The energy of anger can light a city.
See Naples and die!
+WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN
Reading The Neapolitan Quartet is like living through a separate lifetime. No matter how hard I tried to slow the process to savour the details, impressions, and episodes, the quicker the pages turned. The more carefully I tried to read, the more likely I was to stain the books with pasta sauce or balsamic vinegar—I lived this lifetime standing up, sitting down, cooking meals, fighting sleep, at my desk, at the movie theatre, brushing my teeth, walking. If I changed rooms, the books changed rooms with me.
I suppose one feels emotional, reaching the end of a life. But also I feel an unfortunate bitterness—not for coming to the end of the books, but for potentially coming to the end of an even greater alchemy: Elena Ferrante. Her entity perhaps extinguished prematurely by some aggressive practitioner of bits and bobs and bylines—an Italian journalist. I won’t sift through his trash (or his real estate or financial records) here.
Ferrante has said repeatedly in interviews that if her identity were forced public, the spell would be broken. She’d continue writing but stop publishing. I’d completely understand this choice, but if it’s true, it’s a devastating loss for readers.
This is why we can’t have nice things. Men march in and step all over everything, providing answers to the wrong questions.
+AUGUST IN THE MIDWEST
I’ve never been capable of finishing a book in one sitting. Not a novel, novella, or play. Even a poetry collection I feel the need to spread out over days. To my digressive brain it feels like binging. Movies, on the other hand, are my idea of a social activity because they’re typically a single-sitting medium and it’s better to binge with others. After digesting the visual translation of a 100 pages of screenwriting (touched, massaged, and directed by an endless production of hands), having someone nearby to chat about it with seems like a necessary decompression.
I finished Elena Ferrante’s second novel in The Neapolitan Quartet, The Story of a New Name, after moving to Iowa City. The cicadas were loud in the trees. I had little to do in those first weeks besides read—the solace of living alone with an air conditioner. I’d never had the gift of being the sole occupant of an apartment with more than one room before, or had a landlord so competent at striking a healthy balance between disappearing and appearing (neither showing up unexpectedly at all hours, nor prophetically disconnecting their phone line the moment you need help). After disclosing that I was a poet, instead of being evicted I was informed proudly that Reza Aslan had lived in the apartment across from me (“he was on CNN!”), given a list of breakfast spot recommendations, and assured that the building was tornado-proof. Not a figure of speech, as I’d first suspected.
I’d never been to the States before save for a three-day tour of New York City aboard a bus full of middle-aged Québécois tourists, and excursions to Burlington as a kid. I tasted my first Butterfinger candy bar during one of these shopping trips.
After coming to the last page of The Story of a New Name I sat dazed on the couch for a while, quiet but antsy. It was the closest I’d ever come to finishing a novel in one go. The sun was setting on what had probably been a perfectly good summer day. I wished desperately I had someone to talk to. I finally sort of ‘got’ book clubs.
I contemplated the book closed on my lap—terrible cover. It sort of struck me for the first time. All four of the novels share this feature: Artless, drippy pastel-palette covers with an omnipresent ocean backdrop (depicting a wedding, a couple embracing, a mother holding a child, and two little girls dressed as fairies, respectively) framing a transgressive work of brilliance. They look like something you might pick up on a whim at an airport bookstand in Rome after quickly buying a tiny overpriced bottle of limoncello as a souvenir for someone who bought you a keychain on their last vacation. The ‘you’ here is feminized, not (only) because I identify as a woman and because women are more conditioned to feel a sense of obligation when it comes to social gift-giving (“never show up to your in-laws house without a gift,” my mother instructed me as a young girl, the dowry system alive and well) but because there is an entire industry built upon pandering books to women using these same vulgar cues.
So yes, I’m loath to say it, but here we are: how unlikely it is to be sitting here stupefied by a book that has this cheesy chick lit (the hiss of it!) cover, was the first thing I thought while squinting at the book and trying to comprehend it as a physical object. Surely I’m not the only one to think it, even the quickest scans of the internet confirms this. But like reading, thinking in groups is not a comfort.
I believe my second thought was more useful.
