By Invitation

The Honest Truth: Ferrante's Frantumaglia

[. . .] scrivere sapendo di non dover apparire genera uno spazio di libertà creativa assoluta. È un angolo mio che intendo difendere, ora che l’ho sperimentato. Se ne fossi privata, mi sentirei bruscamente impoverita.

(Elena Ferrante, La frantumaglia)

Non credo che di un testo si riesca a sapere di più se si hanno informazioni sulle letture e i gusti di chi l’ha scritto.

(Elena Ferrante, La frantumaglia)

 

When I wrote that Elena Ferrante’s identity should have been protected in the same way Italy protects the Marsican bear and the abortion law, I feared that the revelation of her biographical data would necessarily come as a diminishing act, as the scaling down of an artist whose work is already not regarded with the attention it deserves, in Italy. When the winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize was announced, I wondered if it was time for Ferrante to reveal her name in order to own her work. I never expected that somebody would do it for her and so deprive her of the right to remain anonymous. In how many ways could Claudio Gatti’s exposé of Elena Ferrante be bad? They have all been listed, shouted, explored, and reiterated within three days of its international publication on Il sole 24 ore, The New York Review of Books, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and Mediapart. The vast majority of the reactions that the article has stirred internationally has been unanimous:  It felt like punishment, something criminals deserve (here); It was a misogynistic attack on a woman whose only fault is to be successful, a failed attempt to diminish her (here and here); it advocates a misguided urge to necessarily know (here) without taking into account the authorial choices; it was a bad and ultimately pointless application of investigative journalism (here, and here); her million readers were definitely invested, and with good reasons, in her anonymity (here, here, and here); its logic is flawed and biased, since it accuses Ferrante of bringing this onto herself (here).

Gatti’s self-defense of his investigation seems to have worsened his case because it fails to justify with an acceptable reason his invasion of Anita Raja’s privacy—whether or not Elena Ferrante “lies” about her origins in La frantumaglia is not a good reason to pry into Raja’s real estate operations.

However, there is something undeniably positive that Gatti’s article accomplishes for readers and scholars of Ferrante: in spite of its intent, it confirms the absolute truth of Ferrante’s La frantumaglia as a programmatic work, completely coherent with the writer’s thought on authorship. La frantumaglia is a collection of essays, letters, reflections, and interviews that was published in Italy for the first time in 2003, later in 2007 in an expanded edition, and this year in a further expanded version.[1]

“Frantumaglia” is a word that Ferrante borrows from her Neapolitan mother, “she pronounced frantummàglia” (La frantumaglia 94, my translation),[2] and that refers to “a malaise that could not be defined otherwise and that hinted at a crowded, heterogeneous mix of things in her head, like rubbles floating on a brain’s muddy waters” (94).  In November, the book will come out for the first time in English as Frantumaglia: A Writers Journey, translated by Ann Goldstein.  Scholars of Ferrante have always treated La frantumaglia as a book that provides insight into the author’s poetics and style. To my knowledge, nobody has looked at it as a biography of sort, or even a collection of bits and pieces from real life. Gatti, showing little literary sensibility, opposes the reality of Anita Raja’s biographical data to Ferrante’s “lies.” He tells us Ferrante lied to her readers because she did not grow up in Naples; she didn’t have sisters, but only one brother; and her mother was not a Neapolitan seamstress, but a Jewish woman born in Worms, Germany. Given the evidence, Gatti adds with a logic that is hard to follow, by lying the author gave up her right to anonymity.

Rather than pondering if and why Anita Raja, who has never signed a novel as such, lied, one must ask the question of what it means for Ferrante to have grown up in Naples and to have had a Neapolitan seamstress as a mother. Here’s what she says to Goffredo Fofi in 1995: “With Naples, however, it’s never over, even from a distance. I have lived in other places for decent amounts of time, but this city is not any place, it is an extension of your body, a matrix of perception; it is the basis for the comparison of every experience. All that has been significant for me over time has Naples as its scenery and sounds in its dialect.” (La frantumaglia 60)[3]. Ferrante has embraced Naples as the place where she grew up in specific ways, it does not matter whether she lived in Naples every single day of her life as a child and a young adult, or whether she was going back every summer and at Christmas time. It does not matter whether her “sisters” were really sisters or maybe two of her best friends that she considered sisters and who lived in Naples. All this is irrelevant. The Naples Ferrante describes in her novels is undeniably true, as is the Naples she writes of in La frantumaglia, the one she calls “la mia Napoli.” Her authorial choice to disguise the details of her life must be accepted for La frantumaglia in the same way we do for her novels, when we take them as fiction that bears truth. About the relationship between her fiction and reality, Ferrante writes:

Then, there’s the issue of my creative choices [. . .] I reproduce situations in which people I know, or met in the past found themselves. I rely on real-life experiences but not in the way they actually occurred; rather, I consider as “really happened” only the impressions or the fantasies that stemmed from those experiences during the years in which they were lived. Thus, what I write is full of references to situations and events that really took place, but that I reorganize and reinvent in ways in which they never happened [. . .] I want my novel to take the longest possible distance, so that it can deliver its fictional truth and not the accidental bits and pieces of a biography, which it contains nonetheless.   (La frantumaglia 55-56)[4]

La frantumaglia must be read in this light, even if it is not a novel. In La frantumaglia, Elena Ferrante the author is telling the story of Ferrante the author, protecting the biographical details belonging to Anita Raja the translator—provided that Anita Raja is Elena Ferrante; this means that Ferrante is telling the story of what constitutes her authorship, while protecting the reality of her life. It is worthwhile to reproduce here entirely what she says to Goffredo Fofi to this regard:

Is there a way to protect an author’s right to choose to establish through her writing, once and for all, what of herself deserves to become public? The editorial market wants to know first and foremost if an author can be exploited as an intriguing public figure. In theory, if you surrender, you accept that your entire person with all her experiences and her affects, be put up for sale together with the book. But the sensitive nerves of a private life are too reactive; if you touch them, they can only put up a show of grief, or glee, or malevolence, or resentment (sometimes also generosity, but it is flaunted, whether you want it or not). For sure they cannot add anything to your work (La frantumaglia 56-57).[5]

Hence, Ferrante prefers to tell us about a mother different from her real one but coherent with her development as an author. In La frantumaglia, she indicates her beginnings as a writer. She tells us that she came to the making of metaphors quite early in life, when she was not even fourteen and was reading Madame Bovary in its original French: “But France for me remained basically Yonville as I discovered it an afternoon of a few decades ago, when I thought I ran into the craft of making metaphors and into myself at the same time.” (187).[6]

If we take into serious consideration the combination between making metaphors and encountering herself, we understand that in this juxtaposition “herself” is herself as a writer. In this short essay, Ferrante is in fact explaining her choices as an author in response to the Swedish editor of The Days of Abandonment, Bromberg. Bromberg decided at first not to publish The Days of Abandonment because they considered Olga’s behavior toward her children “immoral” (La frantumaglia 190). Ferrante replies by telling the experience of her encounter with a reprehensible literary mother, Emma Bovary:

I read Madame Bovary in my home town, Naples. I read it with difficulty, in its original French, by the imposition of an aloof and good professor. My mother tongue, Neapolitan, has layers of Greek, Latin, Arabic, German, Spanish, English, and French, a lot of French. “Leave me” in Neapolitan is “Làssame” and blood is” ‘o sanghe.” No wonder that Madame Bovary’s language seemed, here and there, my own language, the language by which my mum seemed to be Madame Bovary and she said “laisse-moi.” She also said “le sparadrap” (but she pronounced “ ‘o sparatràp”), the patch that I needed—while reading, I was Berthe—because I cut myself hitting against “la patère de cuivre.”

I understood then, for the first time, that geography, language, politics, and all the history of a people, for me were in the books I loved and which I could enter as if I were writing them myself. [. . .] For all my life, since then, I’ve been left with the doubt that at least once, and with Emma’s exact words--the same horrible words--my mother may have thought while looking at me, as Emma does with Berthe: “c’est une chose étrange comme cette enfant est laide!” [. . .] From France that sentence overwhelmed me and hit me right in the chest, it hits me even now, worse than the push by which Emma sent –sends—little Berthe against the dresser, against the copper corner. (188)[7]

We find in this passage the nucleus of Ferrante’s major themes: the relationship with the mother, with Naples and its language, and with the feminine body. Three years later, in 2007, Ferrante tells Luisa Muraro and Marina Terragni:

Ferrante In my experience the predominance of the mother is absolute, without comparison [. . .]

Terragni e Muraro In you, is it the relationship with the mother that asks insistently to be narrated?

Ferrante I believe so. (La frantumaglia 210-11)[8]

The relationship with the mother is not to be intended as the one existing between the woman who hides behind her pseudonym and her real mother, if not in terms of the experience generated also, but not only, by that relationship and which can be attributed to fictional characters, including a seamstress who might have never existed, or may have existed as somebody else’s mother. What counts is the narrability of that experience. In her response to Bromberg, Ferrante reveals to us the beginning of a relationship between mother and daughter that belongs to telling, to narration:

It was my mother who thought, but in her own language, “How ugly this child is!” [. . .] hence, over the years, I have been trying to remove that sentence from French and depose it somewhere in one of my pages, to write it myself in order to feel its weight, transfer it into my mother’s tongue, attribute it to her, hear it from her mouth, and understand whether this is a feminine sentence, if a woman can truly pronounce it, if I’ve ever thought it for my daughters, if, in conclusion, it must be rejected and erased, or accepted and re-worked, stolen from the masculine French page and transported into the female-daughter-mother language. (189-90)[9]

Ferrante the author is the one who carries the experience that needs to be told but doesn’t necessarily need to be anchored for her readers to her real mother. Her choice of choosing a seamstress as a mother tells us that the author is also thinking of what and who has generated her as a writer. Elsa Morante is the most relevant of her literary mothers.[10] It is not by chance that La frantumaglia’s second letter is the one Ferrante wrote to the Prize committee when she won the “Procida Prize Isola di Arturo – Elsa Morante” in 1992, for Troubling Love, the first being the letter that explains her decision not to reveal her identity.  

In that letter Ferante tells of the inspiration she drew from Morante’s short story Lo scialle andaluso. She recalls that Morante’s words tell of how children see their mothers as always old, with shapeless bodies, as do their seamstresses who are incapable to see a mother’s body as such and cut a dress that shows its shape:

Instead, out of habit and without reflecting, they sew on a mother clothes that erase the woman, as if the latter were a plague for the former [. . .] I thought of these mothers’ seamstresses only now, while writing, but I’m very intrigued by them [. . .] the connection between cutting, dressing, and telling excites me [. . .] Maybe, when Elsa Morante talked about mothers and their seamstresses, she was also talking of the necessity to find again a mother’s true clothes [. . .] Or, maybe not. At any rate, I remember more of her images in which it would be nice to lose oneself in order to come back as new seamstresses to fight against the mistake of Shapelessness. (15-16).[11]

The metaphor is established: Elena Ferrante the writer and not Anita Raja the translator (it doesn’t matter where the two overlap), has chosen sewing as the metaphor that generates her writing. Correcting the error of the old mothers’ seamstresses—giving mothers their bodies back and the truth that comes with them—is the task. Hence, to write of women means to become new seamstresses. In this context, if fighting the mistake of shapelessness is the writer’s goal, it makes perfect sense that her mother, the one who has begotten the writer, be a seamstress.

Why the author’s mother would be a Neapolitan is clear from what Ferrante says about the significance of Naples for her writing. It is there that the word frantummàglia originates and it titles a book that is anything but a collection of unrelated fragments. It is of no consequence whether in reality this Neapolitan seamstress was Ferrante’s mother, or her grandmother, a neighbor, an aunt, or somebody she had been told about.[12] The mother she chose is no doubt the truest to her literary agenda, and to her poetics. Elena Ferrante could not have been more honest with us readers, and I thank Gatti for pushing us to confirm so much.

 

 

[1] The quotations in this essay are from the 2007 edition: Elena Ferrante, La frantumaglia, Roma, Edizione E/O.

[2] All translations in this essay are mine, as the official one, by Anne Goldstein, will appear November 1st. The original for the two quotations above reads: “[. . .] (lei pronunciava frantummàglia) [. . .] un malessere non altrimenti definibile che rimandava ad una folla di cose eterogenee nella testa, detriti su un’acqua limacciosa del cervello.”

[3] “Con Napoli, comunque, i conti non sono mai chiusi, anche a distanza. Sono vissuta non per breve tempo in altri luoghi, ma questa città non è un luogo qualsiasi, è un prolungamento del corpo, è una matrice della percezione, è il termine di paragone di ogni esperienza. Tutto ciò che per me è stato durevolmente significativo ha Napoli per scenario e suona nel suo dialetto.”

