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Elena Ferrante

In a manner of speaking

Text by Deborah Orr
Photography by Mathilde Agius
Issue n° 13, Spring & Summer 2016

Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym. Elena Ferrante does not exist. Which makes the acclaimed Italian novelist, whoever she may be, quite difficult to interview. For her fans, this is tantalising. Ferrante’s novels, particularly the quartet set in her hometown of Naples, have an autobiographical feel, and the author has done little to discourage that impression. One of the two women whose lives the books trace is called Elena, and is a writer, after all.

And given that the first of the four novels, 2013’s My Brilliant Friend, starts with the disappearance of Elena’s brilliant friend from childhood, Lila, and given that the only way to explain Lila’s disappearance is to describe their entire lives up to that point, there are plenty of questions to be asked.

The novels are an exploration not just of female friendship and rivalry, but a sociopolitical history of Italy in the second half of the 20th century. They take in the advance of girls’ education, feminism and political protest and also describe poverty, crime (organised and disorganised), the decline of industry and the rise of technology. Love, success, sex, family, ambition, creativity, genius and self-destruction – they’re all in there too.

These are rich stories, readable rather than didactic, and told very much from the narrator’s clearly subjective point of view. So, questions, questions, questions, and no one in sight who can answer them. Nevertheless, a limited form of interlocution can be undertaken, by email, with the writer who publishes her books as Elena Ferrante.

Deborah Orr: Usually, at this point in an interview, the writer sketches the subject and her surroundings. Under the circumstances, Elena, can I ask you to do this yourself, please?

Elena Ferrante: I can’t. I don’t know how.

D: Can we assume, then, that you see Elena Ferrante as a somewhat mysterious person, without a home, without a family, who exists inside your head?

E: No, Elena Ferrante is the author of several novels. There is nothing mysterious about her, given how she manifests herself – perhaps even too much – in her own writing, the place where her creative life transpires in absolute fullness. What I mean is that the author is the sum of the expressive strategies that shape an invented world, a concrete world that is populated with people and events. The rest is ordinary private life.

D: Do you think it’s harder for women – especially mothers – to keep their creative lives and their private lives separate?

E: Women, in all fields – whether mothers or not – still encounter an extraordinary number of obstacles. They have to hold too many things together and often sacrifice their aspirations in the name of affections. To give an outlet to their creativity is thus especially arduous. It requires a great deal of motivation, strict discipline and many compromises. Above all, it entails quite a few feelings of guilt. And in order not to cut out a large part of one’s private life, the creative work should not swallow up every other form of self-expression. But that is the most complicated thing.

D: Your novels are intimate, often domestic, but always with a strong sense of the socioeconomic forces under which your characters have been formed. Can you tell us a bit about the issues that have forged your own political consciousness?

E: I don’t have any special passion for politics, it being a never-ending merry-go-round of bosses big and small, all generally mediocre. I actually find it boring. I confuse names, minor events, their political positions. But I have always paid careful attention to social and economic conflicts, to the dialectic – if we can call it that – between high and low. Maybe it’s because I was not born or brought up in affluence. Climbing the economic ladder has been very hard for me, and I still feel a great deal of guilt towards those I left behind. I also had to discover very quickly that class origins cannot be erased, regardless of whether we climb up or down the sociocultural ladder. Even when our circumstances improve, it’s like the colour that inevitably rises to one’s cheeks after a strong emotion... I believe there is no story, however small, that can ignore that colouring.

D: It’s widely assumed that you use a pseudonym not only to protect your own privacy but also that of a real Neapolitan community from which you draw your inspiration. Is that assumption correct?

E: Yes, it’s one of the factors that motivated me.

The narrator of Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet describes Naples, the writer’s hometown, as crouching at the foot of Mt Vesuvius, here pictured from the city’s port. An abortive journey to witness this sea view in the first book, My Brilliant Friend, acts as a portent of the lengths to which its central characters are prepared to go to fulfil their ambitions.

D: What were the other factors?

E: The wish to remove oneself from all forms of social pressure or obligation. Not to feel tied down to what could become one’s public image. To concentrate exclusively and with complete freedom on writing and its strategies.

D: Do you have a sense of how people in the community feel about the books?

E: No. But it must be said that I no longer protect myself from the world I grew up in. Rather, today I try to protect the feelings I have for that world, the emotional space where my desire to write first took hold, and still grows.

