Feverish after Ferrante?

ferrante1I was impressed by Elena Ferrante’s fierce honesty and gritty style in ‘The Days of Abandonment’, but I avoided the Neapolitan novels for a long time. The hype, the marketing of it as a family saga, the sheer wordiness of 4 thick volumes seemed to me run counter to everything I admire and aspire to be as a writer: elegant and pared down style, hidden and allusive observations, modest and restrained topic matters.

But then I found the whole set in English at the local library, so I thought I’d give them a whirl.

The flashes of insight and genius which I’d glimpsed in the standalone novel were what sustained me for the first few chapters. 60-70 pages in, I scoffed: ‘Soap opera’.  After the next few chapters, I paused:  ‘Hmm, soap opera with gender politics.’ Halfway through the first volume, I readjusted this to: ‘soap opera with gender and class politics’. I never watch soap operas on TV, but I started to understand why my mother would: this made for compulsive reading. I finished the first volume and almost immediately made a trip to the library for more. And now I’ve finished all four in record time and am tempted to say: ‘political and feminist discourse disguised as a soap opera’.

Many reviewers have spoken of its ferocious howl of anger – but there is also resignation, resilience and ‘getting on with things’ in the most unheroic of ways. I have mentioned before how it reminds me of my female relatives: the trials and tribulations, small joys and greater pains of their own lives, the way they come together to support but also sabotage each other.  Events unfold at high speed, often with melodrama, blood, guts and tears, much shouting and throwing of objects, families and friends breaking off relationships for years, then perhaps reconciling for practical reasons. One of Ferrante’s brilliant abilities as a storyteller is to accelerate and slow down time at will, move from the overarching universal to the very particular detail and then zoom out again, in a way which feels very natural and effortless.

Picturesque Naples, from Raileurope site.
Picturesque Naples, from Raileurope site.

She has also been described as the Dickens of Naples. Yes, she conveys the noises, smells, charm and grubbiness of the city, she is unafraid to show its darker sides rather than the picturesque touristy bits, and she populates her pages with numerous vividly drawn secondary characters, but there is also a running commentary and analysis of events (through Elena/Lenu), as they occur, which is seldom the case with Dickens. Ferrante’s narrator shows a lucid self-awareness and hunger to understand, and the reader embarks upon the journey of self-exploration with her and gains her wisdom at the end of the tale. I am not quite sure that we get this level of self-dissection and clear-eyed, unsentimental analysis of those close to one’s self, even in David Copperfield.

One touching and very revealing moment occurs when the two friends, Lila and Lenu, both pregnant, are caught up in a major earthquake. Lila becomes surprisingly fearful and breaks down, trying to explain herself and her world view to her friend like never before (or after). She speaks of her need to control and manipulate things, and explains it as arising from her terror of dissolving boundaries, of being caught up in a messy flood, of something seeping through the cracks of reality (very reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s famous diary entry), of overthinking and overcomplicating things until you lose all joy in life:

…the fabric that I weave by day is unraveled by night, the heads finds a way. But it’s not much use, the terror remains, it’s always in the crack between one normal thing and the other. It’s there waiting. I’ve always suspected it… nothing lasts… Good feelings are fragile, with me love doesn’t last. Love for a man doesn’t last, not even love for a child, it soon gets a hole in it. You look in the hole and you see the nebula of good intentions mixed up with the nebula of bad.

Elena finally understands that perhaps brilliance comes in flashes rather than a steady lifelong light, and that she had been the stronger one after all in their friendship:

Everything that struck me… woud pass and I – whatever I among those I was accumulating – I would remain firm, I was the needle of the compass that stays fixed while the lead traces circles around it. Lila on the other hand… struggled to feel stable… However much she had always dominated all of us and had imposed and was still imposing a way of being… she perceived herself as a liquid and all her efforts were, in the end, directed only at containing herself. When, in spite of her defensive manipulation of persons and things, the liquid prevailed, Lila lost Lila, chaos seemed the only truth and she – so active, so courageous – erased herself and, terrified, became nothing.

elenaferranteI’ll be honest: Ferrante inspires me with mixed emotions. She writes in a voice which, despite my best efforts to be polished and Anglo-Saxon in attitude, comes through far too loudly and clearly in my own life. As with Javier Marias, I recognise in her a kindred spirit: she writes the way I think when I don’t censor myself, when I allow my Romanian side to come out. A voice which I have suppressed and perhaps slightly disparaged all my life. A voice which is easy to mock as too convoluted, messy and therefore inferior. A voice which has been misunderstood, laughed at, satirized or met with aggression and prejudice. So it will take a while for me to appreciate this voice – and I find it surprising that English speakers are so attracted to it.

At the same time, I feel exhilaration and liberation when I read her work. It is OK to be like this. And she also fills me with envy and the sadness of a missed opportunity. If in future I were to write the saga of my own extended family, farmers and shepherds in the sub-Carpathians, against the backdrop of war, Communism and then wild capitalism, with all the mixed messages about gender and family which have been the bane of my life… it wouldn’t be my story, because it’s all been done now by Ferrante in a different location.

31 thoughts on “Feverish after Ferrante?”

  1. Great piece! You’ve almost convinced me it would be worth me reading them…. 🙂

    1. Resistance is futile… 😉
      To be honest, I prefer the standalones, but the unevenness in writing quality is bound to happen in any work of that length (yes, even beloved Proust).

  2. Fascinating review Marina Sofia. I’ve only just started on the Neapolitan novels (I’ll probably post today or tomorrow) and its interesting to read a response to all four.

