Over three days this summer, before the unmasking of the identity of Italy’s most famous writer, Elena Ferrante, I sat down on our terrace in Italy to read and review for you Ferrante’s first three novels translated into English. My Italian friends insisted they were even better that The Quartet. They were right. And The Lost Daughter is the best of all of them.
I’ve decided to publish my reviews as I wrote them this summer, before the unveiling. She will always be for me ‘the writer Elena Ferrante’. I read and reviewed the complete Neapolitan Quartet exactly a year ago, on the same terrace, overlooking the mountains of the Alpi Apuane in Northern Tuscany. They disturbed and excited me. Ferrante today plays a large role in my literary life and I suspect she always will. No one rivets me quite like Elena Ferrante.
So here are my #RivetingReviews of Elena Ferrante’s first three novels in English – all translated by the incomparable Ann Goldstein, all published in the UK by Europa Editions.
THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT (I Giorni dell’Abbandono)
(2002 Italian/2005 English)
The narrator Olga is thirty-eight, a burgeoning writer, a mother of two children, married to Mario, a successful academic and living in Turin.
One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarrelling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children, and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me… closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink.
So begins this ground-breaking, earth-shattering novel, with the breakdown of Olga and Mario’s ‘happy’ marriage after fifteen years; the first novel from Ferrante to be translated into English, setting out for us the confident tone, bold ideas, razor-sharp observations and precipitous literary heights that reverberate through all her work; as if, with these early novels, she is building up to her War and Peace, her Anna Karenina (Ferrante obviously loves Tolstoy) – the famous Naples Quartet. Olga is ofcourse originally from Naples. Ferrante’s defining links with Naples are ever-present.
The women we meet in her novels are all in some way like Olga – obsessive, fearless and trying to understand the absence of sense – the phrase that Mario uses about this own life and their marriage when he leaves her. But Olga is the one to examine this absence, not Mario, who quickly moves on to a new life, leaving her to imprison herself within the four walls of her mind, her life and her home in Turin.
‘Happiness’ is rare in Ferrante’s books and marriages are rarely ‘happy’. The breakdown of this marriage and this woman’s life is described in intimate detail. Olga documents her personal hell after discovering her husband’s infidelity; the depths of her self-degradation; the cruelty, obscenity, perversion and violence she becomes capable of; her animal madness and the monster she unleashes in herself as she goes to the darkest depths of myself and before she is able to return to some kind of adult normality. Ultimately she does not follow her much-read Anna Karenina to her death but instead enters a whirlpool sucking me in, emerging to find a form of enlightenment, not happiness but enough ‘sense’ to live with.
No other writer I know delves as deeply into a woman’s heart and mind as Ferrante, and with such beautiful, lyrical and scorchingly hot prose. As a reader I feel I’m swimming in a whirlpool of excruciating honesty.
Olga is different from Ferrante’s later heroines in that she is initially likeable and straightforward. A protagonist you care for, can like and feel sympathy with when her beloved husband leaves her and her children.
Life had been drained out of me like blood and saliva and mucus from a patient during an operation.
But as always Ferrante ends up risking the alienation of her readers by making her characters quite unpleasant and unlikable in their self-destruction and self-analysis. I doubt Ferrante cares. She doesn’t need to care. This is immersive, essential, honest, painful and vital writing. No wonder, I often think, she wishes to remain anonymous. This way she enjoys total artistic freedom.
What can we deduce about the identity of Ferrante from this book, and the issues and style that reappear in future novels? She knows about motherhood, marriage and children; about friendship, grief, academia, the writer’s life, publishing; she knows about clothes, dressmaking and fabrics (!); she knows Italy and especially Naples and has obviously travelled internationally.
How literary and lyrical Olga is! Like the women in most of Ferrante’s novels she loves words, books and writing. I myself jotted down whole chunks of her novels, so as to imprint their depth and detail on my brain. For example, this, on grief: I was the sentinel of grief, keeping watch along with a crowd of dead words. And on writing: I spent the warm mornings of early autumn sitting on a bench in the rocky garden, writing. In appearance they were notes for a possible book, at least that’s what I called them. I wanted to cut myself to pieces—I said to myself—I wanted to study myself with precision and cruelty, recount the evil of these terrible months completely. And finally: In order to write well, I need to go to the heart of every question, of a smaller, safer place. Eliminate the superfluous. Narrow the field. To write truly is to speak from the depths of the maternal womb.
TROUBLING LOVE (L’Amore Molesto)
(1992 Italian; 2007 English)
Like all ‘classics’, you imagine Ferrante to have been around ‘for ever’, but she hasn’t and has only existed in English for ten years. But what a distinctive style, from this very first novel (in Italian). Before she wrote it, she extracted the promise of anonymity from her Italian publishers EDIZIONI E/0 – who have honoured her promise. Ferrante wrote to them:
I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t. This anonymity she believed would give her a space of absolute creative freedom, a freedom all the more necessary because her books stick “a finger in certain wounds I have that are still infected.
In this novel, ‘the troubling love’ described is that between mothers and children, husbands and wives, men and women – and, as we know from Lina and Elena, in the Quartet – between women too; describing the violence, passion and cruelty of this love with torrential prose and exquisite elegance. Naples is dirty, dark, passionate, loud and dramatic. No one is content. Relationships are unhappy.