D: Philip Roth says that “discretion is, unfortunately, not for novelists.” How far would you agree with him on this?

E: I prefer to call it illicit appropriation rather than indiscretion. Writing for me is a dragnet that carries everything away with it: expressions and figures of speech, postures, feelings, thoughts, troubles. In short, the lives of others. Not to mention the ransacking of the enormous warehouse that is literary tradition.

D: In My Brilliant Friend, the patronage of a schoolteacher helps the main character Elena from an early age. But the teacher rejects her best friend Lila. Was the schoolteacher unfair in favouring Elena, or did she understand that Lila was a person who would always want to rely only on herself and make her own way?

E: The school notices both Lila and Elena. But both feel constrained. Lila is the kind of person who cannot bring herself to accept boundaries if not to break them, but then gives up under the strain. Elena learns immediately to make use of the scholastic environment, as she will later learn to make use of the many other spaces she occupies over the course of her life, at the same time gathering and subterraneously putting into circulation some of her friend’s strength.

D: Staying with the protagonists of the Neapolitan quartet, Lila is a highly original thinker, and also susceptible to dissociative fugues. Would it be right to view Lila as a savant, gifted in a way that Elena isn’t?

E: No. The structure of the narrative is such that neither Lila nor Elena can ever be definitively locked within a formula that makes one the opposite of the other.

D: The contrasting characters of the two women make for narrative drama. But did you see them as archetypes you wanted to examine for particular reasons?

E: Maybe that’s true – it definitely happened with Olga in my second book, The Days of Abandonment, but in this case I didn’t feel that either Lila or Elena could be reduced to some sort of original model that would ensure their coherence.

D: From the start, Lila and Elena have very different attitudes to men and sex. Do you view Lila’s disinterest as the source of her power over men? Or does the contrast between the two women serve a different purpose?

E: I think our sexuality is all yet to be recounted and that, especially in this context, the rich male literary tradition constitutes a huge obstacle. The ways Elena and Lila behave are just two different aspects of the same arduous and almost always unhappy adjustment to men and their sexuality.

“The people who love us or hate us – or both – hold together the thousands of fragments we are made of.”

D: Is it fair to say that the world depicted in your work offers few respectable ways out of a quite narrow, quite compromised life other than academic and intellectual success, for the men as well as the women?

E: No. I care a lot for Enzo’s character; his journey is a hard one, but worthy of respect. And anyway, it’s above all the narrator, Elena, who considers culture, education, as a way to pull herself out of misery and ignorance. Her journey is seemingly successful. But profound changes take generations; they must involve everybody. At times Elena herself feels that individual lives, even the most fortunate, are ultimately unsatisfactory and in many ways at fault.

D: Has that changed since the 1950s, when the Neapolitan story cycle starts, or do you think it’s become more entrenched – the idea that only obvious exceptionality among the “lower classes” should be rewarded?

E: This is how it’s going to be as long as class disadvantage and privilege exist. I have met truly exceptional people in whom the stubborn urge to climb the social ladder is absent. And so the most serious problem is that in deceptively egalitarian societies such as ours, much intelligence – women’s especially – is squandered.

D: Would you describe the relationship between Lila and Elena as competitive? And is that something you see as important to women’s place in the world?

E: No, competition between women is good only if it does not prevail; that is to say if it coexists with affinity, affection, with a real sense of being mutually indispensable, with sudden peaks of solidarity in spite of envy, jealousy and the whole inevitable cohort of bad feelings. Of course, this makes for a very tangled yarn, but that’s fine. Our way of being is – for historical reasons – much more tangled than that of men, which is accustomed to using simplification as a quick way to solve problems.

D: Despite Elena’s material success, Lila emerges as the dominant character. The reader understands that this may be an aspect of Elena’s self-deprecating narration – she may simply feel dominated by Lila. Is it possible that you’d ever be tempted to let Lila tell her own story?

E: No. In the first draft there were long episodes written by Lila but I later excluded this path. Lila can only be Elena’s tale: outside that tale she would probably be unable to define herself. It’s the people who love us or hate us – or both – who hold together the thousands of fragments we are made of.

D: Which of the two women do you feel most affection for?

E: I have much love for Lila; that is, I have much love for the way in which Elena tells her story and the way in which Lila tells her own story through her friend.

D: Do you ever feel that your anonymity limits your ability to shape the debate inspired by the books?

