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Entries in Elena Ferrante (5)


Ferrante: Fiction and Autobiography

Ferrante's novels about Naples force us into a corner: how much is autobiography? After all, her (or his) identity remains a secret. We know nothing about the writer who pens under the name Elena Ferrante. What if "Elena Ferrante" really is her name and she's just reclusive? No matter: we're left with the novels themselves--which force us into the corner of intention and interpretation (I would argue, by design).

On the one hand, we can read the novels as (lightly) veiled autobiographies. In fact, we might even think they're "truer" than a more standard novel since we know next to nothing about the author. After all, she has claimed in an email interview that she had a friend like Lila.

What's more, the author wants us to move in the direction of seeing the novels as autobiography. For example, the criticism of Elena Greco's novel in THOSE WHO LEAVE AND THOSE WHO STAY is exactly the sort of criticism that could be directed at the very book in your hands: obsessively personal, vulgar, unfair, too revelatory, too easily based on the character's own life, etc. With hints like these, we're tempted to read the author into the novel in the very absence of said author.

On the other hand, we're also tempted to divorce the novels from the author. Elena Greco cannot be Ferrante, whose actual first novel bears little resemblance to the novel that Elena Greco has written. And if Ferrante were married into a public, intellectual family in Italy as Elena Greco is, we'd certainly know who she is. So perhaps the novel in your hands has nothing to do with Ferrante's identity.

Here's where it gets tricky. Those two poles--"it's about the author" and "it's not about the author"--are in fact the poles that hold up the interpretive debate about any piece of art: literature, painting, sculpture, music, and even architecture.

When I went off to college in the late '70s, the dominant critical theory was called the "new criticism," popularized by certain English professors at Vanderbilt and Cambridge. The main tenet was, to put it baldly, that the artist's life had nothing to do with the work created. In fact, even the historical context of the work didn't matter. Instead, you are confronted with a poem, a painting, a piece of drama in your own moment--right now. You don't have access to the past moment's the author lived. You can't know them. You can't even construct them. To do so is to engage in what was called the "intentional fallacy." How can you know what an author intended? You can do little more than guess. You only have your current moment. It's all that matters in understanding the piece before you. (Thus, new critical professors would pass out Shakespearean sonnets and Bob Dylan songs together because both are "ahistorical" works of art.)

But such a stance seems too rigid, too bound by its theory. Don't we need to know something about English-European relations to understand Chaucer's Canterbury Tales? Don't we need to know something about the Civil War to read Emily Dickinson's poems?

Yes to both. But with reservations. It can all go too far. Does it matter that Henry James was a closeted homosexual when you read THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY? Does it matter that Faulkner was a drunk when you read his novels?

I would say "no" to  both. Yet nuance is important. Does Beethoven's deafness alter our understanding of the last symphonies? Yes and no. Does Rembrandt's use of his wife and children in his paintings deepen our understanding of the works? Yes and no. Does Eudora Welty's left-wing politics alter the discussion of her short stories? Yes and no.

Where do you draw the line? Can you read Virginia Woolf without reading her biography? Absolutely. Do her personal struggles show up in her novels? Absolutely. Does knowing about them make the novels clearer? Here I would add a controversial "no." In fact, reading Woolf's novels through her own depression throws out a dreaded red herring. MRS. DALLOWAY is not a veiled suicide wish. It is a complex and befuddling piece of art about how we experience the passing of time.

Art both escapes its creator and remains enmired with her or him. It's a muddle that Ferrante is forcing us to experience at every turn. 


Elena Ferrante: In Her Own Voice

As you may know by know, Elena Ferrante is something of a recluse. Or perhaps that's the wrong term. She zealously guards her privacy. She grants few interviews, never appears on camera. There is on photograph of her that makes the rounds, a grainy black-and-white of a mid-fifty-something woman smoking. It's widely considered a fake.

Frankly, she makes Salinger and Pynchon look like social gadflies.

She will, occasionally, grant written interviews. Click here for one she did with Publisher's Weekly.

There are a few more you can find. But trust very few unless they're from a reputable source. Many in Italy think the writer could even be a man. Or that "Elena Ferrante" is the pseudonym for a more famous Italian writer who has gotten pigeonholed into one genre or another.

We've encountered her before in this group. Here's a blog post from the last time we read her, when we did DAYS OF ABANDONMENT.

She's had something of a big run recently with critical appraisals in The New Yorker (here), The Times Literary Supplement (here), and the L. A. Review of Books (here). Warning: don't read these unless you're done. They contain spoilers.

In fact, consider skipping them entirely. Of any writer I know, Ferrante almost dares critics to make assessments. Her writing flings theories back into their faces. Maybe into ours, too.


Woolf and Imagined Women

In the third essay of A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN, Virginia Woolf takes an imaginative turn from her research into the question of women in culture and the arts to tell the tale of what would have happened had Shakespeare a sister, Judith Shakespeare, who was as equally talented as he.

Woolf sets up an entire life: the fictional Judith lives in rural England, is not able to study at a school with her brother, and so suffers a fully different fate. "She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother's perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about."

Woolf imagines Judith soon engaged to a local boy, a "wool-stapler." She doesn't love him. Her father is kind--but forceful. Marry him she must. The family has no choice. So Judith packs her bags and runs away to London to be an actress, to write plays as her brother does. But she can "get no training in her craft." A kindly theater manager takes pity on her--Woolf even gives him a name: Nick Greene. But Judith soon finds herself carrying his child--and so kills herself and now "lies buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses stop outside the Elephant and Castle."

