What Our Insistence On Ferrante’s Identity Actually Means About Women, Consent, And Art

I am currently reading and enjoying the internationally acclaimed Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante featuring childhood friends Elena and Lila after everyone whose literary taste I trust kept raving about them online. This week I have just started the second one – they are four, and I’m told the two last ones are the real jewels – and I do not know much either about the childhood friends’ fate, or how the novel, let alone the series, may end. I know even less about the author, except that we share a name and that makes me happy somehow.

Yesterday morning my Twitter feed went crazy after the New York Times reported that an Italian journalist claims to know Ferrante’s real identity. It turns out the now international acclaimed author’s name is just a pseudonym under which a woman decided to write four of the most successful novels of the decade. From fellow authors, such as Girl on the Train‘s Paula Hawkins to The Trouble of Goats and Sheep’s Joanna Cannon, to other bloggers lamented that said journalist decided to interfere with Ferrante’s anonymity. As I read their responses I realised that this is not a literary issue, it is not even about privacy. It is just another way in which women’s bodies and voices are trying to be silenced. This is about consent.

The fact that the woman writing under the pseudonym ‘Elena Ferrante’ has decided to remain anonymous may respond to various reasons, none of them anybody’s business but hers own. As rage flooded the twittersphere many shared one of Ferrante’s few interviews in which she explains why she has decided to remain anonymous. She highlights a disdain for self-promotion, and states her desire to let her art speak for itself. Even though these snippets into the personality of one of Italy’s most successful writers shines some light into the motives behind her mysterious identity, explanations were never needed.

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Potrait of fictional character Lila for the Spanish translation of Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend.

When Ferrante decided to publish her work under a pseudonym, she was making an informed decision both as an adult, and as an intelligent woman. You only have to read the first ten pages of My Brilliant Friend to realise that the novel is a masterful work of art on its own, dwelling on issues such as violence, gender stereotypes, women’s right to education, family relations, marriage, and friendship. The fact that a journalist – a man – decided to violate Ferrante’s wish to remain anonymous only shows the privilege of thinking he could do so, but also the idea that women’s decisions are not to be respected. As the tough, sexist male characters that harass fictional Elena and Lila, this man – who I will not name, because he does not deserve the publicity – has taken a woman’s agency for granted, and has decided to impose his will onto it.

Luckily, many people, especially women, expressed their disgust at this journalist’s enterprise highlighting how difficult it still is for women to freely express themselves. After all, being a writer means making full use of your voice, and clearly stating to the world that you are not afraid to use it. Not only that, but you are not afraid to be heard. Being a writer means being assertive, creating something new and sharing it with the world. It is all about stating: ‘This is my story and I choose to tell it, and how to tell it’. Articles like the one on the NYT only come to show that there are some people out there – I will be brave here myself and say mostly men, though not all of them luckily – who are not comfortable with hearing a woman’s voice roaring stating her agency, proud of herself and what she has just created.

The act of freely creating and sharing said art with the world is the ultimate rebellion against a society that has traditionally silenced and deleted women’s voices from what is considered valid knowledge and successful products. Hence, when few women dared to fight for their right to create they saw their works hidden under their male relatives’ names, or what is considered History erased their names and their contributions. After more than a century of passionate fights – sometimes to death –, it would only be normal to believe women have finally gained their right to create. It may seem so at first sight, with women writing the most successful novels of the year, especially in the crime fiction genre. But a closer look may uncover the uncanny, disgusting and subtle ways in which contemporary society insists on silencing women, and ignoring their decisions.

Many will argue that once Ferrante chose to publish her art she was entering a game from which she could not escape. These very people are the ones who would also say ‘she was asking for it’. We live in a celebrity-oriented culture where people and their lives have become a form an entertainment and their art, if produced at all, comes secondary. Despite this sad state of affairs it is still possible to find art produced by people who do not want to enter the celebrity game. But Elena Ferrante is one of those rare beasts who wants to communicate with her audience through her art, rather through television, radio or the Internet. That is if we, as a society, can stand it.

