Thursday 1 October 2015

Does Elena Ferrante write historical fiction? by Mary Hoffman

Like everyone else, it seems, I have just finished reading Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet. The Story of the Lost Child is the last book, to many readers' regret and, if you haven't come across it before, please don't let this horrible cover put you off; it is nothing like the content of the book.

But, for reasons that will become obvious, this is a hard post to illustrate and the covers are all we've got. Unless you don't read the national review press, TLS, LRB, New Statesman etc. you are unlikely to be in ignorance of the name Elena Ferrante but you might not be reading this in the UK, so I'm going to write about her as for an innocent audience. (In her native Italy, she is not much talked about, for example).

But if you are half-way through, don't read this post; it contains spoilers.

"Elena Ferrante" is a pen-name, which has caused much speculation - even that she is a man. There are no photographs of her and when she gives interviews, she does so by email. I referred to her native Italy above but some have posited that she was born in Greece, perhaps because the "io narrante" of the quartet is a female novelist called Elena Greco.

Ferrante has been described as writing everything from a soap opera to books that should win her the Nobel Prize for Literature, so there is a lot to say. But it was something else that prompted me to write about her here on The History Girls: is what she is writing historical fiction?

The wider genre would probably be "family saga" in that it covers more than one generation, but I can feel the fans wincing from here at that description.

Here is the cover of the first book in the series, with an equally soppy and misleading cover from Europa Editions. My Brilliant Friend begins with Elena Greco, the first person narrator, learning that her friend Lina has gone missing. At this point they are both aged sixty-six and it is Lina's disappearance that prompts Elena to start the narrative of their friendship, which began when they were both six.

In other words, in 1950. A novel set in 1950 would certainly count as historical fiction today, sixty-five years later. In fact some people define anything written about a period a generation earlier, i.e. twenty-five years. The Historical Novel Society is stricter with a requirement of fifty years before writing.

But what about a book or books that begin over fifty years ago but trawl through the years since, coming up to the present day? The 50 years plus definition assumes that the writer has to research the period and has not lived through it. Since we don't know anything about Elena Ferrante we can't decide whether she was born in a poor suburb of Naples - "the neighbourhood," as she calls it - in 1944 and is writing a sort of memoir or much later somewhere different and had to study the place and period.

The latter seems very unlikely.

Elena is known to all as Lenù; her friend is Lina. Both are diminutives of their given names (Lina comes from Raffaella, which might surprise those unfamiliar with Italian). In the Childhood and Adolescence sections of My Brilliant Friend, Lenù and Lina are clearly two halves of a shared self, their fortunes rising up and down in Fate's scales. Only one of them can be happy or pretty or clever or successful at any given time.

What makes this early part of the narrative so effective is the evocation of the setting in which the girls are growing up. They and their friends are from working class or lower middle class families, Lina's father a mender of shoes and Lenù's a porter at City Hall. There are grocers and pastry-cooks and sellers of fruit and veg. The women wear shabby dresses and slippers out of doors; many of them are illiterate.

Naples 1947 Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone—Getty Images
They live in apartment blocks around courtyards and the landscape of their childhood is bleak and gritty. One day when Lina tempts Lenù to cut school and walk to the sea, they emerge from a tunnel to see: "Around us ... a landscape of ruin: dented tanks, burned wood, wrecks of cars, cartwheels with broken spokes, damaged furniture, rusting scrap iron."

Not a blade of grass in sight and they don't make it to the sea. It was a ploy by Lina to get her friend into trouble, so that Lenù's parents will revoke permission for her to go on to Middle School as Lina's own parents have done. It doesn't work.

This makes for a really interesting story: two girls equally clever, one educated and the other deprived of that chance. Their friendship continues, on and off, through betrayal and loss, for the next sixty years and yet it is always uneasy. When Elena sits down to write the story of their lives, she says, "We'll see who wins this time." It is always a tension, a struggle, a rivalry.

The other feature of the girls' lives, growing up, is violence. It is commonplace for men to beat their wives and children; once, Lina's father throws her out of the window and breaks her arm. But it's not just domestic violence, bad though that is. "We lived in a world in which children and adults were often wounded, blood flowed from the wounds, they festered, and sometimes people died."

Life expectancy for children was low and their parents' work often dangerous: "Our world was like that, full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection." (Ferrante is as fond of lists as is James Joyce).

