Neapolitan dialect plays an important role in your novels. Could one say that you are doing a work of translation, hearing the voices of these characters in dialect and turning them into Italian? Marcello Lino, translator, Brazil
Of course, but it’s a vexed, I would say unhappy, translation. To explain this I have to talk about the nature of the narrators I’ve constructed up to now. In my books, the narrator is the “voice” of a woman with Neapolitan origins, who knows dialect well, who is well educated, who has lived far from Naples for a long time, and who has serious reasons for hearing Neapolitan as the language of violence and obscenity. I’ve put “voice” in quotation marks here because it’s not at all about voice but about writing. Delia, Olga, Leda, Elena, explicitly or implicitly, are writing their story and in doing so resort to an Italian that is a sort of linguistic barrier against the city they come from. To varying degrees, they have fabricated for themselves – let’s say – a language of flight, of emancipation, of growth, and have done it against the dialect-speaking environment that formed them and tormented them during childhood and adolescence. But their Italian is fragile. Dialect instead is emotionally robust and at moments of crisis imposes itself, moves into the standard language, emerges in all its harshness. In other words, when, in my books, Italian succumbs and takes on dialectal cadences, it’s a sign that, in the language as well, past and present are getting anxiously, painfully confused. I don’t, in general, mime dialect: I let it be felt as the possible eruption of a geyser.
Unlike Lila and Lenù, who struggle for decades to find freedom, Giovanna, the protagonist of your latest novel, emancipates herself quite quickly. Is she a special case or is it a generational change? Király Kinga Júlia, translator, Hungary
Giovanna is very far from Lila and Lenù. She has had a good secular, super-democratic education. Her parents, both teachers, expect their daughter to become a very cultivated, respected woman who is free and independent. But a small event jams the machine designed for her, and she starts to see herself as the damaged product of a duplicitous milieu. So she desperately begins to cut her upbringing out of herself, as if she wanted to be reduced to the plain truth of her own living body. Lenù and Lila also try to tear the neighbourhood out of themselves, but while they have to laboriously fabricate the tools to help them break free of real and figurative poverty, Giovanna finds those tools at home, ready to be used against the very world that has provided them. She is already armed for her revolt, so it’s quick and resolute. But to throw into disorder one’s cultivated “I” is a dangerous undertaking. You can’t change your form for one that seems truer without the risk of not finding yourself anymore.
Compared with the female characters, the “Ferrantian men” seem to be rather simple or dull. Is there a male character you consider a more positive figure? Jiwoo Kim, translator, Korea
Enzo. I like men who use their strength discreetly to help you live – without too many words, without sentimentality, without expecting compensation. Real understanding of women seems to me the highest application of the male’s intelligence and capacity for love. It’s something rare. I don’t want to talk here about rough, violent men, whose latest incarnation is the truly vulgar, aggressive types on social media and TV. It seems to me more useful to talk about cultured men, our companions in work and study. The majority continue to treat us like charming animals, giving themselves credit just for playing with us a little. A minority have superficially learned a formula for being “friends of women”, and want to explain what you have to do to save yourself, but as soon as you make it clear that you need to save yourself by yourself, the civilised patina cracks and the old, intolerable little man emerges. No, in all ways our manly educators should be re-educated. For now the only one I trust is Enzo, Lila’s patient companion. Of course, even this type of man may at some point get fed up and go, but at least he leaves behind a good memory.
To what extent can a person reinvent herself far from her origins? Esty Brezner, bookseller, Israel
I would begin by emphasising that leaving is not betraying one’s origins. Rather, we have to leave in order to assign origins and establish them as the foundation of our growth. Wandering, we transform our bodies into crowded warehouses. New materials weigh on the original ones, modifying them by merging with them, blending with them. We ourselves seesaw between various ways of being, sometimes enriching our identity, sometimes impoverishing it by subtraction. But our birthplace endures. It’s the ground upon which our primary experiences stand, where we first exercise our gaze, first imagine, first express ourselves. And the more solid we find that ground to be, the more varied is our experience of elsewhere. Naples would not be my single true city if I hadn’t soon discovered, in other places, in contact with other people, that there and only there did I begin timidly to say to myself “I”.
