I’m going to confess: I’ve never read Elena Ferrante. Maybe this is a side effect of Ferrante fever, but I feel like I know a lot about her and the intrigue surrounding her work and anonymity—and somehow I’ve learned all that without really learning anything about the books themselves.
Can you introduce Elena Ferrante and lead into My Brilliant Friend?
Merve Emre (ME): I’m grateful for this question, because I think it confirms something that we suspected when the four of us [Chihaya, Emre, Katherine Hill, and Jill Richards] started this co-reading and writing project in 2015, which was that the popularity of Ferrante’s books was a function of things other than the books themselves. People talked about them as if they were somehow the literary equivalents of soap operas, or a faithful transcription of the author’s life. This led us to believe that people had not done a good enough job paying attention to what we suspected was most interesting about Ferrante, which was her approach to the novel form.
We wanted to find a way—a sustained and rigorous but also conversational and entertaining way—of getting at those thornier questions about form that we felt like the popular writing around Ferrante simply hadn’t addressed. And we wanted to write together about a novel or series of novels that none of us had read.
Sarah Chihaya (SC): I think you’re revising history a little bit.
ME: Am I?
SC: You lied and said you hadn’t read them!
ME: I did, it’s true.
SC: But you had, and Katherine had also. I think that you two suspected that Ferrante would be a good subject for it, but Jill and I did not know. We came into it, Stephanie, the way you just described: knowing about Ferrante and knowing that she was a ‘thing’, but not knowing what that thing was, which I think is a very common experience.
ME: I will say that I’d forgotten that I had lied—which happens when you lie, which is why I try not to lie. You get caught!
The person who tried to get me to read it for the first time was my mother. I was at my parents’ house and my mother handed me My Brilliant Friend and said, “It’s about friendship. It’s not the kind of thing you would like.” And I remember starting to read it there to prove her wrong. I wonder how much that lie was born from a desire to read it with someone, rather than against someone. I’m not justifying it, just explaining it.
SC: No, it’s sweet. You lied because you wanted to be part of the thing that we were doing together.
ME: It was a white lie, as far as lies go.
Can you describe My Brilliant Friend, the first novel in Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet?
SC: All of Ferrante’s novels are narrated by women who are somehow related to literature (they’re writers, editors or journalists); they mostly have children of a certain age, and they’re usually from Naples. There’s an impulse to attribute those qualities to Elena Ferrante herself, because that’s an assumption we’re used to making with female authors.
The four-volume novel that is My Brilliant Friend plays into that very seductively. The narrator, also named Elena and nicknamed Lenù, falls into these parameters: she’s from Naples and she’s a writer. In the first volume, we follow Lenù and her friend Lila through their childhood. They’re raised in a very poor neighborhood, and they’re both girls with ambitions. And that’s sort of it. That’s the plot. But the body of the book describes the neighborhood, and the people there, and the political moment in mid-century Italy that they’re in.
ME: The plot of the book is about education, and how education puts these two women onto divergent paths. One of the most moving scenes is when they buy a copy of Little Women. They read it together in this courtyard and it becomes their book. It’s clear that this is a friendship that is everywhere touched and mediated by the literary—both by how it can bring people together in a shared vision of the world and how it can drive people apart. Lenù gets to go to school, and she gets to cultivate her literary interests in a very institutionalized and culturally valued way, and Lila has to work in her father’s shoe shop.
But the book begins years later, with Lila’s disappearance as an adult, right?
ME: Yes, Lila takes everything with her—there’s no trace of her left. No clothes, no books. She cuts herself out of all the photographs. And Lenù starts writing the novel that we are reading as an act of vengeance. It becomes a way of trapping her friend. She says, “We’ll see who wins this time.”
And we’re supposed to think that they’re close friends?
