I. Last December, I flew from New York to Milan with a desire I sought to satisfy as soon as I landed. I wanted to read the fourth and final book of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, just published and not yet translated in English.
I couldn’t find it either at the airport or the central station. Catching a train just in time, I began my trip to my Italian home, a little medieval village in the foothills of the Apennines in northernmost Tuscany. No bookstore there. During a fifteen-minute stopover in Parma, I hopped a cab to the Feltrinelli bookstore; waiting impatiently for the clerk to locate Ferrante’s novel, I noticed another book. Its cover showed the sensual curve of a pale female body, nude against a dark background. The title was Autobiografia erotica di Aristide Gambìa (The erotic autobiography of Aristide Gambìa), and its author was Domenico Starnone.
I had heard rumors that Starnone could be the writer behind the pseudonym Elena Ferrante. Was it possible that the author of a fictional man’s “erotic autobiography” could be the author of a quartet of books about two Neapolitan women in a highly complicated lifelong friendship? I bought both books and read them in a few days: first Storia della bambina perduta (translated by Ann Goldstein as The Story of the Lost Child last year)—I had to finish the quartet!—and then Starnone’s novel.
Unexpectedly, the latter turned out to be much more complicated than I’d expected and also provoked questions about identity: his characters’, my country’s, and my own.
Autobiografia erotica di Aristide Gambìa is the story of the struggle of an unnamed author who is attempting to write a novel about a man and a woman, Aristide and Mariella. The first two parts of the book are narrated in the third person, with occasional slippages into the first person—the voice of Aristide himself.
In the first part, “An Old Friend from Ferrara,” Aristide receives a letter from Mariella in which she tells him, to his surprise, that they know each other; in fact, they’d once had a sexual tryst. They agree to meet in Rome, where he works as an editor; there, they talk about and reconstruct a long-ago encounter that at first Aristide deems meaningless. The story’s language grows more and more sexually explicit, particularly as Aristide and Mariella begin spending time together—each character rediscovering the Neapolitan dialect neither has spoken for years.
In the second part, “The Nice Company of Women,” the reader follows other stories of Aristide’s erotic life. The third part, “My Mother,” only two and a half pages long, is narrated by a woman, Mariella’s daughter, and sets up the novel’s finale.
And so to part four, where the reader finally meets the fictional author of the Aristide-Mariella story. I’ll call him DS, as he’s an implicit stand-in for the actual Domenico Starnone, and he narrates an intriguing new story: Aristide and Mariella, DS explains, are based on something that really happened to him. A while ago, in the Feltrinelli bookstore in Naples, at a celebration of the store’s opening, he’d encountered a woman named Filomena. She seemed to be expecting to see him there, and she reminded him of a one-time sexual tryst they’d had thirty years earlier. Before leaving, Filomena handed him a dense two-page letter describing her memory of their encounter. It contained no mention of her full name, no e-mail address, no phone number. Nothing.
DS is struggling to shape his female character Mariella, and he looks again at the letter Filomena gave him. He regrets letting her leave without asking her more questions. “Si farà viva, of this I’m sure,” he thinks. This phrase is usually translated into English as she’ll get in touch, but here it might more accurately (and literally) be rendered as she’ll make herself alive. The expression itself suggests something to DS: “One is not alive, one makes oneself alive.” He takes notes on this idea:
To work on unrefined life. To make a beginning, overcome obstacles, cross boundaries, give oneself a structure, move consciously toward an end. That’s something, both in everyday life and even more in a story.
Ultimately, he realizes it’s unlikely that the female character he’s vainly looking for could make herself alive in his mind. “Maybe,” he concludes, “a man can write of women only by chasing his own phantoms, only by excluding women he knows.”
In the final pages of part four (revealingly titled “The Untraceable Ones”—in Italian it’s clear these are women), DS is on vacation. He needs to detach, he says, from his work on Autobiografia after years of writing unsatisfying drafts. One day he receives a call from a journalist telling him of an article in La Stampa that asserts that he has written not only his own books, but also the ones published under the name of Elena Ferrante. The article’s author compares Ferrante’s Troubling Love and Starnone’s Via Gemito (published eight years later), noting similarities. He asserts confidently that the author of both is
a man who wears woman’s dresses, looks at himself in the mirror, makes up his face, and begins following her existential itinerary: the emotions, the thoughts, the memories, and bends the style [of his writing] to a feminine shape and sensitivity, in an act of immersion in the other sex, to be able to live, feel, and write like her.
