Elena Ferrante: Master of the Epic Anti-Epic
Dante in the Key of Virginia Woolf
With the published translation of the last of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, Anglophone readers can now absorb the work in its entirety. We can finally see, for example, that these 1,700 pages are an entirety, that they are four volumes forming a singular and unified work. “I never thought of them as separate novels,” Ferrante recently told Vanity Fair. “While there are four volumes, for me, the Neapolitan novels are one compact story, one very long novel.”
In Italian, the work’s organizational principles are presented more clearly. L’amica geniale—translated as My Brilliant Friend, though “The Brilliant Friend” is more literal—is not just the title of the first novel, but the overarching title of Ferrante’s entire “very long novel.” And it’s a good title, melding a sense of “genius” to the cognate “genial” in ways that echo across the work a whole. Below that, the work is divided into stories: Storia del nuovo cognomen (The Story of a New Name) is “volume secondo” of L’amica geniale, and Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta ([Story of] Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay) and Storia della bambina perduta (Story of the Lost Child) are “volume terzo” and the “quarto e ultimo volume” respectively. But even the first volume is divided into “stories”: after the prologue, “Childhood” is told as “The Story of Don Achille,” with “The Story of the Shoes,” for adolescence. It is not, in short, a series of four; it is one very long novel (broken into five stories).
As the publication of the four volumes has staggered across four years—plus a year’s delay for each translation—it’s been hard to see the big picture, until now. For readers, Ferrante’s “long story” had always been conceived as a single and unified work, but it was a unity gestating in the author’s mind. As we read one, two, and three of the four novels, therefore—following the protagonist, Elena Greco, from childhood to womanhood to maturity—it could be easy to dwell in the moment-to-moment drama, to lose ourselves in the worlds she builds in a single small neighborhood in Naples, or in the vicissitudes of two women’s romantic fortunes. Without a sense of where it was all going—or even the assurance that it was going somewhere—those books can feel like an open-ended exploration of life and love, with no end in sight. For good reason: until now, there hasn’t been.
It’s not surprising that these novels have been so insistently compared to various genres of light, serial entertainment, especially those associated with women. The Economist, for example, describes the novels as “using the melodramatic tropes of soap opera to tell a cracking good story”:
Her work is reminiscent of a Neapolitan theatrical tradition called sceneggiata, a kind of over-the-top musical melodrama about honour, betrayal and crime… Ms Ferrante emerges as a 21st-century Dickens, with readers clamouring for the next installment at the shops.
These are all superficially attractive comparisons, none unique to The Economist. Dickens was notoriously paid by the installment, so his novels are very, very long; Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novel is, also, very long. Neither is quite as open-ended as a soap opera, of course—which can go on, theoretically, forever—but the comparison tells us what kind of Dickens is being evoked: the Dickens of theatrical characters and rambling plots (with an Italian twist, a sceneggiata of “honour, betrayal and crime”). The attraction of the novels is their entertaining superficiality: rather than art, Ferrante has produced a “cracking good story,” the sort of thing you rush to buy in shops.
It’s all very predictably sexist, of course. There’s nothing surprising about a woman’s long serial narrative about women’s lives being compared to melodramatic soap opera, or being framed as pandering to consumers with its overdrawn theatricality. This is a very old story, both about women writers and about the women who read them. Men write serious Works of Literature—and even now, someone, somewhere, is debating whether Jonathan Franzen has just written The Great American Novel—while women’s writing is a cheap consumer product, fun, perhaps, but ultimately insubstantial. In this way, both writer and reader are demeaned: if the work is operatic, it’s only to sell domestic products (like soap) to housewives. But consuming them doesn’t satisfy. It only makes you hungry for more.
It’s hard to overstate how far this kind of review misses the mark. If Ferrante “emerges” this way, it’s because readers haven’t known what they’re looking for, or because they’ve been so sure of what they’ll find that they haven’t bothered to look. But reviews like this one—which is typical, if not quite representative—tell readers precisely what not to look for. These are not melodramatic novels: instead of flattened and exaggerated characters, wild plot twists, and lurid sensationalism, we get deeply sensitive and realistic depictions of human beings, with all their tragic flaws and petty nobilities. If melodrama is black and white, Ferrante is all shades of gray; if soap opera or Dickens have an incentive to drag things out, introducing new characters and new plotlines whenever necessary, Ferrante’s long story works the same characters, the same themes, and the same plot, from beginning to end.