SC: We’re supposed to think that they are. I think one of the things that’s so interesting about this book is that we’re supposed to interrogate what friendship is. Because friendship is not nice—a lot of the time. [Laughs.] That’s what I love about My Brilliant Friend. The four of us all have different favorite books, but the first one might be my favorite because it starts with how little children are so cruel to each other, even if they love each other. They’re cruelest towards the things that they love the most. And friendship in Ferrante is both the greatest thing and the worst thing: the person who loves you can hurt you more than anyone else because they’re supposed to not hurt you. And I think that in her vision of friendship—and this is why it’s significant that the first book and the quartet are called ‘My Brilliant Friend’—both of them are the brilliant friend to each other.
“Friendship is not nice—a lot of the time”
ME: We see this return at the end of the fourth book, when Lenù writes a novella called A Friendship that’s about her and Lila’s childhood. Importantly, it’s a novella, rather than a quartet of novels.
SC: It tries to sum up a pat version of what friendship is, a lifelong friendship. And Lila cannot abide that.
ME: Friendship is a shadow text, the failed attempt against which we are supposed to judge the novels. The novella is too pat, too formally symmetrical, too perfect. And the quartet is this kind of sprawling—
ME: —Messy, generically promiscuous—
ME: —Vacillating, unformed thing.
SC: But friendship is like that.
ME: Yes, it is. I’d add to your point about cruelty, Sarah, that children are often fascinated by each other for reasons they cannot explicate to themselves, and so that fascination leads them to create interior lives for one another that are fantastical, even mythological—lives that borrow from literature because for some children, that’s their primary example of other peoples’ minds. One of the things Lenù is doing to Lila is mythologizing her and their friendship—partially so she can mythologize herself. That recedes in the later books when they are older and have seen each other at moments of vulnerability.
SC: It’s a longer process of seeing each other. And meanwhile, we get the feeling that Lila has maybe seen Lenù earlier, while it takes all four books for Lenù to see Lila. But I like that point about children. There’s an opacity to people when you’re a child. You can’t totally get inside another person.
ME: And you also don’t know yet that you can’t get inside another person.
SC: It’s like in Ian McEwan’s Atonement when Briony, the child protagonist, has a sort of Virginia Woolf conversation with herself about whether other people exist or not. Do other people have minds, or they just automatons? I remember being very preoccupied by something like this when I was a child. What is it like to be another person? What are they like on the inside? Do they think the way I think? The first volume of My Brilliant Friend is very much like that: what is it like to be Lila? What is it like to think like Lila?
ME: And Lenù can never quite rid herself of that impulse. Which is why that first book starts with her saying “We’ll see who wins this time.” She thinks: I’ll trap her, I’ll fix her thought or her being within these pages so that even though she may try to erase herself, my writing will contain more than just the traces she left behind. It will be a full reckoning with the world that Lila has created for her, for the two of them.
SC: Which she never accomplishes.
What about the second, third and fourth books?
ME: The first starts with their childhood, when they’re six or seven, and it ends with Lila’s marriage when she’s 17. The second book picks up immediately after that, on the night of Lila’s wedding.
SC: It actually begins by recapping the first book, like we’re watching a new episode of a television show. It does this in a refracted way, where we hear it re-narrated through what Lila said about her wedding night to Lenù later. At the end of the first book we see the wedding firsthand through Lenù’s eyes, and then at the beginning of the second book we get it from Lila’s side.
ME: The second book tells the story of Lila’s marriage to a man who abuses her, whom she has essentially married for money in the first book.
SC: Book two is the end of romance for Lila.
ME: She has a terrible marriage; she has an affair with Nino, who Lenù has been in love with since they were children. Lila thinks that they’re going to have an idyllic intellectual life, living together, writing together, her helping him make his career. But Nino leaves after several weeks.
At the same time, Lenù goes to college; she does incredibly well. She meets a man from a very well-connected, well-established family of bourgeois intellectuals and marries him.
SC: Lila has stayed in the neighborhood and not, by external measures, succeeded. Lenù has left the neighborhood and left Naples completely, and by external measures has been clawing her way up.