In short: just at the moment DS is about to renounce the novel he’s been working on, frustrated by an awareness that he can’t bring to life the central female character in his story, he is accused of being Elena Ferrante. As the real Domenico Starnone has repeatedly done, the fictional DS also denies that he is she. DS admits there are similarities: “Campania, Naples, the fifties, the petit-bourgeois milieu, the same period pieces, the same dialect echoing in our sentences.” And when that doesn’t appease the journalists, DS calls the owners of Ferrante’s publishing house, counting on a long friendship with them: “Guys, let’s finish this, let me talk with her, whoever she is: I’m really tired of this.” Alas, he reports: “They listened, they were sorry for my being so upset, ask us anything else—they said—but this no, it’s not possible…”
Resentful and curious about “that woman’s” work, DS starts rereading Ferrante. Years before, reading La frantumaglia, a collection of her interviews and essays, he’d written the word attractive next to a passage; and now, as he rereads her novels, he is increasingly surprised by his attraction—a word that has, for him, nothing to do with literature:
I was attracted by those pages as one is attracted by a gesture, a gait, a voice, a scent of woman. While reading, I was absorbing not only plot, characters, views, dialogues, but, inseparably, the person who instilled in the writing her sexual specificity…. I was seduced by her…. I had little or no interest in whether the books had any value…. I perceived the physical presence of the author together with that of her character, confusing one with the other, and this effect was created with such tenacious determination that it could please or repel you, but not leave you indifferent. For me—I admitted it at a certain point—I liked it. I was reading and, almost without realizing it, perceiving Elena Ferrante.
I saw a woman with the blackest hair, slanted eyes, the moist sensuality of Neapolitan women, with violet circles under their eyes, who crowded my childhood and adolescence. I sensed her physicality; I perceived her heat. She was an unstable figure, I couldn’t describe her accurately though she seemed familiar, reachable. She too had pulled herself out of the depths of Naples. She dressed herself carefully, paying attention to every detail; she was so sophisticated that one would think of her as a lady born and raised in tawny, bright, cultured Mitteleuropa: a lady very well-read, multilingual, full of a cool dispassionate intelligence; and yet, voilà, when she was writing, she’d turn back into someone dark, unkempt, spilling over into dirty allusive dialect, unshaven, smelly, her heavy breasts barely contained in worn-out bras, her softly undulating belly beneath underwear with loose elastic at the groin, her packed thick hair, the reek of arousal.
DS sympathizes with Ferrante’s readers’ irritated reaction to the idea that he could be Elena Ferrante: “the suggestion that they had put their hand not down Elena Ferrante’s underpants but my underpants seemed totally repellent.” Yet he sees an opportunity: he can remodel his character Mariella into a writer, a female writer known by a pseudonym. “Who can prevent me from overdoing it and using the name Elena Ferrante?”
DS dives into his act of revenge: “Here we go,” he thinks as he begins “transforming Ferrante’s phantom into a true, living character.” Things grow even more complicated. Revisiting an erotic scene from Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment—a book he’d read and liked years earlier—DS recalls the two pages left by Filomena, the woman he’d encountered at Feltrinelli in Naples. The same style, he thinks. The same descriptions and comparisons of various male behaviors, the similar idioms, the same obscenities. Filomena was, had to be, Elena Ferrante: “She’d left those pages just to demonstrate to me, ironically, our closeness. A literary game. A charade: if I wanted to understand I would, if not, not.”
When the game burns out (“What am I doing, a philological reading like the one in La Stampa?” ), DS considers what’s more likely to have happened: the pages were written by one of Elena Ferrante’s readers. Naturally they’d contain passages from her books, just as those books themselves echo passages from previous books: “Imagination is a dirty mess…and writing is a product of a hallucinatory machine,” he concludes.
