The women who do

August 14, 2016


Bina Shah is a writer and columnist based in Karachi. She is the author of six books and also writes for the New York Times.
Bina Shah is a writer and columnist based in Karachi. She is the author of six books and also writes for the New York Times.

This summer I visited the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, and came across this quote by the great artist: “We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realise truth — at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”

I found it truly intriguing as a writer to consider the relationship between truth and lies, especially as at the same time as I came across this quote I was tearing through the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante. Ferrante’s quartet of novels — My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child — recount the lives of Lila and Elena, childhood friends who spend 60 years together and apart in Naples as Italy emerges from the chaos of WWII and pushes its way into the 21st century.

These contemporary novels, published between 2011-2015, have become a literary sensation, devoured by millions, achieving places on bestseller lists. The series finally came to Karachi in the summer of 2016 and I bought all of them at once, taking them with me on vacation. They were so compelling that I actually preferred to stay home, reading, than to go out, most evenings. And now that I’m nearing the end of the quartet, I can honestly say that never has fiction struck me as so truthful, especially for me as a writer, a woman, and even as a Pakistani.

Elena Ferrante’s quartet of novels is a literary sensation because of the depth and complexity in the writer’s craft — and how she brings alive the world of women

Ferrante has the uncanny ability to take the extremely specific and portray it as the universal. Elena and Lila live in a working-class neighbourhood in Naples, which Ferrante recounts unromantically, capturing with a photographer’s precision the poverty, drudgery, violence and crime that characterise the area. She uses this setting to deeply explore complex social conditions: chauvinism and misogyny, the inferiority complexes embedded by lack of opportunity and resources, the aspirations of the working class to move up in life, the possibility that education can help you escape the restrictions of your birth, gender, and class.

All of these themes are framed within the intense friendship between Elena and Lila, intelligent and precocious girls who go through all the stages of life together, from childhood to love, sex, marriage, motherhood, and death. Instead of romanticising this relationship, Ferrante examines what female friendship is really like: uplifting and supportive, fraught with rivalry and jealousy, competitive and claustrophobic, yet unavoidable and necessary. In her recounting the myriad stories that make up their intertwined lives, both ugly and beautiful, Ferrante says, through Elena’s narrative voice, that she “spoke of the necessity of recounting frankly every human experience, including … what seems unsayable and what we do not speak of even to ourselves.”

Ferrante functions as psychologist, historian, teacher, anthropologist, judge and jury with searing honesty thanks to the unusual fact of her anonymity. We simply do not know who Elena Ferrante is: the name is a pseudonym which the Italian writer has used ever since she began publishing in the 1990s. This decision gave her complete artistic freedom and ensured that readers and critics would only be able to engage with her texts rather than her own life. The question of whether the Neapolitan Novels are autobiographical (Ferrante has hinted that they are) becomes secondary to what they signify. If we knew who Ferrante is then it would be too easy to pin down her writing to her own experiences and dismiss them as the particulars of her own life. But because we do not know who she is, her writing, autobiographical or not, becomes, as Elena says in the fourth novel, “the natural ability to transform small private events into public reflection.”

The Egyptian-American feminist and writer Mona Eltahawy writes, “the most subversive thing a woman can do is talk about her life as if it really matters.” In this sense Elena Ferrante is not just subversive, but truly revolutionary.

The Egyptian-American feminist and writer Mona Eltahawy writes, “the most subversive thing a woman can do is talk about her life as if it really matters.” In this sense Elena Ferrante is not just subversive, but truly revolutionary. She writes about the lives of her two protagonists, Elena and Lila, with such passion and excitement that everything matters, from the smallest incident to the most profound. When the two little girls are playing together and drop their dolls into a cold, dark cellar, the scene takes on ominous undertones that foreshadow not just the rest of the novel but the entire series. The friendship between little Lila and little Elena is no ordinary thing: it is the guiding force of Elena’s entire life and of the novels themselves.

Later, Elena is obsessed with excelling in school; Ferrante portrays this not as a mundane part of childhood but in fact a matter of life and death, the thing that will take her out of poverty and propel her into the life she and Lila have always wanted. Elena’s tenacity in pursuing her education regardless of family or neighbourhood approval, her need to compete with Lila and to earn the approval of her teachers, her desire and discipline to acquire knowledge, are given enormous weight in the novels. The title of the first book, My Brilliant Friend, goes back and forth between Elena and Lila, the latter being a ferocious autodidact who leaves even her teachers astounded, but cannot continue her studies because her father won’t allow it.

