Undoing Feminism: The Neapolitan Novels of Elena Ferrante.
Keywords: Postfeminism, Ferrante, Morante, Ramondino, sisterhood, influence.
A constant physical and emotional brawl between the bodies of Elena and Lila and the heavy shape of Naples, a city always on the verge of social eruption, sets Ferrante's four novels against the backdrop of a blandly recounted contemporary Italian history. The main narrative is composed of the process of reminiscence of nearly fifty years of Elena Greco's vicissitudes. Her tough apprenticeship and social affirmation as well as her personal continuous introspection reveal all the harshness in the life of a female writer. Constantly revisiting her permanent legacy and relationship with the urban magma of Naples, Elena Ferrante conceives her character's attachment to the rione--the neighborhood in which she is born--as both a physical and mental form of submission to its laws. This is the wall, the barrier, against which Elena must constantly fight to perform all rites of passage in her life. A rione is difficult, but necessary, to part from in order to assert one's own identity. Elena embarks on a journey of social ascent which is individual and personal, although she considers her friendship with Lila as a catalyst for such success. Without Lila and her writings, Elena's success could not exist. However, the unleashing of vehement passions commands a great deal of pages in what many read as a narrative of "friendship." While it is unquestionable that friendship is a relevant topic, one needs to unravel the intricacies of such friendship in order to understand Ferrante's relationship with women and how she constructs her characters: women are passionate and sanguine, men are usually spineless and constitute a necessary nuisance to women's lives. To be able to conceive a friendship that lies outside men's classic interpretation of such intersubiectivity from Aristotle onward means to create a dissonance in the social values that have been taken for granted all along. The Neapolitan cycle speaks of individual affirmation and a sisterhood of souls whose narrative rhythm, in a game of baroque concavities and convexities, of aversion and fascination, of repulsion and attraction, constructs in the readers' mind the image of a wave and its undercurrent. The two friends' bond and their sense of rivalry, crucial and constructive for Elena, emerges in all its darker and baser aspects, even the stealing of a man from one's best friend. If the character of Elena cannot be taken for a full-fledged postfeminist, in fact quite the opposite, the structure and the weaving of the themes in this Vesuvian antipastoral (Iovino 112) convince us that the time of what Angela McRobbie calls "spectral" feminism has now long gone (61). A postfeminist women's desire for self-affirmation without victimization lies at the core of the novels and attracts especially the interest of Ferrante's younger public, unacquainted with much previous feminist writing and thought. A complex relationship between the emancipatory power of sisterly friendship and the desire for the individual assertion of a woman threads the sisterly relations between the character of Elena and her friend Lila.
As the character of Elena engages in a clever game of mirrored structures and agonistic inter-subjectivity with Lila, one remembers that in mirrors we see our image reversed because they "do not show our identical selves, but ourselves reversed" (Schweitzer 347). Elena uses the words and writings of her friend to build her own visibility. She literally uses Lila's talent to gain her personal social ascent, centered around the words composing her novels: "E il mio futuro era mettere insieme un romanzo in pochi mesi. E quel romanzo doveva essere molto buono" (Ferrante 2014: 210). Most importantly, it had to be "[u]n romanzo assolutamente estraneo al modo consueto di raccontare Napoli" (271). Just like her main character in the tetralogy, Elena Ferrante engages in sisterly relations: her relation deals with female writers and their submerged legacy. If we agree on Ferrante being the pen name of Anita Raja, Elena-the-author belongs biographically to a generation that lived through the second-wave feminism and Italian Women's Movement of the Seventies, now nostalgically studied. I am referring to the generation of Carla Lonzi's Sputiamo su Hegel (Let's Spit on Hegel). Nostalgia, however, is not part of the body of feelings that Ferrante and her character Elena share about the past. Ferrante makes clever use of female voices, chiefly those of Elsa Morante (Ferrante's pen name being a direct reference to her) and Fabrizia Ramondino, in an effective reshuffling and heavy intertextuality of their images and themes. Just as it pains Elena-the-character to acknowledge the merits of Lila for her individual success, so it pains Ferrante to overtly recognize the merit of Morante and Ramondino as her most direct sources. My puzzlement with Ferrante's studied re-orchestration of feminist tenets is simultaneously the key to her success among a younger public that is not cognizant of the Italian women's movement and the literary images composed in those years. Ferrante's reticence to admit such debt in her interviews, at best attenuated in the case of Morante and ignored in that of Ramondino, compels me out of a sense of justice to recognize the ambiguous and ambivalent worth of Ferrante's usual game of deconstruction and reincorporation of themes from other female writers. This is the case of the reworking of Simone de Beauvoir's La Femme rompue for Ferrante's The Days of Abandonment (Lucamante 2008). Ferrante's failure to acknowledge in her interviews, for instance in The Paris Review, the vast patrimony of women-authored novels depicting situations that she does not hesitate to re-read and re-write only reconfirms my philological conclusions on Ferrante's The Days of Abandonment. My argument is that, while drawing from other women's materials and relying on their artistic vein as a useful backdrop from which Ferrante's treatment of themes greatly profits, both the cycle's real author as well as her fictional character distance themselves (while claiming its importance) from an idea of kinship that can be detrimental to their individual success and visibility. While for Schweitzer and other feminist critics Ferrante's conceptualization of friendship could be seen as a still postfeminist one because it is "queer" in its refusal to settle gendered assumptions, for instance, the diktat by which all women care or should care for each other (Taylor in Schweitzer 359) and because betrayal, at some point, is even viewed as necessary for a kind of "antirelational ethics that points towards a politics beyond identity" (Roach in Schweitzer 359), I am wary of such optimistic statements.
