Ann Goldstein, the English translator of Elena Ferrante, said in a panel discussion hosted by Rosie Goldsmith at Waterstones Piccadilly this month that she felt “bereft when the last translation was finished.” “The characters,” she felt, “become people we live with.” The same sense of bereavement, of loss of a vital friend or voice, is shared by many of Ferrante’s readers, and one has the distinct feeling that the experience of abandonment and of a vacant space reflects as much our relationship with the formal fictional characters (Elena Greco, Lila Cerullo, Nino Sarratore, perhaps even the narcotically perfidious Solaras), as it does our attachment to the city-character Naples, Italy across five decades, and the author herself, concealed resolutely behind the very real fiction of a name.
Ferrante has often been questioned about her choice of biographical anonymity (for as ‘Elena Ferrante’ she certainly consents to her vicarious, full-blooded presence and publicity). She has defined it as a necessary condition of her writing: it grants her the “greatest freedom”, allowing her to “be concerned only with narrating what [she] knows and feels – beautiful ugly, or contradictory – without succumbing to ideological conformity or blind adherence to a canon.” “Writing requires maximum ambition, maximum audacity, and programmatic disobedience,” Ferrante said in an interview with the Paris Review (conducted via her Italian publishers Sandro and Sandra Ferri), and Sandra Ferri, in an interview with RAI, has gone as far as to say that if Ferrante were to ‘appear’, she would no longer write – a highly undesirable prospect. For Polly Samson, speaking at the same Waterstones event, “you [just] cannot write what [Ferrante] writes with the self-consciousness of someone with visible social ties.”
And yet, visible social ties, visceral life connections, consciousness and self-absorbing, self-devouring self-consciousness, are central themes in Ferrante’s works, which have the rare quality of achieving this ambition, audacity, and staunch disobedience against pat rules and “overused expressive paths” by moving beyond controversy, subversiveness and all types of intellectual, political or even existential militancy. In Ferrante’s narrative, through “the word, the rhythm of the sentence, tone”, ideologies, intellectual, cultural and political constructs, any type of façade, mask or persona, crumble feebly like towers of playing cards. What touches us, grips us and almost binds us to her stories, is this yearning for balance and for a gentler perception of our own possibilities; what she calls her “sincerity”, which she defines both as literary truth and as a wider human gesture.
Through Aristotelian reversals of fortune, her characters ‘struggle to organise in a text’ a world of dualities, a fragmented, violent, tormented world, full of real and false hopes, truths and betrayals.”
Sincerity in literature “is the torment and at the same time the engine of every literary project,” Ferrante says in the same Paris Review interview – the artifice and the motive force, the mechane of ancient theatre, sanctioning fictional reality, granting vital status to the journey of storytelling, of lives, history, men and women. “The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can’t understand,” she continues, adding that “most of my characters […] make a difficult journey then arrive at the end of the story bruised but safe.” Ferrante – she has told us this, we see it in her texts – is a passionate classicist, and through Aristotelian reversals of fortune, a hefty quantity of irony, blindness and insight, through fear, hubris, and above all compassion and human fragility – together with an irreducible exposure of the ‘I’ writing (“always a woman writing”) – her characters “struggle to organise in a text” a world of dualities, a fragmented, violent, tormented world, full of real and false hopes, successful and aborted starts, truths and betrayals.
There is a word that Ferrante likes to use, she has even made it the title of one of her books, her collection of essays on writing, La Frantumaglia (2003), to be published by Europa Editions in January 2016 as Fragments. She tells us that this is a word her mother loved and is now vital, central to her own work. Ferrante’s mother defined frantumaglia as the “bits and pieces of uncertain origin which rattle around in your head, not always comfortably”, laying the emphasis on the uneasiness and disturbance, on that “something that doesn’t work” from which a story truly germinates. And her writings, her earlier books and the now four Neapolitan novels, certainly articulate the most harrowing, primeval, often eerie and violent, always intense engagement with life and with storytelling. Her characters are fragments seeking completion, their world is a whirlwind of forces, influences and powerlessness.
The translation of frantumaglia as fragments, however, is itself fragmental. Ann Goldstein told me that when translating Ferrante, she is “always moving on the level of words.” Ferrante herself has insisted on the imperativeness of the right word, and this particular word can take us on a breathtaking journey into her books. Frantu is a syncopated form of frantumi, fragments, shatters, ruins, itself from frantumare, to shatter, shiver, smash, crush, words that resonate with noise, violence, shock and rupture. A telling expression is frantunò la noce con il pugno, he/she cracked the nut with his/her fist – and one does feel that Ferrante herself, as well as her characters, endlessly, desperately, tragically struggle to crack the shells of their existence or inexistence, shatter themselves in the effort to extract from life that kernel of meaning and humanity. The second part, maglia, is as beguiling. Maglia is any knitted fabric, a woollen jumper, but it is also a knitter’s stitch, secured or dropped, an enclosing mesh, a safeguarding or encroaching, strangulating net and warping web. It is a link forged or broken, the mail of medieval armours protecting from the arrows of man, time and sociohistorical adversity.
