Charlotte Grimshaw examines anonymous literary sensation Elena Ferrante, and the place of the ‘self’ in written work.
Some time after the Christchurch earthquake, I visited the city. I hadn’t been there since before the disaster, and I was shocked by the devastation in the centre, and in particular by the number of multi-storey buildings that were still standing, completely derelict. I couldn’t believe that so little progress had been made in restoring the place, and I was particularly struck by the eeriness of all that dead space in a close urban setting. I walked around the Red Zone too, noting its silent emptiness and beauty, nature taking over orderly lines, the houses broken, sinking into the earth. Christchurch was lost and neglected; it was fallen and ruined. For the first time, I found the place compelling.
I wrote a piece in the New Zealand Herald, in which I recalled a phase of my life when I lived in a flat on top of derelict building. Each day, I had to travel through eight floors of empty space – the silence, the darkness, the isolation. I never knew if anyone had got into the building during the night, and if I’d screamed up there, no one would have heard on the street below. Empty buildings, I wrote, are infinitely more terrifying than abandoned open spaces, and I felt for the people of Christchurch, living with those spaces around them, above them, in the very centre of their lives.
The piece received the usual small mix of positive and negative responses, but there was one that caught my eye, a tweet by journalist and editor Finlay Macdonald. Reacting to comments about my piece he’d simply tweeted, ‘I,I,I…’
As tweets go it was nicely economical, as well as wittily sarky. My Herald piece was all about me, he was saying. I had started out with poor Christchurch, but only in order to steer the reader back to myself. Implicit was a dash of self-righteousness, too: Was nothing sacred? Even a disaster’s an opportunity to go on about herself. (Oh, shallow, ‘latte-sipping’ Aucklander!)
I thought of a few literary jokes, referring perhaps to Milton’s poem about Samson, who was kidnapped by Philistines, and rendered eye-less in Gaza. (Oh, shallow Philistine, who would poke out my I’s!)
And yet, I thought, while it made its point neatly, the tweet missed a distinction between methods: what he saw as egotism I felt as empathy; moreover my response was intrinsic to my profession, not his. I had resorted immediately to the reflex, not of journalist but of fiction writer. Instead of writing about funding difficulties, Cera, insurance companies, government and bureaucratic inaction, I had simply thought my way into what seemed the most dramatic effect of the disaster, the psychological blow: the fear, the uncertainty, the darkness that had inserted itself into a previously orderly scene, the precarious nature of things.
This is what fiction writers (those egomaniacs) tend to do. They insert themselves into experience. Fiction can’t work without that ability to infiltrate consciousness into empty spaces. You could probably find a correlation between writers with a tendency to malice and their creation of unconvincing, two-dimensional fictional characters. Christina Stead put it another way when she said, ‘A writer has to have a Christ-like sympathy for everyone.’
And yet again, hadn’t Finlay Macdonald, who never says anything that’s not clever, immediately perceived something, and expressed it with typical wit: that in writing my column I was trying to have it – fiction and journalism – both ways?
So good journalism, granted, involves selfless commentary. And good fiction involves the self, but is incompatible with solipsism, with ‘I,I,I.’
Or is it?
I and I
This is a piece about the Italian writer Elena Ferrante, so I will begin (Finlay) with a trip to my psychotherapist.
Let’s say this psychotherapist exists in real life. Let’s say she’s not just a character in my last novel. I have started consulting her in order to sort out the tangled narrative of my life. That dark time, for example, when I lived in a flat above a derelict building…
How are you, she asks. And so I begin: I,I,I.
At some point, my conscientious counsellor has taken it upon herself to read my fiction. I haven’t really wanted her to, for reasons obscure to me (perhaps I feel it would make things too complicated) nevertheless, having read my books and also, over a long time, heard a lot about my real life (I have sworn not to lie to her) she tells me this: It is a paradox. Your strength is also your weakness. You are all your characters, or all the characters contain parts of you, the male as well as the female. Since you can inhabit all these selves, and since you do this compulsively (occupy other viewpoints) it is no wonder you sometimes feel you don’t have one single, locatable self.
I listen. According to her paradox theory, I,I,I is really I and I and I. This is true: the fictional characters are all me, both the male and female, and at the same time, none of them is me. All that I,I,I actually adds up, in a paradoxical, psychological sense, to ‘no I.’
I (and I and I, or no I) think about it for a while. It seems relevant to everything I’ve been reading and writing about fiction and the self.
Let me tell you about what I’ve been reading lately, I say.
First I tell her about Karl Ove Knausgaard and his innovative series of novels, My Struggle, in which the main character is himself: ‘I, Karl Ove Knausgaard.’ One critic, I tell her, called My Struggle ‘a masterpiece for the age of the Selfie.’
And then we move on to Elena Ferrante, the Italian writer who has also explored the issue of ‘the self’, in her case by absenting herself completely as ‘author’ of her novels.
While her novels have generated huge interest and popularity, Ferrante herself is nowhere to be found. There is no ‘I, the author.’ No one knows who she is or where she lives, no one knows her age or circumstances, or even if she is really a woman. All we know is that she grew up in Naples.