In your novels, relations between women and men are, for the most part, unhappy. Would it interest you to write about a relatively “happy” relationship between a man and a woman? Or would that be hard to make convincing? Ana Badurina, translator, Croatia
What isn’t convincing in literature is often the result of an edifying reading of reality. I’m not one of those who believe that happiness begins when the story ends (I’m thinking of the formula “And they lived happily ever after”). One can surely describe a happy couple: I’ve known many. Once I even wrote a story in which a very unhappy woman decided to conduct an investigation, just as in a detective novel, into the happy married life of her ageing parents. I don’t want to bore you here with the development of that story. I will say only that you summarised the whole story very well by using the expression “relatively ‘happy’ relationship between a man and a woman”. I think happiness can be written about, but only if that “relatively” is developed and if the reasons for the quotation marks that you’ve put around the word “happy” are examined.
In what way has Italy conditioned you as a writer? Audrey Martel, bookseller, Canada
An important part of my experience occurred here, in Italy. What I care about is in this country, starting with the language I’ve used since I learned to speak, since I learned to read and write. But as a girl I was bored by everyday reality. The stories to be told were not in my house, or outside my windows, or in my language or dialect, but in other places, in England, France, Russia, the United States, Latin America, and so on. I wrote exotic stories that eliminated Italian geography and Italian names, which seemed unbearable to me, I was sure they would kill any story at birth. The great literature that inspired me wasn’t Italian or, if it was Italian, ingeniously found a way of avoiding the Italianness of cities, characters, dialects. It was a childish attitude, but it lasted until I was at least 20. Then, when I seemed to know a fair amount about the literatures I loved, I began slowly to get interested in the literary tradition of my own country. I learned to use the books that made the deepest impression to give myself a sort of momentum to write about what until then had seemed to me too local, too national, too Neapolitan, too female, too much my own to be narrated. Today I think a story works if it can narrate what you alone contain, if it occupies an ideal place within books you’ve loved, if you write here and now, against this background you know well, with an expertise learned by digging passionately into the literature of all times and all places. As for characters, it’s the same thing: they’re empty if they don’t have some kind of knot that tightens at times, then loosens, a bond they may want to sever and yet endures.
What inspired you to write The Lying Life of Adults? Dina Borge, bookseller, Norway
As a girl I was a liar and was often punished for my lies. At around 14, after a lot of humiliation, I decided to grow up and stop lying. But I slowly discovered that while my childish lies were exercises of imagination, adults, so opposed to lies, lied easily to themselves and others, as if the lie were the fundamental tool that gave you consistency, meaning, allowed you to withstand the confrontation with your neighbour, to appear to your children as a model of authority. Something of this adolescent impression inspired the story of Giovanna.
For Lila and Elena, the experience of reading Little Women is extremely important. What (other) literary figures affected you as an adolescent? Stefanie Hetze, bookseller, Germany
To answer I would have to make a long and probably boring list. Let’s say that I devoured novels in which the female characters had ill-fated lives in a fierce, unjust world. They committed adultery and other violations, they saw ghosts. Between 12 and 16 I eagerly looked for any books that had a woman’s name in the title: Moll Flanders, Jane Eyre, Tess of the d’Urbervilles , Effi Briest, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina. But the book I read and reread obsessively was Wuthering Heights. Today I still find extraordinary the way it describes love, mixing good and bad feelings without any break. Catherine is someone who should be revisited from time to time: she’s useful, when you write, for avoiding the danger of sickly-sweet female characters.
Why do you return to Naples in this new novel? Can you imagine ever writing about some other place? Elsa Billund, bookseller, Denmark
One can write about any place, what’s essential is to know it thoroughly, otherwise you risk superficiality. I’ve been in many places, and written pages and pages of notes. I have a lot of notes, for example, on Copenhagen, and I could use them in a story, as I’ve done, say, with Turin, a city I love. But they seem like places that don’t belong to me, and if I write about them I write about them to appropriate them. With Naples it’s different. Naples is already part of me, as I am of Naples. I don’t have to look for a view of Naples, I’ve had it since birth. I write about it again and again to see it and see myself and so that it sees me, more and more clearly.
