideological about the savagery with which Ferrante attacks the themes of motherhood and womanhood.
He associates her use of language to expose the trauma of female experience with French feminist theorists like Hélène Cixous: “her fiction is a kind of practical écriture féminine.” He might as easily have looked to Virginia Woolf, who observed that for women to achieve true artistic autonomy they had to kill off “the Angel in the House,” that idealized figure of well-behaved Victorian womanhood. Yet though she knew such violence was a theoretical necessity, Woolf did not advocate murderous displays in aesthetic practice. For Woolf, Jane Eyre faltered, not because (like Rigby or Arnold) Woolf thought it was improper for Brontë to be angry, but because she thought “anger was tampering with the integrity of Charlotte Brontë the novelist”:
She left her story, to which her entire devotion was due, to attend to some personal grievance.
As a result, Woolf argued, we too are distracted from thinking about the writing to thinking about the writer — which is, of course, exactly what has happened with Ferrante’s fiction.
For Wood, My Brilliant Friend represents a shift in tone for Ferrante — though his description of it as a “large, captivating, amiably peopled bildungsroman” makes it sound much nicer than I certainly thought it was. “There is a kind of joy in the book,” he says,
not easily found in the earlier work. . . . A trip to the sea, a new friend, a whole day spent with your father . . . these ordinary-seeming occurrences take on an unexpected luminosity against a background of poverty, ignorance, violence, and parental threat.
Yet though Wood calls My Brilliant Friend a “beautiful and delicate tale,” the excerpts he chooses belie this account of a kinder, gentler Ferrante: “I had run away like a burn victim who, screaming, tears off the burned skin, believing that she is tearing off the burning itself.”
This, then, is the fuller version of the Ferrante paradigm Maslin’s review anticipated: A shadowy figure of high principle, she refuses to play the publicity game, insisting on distance between her life and her books. In so doing, she evades definitive identification and personal exposure while sustaining a high level of speculative fascination with her identity and personal life. Yet despite her insistence that her books stand alone, the confessional quality of her novels leads them to be read as just the kind of exposure she ostensibly prefers to avoid — an assumption which, in turn, justifies her hiding from the spotlight, because what they reveal is so uncomfortable: rejection of conventional feminine roles, disdain for conciliatory actions or language. Her narrative choices (and thus by implication her personal outlook) are seen as (in Wood’s phrase) “often shockingly candid,” and her readiness to expose herself literarily earns her praise as (Wood again) “fearless.”
The same basic story — and, with remarkable frequency, the same vocabulary — recurs across the field of Ferrante criticism. “One of Italy’s finest novelists,” says Catharine Morris in the TLS, “she is also one of its most elusive;” the reviewer in the Independent remarks that “she might have given J. D. Salinger tips on avoiding publicity. . . Inevitably one is led to speculate on the extent to which her distinctive, psychologically acute writing draws on her life.” In Vogue, O’Grady describes her as one of Italy’s “most acclaimed — and elusive — novelists.” “Elena is the narrator of the trilogy,” says Minna Proctor in Bookforum, “and presumably the author’s avatar”;
Her books bleed on you, implicate you, make you uncomfortable, draw you into the compromises, regrets, and masochism of daily life. . . . Who cares what color her hair is, or if she still smokes? Ferrante is entirely exposed.
John Powers of NPR calls My Brilliant Friend “Ferrante’s personal origin myth.” The earlier novels, too, he says,
spoke with such personal directness I felt sure they must be confessional. Yet when I tried to confirm this, I soon discovered that Elena Ferrante is a pen name and that she’s as publicity-shy as J. D. Salinger.
“The novels are fiercely compressed and confessional,” says Ivan Kreilkamp in the Los Angeles Review of Books; citing Ferrante’s description of writing as sticking a finger “in certain wounds I have that are still infected,” he notes that she thus “invite[s] biographical inquiry: what are these still-infected wounds explored by her novels?” While her rigorous secrecy means “we can know little beyond the evidence of the fictions themselves,” that same secrecy “has guaranteed that almost nothing published about her fails to speculate about the reasons for and effects of her pseudonymity.” We can’t be certain of anything about her, and yet, “surely,” Kreilkamp concludes of My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name, they are “at some level autobiographical.”
Ferrante’s game of hide-and-seek (continued in her recent Vogue interview, conducted “via email correspondence” and still leaving “her identity private”) may mean that critics can only guess at the actual relationship between her life and her fiction, but that hasn’t stopped them from praising how truthfully and bravely she reveals the worst about herself. After all, as Meghan O’Rourke writes in a recent New York Times Style Magazine feature (with the inevitable title “Who Is Elena Ferrante?”), “with a voice so alive in these pages, does it really matter that we don’t know who she is — especially when it’s so easy to feel like we do?” “She has written with devastating honesty about some of the most uncomfortable facts of life, and especially of female life,” says Morris;
One of Ferrante’s greatest virtues is her doggedness in unearthing — and fearlessness in articulating — thoughts that usually remain unspoken.
