Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Elena as Opposed to Elena

Over the long weekend I finished the third book in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan series. I'd read the first book in just a couple of large gulps, but the second one took me a little longer due to school, timing, whatnot. The third took me from Los Angeles to Chicago and part of the way back on three plane flights. I'm going to start the fourth right away; I can't help but devour. But this post is mostly about a single thing I perceived in the second book. (If I said all I had to say about these books, I'd be blogging about them for weeks.)

It is not fair to say that, since starting My Brilliant Friend, I'd been proceeding on the notion that the first-person narrator of the novels, named Elena, definitely was Elena Ferrante. The notion I had was not precisely that the entire book is 100% a roman à clef, top to bottom, everything true. However, the books are so vivid, their detail so minuscule, their characters so woven together, everything so thoroughly of a piece, that I thought at least I was dealing with a Proust situation, where certain details are different but mostly it's just the shape of the author's life. Her global audience knows almost nothing about Elena Ferrante, and the nature of these novels supports her privatizing herself, in a way. That is: we don't necessarily need to know about Elena the author because we know Elena the character so well.

Multiple assumptions helped me to go forward into the second book with this idea in mind, that the novel was not a novel as much as it was a mild fictionalization. I assumed that Elena the author was the same age as Elena the character, and grew up in the same era. I assumed that no one could write these books from scratch, without pulling them mostly from life. I assumed that whatever she'd done to fictionalize these characters was tremendous authorship, but still not whole invention.

At the end of the second book, Elena the character publishes her first novel. Elena the character is in her early 20s, and the year is 1968 or 1969. This was the first moment when I definitively knew that Elena the author was not taking the books altogether from life. Elena the author's age is unknown, but she published her first novel in 1992. Obviously, something has been altered.

After doing this math, my reading experience changed, and I felt personally disappointed. (This is a stupid reaction, I know, but bear with me.) I had been wondering how much in the books was true and how much was invented, and wondering how Ferrante was capable of such sorcery even if it was mostly true and only a little invented, and so on. Instead, now, I felt as if the ground had shifted, was unstable. If this one aspect of the book - crucial in character development, thematically critical - was fictionalized, what else was? Some things? Everything? I didn't know, suddenly, when before I'd thought I had a handle on it.

In reality, nothing changed. I was foolish to think I knew anything about Ferrante's endeavor (at her desk, I mean), or about her life, only because I'd read the childhood and young adulthood she'd shaped for me in about 800 pages.

This is not Elena Ferrante. But it could easily be Lila.

Isn't that interesting, that I felt unstable because of my own perceptions of the book changed? Not because the book itself changed in any way?

Whether we want to get into the metaphysics of readership and writership or not, I thought it was worth noting that there was an actual pinpointable moment in my reading experience where it was no longer possible that Ferrante was writing about herself. At least, this moment was when the average reader with an internet connection knew that the author wasn't writing about herself with total factual accuracy.

In my view, this only intensifies her achievement, which is already lauded as one of the most remarkable in contemporary literature. If she's made these books up, completely, I'm staggered. The way the characters grow and move and change around and with each other, and the way the characters' movements demonstrate the books' thematic underpinnings, seems too real, too consistent, too true to be fiction. There's melodrama in the reappearances of certain characters, but it's always believable melodrama. There's a cast of dozens and there's depressing consistency in the way the cast ages and matures (or fails to); there's mundane tragedy via deaths and degradations.

If this is absolute fiction, it is indistinguishable from witchcraft.

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