[4] “Poi c’è il problema delle mie scelte inventive [. . .] riproduco situazioni in cui si sono veramente trovate persone che conosco e ho conosciuto; mi rifaccio a esperienze “vere”, ma non per come si sono realmente compiute, piuttosto assumendo come “veramente accadute” soltanto le impressioni o le fantasticherie nate negli anni in cui quell’esperienza fu vissuta. Così ciò che scrivo è pieno di riferimenti a situazione ed eventi realmente verificatisi, ma riorganizzati e reinventati come non sono mai accaduti [. . .] Voglio, perciò, che il mio romanzo se ne vada il più lontano possibile proprio perché possa dare la sua verità romanzesca e non gli scampoli accidentali, che pur contiene, di autobiografia.”

[5] “C’è modo di tutelare il diritto di un autore alla scelta di fissare una volta per sempre, soltanto attraverso la propria scrittura, quanto di sé merita di diventare pubblico? Il mercato editoriale si preoccupa innanzitutto di sapere se l’autore è spendibile in modo da diventare personaggio accattivane e aiutare così il viaggio mercantile della sua opera. Se si cede, almeno in teoria, si accetta che l’intera persona, con tutte le sue esperienze e i suoi affetti, sia posta in vendita insieme al libro. Ma le nervature del privato sono troppo reattive. Se vanno allo scoperto, possono dare soltanto spettacolo di dolore o di allegria o di malevolenza o di astio (qualche volta anche di generosità, ma volenti o nolenti, esibita); sicuramente non possono aggiungere altro all’opera.”

[6] “Ma la Francia è rimasta sostanzialmente Yonville, come la scoprii un pomeriggio di qualche decennio fa, quando mi sembrò di imbattermi contemporaneamente nel mestiere di lavorare metafore e in me stessa”

[7] “Ho letto Madame Bovary nella mia città natale, Napoli. L’ho letto faticosamente, in originale, per imposizione di una professoressa algida e brava. La mia lingua madre, il napoletano, ha strati di greco, latino, arabo, tedesco, spagnolo, inglese e francese, parecchio francese. Lasciami, in napoletano, si dice làssame e il sangue si dice ‘o sanghe. Non c’è da meravigliarsi se la lingua di Madame Bovary mi sembrò, a tratti, la mia stessa lingua, la lingua con cui mia madre pareva Emma e diceva laisse-moi. Diceva pure le sparadrap (ma pronunciava ‘o sparatràp), il cerotto che bisognava mettere sul taglio che m’ero fatta –mentre leggevo ed ero Berthe – sbattendo contro la patère de cuivre.  

Ho capito allora, per la prima volta, che la geografia, la lingua, la politica, tutta la storia di un popolo per me era nei libri che amavo e dentro cui potevo entrare come se li stessi scrivendo. [ . . .] Per tutta la vita, da allora, mi è rimasto il dubbio che mia madre, almeno una volta, esattamente con le parole di Emma – le stesse orribili parole – abbia pensato guardandomi, come fa Emma con Berthe: c’est une chose étrange comme cette enfant est laide! [. . .] Dalla Francia la frase mi arrivò addosso e mi colpì in mezzo al petto, mi colpisce tuttora, peggio dello spintone con cui Emma aveva mandato – manda – la piccola Berthe contro il comò, contro la pàtera di rame.”

[8]Ferrante Nella mia esperienza, la preponderanza della madre è assoluta, senza termine di paragone [. . .] Terragni e Muraro È il rapporto con la madre che in lei chiede insistentemente di essere raccontato? Ferrante Credo di sì”

[9] “È mia madre che ha pensato, ma nella sua lingua, comm’è brutta chesta bambina [. . .] perciò cerco negli anni di levare dal francese quella frase e deporla da qualche parte in una pagina mia, scriverla io per sentirne il peso, trasportarla nella lingua di mia madre, attribuirgliela, sentirla dalla sua bocca e capire se è frase femminile, se una donna davvero può pronunciarla, se io l’ho mai pensata per le mie figlie, se insomma va respinta e cancellata o accolta e rilavorata, sottratta alla pagina in francese maschile e trasportata in lingua di femmina-figlia-madre.”

[10] Scolars have explored the influence of Elsa Morante on Elena Ferrante’s novels; to this regard see the works of Stefania Lucamante, A Moltitude of Women: The Challenges of the Contemporary Italian Novel, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2008; and Patrzia Sambuco, Corporeal Bonds. The Daughter-Mother Relationship in Twentieth-Century Italian Women’s Writing, Toronto, The University of Toronto Press, 2012. Ferrante herself has often mentioned Morante as her primary inspiration, for instance in an interview for Vanity Fair, published on August 27th, 2015, in which she says: “The novel that is fundamental for me is Elsa Morante’s House of Liars.”

[11] “Esse, anzi, per abitudine, in modo irriflessivo, tagliano addosso alla madre panni che cancellano la donna, come se la seconda fosse una lebbra per la prima [. . .] A queste sarte delle madri ho pensato solo adesso, mentre scrivo. Ma mi attraggono molto [. . .] mi appassiona il nesso tra tagliare, vestire, dire [. . .] Forse Elsa Morante quando parlava delle madri e delle loro sarte parlava anche della necessità di ritrovarne gli abiti veri [. . .]. O forse no. A ogni modo io ricordo altre sue immagini [. . .] dentro cui sarebbe bello abbandonarsi per risalire come nuove sarte a combattere l’errore dell’Informe.”

[12] Ferrante recounts her experience as a child with her mother the seamstress in the essay that closes the 2003 edition of La frantumaglia and bears the same title as the book. 

Reading for the Moment

In literary studies we often present the discipline’s history as a kind of timeline along which we place texts that stand as landmarks, or maybe signposts announcing “turns” on the long and winding road to the present: the linguistic turn, the cultural turn, the turn to ethics, the affective turn, and so on — now, perhaps, the post-critical turn. Since the Representations special issue “The Way We Read Now” emerged from panels marking the 25th anniversary of the publication of The Political Unconscious, it’s little surprise Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus’s influential introduction to the issue takes this form, with Jameson’s 1981 text presented as a synechdoche for a decades-long “moment” characterized, in Best and Marcus’s account, by the dominance of a particular mode of reading—“symptomatic”—and an attendant critical posture—masterful, suspicious, heroic.[1] It used to be, goes their story, that critics were out to demystify and demolish, reading to uncover concealed depths; now, we read modestly, descriptively, and resourcefully, attending to the object as in itself it really “just” is.  The unusually powerful rhetorical impact of their essay arises in part from the startling efficiency with which they divide reading “now” from the embarrassing excesses of the heyday of critique, back “then.” This narrative is relentlessly homogenizing: the rubric “symptomatic reading” conflates, as has been widely observed, quite distinct critical methodologies, so that various kinds of historicism, cultural studies, psychoanalytic criticism, and so on get lumped as one, and other methodologies, notably deconstruction, wash out of the history.[2] The Political Unconscious appears as a period piece, an exemplar of a bygone era’s self-indulgence and overkill—something like literary criticism’s “Stairway to Heaven.” But despite its unusually sweeping gestures, Best and Marcus’s piece follows a structure typical of the way we habitually talk about disciplinary change, no matter our methodological commitments: we map such change in terms of as a series of discrete and successive “moments,” each dominated by a particular critical mode whose prestige and power is followed by a quick drop or slow fade into obsolescence, as the mode becomes routinized and apparently exhausted.[3] The poles between which the disciplinary pendulum swings, in these accounts, may be variable—you can have your “history” vs. “form,” your “New Criticism” vs. “theory,” your “literature” vs. “cultural studies,” as now your “critique” vs. the “post-critical,” and so on —but the shape remains the same: a periodizing narrative, outlining a disciplinary trajectory unfolding in a kind of mythic time of the discipline.[4]

Like periodizing narratives generally, these generalizing versions of disciplinary history can have their uses—they help articulate differences and patterns—but by their very form, they can also limit our ability to take stock of change, or to imagine change beyond the swapping of one “moment” for the next. Assigned the burden of representing its past moment, the “dated” text is inert and powerless in the present.[5] We could use alternative ways of talking about disciplinary change, more attentive to the shifts and divergences, the weird time lags and overlaps that really structure how we read and teach and write and talk. It is hard to see in many of our narratives of disciplinary history, that is, the far more dispersed, heterogeneous, recursive, multiply-conditioned temporalities of our actual reading and writing (and teaching and publishing). Certainly, beginning with my first encounter with literary and cultural criticism as an undergraduate in the theory-mad early 90s, my own shifting relation to the impulses connected to various critical “moments” is much more aptly characterized in terms of errancy, recursiveness, and Nachträglichkeit than in terms of any straightforward narrative. While my work over the past few years on literary fandom and poetic transmission shares in the “post-critical” interest in modes of readerly intimacy and attachment and in the ways texts “travel” outside periodizing logics (Felski “Context” 580), for example, I’ve at the same time found myself increasingly returning to critique as a vital mode, not least because the literary texts I am most interested in writing about seem to me themselves to operate in the mode of critique. What if our accounts of the way we read “now,” as well as our narratives of the discipline’s history, were to set out not from a catalog of eras or turns, but instead from the more particularized, more fluid temporalities I’ve begun to describe?

The temporality I have in mind here can be exemplified not by dates of publication of landmark texts, then, but rather by the messier, less clearly bounded time of the text’s gestation process and its potential life in the discipline: the years (maybe many, many years) of writing, revising, reformulating; the different occasions shaping parts of the writing and the venues in which it appears in different forms over time; the conversations and encounters that inform the writing, on different continents perhaps, perhaps across departments or disciplines, and the parallel conversations going on in the discipline perhaps without the writer’s awareness; the lag time between writing and publication; the way a book is absorbed by others and inspires responses, sometimes soon, sometimes many years down the road-- if anyone reads it, that is. This is the familiar stuff of our everyday professional lives, recognized in the acknowledgements sections of our books but more often than not airbrushed out of the books themselves. It’s on view to disorienting effect in the occasional work like Leslie Scalapino’s “performance work/talk/essay” “Disbelief” (2010), a dizzyingly complex meditation on the tense of writing and “being in events” that both revisits and undoes the poet’s sense of her own early-80s writing from the standpoint of her present writing. Or think of the page-blanketing footnotes and self-interruptions that dramatize the torque of time’s passage in Gayatri Spivak’s Critique of Postcolonial Reason (1999), calling attention to the theoretical and historical changes she encounters as she works on the manuscript from the Cold War mid-80s to the post-Soviet late 90s. Keeping such temporalities in view as we think about where the discipline has been and where it is going may make it harder to present a clean picture of a disciplinary “moment” or to offer a confident view of the road forward, but it may deliver a more usable version of the discipline’s past and a wider sense of its possible futures.[6]

Taking the ordinary temporality of our scholarly lives as a figure for reading operates against what Jane Gallop has called the “monumentalization of theory,” and encourages instead our treating theory as “a persistent ongoing practice in time” (Gallop 25). Rather than seeing critical or theoretical texts simply as the crystallized expression of the doxa of a “moment,” reading from this perspective allows that these texts might return different answers to our questions than we expect, or might lead us to ask questions not yet posed. It sees critical practice as essentially both experimental and provisional  — a provisionality connected also to its openness to the activity of future readers, who, as Ellen Rooney observes, go on “weaving even the most rigorous, stark and adamant assertions into new and never to be final forms” (113). From this point of view, there is no reason to imagine critical methodologies as possibly synthetic, no reason they need take the form of a unifying solution (for example, to the perceived antimony of history and form). Emphasizing the recursivity of methodological thinking as opposed to narratives of progress and obsolescence, we get a view of disciplinary history not as settled history we already know, but as a collection of loose ends we might rebraid into new strands of thinking, activating unused potential for the present.

To move from the figural to a more literal level, starting out in this fashion from the everyday temporalities of reading, writing, and teaching is also one way to begin to answer Lorraine Daston’s call for “an epistemology based upon the practices of humanists, on what they do” (363). Rachel Buurma and Laura Heffernan’s work on actual classroom practices seems to me exemplary in this regard.[7] Turning to the archival record of what happened in the classrooms of critics such as Cleanth Brooks and Edmund Wilson, Buurma and Heffernan seek to produce “a new topography of the everyday life of our disciplinary practices” by looking at “the downtimes in the classroom hour, the tangents of discussion, the undertheorized moments of interpretation or historical conjecture, and the value bestowed simply by paying attention, finding in them a set of paths not so much not taken, as never mapped” (116). In a different vein, Deidre Lynch ‘s recent Loving Literature  (which explicitly takes up Daston’s call) looks at the history of arrangements of work and pleasure, labor and feeling, around literary reading, and asks how it came to be that the boundaries between our personal and professional lives—our work time and our “downtime”—have a porousness unique among professions. These disciplinary histories are pitched not to the codification of a single history that would explain how we got where we are and forecast where we are going, but to a shifting of our professional self-understanding.