This feels like the first major tragedy in the novel, more so when we consider that girls and women are rarely allowed to be academically brilliant alongside their male peers. Ferrante describes all the hurdles that an intelligent woman faces in achieving her academic goals, but never once does she question whether her heroines, Elena and Lila, have the right to a life of the mind: she writes as if it truly is the only option for a girl or a woman of any intelligence or aptitude. Later both Elena and Lila achieve professional standing, Elena as a writer and Lila as a computer programmer. Ferrante makes it clear that education, formal for Elena, informal for Lila, is the key to all their successes later in life.

Sexual awakening, marriage, infidelity and divorce from a woman’s perspective are all given serious treatment: not one topic does Ferrante treat shallowly or callously, filling pages with complex psychological insights into each. But again she returns to the question of freedom for women, achieved through education, restricted by gender roles and domestic obligations. Elena observes the lives of drudgery that her mother and the other neighbourhood women lead, and balks from a similar future, going on to university.

Lila, on the other hand, opts for an early marriage and a life of relative luxury as the grocer’s wife. Ferrante is in fact exploring through these two women’s dual lives the dilemma of modern women everywhere: to opt for a traditional life, or to continue to pursue one’s own dreams while trying to balance domestic responsibilities? Both women fail and succeed in equal measure, suggesting that there are no right answers, there is only life to be lived as best as possible given the circumstances around you.

Later, in 1970s Italy, the times when women stayed home to cook and clean have given way to more opportunities for women. Ferrante traces the explosive effects of feminism and how they combine with the political changes to rock Italy out of its post-World War era and into modernity. But Lila must leave her child in her dingy apartment building with a neighbour while she goes out to work in awful conditions at the local sausage factory. By contrast, Elena has to lecture and tour as a successful writer, and her in-laws take her children away to their house in another city. So Ferrante proves that despite all the promises of the era, women are still negotiating their freedoms while men take them for granted.

In the place between lies and truth that Picasso pointed out, Ferrante is brutally honest. Elena lies to herself, but then she picks out her own inconsistencies and inaccuracies, notes when she is dissembling, when she is most well-intentioned. She doubts herself and her intellectual capacity a million times, short-changing herself in favour of Lila’s brilliance. She assumes for many years that her success as a writer is because of a story that Lila wrote in childhood which Elena uses as the source of her own successful novel. She travels from the depths of poverty to the pinnacle of fame and respectability, but never lies to the reader about who she is and where she came from.

This honesty is painful to behold, even more rare to encounter in literature about women. When men write about women, their feelings, motivations and characters are mysterious and opaque: with Ferrante, they’re crystal-clear. This serves to make her female characters even more powerful, because they aren’t afraid of confronting unpleasant truths about life or themselves. It has even resulted in the rumour that Ferrante isn’t a woman, but in fact a man or even a group of men writing the novels under the guise of a woman’s persona. Ferrante responds to this ridiculous assertion: “What if, instead, we’re dealing with a new tradition of women writers who are becoming more competent, more effective, are growing tired of the literary gynaeceum and are on furlough from gender stereotypes. We know how to think, we know how to tell stories, we know how to write them as well as, if not better, than men.”

In fact, it’s the men in Ferrante’s novels who seem weak in comparison: Nino, the love of Elena’s childhood, fickle and unreliable; Stefano, the grocer who Lila marries and then leaves because he betrays her in unexpected ways; Pietro, Elena’s professor husband, who fails to stimulate her intellectually or physically. Ferrante explores their characters in minute detail, but always in relation to how they affect Lila and Elena, making it clear that the two women are always the focus of her story. Perhaps it’s this turning of the tables, as well as Ferrante’s ability to write about violence and politics as lucidly as she does about babies and bodies, that has the literary establishment wondering where to place her. But for perceptive women and men who are fans of Ferrante, there’s no contradiction in a woman writing a world in which women’s perspectives and experiences matter more than the men who people them.

The Neapolitan Novels have taken some time to get to Pakistan. But the novels are extremely relevant to Pakistanis, because the changes in Italy over the years from the 1950s to the 21st century are taking place in Pakistan now: political upheaval, social progress, the move towards industrialisation and modernity. Against this backdrop, Pakistani women are finding their voices, discovering their opportunities and exploring worlds that were previously closed to them. In the story of Elena and Lila, Pakistani women will see themselves navigating all the phases of life in the face of brutality and oppression, misogyny and violence. And they will realise that their lives, too, are all about possibility, with the sustaining force of female friendships to guide them along all the triumphs and pitfalls in their paths.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 14th, 2016