Today Europa Editions publishes Elena Ferrante’s Key Words, by Italy’s foremost Ferrante scholar, Tiziana de Rogatis. Key Words takes the acclaimed Neapolitan Quartet beyond its Italian origins and connects it to the trends and networks of global literature. In this lightly edited excerpt, de Rogatis explains how Ferrante and her books might best be viewed in relation to their era.
Every one of us understands the force of the story that the quartet has to tell, its brilliant and popular gift for portraying a wide array of characters, relationships, and social classes. Not only has the intensity of Ferrante’s story led more than ten million readers to be moved by the lives of her characters and devour her fictional world—to inhabit that world as if it were real—it has also helped them to extrapolate from it a value system, a way of being, and a code with which to interpret the present day.
Is that all Ferrante’s realism is? A means of cultivating empathy? Of merely ensnaring readers in an emotional web through the illusion of an utterly transparent and plausible fictional universe? Not in my opinion. It is that, but that isn’t all it is. Ferrante’s realism is powerful because it is both realistic and experimental. This dichotomous realism presents us with a concrete world and, at the same time, with its disintegration from the inside out, prompting readers both to empathize with it and to lose their way in its labyrinth. Hers is an underground realism.
Storytelling and the Global Novel
In transnational writing today, the traumatic cry of reality gives identities a new liminal texture, as manifested in eyewitness reports or survivor stories that blur the lines between historical, photographic, and journalistic texts, creative nonfiction (literary journalism, for example, or, in certain respects, memoirs), and autofiction.1
However, the story of problematic individuals is also at the root of what Ferrante calls the return of “the great foundational novels.” The nineteenth-century plot—which postmodernist writers, and many modernist writers, dismissed as obsolete and mystifying—is now being revisited in original ways gleaned from the modern experimental canon.
Just as in the great nineteenth-century tradition, storytelling and the pleasure taken in stories have regained importance, as has the development of characters to lend gravity to daily life and the multiple arcs of human destinies.
Restoring and greatly exacerbating certain traits of nineteenth-century capitalism and widespread inequality,2 neoliberalism now has the dizzying and devastating ability to bring cultures into contact with one another and set them at odds. Faced with increasingly clear, opposing, and contemporaneous identity-related phenomena, faced with the division between global subjects in a liminal state of transformation and those in a state of inflexible narrow-mindedness, writers are restoring the nineteenth-century plot to the center of representation and narrative truth. They are employing this plot for its development, its complex web of characters, and its capacity for combining genres and forms for both experimental and communicative purposes.
If the novel has returned to being an emblematic story, to presenting us with a social repertoire and shared vocabulary, that is because today cohabitation with the Other, the traumatic speed of social transformations, and the decline of major ideologies are now urgently compelling a “discursive negotiation”3 that depends on our ability to make sense of reality through stories.
In the act of Ferrante’s storytelling, a wide array of feminist theories and ideas are brought to life and transformed into a creative, eclectic, and universally shared logic.
Through her eclectic, didactic, and psychological concept of storytelling, Ferrante has tapped into this profound need of our collective imagination. Moreover, she has honed a powerful tool, in the form of the Neapolitan Novels, for ordering and interpreting reality.
On the one hand, the quartet presents itself as a “hypergenre” work.4 It imbues the written word with emotional intensity through its mix of high and low: revisiting both “the classics” and the “cellar of writing,” piled high with “stories in women’s magazines” and “the trash about love and betrayal.” It also makes informal and anti-intellectual use of the materials of everyday life.
On the other hand, style in the narrative cycle is a means of establishing a form for “the very personal store of urgent things […] to tell.” “The more powerful” the style, writes Ferrante, “the more material it holds for comprehensive life lessons.” There is nothing moralizing about her didactic storytelling, no appeal to fashions. Educational storytelling promotes awareness and generates an emotion that “changes us inwardly—dramatically, even—under the impact of words that are true and charged with feeling.” Her quartet cannot overlook the narrative form in which it is told.
Practitioners of this new fictional realism known as the global novel form an international canon of authors that includes Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Americanah, 2013), Margaret Atwood (Oryx and Crake, 2003), Amitav Ghosh (The Hungry Tide, 2004), Haruki Murakami (1Q84, 2009–2010), Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, 2001), and Zadie Smith (White Teeth, 2000), to name just a few. Since the late 1990s, the galaxy of the transnational novel has proven extremely diverse. And yet, broadly speaking and with exceptions, its authors’ heterogeneous writing practices are bound by a few common threads.