Attending to the time of reading in this sense means also thinking about the limits on that time, its interruptions and distractions. The way we read now? Too often, it’s hurriedly and not nearly enough, pressed for time, between classes and meetings and the rest of life. Behind the pendulum-swing narratives of the rise and fall of various methodologies within the discipline often runs another, parallel story, about the changing fortunes of the discipline as a whole viewed from a wider, extra-disciplinary perspective, and about the continued hits literature departments have taken in enrollments, funding, and prestige within and beyond the university.[8] Sunny and forward-looking, Best and Marcus’s account of “surface reading” spares little room explicitly to address worries about the pressures on the discipline, but the trope has become so familiar they hardly need to; Jeffrey Williams’s Chronicle piece describing the “new modesty in literary criticism” (with “surface reading” as Exhibit A) connects the dots directly, linking the “new modesty” to the contrast between the discipline’s present sense of precarity and the overreach of the “theory era.” The sociological story about the changing situation of the discipline within the university and the culture at large and the history-of-ideas story about turns within the discipline tend to slip and slide in relation to one another, as they are brought into implicit or explicit conjunction. In other words, we repeatedly translate questions about the situation of English within the system of disciplines, or questions about its relation to what is “outside” it, into narratives about a contest between methodologies taking place within departments of literature. This wavering between intra- and extra-disciplinary narratives makes it all too easy to pretend to be talking about the one when we are really talking about the other; it blurs cause-and-effect relations, so that it can appear not only that methodological aims are reducible to sociological terms but that methodology has structural consequences. This is illusory: as Jennifer Ruth points out, “the hermeneutics of suspicion cannot be blamed […] for administrators’ penchant for phasing out tenure lines in the humanities” (117).[9]

By setting the “way we read now” in the context of a tug-of-war between poles internal to the discipline, the intradisciplinary narratives we often generate in what Felski calls “the current climate of retrospection” (218) appear to make the whole thing a family affair, and so give out that our fate as a discipline is to a large degree in our own hands. The psychoanalytic take on this would be that the “new modesty” in literary criticism asserts itself as a reality principle, monitoring and reasserting the boundaries of a disciplinary ego against the threat of the dissolution of that identity.[10] In a situation where the discipline seems to many to have lost consensus about its object and direction, where some worry it is on the ropes, what such apparently coherent narratives of disciplinary history offer, of course, is a kind of wish fulfillment, a fantasy of continuity, boundedness, and autonomy (the obverse, mirror image of the fantasy of power attributed to literary criticism’s supposedly expansionist, imperialist mode of the 70s and 80s). Strangely, though, this more disciplined (in several senses) attitude asserts itself by taking disciplinary identity itself as a given. For example: it is significant that all of the contributors to the Representations special issue are located in departments of English (or in a few cases, English and Comp. Lit.), but also meaningful that this fact is observed in the first paragraph of the introduction and then summarily dropped. Similarly, a minor tempest broke out on the VICTORIA-L listserv recently when the members of the newly formed V21 collective posted a manifesto advocating a “post-historicist” direction for Victorian Studies, inviting responses to the manifesto on their website but restricting that invitiation to scholars in literature. When historians who saw themselves as having a stake in Victorian Studies as a traditionally multidisciplinary enterprise voiced their objections, the ensuing dust-up exposed the way the question of disciplinarity could not be posed within the problematic of the manifesto itself, because the “field”—as both a disciplinary and period-based formation—was exactly what was being already assumed as a defining term.

My intention is not to weigh in here for or against “interdisciplinarity;” rather, what I want to point out is how the narrative of the movement from one “moment” to another—symptomatic reading to surface reading, historicism to post-historicism, critical to post-critical, suspicious to reparative—allows one to hold the field or discipline as the steady frame for these changes over time, yet to keep the problem of framing itself out of view. The insistence on some kinds of limits (for example, limits to the imagination of critical agency) can simultaneously bracket the question of other kinds of limits (for example, the question of literature’s limit). It may be true that now we do things a little bit differently than we did back then, as Best and Marcus suggest, but, from another point of view, we also just keep on doing things, if a little differently. Slogans announcing challenges to critical routines proliferate, yet even as these challenges offer a valuable opportunity to rethink the usefulness of certain critical moves or habits, the isolation of one form of supposed routinization can allow critical programs to naturalize other disciplinary protocols, including the institutional frame of the discipline itself, and foreclose the imagination of other transformations. What’s set aside are not only questions about how to specify the relation of our reading practice to its material conditions, and these to the conditions of some larger present, but also questions about the institution of literature and its institutionalization in the discipline and the university, about the very idea of its “transmission.” These are questions about “the possibility of knowing—and therefore teaching—what is called literature” that, Peggy Kamuf writes, “go to the very border along which an institution, here the university, sets itself off from some outside”  (7, 4).

We have, however, a wide array of resources we can mobilize in keeping such questions “live.” Deconstruction and Marxist critical theory remain in my view powerful strategies not only for thinking about the work of literary form but also for thinking through relations among the concept of discipline, the scene of teaching, and institutions of reading in terms of what Kamuf calls their “historicality,” “by which is meant both that they have been bequeathed to us by a specific history […] and that whatever stabilized forms they may assume in the present remain open to the transformations of a future” (4). I think we have a lot still to gain from local attention to the diversity of everyday practices and settings through which English literature has been transmitted as an object of knowledge, within and outside the university. Giving us more than colorful historical detail, this work can help us see the disciplinary protocols we take for granted as newly strange, and help us see our reading practices as mediated by multiple, divergent histories, across multiple sites, rather than a single tradition or line of development. For me, this kind of work intersects productively with new studies of reception focusing less on tracking the changing meanings or values assigned texts—less on genealogies of influence or interpretative acts—and more on the practices (habits of thought or body) mediating the transmission of texts, or on the concept of transmission itself.[11] And this research can also be placed in dialogue with a phenomenology of reading attentive to the desires, attachments and investments at play in the encounter with textual objects, taking the scene of reading not as strictly self-enclosed, but rather as the site of collisions as well as identifications between the intimate and the social (those produced as we read, but also those that happen in the moments around reading, as when, say, overheard conversations or street noise blend with one’s reading).[12]

The moment of reading in this sense opens out on the one hand to the dailiness with which it is contiguous, and on the other hand to the multiplicity of individual and collective histories that structure it, including the long histories of reading practices and of genres. Reading in this sense can be in active relation to multiple “moments” of very different temporal scale, more or less tied to reading’s date (e.g., “Romanticism,” “the moment of Occupy,” “the post-critical moment”): think, for example, of Eve Sedgwick’s reflection in Tendencies on the time-specific “now”—the “moment of queer,” for which she takes the 1992 New York City gay pride parade as emblematic—and her affirmation of “queer” as a “continuing moment” and “immemorial current” (Sedgwick xi-xii).[13]  Here, instead of worrying about drawing or erasing boundaries between the work and its historical context, or between the domains of knowledge claimed by one discipline or another, what’s at issue are the unstable, contingent yet productive borders delimiting the moment of reading, and the subjectivity at work there, from whatever outside. This boundary is what the poet Lyn Hejinian fruitfully names “a dilemma:” “not an edge but a conjunction,” “a border under pressure of doubt” (339-340).

Collectively, these approaches contribute to a criticism that apprehends the “now” of the reading it performs—and its relation to a “moment” it might inhabit, continue, dissent from or help create—not as something already known or fully knowable, but as itself a moving object of analysis continually to be rethought. They cast the disciplinary narratives we spin as crucially open to change.

 

WORKS CITED

Bell, David F. “A moratorium on suspicion?” PMLA 117:3 (May 2002) 487-90.

Best, Stephen and Sharon Marcus. “Surface Reading: An Introduction.” Representations 108:1 (2009) 1-21.

Buurma, Rachel Sagner and Laura Heffernan. “The Common Reader and the Archival Classroom: Disciplinary History for the Twenty-first Century.” New Literary History 43 (2012) 113-135.

Chew, Dalglish. “We Have Never Been Critical.” We, Reading, Now. Colloquy curated by Dalglish Chew and Julie Orlemanski. Arcade. http://arcade.stanford.edu/colloquies/we-reading-now

Dale, Leigh, Jennifer McDonnell, and Marshall Brown, eds. Lessons from the Past: The History of Academic English. MLQ 75:2 (2014).

Daston, Lorraine. “Whither Critical Inquiry?” 30:2 (Winter 2004) 361-364.

Felski, Rita. “After Suspicion.” Profession (2009): 28-35.

——. “Context Stinks!” New Literary History 42:4 (2011) 573-591.

Gallop, Jane. The Deaths of the Author: Reading and Writing in Time. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2011.

——. “The Historicization of Literary Studies and the Fate of Close Reading.” Profession (2007) 181-186.

Goode, Mike. “Blakespotting.” PMLA 121:3 (May 2006) 769-786.

Goodlad, Lauren M. E. The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Realism, Sovereignty, and Transnational Experience. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015.

Hejinian, Lyn. The Language of Inquiry. Berkeley: U of California Press, 2000.

Johnson, Barbara. The Feminist Difference: Literature, Psychoanalysis, Race, Gender. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998.

Kamuf, Peggy. The Division of Literature: Or The University in Deconstruction. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1997.

Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004) 225-248.

Lesjak, Carolyn. “Reading Dialectically.” Criticism 55:2 (Spring 2013) 233-277.

Levine, Caroline. “Strategic Formalism: Toward a New Method in Cultural Studies.” Victorian Studies 48: 4 (Summer 2006) 625-657.

Loesberg, Jonathan. “Cultural Studies, Victorian Studies, and Formalism.” Victorian  Literature and Culture (1999) 537-544.

Lynch, Deidre. Loving Literature: A Cultural History. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2015.

Mitchell, W. J. T. “The Commitment to Form; Or, Still Crazy after All These Years.” PMLA 118:2 (321-5) 2003.

Poovey, Mary. “The Twenty-First-Century University and the Market: What Price Economic Viability?” differences 12:1 (Spring 2001) 1-16.

——. “Beyond the Current Impasse in Literary Studies.” American Literary History 11 (1999): 355-77.

Price, Leah. How to Do Things With Books in Victorian Britain. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2012.

Robson, Catherine. Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2012.

Rooney, Ellen. “Live Free or Describe: The Reading Effect and the Persistence of Form.” Differences 21:3 (2010) 112-139.

Ruth, Jennifer. Novel Professions: Interested Disinterest and the Making of the Professional in the Victorian Novel. Columbus, OH: Ohio State UP, 2006.

Scalapino, Leslie. “Disbelief.” Jacket 40 (2010). http://jacketmagazine.com/40/scalapino-essay.shtml

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Tendencies. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1993.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999.

V21 Collective. Manifesto of the V21 Collective: Ten Theses. V21collective.org. 2015.

Weed, Elizabeth. “The Way We Read Now.” History of the Present  2:1 (Spring 2012) 95-106.

Williams, Jeffrey. “The New Modesty in Literary Criticism.” Chronicle of Higher Education. Jan. 5, 2015.

           

 

 

[1] For responses to Best and Marcus, see Goodlad, Lesjak, Rooney and Weed.

[2] That Best and Marcus have psychoanalysis and Marxism stand in this way for a whole range of critical traditions suggests the real target is the notion of an unconscious, political or otherwise. Deconstruction disappears in Best and Marcus’s account perhaps in part because it is most directly incompatible with their story about criticism’s privileging of hidden depths over surfaces (it deconstructs that opposition) and because the deconstructive ethics of attention, especially as exemplified in the later Derrida, seems like a forerunner of “post-critical” reading, rather than an example of a hermeneutics of suspicion. Lauren Goodlad makes a parallel point about the continuity between poststructuralism and “the ethical responsibility to attend to the object of one’s critique” emphasized in “surface reading” and allied approaches (273).

[3] You can claim that the critical attitude you want to critique is obsolete, or you can critique the way the approach you want to advance has been deemed obsolete. In a 2003 PMLA essay, W.J.T. Mitchell playfully, and cleverly, casts his ability to believe that form still matters despite its evident “historical obsolescence” as an example of Adornian (political) “commitment” (322). Here is an example of the way claims that form or formalists are “obsolete” have accompanied the high visibility of “form” as a catch-word: by 2009, for Best and Marcus, it’s a supposedly anti-formalist critique that’s obsolete.  In Jane Gallop’s 2007 Profession article “The Historicization of Literary Studies and the Fate of Close Reading,” it is the alleged dominance of a highly routinized historicism that threatens close reading (held up as a kind of disciplinary constant) with obsolescence.