As Woolf writes: "[W]ho can measure the heat and violence of the poet's heart when caught in a woman's body?"

There's more to the essay, but perhaps we should stop here for Ferrante's sake. Olga, the central character in the novel, also imagines a women with a parallel destiny: the so-called poverella, that figure from her childhood, the one her mother mentions as she sews with the other women. The poverella is made up of "words between sorry and warning, when you don't know how to keep a man you lose everything, female stories of the end of love, what happens when, overflowing with love, you are no longer loved, are left with nothing." (As a side note, I also ask you to think about the word "nothing" in the book--about its force and meaning. Is it a throw-away? Or is it in fact nothing--that is nothingness, the absence of anything, the black hole of nihilism. If so, the spurned woman is indeed left with something--that is, nothing.)

In DAYS OF ABANDONMENT, the poverella enters the narrative at key moments, predicting and even taking part in Olga's narrative arc, much as Judith Shakespeare's fate ultimately shadow Woolf's own suicide (although Woolf of course was not pregnant at the time).

We'll want to talk more about this imagined woman in the novel--because ultimately, she shapes and controls Olga's fate.


Anger and Fiction

Anger may well be the most difficult human emotion to express in fiction--although we have it in spades in DAYS OF ABANDONMENT. Those writers who come in for some snarky ribbing at their attempts to portray human passion might disagree--there are contests every year for the worst fictional depictions of sex (click here if you're prurient and interested). Still and nonetheless, anger eludes even the best writers.

It's easier to express anger on stage, in plays, in dance, even in painting. It's even easier in nonfiction. But fiction functions "at one remove," the world created not real but full of reality claims and so always a conditional world, the words themselves an opaque, unstable, and (semi-)permeable membrane between the imagined (and thus not "real") action and us. Anger is white hot; words, especially those in a novel or short story, are cool, distant, abstract. Yet Ferrante manages to pull it all off, a feat of some daring.

As a contrast, take a look at this music video. It's by a contemporary alternative rock group, The All-American Rejects. It's about anger inside a relationship. Forget about the gay subtext and focus in on how the video tries to express anger--as it indeed does, given its title: "Gives You Hell." (There are some rather adult moments--or at least one adult hand gesture--in this video, so a word to the wise is sufficient. Remember that our website has a low bandwidth and so it's best to let the video load a bit on your browser before you press play. An ad pops up after a few seconds on the bottom of the screen--you can get rid of it by clicking on the "x" in the corner.)

Think for a moment about the differences between this music video and Ferrante's novel. Those differences are profound--and might cue you into the ways she is able to pull off what few others can.


Ferrante and Woolf

In the second chapter of Virginia Woolf's A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN, the great Bloomsbury writer turns to a concern that proves quite pressing for Ferrante as well: anger. (If you'd like to read--or reread--the first discussion about Woolf and her collection of essays on our blog, click here.)

Home from her wanderings around the fictional Oxbridge, Woolf decides to investigate further her "swarm of questions"--that is, "[w]hy did men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor? What effect has poverty on fiction?"

She heads off to the shelves of the British Museum to do some hard research, only to be confronted by an avalanche of titles. "Have you any notion how many books are written about women in the course of one year?" And all, as she points out, were written by men: "agreeable essayists, light-fingered novelists, young men who have taken the M. A. degree, men who have taken no degree, men who have no apparent qualification save that they are not women."

It's important to remember the time--1929--but also important to note her rising anger, indeed her sarcasm. "Women do not write books about men--a fact that I could not help welcoming with relief."

Her anger, she claims, is caused necessarily not by the profusion of titles but the anger of these very writers, particularly their incessant tone, all about "the inferiority of women." Each writer "was laboring under some emotion that made him jab his pen on the paper as if he were killing some noxious insect as he wrote."

She then asks how anger can be the dominant tone of men when they discuss women. By all acounts, those men are on top of the social structure. What's to beef about? She first claims that anger is naturally "the attendant sprite on power." In other words, power uses anger as its means and its justification.

But then she presses further--and claims that women function largely as a mirror for men. Men need to see themselves when they look at women--and not only see themselves, but see themselves as bigger than they are. Women are a distorting mirror that allows men to maintain their power--and so women reap the anger that comes with the insecurity of the men's knowing those very women have helped create a world of illusion, a world that flatters these same men, a world that aggrandizes them for no other reason than that they gaze into that mirror. "Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of a man at twice its natural size."

So we return to the question of women and the male gaze that we first noted in Brookner's HOTEL DU LAC--but in this case, the woman as the aid and abettor of male vanity with an ability to create a society-wide delusion that is in constant need of reinforcement through anger.

Which brings us to Ferrante's ferocious novel. How is Olga's anger a reflection of Mario's power? Does the anger only spring from him? Or from other places? Clearly, that anger is ridiculously destructive in the novel--but how is it finally "solved"? Because it is "solved"--you must admit: the novel ends up at a much better place than the darkness to which it descends at its middle.

And how does Virginia Woolf's fictionalized self escape this anger in A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN? At the end of the second essay, she discusses a bequest of 500 pounds a year from her dowager aunt, a bequest which allows her to live on her own, without the need of external support. With money in hand, she "need not hate any man; he cannot hurt [her]."

Hurt. We're back to anger--and violence. And thus we're back to Ferrante and her raw novel, so very full of hurt? But why? And to what end?