For the past few weeks, I have been reading Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and I am sorry to say I finished book four yesterday evening and now I don’t know what to do with myself. I’ve been so immersed in the lives of its rich cast of characters, I don’t want to leave them.
I think I will probably read everything Ferrante’s written that’s translated into English.
The fact that Lena is telling the story, and that narrative subverts stereotypical notions of female friendship—friendship is forever, steady and uncomplicated—feels radical. What made you want to mine this material in this way?
Lena is a complex character, obscure to herself. She takes on the task of keeping Lila in the net of the story even against her friend’s will. These actions seem to be motivated by love, but are they really? It has always fascinated me how a story comes to us through the filter of a protagonist whose consciousness is limited, inadequate, shaped by the facts that she herself is recounting, though she doesn’t feel that way at all. My books are like that: the narrator must continually deal with situations, people, and events she doesn’t control, and which do not allow themselves to be told. I like stories in which the effort to reduce experience to story progressively undermines the confidence of she who is writing, her conviction that the means of expression at her disposal are adequate, and the conventions that at the start made her feel safe.
Friendship between women can be particularly fraught. Unlike men, women tell each other everything. Intimacy is our currency, and as such, we are uniquely skilled in eviscerating each other.
Friendship is a crucible of positive and negative feelings that are in a permanent state of ebullition. There’s an expression: with friends God is watching me, with enemies I watch myself. In the end, an enemy is the fruit of an oversimplification of human complexity: the inimical relationship is always clear, I know that I have to protect myself, I have to attack. On the other hand, God only knows what goes on in the mind of a friend. Absolute trust and strong affections harbor rancor, trickery, and betrayal. Perhaps that’s why, over time, male friendship has developed a rigorous code of conduct. The pious respect for its internal laws and the serious consequences that come from violating them have a long tradition in fiction. Our friendships, on the other hand, are a terra incognita, chiefly to ourselves, a land without fixed rules. Anything and everything can happen to you, nothing is certain. Its exploration in fiction advances arduously, it is a gamble, a strenuous undertaking. And at every step there is above all the risk that a story’s honesty will be clouded by good intentions, hypocritical calculations, or ideologies that exalt sisterhood in ways that are often nauseating.
“Our friendships, on the other hand, are a terra incognita, chiefly to ourselves, a land without fixed rules,” she says about women’s friendships. Hmmmm. I guess I do not know about the traditional rules of male friendships. Generally, most of the female friendships I have do have some fixed rules, i.e. we are kind to each other, forbear one another, are supportive —the rules are basic Christian courtesy and treating others as we would be treated.
The novels tell about relationships where most of the characters, either male or female, exercise little emotional self-control in their behavior towards one another. Nor are they inhibited by traditional moral strictures such as fidelity to one’s spouse, etc. Yet, there are also beautiful examples of character and enduring love as well as betrayal and emotional cruelty. While some of the characters go to Mass or have a Catholic wedding and have their children Baptized,for the narrator of the story, the narrator is not religious and does not have a church wedding.
The terrain she describes is closer to the kind of friendships and relationships I had before my religious conversion and in the early stages when I was still wandering around as a lonely pilgrim and Gnostic. Glad those days are over.