Sarah Chihaya is an assistant professor of English at Princeton University, where she specializes in contemporary fiction and film. She is the co-author, with Merve Emre, Katherine Hill, and Jill Richards, of The Ferrante Letters: An Experiment in Collective Criticism. (January 2020)


Elena Ferrante’s Form and Unform

Naples, Italy, 1948

In a way, thinking and feeling through Ferrante make me wonder if the whole project of literary criticism, for some of us, might be one of un-pleasure reading. To me, the joy of writing about a text is the twisting, rupturing, pleasurable unpleasure of unforming and being unformed as I work to shape an argument. To read a book to its core, to get under its skin and let it get under yours, is to engage with it in a mutual process of transformation and sometimes-ecstatic contortion. In my life as a critic, as in Ferrante, this is an impossible yet irresistible desire: the little stories I’ve told you along the way here, my shape-making narrative impulses, are the legible coverings that skim over the roiling blurriness of ongoing forming-unforming beneath, the frantumaglia—that dialect word that Ferrante uses to mean “bits and pieces,” magma, a jumbled tangle that refuses reduction—of reading and being read. This is the last thing I’d call pleasure—and yet…