My latest enthusiasm in regards to fiction is totally for the work of Elena Ferrante, the best selling Italian author from Naples who is known for writing under a pseudonym. After I finished in summer the four volumes of the most famous part of her work - the Neapolitan quartet - I urgently needed a refill. The day before I left for my beach holiday I just grabbed what was available under her name in the book store. Before we even arrived at the beach I had finished the first of the two books I had picked up: La figlia oscura (2006; English translation: The Lost Daughter, 2008; German: Die Frau im Dunkeln, 2019). After the fifth book that I read from her, some of the motives are now all the clearer to me and I would like to briefly introduce the ones which are most exciting for me.
Before I begin, it is interesting and important to know how Ferrante herself describes her writing style. She explains that she always pursues the disturbing which leads her to exciting stories. I think this sums up wonderfully what you sense as a reader. The main protagonists follow the disturbing parts in their emotional lives. They look right where you normally don’t look. If the protagonists themselves can't do it in the way they express and engage with each other, the first-person-narrator does it. The main protagonist Lead in La figlia oscura, realizes her own shortcomings: “The things we don't understand ourselves are the hardest to tell.” This is why she simply tells what happens including all her assumptions and emotions. It is for the reader to decrypt what happens.
What Happened - Leda, Nina, Elena
In La figlia oscura which translates interestingly differently into German, the main character and first-person-narrator Leda, a 48-year old academic woman, tells the experiences of her summer holiday at the beach. The successful lady who lives and works in Florence has Neapolitan roots. She travels alone, as her daughters are already grown up and live with their father in Canada, from whom Leda is divorced. Her high educational level earned her a lot of respect and success. Nowadays she enjoys her freedom and the peace the independence of a single woman brings to her.
At the holiday village, the place of the events of the novel, she goes every day to the beach where she always rents a sunbed. She quickly discovers a large family, which she observes daily. Her interest particularly applies to a young woman, Nina, and her little daughter, Elena. In her eyes, the two stand out from the rest of the family, visually through elegance and attractiveness and through their strong mother-daughter behaviour. Leda develops a fondness for Nina. When the little daughter Elena suddenly disappears on the beach, it is Leda who keeps a cool head in the midst of everyone's excitement and finds the little girl. After the initial shock is over, there is a big commotion because the girl's beloved doll has disappeared as well. Now we get to the disturbing part: the doll was taken by Leda. She keeps it for several days. Although she gets closer to Nina and her family and learns several times how much the little girl suffers from the loss.
Nina has a little fling with a young student Gino who works as beach keeper on the beach they stay every day at. They ask Leda if they could borrow her flat in order for them to meet in secret unseen by Nina’s husband's family. Leda is initially outraged; she however sees more and more parallels to herself and her daughters and feels a lot of sympathy with this young woman who seems to be locked into the role of a mother and with a family of poor education but a a lot of roughness and vulgarity. In doing so, however, she spins more and more into her own world away from what is important and real for Nina. When she finally, almost incidentally, wants to give Nina back the doll, the young woman completely loses her composure and reacts in the most radical way.
Origin - Delimit Yourself
A big theme in Elena Ferrante's work is freeing oneself from one's origins. Again and again, the first-person narrators struggle with being ashamed of their origins and wanting to stand out. The means of choice is education and language. To do so, they adapt and seek a new affiliation, and therewith put a linguistic mask over their roots by learning and using a high Italian. In emotional moments, this layer falls off again and again. Leda immediately hears the dialect and the rough and vulgar interpersonal tone with Nina's family and feels repelled by it. It reminds her of her own origins. Demarcation is extremely important to the protagonists. Just think of all the hardships and humiliations that Elena, the protagonist in the novel quartet My brilliant friend, has endured just to escape the confinement and the strongly to shame connected origin. Standing out through education and professional, academic success is seemingly vital to the characters. This is how they define themselves. If that falls away, then one is doomed to relapse. The protagonists carry the burden of their childhood memories around with them like a heavy rucksack. They load things they encounter in their adult world with emotions and thus give them meaning.
