Elena Ferrante’s Disappearing Act

7 minutes to read
Column
Inge van de Ven
07/09/2020

Good news for Elena Ferrante’s fans. The mysterious Italian bestseller author’s last and eighth novel, The Lying Life of Adults, is now available in book stores all over the world. For the Dutch book launch, publishing house Wereldbibliotheek hosted a festive event this week at Utrecht’s beautiful new city library. I was honored to be in a panel with publisher Koen van Gunnik and translators Miriam Bunnik and Mara Schepers; our conversation was moderated by author Nikki Dekker. Ferrante herself was conspicuously absent as always.

Will the real Ferrante please stand up?

Most often mentioned fact about her is that we don’t know who she (or he!) is. The ‘shadow woman from Naples,’ as she is sometimes called, refuses to enter the public sphere and reveal her identity. She aligns the alleged need to put the author on a pedestal and in the spotlights as a hero, with the media politics of ‘Berlusconismo,’ where stardom and self-promotion are deemed more important than the work itself (Ferri et al. 2015). Ferrante believes that books can survive on their own and stand for themselves; that they don’t need their authors anymore from the moment they see the light of day. She has also explained that she avoids the limelight out of necessity, as this gives her the creative space that she needs to write.

A clear statement, one would say. Yet, in the selfie age people tend to get a litte restless when confronted with claims to privacy. Ever since the hype sparked by the Neapolitan novels in the United States, a veritable wo/manhunt has commenced. In journalism as well as in academia, where researchers in philology and stylometrics put a lot of effort in trying to discover the ‘real’ Ferrante through computational analyses. According to some, it has been conclusively proven that Neapolitan author Domenico Starnone hides behind the pseudonym; others say he is forming a duo with his wife, translator Anita Raja.

Dutch author Heman Koch recently made a plea in De Volkskrant to leave the poor author alone and give her the creative space she needs to write. Koch claims it is of no import who the author really is, yet he also not-so-subtly hints at the possibility that he knows their identity and even met the author at some point.

If you are a literary writer who wants to play with the big boys and girls, it is almost mandatory to create some sort of media persona, as Sander Bax shows in his book De Literatuur Draait Door. Ferrante’s refusal to take part in the media circus is of course no less a media strategy in its own right, and a lucrative one at that. While I personally would rather remain in the dark regarding her true identity, I wouldn’t say that the question does not matter. The choice for an anonymous life is a charged and meaningful gesture in an attention economy (evidenced by the buzz generated by the recent Zomergasten episode where criminal lawyer Inez Weski refused to answer personal questions).

This gesture is intricately connected, moreover, to Ferrante’s literary oeuvre. The author, we could say, inhabits her own fictional universe. ‘Elena Ferrante is actually her first fictional character,’ as Koch puts it. We could call it a heteronym, a fictive persona with developed traits and characteristics that functions as a stand-in for the author (Portugese writer and poet Fernando Pessoa had over 70 of them). We fully realize the extent of these entanglements between author and work when we examine the manner in which her books thematize the creative process.

First, it is notable that her female characters are often confronted with the same challenge as the one witnessed by the author: how to open up time and space in your life to write, read, and study? Does being a good mother and wife mean that you’re a bad feminist and author, and vice versa? Ferrante’s women often go through an emancipation process that manifests itself as a movement from inside to outside (out of the home, the neighborhood, the city, the dialect/ the language of the Mother); from invisible (kitchen, home, neighborhood, factory) to visible (classroom, campus, cultural institutions, business world, media). Often this means escaping one prison to enter another—in physical, material/economic, or psychological sense.

Elena in the Neapolitan novels aspires to make it big in a man’s world, which at first means modeling herself after male authors: “[n]o one knew better than I did what it meant to make your own head masculine so that it would be accepted by the culture of men" (2014, 77.3). Eventually, in a process reminscent of Cixous’ écriture feminine, she finds her own literary voice in dialogue with her best friend, the brilliant Lila who wants to disappear. Forming and erasing the self go hand in hand in these texts. 

Erasing to Create

The word cancellare, which means removing or erasing, as Stiliana Milkova (2016) writes. Often, the words has violent connotations, and it is almost always connected tot the women featured in her work. Thus, The Lying Life of Adults starts with the protagonist Giovanna’s quest for traces of her unknown aunt, whose face, she discovers, has been scratched through in all her father’s photographs. It is as though she never existed.

