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Elena Ferrante, or Naples, Part Two

ferrante

A panel discussion was held at Lutyens and Rubenstein on the eve of the release of the final novel in Ferrante’s Naples tetralogy. The panel was made up of Cathy Rentzenbrink, Jonathan Gibbs, Susanna Gross and Tessa Hadley – all writers and critics, but more importantly, ardent Ferrante fans. Although none of them were especially keen on speaking in front of an audience, when it comes to this author none of them could bear the alternative prospect of sitting in the audience and watching another panel get it wrong. Such is the fervour for Ferrante.

For those who have not yet been introduced, the books chart the course of a friendship over several decades. The two women – Elena and Lila – are co-dependent rivals and know each other better than anyone. The novels open with Elena writing their story down as Lila has disappeared. Her aim to recapture what may soon be forgotten becomes, we realize, memoir as as an aggressive, defiant act. Elena is punishing Lila by colonizing their story. She seems to own it by providing the only side, however, in telling the full version of events, there are moments when she clearly hands the reader’s sympathy over to Lila by recounting her own actions. There is little objectivity, but at the same time, there is little bias.

In the third novel, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena Greco admits: “I had been conditioned by my education, which has shaped my mind, my voice. To what secret pacts with myself had I consented, just to excel. And now, after the hard work of learning, what I must unlearn. Also, I had been forced by the powerful presence of Lila to imagine myself as I was not. I was added to her, and I felt mutilated as soon as I removed myself. Not an idea, without Lila. Not a thought I trusted, without the support of her thoughts. Not an image. I had to accept myself outside of her. ” Indeed, Lila affects every sentence: “she has managed to insert herself into this extremely long chain of words to modify my text, to purposely supply the missing links to unhook others without letting it show, to say more of me than I want, more than I’m able to say”. Despite becoming a successful author, Elena Greco feels she owes all she has to Lila’s inspiration, to her very existence. Lila (beautiful and wild) overshadows Elena, but the former feels she must live vicariously through the latter because she ducked out of formal education, failed to get out their neighbourhood in Naples, and succumbed to its cycle of savagery.

In the second novel, The Story of A New Name, when Lila realizes on her wedding day just how significant her groom’s shortcomings are, she barely restrains herself: “She used all her strength, and I who knew her thoroughly felt that if she could she would have wrenched [his arm] from his body, crossed the room holding it high above her head, blood dripping in her train, and she would have used it as a club or a donkey’s jawbone to crush Marcello’s face with a solid blow.” Upon realizing she cannot leave the old life, or indeed change it, she retreats into blackness: “I think how much blood there is in a person’s body. If you put too much stuff in things, they break. Or they catch fire and burn. ”

In the final instalment The Lost Child, Ferrante describes Naples as “a city that reveals or underlines that dreams of unhindered progress is utterly pessimistic and unfounded. We are in fact in an age of savagery, unknowing.” The tonal overlap with Saviano is striking when she describes the lack of “decipherable order, only an unruly and controllable crowd on streets…in the place where they threw out beasts and garbage a lot of human blood was shed”. As Saviano alerted the world to the presence of the Camorra at the centre of global crime, Ferrante shows that Naples is a microcosmic world: “The entire planet, she said, is a Fosso Carbonario”.

The complexity of local life in Naples is initially baffling, not least because of the various intertwined family trees by the end of the final book. Every family has a function within the neighbourhood, which Ferrante manages to stretch out over the course of thirty years. This is, perhaps, where people see the soap opera element to her writing. The end of the tetralogy was compared (perhaps sacrilegiously on both sides) to the end of Coronation Street, as the number of characters was gradually reduced until barely eight remain. All minor characters blend together on the second rung – an act of will to draw attention to the central dynamic – burnished by brilliant touches, such as Nella with her “laugh of an ageing virgin” talking about cutting people’s cocks off. She tells Elena that she is “much better” than her friend, who “knows how to wound” but so indeed does Elena, we learn.