Her stance (communicated from a secret location) is that once books have been published, there is no need for authorial presence; the novels should stand or fall on their own.
If Knausgaard’s books are a ‘masterpiece for the age of the Selfie,’ I would venture to say that Ferrante’s novels transcend the Selfie age. First, with her decision to hide, she has created her own paradox, thereby one-upping the Selfie factor, her ‘absence’ having become such a feature in itself that she exists as that absence. The lack of I has become photo-negative I, a black space, an outline that readers, fans, commentators fill in with their own imaginations.
You could speculate that there are reasons for her seclusion beyond pure principle: for one thing she writes about neighbourhood mafia figures in her books, and might perhaps have annoyed a few Camorrists. And she’s not the first author to profit from the literary mystique generated by remaining in hiding. She has left herself open to all speculations, of course, by not telling. And by remaining hidden she has encouraged the suggestion that her writing is ‘too close to the bone’ for her to emerge, that it is autobiographical.
But even more interesting than issues of authorial presence (Knausgaard’s ‘I’ is everywhere; he is protagonist, author and frequent commentator on his own work) and authorial absence (Ferrante, ‘no I’, has never come out from hiding except to participate in rare, written interviews) is these authors’ treatment of their fictional subjects, and their explorations of the idea of ‘self.’
Knausgaard’s point of view is always that of Karl Ove – from boyhood to manhood, and all points in between. The world is seen through Karl Ove’s eyes, and each of his subtle, vivid character portraits is firmly rooted in the sensibility, the imagination and the perception of the one ‘I’, Karl Ove.
In her Neapolitan quartet, Ferrante has created such a large cast that each book begins with a list of characters for readers’ reference. In her portrayal of this diverse group, she manages brilliantly to play with notions of ‘self’ – with I and I and I – particularly in the characters of Elena and Lila, the two women whose friendship is at the heart of the novels.
The books are narrated by Elena, whose companion Lila is her brilliant friend. These are wonderful, highly individual characters. And yet the reader is constantly given the sense, deliberately as it were, that the author is both Elena and Lila (as of course in a sense she must be) and that this fraying of the surface of the fiction is methodical, allowing us to glimpse, even if only at moments, the artist at work.
Lila and Elena represent the working of a fictional device, one that’s executed so brilliantly that you’re left with an exhilarating sense of multiplicity: on the one hand, Ferrante has played with ideas of self, has demonstrated ways in which aspects of her own ‘I and I’, her own ‘selves’, can be depicted fictionally – dispersed between characters – and at the same time she has created two characters who are so real and so ‘separated’ from their creator that you feel they could emerge from the book and walk away.
This ability to operate on a number of levels, from the purely dramatic to the meta-fictional, seems to me to represent a kind of virtuosity that transcends (not that comparisons are necessary or useful, but still) even Knausgaard’s boldness, originality and in-your-face treatment of ‘self’.
These are the novels to read if you’re a fiction writer with an interest in finding a way out of conventional novelistic narrative. Knausgaard is daring, carelessly, instinctively innovative, perhaps almost resistant to thinking too much about what he’s doing (he just wants to slap it down on the page, too bad if it’s messy) somehow very ‘male’ in the conventional (macho Neapolitan, say) sense of that word.
Ferrante is hidden, subtle, deliberate, careful, meticulous, harsh. Knausgaard is all emotional damage, with his heart on his sleeve, not afraid to cry, self-indulgent, sprawling all over the place. Ferrante is coiled, ready to burst out with Neapolitan fury, the product of an ancient, corrupt, violent urban environment, more educated, more sophisticated, world-weary, steeped in feminine suffering, hard as nails.
She is exhilarating, and yet I took a bit of time to arrive at a true appreciation. Proceeding chronologically, I traversed the rough neighbourhoods of the first three novels. These precede the Neapolitan quartet, and they are compelling, especially The Days of Abandonment and The Lost Daughter, but also relentlessly grim. The portrayal of motherhood is negative, and so is the evocation of sex. The protagonists are educated women who find their children suffocating, their husbands awful in bed, and domestic life unbearable. One who has left her children says, ‘I was an unnatural mother’, another refers to her children as parasites feeding off her.
These are novels about very bad mother-daughter relationships, emotional dysfunction, pathological jealousy and competitiveness. To give just two examples: the narrator’s daughter brings home a friend who is very beautiful. Seeing that this attractive friend makes her daughter look plain, the mother drives the friend away. Or, the same character, seeing a mother and daughter playing happily with a doll on a beach, feels angry at the sight, recalls her troubled relationship with her own daughter, and eventually causes the child huge anguish by stealing the doll.
I was reminded at first (unfairly) of those exquisite, effete Neapolitan women in towns like Positano, who arrive at the beach done up to the nines, and wade in only up to their waists so as to protect hair, make up and designer sunglasses, and stand, trailing their fingers, and browbeating their boyfriends… I went so far as to ask myself, of the brittle women in the first three novels, have they been created by a brave feminist, or by a petulant Italian narcissist? (The children are unbearably noisy and sandy; their noses are snotty. And my husband is a pig!)
