Detail from cover of The Story of the Lost Child. Cover photo © Cultura/Hybrid Images/Getty
“We can’t stop talking about Elena Ferrante” we said to each other throughout 2016—on social media, in the classroom, in pressing the Neapolitan novels upon friends and relatives. This collection of essays on Ferrante emerges from a conference panel at the Modern Language Association convention in Philadelphia in January, 2017, convened by the Prose Fiction Division. The pseudonymous Italian writer, who chooses not to reveal herself beyond her writing, had come to new popularity in the US in the past few years, and we found we had a lot to say about feminism, rage, women’s friendships, genre clashes, and bad sex, amongst other topics. We still can’t stop talking about Ferrante, and we trust that when you read these lively, provocative essays, you too will join the chorus.
David Kurnick’s “More Talk” was originally offered as a response to the panel’s essays by Christina Lupton, Pamela Thurschwell, and Sarah Blackwood and Sarah Mesle. It still serves that purpose wonderfully.
—Hester Blum, MLA panel moderator
So it turns out that this panel’s title is in no way straightforward. One of the through-lines in these pieces is the idea that Ferrante is hard to talk about, and that she is most interesting precisely where she finds a way to write what we cannot speak. I’ll try to make clear why I think of that most interesting feature of Ferrante’s work as its realism.
Christina Lupton puts Ferrante in bed with the queer theoretical resistance to the demand that sex be meaningful: as she puts it, Ferrante is “game for giving us just sex, [for] situating Lenù’s experience at this narrative impasse”—at a place that is “difficult to grasp representationally.” More important for Lupton, this kind of good sex—founded on an ignorance about our partner and about the conditions of our own pleasure—is a more accurate model to describe the Anglophone feeling about Ferrante than love, since it allows us to own our ignorance of the contexts from which she writes. Pam Thurschwell, relatedly, draws attention to the “hallucinatory states,” the “gaps” in the texture of the real, that preoccupy Lessing and Ferrante. She reminds us that Ferrante’s term for such cognitive, political and personal blockage, one that gives a title to her non-fiction book, is frantumaglia, a word that also names the felt impasse between writing and motherhood. It’s important that in Thurschwell’s account Lessing offers a vision of women’s writing as constituting its own justification, while Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet is less clear on whether writing redeems anything. No transcendence is Thurschwell’s watchword here—even (again queer-theoretically) No Future.
Among the overlaps between Lupton’s and Thurschwell’s accounts is that they make our pleasure in Ferrante into a theoretical and political problem: for Lupton, our pleasure might be premised on our distance from, even our blithe ignorance about, the Southern European context in which Ferrante writes (this is not, I would guess, the way most Anglophone Ferrante enthusiasts want their fandom described). For Thurschwell, the pleasure in Ferrante is more confounding still, since it’s hard even to understand its source: the Quartet is relentlessly unconsoling, a punishing litany of personal and political resolutions that never arrive. Thurschwell’s Waiting for Godot joke is also a provocation to think about the genres in which we inhabit historical hope and frustration: Berlant’s cruel optimism describes middlebrow culture’s processing of deferred political hope, and it’s clear that Ferrante’s Quartet borrows much of its addictive quality from its formal proximity to soaps and TV serials. But Ferrante’s books are fully conversant with Beckettian high seriousness: we might recall the series’ epigraph from Goethe’s Faust, the references to difference feminism, the allusions to the Aeneid. The books shouldn’t be as much fun as they are: they demand that we ask how we get pleasure from these scenes of damaged life, and what such highbrow signals have to do with that pleasure. Lupton’s and Thurschwell’s questions are asking valuably uncomfortable questions: they put our enjoyment of Ferrante adjacent to literary tourism on the one hand and to prestige-TV binge-watching on the other. This may not exhaust the political and cognitive implications of Ferrante’s novels. But after reading these pieces it becomes necessary to think about how those implications consort with our rituals of liberal self-congratulation.
Sarah Blackwood and Sarah Mesle are most overtly concerned with the pleasure they take in Ferrante, and the irrelevance of most official Ferrante-talk to that pleasure. For them, the difficulty isn’t that it’s hard to talk about Ferrante, but that it’s hard to talk about her well, or in a way that doesn’t “entirely miss the point.” One of the provocations of their piece is that they don’t so much specify what they take the point to be as name some of the forums in which Ferrante talk feels un-pointless to them. On the phone, via texts, in bars, in secret Facebook groups, in certain on-line venues: these are places where it’s possible to talk Ferrante without subjecting her to deadening “criticism.” It will have escaped no one’s notice that MLA panels do not feature on this list. One of the things Blackwood and Mesle are asking is whether in gathering to think about Ferrante we are betraying the “schloop” of reading her; whether in doing so we—or rather they, since this is a pressure unequally felt by women—must obey the demand “to transcend gender’s petty differences,” to pretend that everything is fine even though one of the hard-to-miss points of the Neapolitan Quartet is that everything is not fine. Blackwood and Mesle too position us collectively at an impasse, where it’s hard to know what, here and now, we could say about Ferrante: we just.