These common threads include a continuous translation of, and tension between, different languages and conceptions of the “glocal” (which is to say, the numerous changes of the global and local).5 They often include a plot containing multiple settings (from peripheries to hubs) and synchronous intertwined timelines (from the archaic to the ultramodern); a focus on character that flies in the face of postmodernism and is inspired by new subjectivities that are diasporic yet grounded, disoriented yet altogether coherent (due to the straitened circumstances that have, in part, shaped them); a text about trauma connected to urgent issues of our age concerning migration, ecology, terrorism, and feminism.6
And so, the quartet can be considered a central and highly innovative global novel,7 because the international success of this sweeping narrative cycle is rooted in a “glocal” language, space, and imaginary created by the author. Indeed, at the heart of the story lies an oxymoronic rione (neighborhood) of the soul, radically defined and incarnated.
The soul, in Ferrante’s quartet, is a place both metaphorical and particular—an expression of the larger global South, and of an Italian story that has no equivalent—that acts as the linchpin for a plot scattered across Italy and Europe and that ultimately shapes identities that are hybrid and local. Lila and (increasingly) Elena experience an “estrangement of the familiar,” a perennial sense of the “unhomely.”8 Yet they are also hounded—even in the apparently neutral and translatable context of the Italian language—by their origins and dialect, which they feel are an “extension of the body,” a “burned skin” that they must tear off.
Magical Spaces and Objects
In many cases, the global novel repurposes the postcolonial tradition of magical realism, stripping it of exoticism and setting it, so to speak, in the heart of the empire. This holds true for American writer Alice Sebold’s 2002 best seller The Lovely Bones, which tells the story of a teenage girl’s otherworldly life as if it were a plausible fact, one intrinsic to the plot, after her rape and murder.9 The most authoritative representatives of the magical-realist strain in the global novel are Salman Rushdie’s Fury (2001) and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (2017).
In the global world, whose painful transformations we have yet to process, the return to magic and fantasy serves, once again, to reckon with the trauma of a modernity that has failed to deliver freedom and with a progress that has not redeemed Western democracies but, on the contrary, produced a “primordialist bug” within them.10
The quartet’s uncanny underground realism is related to these two modes of expression.11 Like Leda’s stolen doll in The Lost Daughter and the missing doll in The Beach at Night, Elena and Lila’s dolls are liminal objects in the plot, caught between the world above and the world below, between realistic cohesion and the mysterious dissolution of the storyline: because they turn out to be both points of strength in the story and a means of deconstructing the story.
Furthermore, the narrative ellipsis surrounding the disappearance of the dolls is a symbolic ellipsis that bears more than one meaning. This is because their disappearance and reemergence recall the various and constitutively intertwined temporalities of women’s social erasure and survival, as well as the way the women are modeled after the dolls: hybrid figures caught between the feminine and maternal.
The dolls are like the other objects in the quartet (Lila’s shoe designs, enlarged photograph, and notebooks, as well as the notebooks of Signora Solara). That is, they emerge on the stage as “anchors of the novelistic world but then, like household items shaking loose in an earthquake, become enchanted—with the result that we longer know quite what the real is, or how to feel about it.”12
The enigma of the dolls—the way that for women they stand as metaphorical and liminal symbols, exemplifying both erasure and survival, matrophobia and redemption—throws another feature of Ferrante’s experimental realism into stark relief: her distinct feminist matrix. In the act of her storytelling, a wide array of feminist theories and ideas are brought to life and transformed into a creative, eclectic, and universally shared logic. Consequently, the realism of the quartet takes on new political meaning.
Elena and Lila’s survival should be understood as “living above,”13 or rather, beyond, trauma. However, that entails having first lived through trauma. Indeed, it entails having repeatedly fallen prey to it. The characteristic downward trajectory in Ferrante’s work is, in this sense, crucial: The dolls are cast down into the cellar. Lila’s notebooks sink to the bottom of the Arno. In Elena’s essay, daughters find themselves down in the caves. The writer herself trespasses into the “cellar of writing” to rummage for marginalized writing.
Survival is therefore the arc not of exemplary subjectivities but of those who are, by necessity, ambiguous and contradictory. These purveyors of the underground world are able to accommodate that subterranean space, as well as to tell a different story: a story not of victimhood, which is therefore always vital. Women today are looking to the eclectic yet clear truth of the feminist story, to its universal power. They are doing so in a world in which an international, anti-feminist, homophobic, and xenophobic fundamentalism is taking shape that women readers counter with the international force of Ferrante’s storytelling.