    I was very moved by what you wrote about your silenced voice. I hope you will write more in this convoluted messy voice 🙂

    1. I enjoyed your reviews of books with female friendships as a central theme. I want to read ‘Animals’ too, have been meaning to for the last year or so! I’m not a full convert to the Ferrante quartet but I think the impact is greater after you read all four, as themes build on each other and are reiterated like in a musical piece. I prefer the standalones, where the voice is more carefully modulated over a smaller canvas, instead of sprawling in disgraceful attitudes at times – and you know I don’t disgraceful attitude in the sense of topic or sentiment expressed, as there is not much of human emotion which shocks me on the fictional page. Slapdash writing rather…

  3. What a thoughtful and fascinating review, Marina Sofia! I think that any time an author can show you that your own voice is legitimate and interesting and has something to say, the book is well worth the read. That, in itself, is reason enough to think highly of the book. I am happy for you that something in Ferrante’s voice truly resonated with you.

    1. I’m still not sure it’s how I want to write, though… and it was a bit of a surprise to me and something which I have only acknowledged in the past 2 years or so, that maybe I do have quite a strong Latin influence in my style. And this has come as a result of reading authors like Javier Marias, Ferrante, Jorge Amado, Roberto Bolano. I’ve always nervously steered clear of them… but guess what, there’s something that binds us. Now, if only I could write with a quarter of their talent!

    1. You are so lovely, Susan! The story of my extended family will have to wait until I publish No.2 and then No.1 (which does contain some elements thereof, since it takes place in Romania) and perhaps a few more crime novels I need to get out of my system first. But hey, we’ve got time, right?

  4. Wonderful post, Marina.
    I enjoyed her standalone novels but still haven’t tried this series for similar reasons you avoided it for so long. I’d love to read your family saga written with your Romanian voice. I really need to pick up those books.

    1. I think I prefer her standalone novels (well, I’ve only read Days of Abandonment, but plan to read more), but it was an addictive reading experience.

  5. I have to admit that I’ve been very slow to get on the Ferrante bandwagon as well! I’ve bought the first two novels and still haven’t read them. There was so much hype surrounding them. But your post has inspired me to finally give them a try!

    1. It sounds like I’m not the only one to be sceptical about hype and want to bide my time… But I suppose there must be many more who read a book if it is hyped, so the publishers must know what they are doing.

  6. I love this post. What I find most fascinating is the connection you’ve drawn between Ferrante’s novels and the story of your own extended family. I had always thought of these books as being so characteristic of Naples (maybe even unique to the culture of the city), but your comments suggest a degree of universality or tranferability in the story to other cultures. Fascinating stuff. And I echo madame bibi’s comments on your voice – I would love to ‘hear’ more of this, it’s wonderful.

    1. Thank you, Jacqui. I’ve never been to Naples (so I may be wide off the mark), but from all I hear, it is indeed an intriguing place, a mix of beauty and frustration in equal measure. But I find that mix in quite a lot of Italy… or Greece, South America… or former Communist countries! The pressure of the social vs. the intellectual, and that you can never entirely escape your origins… that really does strike a chord with many people, I’m sure.

  7. I read the first two last year and actually started the third last week. I think “resilience” is the key to the popularity of this series. I think many readers feel an affinity with the characters and the hurdles they face in their lives. As an American, the setting and timeframe are a big part of what captivates me – it’s so totally different from my life in this country although there are similarities in the dynamics of relationships. Plus, it’s just a great story. My advice to those who haven’t read these books is to drop your preconceived notions and read. Don’t analyze, just enjoy!

    I think you should write your story, Marina Sofia. Your voice is unique, your story is yours. Don’t get hung up on what others have written.
    I say this with huge love. xo

    1. Excellent advice: don’t analyze, just enjoy! I was just listening to Traviata today and had a sudden epipany: Ferrante is like Verdi. It’s so musical, so much fun, that it feels like ‘easy writing’, a potboiler – which I’m sure is all that Verdi intended with his operas. While Puccini makes you work far harder to enjoy his operas, so feels more ‘worthy’ somehow. And yet, both are equally revered nowadays.

  8. brilliant post. I think the hype of Ferrante has probably put a lot of people off, but I think she is a brilliant writer. I too would enjoy hearing more of your own Romanian voice. I read the quartet last year and have now started on the standalone novels, beginning with The Days of Abandonment for a book group read.

  9. Ferrante’s books are garnering a lot of praise and as usual when books get a lot of hype, it’s hard to know if it’s deserved or not. It’s good to know your opinion.

    1. I think the hype is the result of several factors, which I didn’t address in the review because it would have gone on for far too long:
      – topics which have not been that much addressed previously in literature (female friendships evolving over time)
      – the soap opera intricacies and shock factor of the story – we all love stories told in instalments, don’t we, and it does share that with Dickens or Thackeray
      – a book which is easy to read yet is deemed to be good literature – yay, finally something which is good for you without being painful (like strawberry favoured Calpol)
      – evocation of time and place so different to that of many English language readers. I am curious if this book would prove equally popular in Marseille or the Peloponnese – would women be able to relate far more to that story, or would they be slightly bemused, like me, as to why it’s such a ‘special’ story, the contempt of familiarity?

    1. You are too kind! In the meantime, while I write this, I do wish Marin Preda was translated into English – he paints a rich fresco of a time period quite a bit before mine, but even more dangerous and fascinating.

  10. Thanks for writing about this, MarinaSofia. I too have avoided Ferrante for a long time, although now I am quite interested in reading the series. Problem is, the Spanish translation – which I would like to think is closer to the Italian original – costs 25 €.

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