Some readers have questioned whether these novels are feminist. In an attempt to answer this question, it has been pointed out that they are both full of rage, and the obligation to conform in rooms of men. One panellist cited the idea of bleeding likeability when the word feminist was mentioned in a recent conference, and that is not dissimilar from how I feel when rage and feminism are so swiftly connected. One thing is for sure: Ferrante’s books are full of blood. For those that still find swearing amusing (guilty) then the level of violence in the dialectic insults thrown around is superb. Ferrante treats language like a set of land mines beneath your feet: the path is difficult until only one way is possible: forward.

Only irony is made difficult as [you would imagine the books would be saturated with it] – especially when it comes to Nino, the love rat. He goes from hero to rotter as the years go past, and if you consider how Alice Munroe would write a love scene with him in it, it would be awash with irony. In this way, the tetralogy does not conform to our understanding of what novels are. There are no nods for the reader to give us a hint as to what to expect – no beams of sunlight shining on a character to let us know all will be well, no black cats as a warning. Her apparent lack of tricks – seeming like a memoir with all the tricks employed in fiction – makes one realize the unspoken conventions writers employ: such as never having two characters called John in the same story, as there so often is in life. The characters feel like flesh and blood acting of their own volition, rather than constructs with strings being pulled by the author.

Lila dissects her own form when she gives an explicit account of her own formlessness, after an earthquake. When she is overwhelmed, unreal things are “plunged into a jumbled, sticky reality”, and solid forms have dissolving boundaries. This underlines the lack of formal, stylized style in these novels. They run on messily – much like life – colliding and repeating in a realistic fashion. There are no good or bad characters; they all devolve or change. Her characters are true in every flaw, and can arouse and disgust us.

Just as outsiders identify themselves with her characters, Ferrante’s decision to remain an outsider through anonymity is the source of much speculation (though the panel felt disloyal discussing this rather than the novels themselves). Unencumbered by identity, Ferrante is as free to live as we are to read.

The Editors

Gomorrah (or Naples, Part One)

GomorraRoberto Saviano’s account of Camorra criminal activity in and around Naples in his book Gomorrah was so unstintingly revealing that he now lives in hiding, avoiding death at the hands of mob boss Guiseppe Setola. He wrote in The Guardian earlier this year that after “eight years under armed guard, threats against my life barely make the news. My name is so often associated with the terms death and murder that they hardly register. After all these years under state protection, I almost feel guilty for still being alive.” These three phrases encapsulate his ponderous prose style, while at the same time telling such an enthralling story that the reader is appreciative of what he has sacrificed his peace of mind for.

He went on in a wounded fashion: “I’m either at the Nobel academy having a debate on freedom of the press, or I’m inside a windowless room at a police barracks. Light and dark. There is no shade, no in-between. Sometimes I look back at the watershed that divides my life before and after Gomorrah…Naples has become off-limits to me, a place I can only visit in my memories.” The idea for this series of posts is to take the stark Naples depicted by those Saviano memories, and contrast it with that of Elena Ferrante’s Naples tetralogy (in Naples, Part Two).

Gomorrah’s opening gambit of corpses spilling from an open shipping container cannot help but grab the reader’s attention, but it is the subsequent image of the crane driver responsible covering his face with his hands and peeping at Saviano through the gaps that takes the fragment from Hammer House of Horror into the human realm. One of the reasons why his tone slips from scholarly to hysterical – aside from the fact that it is a deeply personal account – is perhaps that this story is being told for the first time in this way: not as bedtime stories, whispered rumours of urban myth at ground zero, or academic circles. In making this an accessible product, it was perhaps inevitable that something would be lost in the transition. The surreal is captured, but there shouldn’t be such a note of the inauthentic.

This account is most compelling when Saviano does not heap lists of family names and bodies on the reader, or even worse, try to inject pathos, when nothing further is required. The account is so extraordinary in its own right that he (and his translator) needn’t have bothered. It is the flashes of insight he allows through that seem the most arresting, as they are indisputably his without him messing around with ‘style’: “to get a job mixing cement, all I had to do was let the contractor know where I was from. Campania provided the best builders in all of Italy – the most skilled, the fastest, cheapest, the least pains in the ass.” The equivalent simply does not exist to my knowledge in the United Kingdom: the idea of a man appearing and announcing he is from Ipswich and that being sufficient to land him a construction job is incredible. However, Saviano himself is deliberately a black hole in the narrative, providing very little by way of personal context, when it is these moments that lift the narrative.