Underground realism’s focus on the static and invisible space of the dominated means major historical events overlap in a completely incidental manner with the characters’ private dramas. Yet a series of momentous historical and political circumstances make it so that Elena and Lila go from being excluded to included, from marginal “Unpredictable Subjects” to figures at the heart of History.14 That explains why it is possible to feel, through them, the euphoria of the trials and tribulations of modern times.
If it is up to Lila to intuit the future—to exhaust it in a euphoric and destructive spiral of gains and losses, introducing words like “heroin,” “IBM,” and “Chernobyl”15 into the narrative and into the old-fashioned rione—it is Elena’s job to survey the gray zones. These include the shortcomings of her education, the patriarchal and linguistic violence in the democratic school systems, the deceptions of her own creativity and intellectual commitment, and the decline of Lila’s bold technological project, swallowed up by power dynamics and the bullying tactics of organized crime in Southern Italy.
Polyphony—the mutual smarginatura (a term that Ferrante employs to describe the dissolution of boundaries) of “Lila’s model” with “Elena’s model”16—is also a labyrinth of timelines, where the two friends must realize that the archaic and the modern are not opposing elements, that time cannot simply be understood as the contrast between a premodern, unsophisticated southern rione and a progressive Italian consumerist society. On the contrary, in the labyrinth, the archaic is embedded in modernity.
The labyrinth is a return to the “primordialism”17 that women readers around the world fear they see in store for them: the looming, sweeping, and cross-sectional threat of a return to the old order of nationalism, identity politics, misogyny, and racist fundamentalism—even in the West. Ferrante’s storytelling is a compass in this new and pervasive war on today’s unpredictable subjects. She offers a guide for occupying the complex border now being drawn in the world: a traumatic line where the lives of millions of men and women risk being even more violently beholden to external influences and relegated to the margins of History.
- The last two genres have been firmly established in Italy for three decades, resulting in a “hyper-modernity” that goes beyond postmodernism and finds an important model in Roberto Saviano’s work of investigative journalism, Gomorra, published in 2006. ↩
- Manfred B. Steger, Globalization: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 105. ↩
- Stefano Calabrese, www.letturatura.global: Il romanzo dopo il postmoderno (Einaudi, 2005), p. 47. ↩
- Elena Porciani, “La scelta di Don Chisciotte: Sulle tracce del Familienromance di Elsa Morante,” Contemporanea, no. 11 (2013), p. 89. ↩
- Roland Robertson, Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture. (Sage, 1992), p. 226. ↩
- Debjani Ganguly, This Thing Called the World: The Contemporary Novel as Global Form (Duke University Press, 2016). ↩
- Adam Kirsch, “Starting from Home: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels,” in The Global Novel: Writing the World in the 21st Century (Columbia Global Reports, 2016). ↩
- Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (Routledge Classics, 2004), p. 11. ↩
- Calabrese, www.letturatura.global, p. 191; Filippo Pennacchio, Il romanzo global (Biblion, 2018), p. 40. ↩
- Arjun Appadurai, “Life after Primordialism,” in Modernity at Large (University of Minnesota Press, 1996), p. 143. ↩
- As Ferrante points out, the “caves” are a magical and transitional space, a time capsule where “the past [is] not to be overcome but to be redeemed, precisely as a storehouse of sufferings, of rejected ways of being”; a space where the daughter, like Elena, brings her computer and uses it to tell her story; a space where Melina’s drama is reflected in the dramas of Ariadne and Dido, and Delia’s search for the truth in Troubling Love is shadowed by the story of Demeter and Persephone; a space where linear progress is ultimately eroded. ↩
- David Kurnick, “Ferrante, in History,” Public Books, December 15, 2015. ↩
- Alessandra Pigliaru, presentation of Elena Ferrante’s Parole chiave, Libreria delle Donne, Milan, February 9, 2019. ↩
- Carla Lonzi, Sputiamo su Hegel: E altri scritti (Et al., 2010), p. 47. ↩
- Kurnick, “Ferrante, in History.” ↩
- Simona Micali, “La scrittura e la vita,” L’Indice dei Libri del Mese, December 2014. ↩
- Appadurai, “Life after Primordialism,” p. 139. ↩