Ferrante’s fight for anonymity represents a woman’s struggle to live her life in her own terms and make her own decisions, while patiently waiting for the rest of the world to agree to those terms. Or at least, to respect them. Articles like the one of the NYT are a violation of a woman’s rights to make her own decisions, and show that it is still very difficult to be taken seriously when said decisions do not please those in power. In short, people’s desire to uncover Ferrante’s real-life identity is just a struggle between how much to give of oneself, and how much society demands of us. It is just another reflection of a power struggle between female independence and autonomy, and traditionally held beliefs, prejudices and assumptions about women in a patriarchal society.

The only good thing coming from this sad incident is the international conversation it has started on women, artists, and privacy in the 21st century. I truly hope women writers all over the world will still actively choose to share their art – one of the most intimate expressions of the self – publicaly and in their own terms. Ferrante’s private identity should remain private, as her age, real name, location, husband or occupation (apart from writer) do not change one bit her skillful writing. And even if they did, it is her choice and only hers how much of her private self to share with us, and when. Meanwhile, it is time for us to think and reflect on why it is still so difficult for many to respect women’s decisions. ‘No’ has always meant ‘no’.

The Lie by C.L. Taylor

I think I must have heard about crime fiction author C.L. Taylor where I usually do, over Twitter. With time, I saw how some fellow bloggers praised her novels, and when I found myself browsing Waterstones Cardiff last year I came upon her novel The Lie and I bought it.

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The reason to choose The Lie among Taylor’s novels was simple and easy: The story involves Jane, a young, female main character who lives in a cottage in rural Wales, works at an animal sanctuary, and has a dark past. As I was spending my last morning in Cardiff, unsure on when I could return to Wales, I decided it would be a great idea to buy something to remind of my good times there. Also if you follow me on Instragram, you know I am an animal lover and my love for The Puppy has him spoilt rotten. At first sight, The Lie seemed the perfect novel for me, and it was.

I could not put the book down from chapter 1 up until the very end. Jane Hughes has a supposedly common life in rural Wales until an anonymous person makes sure she knows her past is not buried. The back of the novel already informs readers of a dark turn in an international escape Jane and her friends embarked on five years earlier. Taylor masterfully tells both stories in first person, shifting between Jane’s present and past and making it easy for readers to follow the change in time and setting.

The present follows Jane as she tries to hide her past and rebuild her life in Wales. But the story about her past was made even more interesting by the dynamics between the four friends who embarked on the trip. As I was reading, their relationships reminded of Lena Durham’s TV show Girls, and how female friendship is achievable in a patriarchal context, yet complex. Meanwhile, the story set in the present keeps the reader interested in the past, but also in Jane’s evolution as a person. Who is she really? And what is she hiding? Is it possible to leave your past behind and start a new life?

The crime(s) in the book are outstanding, since Taylor questions what is a crime and how it should affect the people involved. Is Jane’s new life a crime? Does she have a right to create a new identity and lie to everyone in Wales about who she really is? But, things do not end there, and Taylor makes a magnificent use of crime fiction’s ability to question society by including violence towards animals as a crime that too many times goes unpunished.

The Lie is the first novel that I read by C.L. Taylor, but certainly not the last one. It is a gripping crime novel with a very interesting and complex female main character who engages in a diverse of relationships with other women (friends, mother-daughter, employer-employee). I would recommend The Lie to anyone who is looking for a page-turner and wants to be left wanting more, soon.

Marcella: Troubled Detectives, Green Parkas, and Fringes

Last June I started watching ITV’s new show Marcella after some people on my Twitter timeline mentioned it. Three episodes down the line bad reviews started to appear, with even The Pool criticising how Marcella’s parka was used to turn her into a television icon like Sara Lund and her jumpers. By that time I was travelling a lot and did not have much time to watch and enjoy the series. As I returned to them in my last week of my summer break, I rediscovered a fantastic television show with a defined aesthetic, and a new female detective to join the ranks of my television role models.