Without overstating negative undertones that would frame Ferrante as a non-feminist author, I believe that, in order to understand the success of her quadrilogy and the threats it posits to a healthy idea of sisterhood, one needs to analyze the limits and strengths of its theoretical foundation. We are in dialogue with an author who responds neither to the tenets of feminism nor fully to those of postfeminism. Yet the Neapolitan quartet reveals a profoundly postmodernist frame: one that finds readers in the presence of a double tangle that queers female sisterhood and affirms the subject while considering feminism as a given. This represents a double tangle that claims individual originality for Ferrante's work while finding expression in other voices. But such originality could not exist without taking into consideration the achievements of the Italian feminism and yet, through a curious authorial slip of memory, we witness the careful omission in every interview of the acknowledgment of the influence of Fabrizia Ramondino's fundamental literary and essayistic writings. Ferrante's originality brings about the assumption that struggles for legal rights are, for contemporary female readers, a fait accompli. Women who consider women's struggle of the Seventies a thing of the past seem to be more concerned with visibility and vehement (negative) passions than anything else. The commercial, overwhelming consensus on the Neapolitan novels calls into question the Italian feminist theory of difference, its reading in postfeminist times, and a possible revision of the Symbolic. Angela McRobbie's reflections on current Western society's popularization of feminism in her The Aftermath of Feminism and Kim Toffoletti's subsequent statements sustain my argument concerning the ways in which Ferrante's female subjects rely on feminist influence to push their independence and self-reliance and trouble the very notion of sisterhood. Ferrante deploys the tools for women's social advancement while breaking free with the loyalty and trust for each other, the unspoken and spoken rules of a former understanding of feminist friendship. In current times, McRobbie states that "the female individualization processes require that young women become important to themselves" (60) and withhold a critique of feminism because they think society is no longer discriminating against them.
What McRobbie calls a "post-feminist masquerade" (63), in my view, concerns the visible alteration of thematic and formal elements linked to friendship that produces a kind of women's interaction removed from what Luisa Muraro theorized. Muraro's partire da se together with the practice of affidamento constitute an ideal starting point to understand how Ferrante recognizes as essential the lesson of feminism. The unsystematic incorporation of Muraro's theories in Elena's success story affords credibility to her writing. If it is still possible to speak of feminisms in our neoliberal era, it is so because we can draw a path from the sacred concepts of friendship and sorority leading up to how postfeminism made them functional to Elena's female individualization. In the relationship between Lila and Elena--double and opposing mirrors --the practice of affidamento and sisterhood coexist, but they appear modified to favor Elena's goals. The novels do not trouble but, in fact, perpetuate old forms of heterosexual desire in the dynamic of the system of characters living in the rione, and do not problematize the role of the transgender exemplified in the character of Alfonso, but present him as a version of Lila. Further, by situating her novels in a distant-but-not-too-distant space from Italian feminist thought, Ferrante unrolls a story in which she combines several characters from her previous novels to mold the characters of Elena and Lila. Ferrante orchestrates the plot of the quartet by making room and revisiting her older characters, from Delia to Leda to Olga, along with tropes that derive from their stories. If the recurring trope of the betrayed poverella, just as the reworking of the myth of Medea through Christa Wolf in The Days of Abandonment (I giorni dell'abbandono), the lost doll at the beach of The Lost Daughter (La figlia oscura), the cruel relationship of Delia with her mother of Troubling Love (L'amore molesto), up to ambiguous reflections made on the Neapolitan proletariat and the redolent incorporation of sceneggiata overtones do provide us with a holistic view of Ferrante's favorite themes, they do not, however, construct a worldview. What sustains the cycle is a confused notion of tenets valid a generation ago (when Delia and the other characters would be fictionally alive) juxtaposed to Elena's constant introspection into her deep, dark world. In this reshuffling of previous characters reappearing on stage organized in the quadrilogy, the Neapolitan novels try to dispel Fabrizia Ramondino's intellectual images of feminist sisterhood thanks to the unfolding of