The popularity of The Days of Abandonment in Italy “is understandable,” says Maslin, “since both its emotional and carnal candor are so potent.” Ferrante, says Powers, is “never one to fear dark or spiky emotions”; she writes with “fearless power.” Ferrante writes of “the violence, vulnerability, defensiveness, and seductions of the city with skin-prickling candor,” says Proctor of the Neapolitan series; “Ferrante is unlike other writers . . . because she’s unselfconscious and brutally, diligently honest.” In her Vogue review of My Brilliant Friend, Megan O’Grady praised the novel’s “memoir-like authenticity,” calling it “gutsy,” and in her more recent piece remarks the “audacious humor and devastating candor of [Ferrante’s] voice”; the reviewer in the Economist declares that Ferrante’s “voice is startlingly honest and modern”; Anna Clark in the Waxwing Literary Journal says of Elena the narrator, so universally assumed to be Ferrante’s proxy, that “her honesty warms through and finally bewitches.”
As this chorus of enthusiasm rises to its crescendo, an undertone of criticism is in fact discernible — not of Ferrante, though, but of all the other authors whose apparent dishonesty, inauthenticity, and fear provide the implicit comparison (else after all, what is so singular about Ferrante?). Only a couple of reviewers make this point explicitly, among them, and at the greatest length, Maslin, who in her early review of The Days of Abandonment acknowledges that a marital breakup is hardly new territory for a woman writer:
Popular American writers have a way of reducing this situation to its most banal, self-pitying components. First comes shock. Then self-loathing. Then there’s anger. Then the husband’s girlfriend emerges, prompting the scorned wife’s self-righteous fury. She languishes miserably until a new man appears on cue, Prince Charming-style.
Ferrante, in contrast, offers “a kind of extraterrestrial take on these same developments”; “the writer is immensely self-aware and her frankness is stunning.” In the Guardian, Joanna Walsh more briefly identifies the Neapolitan novels as a “powerful, nuanced, urgent take on this old story of female friendship shot through with rivalry.”
These comments clarify that, while the positive reception is no doubt sincere, Ferrante’s key role is a negative one: whoever she actually is in real life, her literary significance lies as much in what she is not, in what (or how) she does not write. Crucially — urgently — she may focus on adolescent girls, women’s friendships, motherhood, and abandoned wives, but her novels could never be mistaken for chick lit or “popular” women’s fiction: as Joseph Luzzi says in the New York Times, “her aims are literary.”
Ferrante criticism, in other words, is another front in the long war over women’s writing, in which the terms and stakes have not so much changed as shifted around since the publication of Jane Eyre in 1847. There’s still plenty of social and literary pressure for women (real or fictional) to be nice — but this pressure has sparked determined resistance, so that nowadays it seems that, in some quarters, the angrier the better if you want to establish your literary bona fides. “It’s totally unacceptable for a woman to be angry,” observed Claire Messud, who in The Woman Upstairs (its title a clear allusion to Jane Eyre’s Bertha Mason, the “madwoman in the attic”) deliberately set out to add “a voice that for me, as a reader, had been missing from the chorus: the voice of an angry woman.” “How angry am I?” asks her protagonist, Nora Eldridge:
You don’t want to know. . . . What I really want to shout . . . is FUCK YOU ALL. Don’t all women feel the same? The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury. We’re all furies, except the ones who are too damned foolish, and my worry now is that we’re brainwashing them from the cradle, and in the end even the ones who are smart will be too damned foolish.
Nora’s question “Don’t all women feel the same?” — presumably but problematically rhetorical — casts happiness as a form of false consciousness: in her view, you’d literally have to be an idiot not to be angry. When her interviewer asked “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you?” Messud’s own anger was palpable:
For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”
Novelist Meg Wolitzer, in her turn, spoke out against “a kind of disturbing trend”:
fiction about and by women who the reader is meant to feel “comfortable” around – what I call slumber party fiction – as though the characters are stand-ins for your best friends.
They make an eloquent case against limiting women writers to a prescribed creative safe zone. But their case is also against women readers who, in their view, are doing it wrong, seeking or settling for something less, not just in literature but in life. In an interview with Meredith Maran, Salon’s Laura Miller remarked that “sophisticated readers don’t need a sympathetic character. . . . But there aren’t that many sophisticated readers.” “The mass audience,” she continues,
wants to go to their leisure entertainment for hope and reassurance. . . . I don’t know that a lot of women are willing to surrender the sorts of comfortable, reassuring aspects of femininity that are keeping them down. . . . What are we going to do — strap women into a chair and spoon Martin Amis into their faces?