ME: She writes her first book and starts making a name for herself as a writer who writes about women from a woman’s perspective and is not afraid to write about sex or desire.
Do you think Ferrante’s novels as a whole mirror that?
ME: I think that we are supposed to see both the narrator, Lenù as narrator, and the characters, Lila and Lenù, acting in ways we might judge as petty, or uncontrolled, or base. And yet they’re often things we have all done; things that we wanted not to want to do. There’s a frankness about what women desire in Ferrante; how they desire things selfishly, for themselves; and why they feel compelled to act against their desires or fear acknowledging them.
“There’s a frankness about what women desire in Ferrante; how they desire things selfishly, for themselves”
SC: I think that there’s a frankness about Ferrante, but for me I’m not sure it’s about doing things or not doing things or judgment or not-judgment. I think there’s something very interesting in how she describes the banal happenings of life, or of growing up, or of being someone who wants things, who is ambitious, where there’s a very different story that could be told. An easier version that’s a positive spin: women who support each other and, through their love for each other, through their beautiful friendship, transcend the intellectual boundaries that are imposed upon them.
That story is much more familiar to us from other kinds of novels. But what’s interesting about Ferrante is she’s unafraid to show us the ugly feelings that are not even the consequences of, but that naturally accrue with the appearance of, things like ambition or competition.
ME: Or what you see in book three: the ugly feelings that accrue with children and marriage.
SC: Right. Again, the banalities of domestic life, and the kinds of things that she’s talking about—despite the fact that people refer to these books as soap operas—are not that dramatic, but they’re important.
ME: I think they’re dramatic! Or at least the two narrative strands of book three are to me. On the one hand, you have Lenù, who’s now comfortably established as a bourgeois intellectual; she’s married and has two children. Book three is about her having gained everything, but feeling like she’s lost her sense of self as a desirable and desirous person, her sense of privacy, in the process.
At the same time, Lila goes back to the neighborhood and becomes increasingly involved in its local politics, which are also starting to intersect with the national politics of Italy in the 1970s. As Sarah said, you see on both the domestic and more explicitly political front how really basic, day-to-day events—shopping for groceries, changing diapers—become occasions, or somehow manage to scale into far-reaching social concerns. Individual decisions seem to have massive externalities, if only imaginatively. All of a sudden, you’re back in the neighborhood where the girls grew up, but the neighborhood seems to encapsulate the world—the same way in Lenù’s house, domestic squabble seems to encapsulate everything that happens between men and women. Between bourgeois, heterosexual men and women who are academics with children—let me just say this in the most autobiographical way possible! [Laughs.]
SC: One of the things that I love about these four books in particular is that they do accomplish what Merve is talking about—that torqueing of scale—but they don’t have to. There’s nothing didactic or pedantic about these books. And this is why it’s possible for so many people to read them; this is why my mom loves these books. She doesn’t give a shit about Italian politics or feminism in the ’70s. Even though she is exactly of that generation, she’s not in it for the labor politics.
ME: And neither are the characters, though at times they feel as if they should want to be. But they can’t quite be.
SC: Right. There are characters who want to be and characters who don’t want to be. We get this whole wide range, as we do in all of our lives, of characters who want to be important politically and characters who just want to work at the counter of the pastry shop and mind their own business. But Ferrante manages to gesture towards that expansive scale without ever coming out and saying it.
ME: My controversial opinion is that there should not have been a fourth book. I think it’s a fantastic trilogy. And then as a quartet, I think the fourth one—I do not think it sticks the landing.
SC: Interesting. I think that the fourth book has many flaws, but it’s necessary. I do think the third book is the height of involvement for me. Reading it the second time—I got older, and that helped—it more directly addressed some of the things happening in my professional life since we started. But I think that the fourth book is much more interesting than I originally gave it credit for. If we didn’t have the fourth book, we wouldn’t have this amazing scene with the earthquake.