vehement passions; namely anger, envy, disgust, and disillusion much in the vein of Elsa Morante's narratives of obsessive loves and family relations constantly articulate the plot of Ferrante's stories. In the process, Ferrante operates a "dynamic transfer and transformation from a speech / text-in-context [...] to another one" (Linell 154) in which, for instance, it is not difficult to extricate Morante's legacy concerning the eternal theme of unrequited love. For both writers, unrequited love is a woman's lonely business. In postfeminist times, a woman's success, Ferrante seems to further infer, must be a solitary one, as well. Coherently to the idea of success as a solitary business, what Ferrante does not inherit from her second literary 'sister,' Fabrizia Ramondino, is the idea of a feminist sorority. For her character Elena, her bond with Lila, if sincere, is functional to her individual ascent, not a communal one. Ferrante's elaboration of tropes from Morante and Ramondino conjures up the history of individual affirmation of her character Elena. It also conjures up more than a thousand pages that add little to a perception of Italian women if not recasting them in a stereotypical story of competitiveness masqueraded under the pretense of the difficult and humble background. This is a motif that seems to function as an escamotage offered, in turn, by Naples's sad fame of poverty and restrictions that Ferrante often uses to justify her characters' most lowly feelings. There is no worldview because it is not clear even to the characters, except for Elena, what is at the core of their world. When Lila tears up in pieces her own picture in the shop in Piazza dei Martiri, for instance, she becomes neither a full-fledged feminist nor a postfeminist character, but comes across --in Elena's narration--as a hysterical woman constantly on the brink of a nervous breakdown (or smarginatura). (2) Friendship is not rethought within the frame of a worldview on Italian women, but consigned to readers as an inextricable bundle of bad and good feelings. Such representation is coherent with the construction of womanliness in general in the saga: it abides by the laws of the rione and society of those years. Both remain impermeable to changes, unless useful to Elena's ascent.
Mothers and Sisters
With the symbolic and the real mother (key quest and literary figure of women's feminist writing in the Seventies) being eliminated, the founding interpersonal relationship of the quadrilogy is constituted by two friends born in the same year. Their relationship starts in grade school: the mode in which their friendship will go on originates not in Lila's act of bravery in the search for the dolls in the dark basement, prologue to the entire cycle, but in Elena's trauma of her declassamento in the actual classroom. The declaration of Lila's superiority by maestra Oliviero in front of the whole class marks its beginning. Elena remembers, "Qualcosa mi convinse, allora, che se fossi andata sempre dietro a lei, alia sua andatura, il passo di mia madre, che mi era entrato nel cervello e non se ne usciva piU, avrebbe smesso di minacciarmi. Decisi che dovevo regolarmi su quella bambina, non perderla mai di vista, anche se si fosse infastidita e mi avesse scacciata" (Ferrante 2011: 42; emphasis added). For young Elena, it was imperative that she'd follow Lila's path: "Dovevo regolarmi su quella bambina, anche se si fosse infastidita e mi avesse scacciata" (40). (3) It is since grade school, then, that a revised practice of affidamento articulates the kinship between these two 'mean girls.' Mean girls exercise the power they don't have by ruling over other girls in the same position. Elena feigns submission to Lila, but she actually uses her. Reflecting on her decision made as a child, Elena says that relying on Lila could be seen as "[u]na maniera di reagire all'invidia, all'odio, e soffocarli. O forse travestii a quel modo il senso di subalternita, la fascinazione che subivo. Certo mi addestrai ad accettare di buon grado la superiorita di Lila in tutto, e anche le sue angherie" (L'amica geniale, 204). But Elena upsets her entrustment to Lila, and anger and ire reshuffle this practice several times reaching even the point of Elena disavowing her friend: "In tutti questi anni ho creduto che tu fossi la figura materna di cui avevo sempre sentito la necessita. Ho sbagliato, mia madre e migliore di te" (Ferrante 2014: 79). The legacy of life in the rione, that endemic malattia di fare male, is hard to give up. According to Elena, the feminine were, in fact, much more afflicted than the males by the syndrome of the oppressed. In the women of the rione, the need to prevaricate on the other as weak as they are, even through the use of an extraordinary physical violence, is a destructive force. Envy, jealousy, rivalry, competitiveness, but also affection and admiration for one another, "[u]na sorta di dichiarazione di indispensabilita" (272), brace Elena's narrative.