He goes on to layer in detail about exhaust fume dust and other waste being hidden within the cement, as everything criminal seems to end up in construction or waste disposal. Anything incriminating is covered in topsoil or a thin layer of cement, only to grin through just when the surface appears to have calmed. The explanation for the book’s title comes with a eulogy to a murdered Priest, Don Peppino, from Saviano’s neighbourhood: “Don’t you see that this is Gomorrah, don’t you see? Remember. When they see that the whole land is brimstone, and salt, and burning, and there will be no sowing, no sprouting, no grass growing”. Saviano tells of bones, chemical waste and even shredded currency forced into the soil, poisoning it beyond repair.

Gomorrah is such a laundry list of death (Naples has one of the highest murder rates in the world) that it is hard to discern why some incidents are singled out in outrage – the death of a female teenager is one of the multiple teen deaths which are often collateral damage. It does not appear to be her gender that made it so upsetting for Saviano, but the poignancy of her friend calling her mobile phone while it is placed on top of the coffin. The only jarring note in a tragic interlude, was the fact that this appeared to affect him the most.

Steeped in horrors as he is, the two most appalling moments Saviano witnessed were a ‘guinea pig’ addict used to test the drugs sold by the clans by being injected in the neck with cocaine, killing him outright, and the HIV-free zones where prostitutes receive medical care in order to ensure the clan do not have to wear condoms when they visit. These, added to the realization of the Camorra’s sheer sprawl, will endure. The shudder of fear generated by the realization that this is no pocket of power in a chokehold, but a network with considerable global reach, drags this story from beneath the bed. There are links with the Russians, of course, a surreal Aberdeen connection, links with China, a presence in Australia, and the clan are influential throughout Europe and Latin America (including the most ruthless of all, the Mexican cartels). Saviano also describes an attempt to organize the Gypsies of southern Spain into a criminal group.

In this way, Gomorrah depicts a huge, constant, and filmic level of threat: “some people went round to the senator’s brother’s trout farm and scattered the fish around, leaving them wiggling on the ground to die slowly” (before adding “suffocating in the air” as though there were many other ways). We learn that the horse’s head is small fry, relatively speaking, when it comes to making a point in Naples. Life also imitates film in the passage where Saviano describes how the female Camorra bosses dress their security detail in yellow tracksuits like Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Saviano himself references his own awareness of Scarface when he walks around the abandoned villa belonging to one of the bosses, helpless with rage and pissing into the bath (before conceding that this was an idiotic thing to do). This concession, together with the anecdote of an economics graduate “brought into the clan to handle the distribution of certain brands of coffee in the area bars” provided a rare note of humour. Such is the importance of coffee distributors in local commerce to the bosses. Less charming is learning that the same graduate tried firing an AK47 after the neighbourhood capo insisted everyone on the payroll had to learn how to shoot. He is ecstatic about having fired something so well designed, and becomes obsessed with meeting Kalashnikov himself. This is all very diverting, until Saviano strays into predictable stereotype when describing Kalashnikov with “the trace of vodka on his breath”.

Gomorrah is almost an unbelievable story, so it is perhaps appropriate that it is written in such an over the top fashion. Saviano is a better investigator than he is a writer; he is nonetheless exceedingly courageous to have written and talked at all, and long may he go on doing so. These tales clearly needed to be told in all of their savagery and breath-taking casualness for any life that attempts to exist alongside and apart from the Camorra themselves. Which is of course where Elena Ferrante comes in.

