The Ferrante Letters: An Experiment in Collective Criticism, by Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Katherine Hill and Jill Richards

Book of the week: Rosa Mucignat enjoys a bold attempt to create a cooperative open-ended discussion about a publishing phenomenon

February 20, 2020
Napoli set TV series, A genial friend, based on a novel by Elena Ferrante
Source: Alamy
Look of love: the television adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels captured the rivalry and affection between the main protagonists Lila and Lenù

Summertime, with its promise of freedom from committee meetings and departmental duties, is for most academics the only uninterrupted time of the year to focus on research. It is also a time to read for fun, and in the face of rising workloads and imperatives to publish, channelling one’s summer reading into scholarly work becomes an appealing prospect.

This is the starting point for The Ferrante Letters, an “experiment in collective criticism” begun in 2015 by a core group of four female critics and friends looking for ways to “reconcile shared pleasure with critical practice”. Their choice fell on Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, the global literary phenomenon whose fourth and final instalment, The Story of the Lost Child, appeared that same year and went straight into The New York Times Book Review’s annual list of the 10 best books. But it would be wrong to dismiss their attempt as an exercise in self-indulgence: what they propose is much more than a momentary escape from the strictures of academic research.

The Ferrante Letters is loosely structured around a series of letters exchanged between Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Katherine Hill and Jill Richards, initially published online. Each of them also contributes a formal essay, written at a distance of three years. In the appendix, the circle widens to include responses by invited guests. This iterative process of reading, writing, discussing and rereading makes an exciting departure from traditional edited volumes, as we witness first impressions being revised or discarded as fuller lines of argument emerge from initial intuitions.

It is interesting to see the old-fashioned epistolary form repurposed here, in its electronic garb, to achieve the same layered temporality and effect of intimacy sought by 18th-century novelists. Just like their predecessors, Chihaya, Emre, Hill and Richards are willing to lay bare not only the mechanics of intellectual exchange but also snippets of private life, sometimes mundane, sometimes hugely traumatic. This programmatic “vulnerability” is designed to unsettle the competitive paradigm of the lone scholar and the superficial metrics of success that have come to dominate academic production.

There is uncommon courage and generosity in the authors’ appeal for a more holistic and truly cooperative approach to intellectual labour, one that is grounded in feminist praxis. The project of creating a female philosophical community has been an original feature of the women’s movement in Italy since the 1970s, spearheaded by Luisa Muraro and the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, whose influence Ferrante has often acknowledged. Reading and discussing texts by female writers became a strategy to valorise women’s thought and to establish a collective sense of self outside persistent patriarchal structures. Against this background, the decision to concentrate on Ferrante takes on a radical significance that compounds, without overshadowing, the pleasure of getting stuck into the breakaway best-seller of the moment.

At the centre of the Neapolitan Quartet is the life-defining relationship between Lila and Lenù, two girls growing up in post-war Naples. Ferrante’s resolute foregrounding of female characters has gained her critical acclaim and an international audience with few parallels among non-anglophone writers today. It is also the catalyst for the collaboration between Chihaya, Emre, Hill and Richards, whose letters all react in the first instance to the entanglement of Lenù, the bookish, ambitious doorman’s daughter who is also the narrator, with Lila, whose fiery independence and uncanny intelligence struggle to find an outlet in their brutal, impoverished neighbourhood.

Readers all over the world report being sucked into the vortex of rivalry and attraction, solidarity and jealousy that carries Lila and Lenù’s entwined destinies. In her opening letter, Chihaya suggests harnessing the power of identification for critical purposes. “Just as Ferrante’s novels examine two characters intertwined in a lifelong dialogue,” she posits, “so too will our readings of them emerge out of conversations over time, as we write for and to each other.” The analogy gives free rein to these “brilliant friends” to read themselves and their own cultural and personal make-up into the text. In a flash of illumination, we see Emre’s repressed anger as a child mirrored in Lenù’s fury as she sets out to “make even” with Lila by telling their story at the beginning of My Brilliant Friend. Chihaya asks herself whether all friends are really “imaginary friends”, projections of our own desires and fears, although her meditations deepen into a study of Ferrante’s ambiguous brand of realism.