DS takes another long break, sometimes working on the second part of Autobiografia. More and more, though, he’s certain he can’t create original female characters wanting to “make themselves alive.” Instead, he tries to focus on the story of Aristide Gambìa himself, “a petit-bourgeois little man who participates, full of hesitation, in the sexual liberation of the sixties” and is now, on the threshold of old age, pondering how difficult it is to talk about sexuality, “since every word tastes of vulgarity, not of pleasure or pain.” Aristide observes that “the decline of discretion, of secrecy, of concealment, occurred in the realm of sex before any other sector of communal life.”
I read Aristide’s words one morning when the village was more solitary than usual. The other residents—nine, in wintertime—happened to be away, and my wife hadn’t yet arrived from New York.
Concealment, discretion, secrecy: I found myself thinking of Epicurus’s advice, lathe biosas: “live in obscurity.” And of our generation—mine, Ferrante’s, DS’s, and Starnone’s, and also Arisitide and Mariella, and Ferrante’s protagonists too, all of us among the ‘68ers. We had been determined “to uproot the most threatening taboos,” yet to what end?
When—Aristide Gambìa wonders—did all of that become…
a new mask covering fragility and anguish?
Dissimulation—the incessant wearing of masks—is for Aristide the epitome of a sexist mentality. As he realizes, Italy’s most obvious symbol of this is Silvio Berlusconi: “the kind of man… who fucks your wife with his eyes, while he talks to her he touches her… who utilizes any means to win, and basks in seeing you defeated.” Near the end of Autobiografia, DS has his protagonist admit he’s not that different from his scorned president, with
the same urge to feel I’m the best, starting with the use of the cock… Affirming myself, only and always me, reducing others to puppets… shadows, walk-ons, even my children, only myself there… armored against any loss and the pain of loss, any loss, even of loved people… I protect myself against others, seeing in them not them but what in them is useful to me. What I detest [in Berlusconi] is what the best part of me detests in me.
In Aristide’s confession I could feel the shame of the best men of our generation.
Autobiografia ends with an abrupt withdrawal on DS’s part. “I wrote one or two pages and ran aground,” DS reports. “My neck was sore, and my right hand, and my stomach too. And as far as sex was concerned, to be honest, I didn’t, I don’t care anymore.” This is perhaps the most open—and honest—ending that Domenico Starnone could write. He has unveiled DS, but he knows how hard it is to suppress or destroy the male instinct to hide insecurity and fragility. As an Italian male of his generation, I found myself deeply admiring Starnone’s capacity for self-exploration, and his fearlessness as well: the book doesn’t avoid but heads directly into self-loathing. DS offers a pitiless view of the male imagination of his (our) generation, for which the complex process of female emancipation in the sixties and seventies was often reduced to nothing more than a shocking increase in the availability and supply of (hetero) sex. This was the worst part of the ‘68ers, radicalized when young and living through myriad national disasters, including the so-called Years of Lead (when terrorism maimed and killed citizens all over Italy): it became, and is, a cohort full of male pretense.
Like Aristide and DS, both of Ferrante’s protagonists, Lenù and Lila, are tired by the end of their long story. Neither woman is interested any longer in trying to effect a compromise with the predominant male culture. Lila wants “to delete herself.” Yet Lenù, and we readers with her, can hope that Lila’s way of living—in obscurity—is both necessary and effective in allowing for an authentic life.
II. Italian is my mother tongue, but I encountered Ferrante’s work only when I moved to New York from Italy.
I’d come to New York for reasons of grief and love. When the woman I’d been married to and loved for four decades died a year earlier, I’d realized I had to leave Cremona, my home city. Spaces I’d shared with Valeria, where I’d worked, where my children were born and grew up, where the river we loved—the Po—flows, and where every street, building, sound, and face, every word spoken in the rough monotonal dialect of my city, had become unbearable.
As usually happens only in novels, I was able, across the ocean, to find another happiness. I married an American woman and followed her to a new country and a new city. Yet there remained the question of Italy—and there, too, I decided to transplant myself. After a chance visit to Lunigiana, a hilly, wooded region where I could no longer see the extended northern plain or the grand lazy Po, my wife and I ended up restoring a stone house in a near-deserted medieval village.
Cremona remained within, of course. When I was a young boy, my father and I used to climb its Torrazzo, the tallest brick tower in Europe—a skyscraper that provoked awe as far back as the thirteenth century. The strenuousness of the ascent was compensated by the quiet thrill of being up there, separated from everything below. Spread out below us, hidden, invisible, was a thick web of relations among my city’s inhabitants, most of whom I knew nothing about. High up there, I still remember the perturbing scent of the unknown, and a vague yet seductive feeling of estrangement.