[4] Dalglish Chew, in his essay for this colloquy, similarly observes that “efforts to invent new methods of reading tend to characterize their originality by reorganizing the recent history of literary criticism according to discontinuous paradigms” (Chew).

[5] Goodlad points out the strangeness of the way both Best and Marcus and Rita Felski, in “Suspicious Minds,” tie what they claim is a still-persistent critical mentality to texts from the 80s. The effect in each case is to emphasize the way they see criticism as stuck in dated routines, running glosses on the same master scripts, but as Goodlad notes, this also suggests some distance between the target of their argument and the present critical landscape (269-70).

[6] I recognize that the move I’m making here, from the mythic to the everyday and the straightforward to the messy, repeats a gesture common to much work associated with the “post-critical” (though it is also here, as it is there, a move with obvious Marxist and poststructuralist pedigree). For this characterization of the “post-critical” with an emphasis on temporal messiness, see Rita Felski’s “Context Stinks!”

[7] See also the essays in the 2014 special issue of MLQ, Lessons from the Past: The History of Academic English.

[8] On these structural issues and their reflection in talk about the discipline, see Poovey, “Twenty-first” and “Beyond,” and the exceptionally lucid discussion in Ruth 114-121. 

[9] Accounts of the supposed failure of critique tend to minimize and exaggerate its effect at the same time: “criticism was deluded to think it made anything happen,” say the critics of critique, “and plus, now look at what critique’s done to the discipline!” There are two common types of this argument, easy to find on newspaper editorial pages: one that postmodern or poststructuralist suspicion and/or relativism have infected the general public with a worrying willingness to ignore fact and science, because there’s no such thing anymore as truth; another, that the rise of theory and of “suspicious” reading correlates in some causal way with declines in enrollment.  Bruno Latour makes a striking version of the former claim (“of course conspiracy theories are an absurd deformation of our own arguments, but….these are own weapons nonetheless”[230]). David Bell makes a very explicit, if entirely anecdotal and unpersuasive, version of the latter claim.

[10] Jonathan Loesberg’s 1999 essay uses the metaphor of disciplinary “enclosure” explicitly in arguing that a period of disciplinary expansion needs to be followed by a “voluntary askesis” exercised through a return to “aesthetic formalism” (541). So, there is an analogy drawn between the desired disciplinary coherence and the apparent coherence of the form imagined as its object (i.e., form as enclosure). Lesjak summarizes the trend I am discussing, pointing to methodological proposals such as Caroline Levine’s “strategic formalism” as examples: “The overarching message seems to be: scale back, pare down, small aims met are better than grand ones unrealized, reclaim our disciplinary territory and hold on to it” (237).

[11] Many different scholars, working in very different modes, are doing exciting research in this area, including, to take just a few examples, Catherine Robson, Mike Goode, and Leah Price.

[12] I’m thinking here most directly of Eve Sedgwick’s reflection on the scene of reading in these terms, for example in “Queer and Now” from Tendencies, and the line of work in queer studies influenced by Sedgwick. Rita Felski has thought through the potential of a new phenomenology of reading in productive and provocative ways. In a different tradition but in interestingly overlapping ways, a phenomenology of reading is also central to Hejinian’s poetics.

[13] Gallop’s Deaths of the Author thoughtfully discusses Sedgwick’s thinking about the “moment” of reading and writing in relation to Spivak’s.

Elena Ferrante's Real Identity? A Treasure to Protect, Up Until Yesterday...

Translated by Nicole Gounalis. The original Italian first appeared online at Storie.

 

We don’t need to know who the woman is who goes grocery shopping when she isn’t writing. We are interested in other things, for example the influence Elsa Morante’s House of Lies had on her, writes BARBARA ALFANO, a Neapolitan professor, scholar of Elena Ferrante, and American transplant. The unveiling of the writer’s identity and the eventual recognizability of characters as real people would have neutered and diluted the stories, she insists. All true, until…

Elena Ferrante didn’t win the Man Booker International Prize. It wouldn’t occur to anyone to consider this a defeat, since all six finalists, and their respective translators, have, in a certain sense, already won. The matter at hand is choosing one of the six. In the case of Elena Ferrante, however, a question comes to mind that, even if not posed openly, persists as a stumbling block, like the proverbial elephant in the room.

Would the jury have really given the prize to an absent author, in the very year that, for the first time, they wanted to award writers and translators in equal measure and present them together, side by side, as has happened to Han Kang and Deborah Smith? I don’t have an exact response, but I do know that until today I thought that Elena Ferrante’s anonymity was a national treasure for us to protect, as we protect the laws that safeguard women’s rights and the Marsican brown bear.

Until yesterday I fervently believed that renouncing her anonymity would cost Ferrante the power of her writing, which is generated by a great honesty of sentiment and emotion, the kind that can be found only by digging deep within one’s own being and personal history. She herself has written: “I use plot, characters, as a tightened net for pulling all that is alive out from the depths of experience, for wringing it all out, including what I myself have pushed furthest away because it seemed unbearable” (La frantumaglia, pp. 217-218, translated by the translator). It seems to me that this aspect, of all the possible meanings that biographical information may have, is the most important that an author can reveal in her work. The eventual recognizability of characters as real people would neuter and dilute the stories.

Rather, it seemed to me, and it seems, essential that Ferrante’s writing remain tethered to the themes that are addressed in both her first three novels and the Neapolitan tetralogy. Ferrante’s stories tell of women who must reinvent themselves away from the male gaze, who must redefine a possible relationship with their mothers, women who have a difficult relationship with maternity, women who must recognize themselves in their connections with other women, women in flight from a culture that crushes them. In the interviews she’s given, Ferrante is always very honest in relating these experiences to her own. It would be a very good thing if Ferrante’s voice remained a powerful one in an Italy that has difficulty recognizing the heritage of a patriarchy that still influences the culture.

For the academy, it doesn’t matter who the person Elena Ferrante is.1 Among colleagues, we say it to each other at conferences as much as on Facebook: it doesn’t have to do with us, and it doesn’t matter. We don’t need to know who the woman is who goes grocery shopping when she isn’t writing. We are interested in other things, for example the influence that House of Lies and “Tu che mi guardi, tu che mi racconti” had on her—things that professors take up and study, in other words.2

And yet, without even contradicting her need to remain anonymous, reading Ferrante, and teaching her, can be a very personal thing. For me, a woman from Naples who lives and works in the U.S., it has been a continual laying open of myself to the process of ferrying between one culture and another, between the past and the present, and of acting, shamefully, as a crystal ball for a class of young students for whom, for example, it is difficult to understand certain cultural attitudes very deeply engrained in Ferrante’s characters. Questions like, “Why does Delia in Troubling Love have sex with Antonio only to please him, when she is indifferent to him?” bring you to recounting the how and why of a culture that has been part of your own personal story. You realize, then, that in Italy this cultural heritage, as presented in Ferrante’s works, doesn’t signify much, unless in a specific environment.

With notable exception (see, for example, Goffredo Fofi),3 the world of Italian literary criticism, that which appears in the cultural pages of the top newspapers, did not take much notice of the significance of Elena Ferrante’s work, dedicating much space to her personal absence and commenting on the value of her writing only as an aside, leaving to the author herself the task of putting together these two aspects in the various interviews she’s given. And since some Italian critics put little stock in Americans when it comes to aesthetic judgment, transatlantic success didn’t help, which gave Ferrante back to us, but at a slant, exaggerated. This returned image was perceived dubiously by Paolo Di Paolo, for example.4

We had to wait for the important, substantial interview conducted by Nicola Lagioia5 to finally see the themes and style of Ferrante’s novels contextualized, with seriousness and within a broader discourse about narrative, and not just Italian narrative. Finally, a conversation that understands something about literature.

The value of Elena Ferrante’s work obviously has not escaped the academic world, nor that of feminist culture. Already in 2004 Luisa Muraro understood its importance and wrote:

La frantumaglia is a real book, notwithstanding the way in which it was composed. It is because it is the incarnation of a notably energetic thought. And she who has written the different texts that comprise it has the ability (the force, the freedom, the gift?) to say what she thinks as she feels it. Here I will offer nothing close to a worthy review; I will only draw out some elements in order to do something that I have had inside me for months, for years. This is finally thinking about what is happening to us, especially between women and men, and therefore putting an ear to current ways of speaking and writing, losing a certain language that makes us precious and taken for granted [translated by the translator].

In comparison, Paolo Di Paolo’s commentary on La frantumaglia, written for the newspaper La Stampa ten years later, reads like nails on a chalkboard:

They’re sentimental enough, the dialogues with journalists and critics collected in 2003 in the volume La frantumaglia. The interviewers send the questions to the publisher e/o and then the responses arrive, from who knows where. They’re thoughtful, with the posturing and flirting of a person who doles them out with an eyedropper and ends up more irritating then the worst narcissists. It’s a book full of bowing and scraping, of embraces, of false confessions: a corpus for the impossible body of the Great Absent One of Italian literature.6

Di Paolo doesn’t even notice the ‘notably energetic thought’. For years, Elena Ferrante has explained and re-explained the reasons for her absence, which in reality is the strongest possible presence of the author in her work. She has tried to make us understand. She said clearly in an interview in 2003, in the newspaper La Repubblica, what she has repeated before and since, and in different guises, to all the newspapers and publications, national and international, that have asked her. Along the lines of Elena Greco, the narrator of My Brilliant Friend, I will try to sum it up like this: there is absolutely no need for personal information in order to understand who is the author of the Neapolitan cycle and the previous works, since all of her is given in the works themselves, in which she has laid herself bare. It is anonymity that allowed her to do so. To a reader who would like her to be visible, she responds with the following:

The personality of she who writes stories is completely in the virtual world of her books. Look there, inside them, and you will find the eyes, the sex, the lifestyle, the social class, and the voice of her Id (translated by the translator; La frantumaglia p. 199).

Maybe it bears emphasizing once again the possibility of complete honesty that anonymity offers Ferrante in recounting her experiences, without needing to protect herself and others. When Luisa Muraro and Marina Terragni questioned her about Neapolitan mothers, she explained:

I don’t know what the Neapolitan mother is like. I know what certain mothers are like whom I have met, born and raised in that city. They are happy and foul-mouthed women, violent victims, desperately in love with men and with sons, ready to defend them and to serve them even if they are crushed and tormented by them, ready however to claim that ‘years ago’ l’uommenne (men had to do it) unable to admit, even to themselves, that in this way they push them in even uglier directions. To be the daughters of these mothers was not and is not easy (Ibidem, p. 211).7

Ferrante is good at avoiding both generalizations and too-specific references, but I am sure that in the presence of a recognizable mother, the essential, harsh, and honest language would change. The story would lose the potency of truth. This is what we need to understand about Ferrante’s anonymity—that the truth that comes out, thanks to it, is useful in a context like the Italian one. This is a context in which the culture of relationships between men and women still changes too slowly, and not just in a specific Neapolitan social class, or generally in the South (seen from the outside, all of Italy suffers from the same problem). Ferrante’s novels describe women whom it is difficult to confront, but whom we must get to know. I don’t mean to say that there have not been women writers in Italy, before Ferrante, who set out courageously on this same path. I will mention only two of the greatest who have walked this path of themes explicitly related to women and actively engaged with social questions: Dacia Maraini and Oriana Fallaci. I also don’t mean to offer an apologia for the absent author and therefore a hope that all authors will go into hiding. I am saying that given Ferrante’s own choice, I find such a choice justified in the context of her work and consistent with what she herself says she is able and willing to do.

I was very certain of all this until yesterday. Until the awarding of the Man Booker International, when I thought: “But Elena Ferrante, who understood so well how to keep her distance from Naples, so much so that she was even able to appreciate the city, why not keep a little distance from herself as well and take ownership of her work? Now she could really do it, couldn’t she?”