Being Woman - Daughter - Mother
One can imagine what happens when by motherhood the ambitious, almost driven female characters are robbed of all the hard-earned tools with which they have built a new and liberated life in an educated and affluent class. A terrible powerlessness ensues, seemingly undoing everything that had been so well planned up to this point. This however rises at the same time as a strong love-hate relationship with their daughters grows. Mother daughter relationships are also in retroperspective difficult to them, since the characters had all troubled relationships with their mothers. Leda tells us that her mother regularly told the family that she will leave them if they do not behave. Leda herself sees the connection as she puts this threat into reality when she leaves her husband and her two little daughters for three years. She wanted to go back to her old life in freedom as well as work on her academic career. She however had to come back. Remorse plagued her again and again. The road to freedom has failed for Lead. She plans to warn Nina: "To detach, to feel easy is not a valuable asset, it is cruel to oneself and to others." As a reader, you learn that she is torn between two worlds. A conflict that Leda has apparently not yet come to terms with and relives with Nina. The child Elena disappears, Leda sees the pain of the mother and then subsequently that of the daughter, who misses her doll, which in the children's game also becomes the daughter. Leda - again - becomes the perpetrator by taking the doll and causing suffering. She sees the suffering but just so as when she left her daughters, she cannot explain or stop the behaviour.
A mixture of stale water and sand keeps flowing out of the doll's mouth. Leda begins to clean up the doll and make it beautiful again. She even buys her clothes and removes the pen marks from the child's play. The narrative is during this episode sprinkled with memories from Leda's time with her young daughters. As she cleans the doll, she also puts her memory and life back in order.
Leda sees in Nina a woman trapped in role patterns and biology. She wants to help Nina and improve her life. Nina, like her, should choose the path of education and distance herself from her family. With this encroaching suggestion, she loses Nina. The daughter of choice goes her own way, makes her own decisions. Just as Leda did herself.
Excessive Demands Through Independence
As a reader, you see the suffering of the protagonist. They are lonely because they take new paths and free themselves from previous role patterns. The longed-for happiness, however, remains absent. The joy of life and lightheartedness that comes with simply being is missing. One cannot get rid of a slight impression that it might have been easier to achieve a relaxed and self-evident lifestyle if the protagonists had remained true to their roots. What remains when one's own family no longer functions as a home and place of retreat? A wandre between the extremes: from feeling super secure with new idealised role models and life paths to, on the other side being uncertain about the simplest everyday things.
A sudden outbreak of the innermost desires, a longing of being oneself - something which was suppressed for so long - is the price to pay for worldly success. The way back to one's origin is impossible, but even the path taken so far, which has only acted as a bridge from the old to the new, has long since been worn out. The new self-determination must be found first laboriously and the joy and ease can appear only if both old and worn-out pasts are completely spiritually revised. Both may be there, but must be neither fought, avoided nor lived through compulsively in the relationship with another person - the daughters: This is the only way to put an end to excessive demands and emotional outbursts. Therewith the protagonists will eventually learn that it is their constricting inner images and ideas that keep creating the feeling of a suffering confinement within them, and much less the external conditions. Leda in the earlier work of Ferrante La figlia oscura is not yet there. Elena in the later novels grows there. She overcomes this gap. This shows in her moving back home where she was born together with her daughters and living a life as a successful writer.
These are just three motifs that I have chosen - and enjoyed describing here very much - so many more have become evident to me in the process of writing. I encourage you to enjoy Elena Ferrante's brilliant work for yourself and explore what you discover in the novels. For me, the works are a wonderfully honest and authentic picture of female emancipation in an Italy of the 60s, which definitely still has its appeal and validity today. Moreover, Ferrante writes in such an exciting way that you can hardly put the books down.
What is your favourite novel? Have you read more than one piece from this author?
What is the narrator like in the novels and how does this change the dynamic of the story? (First Person In this point of view, a character - typically the protagonist, but not always - is telling the story. You'll notice a lot of "I" and "me" or "we" in first person narrations.; Second Person - In this point of view, the author uses a narrator to speak to the reader. You'll notice a lot of "you," "your," and "yours" in second person narration. Third Person - In this point of view, an external narrator is telling the story. You'll notice a lot of "he," "she," "it," or "they" in this form of narration.)
What are (recurring) motives which spoke to you?
What functions as a trigger for you? Is it also related to your origins?