The Global Novel and Elena Ferrante’s Uncanny Underground Realism: Tiziana de Rogatis’ “Elena Ferrante’s Key Words,” translated from Italian by Will Schutt

By Isabella Pinto

Translated from Italian by Rebecca Walker

Elena Ferrante's Key Words by Tiziana de Rogatis

The long-awaited English language version of Tiziana de Rogatis’ Elena Ferrante’s Keywords, recently published by Europa Editions, has been made possible thanks to the work of translator Will Schutt. The volume is ordered thematically by keyword, and is divided into seven chapters, preceded by a comprehensive introduction which does the dual work of outlining the author’s approach and positioning the phenomenon of Ferrante Fever in its global context. The volume closes with a conclusion – exclusive to the English language version – in which the author pulls together the threads of her critical journey through Ferrante’s realism, and liberates the power of storytelling from the cultural quicksand of postmodernism.

From the United States to China, de Rogatis has participated in a wide variety of panel discussions and seminars dedicated to the mysterious writer Elena Ferrante, debating alongside prominent writers, as well as students and dedicated readers. Thanks to this, she has first-hand experience of the ‘revolutionary’ reception of Ferrante’s novels, especially as regards female subjectivities. As such, it might well be true that the Neapolitan Quartet, like every book for the popular market, is implicated in the process of commodification which is part and parcel of the global publishing industry. However, it is equally true that this effect is reduced as soon as one looks at Ferrante from a more militant standpoint – though not one which relies on a well-worn historical materialism. The latter has often been used to perpetuate a kind of masculine and patriarchal ‘aporia’ in literary discourse, rather than to analyze the relations of production and launch an incisive critique of capitalist neoliberalism.

Accordingly, de Rogatis chooses to examine Ferrante’s feminine universe from the standpoint of “a new form of female identity” (15), in the light of which are exposed both a sense of “alienation and inclusion” in respect to history (17-18) and a renewed desire for global change of the sort evidenced by the #MeToo movement (18-20). Moreover, outlining a profound connection between Elena Ferrante’s depictions of ‘History’ and those of Elsa Morante, situated as the result of “a brilliant and popular narrative” (29), the author highlights how both women have received a less than warm welcome from the Academy which contrasts with the wide readerships their novels have generated. By reappraising/re-privileging elements of the novelistic plot usually confined to the margins – a kind of “smarginatura of the plot” (31) – de Rogatis reveals how Ferrante brings together aspects of genre fiction and popular fiction in order to introduce “a counterflow into the flow of the plot that disrupts the story’s linear progression” (33).

With this in mind, “metamorphosis of time” (38-42) and “polyphony” (42-47) are two fundamental elements of the study. These serve to capture the essence of Ferrante’s work of deconstructing complacent critical and literary paradigms which take for granted the idea of a single and stable reality. This begins with the introduction of the notion of a “relational subjectivity” (43), borrowing from Adriana Cavarero, which implies “multiple stories” (38). De Rogatis then singles out the theme of “female friendship as practice of difference” (56-61), where the characters of Elena and Lila give voice to a narrative force drawn from the ‘unthought’ of the feminine. This is a “labyrinth,” to use Stiliana Milkova’s (2017) formulation, in which the protagonists of My Brilliant Friend both lose and rediscover themselves in the living out of a conflict which is at once creative and destructive.

At the intersection of class and gender inequality, de Rogatis identifies a further labyrinth: that of love as an ambiguous force which points, in turn, to the labyrinth of history itself as a series of wounds, lies, possibilities, and illusions. On the other hand, Lila and Elena’s “hybrid point of view” (131) paints a picture of a city at once realistic and magical, local and global. Where Naples has been variously categorized as a labyrinthine, masculine, and proletarian city, de Rogatis’ insights further demonstrate how this city becomes a kind of interior presence which accompanies and torments the protagonists and the readers. It is a capacity for torment which is resolved only by introducing the ambiguous category of the “city-hermaphrodite” (153), in which the confusion of masculine and feminine demonstrates the limits of heteronormative binaries and the illusion of their apparent fixity.

The analysis of space also focusses on the subterranean places which populate Ferrante’s narratives, constituting a “heterotopia of resistance” (153). One of these is the basement to which Delia descends in Troubling Love, a place at once real and metaphorical which echoes the basement into which Elena and Lila toss their dolls. From this, de Rogatis constructs a form of feminine genealogy whose origins are found in the myth of Persephone, but which draws also from Alice in Wonderland and texts by Italian women writers including Fabrizia Ramondino, Valeria Parrella, Lalla Romano, and Goliarda Sapienza (156). Mother-daughter relationships and female friendships are the forum chosen by Ferrante for narrating the crisis which causes women to fall into the ‘abyss’ of their foremothers. It is in this way that “frantumaglia” coincides with “matrophobia” (90) such as Adrienne Rich describes it.

Tracing a connection with the postcolonial discourse of Franz Fanon and Gayatri Spivak, de Rogatis illustrates how underground spaces recall once again the theme of violence, which Ferrante uses to recount the ubiquitous power of patriarchy. In this sense, Lila and Elena are as much an expression of the “symbolic violence of male domination” as the “alienation of colonized subjects” (196-197). Nevertheless, it is precisely because My Brilliant Friend is not a story of victimization but a “female ethic of survival” (19) that the theme of violence facilitates the narration of practices of resistance and creativity. Such practices are expressed in modes of subjectivity which depart from the male default, and derive instead from that same cavernous abyss of molested and mistreated women that have gone before.