  • 1. Rebecca Falkoff, professor of Italian Studies at New York University, has written an illuminating and detailed essay on the topic of Ferrante’s identity and her success in America: “To Translate is to Betray: On the Phenomenon of Elena Ferrante in the US,” Public Books, March 25, 2015: http://www.publicbooks.org/fiction/to-translate-is-to-betray-on-the-elena-ferrante-phenomenon-in-italy-and-the-us.
  • 2. Elsa Morante, Menzogna e sortilegio, 1948; Torino: Einaudi, 1994; Adriana Cavarero, “Tu che mi guardi, tu che mi racconti,” 1997; Milano: Feltrinelli, 2001. Ferrante has indicated the influence on her of these two texts in an interview with Vanity Fair on August 27, 2015: “What fiction or nonfiction has most influenced you as a writer? –The manifesto of Donna Haraway, which I am guilty of having read quite late, and an old book by Adriana Cavarero (Italian title: “Tu che mi guardi, tu che mi racconti”). The novel that is fundamental for me is Elsa Morante’s House of Liars.”
  • 3. Goffredo Fofi interviewed Ferrante for the newspaper Il Messaggero: “Viaggio al centro del pianeta donna” [“Voyage to the center of Planet Woman”], January 24, 2002. Fofi had already sent some questions to Ferrante in 1995 and Ferrante, even though she responded, never mailed the letter. Both of these conversations are in La frantumaglia (e/o, 2003).
  • 4. See “Il caso Ferrante: Il romanzo italiano secondo il New Yorker,” [“The Case of Ferrante: The Italian Novel According to the New Yorker”], La Stampa, October 13, 2014. http://www.lastampa.it/2014/10/13/cultura/il-caso-ferrante-il-romanzo-italiano-secondo-il-new-yorker-k6z6crdyRB5A6Z4ycRUrIO/pagina.html
  • 5. “’Elena Ferrante sono io’: Nicola Lagioia intervista la scrittrice misteriosa” [“‘I Am Elena Ferrante’: Nicola Lagioia interviews the mysterious writer”], La repubblica, April 4, 2016. http://www.repubblica.it/cultura/2016/04/04/news/_elena_ferrante_sono_io_nicola_lagioia_intervista_la_scrittrice_misteriosa-136855191/
  • 6. See Note 4.
  • 7. “Parla Elena Ferrante, la scrittrice senza volto. ‘Così racconto l’amore oscuro della madre’.” [“Elena Ferrante, the writer without a face, speaks. ‘In this way I tell of a mother’s difficult love.’”]. This interview appeared in Io Donna, January 27, 2007.

Fabricating Stories

The love told of in L’amore molesto is a maddening kind of love. It can be, like the Italian word used to describe it, annoying, bothersome, irritating—nasty, even. Or, borrowing from the English translation of the novel, troubling. This love, between a mother and a daughter, is, one might say, the most primal kind of love. It is the original love. And while Ferrante’s novel does not reveal what love itself is, it certainly makes it clear that the act of loving and being loved is a viscous affair. One we cannot escape from, as it adheres to the self as skin does to flesh. We can only, this novel suggests, try to understand it, or rather, mold it and reimagine it in an effort to make it coherent—palatable. It is precisely this imaginative exercise that stands at the center of Ferrante’s first published novel, which opens with the death of a mother. Unlike Camus’s Meursault, Delia knows the exact date and place of her mother’s death: “Mia madre annegò la notte del 23 maggio, giorno del mio compleanno, nel tratto di mare di fronte alla località che chiamano Spaccavento, a pochi chilometri da Minturno” (8). This death, like the eponymous love, is primordial, inasmuch as it sets in motion Delia’s investigation of her mother’s last days. L’amore molesto, thus, opens with one of the essential tropes of the detective novel, and it borrows from the genre in that the action must move backwards in order to move forward. Yet Delia’s examination of her mother’s death is really a proxy for her investigation of the maternal figure (sagoma—figure, outline, contour, shape—is a word that repeatedly comes up in the novel) and the relationship that it bears to her past, present, and future self.

It is no coincidence that the event which inaugurates this process happens on the day of Delia’s birthday. Amalia’s death is the necessary catalyst for Delia’s rebirth, which can only be realized through the separation from the maternal womb. The occasion arrives, we might think, belatedly (forty five years, to the day). We see echoes here of Irigaray’s 1981 essay on mother-daughter relationships: “what I wanted from you Mother, was this: that in giving me life, you still remain alive” (quoted in Hirsch 137).  Only through death can life come, and as the novel opens with this event, Delia must revisit the imaginary and real places of her childhood. Images of regression abound in the novel. Most prominent, perhaps, is the sea, the perennial trope of things generative. It is at once the place where Amalia’s life ends, and the place where, at the end of the book, Delia will come to have her own version of an epiphany. But it is the in-between—the journey to this epiphany—that takes up the bulk of the book. We learn that although Delia had left her native Naples years ago to live in Rome, she never succeeded in shaking off her mother’s influence. Whenever her mother visited her and took to clean the apartment, Delia confesses, she felt, curled up in bed, like a “bambina con le rughe” (16). This infantilization continues throughout the book, originating from Delia’s fear of abandonment—her constant clinging to her mother and the jealousy she feels at the thought of having to share her affection: “La sua socievolezza mi infastidiva” (17). What troubles her (what maddens, upsets her) about Amalia’s sociability is the realization that her mother is a woman of her own who is capable of giving herself over to other people besides her daughter. It must be said, however, that it is Amalia’s rapport with men that most troubles her daughter, as little to nothing is made of her affection for other women, not even her other daughters.

This fear of abandonment is present in Delia from her early childhood days, when she would impatiently wait for her mother by the window: “l’ansia diventava così incontenibile che debordava in tremiti del corpo” (29). In the face of this overflow, the child’s reaction, to lock herself in a closet, is telling. She sees this as “un antidote efficace” (32). The closet, an enclosed and dark space, is strongly suggestive of a womb in which the little girl takes refuge when overpowered by the fear of losing her mother. Such a tight space provides comfort and, of course, harks back to the prenatal stage, when mother and daughter inhabited the same body, neither separated by the act of birth nor estranged from each other by the phallocentric apparatus. It gives Delia a sense of grasp over her mother that she never truly achieves in reality. When she finally loses her, Delia’s first instinct is to hold on to her dead body “per non finire chissà dove” (56). Although it is clear that she will, in fact, end up somewhere, the fear expressed in this statement shows the extent to which daughter has molded her own self in association with, as well as against, the image (the figure) of the mother.

Once her mother has been taken by the sea, Delia is unanchored, even more so because she is abruptly confronted with her aging mother’s sexuality. The provocative underwear that Amalia was wearing when she drowned is presented as a clue that will advance the structure of the mystery, as well as tangible evidence of Delia’s suspicions (and fears) that her mother was, in fact, a sexual being. L’amore molesto is perhaps at its darkest and most poignant in the moments when we witness the ways in which the obsessive jealousy of Delia’s violent father (who, very tellingly, remains nameless) is mirrored in Delia herself. Certainly the parallels hold only to a very limited extent; Delia’s father remains steeped in, and a representative of, a patriarchal oppressive society. Nevertheless, Delia’s own policing of her mother’s life is many a time presented as a paternal inheritance. By paternal inheritance I do not only mean what her father in particular has passed on to her, but also what she has absorbed from the Neapolitan society in which she grew up. Such a society has not only set women against—and as the possession of—men, but it has also altered male relationships, making men alternate between a fiery protectiveness of what is perceived as one’s property and a complicity in the state of dominance. A simple ride on the tram, the novel suggests, suffices to witness this condition:

I passeggeri in piedi si curvavano su di noi respirandoci addosso. Le donne soffocavano tra i corpi maschili, sbuffando per quella vicinanza occasionale, fastidiosa anche se all’apparenza incolpevole. I maschi, nella ressa, si servivano delle femmine per giocare in silenzio tra sé e sé. Uno fissava una ragazza bruna con occhi ironici per vedere se abbassava lo sguardo. Uno pescava un po’ di pizzo tra un bottone e l’altro di una camicetta o arpionava con lo sguardo una bretella. (597)

Yet, in this world, Ferrante reminds us that it is not only men who police the female body, but even women themselves. Even when Delia recognizes that such a fiercely protective and territorial attitude was all but self-obliterating to her father, she internalizes his fears about Amalia’s body, especially when it is displayed in public: “Allora mi prendeva la smania di proteggere mia madre dal contatto con gli uomini, come avevo visto che faceva sempre mio padre in quella circostanza. Mi disponevo come uno scudo alle sue spalle e me ne stavo crocefissa alle gambe di lei [...]” (612 emphasis mine).

Of course, this acquired anxiety damages Delia’s own relationship with her mother. Female as they are, Delia and the women around her have grown up speaking the language of the aggressor; they have been defined in terms that are fundamentally alien to their condition, and this has led to an estrangement both from themselves and from one another. Delia is aware of this fact (perhaps she is more critical of it in her mother than in herself) and alludes to it when she writes: “Forse adesso ero sotto quel cavalcavia perché [...] di nuovo mia madre, prima che diventasse mia madre, fosse incalzata dall’uomo con cui avrebbe fatto l’amore, che l’avrebbe coperta col suo cognome, che l’avrebbe cancellata col suo alfabeto” (1428). In this sense, the English translation of the novel might take on a new meaning if we are willing to read troubling as a verb instead of an adjective: Troubling Love is about men troubling the love between women. The effacement instigated by the imposition of a phallocentric language obscures the relationships between women and renders communication more difficult. Having been oppressed and conditioned by the males around her, Delia must find a different way, a more feminine way perhaps, of understanding her relationship with her mother. This search can be formulated in terms of Kristeva’s chora or Cixous’s écriture feminine; thus, Delia’s main and most difficult task is to try to understand the mother-daughter relationship in intimate terms that are removed from those imposed by the men around her.

To what extent is this possible? Delia carries this inheritance like a burden. Her relationship to her mother has been so damaged that it, too, has become a burden.  Ferrante literalizes this burden in the scene of the funeral: “Durante il funerale mi sorpresi a pensare che finalmente non avevo più l’obbligo di preoccuparmi per lei. Subito dopo avvertii un flusso tiepido e mi sentii bagnata tra le gambe” (67). As brilliant as this literary move is, there is many ways in which we can read Delia’s particularly violent period at her mother’s funeral. On the one hand, menstruation is a common signifier for the life that did not come to be realized; on the other hand, it is the ultimate affirmation of the possibility to create life. We are told that the discharge is particularly powerful (“Il flusso di sangue era copioso”). Its potency sets Delia, living and bleeding, in stark contrast with her mother, whose coffin she decides to carry on her shoulders along with other men, even if “le donne non portano bare in spalla.” The coffin, of course, becomes the literalized burden, a sort of object correlative. “Quando la bara era stata deposta nel carro,” Delia writes, “e questo si era avviato, erano bastati pochi passi e un sollievo colpevole perché la tensione precipitasse in quel fiotto segreto del ventre” (92). If the coffin precipitates and increases the blood flow, it is because, as mentioned above, Amalia’s death has become the rebirth of her daughter, and, in performing the ritualistic carrying of the coffin, Delia is, in a way, going through her own rite of initiation: a second first-menstruation, characterized by its force. This connection does not escape Delia, who very directly—and effectively—juxtaposes her and her mother’s situations: “Mia madre era stata sotterrata da becchini maleducati in fondo a un interrato maleodorante di ceri e di fiori marci. Io avevo mal di reni e crampi al ventre” (147). 

There is certainly also the element of a bodily sense of release. On a superficial narrative level, Delia connects the realization that she does not need to worry about her mother anymore to her menstruation (“non avevo più l’obbligo di preoccuparmi per lei”), and thus presents it as a sort of breathing out and letting go. But it is more complicated than that. We learn that Delia is not able to shed a single tear for her mother. Her body, I would argue, finds a psychosomatic outlet for this bottled-up and unresolved anxiety in the stream of blood (in this book, bodily fluids—semen, urine, blood, tears, sweat—are as ubiquitous as they are almost undistinguishable from one another). In other words, Delia, at this point, is still reluctant to face many aspects of her relationship with Amalia. Although her journey has begun, she must still come to a fuller understanding of the inner mechanisms of her and her mother’s psychological rapport. And it is precisely as if her body, at that moment, were alerting her to something, for it is first and foremost through the physical experience—the sensual, and by extension, the sexual—that this understanding can come about.

Not by chance does Delia only manage to cry when, later that day, she remembers her own menstruating mother:

Vidi nella penombra mia madre a gambe larghe che sganciava una spilla di sicurezza, si staccava dal sesso, come se fossero incollati, dei panni di lino insanguinati, si girava senza sorpresa e mi diceva con calma: «Esci, che fai qui?». Scoppiai a piangere, per la prima volta dopo molti anni. Piansi battendo una mano quasi a intervalli fissi sul lavandino, come per imporre un ritmo alle lacrime. (119)

Delia’s imposition of a rhythm to her tears is reminiscent of Kristeva’s chora and the assumption that a more feminine language would be lyrical, highly attentive to rhythm, more instinctual and inextricably linked to the body. Regardless of whether one reads it in psychoanalytic terms, one can see how Ferrante’s highly curated prose in L’amore molesto is in itself a receptacle of meaning, detached from content. It is in the utterance itself, in the reimagining and wording of her past, that Delia will arrive at some sort of realization, as she acknowledges when, toward the end, she writes: “Dire è incatenare tempi e spazi perduti” (1763). The truth hides in the dark corners of her utterances (and we cannot fail to observe how comfortably this novel inhabits dark spaces). It also hides in the hidden spaces of the body. Delia remains profoundly marked by this scene because of its visceral quality, and it is the experience of inhabiting a female body in a male context that connects mother and daughter. Later in the book, the furtive quality of the moment discussed above will be replicated, though overturned, when Amalia accidentally walks into Delia’s room and catches her looking at her genitalia in a little mirror. This connection between the two women—with the burden it represents for Delia—is seemingly unbreakable. Any distance that she might try to impose between herself and her mother seems to ultimately vanish. Delia’s intense desire to dettach from her mother and finally become herself is shown in the juxtaposition between: “accadeva dopo che negli anni, per odio, per paura, avevo desiderato di perdere ogni radice in lei, fino alle più profonde [...] Tutto rifatto, per diventare io e staccarmi da lei” (776), and, later in the book, “mi resi conto con tenerezza inattesa che invece avevo Amalia sotto la pelle, come un liquido caldo che mi era stato iniettato chissà quando” (1094). But part of Delia’s anxiety seems to come from the fact that the same was not true for her mother—that she did not have Amelia under her skin.