Do you identify with any of the main characters in The Neapolitan Novels or in the new novel? Monica Linkdvist, bookseller, Sweden
I will answer with a cliche: all the characters, including the men, have something of me in them, of necessity. If we know a fair amount about the bodies of others, the only inner life we really know is our own. So it’s relatively easy to learn to look, and to grasp a meaningful gesture, an expression, the features of someone’s gait, a way of speaking, an eloquent gaze. It’s impossible, however, to move into the mind of someone else: the writer always risks simplifications, like a psychology textbook, and it’s depressing. We have only our own mind, and it’s an arduous task to dig out of it some truth with which to animate fiction. There’s a raucous crowd in there that adds everything together amid conflict and confusion. Thus the inner life of another is in the end the literary product – always insufficient (too linear, too cohesive, too logical) – of an exhausting self-analysis helped by a vivid imagination. But you asked me to indicate a character I identify with, and I will tell you that at the moment I like certain features of Aunt Vittoria, in The Lying Life of Adults. It’s not me, but certainly I am glad to be her author.
How much do you think friendships change our lives? Ioana Zenaida Rotariu, bookseller, Romania
A friend doesn’t change us, but changes in her quietly accompany changes in us, in a continuous, mutual effort of adaptation.
In the fourth volume of The Neapolitan Novels you mention the universality of human violence and allude to the Arab world and Islamic culture: Dede’s husband is of Iranian origin and her son’s name is Hamid, etc. Might we, then, expect a novel from you about the current conflict between Islam and the west, exploring racism, terrorism, immigration and Islamophobia? Muauia al-Abdulmagid, translator, Lebanon
No at this point it’s unlikely that I would write about terrorism, racism, Islamophobia: the end of the Neapolitan quartet is intended simply to indicate how Elena’s horizon has widened through her daughters, their husbands, grandchildren, is no longer fixed in the neighbourhood but against the broader and very dangerous background of the planet. On the other hand, I will continue to declare on every occasion how much I hate violence, especially against the weakest, but also violence of the weak against the weak, and even violence that is justified by the intolerable nature of all kinds of oppression. The human being is a fierce animal that has sought to domesticate itself through religion, through the admonitions of its terrible history, through philosophy, through science, through literature, through the hazardous connection between goodness and beauty, through regulating conflict in a way that is entirely male, from the duel to war. But up to now the result has been a widespread form of hypocrisy: war, for example, includes punishment for specific crimes called war crimes, as if it were not in itself, by its nature, an atrocious crime; human rights, which should be peacefully supported, are a permanent battlefield, are continuously violated or defended; the state claims it has a monopoly on violence, but first of all that’s not true, and, second, it’s far too obvious that that monopoly is abused: broad portions of the global population know that they have to fear, above all, the government’s police, even where democratic traditions are strong. Nor are we women strangers to the practice of violence: this should be said emphatically. But we have been so relentlessly exposed to male violence, and so fully excluded from the means by which men have practiced it, that perhaps only we, today, can find a nonviolent way of banishing it forever. Unless, confusing emancipation with co-optation, we end up handing ourselves over, even in this, to the male tradition of aggression, extermination, devastation, at the same time making its learned rationales and petty regulations our own.
Your novels attract readers from all over the world. Does the knowledge of that international audience influence your writing? Enza Campino, bookseller, Italy
Writing is a very private activity. I’ve always written for myself, and much of my writing has stayed in my drawers. But whenever I’ve decided to make a story public, I’ve always hoped that it would go as far away from me as possible, that it would travel, that it would speak languages different from the one I wrote it in, that it would end up in places, houses, hidden from my view, that it would change mediums and become theatre, film, television, a comic book. That’s how I’ve thought, and it hasn’t changed. My writing is very timid, while I’m writing, but when it decides to become a book it gets ambitious, it’s immodest. I mean that I am not my books – I don’t dare have a life that is autonomous the way they do. Let the books go as far as they can, I will continue to write according to my taste, how and when I feel like it. From the moment they put on an editorial guise and leave, my independence has nothing to do with theirs.
