Is Elena Ferrante Angry?
Elena Ferrante, The Neapolitan Novels, transl. by Ann Goldstein:
My Brilliant Friend
The Story of a New Name
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
The Story of the Lost Child
The English translation of the final volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, The Story of the Lost Child, was released this fall. Like the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard’s multi-volume My Struggle, Ferrante’s work has received a surprising amount of attention on the American scene for a work of fiction in translation. Like My Struggle, the Neapolitan Novels unfurl over decades and feature a narrator that sounds like a stand-in for the author, though this is complicated in Ferrante’s case by the use of a pseudonym; we know that Ferrante, whoever she is, is similar in age to the narrator Elena Greco, that they both grew up in Naples, are highly educated, and are the mothers of daughters. But this is really all we know, though the use of the same first name is a choice that leads naturally to an identification between narrator and author.
I discovered Elena Ferrante fairly recently and quickly devoured all four volumes. Unlike My Struggle, the Neapolitan Novels chronicle not a single life, but two; the novels tell the story of a female friendship from childhood to old age. Two girls, Elena Greco and Raffaela Cerullo, whom the narrator calls Lila, both begin their lives in a poor neighborhood in Naples, both defined by their extreme intelligence. But after the fifth grade, Lila’s parents decide she will not continue with her schooling, while Elena, known as Lenu, goes on to middle school and high school, and eventually receives a university degree. Despite their vast differences in education, Lenu is haunted by the fear that Lila is the truly brilliant one, that she possesses a kind of innate genius that Lenu, who later writes and publishes books, can only pretend to. Lila is the only character in this very realist novel who somehow transcends her environment; there are a few moments where it almost seems as if Lila’s extra psychic energies run over and cannot be contained: a cooking pot collapses in on itself in her presence without apparent cause; a despised portrait of Lila in her wedding dress spontaneously catches fire. And of course there is the prologue, which begins with Lila’s disappearance in her old age and Lenu’s wondering if the “dissolving of boundaries” that her friend used to talk about has somehow taken place and Lila has literally dissolved into thin air.
Reading the novels, I had the false sense that a person can get sometimes from reading a long work set in an unknown place, that that place has become familiar. I had the illusion of knowing Lenu’s Neapolitan neighborhood, even as the books chart its transformation over the course of several decades; the novels are deeply engaged with the political upheaval of Italy in the 60s and 70s. And of course, there is a love story; Lila and Lenu’s unspoken sense of competition materializes around their feelings toward Nino Salvatore. The son of a poet who as a young man abhors his father’s womanizing, Nino later becomes an inveterate lover of women himself and a natural politician.
I found myself absorbed in these books in a rare way that reminded me of the way I used to read as a younger person—voraciously, unable to put the book down, deeply involved in the characters and their fictional world, putting down one long volume only to immediately grab the next. As I often do when I’ve finished a book I love, I turned to criticism as a way to deepen and extend my affection for the work—and in this case, perhaps, as a way to cope with my grief at finishing a 1000+ page masterpiece.
But when I started to read about Ferrante, something was wrong. The narrator that I found so sympathetic, so thoughtful and reflective, so willing to examine the various complexities of her experience despite her flaws and blind spots—apparently this narrator was “angry.” And I hadn’t even noticed! Worse, most of the criticism made no distinction between the perceived “anger” of Elena Greco as narrator and that of the author, Elena Ferrante.
A really astounding number of reviews make the claim that Ferrante is angry. Many even lead with it in their headlines: “A book that rattles like a pressure-cooker with anger, outrage, frustration and spleen” (The Spectator); “A Rage That Had No End: The Novels of Elena Ferrante” (Los Angeles Review of Books); “Elena Ferrante's anger apparent in tale of women's struggles” (Sydney Morning Herald); “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay' forwards the angry, tender story of two Neapolitan women” (Christian Science Monitor). There is plenty more of this—just try Googling the words “Elena Ferrante" and "anger” and you’ll see what I mean.
There are, I think, two things going on here: one is confusing women’s honesty—a refusal to “be nice”—with anger. Is the narrator of the Neapolitan novels angry? Sure she is, sometimes. She is also sometimes despairing, hopeful, hopelessly in love, excited, disappointed, reflective, and ambitious. These are long books, set against a backdrop of nearly sixty years of Italian history, so the range of emotions doesn’t really surprise me. Personally, I don’t see much anger in Ferrante, or at least, not a surfeit of anger. If the critics think Ferrante is angry, perhaps this says more about them than about the author—just another reminder that we lack a language for women to express honest thoughts about friendship, marriage and motherhood.
On the one hand, we have this misreading of “anger” in women; on the other, we seem to have a tendency to conflate fictional characters (especially first-person protagonists) with the author, especially if that author happens to be female. To say that Elena Ferrante is angry is to diminish her achievement: it takes a lot more than anger to successfully craft a narrative of this scope. In a culture that views female anger as inherently illegitimate, it also reduces the books’ engaged and complex feminism to a simple headline, easily dismissed: Here’s another angry woman.
That is, broadly put, my take on the whole Elena-Ferrante-is-so-angry discourse – but I am willing to re-think it and would love to hear other opinions. Please make liberal use if the Comments section below to offer your own perspective.