By this metric, we’ve all already said too much. (By the metric of “men shut up,” of course, I’m way over my time limit). But I think it’s possible to take these sketches of the impasse as critical provocations, as offering us new questions to put to Ferrante’s work and a new description of her achievement: how is it that the main narrative feature of these books about personal and political impasse is fluency? Why are these books that are so hard to talk about so impossible to stop talking about? For all its emphasis on what escapes structure or refuses intellectual coherence, Ferrante’s Quartet is a formidably structured piece of fictional patterning. This feature of the books, which I think anyone who loves them feels viscerally, is easy to overlook, partly because of our focus on the charismatic critical object constituted by Lenù and Lila’s friendship. The focus is understandable, but I think we miss the texture of that relationship if we isolate it from the socio-historical narrative environment in which it is embedded. In the Frantumaglia collection, there’s a moment in an interview with the novelist Nicola Lagioia in which Lagioia praises Ferrante’s portrayal of the women’s bond and then observes that “this interdependence [between Lila and Lenù] extends throughout the entire world of the two friends: Nino, Rino, Stefano Carracci, the Solara brothers, Carmela, Enzo Scanno, Gigliola, Marisa, Pasquale, Antonio, even Professor Galiani. Despite the fact that their rules of attraction are not so intense as those that bind Elena and Lila, they all remain in the same orbit. To escape each other is impossible.”
This elicits one of Ferrante’s most interesting responses: “Where do I start? In my childhood, my adolescence. Some of the poor Neapolitan neighborhoods were crowded, yes, and rowdy. To gather oneself, so to speak, was physically impossible . . . The idea that every ‘I’ is largely made up of others and by the other wasn’t theoretical; it was a reality. To be alive meant to continually collide with the existence of others and to be collided with.”1 In the Quartet, this becomes as much a narrative as a psychic principle, so that the women’s relationship serves as a portal for others to plug into and out of and thereby to create differently scaled visions of the collective. Think, for one example, of how consistently the duo of Lila and Lenù gets expanded by the addition of Carmela, who silently but durably becomes a semi-permanent member of their unit, particularly at moments of strategic decision-making around neighborhood or national politics (how to position themselves vis-à-vis the Solara brothers, how best to respond to Pasquale’s imprisonment)—in the process sketching how the intensely psychologized closure of two becomes the proto-political feminist aggregate of three. Think, in a different but related register, of how the rivalry and imitation embedded in the central women’s relation gets refracted in Lila’s relation to Alfonso, who in imitating Lila comes into a new version of himself and into newly dangerous relation to Michele Solara; think of how Alfonso’s femininity, which the young Lenù reads in his neat clothing and understands in relation to his slightly elevated class position (he is the son of Don Achille) makes him first a heterosexual object for the young girls, then yet another kind of third for the women, and finally a victim of Naples’ increased violence in the wake of the hard drug trade. Think, in other words, of how breathtakingly supple Ferrante’s narrative grammar is, how relentlessly relational and propulsive a form she gives to every narrative situation, how reliably the central partnership between Lila and Lenù functions as a generator of these narrative totalizations, these widenings of the social and referential frame. Milan and Pisa, Vietnam and IBM, African immigration and the U.S. academy, French theory and the Red Brigades—all of these will find their way into the narrative texture through just such recombinatory expansions.
As we’ve seen, Ferrante’s name for the energy that sponsors this movement is frantumaglia, and I want to close by sketching some of the ways that word’s multiple meanings might color our conversation today. “We are . . . interconnected,” Ferrante says in the interview with Lagioia. “And we should teach ourselves to look deeply at this interconnection—I call it a tangle, or, rather, frantumaglia—to give ourselves adequate tools to describe it. In the most absolute tranquility or in the midst of tumultuous events, in safety or danger, in innocence or corruption, we are a crowd of others.”2 This characterization of frantumaglia as a word for an internalized collective is a crucial expansion of its meaning: earlier she has spoken of it as a dialect word her mother used to capture “a disquiet not otherwise definable . . . a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in the muddy water of the brain.” It also names a “sense of loss, when we’re sure that everything that seems to us stable, lasting, an anchor for our life, will soon join that landscape of debris.”3 The term is clearly associated with Lila’s recurrent fear of “dissolving boundaries,” her sense of a volcanic instability at the heart of historical, interpersonal—even physical and perceptual—existence. The same sensation finds its way into the experience of the narrators of Ferrante’s three earlier novels, where it is overtly associated with a specifically female experience of psychic and physical dissolution—as when Olga, the narrator of The Days of Abandonment, remembers a school friend who “made bodily noises according to how she felt, with her throat, her ass”—a memory of “the ferocity of women” that Olga “feels . . . in [her] flesh” so powerfully that she needs to sit down on a bench to prevent the sensation that she is about to “dissolve into liquid.”4
Over the course of the collection that bears its name, then, frantumaglia becomes a name for a state of affective confusion; a name for a phenomenological crisis that Ferrante identifies as indicatively female; a name for an availability or vulnerability to the other whose clearest fictional instantiation is the relation of Lila and Lenù; finally, a name for the collective itself, the tangle and tumult of interconnectedness. It should be clear that none of these definitions takes final precedence; the point is rather that each implies or entails the others. This experience of frantumaglia might seem to demand a classically modernist narrativization, one that would do mimetic justice to the experience of cognitive blockage and interruption through techniques of fragmentation, interruption, and imagistic density. And in fact Ferrante’s earlier novels are organized along recognizably modernist lines; with their pained lyricism and their psychic claustrophobia, each of the three earlier books powerfully take up residence in the region of the cognitive and emotional tangle.