If there is constant regression in the book, brought about by compulsive remembrance, it is shown most glaringly in those moments when Delia wishes to connect with and understand her mother’s body, perhaps as a means to return to the prenatal stage. She promptly smells the brassiere that Amalia was wearing when she died. Similarly, when going through her mother’s apartment, she notices: “Di lato alla tazza c’era una busta della spazzatura semicolma. Dentro non c’erano rifiuti; c’era invece quel lezzo di corpo affaticato che conservano i panni sporchi o fatti di tessuto invecchiato, intrisi in ogni fibra degli umori di decenni” (247). She finds her mother in that stench, and later tries to inhabit her body by wearing her underwear. This act is executed as compensation for all those years she was denied the maternal body; not only would Amalia not allow her daughter to touch her, but she also remained “morbidamente ambigua come sapeva essere” (543). This maternal interdiction stands behind Delia’s desire to inhabit her mother’s body. The book is filled with such moments. Even when using her mother’s face cream, Delia remarks on the trace her mother’s finger has left. She goes on to erase it and leave her own trace on top of it. “Ciò che di lei non mi era stato concesso,” writes Delia, “volevo cancellarglielo dal corpo. Così niente più si sarebbe perso o disperso lontano da me, perché finalmente tutto era già stato perduto” (774). The desire for the annihilation of the other remains a fundamental part in the development of the self, and in this moment Delia seems to be reenacting Freud’s fort/da game. In other words, rather than submissively enduring her mother’s absence, Delia takes it on herself to anticipate the loss—take charge of it—by enabling it herself, and thus, in a way, keeping her mother all to herself.

Elizabeth Bishop told us how to be better equipped for loss. Practice losing farther, losing faster, she said. And although she remained skeptical about the results of such practice when it came to the big loss, she nonetheless kept losing compulsively. Delia, too, exemplifies the back and forth freighted with tension between losing and clinging. Language, in this context, is particularly relevant. Although I have mentioned that the women in L’amore molesto are forced to define and speak themselves with the language of the oppressor, Neapolitan dialect is, on one level, associated with Amalia. It is one of the fundamental aspects of her upbringing that Delia most staunchly attempts to leave behind: “Era la lingua di mia madre, che avevo cercato inutilmente di dimenticare insieme a tante altre cose sue” (149). But more than the language of her mother, Neapolitan becomes associated with the abuse inflicted on her mother by Naples and its men. For Delia, every iteration in Neapolitan becomes a reenactment of the violence inflicted on her and her mother. For this reason, she has tried—unsuccessfully—to detach herself completely from it by adopting a curated Italian (here, we are assuming, too, that Delia, and not Ferrante, is the author of the novel). Neapolitan becomes a narrative technique that enables both anamnesis and analepsis. Even before Delia comes back to her native Naples, she experiences a moment of regression after one of the cryptic calls she gets from her mother the night before her death. During this call, Amalia utters obscenities at her daughter over the phone: “Quelle oscenità mi causarono una scomposta regressione” (46).

In a way, then, even before the death that marks the beginning of a journey, Delia is propelled into her past life by the appearance of dialect. But this is not a joyful, nostalgic dialect, Ferrante warns us. It is a dialect that, in the book, is almost exclusively spoken in obscenities, yelled in insults, grunted and spat at passing women. It is tainted with abuse, as exemplified in one of the novel’s most disconcerting moments, when Caserta, “in un sibilo incalzante e sempre più sguaiato,” directs at Delia “un fiotto di oscenità in dialetto, un morbido rivolo di suoni che coinvolse in un frullato di seme, saliva, feci, orina, dentro orifizi d’ogni genere, me, le mie sorelle, mia madre” (131). This passage, perhaps more than any other in the text, highlights the interconnectedness of the bodily, the spoken word, and the ways in which the latter is used as a tool to suppress the former. The only other instance in the entire novel where the word fiotto appears is when Delia speaks of her menstruation—“quel fiotto segreto del ventre.” The word emphasizes the forceful discharge of both Delia’s body and Caserta’s oppressive words. Fiotto, a gush or spurt, conveys the sense of a sudden overflow, which the word “stream,” as used in the English translation, does not. More than that, the word juxtaposes the public setting of Caserta’s abuse (he is, after all, yelling at her in the street, in broad daylight) to the most intimate nature of menstruation, thus signaling just how engrained violence is and the extent to which aggression can penetrate into the darkest crevices of the self. This becomes more evident by the involvement of “me, my sisters, my mother.” Ferrante is being loud and clear: this is not an isolated event, but rather a singular occurrence of a common fact that involves the aggression perpetrated on women. In that moment, Caserta becomes everyman, in the way that Delia becomes everywoman. The frullato, a smoothie (or as Goldstein translates it, a concoction), takes this image even further, alluding to the consumption of this violence, the way in which these women—porous women—have to absorb abuse on a daily basis “dentro orifizi d’ogni genere.” This ingestion, Ferrante suggests, is as commonplace as the ingestion of food; it enters and is exchanged by bodies in the way that “semen, saliva, feces, and urine” are. Insults are the currency that Neapolitan men seem to trade in.

It is undoubtedly a conscious decision on Ferrante’s part not to incorporate any Neapolitan dialect in her novel. There is not one word of dialect in the book, and the narrative constantly distances itself from Neapolitan in different ways and on varying degrees. In the passage cited above, for instance, Delia narrates speech by saying she was reached by a “fiotto di oscenità in dialetto.” We do not know what these obscenities sound like in dialect, but their seamless incorporation into the narrative might make the lack of reported speech less conspicuous. This technique places more distance between the reader and the event that is being described, while, in a sense, suggesting that there is less distance between the narrator and the narrative, for the former has absorbed the latter. This last point might be pertinent insofar as we argue that Delia is trying to distance herself as much as she can from Neapolitan dialect, but is ultimately helpless as she was born into it, and is thus enveloped by it, at least subconsciously. At any rate, there is, on a conscious plane, a clear refusal to allow Neapolitan dialect any direct and active role in the narration. We see this even more clearly in those instances where Ferrante does report speech that is spoken in dialect; here, however, instead of transcribing the actual words, she reports them in standard Italian.

During her conversation with Caserta on the phone, we are told that he says: “«Non sono Amalia», in falsetto, e poi riprese in un dialetto strettissimo: «Lasciami all’ultimo piano la busta coi panni sporchi. Me l’avevi promessa. E guarda bene: troverai la valigia con le tue cose. Te l’ho messa lì»” (314). This is misleading; it might give off the impression that Delia is citing verbatim what Caserta has said, while, in reality, she is filtering his words through her own consciousness. What Caserta says in dialect, she translates into Italian. We must ask: why this insistence on keeping Neapolitan out of the picture? We get an answer in one of the moments when Delia herself narrates her speech in dialect: “Nei suoni che articolavo a disagio, c’era l’eco delle liti violente tra Amalia e mio padre, tra mio padre e i parenti di lei, tra lei e i parenti di mio padre” (149). Dialect, as I stated before, bears the imprint of the abuse that Delia and her mother have suffered. By trying to keep it at bay from her own life, and thus from her narrative, Delia is making an effort to distance herself from the violence, all the while showing how impossible it is. Dialect, like love, is viscous—it sticks to Delia and will not let go of her, just like her past: “Le oscenità in dialetto – le uniche oscenità che riuscivano a far combaciare nella mia testa suono e senso in modo da materializzare un sesso molesto per il suo realismo aggressivo, gaudente e vischioso” (1391).

This last passage links, once again, the linguistic and the bodily, enabling us to read in Delia’s aversion to Neapolitan not only a refusal to re-inhabit the violent spaces of her childhood, but also a fear of facing her mother’s sexuality, the “sesso molesto per il suo realismo aggressivo, gaudente e vischioso.” There are, in fact, no examples of joyful or satisfying sexuality in L’amore molesto. All sex seems to be just that, molesto. There is, of course, the image of Amalia as a liberated woman who enjoys her sexuality, but we only see this through the anxious memory of Delia, whose one sexual encounter with Antonio after the funeral is described in painfully awkward terms. There is an overflow (here, too) in Delia’s body, but contrary to what we would think, there is no gratification. We learn that her sexuality has been one of many ways in which she has tried to inhabit her mother’s skin. If she let Antonio touch her as a child, it was only because she wanted Antonio to become his father, so that she could become Delia: “Ero io ed ero lei. Io-lei ci incontravamo con Caserta” (1732). Similarly, when Antonio’s grandfather molests the five-year-old Delia, she reports to her father the incident, but as if it had happened between Caserta and Amalia. This last fact repositions the narrative and comes as a realization toward the end of the novel. On the one hand, Delia confesses to the own unreliability of her memory, while, on the other, by admitting to herself, and, by extension, to readers, that she was partly responsible for her parents’ divorce and Amalia’s punishment, her jealousy and desire to replace her father (and all men) come to the surface. It is implied, of course, that coming to the surface is the beginning of coming-to-terms.

So how exactly does this coming-to-terms happen, if indeed it does? I would suggest that it is through Delia’s recreation of her childhood in the period after her mother’s death that the process of detachment begins. The novel remains, in this aspect, unresolved, yet there is an inkling of hope that Delia might actually be able to—eventually—separate herself from her mother’s figure. This recreation, or simply the aspect of creation, is central to L’amore molesto. We must not forget that Amalia was a seamstress, and it is precisely through her profession, through creating garments, adapting fabrics to changing times and fads—by making something where nothing was, that Amalia is able to delineate the contours of her own identity, much as she would delineate the contours of dresses—the figures—on large pieces of fabric: “Mi piacque insperatamente, con sorpresa, quella donna che in qualche modo s’era inventata fino alla fine la sua storia giocando per conto suo con stoffe vuote” (1333). This is the ultimate legacy that she bequeaths to her daughter, whose uses her own kind of fabric—memories—to fabricate a story with which to make sense of her life. We soon find out that Amalia’s provocative underwear was, in fact, meant as a gift for her daughter. In light of this, we can argue that what she is giving Delia after her death is really a new skin, under which Amalia herself will live no longer.

It matters little whether Amalia actually had a sexual relationship with Caserta—or whether she did in fact cheat on her husband when Delia was young. What matters is that Delia can conjure up experiences—lived or imagined—from her past and fabricate something out of them. If childhood is a tissue of lies that endure in the imperfect, then it is the acknowledgment of this fact, perhaps, that constitutes truth. This is the shape that Delia’s ultimate realization takes: “La storia poteva essere più debole o più avvincente di quella che mi ero raccontata. Bastava tirare via un filo e seguirlo nella sua linearità semplificatoria” (1789). The story that Delia creates in her mind about her mother’s last hours might, for all that matters, have not happened at all; what counts is that it was formulated, that it took the shape of a story. The book ends on an ambiguous note. After drawing on her ID so as to make herself look like her mother, Delia writes: “Amalia c’era stata. Io ero Amalia” (1860). This complete identification with the mother figure might, on a more literal level, be taken as an assertion of the impossibility of ridding oneself of that figure. I would suggest, however, that it is only because she has finally come to terms with her own story, and because she can fully embrace the mother figure and identify with it, that Delia can finally delineate the contours of her own identity. That final act strikes me as more humorous, reflective of a more mature Delia who has left her mother and her old self not in the past, but in the imperfect. That is, in the continuous existence of things left behind.

 

Works Cited

Ferrante, Elena. L'amore Molesto. Roma: Edizioni e/o, 1999. Print.

Hirsch, Marianne. The Mother/daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989. Google books.

 

Elena Ferrante's Run-ons

This post originally appeared on Arcade here.