When people describe Ferrante’s work as “epic,” they tend to mean that it’s very long, but in a good way. “Epic,” in this context, is an adjective, like “grand.” The work has an epic sweep, you might say, or an epic scope. It may focus on two friends in a one small neighborhood in Naples, but it has grand ambitions to show us an entire world in this tiny corner of it. These things are all true. But when a classicist calls something “epic”—and one of the scraps of knowledge we have about Elena Ferrante is that she studied classics—the word means something very specific, particularly with respect to Italy. If the great work of American art is the novel—leading inevitably to the tedious question of whether a Franzen has produced it—the classical works of Italian literature are Epics, a noun describing a literary form and tradition.
So many of the great epics came from the Italian peninsula, after all: Romans like Virgil and Ovid, the Christians St. Augustine and Dante (the great Florentine), and the lesser-known poets Torquato Tasso of Naples and Ariosto Ludovico of Tuscany. You could even include James Joyce in this list, if you wanted: he not only wrote his Ulysses in Trieste, but it was the Latin name for Homer’s epic that he used for his title. You could call the epic the great Italian form, in other words, if you cared to overlook how much older the tradition is than the nation-state of Italy itself. But that’s exactly the point. The epic is more deeply Italian than the Italian republic itself, especially in a place like Naples, whose inclusion into Italy—and into industrial modernity—is a relatively recent occurrence.
It tells you something about Ferrante’s relationship to Italian politics and modern history that she turns to the epic in producing her masterpiece. After Virgil, the epic was inescapably political, concerned with the founding and destruction of empires and the rise and fall of states. Virgil took the form from Homer, in a sense, but by comparison to his Aeneid, the Iliad and Odyssey are rambling, un-washed operas, poetic sagas of battle and return without much in the way of coherent narrative. That’s not where their power is, nor how they were originally conceived (indeed, The Iliad is an epic, for example, but it’s not epic in the adjectival sense, since it only covers a few weeks of the Trojan war). The major takeaway is that war is hell, and so is being lost at sea for years and years and years.
Virgil’s epic turned Homer on his head. Instead of a pantheon of heroes buffeted by the changing and inconstant whims of the gods, Virgil’s Aeneid is about one man, Aeneas, and his inevitable fate to found Rome: to plant his sword in Turnus, his seed in Lavinia, and his people in Italy. Homeric epic is almost nihilistically attentive to the universe’s endless cruelty; the Iliad is a truly gruesome catalog of death and horror, and the Odyssey reminds us that even the winners don’t necessarily get to go home afterwards. But Virgil’s epic hero is bound to a more glorious fate: he has no choice but to win the battle, wed the bride, and found an empire. He might want to dally with Dido, in Carthage—and does, in fact, dally with her—but in the morning, he’s got to get up early and go to work, leaving her to madness and fire.
Put simply, Greek epic was a lot of things, but it wasn’t the kind of gendered parable about state formation that Virgil made it into. It didn’t place the choice between fiery passion with Dido and dutiful procreation with the state at the center of its narrative. If it was Helen of Troy’s beauty that launched a thousand ships, in a certain sense, the Homeric version of the war was about masculine honor, not Helen. When Helen was stolen from the Greeks, they had to make war on Troy to get it back, but she was secondary, if she was that, and no one particularly loved her. Achilles himself, whose rage is the explicit subject of the Iliad, couldn’t have cared less about Helen: he had other fish to fry.
After Virgil, the epic followed an imperial path, wedded to the founding and fate of the Roman Empire. If it’s an inevitably masculine poetic form—and there is no more intrinsically masculine form of poetry—it’s this melding of state with gender that made it so, the tension it resolves between a man’s sexual passion and his patriotic duty. Therefore, just as Aeneas had to leave Dido behind in Carthage, St. Augustine dallies with being “in love with love” in North Africa, in his Confessions, before eventually finding his destiny with Christ in Rome. Dante’s epic, too, finds that he must move beyond even his love for Beatrice, in Paradise, so that he can love God above all others. The masculinity of these Roman epics is expressed by patriotic love, the love of the fatherland. Woman are, if they are anything, the body in which this love is planted.