The Editors

Ulysses between Homer and Dante Alighieri

map-of-herodotus

The three kingdoms of the Divine Comedy are populated by people of different social classes. However, because it is also a pedagogical work, Dante prioritises exchanges with well-known characters, both mythical and real, in order to use them as universal examples.  Ulysses is one of the most prominent of these well-known figures.  So what do we know about him?  The legendary king of Ithaca appears in several classical works, but it is from the Odyssey, the epic poem which tells of his troubled return trip home after the Trojan War, that the collective consciousness learns of those peculiar traits which made him an icon. In this second poem we can barely recognize the warrior of the Iliad, in which he only really plays a marginal role. In the Odyssey, on the other hand, he is presented without the privileges befitting his royal rank, and he is forced to rely solely on his intelligence and cunning in order to survive. The most suitable Homeric adjective is polytropos (πολùτρoπoς), which we can translate as “someone having multiple faces”, or “many-sided”: in other words, someone who is able to face different situations and to adapt in order to survive and succeed. His craftiness and courage, his faith in himself and the innate curiosity driving him to plumb the depths of human understanding, make him a symbol of secular humanity, a kind of Vitruvian Man of literature, someone who is the measure of the creation that surrounds him.

In typical fashion, Dante chooses the person who embodies the highest form of these virtues, and then proceeds to show that without faith they amount to nothing. Which is why I believe that the Florentine author depicts his Ulysses as a catastrophic failure: according to Dante if man is guided by faith he can become a giant: “You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour” (Psalm 8), but when he is alone he is like a reed bent by the wind, to use Pascal’s famous image. In fact, man’s inanity also leads the psalmist to write: what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8 again).

Because in the Bible it is the right hand of God that saves man from death on numerous occasions, Dante is able to link Ulysses’ spectacular fall to his blind faith in himself as a man. This new interpretation was only made possible by a drastic abandonment of the central Homeric tradition, which doesn’t tell us his death, but which predicts it in Book 11 of the Odyssey (as per the famous soothsayer Tiresia) as a death coming in old age, at home and from the sea. This compelled Dante to revive a second and less famous mythological vein, which is mainly attested in Seneca and Pliny the Elder, according to which our hero didn’t return to Ithaca at all but instead passed through the Pillars of Hercules.

In the Inferno, Ulysses tells Virgil and Dante his story from the moment of his departure from Circe, the sorceress who had hosted him for over a year and given him a son, Telegonus. He then continues to tell of how his fondness for his son Telemachus, his deep respect for his elderly father and his love of his wife Penelope (the strongest of human sentiments) could not surpass his burning desire (literally described almost as a fire) to be fully acquainted with man’s vices and virtues, the two poles that embrace the whole complexity of humankind. The search for knowledge is emphasised by recalling all the lands Ulysses passed through, but also by highlighting the old age of the man who has seen it all and who is now facing the ultimate and most coveted challenge, the Pillars of Hercules, the westernmost limit of the world, the crowning glory of a life spent in the pursuit of knowledge. At this point Dante makes his brilliant move: while the Christian hero has an obvious (albeit not simple) choice to make between good and evil, Ulysses, like the other tragic heroes from classical antiquity, has to choose between two evils. The choice is either to obey God by not passing beyond the geographical limits of the world, thereby renouncing knowledge, or to disobey Divine prohibition but to live like a man: both choices lead to punishment. Ulysses’ choice will be the most significant of his entire life, and he wants to remain true to himself and indeed he does. And so, thanks to a refined syncretism, the Pillars of Hercules, near Gibraltar (see map above), become the metaphor for the limits given to man by God. In medieval theological thought, God supplied man with all that was necessary to live, but man had to accept the existence of a mystery he couldn’t understand and which he should not investigate. In his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas advised man to restrain his desire to know, even about the good!

Ulysses therefore makes his understandable but calamitous decision: to go beyond human limits. This has often been read as a moment of supreme human dignity, but also reflects a situation well known in the great 5 b.C. Athenian tragedy: hubris (ὕβϱις), where by his arrogance man fails to recognize the distance between his own nature and that of God. As with Greek tragedy, nemesis (νέμεσις), the equalising punishment of the gods, immediately springs into action and casts man down to a position so low  to make him wish he had never been born.

We find similar situations in the Bible, for instance in the book of Genesis, 2, 16-17: “The Lord God gave man this order: ‘You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and bad. From that tree you shall not eat‘”. Of course, this prohibition is the equivalent of that regarding the Pillars of Hercules: a restriction on man’s freedom. But here the prohibition does not have an end in itself because “the moment you eat from it” – the Bible continues – “you are surely doomed to die”. The prohibition aims, then, to maintain a universal equilibrium, we could say a natural one, between divinity and creature, between the highest knowledge of God and those who can’t properly handle that knowledge.

