Readings — From the May 2015 issue

The Torment and the Engine

From an interview in the Spring 2015 issue of The Paris Review. Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym of an Italian novelist whose books include The Days of Abandonment, My Brilliant Friend, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, all published in English by Europa Editions. Conducted by Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, her publishers, this is the first in-person interview Ferrante has given.

interviewer: Critics have praised your writing for its sincerity. How do you define sincerity in literature? Is it something you especially value?

ferrante: As far as I’m concerned, it’s the torment and, at the same time, the engine of every literary project. The most urgent question for a writer may seem to be, What experiences do I have as my material, what experiences do I feel able to narrate? But that’s not right. The more pressing question is, What is the word, what is the rhythm of the sentence, what tone best suits the things I know? Without the right words, without long practice in putting them together, nothing comes out alive and true. It’s not enough to say, as we increasingly do, These events truly happened, it’s my real life, the names are the real ones, I’m describing the real places where the events occurred. If the writing is inadequate, it can falsify the most honest biographical truths. Literary truth is not the truth of the biographer or the reporter, it’s not a police report or a sentence handed down by a court. It’s not even the plausibility of a well-constructed narrative. Literary truth is entirely a matter of wording and is directly proportional to the energy that one is able to impress on the sentence. And when it works, there is no stereotype or cliché of popular literature that resists it. It reanimates, revives, subjects everything to its needs.

interviewer: How does one obtain this truth?

ferrante: It definitely comes from a certain skill that can always be improved. But to a great extent, that energy simply appears, it happens. It feels as if parts of the brain and of your entire body, parts that have been dormant, are enlarging your consciousness, making you more sensitive. You can’t say how long it will last, you tremble at the idea that it might suddenly stop and leave you midstream. To be honest, you never know if you’ve developed the right style of writing, or if you’ve made the most out of it. Anyone who puts writing at the center of his life ends up in the situation of Dencombe, in Henry James’s “The Middle Years,” who, about to die, at the peak of success, hopes to have one more opportunity to test himself and discover if he can do better than what he’s already done. Alternatively, he lives with the desperate feeling expressed in the exclamation of Proust’s Bergotte when he sees Vermeer’s little patch of yellow wall — “That is how I ought to have written.”

interviewer: You were saying that the reasons for staying in the shadows have changed a bit.

ferrante: I’m still very interested in testifying against the self-promotion obsessively imposed by the media. This demand for self-promotion diminishes the actual work of art, whatever that art may be, and it has become universal. The media simply can’t discuss a work of literature without pointing to some writer-hero. And yet there is no work of literature that is not the fruit of tradition, of many skills, of a sort of collective intelligence. We wrongfully diminish this collective intelligence when we insist on there being a single protagonist behind every work of art. The individual person is, of course, necessary, but I’m not talking about the individual — I’m talking about a manufactured image. What has never lost importance for me, over these two and a half decades, is the creative space that absence opened up for me. Once I knew that the completed book would make its way in the world without me, once I knew that nothing of the concrete, physical me would ever appear beside the volume — as if the book were a little dog and I were its master — it made me see something new about writing. I felt as though I had released the words from myself.

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