Throughout The Story of the Lost Child, webs of memory and perception, Camorran nets, “the cotton threads that held [people] together”, are breaking, fraying, fabrics are “woven by day to be unravelled by night” alongside “fragments that are connected.” Elena’s effort to write down memory and find expression beyond memory, meets up with Lila’s fascination with computers and their virtual enchantment, with word processors, with “writing [that] appeared silently on the screen […] like the writing of God as it must have been on Sinai at the time of the Commandments, impalpable and tremendous, but with a concrete effect of purity.” The result is a writing that is “incorruptible”, that can be “erased”, made to “disappear […] and reappear”; “ghostly moves, what’s here and now is no longer here or is there.” For Lila, “electronics seems so clean and yet it dirties, dirties tremendously, and it obliges you to leave yourself everywhere as if you were shitting and peeing on yourself continuously: I want to leave nothing. My favourite key is the one that deletes.”
Like the writings of Primo Levi, another author Ann Goldstein has powerfully translated, these frantumaglia are post-traumatic voices trying to fill a void of destruction and horror in order to make it viable and present.”
Frantumaglia then is the very art and purpose of writing as Ferrante practises and lives it. It is the unravelling of obfuscating meshes, the thrust through nets and webs forbidding life, the systematic taking apart of ineffectual fabrics of the self and of society. It is also a salvaging of tatters and shreds, a process of reconstruction and recollection, as much as it is a gesture of revolution. Through “the usual oscillation between the visible and the hidden”, what is achieved is a return to the origins and a step forward. Like the writings of Primo Levi, another author Ann Goldstein has powerfully translated simultaneously with Ferrante, these frantumaglia are post-traumatic voices trying to fill a void of destruction and horror in order to make it viable and present; shocked realities seeking form, stability, or a better sense of their own ambiguity. They are perhaps the “lost child” of these four novels, the pupa of childhood misplaced and mysteriously restored, the lost future of a generation “unglued”, “split”, “disoriented” in its efforts to become, instead of being.
In The Story of the Lost Child answers are given and more questions are raised. We have solutions and also dissolutions. The project of modernity and plurality, ideologies from feminism to communism, capitalism and deconstruction, extremism, globalism and the memory of a single place, are once more put shrewdly to the test for their sincerity as regards humanity, the past as well as the future. In the first three Neapolitan novels history, personal and communal, national and international, played a central role. We had the neorealist perspective of Visconti, Rossellini, de Sica, Fellini, of the French New Wave, a magnificently Italianised kitchen-sink approach. In The Story of the Lost Child, which moves relatively swiftly from the 1970s to our own time, history seems to lose its claim to prominence. We are informed of the outcome of situations and of the fate of characters who had modulated history before, but this now becomes part of the sharing of human experience, a completion of our own belonging to Ferrante’s narrative. This fourth volume reflects the conditions of our postmodern reality, of our globalised predicament: “an idea that suggest[s] general disintegration and, at the same time, new composition.” Our viewpoint is like Lila’s, who frequently enters states of fluidity, of “boundaries […] dissolving”, of abysmal prospects and proportions, and who counters Elena’s pleasure in looking at the sea from her upper-class Neapolitan flat with the words: “What’s the sea, from up there? A bit of colour. Better if you are closer, that way you notice that there’s filth, mud, piss, polluted water. But you who read and write books like to tell lies, not the truth.”
Literary ‘truth’ and lived reality are even more in focus in The Story of the Lost Child, this time more urgently, bitingly, devastatingly. The negotiation of their duality (or not) will decide being and non-being as both major and minor characters navigate through personal choices and impasses, decisions of wider, unfathomable consequences. Can a woman be a wife and a mother, be fully female and intellectually, professionally alive, all at the same time? Can men feel as well as think? Act as well as be still? Can we rebel and not destroy? Is displacement and permanence possible all at once? Can there ever be “two distincts, division none”, detachment and attachment in perfect, redeeming, harmony? What is, in fact, the world’s place, a question Lila asks of Elena when the latter asserts that “the world has returned to its place” as though “bad moments”, whether private or historical, merely went away, receded into comfortable remembrance. Also: is there an art of “enough”?
If anything, Ferrante’s novels are an enquiry into precisely this art of what will suffice for life to be livable, for the human person (female and male) to be discrete and connected at the same time, for the past to enter the future as it informs it, without smothering the present. She offers us through her characters readings of her own books, readings of the human psyche, of the world itself, and one can read her writings as inventions, commensurate with or even replacing reality (postmodernist stories of formation, education, culture), but one can also experience her novels through memory, emotive, historical, personal, her memory, which she creates/shares with us, or ours, which we must recall, address, position in order to relate to what is recounted and enunciated. Prose, as she has said, is “a chain that pulls up water from the bottom of a well.”
Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels are a lament and a warning. We are all Elenas and Lilas, perhaps, submissively rebellious and rebelliously submissive in turn.”
