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Elena Ferrante’s Form and Unform

David Seymour/Magnum Photos
Naples, Italy, 1948

I had a drink with my friend Rebecca last night, one of the veteran Lila-Lenùs of my life (as in the two main characters of Elena Ferrante’s series of novels the Neapolitan Quartet). I am, I think, very prone to this kind of deep-cut friendship; deep-cut because it seems to go right to your core (painfully, wonderfully), and deep-cut because that kind of friend knows the words to all of your B-sides and ephemeral singles, all of those moments and memories that aren’t on any top-ten list. My relationship with her has been, as they say, formative.

Last night we talked about one of the funny things about our relationship—how differently we remember things. I like to call her my memory palace because she stockpiles and catalogues moments and events in a way that I do not, cannot. I don’t clearly remember any of the formative events you’re supposed to remember in the traditional, plot-driven version of Bildung; I don’t remember my first major lie or first kiss or the first time I had sex or the last time I saw a friend before he died too young. She, on the other hand, remembers word-for-word things that people said to her that became personal laws or prohibitions, granular feelings that solidified into actions and habits, moments that were definitive and shaping, events like building blocks that make her what she is today. When challenged to describe the same moment dredged up from years ago, we do it completely differently—yet these opposing memories come together and make something fuller and more true (“She was trying to understand, we were both trying to understand, and understanding was something that we loved to do,” Ferrante writes in My Brilliant Friend). We cleave to and from each other in both senses of that weirdly doubled word: we crave closeness, to form and be formed by the other, and yet we each also form ourselves against the other, sometimes in simple opposition but also in amorphous resistance or inexplicably violent rejection. The insufficient “covering,” to use Lila’s word, that we use to loosely contain these often nonsensical and lawless practices, is friendship.

A formative friendship. A formative text. Both of these things are important here because at their best, they demand critical consideration of the work of self-forming, being formed, and unforming, which—hopefully—leads towards a clearer understanding of the shape of the individual. The Neapolitan Quartet’s slow enactment of a near-lifelong friendship demonstrates this work of internal tension and critique through its characters, and in a weird way, also through their readers. In Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey (2016), Ferrante writes that, “We are heterogeneous fragments that, thanks to impressions of unity—elegant figures, beautiful form—stay together despite their arbitrary and contradictory nature.” The truly marvelous unpleasure of reading Ferrante has to do with the fact that she forcibly reveals those fragments that always hide under the mask of beautiful form in a text (or in a person) whether we want to see them or not. In so doing, we might look inwards and see our own rough, unfinished seams, not completely stitched together, perhaps already in the midst of falling apart. Through reading the stories of Lila and Lenù and how they read each other over the years, I am given a strange and agonizing lesson in how to read myself—not in the way that one might initially read a formative text (as a kind of knitting pattern, a design for the garment of personality) but as its opposite, a text that demands that you brutally rip away the garment of beautiful form and reveal the raw-edged fragments beneath. Not in the manner of Roland Barthes’s coy textual striptease (texte de plaisir) or in his evocative but rather bloodless “cut” or “gape” (texte de jouis-sance), but rather, with a bodily urgency and violence. Reading Ferrante fills me with a dangerous abandon and wild disregard for disciplined self-containment. More than anything, she makes me want to write as she writes—viscerally, bloodily, “like butchering eels”—and in so doing to somehow know, like Lila reworking the portrait, that ecstasy and clarity of vision that comes with making-by-unmaking one’s own form, to be both Orpheus and the frenzied Maenads.

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. This is, some might say, highly un-professional (whatever this profession is), definitely un-objective, possibly even un-ethical. But for me, to write a piece of living interpretation, to share in gutsy, real conversation with a piece of art, is always to invoke form as a verb, not just to submit to the noun of its existence—a forming that is process-oriented but not simply procedural—and to somehow animate that constant movement in words. 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 (shades of Calvino here, too). This is the last thing I’d call pleasure—and yet…

If this risks getting too wildly abstract, consider a somewhat more sedate literary example: the first formative text we encounter in My Brilliant Friend, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. It is an eminently lovable and hateable book, one with and against which many millionsof readers have formed themselves. The reader cleaves to writerly Jo (or to kind, beautiful Meg, or possibly arty cool girl Amy, but—let’s be honest—probably not to dull, doomed Beth), and yet the famous dissatisfactions of the ending drive her to cleave away from her model and from the novel. It is that dance of identification and disappointment that can make Little Women a powerful work of critical self-formation. We ask ourselves why we might be angry about Jo’s marriage to mansplaining Professor Bhaer, or Meg’s widowing, or the nagging suspicion that Amy is ultimately just Laurie’s consolation prize, and in so doing, wonder what we actually want for them (ditto Lenù and Lila)—or more interestingly, what we want via them. To have an adult relationship with a text, or a friend, we have to first work within their constraints and then eventually work against them. It’s in that pushback, the move away from the formative thing, we actually learn the most about ourselves.