People get murdered; by my reckoning, in the whole quartet, at least six. Sometimes this is politically motivated, sometimes it's the Camorra (Naples' equivalent of the Sicilian Mafia). But violence is always bubbling below the surface; young men react aggressively if other young men flirt with "their" women or even look at them in a way they find unacceptable. Punishment beatings are common.

So this is the setting of the quartet and a picture of 1950s Naples it would be hard to forget or discount. But the centre of the story is the relationship between the two girls, one who will marry at sixteen and the other who will "escape" and go to university. And not just their daily lives but the internal fears and obsessions.

Lina experiences something she calls "dissolving margins" where other people's outlines shimmer and disappear and she loses hold of reality. Much is made of this characteristic but Lenù senses something similar when terrified by Don Achille, the local ogre (later one of the murdered): "solid surfaces turned soft under my fingers, or swelled up, leaving empty spaces between their internal mass and the surface skin."

And it has to be said that Lina is not likeable. She is the most hated girl in the school and in the neighbourhood. She does mean, spiteful things, as in the episode above, is dirty and covered in scabs and bruises. Yet somehow she metamorphoses into the most beautiful and fascinating of the local girls, one whom three men are fighting to win.

The second book continues the story of the two women as they grow, one repenting a bad marriage, the other having an affair and then getting engaged to an academic.

The whole sequence returns us again and again to a group of families, whose members know each other from childhood, inter-marry, support each other, let each other down, regroup and re-marry. From earlier than adolescence Lenù has been attracted to Nino Sarratore, but in this book it is Lina who leaves her husband for Nino, a betrayal that Lenù swallows, at least for the time being.

Of course the narrative doesn't end there. After a lazy summer on the beach in Ischia where Lina and Nino fall in love comes the harsher reality of ill-paid and hard work in a sausage factory, where Lina discovers politics and fights for workers' rights. Lenù on the other hand is now a published writer and mines her friend's life for novels and newspaper articles, regardless of the dangers to her in the factory.

Corrupt politicians and industrialist shape daily life for the neighbourhood and the threat of the Camorra is always there. The Solara brothers, Marcello and Michele, are Camorristi but this is always just a background reality. Ferrante is no Roberto Saviano, whose book Gomorrah (2006) exposed and named Camorra bosses and whose life has been threatened so severely that he travels with seven armed police everywhere and spends no more than a night or two in any one place.

It has been said that Ferrante wrote the books in one draft and did not revise and polish. I can't quite believe that but in The Story of a New Name, Elena gets given a publishing contract without having re-read the novel she has written. The editor tells her, "Trust yourself: don't touch a comma, there is sincerity, naturalness, and a mystery in the writing that only true books have."

Magari, as Italians would say = "if only."

That editor will be Lenù's mother-in-law and she will change her mind about that book and about its author. That is one of the sequence's huge strengths: the fact that people and our perceptions of them change. The bride of one book will be a factory worker in another, and a computer pioneer in the next. A passionate lover will be a treacherous rat. The successful author will be a neurotic mess, fearful that her time in the sun has passed.

The third book is to me the least satisfactory, although it has the best title,  as it seems to degenerate into women defining themselves through their relationships with men, the stuff of so much 20th century fiction. Lenù marries and has children and discovers feminism. It is told from the viewpoint of 2011 (all the novels begin as contemporary and are then narrated in flashback).

Lenù and Lina are together again and find the body of a woman in a flowerbed next to the Parish church. She is someone they have known since childhood and the readers of the first two books know her too: "How many who had been girls with us were no longer alive, had disappeared from the face of the earth because of illness, because their nervous systems had been unable to endure the sandpaper of torments, because their blood had been spilled."

This one is not a murder, as it later turns out but a natural death.

Lenù has escaped the neighbourhood but periodically returns and finds it fundamentally unchanged, even though full of skyscrapers: "Lodged in my memory were dark streets full of dangers, unregulated traffic, broken pavements, giant puddles. The clogged sewers splattered, dribbled over lavas of water and sewage and garbage and bacteria spilled into the sea from the hills that were burdened with new, fragile structures, or eroded the world from below."

By the end of this book the kaleidoscope of the two friends' lives has been shaken again and their relationships fallen into a new pattern.

And so again, to the fourth and last book with its ghastly cover. Really, whatever else it is, this book is not pastels and fairy wings.