A Vesuvian Anti-Pastoral
The tangle turns out to be, therefore, twofold. To free oneself from the invisible walls of the rione-ghetto becomes the most difficult task in living and in relating for Elena. Ferrante then enjoys the opportunity to build postmodernist narrative fragments, and then envisions an open ending for some of them. Using the idea of the social novel to narrate the progressive distancing from the segregated ghetto (and successive comeback of Elena), the various parts take up and feed pivotal moments of the Italian historical and political fabric in a manner that at times, though with a different outcome due the hybridization between Morante's melodrama undertones and Ramondino's social engagement, recalls Marco Tullio Giordana's La meglio gioventu (2002), also an epic of the same generation. The six and a half-hour film mediates constantly, in fact, between high and popular culture in a way that I do not want to call feminized, but, nevertheless, weakens historical contents especially when compared to the cinematic production of the early eighties (i.e., Colpire al cuore, Ipugni in tasca). Free from the pretense of a politesse that is typical of the petty bourgeoisie, proletarian Elena utilizes the rione both as a psychological boundary and as the space of a phenomenal strategy for the recovery of those "fondali bassi." Ferrante talks about it in an interview with Goffredo Fofi. That of Ferrante, according to Paola Splendore is "a commercially successful project [...] having the status of a popular novel, not nourished by visions or ideologies, but rather that paraliterary matter of strong passions, love and betrayal." Tiziana de Rogatis offers further stylistic reason, namely that the four novels offer "a narrative that shows from within the dark core of our times, [...] that shows the connection between the particular and universal as today world's best writers do" (137).
In a space that could be scripted for neo-melodic star Mario Merola, nobody, even the measured and cerebral Elena, is afraid to reveal their envy, their jealousy, often anger and malice. This is the practice. Here, amid cries and meanness, Elena's apprenticeship is conducted. In her story of revenge and emancipation that she alone narrates, Elena knows she deserves success, and therefore recounts every mistake she made through a strenuous verification of her ability to study and to narrate. In order to free oneself from the legacy of the rione, it is not enough to reach education and obtain a degree in Classics at the Scuola Normale of Pisa. Education, fundamental in the saga as it should be, since it is the asset for social mobility in Italian culture, does not suffice. To assert her independence and emancipation from the traditional family structure, something has to change with respect to the very concept of the family. Not only the professional achievement, then, but also the links of the family understood in the traditional way are dissolved, first in the case of Lila, then in that of Elena. In the fourth volume, we arrive at a concept of extended family. In this new type of family, Elena's girls become those of Lila and vice versa, at least until the disappearance of Tina. In the end, after a series of trials evocative of the picaresque novel, Elena has to go back to the rione. Only within the rione, the local dimension perceived by Adriana Cavarero as an "interactive space generated by communication with the other" (223), can Elena determine that for a moral revenge, a successful female individual should be able to recognize that the concept of family she inherited no longer holds because it disappeared in its own existential condition. For that, there is the need for a different relationship with the family, with the house, with friends. The stitches composing the family widen and smarginano, this time in a positive way, the compact image of an institution designed for the control of woman.
The Moon and the Sun: Dark Lila, Radiant Elena
The success of the structure depends in part on the balance created by the author in the narration of opposite and symmetrical forces between Lila and Elena, between hot and cold, between the light-emitted solar intelligence and mediated by Elena, and the lunar and ingenious Lila. The particular saga of the two girls and their families draws us into the emotional waves entering and exiting the rione. This wave characterizes the charm of these novels: it draws the reader into the intellectual and psychological vortex that entangles Elena. An Elena that, in reality, bonds with no one, except with Lila, whose energy since childhood nourishes Elena and her identity. They are each other's suns. Elena, however, despite the feelings that bind her to Lila, whose disappearance will compel her need to write the friend in the attempt to materialize her, does not build, as de Rogatis states instead, "a polyphonic narrative, dual, thanks to which Elena's narrating voice doubles up with the narrating voice of her friend" (131). Her voice seems to split in two; her soul
seems to ache for Lila, but, in my view, it does not. The supremacy of the voice remains that of Elena, firmly anchored to her narrative that begins, as in Troubling Love with Delia, at the time of the disappearance of the woman from whom she took so much. It is her mother's disappearance (death) for Delia and that of her dearest friend for Elena that trigger the writing. In the life of Ferrante's protagonists, narrating becomes possible, in fact, only at the moment of the disappearance of the most important woman from another woman's life. (5) A woman's autonomy becomes possible only at the expense of the sisterhood; it undoes feminism. What arouses the most seduction lies in the ability to build a similar story on the warped theory postulated by postfeminist thought. What de Rogatis calls the "dark nucleus of our times" (137) for me means this. (6) If feminism has become part of popular culture, manipulated by postmodernist theory, a feminist critique of society sounds anachronistic. The postfeminist ideology requires that women enjoy rights as long as they will not contest society and they do not feel more oppressed by this as individuals. In this tangle, lies the impossibility of a worldview that advances new ideas or, to repeat Ferrante's own statement, "a different way to narrate Naples."