ME: That is the best scene. The fourth book gets out of her control.
SC: Well, I think that’s on purpose.
ME: I know you do! That doesn’t mean it’s good, though.
SC: I don’t think that the fourth book is necessarily good. I think there are large spots of writing in all of the books that are not very good, or could be edited down. But I think the fourth book is necessary. It does bring in the tropes of Ferrante that we are going to talk about with the other four choices here.
ME: The ending comes so abruptly. In the first book, the way that Lila and Lenù connect is by playing with their dolls. And Lenù convinces Lila to drop her doll, who is a much prettier doll than Lenù’s doll, into a grate. They to try to find the dolls, and they can’t. The fourth book ends after Lila’s disappearance, with an epilogue called ‘Restitution’. One day, Lenù finds a big parcel outside her door. It contains the dolls from 60 years ago. I’m getting goosebumps telling this for some reason!—
“If you read her other work after you read the quartet, you start seeing these lost dolls and lost children everywhere”
SC: And this happens at the end point the first book begins with; Lila has disappeared and the framing device of the quartet comes full circle.
ME: This clues us in to the fact that these dolls are doing this kind of framing work. And then if you read her other work after you read the quartet, you start seeing these lost dolls and lost children everywhere. The other thing that happens in book four is that Lila is pregnant with a girl, an incredibly gifted, dark-eyed, darting-gazed child, who disappears. And nobody can find her. Lila becomes a madwoman wandering the streets, looking for her daughter, and she can never, ever find her. And that makes everything that’s happened in books one, two and three all of a sudden look like child’s play. The absolute tragedy of not just losing a child, but having no idea what has happened to that child, illuminates Lila’s decision to disappear at the beginning of the first book.
That mystery, introduced at the very beginning of My Brilliant Friend, now makes total sense—but only at the very end.
ME: You start seeing this in all of Ferrante’s other works. The second book we’ve chosen, The Beach At Night, is a children’s book—or it’s supposed to be a children’s book.
SC: It’s really horrifying.
ME: Horrifying book. When I interviewed her about it for a piece I was writing, she told me she wrote it for the daughter of a friend of hers who had just had a baby sister and felt displaced in the family.
The book is about a doll that gets left on the beach at night by her owner, a little girl who’s gotten a new little kitten and is much more interested in playing with the little kitten now than she is in playing with the doll. Many vicious things happen to the doll on the beach at night. She’s almost burned; part of her body melts off. There’s a man with a thick mustache who puts a golden wire down the doll’s mouth and forces her to speak her name.
This is an actual children’s book?
ME: It’s an illustrated children’s book. My son was obsessed with this book for a while.
SC: It’s unrelenting.
ME: And it ends with an act of restitution, where the little doll is saved by a kitten that has replaced her and brought back to her owner.
SC: That lost doll might as well be the doll that’s lost in The Lost Daughter. Another horrifying doll.
That’s your third choice. Tell us a bit more about The Lost Daughter, Ferrante’s third novella.
ME: The Lost Daughter tells the story of a 50-year-old literature professor named Leda who takes herself on a melancholy beach vacation, where she sees a mother and daughter playing together on the beach. Leda’s own daughters are grown, and she’s struck, instantaneously and illogically, with a kind of jealous attraction to the connection between this mother and daughter. The little girl leaves her doll on the beach, and Leda takes the doll, and watches the child suffer its loss, watches the whole family frantically search for the doll on the beach. She spends the rest of the beach vacation planning run-ins with this family so she can see what taking the doll has done to the child’s relationship with her mother, which is fraying under the pressure of this lost doll. Or rather the lost doll is bringing to the surface whatever tensions already existed in the family.
SC: In the meantime, she’s been hanging out with the doll, watching the doll . . .
