|sketch by Laurette Folk|
It’s almost cliché, as an Italian American, to say you have relatives in the Mafia. Seemingly, we are all linked to that criminal patriarchal order. My grandfather, with his long overcoat, brimmed hat, and pencil-thin mustache looked like he belonged in The Godfather. It’s rumored that he moved his family from Queens to Long Island—nothing but farmland back in the fifties—to escape what some believed was his obligation. His own father pressured him to become mafioso, but my grandfather was fit with a prominent moral code and opted instead to make an honest living as a butcher, sparing his family the repercussions of a life in crime.
The Godfather movies were often discussed at the table on Sunday, and the machismo was celebrated by the men in my family. I have only seen glimpses of the movies myself because they made me anxious. I knew too well the passions of love and rage from my parents' tenuous marriage and extended family dynamics. We weren't a people who suppressed our passions and this often felt treacherous to me.
Mario Puzo and Frances Ford Coppola deserve their accolades for portraying the passions and humanity of a larger-than-life crime family, but I was alienated by these fictions primarily about men. I longed for a different kind of voice, a different kind of story from my Italian heritage. When I started writing, I wrote alone in my room, accompanied only by the authors I read. I read many books, none of them by Italian or Italian American writers. I read English writers, Russian writers, Irish, Indian, Chinese, South American, African writers. It wasn’t until my forties, after two of my own books were published, that I found Elena Ferrante. I found the voice I was looking for, and it was incredibly close to my own.
Three of my eight grandparents emigrated from Naples, Ferrante’s birthplace and the setting for most of her books. The Neapolitans in my family were working class—a practical people who favored business as a means of livelihood and were wary of education and making a living in the arts. Patriarchy was the predominant code by which they lived, from the church they worshipped in to how their families were structured. You followed the patriarch's orders because he knew what was right for you, never mind what ideas you had for yourself. My mother, who is about Ferrante’s age, expressed an interest in going to college in Boston after high school, but was ushered to a nearby secretarial school instead. She met my father and went from her father’s house to her husband’s house, as was typical of women in her generation. In the same way, my father, a bit more evolved than my grandfather, convinced me of a career in engineering, despite my interest in art, because it was more practical.
The similarity of the tropes in My Brilliant Friend and my first novel, A Portal to Vibrancy (Big Table Publishing, 2016), are uncanny. I wrote about this in the essay “Stumbling toward Selfhood: Tracking the Path of the Italian (American) Feminist in a Patriarchal World.” Both have impressionable, creative female protagonists who each emulate a model friend. Both include irreverent intellectual lovers, patriarchal specters, the pressure of the tribe, model artists, and the poverella, the lonely, crazy woman who is first and foremost, an insidious threat—someone the protagonist could become if she isn’t careful.
I went on to read all of Ferrante’s books, including Frantumaglia, A Writer’s Journey, which consists of Ferrante’s letters and the interviews she conducted via email. (The Italian writer known as “Elena Ferrante” is an “absent writer,” writes under a pseudonym, and never appears in public, as has been well-documented). Reading Ferrante’s books pushed me beyond these tropes, coaxing me to delve deeper into the female psyche.
If the Puzo/Coppola trilogy examines the lives of men and asks the question Who’s got the power?, Ferrante’s books examine the female psyche and the challenge to find the power within. This begs the question, how does a female protagonist find her power in a patriarchal world? What are the common elements of the thinking protagonist in Ferrante’s novels? I can name three of them: surveillance, harnessing the frantumaglia, and understanding the threat of the poverella.
Surveillance. Ferrante’s protagonists are startlingly aware. They are not only astute observers of the external world and can size people up quickly and acutely, they are equipped with a keen perception of their own thoughts and bodies. This is a novel concept according to Ferrante. She explains in Frantumaglia how the “women of the preceding generations were closely watched over by parents, by brothers, by husbands, by the community, but they did not watch over themselves, or, if they did, they did so in imitation of their watchers, like jailers of themselves” (103).
My own mother nicknamed her father “the watcher.” He was very strict with his daughters, more so than with his sons, mostly because he trusted no one, especially young men. There is this image in my mind when hearing my mother reminisce, of my grandfather looming in the picture window, looking down on her as she was leaving for a date. Later, he tracked her like a spy to make sure everyone behaved themselves.