Art works literary but also visual, also play a prominent role in all Ferrante’s works Often, women are depicted by male artists according to familiar European traditions in painting: scarcely dressed, weirdly cut off at the wrists and ankles, literally framed and objectified, and served on a platter for the male gaze. The female characters that populare Ferrante’s fictional universe do something markedly different. Cancellare becomes a collective process of creation, effectuating a reversal of the male gaze.

Amalia, Delia’s mother in Troubling Love, is made object of a kitschy painting of a gypsy woman, created by her husband. In a key passage in which Delia starts to better understand her mother after she has passed away, she discovers a passport photo from which Amalia has scratched through her own face. Delia realized her mother has erased her own features to open up a space for her daughter’s, who is allowed to find and form her own identity. The novel ends with an art work created by Delia, who transforms a photograph of her mother to gradually reveal her own likeness. Delia and Amalia are bound by a process of artistic creation that transcends their (formerly problematic) blood ties.

In the second volume of the Neapolitan Novels, The Story of a New Name, a monumentally enlarged photograph of Lila as a bride is displayed in her husband’s shoe store, a gesture through which she is made merchandise for her husband and his Camorra friends. Lila invites her friend Elena to transform the photograph in a dialogical cut- and paste session with black tape, radically fragmenting her body and   “present[ing] her own self-destruction in an image” (2013, 26.4).

Ferrante’s ‘disappearing act’ does more than open up a creative space for the author herself: her invisibility warrants that attention is divided over multiple creators.

Lila’s disembodied body, fragmented and alienated, becomes an image of all women. She symbolizes the female body as well as the violence that is done to it. Lila’s creation-through-destruction enables her to escape the prison of the male gaze, to give herself form as a subject instead of object. The Neapolitan novels themselves, finally, are created in a similar process by which Elena reanimates the lost writings of her friend. She resurrects Lila’s erased texts by over-writing them. For the reader, it becomes impossible to distinguish between their voices: these are entangled and diffract each other in the resulting text. Lila’s wish to vanish has opened up space for Elena to shine.

Translators in the spotlights

Ferrante’s own ‘disappearing act’ likewise does more than open up a creative space fort he author herself: her invisibility warrants that attention is divided over multiple creators. Creativity is no longer a matter of one genius author on a pedestal and many invisible hands behind the scenes. In the US, translator Ann Goldstein has achieved some fame in the literary world, as she is asked to function as a stand-in for the absent author at press and media events.

After the presentation of the Dutch translation last Monday in Utrecht, readers asked translators Miriam Bunnik and Mara Schepers to sign their newly purchased copies. "Sometimes we feel a bit like Lila and Lenu'" Miriam laughed. Miriam and Mara really translate every sentence together, they spend hours and hours (presently through Skype), read the passages to each other, enter into debates on a single word. Completely in the style of Ferrante’s heroines, these brilliant friends plan their creative sessions when their small children are napping.

Elsewhere I compare Ferrante to Knausgaard, whose epic Struggle to create time and space (a room of his own) for writing as a modern European daddy has been deemed a  heroic achievement. Ferrante is no less heroic in her struggle, but definitely more inclusive: much like Lila, like Amalia, she erases her own face so that other women can become visible in the public sphere; and so that they get to fill in their own stories where the author’s life story remains open.

References

Bax, Sander. De Literatuur Draait Door. De Schrijver in het Mediatijdperk. Prometheus, 2019.

Ferrante, Elena, Het leugenachtige leven van volwassenen. Vert. Miriam Bunnik & Mara Schepers. Wereldbibliotheek, 2020.

Ferrante, Elena. The Story of a New Name. 2012. Trans. Ann Goldstein. New York: Europa Editions, 2013.

Ferrante, Elena. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. 2013. Trans. Ann Goldstein. New York: Europa Editions, 2014. Ebook.

Ferri, Sandro, Sandra Ozzola, & Eva Ferri. ‘Elena Ferrante, Art of Fiction No. 228’. The Paris Review Issue 212, 2015.

Milkova, Stiliana.“Elena Ferrante’s Visual Poetics: Ekphrasis in Troubling Love, My Bril­liant Friend, and The Story of a New Name.” In The Works of Elena Ferrante: Reconfiguring the Margins, edited by Grace Russo Bullaro and Stephanie Love, 159–82. New York: Palgrave, 2016.