How I Spent My Summer Vacation: With Ferrante and Knausgaard
On the Impossible Allure of First Person Narcissists
Like many writers in mid-career, I have become a fussy, hard-to-please reader. That is, I’m less willing to suspend my disbelief than I used to be. The more I read and write, the more I know about how fiction works, the quicker I am to judge, to see what essayist Philip Lopate derided as “the groaning contrivance of fiction.” Over the years, a surprising number of writers have confessed to me that they no longer read novels, preferring poetry and non-fiction instead. In other words, the suspension of disbelief is not a small demand. An essential part of the contract between readers and writers of fiction, it might be better described as the suspension of self.
Reading fiction requires that we let go of the world we know and allow ourselves to be suspended in a universe not of our making, where we do not know the rules, and (usually) cannot anticipate the outcome. Which is to say, when reading fiction, we must exist, like the writer who created it, in a prolonged state of not knowing. This capacity, which Keats famously called negative capability, seems to diminish as we age—or perhaps only our willingness does. Possibly one reason so many Americans read fiction when on vacation is that, having abandoned the world we know, we’ve already begun the process of separating from ourselves.
Like many of my ilk, I earn my income, not from book royalties, but from teaching in a fine MFA program. This means I spend a good part of my summer reading what I’ve not been able make time for during the school year. This summer, at the top of the pile were The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth and final book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy, and Book Five of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s long, autobiographical novel, My Struggle. I must admit these multi-volume novels (with which, I’m assuming, the reader is well acquainted) were anomalies on my reading list. As a writer and a reader, I tend to gravitate toward compression, rather than accumulation, as an aesthetic value. And yet, once begun, I couldn’t put the books down. Now that so many of us complain of diminished attention spans— our own as well as our companions’—it’s worth asking what has made millions of readers willing to suspend their disbelief—to suspend their selves—for thousands of pages.
The similarities between the books are striking. At the level of story, both the Neapolitan Novels and My Struggle feature first-person narrators who develop young, writerly ambitions that are predicated on leaving violent homes and parochial European settings; both feature self-centered, heterosexual narrators who, though deeply romantic, see marriage and parenthood as impediments to their writing; and both feature narrators preternaturally aware of sex and gender as forces shaping their lives and their work.
First person is, without doubt, a welcoming point of view. Immediately, we recognize the “I” who is in charge of the story and, even if the writer is doing his job only passably well, the narrator seems to coalesce before our eyes—or ears—or in that nebulous territory imprecisely described as the mind’s eye. Our disembodied selves recognize the disembodied narrator who speaks directly to us. (For isn’t one of the pleasures of reading the flight from our own bodies?) To put it another way, the intimacy of first-person narration in these novels sets the threshold for suspending one’s disbelief relatively low. As both the narrators in Ferrante and Knausgaard are self-involved writers who are constantly worrying their place in the world, the bar drops even lower.
Indeed, a quick survey of some of most admired experimental novels of the last few years—Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, Jenny Offill’s uber-compressed Department of Speculation, Rachel Cusk’s oddly compelling Outline—shows us that writer-narrators are very much in vogue. Although this choice is not new, I think it’s especially appealing for contemporary readers, whose own narcissism is mirrored by these narrators.
Aren’t we all writers, these days, in one form or another? We text, we blog, we review. We obsess about the lack of meaning in our late-capitalist lives. We tweet, we chat, we snap chat. We admire our own pithy turns of phrase, while carefully curating the presentation of our lives on various media. In other words, reading about self-obsessed writers who faced emotional challenges in childhood, who are wildly ambitious but see marriage and parenthood as impediments to their success, and who are deeply romantic about heterosexuality, yet bothered by the constraints of sex/gender expectations—well, c’est nous, n’est pas? In this case, we are, each of us, Madame Bovary.
I do not mean to imply that these books are facile, just easy to enter, despite their daunting page counts. And entry only gets easier: as JK Rowling taught her adult fans, a series need only be entered once. After reading My Brilliant Friend, the first of the Neapolitan Novels, and Book One of My Struggle, I fell easily into the remaining volumes, eager for the company of their smart and compelling narrators.
But first person narrators that reflect our own self-involvement can’t entirely account for these books’ astonishing success. It is the masterful sentences here, more than any other feature or technical accomplishment, that allow our suspension of self to be freely given. Alas, describing what makes a sentence “good” is something critics often skip, assuming that, like bad behavior, we’ll know it when we see it. Perhaps in anticipation of our collective return to the classroom, I’d like to suggest three properties that make a sentence worthy of our admiration: momentum, or movement forward, toward the next sentence; rhythm, which of course contributes to momentum, but also brings its own visceral pleasure; and balance, which is to say, the internal integrity of the sentence.