Ferrante explains how her characters’ surveillance “displays watchfulness, vigilance, invoking not a gaze but, rather an eagerness for feeling alive. Men have transformed surveillance into a sentinel’s activity, a jailer’s, a spy’s. Surveillance is, if well understood, more an emotional tendency of the whole body, an expansion and an inflorescence on and around it.” This inherent monitoring of the body is particular to women because of pregnancy. The female psyche is wired to monitor a “swelling wave all over, and every sense is affectionately active” (104).
A perfect example of this is Delia’s relationship with her mother Amalia in Ferrante’s first novel, Troubling Love. The relationship is complicated; reverence and enmity are forever entwined in the language of bodies:
She had pulled her dress up to her waist, revealing baggy waist-high pink underpants. Giggling, she had said something confused about her soft flesh, her sagging belly, repeating, “Touch here,” and tried to take one of my hands to place it on her flabby white stomach.
I had pulled back and rested my hand on my heart to calm its rapid beating. She let fall the hem of her dress …A single step beyond the open doors and she had disappeared into darkness. Alone in the car, I had felt a peaceful pleasure. (24)
Ferrante, in dealing with this hyper-aware self, often comes smack up against the id and its primordial desires that have noteworthy powers of their own. This is not unlike the primal urges in The Godfather. However, unlike The Godfather, whose primal urges center around the violence of patriarchal competition, the power of Delia, the protagonist in Ferrante’s first novel Troubling Love, is derived from the selfish and visceral desires of a child to own her mother:
On the other hand I hadn’t wanted or been able to root anyone in me. Soon I would lose even the possibility of having children. No human being would ever detach itself form me with the anguish with which I had detached myself from her, only because I had never been able to attach myself to her definitively. There would not be anyone more or less between me and another aspect of myself. I would remain me until the end, unhappy, discontent with what I had furtively taken from the body of Amalia. (65)
Because Ferrante’s protagonists are operating in oppressive societies, self-empowerment by whatever means—hypervigilance, primal urges—is necessary for not only survival, but “feeling alive.”
Harnessing the frantumaglia. When I was in my twenties, after I had abandoned a career in engineering, I was stricken with anxiety and panic attacks to the point where I was not eating or sleeping. I sought medical help from a nearby clinic and a doctor diagnosed me with existential angst. I remember wanting an exclusive remedy, a specific medical diagnosis, and instead, I got a pat on the shoulder and a short lesson in philosophy. But the doctor wasn’t wrong. I was anything but grounded, drifting from temp job to temp job, from quasi-relationship to quasi-relationship. I was neither fully adult nor a child; I was abandoned to the land of limbo, distraught that I could not make the career that I chose work for me, no matter how many times I changed jobs. I was especially aware of brokenness, how, despite my hard work and accolades, it all fell apart.
Ferrante got the term frantumaglia from her mother. She defines it in the book Frantumaglia as a “jumble of fragments… debris in a muddy water of the brain. The frantugmaglia [is] mysterious, it provoke[s] mysterious actions, it [is] the source of all suffering not traceable to a single obvious cause” (99). This reads to me a lot like existential angst. You reach a certain age when you have collected enough rejection, grief, disappointment, and unfairness from the world that it attains a critical mass and starts to weigh upon you.
Ferrante’s characters are plagued with doubt, self-criticism, and the internalized scolding voices of the tribe. Her writing may be labeled as confessional, complete with shock value, but it is anything but gratuitous. What the readers sees on the page is a sort of grappling, a processing of ideas in the frantumaglia via surveillance that ultimately leads to what Ferrante calls a “new equilibrium.” She’s careful not to use a term like “enlightenment”; her characters must still fight the old ghosts and tropes of the patriarchy; they haven’t really moved on. But the key word here is fight. The expectation these characters have to break the old misogynist traditions “never arrive,” but instead of yielding, as their foremothers had, “they fight, and they cope. They don’t win, but they simply come to an agreement with their own expectations and find new equilibriums” (203).
For the artist, the equilibrium place is a place for reflection. At this point, the frantumaglia becomes useful: its fruits can be novels and great works of art. The desire must be there, however, to express, to explore the frantumaglia and give it names and terms. It is in defining the vagueness, naming the ghosts of the frantumaglia that women can derive their power. I think here of the artist Frida Kahlo; her surrealist paintings are a visual voice for her physical and mental anguish. Ferrante, herself, is an example of this, especially with her first three novels (the Neopolitan Quartet, she exclaims, is an exception because it came out nearly whole). The existential angst that I experienced in my twenties was fodder for A Portal to Vibrancy. Through the writing of that book I realized that I was suppressing my creative power for the sake of earning money at a practical job, and it was turning into a “creativity perverse,” something that could torture me.
