An Unnatural Mother: Elena Ferrante and Motherhood
Earlier this fall, I attended an event for the release of The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth and final book of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Ann Goldstein, Ferrante’s English translator, was the evening’s main draw, and an elegant stand-in for the author whose identity is known only to her publishers (Elena Ferrante is a pen name). I used to work with Goldstein at the New Yorker, where she is an editor, and I saw a few former colleagues who also had come out to show their support. I waved to one near the front of the room, and exchanged a brief greeting with another before he took a reserved front-row seat. I lingered in the back.
I’d half-believed I would be the only one there. Reading Ferrante is an intensely personal experience, and it’s disorienting to realize it’s one you’ve been having collectively. Less surprising is the realization that the collective has been almost exclusively female (there were a few men in the room; the one standing nearest to me was clutching a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, also published that day). Perhaps that’s because Ferrante is to women what Judy Blume was to pubescent girls in the 1970s: both a shock and a relief, writing what most don’t even admit to thinking. This is especially true regarding Ferrante’s depiction of motherhood, one filled with frustration, difficult choices, and the constant threat of the loss of identity.
Unlike most writers who take on the subject, Ferrante doesn’t couch her characters’ pain and confusion in self-deprecating, mommy-wants-to-crawl-into-a-wine-bottle humor. In one of Ferrante’s earlier novels, The Lost Daughter, the narrator speaks with a young mother:
“So it passes,” she said.
She made a gesture to indicate a vertigo but also a feeling of nausea.
I remembered my mother and said:
“My mother used a different word, she called it a shattering.”
She recognized the feeling in the word, and her expression was that of a frightened girl.
“It’s true, your heart shatters: you can’t bear staying together with yourself and you have certain thoughts you can’t say.”
Then she asked me again, this time with the mild expression of someone seeking a caress: “Anyway, it passes.”[…] I looked for words, in order to lie to her by telling the truth.
“With my mother it became a sort of sickness. But that was another time. Today you can live perfectly well even if it doesn’t pass.”
The rejection of domesticity—being a typical wife, or a typical mother—is a constant theme in Ferrante’s work. Her characters break free of their roles, but, in fatalistic, southern Italian style, the world into which they escape is in many ways more disappointing than the one they’ve left behind. Ferrante is a true subversive: there is no redemption for her characters, at least not in the traditional sense.
This is in keeping with her goal as a writer. In an interview with the Paris Review, she was asked how she knows when a book seems publishable. Her answer: “When it tells a story that, for a long time, unintentionally, I had pushed away, because I didn’t think I was capable of telling it, because telling it made me uncomfortable.” She does her job well; when I underline a passage, it’s because I’ve been made uncomfortable, too.
“Think about it. A woman separated, with two children and your ambitions, has to take account of reality and decide what she can give up and what she can’t.”
What did Ferrante give up? The details on her personal life are few, and it’s been suggested that her anonymity is one of the reasons she’s been free to write so frankly. “In the past twenty years or so, she has provided written answers to journalists’ questions, and a number of her letters have been collected and published,” James Wood wrote in the New Yorker in 2013. “From them, we learn that she grew up in Naples, and has lived for periods outside Italy. She has a classics degree; she has referred to being a mother. One could also infer from her fiction and from her interviews that she is not now married. (‘Over the years, I’ve moved often, in general unwillingly, out of necessity. . . . I’m no longer dependent on the movements of others, only on my own’ is her encryption.)”
But what we know about her as a writer fills volumes: seven of them, including the four books of the Neapolitan novels as well as three previous novels: The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love, and The Lost Daughter. And from them we learn that motherhood is a dangerous business. Her protagonists are intellectual women—writers, professors, cartoonists—and they often come unglued as they try to cultivate and maintain a sense of self while also being caregivers. Ferrante’s women abandon children, lose them, steal from them, and are relieved once they’re grown and gone; they dedicate their lives to avoiding their mothers’ old mistakes only to make new ones. Ferrante takes the everyday frustration of motherhood—I never have any time for myself—and uses it as a point of radical departure.
This isn’t to say that the children in Ferrante’s work aren’t loved—if they weren’t, the themes would be too simple. Elena Greco, the narrator of the Neapolitan novels, is constantly questioning if she’s a good mother to her daughters, especially as her increasing stature as a writer requires her to spend time away from home. We meet Elena when she is a child herself: The Neapolitan novels begin in the 1950s and—over the course of four books, six decades, and almost 1,700 pages—chronicle Elena’s friendship with Lina Cerullo, a fierce and brilliant girl whom Elena, and only Elena, calls Lila.
Critics have praised the Neapolitan novels’ depiction of female friendship, but the most important relationship in Ferrante’s work is that of a woman with herself, and how her roles—daughter, lover, wife, but especially mother—affect that perception. Lila’s ability and willingness to watch Elena’s children whenever she needs to work enables Elena to piece together her professional success. In this sense, Lila provides Elena with a platform that the men in Elena’s life cannot, or will not, though even that comes at a price: mired in her own difficulties, Lila begins to increasingly question Elena’s maternal competence and willingness. Elena feels guilty—but she does not stop working. “We weren’t made for children,” Lila tells Elena.
That evening at the bookstore, I stayed long enough to hear Goldstein speak. She talked about Ferrante’s themes, her writing style, the work involved in translation. Then a group of women, all writers and editors, took their seats for a panel discussion, and I went home to put my daughter to bed.