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Elena Ferrante: an extract

Writing Secretly

Letter to Goffredo Fofi

Dear Fofi,

I'm sorry to have to tell you that I don't know how to give concise answers to the questions you sent me. Evidently I haven't reflected enough on many of the issues you raise, and to find comprehensive expression is difficult or even impossible. So I'll try to sketch some answers just to converse with you outside the pale of journalistic requirements. I apologize in advance for the confusing or contradictory passages you may encounter.

I will begin at the end, mainly because your concluding questions allow me to start from facts. No, I've never been in analysis, even though in certain phases I've been very curious about the analytic experience. Nor do I have what you call an education of a psychoanalytic type, if by that expression you mean a sort of cultural imprint, a dominant point of view, a specialization. Also, to assert that I have a feminist mindset seems to me exaggerated. Owing in particular to limitations of character, which I've struggled to accept, and within which I live today without too many cravings or too many regrets, I've never exposed myself publicly, or taken sides: I don't have the physical courage that, in general, is required for these things. So it's difficult today to give myself a personal story that is not completely private (a reading list, bookish sympathies) and hence uninteresting. I grew up, in addition, on things seen or heard or read or scribbled, nothing else. Within this timid frame, like a mute listener, I can say that I am slightly interested in psychoanalysis, and fairly interested in feminism, and that I am sympathetic to the ideas of difference feminism. But I've been attracted by many other things that have little to do with psychoanalysis or feminism or with current ideas about women. I am pleased that in Troubling Love they do not appear openly.

A discussion of what you call "staying away from the means of mass communication" is more complicated. I think that at its root, apart from the aspects of character I've already mentioned, is a somewhat neurotic desire for intangibility. In my experience, the difficulty-pleasure of writing touches every point of the body. When you've finished the book, it's as if your innermost self had been ransacked, and all you want is to regain distance, return to being whole. I've discovered, by publishing, that there is a certain relief in the fact that the moment the text becomes a printed book it goes elsewhere. Before, it was the text that was pestering me; now I'd have to run after it. I decided not to. I would like to think that, while my book enters the marketplace, nothing can oblige me to make the same journey. But maybe I would also like to believe, at certain moments, if not always, that that "my" which I refer to is in substance a convention, so that those who are disgusted by the story that is told and those who are excited by it cannot, in a mistaken logical step, be disgusted or excited by me as well. Perhaps the old myths about inspiration spoke at least one truth: when one makes a creative work, one is inhabited by others – in some measure becomes another. But when one stops writing one becomes oneself again, the person one usually is, in terms of occupations, thoughts, language. Thus I am now me again, I am here, I go about my ordinary business, I have nothing to do with the book, or, to be exact, I entered it, but I can no longer enter it. Nor, on the other hand, can the book re-enter me. So what's left is to protect myself from its effects, and that is what I try to do. I wrote my book to free myself from it, not to be its prisoner.

There is obviously more. As a girl, I had an idea of literature as all-absorbing. To write was to aim for the maximum, not to be content with intermediate results, to devote oneself to the page without half measures. Over the years, I've fought against this overestimation of literary writing with an obstinate underestimation ("There are many other things that deserve unlimited dedication"), and, having reached an equilibrium – I have a life that I consider satisfying, both on the private and on the public level – I don't wish to go back, I would like to hold on to what I consider a small victory. I am pleased, of course, that Troubling Love has admirers, I'm pleased that it inspired an important film. But I don't want to accept an idea of life where the success of the self is measured by the success of the written page.

Then there is the problem of my creative choices, which I am not capable of explaining clearly, especially to those who might pick out of the text phrases and situations and feel wounded by them. I am used to writing as if it were a matter of dividing up the booty. To one character I give a trait of Tom's, to another a phrase of Dick's; I reproduce situations in which people I know and have known have actually been. I draw on real situations and events but not as they really happened; rather, I assume as having "really happened" only the impressions or fantasies that originated in the years when that experience was lived. So what I write is full of references to situations and events that are real and verifiable but reorganized and reinvented as if they had never happened. The farther I am from my writing, then, the more it becomes what it wants to be: a novelistic invention. The closer I get, and am inside it, the more overwhelmed the novel is by real details, and the book stops being a novel, and risks wounding me, above all, as the malicious account of a disrespectful ingrate. Thus I want my novel to go as far as possible precisely so that it can present its novelistic truth and not the accidental scraps – which it nevertheless contains – of autobiography.

But the media, especially in linking photographs of the author with the book, media appearances by the writer with its cover, goes precisely in the opposite direction: it abolishes the distance between author and book, operates in such a way that the one is spent in favor of the other, mixes the first with the materials of the second and vice versa. In the face of these types of intervention, I feel exactly what you correctly define as "private timidity". I worked for a long time, plunging headlong into the material that I wanted to narrate, to distill from my own experience and that of others whatever "public" material could be distilled, whatever appeared to me extractable from voices, facts, persons near and far, to construct characters and a narrative organism of some public coherence. Now that that organism has, for good or ill, its own self-sufficient equilibrium, why should I entrust myself to the media? Why continue to mix its breath with mine? I have a well-founded fear that the media, which, because of its current nature, that is, lacking a true vocation for "public interest", would be inclined, carelessly, to restore a private quality to an object that originated precisely to give a less circumscribed meaning to individual experience.

Perhaps this last part of the subject, in particular, merits discussion. Is there a way of safeguarding the right of an author to choose to establish, once and for all, through his writing alone, what of himself should become public? The editorial marketplace is in particular preoccupied with finding out if the author can be used as an engaging character and thus assist the journey of his work through the marketplace. If one yields, one accepts, at least in theory, that the entire person, with all his experiences and his affections, is placed for sale along with the book. But the nerves of the private person are too sensitive. If they are out in the open, all they offer is a spectacle of suffering or joy or malice or resentment (sometimes even generosity, but, like it or not, on display); certainly I cannot add anything to the work.

I would conclude this subject by saying, finally, that writing with the knowledge that I don't have to appear produces a space of absolute creative freedom. It's a corner of my own that I intend to defend, now that I've tried it. If I were deprived of it, I would feel abruptly impoverished.

This is the edited extract of a letter that is featured in Frantimuglia, published by Europa Editions (UK) Ltd. Elena Ferrante is the author of The Days of Abandonment (Europa, 2005), which was made into a film directed by Roberto Faenza, Troubling Love (Europa, 2006), adapted by Mario Martone, and The Lost Daughter (Europa, 2008), soon to be a film directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal. The four volumes known as the “Neapolitan quartet” (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child) were published in America by Europa between 2012 and 2015. The first season of the HBO series My Brilliant Friend, directed by Saverio Costanzo, premiered in 2018. For ease of access, you can also find Elena's novels here.


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