There are recurring motifs in the form of numinous objects: the pair of shoes that Lina and her brother Rino make in the first book, to which the rise and fall of the Cerullos' fortunes are linked; the shabby dolls that Lina and Lenù lose in the cellar; the poems that Nino's father writes for the "madwoman" Melina; Lenù's mother's silver bracelet; Manuela Solara's little red book of loans and debts; Lina's story The Blue Fairy, written when she was a child.

And recurring themes, of which the most obvious, apart from the romantic merry-go-round, is the relation between mothers and daughters. Lenù positively hates her mother and has turbulent relations with her two older daughters. The third, by another man, is a disappointment to her.

Lina has a daughter too, one that shines by comparison with her friend's youngest girl. So much so that a magazine article about Lenù as a famous author attributes the wrong daughter to her. But little Tina, with the same name as one of those childhood dolls, is at the centre of the quartet's greatest trauma.

The women look after each other's children at different times, criticise or praise each other's mothering skills, remain competitive. In 1979, Lenù returns to live in Naples with her daughters and the two friends are neighbours again. Lenù remains naive, sensing that Lina know things she does not; this has been true all their lives.

At last, the scales fall from her eyes and she sees just what a shit she has tied herself too, but she never tells him how like his hated, womanising father he is or that she, Lenù, allowed that same father to take her virginity when she was a teenager. And boy, does the shit deserve to know both those things.

In the end, I found the narrator quite unsympathetic, a "feminist" who behaves like a doormat whenever her great love is around, clearly believing in "Venus toute entière à sa proie attachée." Lina, who never goes out of her way to make anyone like her, remains the more fascinating.

The last volume is not as satisfying as I'd hoped, leaving many mysteries unsolved: who is the killer of various people and what the motivation; what has happened to the lost child of the title and why; how do the fetishes left in Lenù's hotel room at the end get there and what does it mean?

We have been told early on that Lenù's mistake as a writer is to impose a sort of order on life that it doesn't have, but Ferrante has done this throughout so it seems unfair to change her pattern at the end when she has excited our curiosity and got us to care about these characters.

I don't think she is Nobel Prize-worthy (though the Committee has chosen some odd recipients from Italy (Grazia Deledda but not Elsa Morante or Dacia Maraini, Giosue Carducci but not Italo Calvino or Giorgio Bassani). But I do think Ferrante has written a powerful and engaging sequence of novels. She arouses strong feelings and opinions in her readers and, in her depiction of Naples sixty-five years ago, she counts as far as I am concerned as a writer of historical fiction.


Carol Drinkwater said...

This is fascinating, Mary, thank you. I am one of the few who have not yet read Ferrante. I have been waiting for the dust to settle to read 'her' without others' opinions flying all around me, and I was, rather over-ambitiously, hoping that I might give the books a go in Italian, but that won't happen!
As you say there has been so much coverage of this quartet that I have given up reading the opinions and critics. What fascinates about your piece is the question of whether she counts as a writer of historical fiction. My own, not-yet-published novel, The Forgotten Summer, is founded on events that took place at the end of the Algerian War of Independence, (1962) yet it is, predominantly, set in the present…
There is a vogue now for time lapse novels. Might they also count as historical fiction? I hadn't know before reading your blog here that the Historical Novel Society have a strict requirement of fifty years before it fits the criterion. Good to know it!
(sorry, I could not find an ital button for title)

Clare Mulley said...

What an interesting post. I love questions about what counts as historical fiction, but usually look from a fact/fiction perspective, eg the creativity required in producing non-fiction. I also think it is interesting what tangles we can get tied up with classification, when so many good books are deliberately 'genre-bending'.

Ruan Peat said...

I tend to count historical fiction as one set in a past time, even if that is more recent than I would call old! (had kids at school studying the 1990's which was mind blowing) The story has to be relevant to the time and affected by the time, not just a pretty back drop, which is why adore the History Girls who tell us more and show us much. For example Brighton Rock was not written as a historical book but for now it is very much part of its scene and time.
I must have been under a rock that I haven't seen any of these, I will see about getting them to read on my holidays next time, I love series that are finished :-) and your recommendation is very good.

Kate Lord Brown said...

Fascinating - thank you, Mary. I've been saving Ferrante until the new novel is finished. Now looking forward to the Quartet even more.