Many characters in your novels are torn between love and friendship. Would you prefer to have with you forever a friend or a lover? Lola Larumbe, bookseller, Spain
I would prefer a lover who is capable of deep friendship. This mixture is hard to understand when you’re young, but with maturity, if you’re lucky, it gradually opens new horizons. I’ve always liked finding in old correspondences between lovers expressions like “my friend”. Similarly, the appellation “sister”, which appears first in chivalric literature and continues for centuries, never seemed to me a sign of the decline of desire: on the contrary.
How did Lila and Lenù come to you? And what makes Naples unique compared to, say, living in Rome? Suomalainen Kirjakauppa, bookseller, Finland
Lenù and Lila are ghosts, like all those who live in writing. At first they show up as brief, fleeting apparitions, somewhat resembling people whom we haven’t seen for a long time or who are dead. We hold on to them with a few sentences, shut them up in a notebook, later reread them. If the sentences have strength, the ghosts reappear, we capture them with more words. And so on: as the chain of words acquires energy, so the feeble apparitions put on flesh and bones, define themselves, bring with them houses, streets, landscapes, Naples, a plot within which everything moves and has heat, and it seems that only you can give those indistinct forms definition, and even an appearance of real life. But it doesn’t always go well; in fact very often it goes badly. The ghosts get the address wrong, they’re too unstable, the words are false or lifeless, the city is only a name, and if someone asks you how it’s different from, say, Rome, you don’t know the answer, and you can’t find it in the more or less moribund sentences you’ve written.
Many of your protagonists leave the city of their birth as soon as they become adult. To what degree does this influence their development? Ieva Mazeikaite, translator, Lithuania
Going away is important but not decisive. Lenù goes away, Lila never abandons Naples, but they both develop, their lives are full of events. As I’ve said, I feel close to Elena’s choices. We don’t have to fear change, what is other shouldn’t frighten us. But staying doesn’t seem wrong to me; what’s essential is that our “I” not be impoverished if we should confine ourselves to a space forever. I like people who are able to have bold adventures just going from one end to the other of the street where they were born. I imagined Lila like that.
Is writing for you a form of therapy for you? And what do you think of the way literature is taught in schools? Ivo Yonkov, translator, and Dessi Dimitrova, bookseller, Bulgaria
No, I’ve never considered writing to be a form of therapy. Writing for me is something entirely different: it’s twisting the knife in the wound, which can hurt a lot. I write like those people who take airplanes all the time because they have to but are afraid they won’t make it, they suffer during the whole flight, and when they land they’re happy though reduced to a limp rag. As for schools, I don’t know much about how they work today. When I was in school, readings that as an adult I found marvellous were transformed into extremely boring exercises that had to be graded. School, in teaching literature, eliminated the pleasure of empathy and imagination. If you take the energy out of a sentence by playing around with that adjective or this figure of speech, you will leave on the page only pale alphabetic combinations and turn young people, in the best case, into refined con men.
The new novel describes a pivotal moment in Giovanna’s adolescence. Is there any advice you would give your teenage self? Fleur Sinclair, bookseller, UK
In our daily lives, what has been has been. We don’t talk about adolescence later: as far as I’m concerned it was a stagnant time, inconsolable. As an adult, I have always been careful not to say to an adolescent, even one who is apparently happy: lucky you. I think that the sooner this period ends, the better. On the other hand, writing about it is thrilling. I suspect that a little piece of adolescence peeks out in all books, whatever their subject, precisely because it’s a phase of thunder, lightning, storms, and shipwrecks. You’re almost a child, almost an adult, it takes an eternity for your body to get rid of one shape and assume another. Language itself doesn’t seem to possess the right form for you, sometimes you talk like a child, sometimes you express yourself like a grown woman, and either way you’re embarrassed. In reality the past doesn’t change. But, when you write, adolescence changes colour inexhaustibly. Every fragment can find its place and suddenly gain its rightful meaning in the story. If you write, that static, asphyxiating time, observed from the edge of adult life, begins to flow, is made and remade, finds its motivations.
