The point is what we tell ourselves about motherhood and child-rearing. If we keep talking about it in an idyllic way, like in many handbooks on motherhood, we will continue to feel alone and guilty when we brush up against the frustrating aspects of being a mother.
The task of a woman writer today is not to stop at the pleasures of the pregnant body, of birth, of bringing up children, but to delve truthfully into the darkest depth.Elena Ferrante interviewed in the Financial Times, 11 December 2015
I read the new interview with Elena Ferrante the day after I finished her first novel, Troubling Love. And within it I found the answer to something that had puzzled me about her Neapolitan tetralogy, namely, how I can love her writing so passionately at the level of feeling and yet find little to admire at the sentence-level. This, I think, is the answer,
A page is well written when the labour and pleasure of truthful narration supplant any other concern, including a concern with formal elegance. I belong to the category of writers who throw out the final draft and keep the rough when this practice ensures a higher degree of authenticity.
There are so many books I love in which the writing is poetic — indeed, I sometimes think that my favourite category of novelists is those who were first poets (or perhaps are still poets). But Ferrante undercuts that bias for the elegant sentence, the perfect image, with her relentless pursuit of the truth, and that pursuit is as refreshing as it is terrifying.
Troubling Love is a short book which plunges immediately into a nightmare-like narration of the days following the funeral of the narrator’s mother, Amalia. Delia finds herself searching both her own memories and the seedy streets of Naples she inhabited as a child to find out what happened to her mother. There’s physical violence and sexual violence. Everything is raw, liquid, malodorous. I came to believe that anyone who has argued that Ferrante isn’t female is clearly insane. The ‘troubling’ of the title comes to seem an apt description of the experience of reading the book. Yet, despite the darkness of the subject matter, the book gripped me as it seems only Ferrnate can & I found myself yearning for it when I wasn’t reading it.
And the quote at the beginning — on the role of the woman writer — I would argue that that task of not stopping at the pleasures of motherhood, is a one for all mothers, writers or not. Not exclusively, for there are many joys and pleasures and sometimes that’s where we need to dwell. But we need space for conversations that go beyond those pleasures, that touch on the frustrations and darkness, that reach into the complex abyss of feelings that opens up within us when faced with looking after a child — or indeed, being a daughter. If someone wants to talk on that level, it should be possible to listen with openness and honesty, not to leave them with the impression that for us it is all joy, endless joy.
I promise that I’m not deliberately bringing you particularly bleak December reads. Though it seems hard to believe how late in the month it is; that Christmas is a week today. Today is the last day of school before the holidays. Tiny hands went off clutching nets of homemade chocolate-coated fudge. Santa hats were on heads.
The weather is mild (12ºC, 15ºC yesterday) & grey when I wish it were cold & clear. Our neighbours are going to Australia for three weeks & the pantomime giant and his family are moving in next door. The Moose is slightly worried now that he’s seen Jack & the Beanstalk. ‘He was a little bit scary,’ he confessed last night. T has survived six days in a row of playing Christmas songs with the school orchestra at the various Christmas plays. Everyone is pale & coughing.
We finished Mad Men last week and after the final episode I stayed awake until 2 in the morning, making connections, putting things together, thinking how very perfect almost everything was (especially Pete & Trudy — people who dance that well together, in such a very ambitious way, should never have parted). Now I’m finally catching up on all of the Mad Men reading that I’ve had to spend so very long avoiding. I’m particularly looking forward to this. And, having realised that I far prefer watching when I know what’s going to happen, we’re also going to re-watch the final season after Christmas because sometimes it’s nice to be able to breath when watching TV. (PS Re-watching from the beginning before watching the final season was the best decision ever.)