Sixty years later, reading The Story of the Lost Child in the isolation of a region where I knew no one and no one knew me, I appreciated all the more Ferrante’s commitment to her anonymity. And I felt it was connected, though I wasn’t sure how, with her two protagonists’ own estrangement from their social and political contexts, and their search—risky, dangerous, imperative—for authenticity and liberation.
At the center of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels is something she revealed twenty years earlier in La frantumaglia: “I narrate, today, a feminine I who suddenly becomes aware of her derangement, loses a sense of time, doesn’t feel organized, perceives herself as a vortex of debris, a whirlwind of thoughts-words. And then all at once she stops and starts again from a new balance.”
This is the pattern recurring through the quartet narrated by Lenù, which charts her challenging friendship with Lila. They will love and hate and need each other for over five decades; though their lives head in totally different directions, they keep finding points of intimate reconnection. Their working-class neighborhood in Naples with its intertwined relations and its violence, the city as a whole, the sweep of Italy’s postwar social and political history—all these are the stage for this fascinating and disturbing saga.
By the time the reader arrives at the fourth novel, Lila is a powerful, even feared presence in the neighborhood. Then comes a day when, as Lenù says, “the earthquake—the earthquake of November 23, 1980, with its infinite destruction—entered into our bones.”
It was on that occasion that [Lila] resorted to [the term dissolving boundaries] for the first time… She wanted me to understand what the dissolution of boundaries meant and how much it frightened her… She said that the outlines of things and people were delicate, that they broke like cotton thread. She whispered that for her it had always been like that way, an object lost its edges and poured into another, into a solution of heterogeneous materials, a merging and mixing. She exclaimed that she had always had to struggle to believe that life had firm boundaries, for she had known since she was a child that it wasn’t like that—it was absolutely not like that…. Ah, what is the real world, Lenù, [l’abbiamo visto adesso, we’ve seen it now], nothing, nothing, nothing about which we can say conclusively: it’s like this.
Ferrante takes words like dissolving boundaries and crumbling from the Neapolitan dialect of her lessico familiare (family sayings)—the only language fully able to express the strong emotions of her two women. “My mother would use another word, she’d say frantumaglia” (loosely translatable as a crumbled mess: “Your heart crumbles; you can’t stand being with yourself, and you have certain thoughts you can’t speak.”
Lila’s hypersensitive perception of her own materiality during that event, along with her terrible loss and grief: all this brought to the surface my own fragmented memories.
My children and I knew what was going to happen, but since Valeria didn’t want to talk about it, none of us did. For forty years I’d experienced her sunniness; her death left me incredulous, spinning in a void, suffocating from absurdity. For the first time I felt the bite, the teeth and jaws, of solitude, which even my children couldn’t have pried open. Spaces I’d been passing through my whole life now seemed disturbingly new, as if everything around me were losing form and sense.
A few pages, intense and frantic, take the reader to the climax of the Neapolitan novels, Lila’s daughter’s disappearance. “I don’t know how to recount Lila’s grief,” says Lenù. “The grief couldn’t coagulate around anything.”
The decade after that vanishing brings a series of traumatic events that shatter both women’s lives. Several people in the neighborhood are murdered; lovers leave. At one point Lenù speaks with Lila about her daughter Imma: “If Imma leaves me, too, my life will no longer have meaning. But [Lila] smiled: Where is it written that lives should have a meaning?”
And yet Lila is trying to give meaning to her life.
In La frantumaglia, recounting an episode from her youth—one that makes its way into My Brilliant Friend, the quartet’s first volume—Ferrante quotes Walter Benjamin: “Not knowing how to orient yourself in a city doesn’t really matter…. But getting lost in it as you lose yourself in a forest, that’s really something you have to learn.”
One day, motivated by both disobedience and love, Ferrante drove herself and her sister out of their neighborhood and into the labyrinth of the unknown city. They were caught in a storm.
