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An Experiment in Reading Elena Ferrante

How do you let others influence you while retaining your own ideas? Four literary critics tried to find out.

Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty

“Read as little as possible of literary criticism,” Rilke warned Franz Xaver Kappus, the 19-year-old military cadet and addressee of Letters to a Young Poet. “Works of art are of an infinite solitude,” Rilke continued, “and no means of approach is so useless as criticism.” Rilke signed his works with his real name, unlike Elena Ferrante, who in her anonymity has tried to disentangle herself from the figure of the writer as individual genius who works in the “infinite solitude” Rilke described. When asked by The Paris Review about her “reasons for staying in the shadows,” Ferrante explained she wanted to move away from the public (and the media’s) fascination with the author as singular creative voice: “There is no work of literature,” she stressed, “that is not the fruit of tradition, of many skills, of a sort of collective intelligence.”

THE FERRANTE LETTERS: AN EXPERIMENT IN COLLECTIVE CRITICISM by Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Katherine Hill, and Jill Richards
Columbia University Press, 288 pp., $25.00

The novels of Elena Ferrante, particularly the four works that make up the Neapolitan Quartet (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child), reflect this feeling of collective energy. The novels chronicle the fierce, nearly co-dependent friendship between Elena (Lenù) Greco and Lila Cerullo, two girls born in postwar Naples who grow up amid poverty and violence but find refuge in one another. Their story, narrated by Lenù, is one of intellectual entanglement; over the course of their lives, the two women’s thoughts and impressions overlap, fuse together, and despite their undeniably distinct personalities (Lila plays the fearless, life-hungry foil to Lenù’s bookish reserve), it becomes unclear where one voice ends and the other begins. Lenù, who grows up to be a novelist, realizes that everything she writes, her entire authorial body of work, is derived from her relationship to Lila and the creative instincts her friend instilled in her. She wonders, anxiously: “Would I know how to imagine those things without her? Would I know how to give life to every object, let it bend in unison with mine?”

A new book, The Ferrante Letters: An Experiment in Collective Criticism, tries to capture this element of Ferrante’s work, taking a similarly collaborative approach to literary criticism. A joint effort by four young academics and critics—Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Katherine Hill, and Jill Richards—The Ferrante Letters is a collection of their correspondence about the Neapolitan novels. It is also an investigation, not unlike Ferrante’s, into how best to represent the “collective intelligence” that goes into writing about culture. As they explain in their co-authored introduction cum manifesto, titled “Collective Criticism,” the four of them wanted to bring the informal conversations that we all have about literature, TV, and films with friends, family, and colleagues onto the page: “Our goal was to formalize the texture of togetherness to show that this, as much as putting one word next to another, is the labor of writing.” After some debate about which author to focus on, Chihaya, Emre, Hill, and Richards settled on Ferrante, inspired by the Italian author’s commitment to showcasing intellectual exchange between women. In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Lenù says: “The solitude of women’s minds is regrettable,” a line quoted in and echoed throughout The Ferrante Letters.

The authors, accustomed to single-authored projects, expressed some trepidation about collaborating on this effort: “What if we all came up with the same ideas? How would we distinguish our voices as writers,” they ask, before acknowledging these are the very questions that Ferrante explores in her depiction of Lenù and Lila’s relationship. “These are,” they note, “the very same fears that Lila and Lena express in their different ways—the fears of pollution and codependence that inevitably accompany intimacy of any kind.” The question of how to let others influence you and shape your ideas while retaining your own autonomy is a central theme in Ferrante’s work and likewise in The Ferrante Letters. For these four critics, all young women in academia, co-writing ran the risk of professional devaluation: “The kind of collaboration that would collapse us into a single entity rather than maintaining a lively sense of difference and individuality seemed both unnatural and unproductive.” Is it too much to ask women, they wonder, whose voices are too often drowned out if, not outright muted, to share the stage or—in this case—a byline?

Lenù grapples with these questions again as she considers her literary debt to Lila. While the Neapolitan novels are told from the perspective of Lenù, who grows up to be a writer, at one point we learn that she had access to a series of notebooks written by Lila that ostensibly tell the same story. It is for this reason, Jill Richards writes, that the Neapolitan novels are “all about confusion.” They “consistently dramatize,” she explains, “the scene of reading and writing over someone else’s story. Lena throws Lila’s notebooks in the river, but then she obsessively chronicles the texts that were destroyed, this time using her own words.” Though Lenù is the professional writer of the two, it was Lila who first tried her hand at fiction—writing a small book in elementary school called The Blue Fairy. Lenù, as an adult, happily comes across the original copy of Lila’s story, but her nostalgic joy is short-lived. “Already at the first page,” she writes, “I began to feel sick to my stomach and soon I was covered with sweat. Only at the end, however, did I admit what I had understood after a few lines. Lila’s childish pages were the secret heart of my book.”

It is that sensation, that same cold sweat and fear of intellectual cross-contamination, that haunts The Ferrante Letters, resulting in a work of criticism that does that rare work of reflecting its source material with uncanny accuracy.

While the writers of The Ferrante Letters explain early on that their project of collective criticism is about making visceral “the texture of togetherness,” it is over the course of reading the letters (and bonus essays) that we realize how scratchy and uncomfortable that texture is, particularly for ambitious women looking to make their own unique marks on the world. Chihaya writes:

Considering Lila and Lena, considering us, considering this venture and the novels it springs from, I wonder if there is a way to be confident in solidarity if there is a way to truly be with one another, and infiltrate one another, and communicate deeply, but not get lost in other minds.

Indeed, a recurring theme in the Ferrante novels that all four of the writers here touch upon is Lila’s anxiety about the dissipation of boundaries between people and things. In these attack-like episodes, Lila becomes nauseous, Ferrante writes. Her heart races, and the “outlines of people and things suddenly dissolved, disappeared.” If The Ferrante Letters is meant to be an experiment in what would happen if boundaries, forms, and the shape of literary criticism were to dissolve and the opinions of critics blurred into one another, it is one that the authors recognize as both an exciting and frightening possibility. Is there, Chihaya asks, “a way to dissolve margins but not give in to the seductions of madness or self-obliteration?”

The co-authors do not, however, entirely agree on the attractions of self-obliteration. That comes through most sharply in how they respond to the frame story that structures the Neapolitan quartet. My Brilliant Friend opens with Lila, now aged 66, having disappeared. While others worry something tragic has happened, Lenù realizes her friend has finally fulfilled a long-standing wish—to vanish, leaving no trace that she ever even existed. Lenù, angry at Lila’s abandonment, seeks her revenge by deciding to write Lila’s story: “We’ll see who wins this time.” The impulse to record, preserve, and pay homage through the written word is no doubt appealing to the writers of The Ferrante Letters as literary scholars, and that comes through particularly for Emre, Hill, and Richards. Chihaya, however, finds the idea of “never-having-been” (as she puts it) tantalizing: “Never before had I read so clear an articulation of this strange and singular desire.” This is ironic coming from Chihaya, because of all the contributors to The Ferrante Letters, she shares the most about herself and the past traumas that Ferrante’s novels force her to reckon with (including physical scars from actual efforts at self-erasure). Reading the way she identifies with Lila’s desire, I wondered if the wish to disappear (through collaboration or otherwise) is something felt more acutely by those who are most present in the world.

Co-authored reviews still remain rare in traditional print media, even as newer forms like podcasts have seen a proliferation of discussion-based shows devoted to cultural criticism: The New York Times’ “Still Processing,” NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, The Read, Slate’s Culture Gabfest, and countless others devoted to specific shows and genres. However, in written form, there is still little place for critics to store the countless dialogues that make up our points of view, the multitude of text messages, dinner-party jokes, DMs, eavesdropping, lurking on Twitter, that seep into our “takes.” In this way, The Ferrante Letters, while focused on one author, raises broader questions about criticism, and asks us—perhaps as only college professors can—whether we did all the work ourselves.