What are the possible effects of coronavirus on the situation of women and would you be interested in writing about it? Malgorzata Zawieska, bookseller, Poland
I’m still feeling the effects of the fear and disorientation at how easy it’s been for the terrible living conditions of the weakest on the planet to get worse within a few weeks. I’m not especially interested in the virus. It’s the fragility of the system that has frightened me, so much that I have trouble explaining it. I mean that everything was abruptly reduced. In an extraordinarily short span of time obedience ended up at the top of the hierarchy of values. And women have received more orders than usual, assigned, as they traditionally are, to forget themselves and see to the material survival of the family: feed, watch over, care for, isolate, isolate themselves, and meanwhile feel guilty for everything, as if until that moment they had had too many expectations. In this picture, the step backward seems inevitable, in order to deal with the primary demands: food, water, a roof, medicine. Yes, I believe that rather than the spread of the pandemic, what should be related is how the spread of fear changes us, taking meaning away from higher-level demands and fine ambitions, in short from all that “doing” that hums along when the economic-social-cultural system pretends to be solid. But, as I said, I have to think about it. For now, the problem is what to do to keep the matter of women central. It has to be felt as something fundamental.
Is there a secondary character that you feel closer to? Tim van den Hoed, bookseller, Netherlands
As an author, if I have to tell the truth, I feel like the mother of the Solaras. She has the whole neighbourhood in her fist, with that red loan shark’s book, and yet she’s a small woman, of minor importance. She appears only for a few lines, uncomfortable because of the heat, fanning herself.
What does it mean to you when you hear talk of “female writing”? Readings bookshop, Victoria, Australia
I will take advantage of this question of yours to explain. There is nothing wrong with saying “female writing”, but it should be done with caution. Since there exists experience that is unquestionably female, every expression of it, oral or written, should have the unequivocal stamp of a woman. But unfortunately it’s not so. Every means that we women make use of to express ourselves doesn’t really belong to us but is, historically, a product of male dominance, above all grammar, syntax, individual words, the very adjective “female” with its various connotations. Literary writing is obviously no exception. And so literature by women can only move, laboriously, from within the male tradition, even when it asserts itself forcefully, even when it seeks its own specific genealogy, even when it absorbs and, within fixed margins, makes the mingling of the sexes and the irreducibility of sexual desire its own. Does this mean that we are prisoners, that we are fated to be hidden forever by the very language in which we try to talk about ourselves? No. But we have to realise that, in this context, to express ourselves is a process of trial and error. We have to start constantly from the hypothesis that, in spite of so much progress, we are not yet truly visible, we are not yet truly audible, we are not yet truly comprehensible, and we have to remix our experience countless times, as one does with a salad, reinventing surprising voices for people and things. We have to find the very mysterious way (or ways) in which, starting from a crack, from something discarded among the already established forms, we arrive at writing that is unpredictable even for us who are working on it.
How do you work? Do you make a lot of corrections, and of what type? Ann Goldstein, translator, US
The decisive point for me is to arrive, starting from nothing, at a dense, chaotic draft. The work on the draft is gruelling. It takes a lot of energy to get a text with a beginning, an end, and its own crowded vitality. It’s a slow approach, like tailing a life form that has no defined physiognomy. Occasionally I can keep rolling along, even without rereading, but that’s rare. More often I advance by a few lines every day, writing and rewriting. Frequently I fall out of love and put it all aside. But that painful condition I will ignore for now. I want to tell you instead, cara Ann, that only when this preliminary labour has had good results does the true pleasure of writing begin for me. I start again from the beginning. I remove entire sections, I rewrite a lot, I change the direction and even the nature of the characters, I add parts that, only now that there’s a text, come to mind and seem necessary, I develop episodes that were barely alluded to, I change the chronology of certain events, I very often retrieve pages that were discarded – early, longer, perhaps uglier, but more immediate versions. It’s a job that I do alone, I wouldn’t share it with anyone. At a certain point, however, I need attentive readers, but readers who will focus only on my carelessness: mistakes in chronology, repetitions, incomprehensible formulations. I fear suggestions that tend to normalise the text, such as: don’t say it like that, the punctuation is insufficient, this word doesn’t exist, it’s an incorrect formulation, that’s an ugly solution, this way it’s more beautiful. More beautiful? Editing that’s alert to respect for the current aesthetic canon is dangerous. So is editing that encourages anomalies that are compatible with popular taste. If an editor says: in your text there are good things but we have to work on it, you’re better off withdrawing the manuscript. That first person plural is alarming.
• The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante is published by Europa. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply. To read the whole interview, head to the Europa Editions website.