Back then… I first became aware of the city…I would get to know it while getting lost…. Several times I’d take the wrong roads not because I didn’t know how to go home, but because the known space felt my anxiety and would open up wrong routes in front of me, and the wrong routes were also desired mistakes, the chance to escape from my mother, to never go home again but to melt myself nastily in the streets, in all my most secret thoughts.
Melting herself in the streets: for Lila, Naples itself takes on a new significance in the fourth novel, when, in her fifties, she begins roaming the city alone for hours, then secluding herself to study and write about its history. That history is layered. The Romans took from the Greek Naples—the ancient “Neapolis” founded five centuries before Christ—the substance of their culture. As Benjamin Taylor writes in Naples Declared, the Romans absorbed the Greek Naples’s “vitalistic pessimism… the gift for facing without false hope the conditions of humanity.” In the periphery of Naples is Herculaneum, where—after archeologists discovered fragments among papyruses removed from the ashes and lava that buried Pompeii as well—Stephen Greenblatt passionately imagines Lucretius writing On the Nature of Things, his celebration of Epicureanism. He wrote it, Greenblatt supposes, in the library of the Villa dei Papiri. That library was no doubt a serene oasis of pleasure, where the idea of lathe biosas suggested a radically new model of life.
Lenù senses that Lila’s choice to “delete herself” is no sterile refusal of a world losing its margins but rather an extreme means of rebellion. It’s a project that brings to mind The Bay Is Not Naples, a book by Anna Maria Ortese, which Ferrante has said she admires. In it, Ortese writes with anger and disgust about Naples' desperate conditions and the incapacity of its public intellectuals, all male, to face the city’s problems with strength and determination. “If I were ever able to write again about that city,” Ferrante has stated, “I’d try to construct a text capable of exploring the direction Ortese pointed to in those pages.”
Digging through layers of earth and centuries of abuses and violence, Lila is fulfilling her own progetto spropositato (outsized project), as Lenù calls it —an excavation of Naples’s real nature and resources, still present in its spirits. Those spirits, as she says, “existed… not in the palaces, or in the alleys… [but] in people’s ears, in the eyes when the eyes looked inside and not out, in the voice as soon as it begins to speak, in the head when it thinks, because words are full of ghosts but so are images.” They are the “children, spirits or demons” that Ortese writes about in her novel The Lament of the Linnet—“mute witnesses in the desert of suffering.”
Thinking of Lila’s self-deletion and Ortese’s mute witnesses to suffering, I recalled my paternal grandmother, Antonia.
She gave birth to my father—un figlio di n.n. (padre ignoto), as they used to say in Italy: the son of an unknown father—when she was thirty-seven, in 1916. This small tenacious woman—I remember her, all crouched, sitting on a little chair near the stove, her black eyes always alerted for something—decided to keep the child of the married man she loved desperately. (When he died prematurely, she wasn’t allowed to see him in his coffin.) I believe that in the small city of Urbino, everyone knew what had happened; but it was a taboo that couldn’t be violated.
I knew nothing of this story—not from my father, nor my mother, nor my grandmother. Only shortly before her own death did my mother tell me these facts, not knowing (or ignoring?) that when I was young, I’d heard her yell at my father during a furious fight that he was a bastard and his mother a whore.
My father fled Urbino, where he was always and only a bastard, and settled in Cremona. He worked as a teacher—this is all I know of his first thirty years—and my mother, eighteen when she entered his life, was an exile from Milan, where her family’s house had been bombed during the war. My father embraced the same patriarchal and sexist society that had defined him as a bastard. My mother, too, ended up confined to a role that perpetuated an uneasy subordination to the men in her life.
“Only once, if I remember correctly, did a woman plan a polis,” writes Ferrante in La Frantumaglia. That woman, Dido, planned a new city, Carthage, based on social justice and on eliminating the violence of Tyre, the Phoenician city of her origins, where her husband was murdered.
Her story is tragic. When Aeneas shows up on the shore of Carthage, a refugee from Troy, she falls in love. She deceives herself that they will together build this new city. Aeneas leaves Dido to fulfill the mission ordained by the Fates: to found the city of Rome. Unable to bear his departure, Dido kills herself. As she dies, she curses the new city with a destiny of blood, hatred, and revenge.