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International viewers will probably be surprised at Anna Friel’s performance, since the British actress is not really well-known in other countries. Friel does an amazing job at giving life to Marcella, stay-at-home mum and wife who returns to her job to the Metropolitan Police after her marriage falls apart and her children move to a boarding school. Right from the beginning Marcella identifies a pattern in a series of apparently random killings in the city when a colleague visits her to ask for some information from an old case she worked on in 2005. As the pictures of these new killings pick her interest she decides to return to the Met while her new colleagues question whether Marcella is actually a good detective or someone who cannot leave the past behind.

Rather than present these killings as a procedural series, Marcella‘s season 1 cleverly entwined police work and the characters’ personal lives in ways that sometimes seem confusing and may leave audiences wondering what is really happening. I highly suggest binge-watching this first season, as it is easier to make the connections between the vast number of characters and their sometimes secret lives. I was really happy to see some familiar faces such as Downton Abbey‘s Laura Carmichael in a very different role, as well as prolific television actress Nina Sosanya. The series was originally written in Swedish and later on translated into English by Hans Rosenfeldt, who was also in charge of the Scandi sensation Bron (The Bridge). This Scandi influence is overtly reflected on the night settings and the darkness that generally floods every scene.

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MARCELLA EPISODE 7 Pictured: RAY PANTHAKI as DI Rav Sangha, CHARLIE COVELL as DI Alex Dier, JACK DOOLAN as DC Mark Travis, NINA SOSANYA as DCI Laura Porter and ANNA FRIEL as Marcella.

The first season focuses on a series of murders that resemble one of Marcella’s most challenging cases. As she brings together her past and the present, her team of colleagues will post some very interesting moral questions to the audience with Marcella’s responses being the most extreme. How are can the police go to solve a crime? Is it right to harass a criminal on parole in order to prevent him from doing more harm? In questioning suspects, where is the line between pressure and torture? The feeling of instability and blurred lines is made more intense by Marcella’s blackouts and the stress she is under, both professionally and personally.

In the glimpses we are given into Marcella’s personal life, we get to discover a middle-aged woman, a terrific yet complex DS, and a troubled mother and wife who is dealing with her recent separation. It was refreshing to see a female main character come undone at times yet returning to work with all her strength, because that is what really drives her. Motherhood plays a key role with Marcella’s kids struggling with the separation as well, and blaming their mother for it. One of the most interesting relationships was the attempt at a civil relationship between Marcella, her husband and their kids. Despite her betrayal, Marcella herself recognises her partner’s good parenting and tries to make the situation as easy for the children as she can. However, this does not mean she lets herself be a martyr, and she comes up with the truth when she decides she does not have to carry the weight world on her shoulders.

Marcella’s personal life also includes her house and her closet, full of practical and comfortable clothes with her green parka being an icon. The Pool criticised the way Marcella’s parka is used to construct the character and sell clothes to the series’ female audience. I must disagree after I bought myself one for this winter completely unaware of where I had gotten the idea of replacing my worn out and ragged parka with one that looks uncannily like Marcella’s. Clothes have become iconic in crime fiction, a genre that is more a character study than a mere procedural, with the main characters’ clothes becoming references to the general public: Sherlock’s hat, Sarah Lund’s jumpers, Temperance Brennan’s jewels, Stella Gibson’s blouses. And now Marcella’s green parka, with that wonderful fringe of fur framing the hood, protecting its wearer of the cold London weather.

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The same could be said about Marcella’s deep auburn hair, which comes out with some coppery highlights depending on the light. And her fringe, which I am sure has inspired more than one woman to get that shoulder-length and fringed hairstyle that can so easily become a comfortable ponytail yet look glamorous. I also appreciated how the colour worn out throughout the season, so that by episode 8 Marcella’s roots were easily visible. It is sometimes difficult to connect with female main characters when they have been working for weeks without a break and they still look red carpet perfect. Marcella’s hair is almost always up, trying not to get in her way, and looking dry and not so-done and one would expect on a television show.