“Imagine if Jane Austen got angry,” went the cover blurb that had just then come into focus, “and you’ll have some idea of how explosive these works are.”
It was: What kind of bullshit is this?
Who the fuck are you to say, John Freeman, that Jane Austen never got angry? That it would take the imaginative leap of someone like you, with work appearing “in almost 200 English-language publications around the world,” according to your Wikipedia page (I can only hope to continue stumbling blindly through life never having encountered any of your 200+ publications), to incite us all to have “some idea” of the outcome of such a possibility. Not even “Imagine if Jane Austen wrote an angry novel,” or, I don’t know, “Imagine a more Juvenalian Jane Austen,” which still puts the emphasis on her work, her literary style, not her person.
So essentially, John, you’d like us to imagine the “explosive” novels of Elena Ferrante are like Jane Austen on PMS.
“It’s a shortcut to set aside what is formidable about women, to imagine us merely as organisms with good feelings, skilled masters of gentility,” Ferrante writes in Frantumaglia, a generous collection of letters, interviews, and marginalia that was first published in Italian in 2003 and was just recently expanded and translated into English.
“Dido is nourished on sweat and saliva,” she continues, “she’s not a crust of caramel on the top of a crème brûlée.”
Do I sound pissed?
Very well then I am pissed,
(I am angry, I contain choler.)
So often the appreciation of women’s work is an angry appreciation, it must be.
I don’t care if that makes sense to you or not.
The Neapolitan Quartet, conceived as one long story broken into parts for the sake of practicality, is signed over to the name Elena Ferrante, the most complex and accomplished fictional character I’ve ever encountered. And like any character I love, I want to protect her—I don’t want her or the books signed to her to disappear. I respect, even admire, her maker but have never felt distracted by her right to be absent.
I’ve become less ashamed of how much I like the stories in women’s magazines I find around the house: trash about love and betrayal, which has produced in me indelible emotions, a desire for… slightly vulgar passions. It seems to me this cellar of writing, a fund of pleasure that for years I repressed in the name of Literature, should also be put to work.
—Ferrante in a letter to screenwriter Goffredo Fofi
The problem with Ferrante is that it’s hard to know when to stop when quoting her—her agile mind moves with great propulsion, as does her prose. In several early, unpublished interviews collected in Frantumaglia, Ferrante takes a couple of unimaginative questions from journalists (mediated through her publishers to preserve her anonymity) and produces compelling responses that run wild for 20 pages. It’s as if she’s able to intuit a whole different set of questions rushing forward like a stream underneath the plain ones she’s been offered and instead harnesses the power of those. This ability to access and harness the explosive undercurrents of the seemingly mundane is perhaps what makes her such a masterful novelist as well.
Her mini treatises are rife with philosophical insight into her characters and herself, with Ferrante including entire scenes that didn’t make it into her novels, now offered up to illuminate a subtle theme or buried aspect of the plot. These moments are, in my mind, what truly make Frantumaglia special—a companion text meant to run parallel to and to support the primary material of her fiction, and not, as some (almost exclusively male) critics have asserted, an autobiography full of false claims from an attention-seeking writer saying one thing but begging for another.
The language of these articles is alarmingly familiar. An author is laid bare without her consent and the headlines will have you believe she asked for it.
Anonymity, it should be said, is not the right word. Ferrante is constantly correcting interviewers who question her desire to be anonymous. To one she says, with the tone of a busy mind repeating the same thing again and again to a child: “If I may, I didn’t choose anonymity; the books are signed.” To another: “My books aren’t written anonymously; they have a name on the cover, and have never needed anonymity… if there is a winner, they are the winners… They have won the right to be appreciated by readers just as books.”
The constant probing on the topic of her identity is Ferrante’s tedious Sisyphean punishment, a burden deemed appropriate by her critics who simply cannot swallow the non-compliance of her polite, Bartleby-like refusals.
I can’t imagine anyone who loves or values literature (whatever that word might mean) would risk the possibility of never getting to read a new Ferrante novel by continuing to fixate on the dull question of why she refuses to reveal her ‘true’ identity.
Ferrante “would prefer not to.”