Understanding the threat of the poverella. My aunt Lauretta was funny and fun-loving and one of my favorite people. She had a side to her, however, that was always in emotional turmoil due to her failed relationships with men. My aunt closed in on herself because of this, like a flower at night, and as I got older and had my own failed relationships, I understood why. In an Italian, and by extension, Italian American family, you were supposed to marry to save yourself from the difficulties of life, and my aunt did just that, but her marriage failed. It was an unspeakable thing, talked about behind her back. She was in danger of becoming a poverella.
A poverella is an abandoned woman, according to Ferrante. In The Days of Abandonment, a poverella is defined as a woman who “doesn’t know how to keep a man,” a poor woman who is “no longer loved” and “left with nothing” (16). In the novel My Brilliant Friend, the poverella is the crazy woman Melina, who sweeps the steps, eats soap, and is rumored to have killed the child she had with her poet lover. In The Days of Abandonment, Olga, the protagonist, “dream[s] the story of the poverella’s waterlogged, lifeless body, a silver anchovy to be persevered in salt” (52) and witnesses the poverella’s ghost after her own husband leaves her. In A Portal to Vibrancy, Grandma Gracie is the hypochondriac agoraphobic afraid to go out into the world, an immediate threat to Jackie, the protagonist, whose worst fear is that her own anxiety and depression will worsen such that she too will be confined and miss out on the rest of her life. In these novels, the poverella is a prominent threat because she is estranged from her own power. She is the very antithesis these women protagonists seek to be.
But eradicating the poverella is not the answer, according to Ferrante:
Suffering derives, instead, from the fact that crowding around them, simultaneously, in a sort of achrony, is the past of their ancestors and the future of what they seek to be, the shades, the ghosts: up to the point, for example, where Delia [of Troubling Love], after taking off her clothes of the present can put on her mother’s old dress as the definitive garment; and Olga can recognize in the mirror, in her own face as a constituent part of her, the figure of the poverella-mother who has killed herself. (108-109)
What Ferrante is saying here is that to leave behind the poverella is pointless; she must be assimilated. This is a very feminine idea. We can’t demolish the hurting parts of ourselves; that’s impossible. They will rise and fade with the seasons of one’s life; we name them as essential parts of the frantumaglia, bear witness to them, create around them.
My aunt Lauretta ended up marrying again and had a son, my cousin, with her new husband. She had a good job in a lawyer’s office and wanted to study to become a paralegal. When the boy was six, she died of cancer. It was a heart-wrenching thing to witness—to see her crawl away from the fate of the poverella, only to die young anyway. I remember her saying to the family at Sunday dinner, touching her bald head, how she was chosen for this particular fate, while we all stared into our plates. It wasn’t for nothing. I suppose it was her way of owning her pain, giving it meaning, and that made an impression upon me.
Later, when I was writing my creative thesis for an MFA program, Lauretta appeared on paper as Etta, the character to my second novel, The End of Aphrodite (Bordighera, 2020). The Etta character immediately had a sense of power. She had the voice my aunt died with, one of certainty, conviction. Yes, there was still the dependency on men, but mostly, relationships were on her terms. It was interesting to write a character in this way—irreverent, beautiful, smart, and somewhat outrageous—so unlike any of the women in my family and more like Lila of the Neapolitan Quartet. I felt as if I had transcended something.
I no longer write alone. I have found a community of Italian American writers and we meet monthly at IAM Books in Boston or via Zoom. We women still gather and share our awe for Ferrante and what she’s accomplished. By putting the ideas, fears, struggles of a young woman yearning to be educated amongst people who did not value education nor women, telling that story, a vastly different story than what Puzo and Coppola put forth in The Godfather, Ferrante has educated the rest of the world of what it was like for the ultimate underdog. It was a major accomplishment, to have had such a voice—the voice of an Italian woman—heard and heralded by so many.
Ferrante, Elena. Frantumaglia, A Writer’s Journey. Europa Editions, 2016, pp. 99, 103-104, 203.
Ferrante. Troubling Love. Europa Editions, 2006, pp. 24, 65.
Ferrante, Elena. The Days of Abandonment. Europa Editions, pp. 16, 52.