In this sense, the chapter dedicated to the relationship between ‘History’ and ‘stories,’ which draws upon some of the ideas of Anna Banti and Carla Lonzi, is important as evidence of how My Brilliant Friend recounts a History composed of many voices and cut across by differing and sometimes contradictory meanings. Here, “frantumaglia” becomes the driving force of a subaltern feminine genealogy, from which comes the possibility of escaping the prison of time itself by including all time in the present. This is achieved by means of an “expressive surveillance” (107-110), Elizabeth Alsop’s concept which emphasizes Ferrante’s choice to depict ‘History’ by means of “preliminary investigation” (239-44), an alternative mode of narrating the slipperiness of time.

In the conclusion “Elena Ferrante and the Power of Storytelling in the Age of Globalization,” which only appears in the English text, de Rogatis returns to the overarching idea of her critical journey as a discovery of “the emotional and conceptual power of Ferrante’s storytelling” (276). Ferrante’s writing stages an empathetic realism which is yet capable of representing the disintegration of the world, “prompting readers both to empathize with it and to lose their way in its labyrinth.” Ferrante’s concepts of ‘vero’ and ‘verosimile,’ truth and verisimilitude, are nevertheless not oppositional categories in her narrative. Rather, they enrich her “underground realism” with the “uncanny realism, set in motion by the subaltern erosion of each character’s solid boundaries” (279). This gives birth to an “uncanny underground realism” (280), which the author also relates to the mobile, evolving, and avowedly fictional identity of Elena Ferrante herself.

It is in the very complexity of this experimentation that we find the future-oriented aspect of Ferrante’s realism. No longer relying on ironically repetitive postmodern perceptions where reality is “primarily determined, as it was in postmodern culture, by language and its endless combinatorial arrangement for building or deconstructing the world and the ‘I’,” this future is instead intertwined with a reality that is multiple, where “language is determined by the traumatic collusion of the subject with the material” (142). Building on the philosophy of Karen Barad, de Rogatis argues that Ferrante’s uncanny underground realism becomes both the means of reconstructing a narrative of the self and an innovative mode of ‘telling’ time. From this point of view, as well as being a constant of the global novel, storytelling becomes “a powerful tool […] for ordering and interpreting reality” (285). In Ferrante this is found in the ‘glocal’ quality of her language, the vitality of objects as active ‘matter’ of the world, and in the “distinct feminist matrix” (289) of which she is a distinguished storyteller.

Last but not least is the value of Schutt’s work. Though de Rogatis’ writing is clear and expansive in itself, in this new guise it is strengthened by a translation capable of capturing the essence of the Italian in the less lyrical cadences of English. In doing so, it acquires a renewed but still striking elegance. Particularly notable is the work of dislocation and attention to otherness necessarily undertaken by the translator in confronting key words connected specifically to the Neapolitan lifeworld, and thus not easily grasped by a scholar whose formation has been in the American cultural context. We find, for example, that aspects of the sociological background of Naples and its inhabitants have been sensitively translated, avoiding the common pitfall of boiling everything down to the idea of the ‘working class’ – a category of capitalist modernity from which Naples has remained largely separate – and opting instead for the more hybrid notion of the ‘underclass.’ Finally, the chapter on the language of the tetralogy is a true test of mettle for the translator, who proves himself an excellent guide for the anglophone reader on a journey through the Neapolitan dialect in all its powerful, and yet merely spectral, presence in Ferrante’s prose.

De Rogatis, Tiziana, Elena Ferrante’s Key Words. Translated by Will Schutt. Europa Editions, 2019.

Isabella Pinto is the author of the scholarly monograph Elena Ferrante. Poetiche e politiche della soggettività (2020) and the co-translator of “Storytelling Philosophy and Self Writing: Preliminary Notes on Elena Ferrante. An Interview with Adriana Cavarero” (2020).

Rebecca Walker is a PhD student in Italian Studies at the University of St Andrews working on Goliarda Sapienza and Elena Ferrante. Her research interests include feminist criticism, identity studies, and women’s life-writing.

This review draws partially on Pinto, Isabella, “Tiziana de Rogatis, Elena Ferrante. Parole chiave.Immaginare l’impossibile: trame della creatività tra letteratura e scienza, Eds. L. Boi, F. D’Intino, G. V. Distefano, Between, IX.17 (2019).

Works Cited:

Alsop, Elizabeth. 2014. “Femmes Fatales: ‘La Fascinazione di Morte’ in Elena Ferrante’s L’amore molesto and I giorni dell’abbandono.Italica 91:3 (2014): 466-485

Milkova, Stiliana. 2017. “Il Minotauro e la doppia Arianna: Spazio liminale, labirinto urbano e città femminile ne L’amica geniale di Elena Ferrante.” Contemporanea 15 (2017): 77-88.

Pinto, Isabella. 2016. “Intervista ad Adriana Cavarero. Filosofia della Narrazione e scrittura del sé: primi appunti sulla scrittura di Elena Ferrante.” Testo & Senso 17: 1-14.

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