These properties are easier to identify in a long sentence, where careful readers take note of punctuation and structure; but it’s also easier to identify in a paragraph, where balance might come from the accumulation and interplay of sentences. In this longish excerpt from My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante uses structural repetition, what poets call anaphora—the sentences that begin with “we saw”—to provide the rhythm and momentum that confers authority. Notice, too, how the phrases of the final sentence seem to answer the earlier “we saw” sentences, creating a delicious call and response, and transforming Ferrante’s description of a day’s singular walk into a more general portrait of the way things were:
There was a hazy sun, a strong smell of burning. We walked for a long time between crumbling walls invaded by weeds, low structures from which came voices in dialect, sometimes a clamor. We saw a horse make its way slowly down an embankment and cross the street, whinnying. We saw a young woman looking out from a balcony, combing her hair with a flea comb. We saw a lot of small, snotty children who stopped playing and looked at us threateningly. We also saw a fat man in an undershirt who emerged from a tumbledown house, opened his pants, and showed us his penis. But we weren’t scared of anything: Don Nicolai, Enzo’s father, sometimes let us pat his horse, the children were threatening in our courtyard too, and there was old Don Mimi who showed us his disgusting thing when we were coming home from school. (75-6)
And now Knausgaard, in Book One, who also makes use of anaphora to create propulsion, although the rhythm created, as well as the sentences themselves, are looser than Ferrante’s. This looseness mimics speech and enacts Knausgaard’s project, which is to give us life as it is, unadorned. But the casualness of the prose deceives; the penultimate sentence is a run on, a structure that gives the strongest impression of speech, and the colloquial “as it were,” works to bury the sophisticated observation Knausgaard is making, about the material properties of his surroundings. With the well chosen “unreconciled,” he anthropomorphizes a vase of flowers, effortlessly capturing the childhood feeling of one’s physical world being unpredictably animated:
All that mattered was precisely that feeling. So as I turned and went back to my room, I noticed nothing. I know that window in the stairwell must have been so dark that the hall was reflected in it, I know that the door to Yngve’s bedroom must have been closed, the same as the one to my parents’ bedroom and to the bathroom. I know that Mom’s bunch of keys must have been splayed out on the telephone table, like some mystical beast at rest, with its head of leather and myriad metal legs, I know that the knee-high ceramic vase of dried flowers and straw must have been on the floor next to it, unreconciled, as it were, with the synthetic material of the wall-to-wall carpet. I saw nothing, heard nothing, thought nothing. (24)
Another similarity: both Knausgaard and Ferrante write about what the narrator of the Neapolitan Novels, Elena Greco, calls the “shapeless banality of things.” In other words, there is little cause and effect, which is what produces pleasing, shapely plot; instead, there is the child’s breathless story-telling: and then, and then, and then. Although Ferrante’s novels are full of more event than My Struggle, including personal and political violence, there is a feeling of stasis, a feeling that, “we’re never getting anywhere.” Ferrante’s great formal achievement may well be her ability to create a version of realism that is, at once, histrionic and flat.
Finally, these two novelists do a great deal of telling in their books. That is, both novels showcase the interior thoughts and feelings of the characters to a greater degree than perhaps we are used to. In the parlance of the writing workshop, these multi-volume chronicles tell much more than they show. Again this isn’t precisely new—there have always been interior-heavy novels—one thinks of Woolf and Camus and even Philip Roth—but the amount of interiority is striking. Especially in best sellers. One of the ways to understand the shift away from showing is to understand it as a move from image to thought, a move away from what novelist and critic John Gardner called “the fictive dream” – the visual image we hold in our heads as we read—and toward what essayists like Lopate call “habits of mind.”
It isn’t that these novels have no fictive dream—in fact, Knausgaard has been criticized for physical description that is “almost absurdly detailed” and “televisual”—it’s that the fictive dream feels secondary to the intellectual and emotional lives of the characters. Perhaps Ferrante and Knausgaard have intuited that their readers get enough visual stimuli—from Netflix and You-Tube (or their Italian and Norwegian counterparts), from porn and reality TV and the visual smorgasbord that is the internet; perhaps these writers know that the visual images we hold in our heads no longer feel as though they belong solely to us, no longer feel intimate. If many readers freely admit that plot can seem a “groaning contrivance,” I wonder if some have begun to experience the fictive dream itself—and our participation in creating it—as mechanistic and, therefore, false?
If I’m right, and the fictive dream is no longer a space of private imagining, this change will be counted as one of the many transformations to reading effected by technology. But, if one of the results of this dreadful loss is a kind of re-invigoration of novels of deep interiority; if the result is worldwide readership of novels considered literary and experimental; then, so be it. The wise fiction writer takes solace where she finds it.
In a rare interview in the Paris Review, Elena Ferrante asserted: “Literary truth is entirely a matter of wording and is directly proportional to the energy that one is able to impress on the sentence.” Although some may quibble with the idea of “literary truth,” I do think most of us recognize falseness when we see it. And we recognize, even if unconsciously, sentences whose authority allow us to suspend our fixed ideas about who we are in order to better see our shifting, snap-chatting, contemporary selves.
* * * *
 One need not be heterosexual to romanticize heterosexuality, as so much of our cultural production, hi and low, attests.
 Ben Lerner, The London Review of Books