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Marcella is a new step forward in crime fiction television shows with a female lead. The dramatic turn of her personal life gives Marcella depth and a story the audience can relate to. Her return to work after her stay-at-home period is also something to highlight, as some of her colleagues openly show their reservations at Marcella’s return. Is she still a good detective? And can she cope with her personal traumas and the new investigation? This first season is a successful attempt at constructing an iconic and troubled female detective with needs and failures and a non-normative morality, with a personal and professional life in which female sexuality comes out as something natural that only Marcella herself can define.

It was recently announced that ITV is producing a second season to be broadcasted in 2017. I cannot wait to see the challenges and moral dilemmas Marcella has to face. If season 1 finished with her admitting ‘I don’t know who I am anymore’, one can only expect season 2 to be yet another character study of a beloved character that, I’m afraid, we haven’t gotten to know at all yet.

10 Books of Summer Re-Cap

Now that summer is mostly officially over it is time to check how many of the 10 books I listed for my 10 Books of Summer Project I read (spoiler alert: not many!). You can check my original list here.

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And the answer is 4. This is why I don’t usually join challenges: even though I love the idea of reading from a list, when it’s time to pick up my next book I usually go by intuition. I feel the need to read this or that and no other book will do. However, I have to admit that sticking  to Cathy’s project made me read books and authors I knew I had to read but I kept putting back on my list or pile. In case you’re interested, here are the links to my reviews:

After You Die by Eva Dolan: high-quality and diverse crime fiction.

Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman: My first Lippman! A complex novel, half legal thriller, half character study, and very American – in a good way.

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem: an auto-biography on travelling and becoming a woman.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton: This project was definitely an opportunity to read great authors for the first time. My first Wharton, but absolutely not my last.

I would like to thank Cathy Brown at 746 Books the opportunity to join and all the hard-work behind the scenes. I am very happy with my reading, even though it is not remotely close to what I expected to read! Can’t wait to join next year.

If you also joined the 20 Books of Summer project, feel free to leave a link below. We’d all love to see what you read🙂

 

 

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

One of my goals for this summer was to read one of the best American novelists, Edith Wharton (1862 – 1937). I was torn between two of her most famous novels The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920), but I was keen on making use of the school’s library during the summer semester. One last hurried visit to the library helped me make the decision, as The House of Mirth was available on the public section and ready to be brought home.

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The House of Mirth has been a controversial and shocking novel ever since its publication in 1905. It tells the story of Lily Bart, a young New York socialite who, at 29 and still unmarried, is both admired for her beauty and criticised for her single status. Despite her looks, and her charm, Lily was brought up by a superficial mother who made of Lily’s beauty her supposedly only attribute. After her debut at the age of 18 Lily has had many suitors –one of them an Italian prince – but decided not to settle down. The novel takes place on her 29th year, as she struggles to make sense of her waiting, her present and her future.

Even though the idea of becoming an ostracised spinster at age 29 may seem a joke in 2016, when Wharton first published The House of Mirth she shocked the American public by exposing the dark truth behind young women. Wharton openly questions the validity of marriage as a tool for women to lead a socially respectable life through the eyes of Lily, who sees how the husbands of her friends flirt with her. Not only that, but she also sees her female friends engage in affairs with younger men not so behind closed doors as we may believe in the 21st century. Lily, as an outsider and spectator, questions whether she wishes to follow this path, and why she cannot live alone like her male friends do.