That’s certainly a disturbing alternative, but anything, it sounds like, would be better than leaving women to their own devices, as apparently if unsupervised they behave like children at a sleepover making themselves sick on cupcakes — gorging themselves on all the wrong books. In the context of such condescending remarks, it’s no wonder popular authors like Jennifer Weiner get defensive:
now that likable has become the latest code employed by literary authors to tell their best-selling brethren that their work sucks, is there any hope for the few, the shamed, the creators and consumers of likable female protagonists?
Ferrante has been welcomed into this polarized world as an ally of the anti-populists, and aptly so: her novels and their reviews read collectively like a how-to (or, more accurately, a how-not-to) manual for women writers, a guide to getting a seat at the grown-up table even when your subject is teenage angst, women’s friendships, marriage, motherhood, or divorce. Not for her any reassuring compromises, any feel-good fairy tale endings to lull women into cooperating in their own oppression. “I hope Ferrante is a woman,” says O’Rourke, “and one who might one day find it possible to unveil herself while still writing with the same ferocity.” “Her women vent their fury at being effaced by men,” says the Economist; Ferrante’s fiction, Joan Frank says in SFGate, is “one long, mind-and-heart-shredding howl for the history of women . . . and its implicit j’accuse.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, though as my Brontë comparisons suggest, it’s not as novel a strategy as the hype would have it. Further, the assumption that Ferrante’s novels are particularly truthful and valuable because they highlight discontent, struggle, and anger is as partial and as constricting — if these become the crucial measures of artistic merit — as attempts to rule such feelings out of order.
With all this focus on tone and personality, too, the critical conversation narrows. There had been little discussion in the reviews of form or technique in Ferrante’s fiction, for instance, or themes beyond the psychological or loosely social. What if, say, the Elena who narrates the Neapolitan novels was approached, not as her author’s “avatar,” but as a potentially unreliable narrator? If we let go of the quest for (or the presumption of) truth in her story, might we discover some self-deception or irony in the way it is told? Whether or not the character Elena is a proxy for Ferrante, can we discern from her first-person “writing” of the Neapolitan series the nature of her Kunstlerroman? Can we see signs of her development into that narrator (and of the need for that moral or artistic growth) the way that, for instance, in Great Expectations we come to understand that without living through the novel, Pip could not have become the man who narrates it for us? Is there evidence of retrospective wisdom in Elena’s autobiography, as there is in Jane Eyre’s? What about history or politics? If the story of Lila and Elena is also the story of Naples (as Proctor proposes), or of post-war Italy, what is its historiography? If, as Luzzi suggests, The Story of a New Name “glanc[es] back into the Italian canon,” what exactly does Ferrante see there, or show us there, and how does she challenge it with the book she herself writes?
There’s also relatively little detailed analysis of Ferrante’s language, though reviewers are naturally constrained when working with a translation. Her use of dialect gets special attention from Kreilkamp, and Wood particularly stresses the extremity of the imagery in The Days of Abandonment. The richness of tactile details in her descriptions and the complexity of her characterizations get some convincing discussion, presumably because they are qualities that don’t rely on precise word choice or placement. (In contrast, the occasional comment about the rhythm of her prose seems slightly out of place.)
It’s easy to ask too much of book reviewers, of course: space constraints, audience expectations, and reviewing conventions alike make it a category mistake, in most cases, to go looking for really sustained analysis beyond plot, character, and some general orientation of the ‘life and times’ variety. Still, it’s striking how far Ferrante criticism takes us from thinking about the art and craft of her novels to considering them as experiences — hers, but also ours. “It’s difficult to describe what it’s like to be inside a Ferrante book,” Proctor observes,
precisely because it doesn’t feel like ‘being in a book.’ It’s quite a bit more like being in a life.
“It bears no impress of being written at all,” says another critic,
but is poured out rather in the heat and hurry of an instinct, which flows ungovernably on to its object, indifferent by what means it reaches it, and unconscious too.
But wait: that’s Elizabeth Rigby again, to whom Brontë’s lack of visible artistry is a flaw, not a virtue. Such writing may indeed be more like a life, but (to paraphrase a woman writer renowned for her artistic self-control) it is not, perhaps, near so much like a novel. Round and round we go. A torrent of reviews is bound to follow the publication of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. Will they bring us more of the same, I wonder, or will the new novel prompt new thinking, different questions, fresh readings? It does seem past time to find something else to say.
Originally published in Open Letters Monthly, September, 2014