ME: Yeah, it is. I suppose this is a part of my life I haven’t gotten to yet—the part of my life when I steal other peoples’ children’s dolls on melancholy beach trips. But it’s not inconceivable. Leda is narrating from the perspective of a woman who is post-family. She is divorced. Her daughters have grown up and left the house, and she’s not having any more children of her own.
SC: She’s interesting because she’s neither old nor young.
Where does she fit into Ferrante’s collection of unlikable female characters? Do we have any sympathy with her, or is she totally monstrous?
SC: She’s quite sympathetic, actually. I find her the most sympathetic of Ferrante’s women—her or Olga in Days of Abandonment.
ME: Leda is haloed by a total sense of loneliness. She’s asking herself, “What could I do that would allow me to matter to someone else’s life?”
SC: Or, what other forms are there besides having children and romance of mattering to other people’s lives?
ME: Taking the doll becomes a small, misguided gesture toward mattering.
SC: Toward belonging.
ME: Exactly. But then it reminds you that belonging is never an easy thing. Belonging has terrible consequences.
SC: That’s the theme of all of Ferrante. Belonging in friendship, or love, or family—and its painful side effects.
ME: And that you can want to belong, and you can take steps to try to belong, and that might not be reciprocated. In fact, when you hand the doll back to its rightful owner, people might look at you like you’re crazy! [Laughs.]
Let’s move on to the novel Days of Abandonment, since you mentioned Olga as a sympathetic Ferrante character earlier.
SC: Days of Abandonment is the second short novel that she wrote before the quartet. It’s the most suffocating book I can think of—an incredibly claustrophobic novel in that it’s literally about a woman who’s trapped in her apartment with her children and her dying German shepherd.
It’s like a capsule episode of a TV show.
ME: Olga, the narrator, has discovered that her husband has been cheating on her, and he’s left her. She must confront her pain and what his betrayal has done to her, how it has transformed her. And she must care for her children amidst it all. Being stuck in her apartment with nowhere to go is the exterior expression of what must happen—a necessary confrontation with her innermost self.
“Days of Abandonment is the most suffocating book I can think of”
SC: Right. There’s nothing there except her own anxiety. And there are other characters—there’s the children, the sad dog, the neighbor.
Any dolls in this one?
SC: No significant dolls. Maybe some minor dolls?
ME: But there are a lot of scenes of her and her little daughter making themselves up in mirrors to look like dolls. There’s a fixation with makeup and self-fashioning in the novel.
It’s interesting that they do that despite being stuck in the apartment. If they’re not going anywhere, who’s it for?
SC: I think it’s an exercise—the exercise of what it means to make yourself a woman.
ME: And Olga’s doing it because she’s trying to find some way to just hold herself together. What’s interesting about the claustrophobia is that it’s a claustrophobia of disintegration. It’s like being in someone’s mind while that mind is totally falling to pieces.
She’s asking, ‘What am I without my husband? What is a woman with no one to see her?’
ME: Right. The exercise of looking in the mirror becomes this exercise of trying to contain yourself in some way.
SC: The book is also the fictional exercise of being trapped in your home, the self you’ve constituted. It’s the opposite of home invasion; it’s the opposite of how most fiction works. There’s something so interesting about being with this one character in this one space. That image of disintegration—as you get scattered around the house, what happens? She moves around restlessly; there’s something wrong with the locks and she can’t get out. The dog has been poisoned and is dying.
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ME: She and the dog are clearly going through very similar things!
SC: Right, and part of the horror of the dog is that what is wrong with him is unclear because it’s internal, like with Olga.
Days of Abandonment also has a special place for me because I’d just moved into this apartment, and as Merve knows, the lock is tricky. People who visit are always confused because they think they’re locked in, and I hadn’t figured out how to turn the latch the right way when I first moved here. So I was reading this book, and then trying to get out of the house, and I remember being terrified thinking it was happening to me, too! But it’s amazing for other reasons. When people ask me what Ferrante book they should start with, I tell them to read Days of Abandonment because it’s short and full-on, and if you like it, you know you’ll like Ferrante. It’s a powerfully moving, wonderful book. It’s a life-ruiner. But to me, that’s a good thing.
