Troubling details: Ferrante and the problem of authenticity

There is something of a furore about the identity of Elena Ferrante. If you are interested in the details, see this expose, and this article which engages with some of the rights and wrongs of that investigation and the invasion of privacy it perhaps entailed.

I can’t decide if I am. In general, I’d much rather read the work itself than find out about the author’s backstory. I trust good writers to filter their material: if the autobiography is the best story, wait for them to tell it. Literary festivals leave me cold. That said, in my own way I obsess about the relationship between the author and the text, between fiction and authenticity.

A friend gave me the first of the Neapolitan novels for Christmas. I wasn’t convinced by the cover, but she is normally right about books, and so I read. Almost immediately, I was captivated. For the first time in a while I wasn’t reading for another notch on the bookshelf, with some incidental pleasure, some delight at form along the way, but as a child, almost without seeing the words on the page. Not even Game of Thrones came close.

For these purposes, suffice to say that there is an allegation that Ferrante did not grow up in Naples, from which it follows that her relationship with the milieu she is describing may not be as authentic as many have assumed, and a second allegation that some of her work may be the fruit of collaboration, rather than of her hand alone.

The Neapolitan novels are most commonly described as books about female friendship, and next commonly as books about the seedy underbelly of Naples, but for me what is interesting is that the world has going mad for these complicated inner monologue novels, these novels about details, which, for all the violence and murder and intrigue, stand out because the author has transfixed a thought process: the violence is just a backdrop.

People who don’t like the novels tend to find them boring; they say nothing happens. If you calculate the incidence of murder, crime, violence, affairs and abandonments, that’s manifestly nonsense — but although factually wrong, it’s somehow correct at a higher level; at heart these are introspective, who am I novels. The action is by the by.

For me, the two allegations, and whether they matter, lead to the same fundamental questions, how do we create, what are the limits of what we are capable of creating, should we limit our subject matter by reference to authenticity, and ultimately, what is the relationship between the creative process and what makes us human.

The allegation that some of the novels are the product of collaboration focuses on textual analysis (I don’t pretend to know whether that sort of exercise is accurate). The second pen most often implicated belongs to her husband, also an author. The article I mention above riles at this as sexism, observing that ‘anonymity has apparently now made her vulnerable to the accusation that she has not been able to write her books without leaning creatively on a man.’ I’m not sure that holds true in this instance; if looking for a collaborator in the works of one half of a writing couple, the other seems the obvious first suspect.

The wider question is more interesting, however. Could a man have written the story, and should he? It goes to the old, thorny, and often tedious problem of authenticity. Who owns a story, and who gets to tell it? Can men tell women’s stories, is it ok to narrate stories across racial and ethnic divisions, can an able bodied person voice the experience of someone with a disability, and what are the risks if they do?

I have no inherent objection to one person telling another’s story. Quite the opposite: fiction should seek to encompass as much as possible — deliver us from a world in which the middle classes confine themselves to narrating their own experiences. I am partial to a tale of suburban malaise from time to time, but would much rather live in an era which is brave and self-confident enough to aspire to the all-encompassing epic.

That isn’t to deny that there are risks. The first is that the story is unconvincing. That’s a risk for the author. The second is that it is convincing but misleading. That’s a risk for everyone, particularly the section of society which is misrepresented.

When it comes to a man telling a woman’s story (or, because that is rather loaded, a man telling a story about women), the risk to me seems very low. The experience of being a woman is so common that a multitude of experienced readers can judge for themselves whether it rings true.

The risk increases when the story that is told is more unusual, and even more so if it originates from a sector of society which is less likely to tell its own story. The more uncommon the experience, the less the collective experience acts as a filter and a sense check. Fiction can be dangerous; it can spread misconceptions. To my mind, all we can do here is urge caution, not seek to delimit who owns a story and who can tell it.

There is then the related and very human concern about whether it is possible to depict so convincingly something one hasn’t experienced. Could a man really write with such intimate insight into the inner life of a woman, or vice versa? Is it more troubling that one person can appropriate another unlived life, or that our imaginations are ultimately bounded by what we are capable of experiencing directly?

If readers are really experiencing a sense of betrayal at the idea that Ferrante’s connection with Naples is much looser than they had supposed, I suspect it comes not from the claim on the dust jacket of the first volume that the author was born in Naples, but from the detail and flavour of the novels themselves.

It’s not just that the stories, and in particular, the backdrop, ring true, it’s that we find it incredulous that a person could invent so many intricate details, and keep that focus running over four long volumes. Inventing a murder is one thing. Inventing the particular feel of light on copper pans and the way a home-made swimming costume sags as it ages, and sustaining those invented details, or meshing them together if they are in fact imported from authentic experience elsewhere, so that it feels we have all of the particulars of a time and a place, a city, maybe a country, maybe half a century, is something else.

Our normal understanding of the creative process flags that these novels are unusual, in scale rather than substance. And the particular way in which they are unusual inclines us to believe that they are rooted in truth. If this is a pure fiction (to the extent there is a pure fiction — who hasn’t been in a library or walked along a hot street in summer), the scope of the detail is threatening.

If it is a work of fiction, we ought perhaps to be comforted by the idea that it may have taken more than one mind to make it happen, feel a little more at ease with the limits of our own imaginations. But while we’re very comfortable with the idea of collaborative writing for a TV series, in fiction, in the written word more generally, we retain a certain attachment to the notion of the author labouring alone, beholden to the creative process, an idea of the same vintage as god.

If we struggle with the shifting reality behind the Neapolitan novels, how are we going to cope when artificial intelligence takes up the pen? I suspect that most of us would like to believe that the creativity which drives literature is intrinsically human. If that turns out not to be the case, I am not sure how we will recover, although more books on this scale may provide some consolation along the way.