The Mothers, the Sisters
Elena's gaze obsessively detects maglie di rapporti and smarginahire when pointing to Lila. The identitary breakdown of her friend goes beyond the concept of frantumaglia understood as disgust, as studied by Stiliana Milkova. Elena also frequently uses the term vincoli. (7) The bond that the quadrilogy forms with the novels of Ferrante's hardly acknowledged mothers, of those women who were able to recount the social problems in the South and of a certain social class, are conspicuous. I used the word bond or vincoli, and not by chance: it is a Ferrantiana word and I want to use this instead of the too popular terms smarginatiira and frantumaglia (to which I add the least cited sfaldamento in La figlia oscura) on which criticism of Ferrante has capitalized. The porous relationship Ferrante's writing entertains with Elsa Morante's writing forms a (recognized) bond to which one should add Ferrante's treatment of topics and social problems that have been the matter of Fabrizia Ramondino's literary and essayistic corpus (unrecognized). Starting from the image of the mother who, drowned near Minturno in Troubling Love, rereads the death of Nora in Morante's La Storia (History), Ferrante accentuates the melodramatic tone and sense of smagamento that characterized Morante's treatment of family relationships in Menzogna e sortilegio (House of Liars), up to choosing them as hinges for her cycle. As in Morante's 1948 novel, the story is never far from becoming a feuilleton (but it never does). The relationship of Elena and Lila with their biological mothers is per force shocking and negative. Elena does not hesitate to speak of her mother as a 'problem' and how she was shaken by feelings of physical revulsion: "mi repelleva il suo corpo, cosa che probabilmente lei intuiva" (Ferrante 2011: 40). The scene of Elena's first real separation from the district, represented by her holiday to Ischia, recalls the end of Morante's Arturo's Island in that heartbreaking moving away with the vaporetto from Naples. Arturo's farewell to Procida and his father find their echo in Elena's definitive expulsion from the maternal body and the Neapolitan magma, a farewell that in her case is anthropomorphized in the three bodies, which, until then, included and nourished her: the body of her mother, the body of the rione, the body of Lila. Indeed, narrating means killing all these bodies, at least mentally: "il corpo largo di mia madre, insieme al rione, alia vicenda di Lila--si allontano sempre di piU, si perse" (240). Divorcing from the political, viscous and hyper-material body of her class, her lineage, even her friendship, allows Elena to find herself.
This particular scene in her novel ties in with some of Ferrante's statements regarding influence and originality. In an interview with Goffredo Fofi, released after the Morante-Procida Price tributed to L'amore molesto (Troubling Love), Ferrante explained the terms of the distance between her and Morante. While admitting her love for Morantian novels, she states:
But I must confess that many stylistic features of this author are strangers to me; I feel incapable of conceiving large-scale stories; I no longer appreciate a life in which literature counts more than anything else. There are, however, certain shoals of storytelling that attract me. Over the years, for example, I was less and less ashamed of my passion for some stories in women's magazines that circulated around the house; stuff of love and betrayal which stirred in me unforgettable emotions, a desire for plots not necessarily meaningful, and the enjoyment of strong and vulgar passions. Even the basement of writing (scantinato della scrittura), full of pleasure that I repressed for years in the name of literature seems to me that should be put to work, because not only in the classics, but also in that kind of reading I've grown the desire to tell stories. So, what's the point of throwing the key away? (8)
The passage underscores several points that reveal prophetic qualities, for they outline the future construction of the story of Lila and Elena. If the length of the quartet disavows Ferrante's declared inability "to conceive long stories," her "paraliterary female narratives" recall the system governing, with very different outcomes, Morante's reinterpretation of harlequin novels of those times verging on written soap operas in Menzogna e sortilegio (House of Liars). Even the "basement of writing," therefore, may oppose its specific value to literature. If we think of the length of Ferrante's first three novels, her statement to Goffredo Fofi, and what happened later with the tetralogy, we see how, despite the repetition of tropes about lonely women facing challenging times, her literary project and her authorial intents drastically changed over the years. The size of Ferrante's first three novels is replaced with an imposing quadrilogy which dispels precisely what she stated to be her fundamental difference from Morante, her inability to compose, that is, "storie di largo respiro." Also, while Ferrante cannot entirely obscure the influence of Morante on her writing, she never (to my knowledge) states her thread with Fabrizia Ramondino. Elena's sense of napolitudine, that mixed sense of attachment and pain for a necessary separation from Naples derives from Ramondino's image of the city as a balia in Taccuino tedesco:
Mi rendo conto che il mio legame con Napoli, e forse anche quello di molti napoletani, non somiglia a quello con la madre, ma a quello con la balia. Napoli ha della balia la poverta e il primo latte, le forme rotonde e barocche, l'odore ora di feci ora di biancheria lavata di fresco; e di tutte le balie del mondo condivide la sorte: le sono stati strappati gli esseri che ha nutrito da piU ricchi padroni. Chi non ha vissuto in una citta-balia, ma solo in una citta madre, difficilmente potra comprendere come le ordinate costellazioni celesti, a immagine dell'ordine terrestre--spirituale, sociale e politico--, siano indifferenti al napoletano, mentre nella Via Lattea egli ritrova quell'indistinto luminoso brulichio privo di forme e di nomi, quel caos chiaro e nutriente, specchio celeste della sua citta. (144-45)
The novels and writings of Ramondino never enjoyed a wide readership. A distance of time, an appropriate adjustment to the melo-feuilleton apparatus skillfully mixed with an edulcoration of material (a dilution of historical and political data to provide readers with), allows the writing of Ferrante to present and make accessible thematics frequented by Ramondino, such as women's political and social commitment in the Seventies. The Neapolitan stories concern women on the crest of the incipient feminism of the late Sixties and the full-fledged movement of the Seventies, but are reworked in a fashion that can allure readers who know little about that time in Naples. Such a clever process of weakening of meaning lies firmly in the crystallized reproduction of the city (and other spaces in the novel) and, as Elena Porciani does not fail to note, "entrusted to cliches in its references to the Sixty-Eight" (175). Such process, coupled with the author's cleverness in the construction of the saga, facilitates the transition from a faded feminism to a postfeminist diffraction of the meanings of sisterhood for feminists. Sisterhood comments on the political and ideological choices riding the Sixties and Seventies made by Lila and Elena; and discusses the possible rescue of a female model with respect to the manifest social fabric defined by the rione and by the stradone. Sisterhood speaks of the practice of the personal and the political. On the horizon marked by the story of Elena and Lila we cannot help but hear the voices of Ramondino's women-sisters, especially the inseparable friends Costanza and Erminia in Un giorno e mezzo (A Day and a Half). In his 1988 review of Ramondino's novel, Domenico Starnone collates the poetic insight on the Neapolitan '69 of A day and a half with what he defines "a domestic feminine 'world' on the boil, dissatisfied with itself and the other sex," that is, "intellectually lively and yet clipped, rebellious and yet subject to waits of men who come and go, that draw their characters on women's laps" (8). Ramondino's novel is indeed built on that very world that Starnone confines to the sphere of the "domestic." The world of these women is, however, built on a palimpsest that the story of their lives articulates highlighting the few practical possibilities of modifying it, both in the private as in the political. Speaking of voices, the double of Erminia and Constance transfers the narratorial point of view within their focus. The two women are the two faces of the same coin, namely the experience and the two voices of Ramondino split into two different modes that never prevaricate each other, but act as a complement to each other's lives. As in the case of Ferrante's Tina and the other daughters of Elena and Lila, the idea of the double is even enshrined in the shared motherhood: "Pio Pia aveva cosi due madri, Costanza da cui non riusciva a distinguersi ed Erminia ch'era il suo modello" (Ramondino 1988: 85). Erminia, with her unshakable sense of confidence in social engagement and in the new generations, embodies Ramondino's unmatched conviction of the good of teaching. Her desire for an open sexuality opposes and completes Costanza, this latter character presented as a mother-bottle. Autobiographically referenced to the author, Costanza is afflicted by a strong alcohol and tobacco dependence and has to juggle her artistic vocation with drinking and smoking. Like Ramondino, Costanza must deal with her own appurtenance to the declining aristocratic class living on the other side of via Chiaia, (Ferrante's line of demarcation of the space for the kids of the rione), and the tangential relationship she entertains with mental illness. Already in those years, Ramondino propounds the dyad Erminia-Costanza as realistic idea of what an alternative family could be: a nucleus that has nothing to do with patriarchal models. Friendship, in the terms presented by Ramondino, takes on an indispensable presence of an authorial political commitment, which sincerely builds the feminism of Ramondino's two sisters-girlfriends.