Things work otherwise in the Neapolitan Quartet, though. One way to assess the achievement of the series is to recognize that it metabolizes that modernist kernel, takes it up not as some final principle but as a motor of formal and geopolitical expansion. And the potent effect of this narrative poetics is to make Ferrante’s feminist conception of interpersonal relation identical to her realist ambition to multiply the terms of geopolitical relation. Foremost among the remarkable things Ferrante’s novels do, then, is to challenge the stubborn academic consensus according to which modernism is the “smarter” and “harder” other to a stodgy and naïve realism: as intelligent and forceful as the earlier novels are, it is the more accessible Quartet that unquestionably represents the more radical formal innovation, precisely in finding a way to make the tangle of incomprehension not the endpoint of narrative movement but the very engine of a realist endeavor to imagine and populate a historically evolving world.5
Lila is indeed a figure of silence and refusal, the kind of character about whom one wants to say, “I just.” But she also represents for Lenù the imperative of more talk, of social experiment, of intellectual achievement, of artistic construction, of structural understanding. In a scene in the series’ final volume, the women discuss the publication of one of Lenù’s books, and Lila expresses her confusion at the workings of the literary world: “I told you that I don’t understand anything.” Lenù’s internal response is contemptuous: “If you can’t connect your story of the shoes with the story of the computers, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be done.”6 The words are perhaps the most concise version imaginable of realism’s sense-making project. It matters that they emerge as Lenù attempts to assert her superiority over her less sophisticated friend. But as any reader familiar with the novels’ insistent dialecticism will expect, Lenù immediately goes on to question the vehemence of her response, the quality of her writing, the value of her education. The realist project, in other words, belongs not to either of these women—it resides not in Lila’s pained silences or in Lenù’s A-student facility—but in the attempt to get them in the room together. The exchange—and it seems to me that it condenses the books’ central dynamic—asks us not to take impasse as the Neapolitan Quartet’s final meaning but rather to trace where impasse lives in specific social and historical worlds. The lines ask us to connect the neighborhood’s violence to the appropriation of women’s intellectual work; to connect post-War Italy’s prominence in the style industries to Naples’ underdevelopment; to connect one woman’s frustrated intellectual vocation to the advent of digital technologies; to connect those zeros and ones to the social engineering project Lila undertakes in that same neighborhood. We may not have thought there were new ways to comply with the realist injunction—new ways to narrate the impasses these pieces have drawn our attention to, to connect personal, historical, and geopolitical scales and see all of them thrillingly operative at every moment. But I take it that Ferrante is saying, and that the Neapolitan novels are demonstrating, that that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
- Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, trans. Ann Goldstein (New York: Europa Editions, 2016), 364-5. That this poor Neapolitan childhood may not in fact have been the one lived by the author of these novels—that these lines may be as much a rhetorical performance as an account of documentable fact—is irrelevant to the realist aesthetic proposed here in miniature, which is about narrative grammars more than the author’s lived experience.
- Ibid., 366.
- Ibid., 99-100.
- Elena Ferrante, The Days of Abandonment, trans. Ann Goldstein (New York: Europa Editions, 2005), 97.
- My sense that this is a classically realist project, and that it has something to do with a narrative fidelity to spaces of underdevelopment—in Ferrante’s case Naples, or more precisely “the neighborhood” in which the girls are born—is informed by Colleen Lye’s and Jed Esty’s description of “peripheral realism,” a genre they associate with a Lukácsian “aspiration to totality, with ‘totality’ defined not as something out there but as the demand to consider interrelations and interactions between disparate phenomena.” See Jed Esty and Colleen Lye, “Peripheral Realisms Now,” Modern Language Quarterly 73.3 (September 2012), 277.
- Elena Ferrante, The Story of the Lost Child, trans. Ann Goldstein (New York: Europa Editions, 2015), 263.