“She’s an enchanting describer of myth”
ME: What’s extraordinary about the narrative is that it’s only after the dog dies, and the children start trying to enter the room with the dead dog in it, that Olga begins to pull herself together. Some version of herself has died with the dog, and it has freed her. I think we are released from the claustrophobia of her disintegration by the death of that former wife, that former lover, that former mother.
SC: That former dog . . .
ME: Yes, the former dog. It’s once that self is dead that something like the future becomes imaginable. Being locked in that room gives you the sense of time slowing down in the final stages of self-annihilation. You can’t imagine the next iteration or the next version of yourself until the one that’s been poisoned and is dying dies, and is assimilated into the present as only a specter, a shade, or a memory.
Last, we have Ferrante’s book Frantumaglia. Tell us about this one.
SC: I did not want to read Frantumaglia when it came out. It’s a collection of interviews, letters, little essays, sort of bits and bobs. I didn’t want to read it because I’m very uninterested in the question of who Elena Ferrante is—it really annoys me, and when the controversy was going on in the press I was really irritated by it. I didn’t want to read Frantumaglia because I didn’t want to see what she would say about herself and about her books. But then I read it for the purposes of writing The Ferrante Letters, and I love it.
ME: Some of her best writing is in there.
SC: It’s amazing. I love it because she has a real gift for saying just enough to unlock things for you, but not so much that you wish she would stop. She’ll draw some lines but not color all of them in. That’s a rare gift for an author, or for anyone.
ME: I think she’s an enchanting describer of myth. To me, the most incredible parts of Frantumaglia are when she’s telling the story of Ariadne or the story of Dido. She has a fixation with weaving women, and that to me is the most interesting through-line of the book. She claims that her mother was a dressmaker, and there are these unbelievably luminous passages describing what it was like to accompany her mother to the fabric store to buy fabric and watch her fit clothes to other women. There emerges a parallel between making dresses—weaving fabrics together—and making stories—weaving language together. You see this in her retellings of weaving women who use fabric not to make dresses, but to create entire national cultures of narrative.
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SC: I didn’t sit down and read Frantumaglia all the way through; I dipped in and out of it. I did eventually read the whole thing, but only after trying bits of it. Some of the interviews are just unbearably long, but some of them I really enjoy because I like how indirect she is. She’s quite tantalizing and sometimes borderline rude, but also funny, which makes reading her interviews a joy. She always maintains her limitations, her boundaries. She always says exactly what she wants to say.
So she’s a good model for tactics of evasion in conversation.
SC: She’s an amazing model for tactics of evasion. But she does it in this way that’s so skillful. And all of the interviews have interesting things in them, but they’re not always answers to the questions.
ME: It’s what’s gained from never doing face-to-face interviews. I would have liked to have had a longer back-and-forth with her. But she’s not interested in having a conversation or correspondence. I wonder if it’s partially a dialectic of the self: if you are somebody who feels unbound and fragmented, like you’re always working to pull yourself together, it makes sense that you would create a persona that’s incredibly bounded and disciplined about patrolling those boundaries. I don’t think she means to be tantalizing; I think she just doesn’t want to answer whatever question is being asked, but wants to give you something.
SC: Right, like when you asked her what the books she read and films she watched and she answered, “I’ll tell you some other time.”
ME: Sarah’s joke is that someday she’ll just drop a box full of novels outside my door.
SC: With some dolls! But yes; the interviews seem more like prompts for writing for her. The way that she talks about her process sometimes; she’s always sitting down in her room, scribbling bits that go in her desk drawer. That famous drawer.
ME: How often do you get to do prompted writing with another person? What would be the occasions for that, other than having somebody interview you? How do you do make it feel like a conversation even when that’s not what it is? That’s the challenge.
SC: That’s what The Ferrante Letters is.
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