Like very many people, I have become a huge fan of the Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s novels.  Ferrante, in case you haven’t heard, has become an international phenomenon.  She has acquired a certain notoriety not only because her writing is very intense, but also because no one outside a small handful of people has any idea who she is, or if she is a she.  Her novels, whether in Italian or in English, are irresistible—less like sugar is irresistible, and more like pain is irresistible.  What about these novels is irresistible is not so simple to say.  Journalistic responses have tended to focus on something like the powerful reality of the characters and the impossibility of not identifying with them: “Elena is not destroyed” when she discovers her lover cheating on her, declares Roger Cohen, apparently with some relief, in The New York Review of Books.  There has not been, though, much consideration about how exactly Ferrante’s writing makes those characters and their lives seem powerful. “Speed is one of the defining qualities of reading Ferrante,” observes Joanna Biggs in The London Review of Books, but without locating the accelerator.  James Wood, whose New Yorker article spawned much of the Ferrante cult in the English-speaking world, is onto something when he notices, of the main character in I giorni dell’abbandono that there “is a foul brilliance in how Ferrante sticks with the logic of Olga’s illogic.”  

But how does Ferrante stick to illogical logic?  How does her style create the irresistible?  Here is a working hypothesis: Ferrante’s signature tic is the run-on sentence, a style more obvious in English translation than in Italian, run-ons are grammatically suspicious in English but normal in Italian.  But even in Italian, Ferrante’s habit of running independent clauses together is distinctive.  Here is a small example taken from the first page I flip to, from the last of the Neapolitan novels, Storia della bambina perduta: “Ma non mi convinceva, non gli credevo, esprimeva pareri entusiastici sul lavoro di troppe donne” (219). “But he didn’t convince me, I didn’t believe him, he expressed enthusiastic opinions about the work of too many women” (Ann Goldstein’s translation, which I’m quoting throughout).  Ferrante deploys the run-on to create a momentum that is headlong and occasionally breathless but still intimate—here you are, inside the operation of Elena’s head, everything she thinks coming out in the order it occurs to her, she is a subtle thinker because she sees that someone praising the work of too many women, paradoxically, does not take women seriously, maybe even denigrates them, and suddenly there is not only personal introspection but also a history, a storia.  

And as a storia, the momentum is also manipulative.  At least, it is the effect of a stylistic technique: this sentence is not Elena Greco speaking in a rush, slightly out of control, a real person thinking through something logically illogically.  This is Elena Greco, or Elena Ferrante (who is the narrator here?), retrospectively recounting events and recreating the rush of the moment as part of her affectionate and yet also vindictive urge to represent Lila (the novels begin with Lila’s disappearance).  Even as you are caught up in the momentum of Elena’s thoughts, you are also aware—this is one of the real pleasures of the books—that Elena the narrator is, usually, making fun of the naiveté or stupidity of Elena the character, or the silly slogan’s of an era (“we used such language” is a common refrain), or the ridiculous historical narratives that people regularly trot out.  Ferrante, or Elena, pities, savors, or demolishes the intensity of the reactions by situating them in a much broader history.  The four so-called Neapolitan novels depict an intense relationship between two women, but they also create an arc that amounts to a history of postwar Italy. The coordination of interior life and social life has been one of the oldest problems of the genre of the novel, and the run-on sentence is Ferrante’s technique for reworking it.  “But he didn’t convince me, I didn’t believe him, he expressed enthusiastic opinions about the work of too many women”: the sentence registers Elena’s agitation, declares her growing suspicion of her lover Nino, displays her intelligence, catches both those reactions as part of a broader history from the emergence of feminism in Italy in the 1970s and its awkward, intimate relation with political shifts from Marxism to Socialism to Camorrists to the digital world, and so on.  The retrospective narration performs a structural function throughout, though it never becomes entirely dominant because the run-on sentences won’t let it: the speed of the novels is an urge to know what will happen, the building of a forward historical and narrative momentum, but also an urge to watch an argument, already worked out, unfold.  Elena’s relation to Nino, for instance, is not simply a personal train wreck that readers can or can’t identify with.  The two characters are also—I’m not quite sure what else to call them—allegorical figures, alternately manifesting the relations between men and women, feminism and government, literature and politics, art and life: two abstract entities entangled in a perennial, but also curiously specific, battle.  

Elena and Lila, the two brilliant friends, have a very intense relationship, but they also figure the difficulties of mimesis itself: Lila lives, Elena writes, presentation and representation, manifesting life in prose, worrying about whether one is eclipsing the other as writers have been doing since Plato and Aristotle.  Because of the run-on sentences, because of the constant forward motion of the writing, Ferrante’s allegorical gestures never resolve into a simple message or political position or historical signifier, or a tedious novel about novels.  Nor do they have a lot of faith in “reality” as a stable referent (the scene of the Naples earthquake is especially interesting in this respect).  Ferrante’s run-on is not like a long Henry James sentence, which declares long before you get to the end of it that there is a brilliantly worked-out logic that you’d better slow down and grasp, and that what you will grasp at that moment is reality itself.  Still, one thing that people including me like about the novels is that they somehow feel real.  In Ferrante, you usually have very little idea what the apartments look like (rich with a view; poor with no bathroom), and very little idea what Elena and Lila look like (blond and plump; brunette and skinny).  Elena periodically stresses she wants to look pretty, or changes her makeup to something more bourgeois, or mentions the model of a car or the location of a beach house, but that is about it.  I think that the realism of the novel comes not from Flabuert-like detail but from the ability of a sentence to coordinate detail and history without quite resolving into either.  So (an example Woods also points to) when the guests at Lina’s wedding realize “the wine wasn’t the same quality for all the tables,” Elena-the-character realizes in a flash that the “plebs were us.”  But the speed of the narrative prevents this observation from turning into unfurled Marxist theory or interiority figured through enology.  Ferrante’s run-on sentences are the mechanism for producing this reality effect.  They deny, at the micro-level, any logical cohesion or narrative arc or life story, even as they are part of a retrospective narration whose end is never really in doubt.  Elena, unsurprisingly, is not destroyed.  

It sometimes seems as if she wishes she had been, though.  The denial of logical cohesion, and the denial of historical narrative, often takes the form in Ferrante’s writing of a denunciation of art itself.  There is throughout her novels a furious disavowal of “literature” as just “stories,” an anger and disgust that regularly nearly collapses into despair.   Here is the last sentences of the last novel.  “A differenza che nei racconti, la vita vera, quando è passata, si sporge non sulla chiarezza ma sull’oscurità.  Ho pensato: ora che Lila si è fatta vedere così nitidamente, devo rassegnarmi a non vederla più” (451).  “Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity.  I thought: now that Lila has let herself be seen so plainly, I must resign myself to not seeing her anymore.”  Real life has no clear trajectory or boundaries, and the great weakness of stories is their urge toward making clear and sharp what is not.  “Devo rassegnarmi” means, among other things, I must resign myself to the impossibility of literary presentation, the impossibility of manifesting a life in such a way that is not clarifying and simplifying: a journey to personal development, the unfolding of a thesis, some other stupid cliché.  My novel, declares Ferrante, is at some level, as all literature is, a futile, misleading, failure.  I do not think she is kidding. 

But the obligation to resignation only happens in a non run-on sentence (“Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity”).  Grammatical perfection, so to speak, is the source of the despair.  The last lines offer the moral the run-ons deny.  There is no doubt about subject, verb, and object, and the result is a mini dissertation about the meaning of history in our time, a summing up of what Ferrante’s vision of an epic sweep through modern Italy amounts to: history no longer progresses, the idea of modernity as progress is foolish, the stories we have been telling ourselves are absurd, literature itself is absurd.  The vitality of Lila and Elena and everything they embody, plainly seen for a moment, will not be seen again.  You are closer to real life when you tend to obscurity, when, you are, quite literally, not in art or representation of any sort.  All of which means: the final sentences, neatly grammatical, do the opposite of what they say.  They clarify, and lose the life they say will be lost.  They lose it by saying it will be lost. 

Ferrante’s run-on sentences, on the other hand, do not manifest a thesis even as they constantly invoke one.  They do not tend toward simple obscurity either—obscurity too is a thesis, as the final sentences clarify.  Her run-on sentences do not offer a mini-narrative of historical progress, or a journey of personal development.  Theirs is no allegorical formulation to be decisively deciphered.  Instead, they offer a sense of going somewhere, of life being lived, happening and continuing to happen.  History has not stopped in run-on sentences, they do not offer congratulations on the knowing rejection of past simplicities, they keep going, you don’t know where.  Ferrante’s run-ons manifest life in on-going motion. 

The run-on sentence offers a glimpse of how, or why, Ferrante is what everyone says she is: a great novelist.  The compulsive attraction of these novels—I realize I am putting this too abstractly—lies in their ability to fashion a sense of a life with a future by rejecting, at a grammatical and formal level, two broad, contemporary dispositions at the same time: 1) old and current progressive historical narratives as silly stories (the Bildungsroman, feminist empowerment, the triumph of the proletariat, the management of liberal technocrats, the emancipatory digitization of life, and so on); but also 2) a pervasive, often theological resignation in contemporary life that “this is the way things are,” the bare life of a world catastrophe grounded in economic, ethnic, biological, environmental, racial, sexual, perhaps even national ontologies that we can do nothing about and that will never, ever change (Naples is often invoked as the allegorical representation of all these things).  These two dispositions can be linked together—Jacques Rancière connects them when he argues that the “ethical turn” in art, and the war on terror in politics, both depend upon a “certain theology of time, the idea of modernity as a time destined to carry out an internal necessity, once glorious, now disastrous” (201).  “The modernist rigour of an Adorno,” writes Rancière, “wanting to expurgate the emancipatory potential of art of any form of compromise with cultural commerce and aestheticized life, becomes the reduction of art to the ethical witnessing of unrepresentable catastrophe” (201).  Ferrante’s run-on sentences, it seems to me, are responses to these political and artistic stakes.  No other writer I can think of at the moment offers such a compelling grasp of, and maybe escape from, these two dominant trends, no other writer I can think of shows as effectively what misleading stories “progress” or “catastrophe” are (are they even different stories?).  Run-on sentences generate a future, but they do not do so with an “internal necessity” that then goes wrong.  "Storia" means both history and narration.  But it is not the word she uses in the second-to-last sentence, which is “racconti—“accounts” or “tellings.”  Ferrante’s run-on sentence avoids accounts by telling stories and histories that actually are going somewhere.  Storia is the word Ferrante returns to for as the title for all the sections of the Neapolitan novels.  The momentum is irresistible.

Dmitri Golynko: Poetry and Prose

This essay was first published in Russian in the St. Petersburg journal Translit.

Applied Social Poetry: Inventing the Political Subject

In his programmatic manifesto “Applied social art,” Artur Zmijewski writes about the “possibility of using art for the most diverse goals: as an instrument of receiving and disseminating knowledge, as a factory of cognitive procedures, based on intuition and imagination, as an occasion for learning and for political action.” Paraphrasing this definition by Zmijewski, it is possible to suggest and legitimize the term “applied social poetry.” It is meant to denote that sphere of contemporary poetry which serves the production and dissemination of knowledge; which is included in the global cognitive industry; and which calls for the study of reality and its political reorganization. At first, this term may appear questionable and somewhat paradoxical, given that in the second half of the twentieth century poetry has become a marginal and practically unfinanceable occupation, cultivated by a small number of professional communities or closed academic elites.

The contemporary poet wages image politics, which presupposes that he follows either the romantic myth of the solitary genius, reproducing the otherworldly voice of the Muse; or the heroic assertion of aesthetic autonomy and the hermetic closedness of his creations; or that he enters the system of specialized literary events (such as local or international festivals, artist residencies, award competitions financed by rich or poor prize funds). At times the role-playing strategy of the poet depends on the combination of all three, and also a number of other factors. The point of view, expressed by the contemporary poet, even when critical and hostile to the existing social order, nevertheless remains the expression of an individual view. Others may pay attention to his private opinion, but the latter is unlikely to grow into a step-by-step guide for action, into an instrument for the practical transformation of society and the correction of social troubles.

In order to give the poetic utterance an applied character, the poet with a radical gesture renounces the principle of aesthetic autonomy, as well as the use of the stereotypical (Romantic and modernist) postures of the poet-prophet, demon or eccentric. At the same time, he is compelled to free himself from the illusion of artistic independence and to admit his absolute dependence on antagonistic social codes, and on a number of contradictory social voices. Applied social poetry arises in that moment when the poet delegates his unique authorial voice to that mass of the disenfranchised and the oppressed, which has been stripped of the possibility to speak in the field of the contemporary culture industry.

At the same time the poet not only speaks from the point of view of those who are destitute and cast aside, but also allows their segregated and often clumsy, unpleasant (to the ear) voices to sound and be transmitted through his verses, through the politicized form of his protest statements. In order to transform text into applied social reality, the poet must renounce the habitual and traditional aesthetic categories, from the Kantian dichotomy of the sublime and the beautiful, and in general from value judgments about the beautiful and the ugly, the authentic and the imaginary. His texts distinctly express that ethico-political measure of the current day, which can be accurately described only in the language of direct and immediate intervention in current events (when those current events cannot leave one indifferent and do not allow for non-action at an ironic distance).