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Edith Wharton (Undated) From Beinecke Library, Yale University

From a feminist point of view The House of Mirth is a subversive novel that stands with Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) as a subversion of traditional and patriarchal narratives. Both Wharton and Chopin created female main characters that offered readers a different take on marriage and motherhood. Throughout the novel we are presented with Lily’s love for life and her need to open her wings and escape the golden cage of marriage and traditional femininity. In her own awakening, Lily ponders on her role and her agency realising she is not free to act upon her wishes with Wharton’s fixation on capitalist femininity as a double-edged sword that compromises beauty and limitations:

“She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.”

“She had no tolerance for scenes which were not of her own making.”

“I was just a screw or cog in the great machine I called life, and when I dropped out of it I found I was of no use anywhere else.”

In her search for happiness and agency Lily encounters a suitor that could make her happy were it not for the social restrictions and her own upbringing. In the height created by the last days of Victorian morals and manners and the American capitalist system, could a woman brought up to be beautiful forget her upbringing and marry for love? Wharton makes Lily’s search for love as interesting as possible by including money, social status, and traditions into the equation. Far from perpetuating a traditional view on romantic love, Lily ponders practically on who to marry and the reasons to do so, or not.

“Don’t you ever mind,” she asked suddenly, “not being rich enough to buy all the books you want?”

The struggle between her own desires, society’s expectations and her social, historical and economic context creates one of the best novels in American literature. Lily Bart is the first attempt by an American female writer to create a strong, subversive woman who wishes to live her life according to her own desires and needs. As a crime fiction reader, I could not but see Lily as a first attempt at creating Amy Dunne, from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, although this comparison may be far-fetched and highly influenced for my love for Flynn’s novel. In any case, throughout the novel we see how Lily’s attempts fail and life erodes her will and her lively attitude:

“She felt a stealing sense of fatigue as she walked; the sparkle had died out of her, and the taste of life was stale on her lips. She hardly knew what she had been seeking, or why the failure to find it had so blotted the light from her sky: she was only aware of a vague sense of failure, of an inner isolation deeper than the loneliness about her.”

In order to keep this review free of spoilers, I will not discuss the ending, although it is not difficult to imagine for feminist readers. To those who have read it, I would love to hear your opinions, and those of you who have not, The House of Mirth is one of the best contemporary novels in the Western tradition. I cannot still understand how Wharton was not included in any of the programmes in my English and American degree. If this were the case with anyone, I would encourage readers and students alike to pick up Wharton’s books on their own as they are a pure joy to read. And if you are not a literature student, this book will change your life as well as it portrays a long-lost time of decadence, over-spending, and the rigid and the still contemporary battle against a system of values that tried to restrict women to their roles as wives and mothers.

This is review #4 for my  20 Books of Summer project

I’m Back!

Hi, everyone! Just a very quick update to let you all know that I’m back from my little break having spent four wonderful days at the beach after finishing my teaching duties. Activity at Books & Reviews will resume this week, and meanwhile I will try to catch up with all your new posts and updates. I hope you are all having a nice and smooth return to school or work. See you soon!

Elena x

A Little Break: Summer 2016

Dear all,

This summer has been exceptional in many ways. One of the reasons was that I got to keep researching during July to finish some very important work on my thesis that granted me an ‘Excellent’ grade from my university on my yearly plan. After that, I had planned on taking a few weeks off to read, review and recharge. But life had other plans and I was offered a part-time job that would pay for my university fees for the upcoming year. I also happen to love the job, and the two students that I get to tutor. However, this has meant staying in my hometown and working all mornings Monday to Friday. As you can imagine, this means early mornings, and half the time off to do all the things that I had planned, and no time to spend part of my break near the sea, where I am at my happiest. So, while I try to make the most of Spain’s heat wave while teaching, and my free evenings I have been reading less, and not writing at all. I have been meeting with friends, going for long walks, and trying to remember that this is how my Summer Break’16 looks and I should enjoy it.

I will get back to blogging and reviewing as soon as I can, as soon as I recharge and go back to my routine. But for now, it’s all about freedom, sun, and unexpected plans. I hope everyone here has a happy August and we’ll see each other soon!

Best,

Elena