Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante

translated by Ann Goldstein.

Elena Ferrante’s debut novel was first published in Italy in 1991, translated into English in 2016. It became a literary sensation and earned its author the Elsa Morante prize, one of Italy’s most prestigious awards for literature.

A Drowning at Sea

Naples Italy Elena Ferrante Troubling Love

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Troubling.

A daughter Delia is concerned after a telephone call from her mother. Following her subsequent disappearance and death, she returns to her mother’s empty apartment, trying to retrace her steps to understand what had been going on in her life that lead to her abrupt departure. Her frustration with her mother is apparent from the first page.

Her sociability irritated me: she went shopping and got to know shopkeepers with whom in ten years I had exchanged no more than a word or two; she took walks through the city with casual acquaintances; she became a friend of my friends, and told them stories of her life, the same ones over and over. I, with her, could only be self-contained and insincere.

Strange things happen, some of which a neighbour helps explain, a woman who opens her door ajar at the slightest noise, thus aware of her mother’s visitors. Yet Delia doesn’t act rationally herself, she’s not the most reliable narrator and there is a sense of confusion and danger as we follow her reckless pursuit of clues across town and memories of the past emerge.

The Abusive, Possessive Artist

Troubling Love Elena Ferrante WIT Month Father Artist

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Nearly every past relationship recounted is troubled, she and her sisters lived in fear of their father all their childhood, often watching him beat their mother in fits of irrational jealousy, blaming her should any man glance her way, yet he’d spent his days painting images of her naked body on canvas, selling them to anyone who’d pay.

During adolescence I saw those figures of a woman leave the house in the hands of strangers who were not sparing in their crude comments. I didn’t understand and perhaps there was nothing to understand. How was it possible that my father could hand over, to vulgar men, bold and seductive versions of that body which if necessary he would defend with a murderous rage?

Amalia spent her marriage suppressing her natural gaiety and charm, her daughter learned of the danger, developing an instinct for it.

When we went to the movies without him, my mother didn’t respect any of the rules that he imposed: she looked around freely, she laughed as she wasn’t supposed to laugh, and chatted with people she didn’t know. So when my father was there I couldn’t follow the story of the film. I glanced around furtively in the darkness to exercise, in my turn, control over Amalia, to anticipate the discovery of her secrets, to keep him, too, from discovering her guilt.

Much of the novel is narrated through the gaze of others, adding to the awkward, vulnerable, exposed feeling of the women. It’s a narrative of deep unease, both in the present day and in its long reach back to the first encounter between the young Amalia and her future possessive husband.

A Free Spirit Escapes

Troubling Love Elena Ferrante WIT Month

Her mother couldn’t be contained, she was an enigma to Delia, raised in that fearsome household, exposed to it from a very young age, conditioned by it, fear and judgement had become a natural part of her psyche.

I realised I was summarising a woman without prudence and without the virtue of fear. I had memories of it. Even when my father raised his fists and struck her, to shape her like a stone or a log, she widened her eyes not in fear but in astonishment.

Her mother used to sew, her world was measurements and fittings and bodies. Garments play a part in the story, again, a mystery to Delia to unravel and try to understand, as if they too might be a clue to her disappearance.

For all the days of her life she had reduced the uneasiness of bodies to paper and fabric, and perhaps it had become a habit, and so, out of habit, she tacitly rethought what was out of proportion, giving it the proper measure.

As she follows random leads, trying to reconstruct her mother’s movements, she revisits scenes from childhood, drawing a picture of her mother, a vivacious woman full of life, spilling outside the restrained bindings of an oppressive marriage and tries to reconstruct the latter part of her life that she’d lived out separate from her family, though still perceived by her daughter and ex-husband as being in secret.

Maybe in the end all that mattered of these two days without respite was the transplanting of the story from one head to the other, like a healthy organ that my mother had given up to me out of affection.

I was reminded of the experience of reading The Days of Abandonment, there is an intensity to the narrative, its visceral descriptions, evoking reactions, everything feels up close and confronting, we are passengers in the seat of a mind slightly out of control, where new thoughts send the protagonist out in pursuit of the elusive and we must accompany her, reassured by moments of clarity and spun out by acts of recklessness.

Elena Ferrante The Lying Life of Adults WIT MonthThat’s Ferrante.

She has a new book due out in September The Lying Life of Adults said to have the same additive, page-turning qualities of her earlier novels.

Ferrante follows Giovanna’s life from age 12 to 16, charting her development from the sweet girl who adores her parents to a sulking, aggressive teenager who finds pleasure in self-abasement and making those around her uncomfortable. The premise is a fertile one for the author, an expert chronicler of adolescence and its many indignities, as well as its erratic, overwhelming passions.

Kathryn Bromwich The Guardian

Further Reading

My Review of other Elena Ferrante titles:

The Days of Abandonment

My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave & Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child

Frantamuglia (non-fiction)

The Guardian: Review: The Lying Life of Adults – a rebel rich girl comes of age by Kathryn Bromwich – Italians who queued up into the night for the reclusive writer’s new tale of painful adolescence won’t be disappointed

Frantumaglia, A Writer’s Journey by Elena Ferrante tr. Ann Goldstein

A fabulous collections of correspondence and essay like responses to interview questions over a period of twenty-five years since the publication of her first novel Troubling Love.