Moving the setting from Posillipo to the rione Luzzatti, Ferrante's friends try to do the same. But, and it is not me alone to note this wrinkle, the aesthetically less successful sequences of the quadrilogy concern precisely the historical and political setting of the story of the two friends. According to Elisa Gambaro, for instance, these sequences "don't add anything to formal mythographies of Italian affairs" (170). I share Gambaro's opinion concerning how, in a cycle over a thousand-pages long, the sound of recent Italian history can arrive so muffled when compared to the clamor of social struggles which, in Ramondino's writings, are a backdrop, but also compose the ethical backbone of her images of Naples and Neapolitans. Perhaps, for the Ferrante of the quartet, the problem of the sociopolitical situation still arises in the terms she explained to director Mario Martone for the adaptation of Troubling Love: "I do not mind the actualization of the election provided that it stays as 'landscape', as a remote sound, as a non-essential detail" ("La reinvenzione dell'Amore molesto" 31). As Donnarumma states, her novels coast the historical genre, but with the determination of never becoming historical novels (145).
To secure the recipe for the success of her stories, Ferrante did not hesitate to weaken the semantic fabric that affirms the validity of the historical background against which she casts the story of her two friends. For the reader of Ferrante, in short, the basic process of identification with her characters occurs more unproblematically than in the case of Ramondino's Erminia and Costanza. The tangle of passions that winds during the Neapolitan saga does not require a precise knowledge of the historical period, if not as an element that releases hushed sounds, and on which one can root a story dealing with class escalation. This is one of the biggest limits of the quartet and to express a worldview without an authentic and renewed reading of that world becomes a strange business. If readers who are not familiar with Italian recent history (especially with that of Naples's feminism) can appreciate the story because they are not particularly interested in how Ferrante re-reads it in the first quarter of the new century, those who have read other writers before her, wonder about the ethical power to re-present a society and the women of that society in a re-shuffling of themes seen in Ferrante's previous books (largely unknown to the English-speaking public prior to the best-selling four Neapolitan novels), but devoid of an innovative perspective.
The Disappearance of Feminism
When feminism cannot be neatly defined, argues Kim Toffoletti, it disappears. Feminism's "excessive proliferation" has determined its evading of "any definition or classification [because] the fundamental feminist principle of women's emancipation, as articulated in the discourses of gender rights, freedom and choices, has become the overarching rhetoric of postfeminist culture: it contaminates all images, actions, signs and discourses" (110) with the result of making it impossible for the community to formulate a consistent definition of the concept. For Toffoletti, "feminism becomes caught up in the play of signs and appearances characteristic of 'imminent reversal' whereby, in a society of simulation, things become their opposite" (110). Ferrante's characters and her project in general benefit from the effect of postfeminism Toffoletti and McRobbie so criticize: in present stories, even related to the years of the "spectral" movement, with any real conflict removed from them and to affirm one woman's individuality, giving up a feminist critique of society and focus, instead, on the assertion of the ego in spite of everything, even of her best friend. Between the time of Ramondino's writing and those of Ferrante--depicting the same years--a large temporal span has occurred. This has been a period of dangerous political and ideological drifts, though, and witnesses the return of the great narratives, hence making the case for Ferrante's accomplishment. It is in these narratives, according to Rosi Braidotti, that "the common feature" is revealed in "the return of different forms of determinism, the neo-liberal or genetic type: the first defends the superiority of capitalism, the second the despotic authority of the DNA" (169). To the two elements cited by Braidotti, we need to add a third one: if we must talk of feminism, the quality of Ferrante's novels makes it sound as a distant echo of the past, like a noise we heard when we were young. This distant noise is also the ambivalence of Ferrante's Neapolitan cycle (Crispino and Vitale 7-11). That "mezzo femminismo" of which Pietro Airota accuses his ex-wife Elena amounts to her very possibility of self-affirmation. Elena's Bildung relies on the ambivalence of having taken resources from the old feminism (and writers who were engaged in women's movement of those years like Ramondino) along with from a diffracted postfeminism that so allures young readers of today. Limited as she feels by the awareness of her extraction to enter concretely in any struggle other than the one with her writing, Elena-the-character appropriates that "half-baked feminism" and that "half sorority" to defend herself and her subjectivity.