If you expect a soap opera, you might not notice how Ferrante’s “long story” is littered with references to the masculine epic. The ogre of Lenù and Lila’s childhood is Don Achille (Achilles), after all, a neighbor whose rage they see as the origin of everything that makes their neighborhood a terrifying and unpredictably violent place. Lenù writes her school thesis about Virgil’s Dido—the North African princess who Aeneas loves and leaves behind—because Virgil’s story has already become the lens through which she understands what love is. When her neighbor, Melina, was left behind by her lover, Donato, both Lenù and Lila instantly see their passion, and Melina’s subsequent madness, as a replay of the story of Dido and Aeneas: “He and Melina were overcome by passion, like Dido and Aeneas,” as Lenù puts it; “These are things that are hurtful, but also very moving.” Lila is unmoved, and draws the opposite conclusion; she warns her friend—with a prescience that is startling to rediscover, now, after reading the final volume—that she should remember the fate of Melina before she romanticizes the story. “It’s all too easy to write poetry,” she observes.
Ferrante’s long story is not an epic in any strict sense. It’s not even poetry. But it’s bound at the hip with the epic tradition, a bondage that Ferrante references, constantly, with an almost unconscious erudition. The work traces the Ovidian transformations that follow from Lenù’s love of learning, for example, and Lucan’s snakes find their corollary in Lila’s dissolving margins. But Lenù’s voyage is also her desperate struggle to escape from the Inferno of lower-class Naples; falling into her studies, she is terrified at the idea of losing “paradise on earth: a space of my own, a bed of my own, a desk, a chair, books and more books, a city a world away from the neighborhood and Naples.” Her endless studies look more like Purgatory than Heaven, but this is Dante, in the key of Virginia Woolf.
Most importantly, it is Lenù’s full name that clarifies how Ferrante is using the epic tradition: “Elena Greco” is, literally, “Helen the Greek,” a reminder that before Helen of Troy’s beauty could launch a thousand ships, she had been born to a Greek family. Troy was only the place where she was taken; if she became Helen of Troy, it was only because her identity was taken from her, along with the name, and given, instead, to the Trojan who raped her.
As I was finishing the final volume of this series, I found myself wondering what Elena’s mother’s maiden name was, what she was called before she took the name “Greco.” I don’t think we ever find out, which is just as well: if we were told what it is, it would just be another man’s name marking a woman. It is significant that Elena Greco does not give up her maiden name: because “Greco” is the name on the novels and articles she writes, it’s the name that makes her a person, makes her something other than a woman attached to a father, a husband, a child. It’s the room of her own. But the key is that she writes it, herself: she doesn’t take her form from a man.
Elena Ferrante’s novels also, ultimately, do not take their form from a man: they take their non-form from the rejection of a masculine form. As “stories,” they are not epic; as a novel in prose, they are not epic poetry. And as a lifetime of feminine friendship, her Napoliad is the very opposite of a violent song about Arms and Man.
In The Story of a New Name, Lila describes reading Joyce’s Ulysses in terms that could describe Ferrante’s own writing. “Is it about the Odyssey?” the teacher asks; is it epic?
“No,” Lila responds; “it’s about how prosaic life is today… It says that our heads are full of nonsense. That we are flesh, blood, and bone. That one person has the same value as another. That we want only to eat, drink, fuck.”
Ferrante’s long story is the same kind of prose deconstruction of epic, replacing “arms and man” with gluttony, sex, and modernist melancholy; the elevated style is brought down to earth and elegant dactyls are shattered into the vulgar prose of the street and the bedroom. There is an argument in the form itself, one which Lila carefully observes: if poetry fills our head with nonsense, there is one rock-hard certainty: that we are, in the end, just bodies and cravings, always messy, always sad, always falling apart.
Ferrante has a word for this falling apart, the experience of fragmentation and the loss of coherence that Lila calls her “disappearing margins.” In her collection of non-fiction, Fragments, Ferrante explains how the Italian title, La frantumaglia, is a word which means “an unstable landscape, an air or water mass of infinite wreckage that violently appears to the self as its only true interiority”:
The frantumaglia is the sediment of time without the order of a story, or a tale. The frantumaglia is the effect of the sense of loss, when you have the certainty that all that seems stable, lasting as an anchor for our life, will soon join that landscape of ruins that we think we are seeing.
If the telos of Virgilian epic is the inevitable embrace of destiny, the foundation of eternal Rome, frantumaglia might be a kind of anti-teleology, the embrace of one’s inevitable disappearance. And if you needed to give a name for the anti-form of this work, this epic anti-epic, it might be frantumaglia, or the story of learning to love the one who goes away.