Absence is not distraction. My attention toward Ferrante’s work has only ever been unwillingly diverted by the obvious hard-ons of those excited at the thought of exposing her. These truth-seekers and gatekeepers of unbiased fact and fiction don’t even have the decency to tuck in or discreetly arrange their glee.
Though one reading available to Frantumaglia, I suppose, is that of titillating true accounts and scraps of autobiography waiting to be combed through and fact checked (a truly mindless endeavor that is discouraged outright throughout the work). I, however, tend to think the only true exposé is that of a generous, fragmentary, and ongoing lifework—the building and private mythologizing of the pseudonymous character/author.
D.A. Miller talks about the experience of being read reading Jane Austen, the transgressive act of a man reading her in public. “Like a handbag or fragrance, the works of Jane Austen [are] deemed a ‘female thing’,” so I guess he might as well leave the house wearing a bonnet.
Strangers (women) have engaged me in conversation because I was reading Ferrante in public, and they’ve been wonderful, thoughtful exchanges. It brings me back to the anomaly of the book as a physical object: No one, man or woman, would normally go out of their way to talk to someone reading a book with that sort of cover. People go so far as purchasing eReaders to conceal their slightly vulgar passions. Ferrante’s covers represent that dank cellar of writing, lowest of the low, drippiest of drippy. What reason, what excuse do the covers have for existing? To be put to work?
Bookstores displaying the novels wrapped in plain brown butcher’s paper to spare our eyes. Steve Heller, design critic and former art director of The New York Times Book Review, comparing them to Hallmark cards, bad romance novels, and Viagra commercials (I don’t quite get this last point, but perhaps I know little of the visual marketing material for erectile dysfunction). Even a readably masculine web publication like Quartz (“for business people in the new global economy”) weighs in: “an unfortunate result of their cover designs is they risk alienating potential male readers (as well as any women who don’t wish to be seen reading pulp).”
A professor teaching a graduate seminar on creative nonfiction, providing feedback on a draft of this essay, cautioned that I might want to deploy a tone other than anger throughout the piece. I run the risk, he said, of alienating readers like him, “willfully dumb guys, that is, who don’t (won’t) quite get it because we’ve never had to experience feminine/feminist rage ourselves.” One alternative, he suggested, would be to affect an air of amusement or ridicule toward the subject matter that enraged me.
I took his point at the time. I see the benefit of modulation—rage as tonally sarcastic, contemptuous, or ironic. I also recognize that it takes a certain amount of distance to accomplish these shifts in tone, distance from the writing (throwing the essay in a drawer and not reading it for a couple of months) and distance of the subject matter (which I might never achieve, being in a constant state of feminine/feminist rage given what’s happening around us at any given moment). Even if it’s flawed, it’s still worthwhile to endeavor an attempt.
What I reject is the reasoning. The self-deprecation of a brilliant theorist and author with a doctorate degree self-identifying as a “dumb guy” does nothing to excuse the deeply detrimental logic of the “angry women repel men” theory, or the “feminized modes of expression alienate the audience” theory, or whatever other formulation you wish to create.
The first thing we learned in that graduate seminar was to write with a specific audience in mind. My audience just happened to not be male. The male members of the audience are still invited to listen, learn, appreciate, and participate, as I have done my whole fucking life in this patriarchal amphitheater we call the world.
In other words, I refuse to wrap this essay in brown butcher’s paper.
Ferrante is a creator who works deliberately. The truly formidable thing is that the covers are not accidental, not an overlooked design decision or budget issue. In an interview with Slate, Ferrante’s publisher Sandra Ozzola says that the team, in collaboration with the author, purposefully used low class, kitsch images, playing on Neapolitan garishness by “dressing an extremely refined story with a touch of vulgarity.” According to Ozzola, the European market was very much in on the joke. North American audiences, not so much. Perhaps it’s the difference in cultural cues mixed up with our overblown anxieties over what we consume in public and what it says about us, from brands to books.
“In a literary marketplace where the very image of a woman is seen as antithetical to literature,” writes Emily Harnett in her essay on Ferrante’s book covers for The Atlantic, “Ferrante’s covers take an important stand. If her covers are a “game,” then readers at least know the price of admission: the willingness—or the humility—to be seen reading books about women in public.”