As I might have remarked to my psychotherapist (Finlay) in these three early novels Ferrante seems especially full of rage. One suspects – just faintly – that she wanted to get hold of every bullying macho male shit she’d ever been subjected to (their swagger, their stupid, casual cruelty, not to mention a lot about their brutal penises) – really wanted to round them up and rip their fucking faces off. Phew. Just before bundling the children into the trash, burning down the apartment and leaving (for the university, where she will discover that even intellectual Italian men are dishonest shits with threatening penises who make her have sex and force horrible, lumpen children on her.) Fair enough, of course…
Although Ferrante’s autobiographical details are secret, the Neapolitan novels seem to put these first three books into context; they represent an expansion and enriching of the same fictional material, and also allow a speculative psychological explanation (not that Ferrante would admit it’s any of our business) for those uptight, frigid, narcissistic, female protagonists of the first novels.
The women of the earlier novels are escapees. They have left Naples, got educated, and yet are marked by their beginnings: they have difficulties with sex, barely tolerate their children, are gloomy and unfulfilled. Reading the Quartet you very quickly start to see how all that uptightness and sterility could have its origins in horror and recoil.
In the Quartet, a rich, generous, sprawling saga, we are introduced to what Ferrante calls ‘the neighbourhood’ – the poor streets of Naples – and it’s here that she shows with full force the impact on a naturally refined sensibility of so much violence, poverty, chaos, stifling patriarchal repression, of too much brutal life.
I–less in Naples
Recently I read a book about desire, by neuroscientist Marc Lewis. The author mentioned a study of Native communities in Western Canada. Some of the communities had high youth suicide rates, and others had a zero rate of suicide. Attempting to find out why, researchers found that youths from the high suicide communities were unable to give a coherent narrative of their lives. They had no sense of family past, of history, and no sense that they had a future. They couldn’t see their lives as stories and they couldn’t tell their own stories; they had none.
The youths from low suicide communities, on the other hand, were able to narrate their own stories; they had a sense of their history and a clear concept of a future ‘I’. This finding was relevant to one thesis of the book, which dealt with the idea that a facet of addiction (uncontrollable desire) is an inability to focus on the future – is the narrowing of world view down to the urgent want of the now.
It seems fascinating to consider the idea that human beings have evolved beyond the animal to an extent where consciousness itself has ‘needs’ that are as crucial for survival as food and fluids. Where the brain grasps only the immediate, there is despair, where there is a sense of ‘my story’, where the ‘I’ is not lost but firmly located within a narrative context, past, present and future, then there is hope.
I recalled this idea when I was immersed in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, following the fortunes of Elena and Lila. The relationship between Elena and Lila is the dramatic centre of the books. As each woman moves through boyfriends, husbands, marriages, children, divorces, it comes to seem that Lila, the brilliant friend, is the really the romantic hero of Elena’s life. And yet, how complicated it is, how subtle, how many times the perception of these characters changes, and changes again. This is a truly authentic portrayal of life. The ending of the fourth in the series The Story of the Lost Child, preserves the subtle tension and control Ferrante exercises over the idea of self, true and fictional, divided and whole.
And here, from the fifties to the nineties and beyond, is a narrative of Ferrante’s ‘neighbourhood’, a place of violence, cruelty, the Camorra, political upheavals, where violence permeates the society, from corrupt government into the communities, into families. The Christian Democrats use the mafia to beat up Communists and workers, there is terrorism and student revolt, there is vote-rigging and murder. There is marital rape and appalling family violence, there is fighting and fucking, loyalty and betrayal and love.
All this – and what a masterpiece of sustained story-telling. The sheer number of narrative threads, all rendered in minute detail, with compassion and psychological accuracy, with a complete lack of sentimentality, amounts to such a dose of what the consciousness craves, you could be grateful, as a reader, for that alone. When you consider the deliberate, although subtle, artistry with which it’s rendered, it all adds up to a pretty invigorating, life-affirming tonic for the brain. This is why we need to make stories out of our selves and why fiction still matters – because fiction gives us our lives.
These innovative writers, artists of the ‘age of the Selfie,’ seem to generate a response in kind – how better can I explain (seek an excuse for) the ‘Selfie age’ tenor of this piece, with all its I,I,I ? Perhaps Finlay Macdonald will say, Here she goes again, trying to have it both ways.
There will be thousands of pages written about Ferrante and Knausgaard, so how do I know I’m saying anything new? I know because no one else will have inserted the same ‘I’, no one will have linked ‘New Zealand journalist and editor Finlay Macdonald’ (clever, witty, public, male) with ‘my psychotherapist’ (clever, hidden, possibly fictional, female). Perhaps these two figures, so random yet so relevant to my ‘I’, and so nicely representative in the context of Knausgaard and Ferrante, could themselves become the subject of fiction. If they did, it would be nothing personal.
The personal is political. These days, thanks to Knausgaard in particular, the personal is literary too.
The works of Elena Ferrante are available at Unity Books.