Sunday, September 30, 2018

What I learned talking with Ferrante fans at Big Blue Marble Bookstore

Recently, at my favorite bookstore, Big Blue Marble, I spoke to a lively group of readers about my book, In Search of Elena Ferrante.

Any novel is in some sense a Rorschach test—we read fiction through the lens of our own experiences and values. This is especially the case with Ferrante whose readers respond to her work on a deeply personal level. As Joanna Biggs put it in her review in the London Review of Books:

Are Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels even books? I began to doubt it when I talked about them with other people—mostly women. We returned to life too quickly as we spoke: who was your Lila, the childhood friend who effortlessly dazzled everyone? Or—a question not happily answered—were you Lila?... The usual distance between fiction and life collapses when you read Ferrante.

The group at the bookstore was all female (which is often the case in gatherings devoted to Ferrante) and mostly older women. One reasons these books resonate with older readers like me is our identification with the narrator’s struggle to make sense of her life, the challenge of integrating her present-day self with the overall trajectory of her life. Certainly part of the reason the Neapolitan novels resonated with me was that the historical period they cover follows the trajectory of my life. Like Elena and Lila, I was born in 1944, and although there were of course differences between my life and theirs, there were also some striking similarities, among them the dramatic changes in the status of women and the heady excitement of the 1960s and 1970s, when all established institutions were challenged.

Not everyone at the bookstore was a Ferrante fan. One member of the audience, a good friend of mine whose personal and literary judgment I respect, thought Ferrante had not really probed the inner life of her characters. She’s not alone here. As I read reviews of the Neapolitan novels, I sometimes thought the reviewer had read a different series of novels from the ones I had. For me, Elena and Lila are as complicated and as fully alive as any fictional characters I have ever encountered.

Interestingly the people in the group who expressed opinions about the authorship of the novels all said it really didn’t matter if the books were written by a man or by a woman. The were in agreement with Ferrante’s comment in one of her many interviews, that “a good writer—male or female—can imitate the two sexes with equal effectiveness.”

Rather than being disappointed by the fact that Ferrante’s novels were not solely the work of a female writer, they seemed intrigued by the collaboration of a man and woman on books that so powerfully explore gender roles. Ferrante’s publishers may fear that if a male author is acknowledged as the co-author of Ferrante’s books, many of Ferrante’s readers will be disappointed, may even feel deceived, and book sales will plummet. From my conversations with Ferrante fans, I doubt that is the case.

Queer theory and intersectional feminism have emphasized the fluidity of gender and undermined the notion of a stable female identity. My guess is that many readers will (in some cases reluctantly) have moved beyond the idea that there is an authentic female voice that can be recognized as such.

1 comment:

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