+VA’ FA NAPOLI
Means “go to hell,” or basically, fuck off.
It translates literally to: “go to Naples.”
I went for the first time in the summer of 2015. I’d been itching to go since I was a teenager, to see the room in my grandparents’ old house where my dad was born (now owned by my cousin and his family) and to visit my favourite aunt. My grandmother had delivered my 13-pound father, the last of four children, in a bedroom with the help the next-door neighbour. My grandfather did not arrive home in time; it was April 1st and he would not risk being the butt of a joke. Italian women have sturdy bodies and Italian men, shaky egos.
My father, who can’t go more than an hour without smoking and is afraid of flying, hasn’t been back to Naples since he was ten. Travelling with him was out of the question. Instead, I’d always planned on going with my grandmother, a great oral storyteller who could only sign her name with an X but had already mapped out her small Neapolitan town for me, with it’s noisy and perilously narrow streets and lemon trees. In my mind, Naples was full of Xs, small treasures hidden everywhere.
I ended up going with my cousin Michela—our little grand tour. Our grandfather, who’d bought us the plane tickets, was couch-ridden. Our grandmother was in the final stages of dementia. It was too late for them to return, so we went instead.
To read, in fact, is a labor of language. To read is to find meanings, and to find meanings is to name them; but these named meanings are swept toward other names; names call to each other, reassemble, and their grouping calls for further naming: I name, I unname, I rename: so the text passes: it is a nomination in the course of becoming a tireless approximation, a metonymic labor.
—Roland Barthes, S/Z
Ferrante’s quartet has a sweep reminiscent of 19th century Russian realism. This contributes to the sensation of having lived through a whole separate lifetime after having read her. And like a big Russian novel, you’ll find characters referred to confusingly by several similar first names and nicknames, complete with an index of family houses at the beginning of each novel to help keep things in check. There’s even a short summary of events from book to book accompanying the index.
Additionally, each family is differentiated not only by last name but often by trade. The Cerullo family is also “the shoemaker’s family,” and so on. It’s a reminder that permeates the novels for me: here are the complex and unruly desires of women navigating a system that defines them primarily by the machinations of fathers and brothers.
The name Elena Ferrante is itself a pseudonym. The author’s nom de plume lends its prénom to narrator Elena Greco, also called Lenuccia or Lenù throughout the Neapolitan novels. Raffaella Cerullo goes by both Lina and Lila. There are two generations of Fernando Cerullo (the younger nicknamed Rino), a Ferdinando Cerullo (nicknamed Dino), and a Gennaro Cerullo (also nicknamed Rino).
My grandfather and two of my cousins are named Barbato. An uncle and two other cousins are named Domenico. My grandmother’s name is Domenica. Considering the dynamics of Italian naming traditions, nicknames are not only useful but necessary.
A near stranger, asking about my name and background, once told me that all women from Naples have lovely singing voices. My grandmother had never sung in public a day in her life until she lost all language to dementia except old Neapolitan folksongs. She opened her mouth and I remember thinking that she sounded like a beautiful bell, slightly rusted at the edges. It was truly a wonderful sound and I thought of it that way fondly until my trip to Naples.
My cousin and I had asked our aunt one stiflingly hot afternoon why the church bells rang so frequently and irregularly throughout the day.
She replied with nonchalance (astonishing to us) that they rang the bells every time someone in town died.
“It is so hot, many old people are dying,” she said in her straightforward, slightly belaboured English.
Tanning on the roof, the bells rang. Playing with our baby relatives in the courtyard, the bells rang. One night, again on the roof, we drank a whole bottle of champagne and watched the cheap noisy fireworks someone was setting off on a roof nearby. The silence they left behind had the quality of ringing bells.
Are Neapolitans inherently rough, angry? They live in the shadow of an active volcano due for a violent eruption. There’s a large shopping mall in Nola called Il Vulcano Buono, the good volcano. Money is important. There are no jobs. Inheritance is important. Names are family heirlooms passed on. My father’s feet are deformed from having worn hand-me-down shoes two or three sizes too small.
Ferrante describes Neapolitan women this way: They are cheerful and foul-mouthed, desperately in love with males and male children, ready to defend and serve their every whim. Again and again she characterizes Naples as a male city.
The foot of the male city steps on women’s throats. To learn to navigate the male city is to go silent or be crushed by its weight. Only in forgetting can women sing.
+SALACIOUS MEMOIRS OF AN AMBITIOUS GIRL
Every day that passes I write slower. Days in Iowa stretch out like a triathlon. Jack LaLanne, fitness guru of the 1950s, once said he didn’t like working out, but he liked having worked out. Sandra Cisneros feels the same way about writing and I do, too. Jack LaLanne lived to be 96-years-old. Maybe slow and enduring is my thing, I tell myself on days where I refuse to leave the house after not having written. I refuse sex, proper meals, a social life, until I do what I’m supposed to do. I’ll take better care of you when you hold up your end of the bargain, I chastise my anxious, lonely self.
There are other ways I try to trick myself into the “liked having worked out” stage. I am notoriously late for everything, often because I start writing something right before I have to leave the house.
A friend texts me from a breakfast booth asking where I am. I’m standing at my desk hunched over in my winter coat, purse banging against my knees, trying to inch away from the lines that keep coming. The words are more unforgiving than my friends are so I make these tiny, flighty sacrifices.
When you know you don’t have the time or stamina for a triathlon and tell yourself you’ll simply spend ten minutes lightly jogging in place, you might end up spent and euphorically drenched in sweat. A tight schedule can take the pressure off. And the pissed off parents and professors, disgruntled bosses, annoyed partners and friends, all crouched out there waiting for you at dinner and conference room tables, are no match for the menace of that stupid blank page.
I didn’t always need tricks. As a teenager I wrote an entire novel about two incestuous siblings that was inspired by a Green Day music video I saw on MuchMusic. (It was for the song “Jesus of Suburbia,” and I based my characters off of the characters in the video, who they themselves were based on Sid and Nancy. I had no clue who those figures were at the time. I miss not recognizing allusions, nods, homages. I remember the sensation of experiencing music, writing, whatever—without context, without Wikipedia, everything a new encounter, a new container. I don’t want to read The Anxiety of Influence, but I will say that “Jesus of Suburbia” still holds up as a great Green Day song.) I had anyone who was willing read it without hesitation. My grandma read it. Nothing felt fraudulent or embarrassing.
There was no one to model myself as an imposter of. I officially wrote my first short story at six or seven, typed ceremoniously on the household’s new computer (something we couldn’t afford without a payment plan and was the source of a synecdoche of arguments over ownership during my parents’ divorce). It was a story of love and self-sacrifice, as a unicorn emerges from the depths of the forest to purify a poisoned well with its magic horn (a little phallic, I now realize).
I’d never read a story about a unicorn before, so naturally I knew I was the first to have such an idea. It was experimentally titled, “The Unicorn.”
The more information I acquire, the more trash I have to sort through before I can make anything that doesn’t smell like garbage.
Here I present you with one of Ferrante’s Goodreads reviews:
My Brilliant Friend seems almost a blueprint for a sure-fire cinematic hit: two strong female characters at its center (a “sis-pic”?), an eventful yet safe coming-of-age story driving it, a forthright, “here it is,” presentation of incidents, accidents, now-this, then-that, one-damn-thing-after-another straight-line plot, and a comforting sense that, whatever happens, nothing too challenging or destructive is going to upset these little trifling lives.
Sis-pic! Our citizen-critic continues:
But if you do not find these girls as interesting and wonderful as they find themselves, you might feel yourself growing weary with Ferrante’s simple and straightforward narration of what are, really, some of the more-or-less ordinary episodes and incidents of two mildly unusual yet essentially insignificant adolescent lives.
I used to write poems about the cigarette burns in a ratty old t-shirt I had. I wrote an entire short story where that ugly Radiohead t-shirt was the focal point. Everything was my material. I owned it all.