Through Elena and Lila, through every single character, Ferrante experiments with stereotypes, challenges them both as an imitator and as an apostate, and concludes that it is not reality or the perception of the self that are incongruous, but rather we who do not make the effort to see, feel, realise that the human condition is that of creative ambiguity, of mystery. “A night-time miracle,” as she has said of cherished books “ancient and modern, that have no definite author but have and continue to have an intense life of their own.” She has evoked the same image for motherhood, the quintessence, for her, of ambiguity, ambivalence, conflict and perfect happiness: “It’s an experience akin to awe, that ancient feeling that mortals had when they found themselves facing a god, the same feeling that Mary must have felt, immersed in her reading, when the angel appeared.” And “writing is also a kind of reproduction of life, one marked by contradictory and overwhelming emotions.” Like children and books, the human condition will always be “an inescapable knot of love, of terrors, of satisfactions and anxieties.”
Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels are a lament and a warning. For women especially, women of Elena’s and Lila’s generation, but above all for a society centrifugally bound to duality, centripetally striving for singularity. We are all Elenas and Lilas, perhaps, submissively rebellious and rebelliously submissive in turn, catastrophically confused in a world simultaneously venerating inflated egos and self-deleting simulacra. To both, Ferrante answers through her singular anonymity, a translation into real life of her aim in writing: a style of living that “is placid but with unexpected wrinkles”, but also through her metaphor for the female (the human?) condition, the pupa. The doll-figure at the start and the conclusion of her Neapolitan novels, an Italian term for the babies that are central to the story and to female and male lives, but also the chrysalis transforming, exiting cocoons of sociohistorical or personal restrictions and typecasting. The fragile, uncertain, crumpled, determined larva becomes in Ferrante’s hands a symbol of the process of becoming and of the necessity of being – also of the cyclicity of existence. Elena struggles with the verb ‘become’, “It was a verb that had always obsessed me, but I realised it for the first time… I wanted to become, even though I had never known what.” As it becomes, the pupa transforms, erupts, brings forth more life that will in turn repeat the same, drastically different and unique cycle: it knows that all it wants to become is life. At the end of The Story of the Lost Child both Elena and Lila have broken out of their cocoons, transformed in different ways, even if Lila seems to have turned into a psyche rather than a butterfly, living with intense realism her painful unreality. Elena Greco still writes and observes, still crosses boundaries through words, motherhood and translation, yet this time she is a reader not a writer. Old age seems to have afforded her the perspective of the other and the tranquillity of a sense of an ending and of the anonymity of her own writer, Elena Ferrante.
Since Ferrante published her first book, anyone who reads her words has yearned to know who Elena Ferrante really is. Ann Goldstein says there is, for her, a distinct “idea of a person – of someone who is writing these books, whether this is her life or not.” To her, Ferrante is Elena at the end of this fourth novel, a middle-aged woman traversing and engaged in “the crisis that is life, whose preoccupation is the human psyche.” Her experience is that of any cultured person exposed to the history and pain of the 20th century, and she “has the force of a catalyst” for anyone who reads her, since she succeeds in evoking “identification beyond the specific. She makes you think about your own relationships, identity, self, life.” Ferrante is “appealing and scary” (James Wood has urged us to read her “precisely because she may hurt us”), she matters as an author and as a person because she is “digging to find the truth of some emotional moment” rather than create fiction. For Goldstein, she “does not use effects of language but effects of emotion, looking not for the right metaphor but for the truth of the emotion.”
And does Ferrante want to know who we, her readers, are in turn? What is certain is that she is clear about who she wants us to be: she demands that we too are sincere, aware of a cultural tradition, of the need to belong to it, to have “a love for […] origins”, as well as a vision of how to grow from them, pruning and cultivating in turn: “if we have to cultivate our narrative tradition” she says specifically of women’s writing, “that doesn’t mean we should renounce the entire stock of techniques we have behind us. We have to show that we can construct words that are not only as wide and powerful and rich as those constructed by men, but more so […]. I think of literary tradition as a single large depository [and] an ambitious novelist has a duty, now more than ever, to have a vast literary culture”, for “there is no work of literature that is not the fruit of tradition, of many skills, of a sort of collective intelligence.” We too are responsible for this collective intelligence, and this implicitly requires from both writers and readers what she has termed “philological education”. We need the culture of the past, an understanding of language as a vital medium of existence, as well as a personal and historical inheritance. “Instead most people think anyone literate can write a story […] Literature that indulges the tastes of the reader is a degraded literature. My goal is to disappoint the usual expectations and inspire new ones.”
In The Story of the Lost Child Ferrante certainly does not disappoint, and from a literary point of view, she indeed inspires a new expectation about writing: this is not the final book of a tetralogy, but the book of before and after. There is superb, delicate fusion between Ferrante and Greco, between the writer writing and the writer being written reading. About reality that exists and truth that is created. Ferrante has said that she aims for her sentences to have “a cold surface and, visible underneath it, a magma of unbearable heat.” In her fiction, as is often the case in life, this heat frequently scorches and leaves scarring wounds. But above all, it emphasises the necessary human warmth vital to any sincere act of creation, to any authentic belonging to life.
Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.
Elena Ferrante was born in Naples. Her novels The Days of Abadonment, Troubling Love, The Lost Daughter and the Neapolitan novels My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child are published by Europa Editions, translated by Ann Goldstein. Read more.