E: No, my work stops at publication. If the books don’t contain in themselves their reasons for being – questions and answers – it means I was wrong to have them published. At most, I may write when I am disturbed by something. I have recently discovered the pleasure of finding written answers to written questions such as yours. Twenty years ago, it was more difficult for me; I’d try but eventually give up. Now I see it as a useful opportunity: your questions help me to reflect.

D: The choice of Elena as your pseudonym and also the name of your protagonist in the Neapolitan novels invites people to assume they are romans-à-clef. Is this a literary device or a genuine hint to your readers?

E: Using the name Elena helped only to reinforce the truth of the story I was telling. Even those who write need that “willing suspension of disbelief”, as Coleridge called it. The fictional treatment of biographical material – a treatment that for me is essential – is full of traps. Saying “Elena” has helped to tie myself down to the truth.

D: One of the wonderful things about your novels is that they’re strongly and richly narrative, leaving the reader to come to her own conclusions, or at least feel that she’s coming to her own conclusions, about the mass of issues raised. Was it a conscious decision, to show rather than tell?

E: Yes. What is important in storytelling are the characters’ actions and reactions, the spaces in which they move, the way in which time flows over them. The narrator composes a score; readers perform and interpret it. A story is an anomalous kind of cage, one that traps you within its strategies and yet, conversely, makes you feel free.

“Profound change will be possible only if we build a grand female tradition that men are forced to measure themselves against.”

D: What are the most important things you’d like to see readers learning or thinking about as a consequence of reading your books?

E: Allow me not to answer this question. Novels should never come with instructions for use, least of all when drawn up by those who write them.

D: Do you aim to speak primarily to women in your writing?

E: One writes for all human beings, always. But I am happy that my readers are first and foremost women.

D: Why?

E: We, all of us, need to build a genealogy of our own, one that will embolden us, define us, allow us to see ourselves outside the tradition through which men have viewed, represented, evaluated and catalogued us – for millennia. Theirs is a potent tradition, rich with splendid works, but one that has excluded much, too much, of what is ours. To narrate thoroughly, freely – even provocatively – our own “more than this” is important: it contributes to the drawing of a map of what we are or what we want to be. There’s a quote from Amelia Rosselli – one of the most innovative and unsettling Italian poets of the 20th century – that dates from the 1960s. Years ago I adopted it as a literary manifesto that is at once ironic and deadly serious. It’s an exclamation: “What black deep activism there is in my menstruation!”

D: Your female characters seem locked in a fight between past and future, traditional and modern, conventional and unconventional. It’s a fight familiar to most women of recent generations. Where do you think women are now, in Italy and globally?

E: I believe all of us, of whatever age, are still in the thick of the battle. The conflict will be long, and even if we think we have left behind the culture and language of patriarchal society once and for all, we just have to look at the world in its entirety to understand that the conflict is far from over and that everything we have gained can still be lost.

D: Ambivalence – about success, money, career, motherhood, marriage – suffuses your books. Women have made progress. But what are the battles that feminism still has to win? And does it have to change its tactics to do so?

E: First of all, we must never forget there are vast areas of the planet where women live in the most terrible conditions. But even in those areas where many of our rights are safe, it’s still hard to be a woman in a way that runs counter to how even the most cultured and forward-thinking men represent us. We are in the middle of a mire. We vacillate between rooted adhesion to male expectations and the new ways of being female. Although we are free and combative, we accept that our need for fulfilment in this or that field should be ratified by men in authority, who co-opt us only after having evaluated whether we have sufficiently absorbed the male tradition and are able to become its dignified interpreters, free of female issues and weaknesses. Instead, we must continue fighting to bring about profound change. This will be possible only if we build a grand female tradition that men are forced to measure themselves against. It’s going to be a long battle, centred on women’s industry in every field, on the excellence of female thought and action. Only when a man publicly recognises his debt to a woman’s work without the condescending kindliness typical of those who feel themselves superior will things really start to change.

D: What can you tell us about what you’re working on now?

E: I never tell anyone the stories I have in my head. I would lose the desire to try and write them down.

D: Last question – will you accept the sincere thanks of this very grateful reader?

E: I must thank you, rather. When readers send me words such as yours, I am the first to marvel at My Brilliant Friend’s good fortune. What is actually inside a book is, above all, a mystery for its author.