Female Individualization: Di te, Finzione mi cingo
The ambivalence of the merits and the limits of Ferrante's tetralogy lie primarily in her disavowal and appropriation of a recent past. Her ambiguous postfeminist approach makes readers understand how success and affirmation exist in our times as a woman's solitary business. Postfeminist readers do not seem interested in resisting the social and economic realignment (of which they are a part) in any tangible way. They use reading, alone and in groups, as a means to register the occurrence of that realignment and to measure the culture it produces against other social orders, real and imagined. However, we still need another woman, distinct from ourselves, to tell our story so that our own history can begin to merely exist. The woman must then disappear to leave the stage free from her voice and disposed to our exclusive use. While acknowledging the feminist legacy, Ferrante challenges the models of sisterhood and sorority of the Seventies and reworks them in to a perspective that, through a process of re-elaboration, admits once again the concept of fragment (thematic, descriptive, ideological) for the existence of a new type of great narratives. In the folds, in those peculiarly chipped edges of postfeminism Ferrante can build arresting images of Neapolitan women on the verge of a nervous breakdown or smarginamento. She can develop a history of oppression, of painful sisterhood, and establish herself as a writer that mentions all the names of the Gotha of the novel in her interviews, but conveniently omits those women who most influenced her in the construction of troubled Southern women's relations, just as she constantly brings up the threat of Elena's dialect, but conveniently never uses it.
In the affirmation of Elena-the-character lurks the ghost of Elena-the-talented-novelist and her courage in building a story that can only travel well if we are accomplices in her ambivalence. Elena-the-character declares, since the news of Lila's disappearance, that her friend had never been interested in a "cambio di identita," implying by this that she, instead, was determined to follow her conatus essendi. She is, however, the stronger of the two because, unlike Lila, Elena never comes undone. Immune from frantumaglia and sfaldamento, Elena has cannibalized Lila, who, despite her undoubted talent, prefers to entrust the writing of their own friendship to Elena. Recovering the shape of your body--avoiding the famous smarginatura--means also gaining control of the family according to a canon that has now irretrievably gone beyond the limits of the stradone. This remains one of the undoubted merits of the quartet: the appropriation of what the individual has built, leaving behind a past that she thought would be insurmountable only to later accept it, but on her own terms. The space of the rione can be inhabited without that fear because of which Elena and Lila's narrative began when the two little girls went looking for the stolen dolls.
The Catholic University of America
* An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Conference "Sorelle e sorellanza. Il rapporta sororale nella letteratura e nelle arti". Universit di Cagliari (24-25 November, 2016).
(1) While in my study I don't look at the relationship with Anna Maria Ortese, Adele Ricciotti does a brilliant reading of the city in the work of the two writers.
(2) Milkova notes instead that Lila uses photography "to regain subjectivity and autonomy through self-effacement and self-fragmentation [...] Lila refuses to become and object exhibited on a wall and negotiates successfully the right to modify the image of her liking" (17).
(3) Elena's feeling permeates the entire quadrilogy, at least until the very plot needs few exceptions (Ischia with Nunzia, Elena's mother's visit to Tuscany, and the period preceding Elena's mother's death) for reasons tied with structural tension. Cfr. Laura Benedetti, "L'amica geniale di Elena Ferrante tra continuite e cambiamento".
(4) See Donnarumma and Gambaro for further comments on this element of the quadrilogy.
(5) Franco Gallippi points out that "the absence of Lila has led to the presence of words that attempt to diachronically reconstruct a story aimed at finding a solution for a present problem." Milkova thinks that Lila's disappearance and self-erasure fuel Elena's best literary work, and that "[t]his work can be read as the culmination and completion of Lila and Elena's joyous feminine collaboration initiated with the wedding photography" (177).
(6) Also for Bokopoulus, there exists a strong concept of vincolo. Despite Ferrante cannot quite define hers in terms of antofiction, Bokopoulus has noticed how the foundational nucleus of the quadrilogy emerges out a complicated actual friendship of Ferrante Autobiographism, as such, tends to be more structural than thematic (399).
(7) One example can be found in Storia della bambina perduta (18-19).
(8) (Devo pero confessarle che molti tratti stilistici di questa autrice mi risultano estranei; che mi sento incapace di concepire storie di ampio respiro; che non apprezzo piU da tempo una vita in cui la Letteratura conta piU di ogni altra cosa. Ci sono, invece, certi fondali bassi del raccontare che mi attraggono. Con gli anni, per esempio, mi vergogno sempre meno di come mi appassionavo aile storie di giornaletti femminili che circolavano per casa-, robaccia di amori e tradimenti, che pero mi ha causato emozioni indelebili, un desiderio di trame non necessariamente sensate, il godimento di passioni forti e un po' volgari. Anche questo scantinato dello scrivere, fondo pieno di piacere che per anni ho represso in nome della Letteratura mi pare che vada messo al lavoro, perche non solo sui classici, ma anche li e cresciuta la smania di racconto, e allora ha senso gettare via la chiave?).
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2018|
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