My personal interest in “applied social poetry” is motivated by the fact that I grew up and was educated in the late Soviet epoch. At that time nearly every written poem was treated not as a self-forgetful linguistic game, but as a dangerous, risky, and yet necessary, social act (this was true also of seemingly abstract lyrical-metaphysical utterances). To be sure, we are talking about, first of all, unofficial culture, about the Petersburg underground with its solemn imperial-classical rhetoric, or about the literary flank of Moscow Conceptualism with its imitations of down-to-earth, quasi-middle-brow speech, riddled with ideological clichés. But even official Soviet poetry recognized and propagandized (at times with excessive pathos) its intention to become the optimal means of improving social reality.

In the post-Soviet period, the poet can reproduce nationwide resentment in response to inflation, poverty, and catastrophic social inequality; he can give voice to collective traumas tied to the loss of the imperial historical perspective; he can adopt a civic pose, bursting out with angry sarcastic attacks or even extremist appeals. At the same time, he has the option of reacting to current events, to pass moral or legal judgment on them, to expose them to severe criticism, etc. What he categorically does not possess any more is that function of active and effective social intervention in which both official and unofficial Soviet poets once took such pride. It is notable that the perception of poetic labor as urgent transformative activity was accompanied by the ideological and philosophical complexity of the entire antagonistic literary field. In the two decades following the collapse of the USSR that world-contemplative complexity has been slowly, but inexorably, transformed into its opposite, into “simplicity” of marketing and advertising. Evidently, contemporary culture’s loss of this high complexity and ambiguity partly explains the interest shown by today’s leftist intellectual community in the universalism of the Soviet civilizing project.

Of course, political regimes with totalitarian or authoritarian forms of government are prone to see in the written word a concrete physical danger for the ideological stability of society. The liberal-democratic government, in turn, equates the written word with private self-expression, granting ideological power to commercially profitable media culture. It is possible that the global financial crisis, which has called into question both the infrastructure and the media rhetoric of post-industrial capitalism, is creating the conditions for the re-actualization of social poetry that carries within itself a revolutionary avant-garde impulse and presents a calculated political program.

It is unlikely that such poetry will conform to any of the stable clichés of the civic lyric; even if it does include an agitational component or two-dimensional “poster truths,” these will be accompanied by attentive intellectual reflection, taking into account their historical genesis, their class identity, their role in the system of social differentiation. The poetic gesture becomes a social act thanks namely to a fast, if not instantaneous, response to а significant social event. Thanks to the emotional immersion in that event and readiness for active inclusion in its configuration, as well as to sober and attentive intellectual comprehension of the reasons and consequences that form the essence of the social process in a given unique moment in time. Social poetry forces the poet to be a bit of an anthropologist, an ethnographer, a political thinker, to conduct journalistic investigations, and, if need be, to become a fighter on the barricades, whether imaginary or real.

What distinguishes applied social poetry is its particular relationship to poetic language, which does not belong to anyone and at the same time belongs to all, which is not subject even to the one who writes and at the same time is handed over for ownership to the millions of the voiceless and suffering. The experience of such poetry is the experience of the defamiliarization of language from itself: language ceases to be a modernist “house of Being,” a postmodernist stream of floating signifiers or a virtual “cozy Live-Journalese.” Language becomes a space of ongoing battle, battle that is ideological or class-based, developing within the inter-subjective field or within the plane of individual psychology.

In such a space of battle you see the collision of elements of varied forms of social languages, professional slang, computer or criminal jargon, urban Volapük, national dialects, etc. They are all pushed out or struck out of the habitual contexts of everyday or public language usage. They all interact as disparate fragments of social discourse, which become objects not of private but collective language ownership, those little bricks out of which a new explosive and unpredictable social reality is amassed within the text.

Aside from that, from the point of view of applied social poetry, any private history (be it facts from the poet’s own biography, aggrandized to the scale of heroic myth, or the twists and turns in the life of a character invented by him) can be retold only in terms of social experience, more often negative than positive, the experience of habitual disorder and class inequality. In other words, the structure of individual experience (put simply, “nightingales and roses”) unfolds exclusively with the help of a precisely accurate social analysis; thereby the private and the intimate appear as projections of the social. Only the categorical understanding of the fact that “there is nothing outside of the social” allows the poet to carry out a severe political diagnosis of contemporary man—his longing for social justice and simultaneous lack of faith in the possibility of its realization, his syndromes of melancholy and existential reverie, his atrophied desires and total deficit of futurity.

In order for social poetry to really be considered applied and, functionally applicable to a concrete social context, it must create a narrative within the poem about the means and stages of building subjectivity under the conditions of global capitalism. A narrative about the ways that the bourgeois subjectivity reigning throughout the last half-century, with its complexes of hedonistic consumption, conformism and apathy, is at first transformed primarily into a subjectivity that searches and doubts (ready for countercultural work against the bourgeois consensus), and then into a revolutionary subjectivity, incapable of making peace with the existing status quo. The practical result of the development of social poetry must be the literal “cultivation” of a new revolutionary subjectivity, adequately expressed in a textual format. Which brings along with it the creation of new parameters of social experience, the experience of ethical striving and political non-compromise, the experience of labor solidarity and conscious mass resistance.

It is worth noting that in place of the postmodernist orientation towards the profanation and reduction of the poetic utterance, towards the transformation of the poetic text into an entertaining eccentric show, applied social poetry (once more) demands of the poet expansive intellectual preparation, and equates the work itself of writing poetry to intensive intellectual searching. The effectiveness of social poetry, that is the success of its applied character, depends on how much the poet is able to masterfully unite the intellectual search with detailed fieldwork on contemporary social dispositions. Applied social poetry translates the utopian drives and liberating tendencies of the revolutionary avant-garde into the language of the epoch of failing cognitive capitalism. It thereby becomes an intellectual industry for the production of a new man,” a new political subject and a new subject of study.

May 1, 2011. Berlin

Translated by Marijeta Bozovic with Maksim Hanukai

 

 

Not the first anniversary

1

the first anniversary is followed by neither

the first nor one much anticipated, let down

by taste receptors, outside neither donetsk

nor the kuznetsk basin, but the fucking adriatic,

the inflated IQ of, the window not flung open on,

extratextual reality reigns, a cricket crushed

behind the hearth, drown your sorrows,

go on, аn expelled student no longer

says hi, assets siphoned off abroad

include loot from the treasury, broke

the informer’s jaw, an online forum raises

awareness about contraception, split his take

 

2

not the first anniversary or perhaps still

the first, once again the unforgettable dates draw near

accursed by all the participants of the transition

process from а unified view on things

to different points of view on emotional

terror, deployed against each other

by people who were once familiar

intelligent, decent, willing to come to

a consensus or to recant, but to endure

not the first anniversary of co-

habitation incapable, the tablecloth is stained

with the remains of a meal, don’t choke

 

3

not the first anniversary of dodging that

which neither large piles of cash nor

powerful connections can help dodge, the slot

is jam-packed, bragged about the horns

she gave him in the south, a xxx rating

assigned to a film for blatant propaganda

of same-sex love, a tourist crouches to piss

under a rosemary bush, a special ops man

gravely sharpens his machete, toasting

not the first anniversary of the attack

on the TV center, а bum is taken

to a clinic, а classic is plundered for quotes

 

4

not the first anniversary of graduation in the bygone

watershed years, the people sweep up foodstuffs

from shop counters, power falls into the hands of

piratizers, the long-awaited APCs

get stuck who the fuck knows where

waiting for orders, an oilskin trolley bag

stuffed with blue jeans from Turkey

is left behind at a rag fair, once part

of a crime racket the market passes over

to the cops and is paved with something

that resembles stiffs, inclined toward

strikes off dangerous dates, the calendar lies

 

5

right in the middle of a massive brainstorm

again announces itself not the first

anniversary of giving ground, chairs

overturned in defensive position against

unwelcome guests set on breaking into

the locked tavern, occupying a position of power

a dynamic politician cracks down

on the decline of morals in the petroleum capital,

scourging opponents with judicial bodies,

down on all fours an overripe lolita

suffers a moment of disappointment

and resentment toward, too tired to argue

 

6

not the first anniversary of the town-planning

error which resulted in the collapse of a building

that had historical significance, for which

no one was held accountable, not the committee

for the preservation of monuments, not the designated

institutions of oversight, not the municipal

bureaucrat placed in charge of protecting

architectural heritage, the remains of the façade

are taken to the woods, the reinforced fiberglass mesh

stretched over the graffiti with the date of not the first

anniversary of the fusion of the m and w

who once lived in this house is coming undone

 

7

the fifth anniversary of meeting a woman at one

of the cultural events, at a concert gala

of classical music or at a presentation at the center

of contemporary literature, over red wine

mutual interests were immediately discovered

in the sphere of computer science, in the collection of

imported fiction, in the rare trips out of town, in schmoo-

zing with show business elites, their relationship

was cemented by the chair-bed, aggressive blowjobs

did not cause any problems, they celebrated their second

anniversary together and, it would seem, the third, but

defense mechanisms tore them apart, the mattress sags

 

8

not the first anniversary of the soirée that culminated

in getting stoned on bad hydroponic, afterwards

dropped by a queer night club with a mangy

transsexual at the door, and candy appeared

out of thin air, brought to compassionate

metanoia, brought to weep into the silk

vest on a mannered faggot, who reflected

on “the last days” of gus van sant with terrible

lip-smacking, the traditional shot of zubrowka

was a doze of reality, two lesbos were making out

on the pouffe, the hairy birthmark on the exposed

shoulder of one of them was sobering, the seed is sown

 

9

not the first anniversary of a brief war

between a superpower and a republic

that had just gained independence, both sides

have filthy hands, the renewal of previous

agreements is unthinkable, а roadblock

is set up to gun down illegal

loot collectors, to organize a response

to drug trafficking, though not a single smuggler

or pusher has set foot here, the hour

arrives when the guard goes to sleep, the plan

is not up for debate, a bug in the commanding

officer’s tent catches only “fuck off”

 

10

not the first anniversary of the retirement

of a military leader, the one who ordered the start

of the humanitarian intervention, the entry

of a limited military force into a village

occupied by separatists, the carpet bombing

of a ravine, where the head of the rebel underground

was said to be hiding and where seven shepherds,

a special correspondent and а woman in labor

became the unintended victims of mass

airstrikes, he is absolutely certain there were

no good old days, only sclerotic debility and

utter incompetence, could have been otherwise

 

11

not the first anniversary of flunking the foundations

of something-or-other, the mode of expressing

displeasure has changed from open threats

to apparent indifference, a pile of dough

blown in a miserable pay-off

for a rather miserable whore, but having a gift

for anticipating where a big fish might bite

for a take exceeding a thousand, the framed man

takes comfort from the thought that the framing

was done properly, according to the time-

worn classical scheme, the role of the underdog

is rather popular, tarred and feathered

 

12

the twentieth anniversary of a moment of affection

prepared by an initial acquaintance

candid and questionable in a dormitory

inhabited by transients from different

corners of an enormous country, its imminent collapse

was on the horizon in blurry perspective,

almost incredible, it seemed it would always

be so, and the sense of complete independence

from the mental vomit of the fading great

epoch became more powerful in the moment

of affection procured, in compliance with

passport control, at the appointed visiting hour

 

13

not the first anniversary of the burn-out

at the unpaid gig, the tendering process

is won for the shrinkage also spillage

results of the gas war in the rebellious

province, rich in bauxite, drunkenness

and precarity destroyed the creative professional’s

liver, the agreed upon reform project

has been scrapped, the screws are tightened

as the oil industry is carved up, a girl is tripple-

teamed on the adult website, seized with fear

over the rising cost of public services, sailor’s

humor is congenial to the present moment

 

14

not the first anniversary of miscalculating

the ovulation period, resulting in the appearance

of progeny, far from the first anniversary

of purchasing a boombox, which stood on the kitchen

sideboard, then moved to the provincial

dacha and cracked open with a bbq

grille in the course of wild celebrations

marking the conferment of а graduate degree,

not the first anniversary of staining a stylish

new pair of jeans with a drop of mayonnaise

from a greasy shawarma, that was the end of them,

not the first anniversary approaching a milestone

 

Translated by Maksim Hanukai

 

 

 

Introduction

Bringing a provocative perspective to the poetry wars that have divided practitioners and critics for decades, Gillian White argues that the sharp disagreements surrounding contemporary poetics have been shaped by “lyric shame”—an unspoken but pervasive embarrassment over what poetry is, should be, and fails to be.

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