The title ‘Frantumaglia‘, a fabulous word left to her by her mother, in her Neapolitan dialect, a word she used to describe how she felt when racked by contradictory sensations that were tearing her apart.

She said that inside her she had a frantumaglia, a jumble of fragments. The frantumaglia depressed her. Sometimes it made her dizzy, sometimes it made her mouth taste like iron. It was the word for a disquiet not otherwise definable, it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain. The frantumaglia was mysterious, it provoked mysterious actions, it was the source of all suffering not traceable to a single obvious cause…Often it made her weep, and since childhood the word has stayed in my mind to describe, in particular, a sudden fit of weeping for no evident reason: frantumaglia tears.

And so for her characters, this is what suffering is, looking onto the frantumaglia, the jumble of fragments inside.

The first half chiefly concerns communication around Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment, the latter written ten years after her debut, although other stories were written in between but never published, the author not happy with them as she so piercingly reveals:

I haven’t written two books in ten years, I’ve written and rewritten many. But Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment seemed to me the ones that most decisively stuck a finger in certain wounds I have that are still infected, and did so without keeping a safe distance. At other times, I’ve written about clean or happily healed wounds with the obligatory detachment and the right words. But then I discovered that is not my path.

The second half implies a delay in the publication of the collection to include interviews and question-responses around the Neapolitan Quartet, beginning with the renowned My Brilliant Friend.

Readers ask poignant questions, while the media tend to obsess about her decision to remain absent (as opposed to anonymous) from promotional activity, to which she has many responses, one here in a letter to the journalist Goffredo Fofi:

In my experience, the difficulty-pleasure of writing touches every point of the body. When you’ve finished the book, it’s as if your innermost self had been ransacked, and all you want is to regain distance, return to being whole. I’ve discovered, by publishing, that there is a certain relief in the fact that the moment the text becomes a printed book it goes elsewhere. Before, it was the text that was pestering me; now I’d have to run after it. I decided not to.

Perhaps the old myths about inspiration spoke at least one truth: when one makes a creative work, one is inhabited by others-in some measure one becomes another. But when one stops writing one becomes oneself again.

…I wrote my book to free myself from it, not to be its prisoner.

She shares her literary influences (works of literature about abandoned women) from classic Greek myths, Ariadne to Medea, Dido to the more contemporary Simone de Beauvoir’s The Woman Destroyed, referring to recurring themes of abandonment, separation and struggle. She mentions literary favourites, Elsa Morante’s House of Liars.

One interviewer asks why in her early novels, her characters depict women who suffer, to which she responds:

The suffering of Delia, Olga, Leda is the result of disappointment. What they expected from life – they are women who sought to break with the tradition of their mothers and grandmothers – does not arrive. Old ghosts arrive instead, the same ones with whom the women of the past had to reckon. The difference is that these women don’t submit to them passively. Instead, they fight, and they cope. They don’t win, but they simply come to an agreement with their own expectations and find new equilibriums. I feel them not as women who are suffering but as women who are struggling.

And on comparing Olga to Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, who she sees as descendants of Dido and Medea, though they have lost the obscure force that pushed those heroines of the ancient world to such brutal forms of resistance and revenge, they instead experience their abandonment as a punishment for their sins.

Olga, on the other hand, is an educated woman of today, influenced by the battle against the patriarchy. She knows what can happen to her and tries not to be destroyed by abandonment. Hers is the story of how she resists, of how she touches bottom and returns, of how abandonment changes her without annihilating her.

In an interview, Stefania Scateni from the publication l’Unità, refers to Olga, the protagonist of The Days of Abandonment as destroyed by one love, seeking another with her neighbour. He asks what Ferrante thinks of love.

The need for love is the central experience of our existence. However foolish it may seem, we feel truly alive only when we have an arrow in our side and that we drag around night and day, everywhere we go. The need for love sweeps away every other need and, on the other hand, motivates all our actions.

She again refers to the Greek classics, to Book 4 of the Aeneid, where the construction of Carthage stops when Dido falls in love.

Individuals and cities without love are a danger to themselves and others.

The correspondence with the Director of Troubling Love (L’amore molesto), Mario Martone is illuminating, to read of Ferrante’s humble hesitancy in contributing to a form she confessed to know nothing about, followed by her exemplary input to the process and finally the unsent letter, many months later when she finally saw the film and was so affected by what he had created. It makes me want to read her debut novel and watch the original cult film now.

Frantumagli is an excellent accompaniment to the novels of Elena Ferrante and insight into this writer’s journey and process, in particular the inspiration behind her characters, settings and recurring themes.

Note: Thank you to the publisher Europa Editions, for providing me a copy of this beautiful book.

Buy a copy of any of Elena Ferrante’s novels via Book Depository here.