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Margaret Drabble: what kind of a feminist is Elena Ferrante?

The Story of the Lost Child is the final instalment in a literary phenomenon. But what does its elusive author really believe?

The fourth volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet brings her ambitious project to a triumphant, satisfying, baffling and unsettling conclusion, coming full circle with an epilogue called “Restitution”. But we find no such thing. Nothing is restored: we battle on, through old age, to the end. There is no peace, no reconciliation, no end to the power struggles and convulsions of sex and politics. These are volcanic novels. They pay tribute to the brooding presence of an unstable Vesuvius, overlooking a Naples part mythic, part historic and part intensely real – a Naples of casual and concerted violence, of squalor and sudden death, of earth tremors, of long, tedious queues at the post office, of surprisingly orderly public libraries, of pizza and ice cream, of grand buildings and grand views over ever-changing seas.

It is hard to find a critical vocabulary to contain what has been going on in Ferrante’s work. The first volume, My Brilliant Friend, appears on one level to be a Bildungsroman, taking us through the impoverished but aspiring childhood and schooldays of the narrator/novelist Elena Greco and her alter ego, her frighteningly fierce and unpredictable friend Lina Cerullo. They are surrounded by a large cast of children and adults from the working-class district of “the neighbourhood” and its thoroughfare, the stradone, whose love affairs, careers and entanglements are played out in the fourth book. But the sweep of the narrative is prefaced at the opening of book one by the disappearance of the now old and adult Lina, an event that provides a kind of closure to the final volume. So the entire sequence, published over a period of less than five years, must, one must suppose, have been carefully planned in advance. Motifs and images are followed through, at times perhaps too insistently: Elena’s mother’s silver bracelet makes several portentous appearances and the dolls Nu and Tina, which the two six-year-old girls lose at the beginning of the narrative, are carefully re-created in Elena’s and Lina’s youngest children, their daughters Imma and Tina. The foreshadowed theme of the bambina perduta is melodramatically enacted in real life. But, as Ferrante convinces us, real Naples is full of real melodrama.

The conventionally careful plotting, however, belies and is weirdly undermined by the powerful emotional flux of the writing, the immediacy of the turmoil of sexual passions and ideological attitudes, the chronological jumps and strange reprises that make up the uneven texture of the work. Elena oscillates throughout between confidence and despair and her story, as she frequently acknowledges, is not only interwoven with but also parasitical upon her friend’s life.

Elena leaves the neighbourhood to become an intermittently successful feminist writer. Lina stays, having disastrously married at 16, never pursuing (as far as we are told) her early literary promise, never travelling, never finding a wider world. Elena believes in the “phantom text” that is Lina’s life, the life she believes herself to be writing on behalf of her friend. (This trope is pursued, sometimes confusingly, through descriptions of preserved notebooks and boxes of manuscript and destroyed texts.) Elena/Ferrante is deeply exercised by accusations of appropriation, of theft, of exploitation, which appear periodically and damagingly in press reviews of her literary output and are levelled at her, even more painfully, by family, friends and neighbours and by Lina herself.

Elena escapes from the neighbourhood but she cannot help returning, sometimes to live there for long periods. She needs her dark material, emotionally and commercially, however uneasy her connections with it may be, however strongly Florence, Milan, Turin and the international circuit may call her. She needs Naples.

One of this volume’s strongest episodes recounts the death of her mother, with whom she has had a difficult, sometimes violent relationship. In her final illness, made comfortable in a private clinic, enjoying the little touches of privilege paid for by the ill-gotten gains of her younger daughter’s criminal partner, Elena’s mother is at last reconciled to the clever daughter who went away and married (then left) the professor and is happy to hold in her arms her new granddaughter and namesake, Immacolata, illegitimate though she is. Here we have a rare example of a form
of restitution.

Elena Greco’s extreme ontological insecurity as a writer is strikingly and convincingly portrayed. Each rejection, each attack, each implied or spoken criticism, be it from her mother-in-law, from Lina, from a scholar at an academic presentation, or in the pages of L’Unità or La Repubblica or Corriere della Sera, plunges her into a morass of self-doubt, from which a word of praise from an editor (even an editor she does not much respect) will as readily rescue her. Even when she is looking back over her long career (The Story of the Lost Child spans, with various loops and reprises, a period from 1976 to 2005) from the standpoint of an old woman in her seventies, the anxieties persist. This leads one to the inevitable question: how much of a feminist and what kind of a feminist is the writer who goes by the name of Elena Ferrante? Does her work suggest that women are more insecure than men, both as writers and as lovers? Are they by nature more needy, more dependent on praise and goodwill?