Nevertheless, man is often seduced by the desire to embrace absolute knowledge. In fact in Genesis 3, 4-5, “the serpent said to the woman: ‘You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad.‘” By eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve surrender to hubris and in doing so they lose earthly paradise forever, instead becoming acquainted with strain, pain and death, which may precisely be the knowledge from which God wanted Man to be spared. Ulysses can be read as the exact Dantesque parallel to this biblical episode: he accepts an impossible challenge. Man will always be inadequate in his relationship with God, and Ulysses is presented in the same terms. In fact, when facing his supreme challenge, he is described as an old man, accompanied only by a handful of weak friends and sailing an old ship, a remnant from a formerly glorious fleet, which Dante calls a “log”. In spite of this he refuses to exclude himself from the dream of absolute knowledge, and utters the famous ‘orazion picciola‘. This short speech is one of the best-known passages of Italian literature, a majestic tribute to the classical idea of oratory as the art of persuasion. The ‘orazion picciola‘ states non only Ulysses’ life essence, but also that of the whole of Greek culture:

And then I said: ‘O brothers, ye who now

have through a hundred thousand perils reached

the West, to this so short a waking-time

still left your senses, do not deny yourselves

experience of that world behind the sun

which knows not man! Consider the seed

whence ye have sprung; for ye were not created

to lead the life of stupid animals,

but manliness and knowledge to pursue.’

The Italian hendecasyllable’s musicality gives this passage great emotion and the result is never in doubt: Ulysses persuades his old friends to follow him. As a mark of respect for Ulysses, Dante prolongs his tragedy and as a last tribute to him, for a little time he gives him what he is looking for. For five months, in fact, our hero sails across a hemisphere that no living human had ever seen before, and he sees, just before the end, the incredible view of the mountain of Purgatory, whose enormity is in itself a symbol of divine disproportion relative to man, while the astonishment of the sailors is both amazement at the view and of the inevitable death to come. The eyes of faith, for Dante certainly, should be the only way for man to know God. Indeed, man, by his very nature is unable to see him face to face: in Exodus 3,6 we read “‘I am the God of your father – he continued – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob”. Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God‘. But then comes the moment of retribution: a sudden wind rises from the island, forming a whirlpool, swallowing the ship and its passengers together with their load of unfettered knowledge, thus restoring the equilibrium between man and God.

This is what we can say about Ulysses as a character. But if we analyse this episode within the context of the work as a whole, we can see it also as a clear sign of the high esteem Dante held himself in as a poet. As early as the first Canto, he establishes himself as an enthusiastic follower of Virgil not only as regards the tragic style (the highest form of poetry) but also regarding the prophetic mission carried out through literature. This idea will be reaffirmed later in Paradise 25, when he describes the Divine Comedy as a work “that hath made both Heaven and Earth copartners in its toil”. Again in Inferno 4, when he visits Limbo, a place populated by the unbaptized, he is accepted by the five most celebrated classical poets (Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Horace and Lucan) as one of their limited group, and this feels like a sort of official poetic investiture. Later on, in Purgatory 11, he runs through the most refined poets of contemporary (and only recently born) Italian literature and asserts that Guinizzelli’s greatness as a poet has already been surpassed by Cavalcanti’s, and that that of another poet (clearly Dante) is going to leave them both trailing in its wake. With respect to this aspect then, the episode of Ulysses is enlightening.  Just as Virgil, in recounting the conquest of Troy in Book 2 of the Aeneid, is Homer’s direct successor, so Dante feels he is able to carry on from that Latin masterpiece, not only taking up one of its prominent characters, but also incorporating a novel death for Ulysses, and moreover giving it a deeper sense: that enlightened by faith.

Gianfranco Serioli is a teacher of Italian literature, and director of the Divine Comedy summer course in Sale Marasino, Italy – info: http://www.iseolakess.it