What is the source of the seething suffering that Ferrante exposes in each novel? Why is she so raw and bleeding? The more I read her books the more I want to interview her, to know about her, because I simply can’t imagine that at least some of what she writes stems from truth. There is a relentless, ruthless drive to the writing; a breathlessness, as if she’s whispering to us, let’s make the pages burn with my writing, let’s make the men suffer who torment us.
This is not just feminism or any -ism but a unique view of life, which is so daringly honest that thousands of readers round the world are saying ‘thank you’ (and some ‘no, thank you’!). Ferrante always digs deep and says things that others dare not say. The storylines are riveting (what an achievement) but it’s the pace and lack of pauses and paragraphs in the narrative that make you turn the page in breathless anticipation. Then there’s the thrill of that first sentence of each novel:
My mother drowned on the night of May 23rd, my birthday, in the sea at a place called Spaccavento, a few miles from Minturno.
The abuse, violence, obscenity, humiliation, fetishes and disgust of ‘Troubling Love’ are ‘real’ but at a poetic remove. Delia, the 45- year oldest daughter of Amalia – whose death is the pivot of the novel – is the narrator. She relates horror upon horror of her family life while simultaneously reliving it and analysing it. By writing the horrors down she understands, we understand, why they happen. This is the confessional novel at its most profound and painful. It is a novel of recovered memory.
Delia revisits her past and the people closest to her. A single act, when she was five, changed their lives for ever. We get a portrait of Amalia, a beautiful and vital mother who refuses to allow a brutal, psychopathically jealous husband to take over her mind and body (whilst she enjoys the fetishist attentions of another man). It is a portrait of a child’s spiteful blame and jealous love of a mother. Delia blames Amalia for ruining her life and reducing it to that of a dessicated, loveless automata. She explores her complex love-hate relationship with her mother by going back, digging deep and confronting the men who dominated both their lives. There are also moments of joyful release, bursting out of the novel like fireworks, but at heart it is very troubling.
Delia’s empathy and identification with her mother, and her cruel judgement of her, mean that by the end of the novel the two selves, mother and daughter, collide in a spectacular firework finale.
THE LOST DAUGHTER (La Figlia Oscura)
(2006 Italian/2008 English)
Three Ferrante novels in three days! I feel as though I’ve been galloping through a long night, through hail and rain and snow and lightning and tropical storms. The cumulative effect of reading Ferrante in one gulp is exhaustion and elation. I am convinced now – more than I ever was reading The Quartet (and observing the passion and fame that now surrounds her) – that Ferrante is a major biographer of women’s lives. No, she is not a man. No man could ever write in this way about the unexplored, unexplained (till now), mysterious, hidden, shameful and exultant inner, intimate lives of women and about their sexual, emotional and creative yearnings.
Ferrante has told me things about myself, and the women I share this planet with, that I have never heard before or – to be honest – wanted to confront. We critics speak of her writing as ‘raw’ and honest. I don’t warm to her women much; they wouldn’t be my friends: in fact, the more I read her, the more distanced I feel from the Ferrante-archetype she seems to be describing in each novel.
Leda is the narrator here. Is she perhaps Elena Ferrante? Of all the novels this is my favourite. All her novels are different; they are also all the same. The protagonists are intelligent, questioning mothers, daughters and wives who are also writers or academics. They were born in Naples and spend much of their later lives questioning their identity and shaking off their origins. The women often have similar names – Elena, Leda, Lina. There are always dramatic turning points and revelations and confrontations – mostly with themselves. Often their lives are ‘perfect’ on the surface but, as they themselves reveal, they are ‘imperfect’ beneath. The stories are visceral and shocking. In each novel, the protagonist turns herself inside out.
Leda is nearly fifty, a successful, internationally respected Professor of English Literature at Florence University. She was born in Naples but left to study. She married another academic and had two daughters, Bianca and Marta, who though they never appear in the novel are described in such great detail that we feel we know them too. Leda divorced a long time ago, her daughters live in Canada with her ex (who seems, for once, a nice man with not too many flaws – unusual for men in a Ferrante novel!) and Leda lives a comfortable existence alone as an academic.
When my daughters moved to Toronto, where their father had lived and worked for years, I was embarrassed and amazed to discover that I wasn’t upset; rather, I felt light, as if only then had I definitively brought them into the world. For the first time in almost twenty-five years I was not aware of the anxiety of having to take care of them. The house was neat, as if no one lived there, I no longer had the constant bother of shopping and doing the laundry.
The novel begins with a bang (typical Ferrante) – a car crash. Within just two pages Leda describes how she crashed her car after returning from her summer holiday and lands in hospital, with her family and friends gathered around her, even coming all the way from Toronto. She survives, the only serious wound in her left side, an inexplicable lesion. But why did she crash the car? At the origin, she tells us, was a gesture of mine that made no sense… because it was senseless.
Leda decides that she won’t talk to anyone about this gesture except ‘us’. For the rest of the novel she confides in us (her readers) the details of her summer on the beach and her growing obsession with a young Neapolitan woman, Nina, and her toddler daughter, Elena, playing together on the beach with a doll. Who is the lost child here? Leda, Elena or Nina, or indeed Bianca and Marta? Prepare to gallop through the wind, rain and sun to find out. And then go and lie down (as I had to!).
Reviewed by Rosie Goldsmith
Rosie Goldsmith is Director of the European Literature Network. She was a BBC senior broadcaster for 20 years and is today an arts journalist, presenter, linguist, and with Max Easterman a media trainer for ‘Sounds Right’.
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