It is well known that Ferrante’s identity remains a mystery but the career of her protagonist documents a well-defined time span, from the 1960s through to the beginning of the 21st century, a period in which there was first a spontaneous new wave of feminist fiction, then the rise of feminist literary theory, then a period that interrogated the construction of gender. The evolution of all these themes is intelligently addressed.

At times – and at a first reading – Ferrante’s work seems curiously old-fashioned and somewhat out of sync, as though it were approaching with hindsight questions long since resolved or bypassed: basic questions of sexual equality, of jealousy and infidelity, of the discriminatory ageing process of women, of paternity and maternity. Yet, as one reads on, one realises that these ­questions are still unresolved, still urgent, and that maybe we resist her explorations only because they are so painful and so embarrassing. She spares the reader nothing of the agonies of indecision and self-torment that afflict women as they try to lead remodelled lives.

The title of her earlier novel The Days of Abandonment speaks volumes. This is also about a woman struggling to write but, more frontally, it is about a woman whose husband has left her, abandoning her and their two small children. The narrator here says, “I wanted to write stories about women with resources, women of invincible words, not a manual for the abandoned wife.” But
the book she produces is an exploration of jealousy, ugly substitute sex, ugly thoughts, ugly struggles over custody, and of the sense of the near-total annihilation of being a woman-without-a-man.

In contrast, The Story of the Lost Child has moved on. It gives us Elena at last coming to terms, after a long personal and professional power struggle, with the irredeemable nature of her most passionate lover and one-time schoolmate, Nino: a liar, a charmer, a politician and, like his father, a faithless yet loyal serial seducer. Everyone but Elena knows that Nino is a shit and tells her so, many times, in the brutal dialect of the neighbourhood. But she has to find this out for herself and to make the best of it, which, inventively, she does. (And Pietro the professor, her ex, has a surprisingly good outcome, we are relieved to note.)

Ferrante takes on many of the issues raised in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962). You have to do it by yourself, for yourself: with others, you have to go on pushing the boulder up the hill. Lessing’s novel was a heady mix of feminism (a label that she disclaimed), Marxism and madness. Ferrante takes us into similar territory, as she, too, endeavours to combine the personal with the political. (Her descriptions of Lina’s crazy moments of “dissolving boundaries” recall the passages evoking Anna Wulf’s madness.) The political backdrop is of communism, neo-fascism and the Camorra. In old age, Elena sardonically states: “Anarchist, Marxist, Gramscian, communist, Leninist, Trotskyite, Maoist, worker were quickly becoming obsolete labels or, worse, a mark of brutality. The exploitation of man by man and the logic of maximum profit, which before had been considered an abomination, had returned to become the linchpins of freedom and democracy everywhere.” Some of the neighbourhood end up in prison, where Pasquale, an activist communist bricklayer, finds peace: at last, he has time to study. I am told that not many Italian novelists, male or female, have tackled the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s: the anni di piombo, the “years of lead”. Ferrante’s account rings fearfully true. Lessing was safer in London.

An English reader has a specific disadvantage with these Italian texts. The style is easy, readable, realist, at times elevated by unobtrusive classical allusion, and the translation is fluent. But the author incessantly and importantly reminds us that many of her characters (although some of them studied Latin and Greek at school) speak another language: like Elena’s mother, they speak “dialect”, they speak Neapolitan and they speak it at crucial moments of the plot. Language marks them as members of a different community, leading parallel lives. The significance of this gulf cannot be adequately conveyed in English prose. The sense of a missing dimension – together with the slight disjuncture of a story told in the present but with many years of hindsight – makes at times for a disturbing sense of distance, for a sense of reading through more than one filter. Ferrante does not use dialect herself, except on one or two extreme occasions, but its presence/absence is insistently registered.

The translation has one or two disconcerting time warps. I don’t think the babies Tina and Imma could have been wearing “onesies” in 1981 (I wonder what the Italian for this garment could have been?) and, more annoyingly, it is unlikely that a newspaper headline would have dismissed Elena Greco’s “debut novel” as the “Salacious memoirs of an ambitious girl in the 1970s, as the publishing word “debut” in this context only became widely used in a later era of marketing fiction. (The Italian has: “Memorie piccanti di una ragazza ambiziosa: il romanzo d’esordio di Elena Greco”.)

But I do have to wonder, as a novelist may, whether the “real” Elena Ferrante may have published some piquant memories, not long after the (cited) publication of Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse (1954), and then suppressed them? Has she, like Elena Greco, reached into her bottom drawer? If the seven novels she has published late in life are indeed all the fiction she has written, this has been an astonishing period of late flowering.

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein, is published by Europa Editions (473pp, £11.99)

Margaret Drabble’s most recent book is “The Pure Gold Baby” (Canongate)

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: the world order crumbles

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon