This week brought the quickly dismissed news that Elena Ferrante had — and then, had not — signed up for Twitter. What would Ferrante be like on Twitter? Would Ferrante be terrible, like Joyce Carol Oates? The moment of twitter news brought a twinge of excitement and also horror or dread.
Elena Ferrante, as perhaps you know, is the pseudonym of a writer who has written some very wonderful novels. No one knows who Ferrante actually is, and since she (or he) refuses to tell us anything about the wonderful novels that so many love, readers are left grasping at straws — reaching for an interpretive cue about how we might best situate these novels.
These novels feature a voice without a body to anchor it, allowing us all to indulge in endless (pleasurable!) conversation over what form “Ferrante” would or should take. Our opinions on this matter usually align with our values. Obviously she wouldn’t be on Twitter. Perhaps she shouldn’t be on television. There is even some concern that the single material form she does take — the physical form of her books — is also, somehow, wrong. Which is to say: many believe Ferrante’s words should not appear behind the covers that currently bind them.
In fact, it seems that for at least a certain swath of the Ferrante readership, the biggest problem caused by Ferrante’s uncertain identity is that there is no one who can definitively say: I wrote these books, and these covers, they are bad, they do not match these novels I have written.
As Sarahs, we would like to weigh in on the Ferrante covers.
First, the general consensus (which is wrong): the covers of these novels are bad, either unthinkingly or purposefully. The publishers describe the cover art as “deliberately vulgar,” while others float the idea that they are “ironic”— since the novels give voice to female anger and intellect and push back against many conventions of romance novels, the “cheesy” pastels (“like an 80s romance novel”) must only be legible as categorically different from the anger and intellect that feels so revolutionary in the novels.
Whether or not the covers are intended to look so cheesy, whether or not the author or publisher understands pastel to be the opposite of the novels’ feminist anarchism, there’s more to be said here. Because dismissing the covers for looking like the covers of Christian self-help books (they do!) or Nicholas Sparks novels (this too!) also dismisses the types of women who might purchase and read those kinds of books.
Another way to put this is that the Neapolitan novels, which are about poor women with restricted access to education (and the class mobility that aesthetic taste enables), look like books that might be sold to poor women with restricted access to education. Note that literati readers love to identify with the characters, Lila and Lenu, who are women who use reading to escape their lives. So why are we so unwilling to consider ourselves to be anything like the women who are Lila and Lenu’s real world reading counterparts? Why are we so determined to stand against their reading practices and aesthetic tastes?
So, friends, we’d like to offer another take on the covers of the Neapolitan novels. The covers, one after another, are no joke; they require no inside knowledge about artistic intention. They are straightforward, compelling, and absolutely devastating. What can we learn from them if we stop trying to pose ourselves as somehow more aesthetically sophisticated than they are?
Because basically the problem is that we’ve been trying to reconcile these covers with our taste, and we cannot do that currently, because these covers love women, whereas, as we all know, taste is just another word for internalized misogyny.
And so, a preliminary list, (because we do so love a list). What do we learn from the Ferrante covers? Well, we learn:
1. Marriage is a place you never fully get to.
2. A man’s shadow casts itself in two directions.
3. The scale of things is off kilter inside a marriage
4. There are vistas, and they remain forever in the distance.
5. Fitting together with another person is a comfort and a weight, like heavy knit or corduroy.
6. Youth starts to feel old inside a marriage.
7. Girlish fantasies fuel us forever.
8. A woman’s body disappears into a child as much as the other way around.
9. The presence of a child is always already a loss.
10. People rarely face us in full, but we walk with them anyway.
So please, reconsider.
Yrs, endlessly on the way to pick up the kids,
I love that you wrote about this, because it’s something I’ve noticed but just passed over, and yet, it’s the pea beneath the 100th mattress. Yet another mystery. Whatever the answer–purposeful, cheesy, ironic, low-budget?–for those of us obsessed with these novels it’s good to have more Ferrante to chew on.
Could this be a REAL weekly column please!?
This is my fervent wish, as well, though I know The Sarahs have other fish to fry. Just know that my thirst for a semi-regular This [Interval, Whatever That Interval May Be] In Ferrante is basically unquenchable.