But when the novels enter areas outside the four critics’ own experience, their responses can strike a false note. However relatable, Ferrante’s characters also move in a specific social world. For instance, the typecasting of Lila and Lenù as “slutty” and “chaste” reminds Richards of Ann Martin’s series The Baby-Sitters Club (1986-2000), but such distinctions carry a much heavier weight in 1950s Naples than in the suburban America of the 1990s. This is spelled out when the Solara brothers, scions of the local Camorra dynasty, invite Lenù for a ride in their new car: “I said no because if my father found out that I had gone in that car, even though he was a good and loving man, even though he loved me very much, he would have beat me to death” (My Brilliant Friend). Violence is a normal aspect of family life, a daily knowledge shared by all girls and women in the neighbourhood.

If anything is missing from the beautifully written and engaging personal responses collected in The Ferrante Letters, it is the hard edge of reality that underpins many of Ferrante’s visionary transfigurations. Don Achille, who ran the wartime black market, is depicted as a monstrous composite of the things he illicitly deals in: “For years I imagined the pliers, the saw, the tongs, the hammer, the vise and thousands and thousands of nails sucked up like a swarm of metal into the matter that made up Don Achille. For years I saw his body…emitting in a swarm salami, provolone, mortadella, lard and prosciutto” (My Brilliant Friend). Chihaya fascinatingly reads this as an instance of Ferrante’s tendency to “unform”, generated by “the irruption of that underlying force of disorder that is marvellous in a terrible sense”. But there is logic in her madness: young Lenù visualises the language adults use for a hateful usurer who had “treacherously grabbed” (and perhaps also “eaten up”) the carpenter’s tools in exchange for coveted items of rationed food. Similarly, she imagines Don Achille’s carrying “an enormous black bag”: this is both the sack of a fairy-tale ogre and the embodiment of the Italian phrase “borsa nera” (literally “black bag”), meaning black market.

The Ferrante Letters is a bold, often inspiring attempt to rethink literary criticism and teaching practices on a collective basis, bridging the personal, critical and pleasurable. At best, this approach has the potential to unlock areas of experience, particularly shared female experience, for analysis. But its reliance on identification risks overwriting the specificities of the text at hand, as the authors themselves are quick to recognise: “There are shadow narratives, about me and to these other women, underneath the stories that I tell about Lenù and Lila, so that the Neapolitan cycle blurs a bit into the background, as a merely enabling fiction” (Richards). Yet Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym, the creation of an elusive writer who refuses to appear in public. Perhaps blurring into the background is what she intended all along.

Rosa Mucignat is senior lecturer in comparative literature at King’s College London.


The Ferrante Letters: An Experiment in Collective Criticism
By Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Katherine Hill and Jill Richards
Columbia University Press, 288pp, £62.00 and £22.00
ISBN 9780231194563 and 9780231194570
Published 7 January 2020


The authors

Sarah Chihaya, associate professor of English at Princeton University, studied French and English at Yale University before going on to a PhD in comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley. An expert in contemporary British and American fiction and film, she has recently taught courses on topics ranging from “Interpreting Brexit” to “The Undead” and is working on a book titled Bibliophobia: Misreading and Being Misread.

Merve Emre, associate professor of English literature at the University of Oxford, is a Turkish-American academic who studied for a first degree at Harvard University and went on to an MA, an MPhil and a PhD at Yale. She is the author of both Para­literary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America (2017) and The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing (2018).

Katherine Hill was born in Washington, DC and now lives in Brooklyn. She is an assistant professor of English at Adelphi University in New York, where she teaches creative writing as well as literature to both undergraduate and master’s students. She is the author of two novels, The Violet Hour (2013), praised by the Observer as “a sophisticated saga, offering easy pleasures with no easy truths”, and A Short Move (forth­coming).

Jill Richards, assistant professor of English at Yale, studied at New York University and went on to a PhD at Berkeley. Working in fields including global modernism, intersectional feminism and critical legal theory, she is now writing a book, provisionally titled The Fury Archives: Women’s Rights, Human Rights, and the International Avant-Gardes, which draws on “the daily life of feminist action” to forge “an alternative conceptual vocabulary for rights claims, reformulating liberty as both a practice and a demand”.

Matthew Reisz

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Critical friends in call and response

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