Virgil’s story of Carthage… tells us… what happens when love—the thread by which we lose ourselves and find ourselves again—is banned, breath becomes fire, the pact of civil life dissolves.… I’m convinced that the mistake of every new city… lies in its claim to be a city of love without any possibility of labyrinths either painful or intricate, only space for joys, no furies in ambush…. For Dido I would wish a different ending than killing herself with Aeneas’s sword. I’d imagine she could chase away the furies, find love again, learn the art of getting in and out of bewilderment.
Years before creating Lila and Lenù, Ferrante urged her female readers:
We need to learn how to talk proudly of our complexity, of how it shapes our citizenship in both joy and fury…. Even in a potential feminine city that will redeem the past… [it would be a] shortcut to women to put in brackets the dark side of the feminine, imagining ourselves only as organisms of good feeling, skillful masters of niceness.
Of course, for the two protagonists themselves, things are not so easily summed up. Yet at the end of the fourth book in the quartet, a last, unexpected event occurs—in the epilogue, in the tradition of Greek tragedies, a deus ex machina dissolves Lenù’s depressive fog and allows for a glimmer of hope that Lila, at least, may be able to avoid defeat by “[breaking] her confines… living in old age, according to a new truth, the life that in youth had been forbidden to her and that she had forbidden herself.”
Is this the last tile in Ferrante’s puzzling mosaic of authorial identity? Lila does seem to be Elena Ferrante: both have chosen to live and write in obscurity, separated from a world that disgusts them, pleased by simple things, and free from insincere simulations, even (or perhaps mostly) with regard to sex. Lila’s choice may, like Ferrante’s, seem arrogant, but is the only reasonable choice for Lila to make if she’s to keep alive the dream of changing the neighborhood, Naples, and, by extension, the rest of the patriarchal and violent world. To Lila, who “stood out among so many because she, naturally, did not submit to any training, to any use, or to any purpose,” Ferrante entrusts this outsized task. To Lila, and by extension to any and all women in whom there is a suppressed Lila.
“What a fuss for a name,” says Lila to Lenù in reference to her friend’s fame as a writer. “It’s only a ribbon tied around a sack randomly filled with blood, flesh, words, shit, and petty thoughts.” What a fuss, indeed. In Ferrante’s quartet, female identity turns its back on insignificant details of public existence, privileging those of the inner life. Lila is that which in Lenù is dormant, unable to fully express itself; and that which, too, can be renamed. Though we aren’t often reminded of this, Lila’s legal name is Raffaella—a name that might’ve been a kind of noose around her neck, were she not able so consistently to slip it.
Elena-Lenù, Lina-Lila-Raffaella: all no more than names. What matters, Lila realizes, is what names and forms hide. Not so far, perhaps, from DS, who keeps applying different names to women he’s trying to bring to life—realizing that he can only get so close, but trying anyway.
III. On moonlit nights in the borgo, I take pleasure wandering the cobblestone lane sloping down from the castle. I listen to the donkeys’ braying, the owl’s shrill call, the croak of a deer in heat, the close swish of bats.
The dark profile of the last house on the lane appears to me as it has always been, a bulwark against unknown enemies. My own house, at the opposite end, is protected at its back by the medieval castle’s bulk and, to one side, by the borgo’s church with its serene late-eighteenth-century façade.
My neighbors are people who in a different context could appear eccentric and desperate, yet to me are extraordinary. A mother and son, illiterate, working their landlord’s property; the owner of the castle, proud yet melancholic (full of ideas yet lacking funds to fix a leaky roof); an elderly woman who each day wears dresses bequeathed to her by a local noblewoman for whom she served as chaperone; a young couple from eastern Europe who’re always together with their children at the end of each work-day—struggling to make ends meet yet determined to keep believing that labor has and is value.
Halfway down the hilliest part of the village’s central lane lives a shy man in his early sixties. He seldom speaks more than a sentence or two. Lately, he’s grown interested in the peculiar world that enters his house through his cable TV. One day I found him outside, looking inside through his front window. He was watching an Arabic channel, he explained; the words meant nothing to him, but he liked the images.
He has no partner or dog, no identity either to protect or to promote. He’s a citizen, living in obscurity, of our borgo and of the world. Is he happy or unhappy, fulfilled or unfulfilled? Were he asked, I imagine he’d have no idea what to answer.