Where did the year 2009 go? I don’t remember who or where I was that year. I’ve stopped writing in my journal. I’ve stopped writing about myself and my insignificant life. But sometimes I guess I have lapses.
The cicadas are loud. I thought there was a cricket in my room last night. Something jumped on my leg and disappeared. Maybe it was a stinkbug. I sit at my desk and watch out the window. This is my occupation now and the university pays me for it. I see an average guy in a t-shirt, gym shorts, and bubblegum pink running shoes. Either pickup trucks or convertibles. Young adults with backpacks walking down the street toward the university. Everyone wearing a shirt saying HAWKEYES.
At the time of watching, Trump hasn’t been elected. At the time of revising, he has.
[Allow me an aside: Goodreads reviews of Sharon Olds’ Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poetry Stags Leap (2012):
Olds has a right to grieve, but I don’t have to sit with her while she sobs
Didn’t your parents teach you how to put on a brave face
Embodies the worst excesses of confessional poetry—how easily it can turn into an exercise in banal narcissism
That Ms. Olds needed the cathartic release of these poems after her husband left her is understandable but to inflict them on the rest of us is frankly inexcusable
For her entire career spanning over 30 years, there’s been much ado about Olds’ “shock factor,” which has cycled the whole gamut, now arriving at one true shocking fact about her work—that an aged woman has allowed her body to grow old and undesirable, unable to keep even her husband from leaving her, allowed the world to read her unlovable, unacceptable feminine (the hiss of it!) subjectivity, and all without shame. It’s reality TV that’s not even sexy. The audience will not stand for it, and Olds will not sit down.]
Do you feel less alienated by male rage?
Mark Twain seems a little angry in letter to Joseph Twichell in1898:
I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Everytime I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.
At least Twain knew enough to stop himself. Then again, Twitter and Goodreads didn’t exist back then.
We are coming to the end. Can endings ever be happy? Ferrante comments:
In such a long story, there are moments when the relations between woman and man are happy; you’d just have to break off the story there and you’d have a happy ending. But the happy ending has to do with the tricks of the narrative, not with life, or even with love, which is an uncontrollable, changeable feeling, with nasty surprises that are alien to the happy ending.
Ferrante’s first novel, cunningly, ends in a marriage—an Austean convention of comedy. But if you chose to continue the series you soon see the trick.
One last Goodreads comment on Ferrante that particularly caught my eye:
“If you’re going to talk about how crappy your childhood was, at least balance it a bit with happier memories… West Side Story meets Jersey Shore.”
It seems it’s always one or the other, either a musical (Austen) or a reality show (Ferrante). Vulgar genres for an especially vulgar gender; that of the so-called Woman Writer. Ferrante reclaims and repurposes both.
How crappy your childhood was. ‘Your childhood,’ is of course to imply: your thinly veiled memoiristic drivel. Ferrante should be shelved next to Anna Karenina and Fathers and Sons, but instead she is held up next to an American musical and a reality TV show depicting and hyperbolizing stereotypes specific to a strain of Italian-American culture, worlds away from Ferrante’s nuanced socio-political world, her Italy, her vulgar Naples.
We’ve gotten the madwoman in the attic. Now I very much like the idea of the Mad Woman in the cellar. That cool, wet, dark, echo-y space, that fund of repressed pleasure for both men and women.
Writing from the cellar co-opts both the crème and the brûlée.
(I am creamy, I contain fire.)
My own life’s quartet has far to go, but I’ve come to the end of Elena and Lila’s story. It feels almost unfair that their lives have elapsed before my eyes over the span of 1,700 pages of writing and I’ve moved only from a Midwestern summer to a Midwestern winter.
Unfair, too, that we’ve perhaps come to the end of Elena Ferrante herself. We readers must face the reality that books that could have existed in the world will now perhaps not.
Let’s not forgive the trespasses of men who barge in asking the wrong questions. I propose: let’s get as Mad as a Neapolitan.
In the attic you must tread lightly. On the stone cellar floor you can stomp and jump and dance and yell as wildly you please.
Such is The Neapolitan Quartet’s rare privilege.
When Ferrante is asked about whether she feels as if she owes it to her fans to reveal her identity, she replies:
I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it.