This brings to mind a moment that feels like a potential point of departure and growth from Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. Lenù realizes that all her form-making efforts have been molded somehow around Lila’s unknowable, unpindownable, and multiplied self:

Become. It was a verb that had always obsessed me, but I realized it for the first time only in that situation. I wanted to become, even though I had never known what. And I had become, that was certain, but without an object, without a real passion, without a determined ambition. I had wanted to become something—here was the point—only because I was afraid that Lila would become someone and I would stay behind. My becoming was a becoming in her wake. I had to start again to become, but for myself, as an adult, outside of her.

This is one of the moments where we see Lenù, now in her thirties, start to realize that the formative as a mode is not sustainable: to form yourself around or after someone else is only halfway to becoming. In this moment, and the months that follow, Lenù struggles to become in her own model; she and Lila do not speak, she tries to cultivate other relationships, to unform the habits that her relationship with Lila has created. It is, we sense, an important time for Lenù, as it leads her to her next book project about the male creation of female automatons through history. Even that most seemingly independent act of writing, however, comes out of her lasting desire to cleave to Lila, not from her; in considering this new theoretical idea, she has an unrealizable fantasy of what life would have been like if she and Lila had kept going to school together, “elbow to elbow, a perfect couple, the sum of intellectual energies, of the pleasures of understanding and the imagination. We would have written together, we would have been authors together, we would have drawn power from each other… But the opportunity was gone, lost decades ago.”

Just admitting that loss and impossibility feels sad and important but also, in its way, liberating. Yet the strongest formations have an inexorable pull back, and a few years later, in The Story of the Lost Child, Lenù finds herself drawn back into the old pattern she and Lila molded around each other, reconjoined by their pregnancies. In this unity, they are defined most clearly through their opposition and tension, which somehow makes them more perfectly part of the same whole: “We liked sitting next to each other, I fair, she dark, I calm, she anxious, I likable, she malicious, the two of us opposite and united, and separate from the other pregnant women, whom we observed ironically.”

As we know from the very first page of the very first book, though, this renewed solidarity cannot last; Lila and Lenù’s tale begins and ends with their final breakup, the ultimate unforming (but not erasure) of their lifelong intertwinement. It is that unforming that forms the long and winding narrative we receive in these four books. It’s an intriguing thought experiment to consider the difference between this long work, L’amica geniale, and the short novel that Lenù produces at the end of volume 4, simply titled Un’amicizia (“A Friendship”). That book, whose publication revives Lenù’s literary celebrity, proves the end of Lila and Lenù’s relationship. Lenù speculates about what makes Lila turn away from her when it comes out, but none of her guesses seem to strike at the implicit truth, visible to Ferrante’s readers if not her narrator. It is perhaps the novella’s static precision and taut shapeliness, so unlike L’amica geniale’s long, ungainly battle between form and unform—between, in Lila’s paraphrased words, “telling things just as they happened, in teeming chaos” and “work[ing] from imagination, inventing a thread”—that makes it such a dishonest and inauthentic betrayal of the truth of their lives, both together and apart.

To keep forming ourselves as writers or people, then, means to break with the things that have formed us and to incorporate that breakage into the work we make. Maybe not forever but with some regularity and with some necessary, hopefully generative violence, like cutting a plant back to force new growth. Every time we do it though, it is freighted with danger—there is always the risk that every break might be the last. Sometimes that ur-thing, the formative object, can be pushed too far: friends that stay together through decades but no longer really know each other, texts that we’ve read or taught too many times and have lost their magic. Or worse, friends whose love curdles to resentment and then to silence (or total disappearance), books we come to hate because we once loved them too much. These are the risks.

But breakage, Ferrante suggests, makes things new and strange; breakage—unmaking, unforming—makes life. We are most whole and alive (“put to the test, eviscerated, yet alive”) through our splitting apart, that unformal unpleasure of imminent destruction—and creation.There’s something almost religious about it, though sacrifice is too grim a word for this sensation. I can only describe it obliquely through citation, in this moment from A.S. Byatt, characteristically invoking just the right amount of wry but miraculously uncondescending religiosity at the happy-sad, beautiful end of Possession (1990):

In the morning, the whole world had a strange new smell. It was the smell of the aftermath, a green smell, a smell of shredded leaves and oozing resin, of crushed wood and splashed sap, a tart smell, which bore some relation to the smell of bitten apples. It was the smell of death and destruction and it smelled fresh and lively and hopeful.


Excerpted from The Ferrante Letters: An Experiment in Collective Criticism, published by Columbia University Press.