I’ve been taken hostage – like so many people I know – by Elena Ferrante. To the extent that earlier this week when I briefly succumbed to the stomach bug that’s doing the rounds, I did find myself wondering, guiltily, whether this wasn’t just an excuse to languish on the sofa and devour another couple of hundred pages. (I’m pretty sure I was ill.)
She’s not (and for the sake of argument I shall refer to her as ‘she’) what I’d call a Great Writer. But she spins a gripping tale, all the more gripping because when you think, as you draw breath after a stormy reading session, about what you’ve just galloped through, it’s nothing but a catalogue of minutiae, a recounting of inessential details (there are points, in fact, where I find myself silently screaming “enough already, I get the picture” but I still can’t force myself to put the book down) that jumble together into a diorama that takes your breath away.
The world she creates in the Neapolitan quartet is one where women are chattels and where any self-esteem they have evaporates before overweening brutal maleness, where problems are solved by some bloke thumping something or (more usually) someone. The ignorance and poverty isn’t even offset – in the best literary tradition – by a wholesome humanity, because the dynamic is vicious on all fronts: male-female, female-female, male-male. Rare glimpses of beauty are rapidly beaten down. Even deep, inescapable, symbiotic friendship saps the lifeblood.
It all seems so brutish and distant. But remove the gnawing, numbing poverty and add some material comforts (as happens to the characters too as the novels progress) and some attitudes are uncomfortably familiar, and not at all far removed.
When we were looking to buy around here in 2000, and then refurbishing the house up to 2005, I called many locals to discuss ‘for sale’ signs, and then rooms for rent. During the day, it would generally be the wife who answered. None of them could ever give me information: that was important work and therefore to be left to the men. Many times, when I offered to spell my surname out for them and leave a number, there would be a short silence at the other end of the line. I interpreted it as embarrassment, though it probably was more a case of the woman wondering about the consequences of losing a sale if she just asked me to call back and I didn’t. If the voice at the other end seemed elderly, I knew what was coming next. “I’m not so good at writing,” she’d say. So many ladies of a certain age were illiterate. I tried to remember to call back.
That generation is dying out. But it was only in the early 1960s that sharecropping ended here: that same numbing poverty, and the brutishness it can bring, are just a generation – at best two – away. It was different here, in that it was pastoral rather than urban, but it was grinding just the same, and the effects could be the similar.
I’m not deluding myself: I know that women and girls in what is now a relatively comfortable area with high living standards are still hit by men who think that’s the way you deal with females and problems. There was the famous incident that happened moments after we had left a local restaurant, told to us by friends who remained, when a women appeared at the door terrified, saying her compagno was going to kill her. He turned up to carry out his threat but the police arrived before he could drag her away. But he found her in her hospital bed and managed to land a punch that broke her nose before he was arrested. If he did that in a public place, what happened behind closed doors?
One common result of the leap from subsistance farming and the hovering threat of starvation to relative ease is house-building. Parents who had cradled their chilblains as their own parents grubbed a living put all spare change into building or purchasing a house – a whole big multi-family house where they could live upstairs and their sons with their own families on the lower floors (daughters, as a rule, are expected to find men elsewhere whose families have made similar arrangments).
In some ways, this is done with the best of intentions: these are people who want their children never to have to suffer in the way that they suffered. But in what becomes a weirdly inverted transaction, the sacrifice needed to ensure well being becomes key. Because for this all to ‘work’, those parents have to have worked their fingers away to achieve the kind of security they are offering, and their offspring, naturally, have to be aware of this. The children resent what is in fact a prison, gilded or otherwise, but are generally unable to escape the emotional noose; the gratitude that parents expect as often as not turns to rancour; the children remain stroppy teenagers, continuing adolescent battles into their 50s and 60s and growing bitter about missed opportunities for escape; and any spouse or partner who enters this scenario has to deal with this suffocating situation. What’s more, the old, brutish way of doing things, the attitude which makes women chattels and violence the norm, remains the modus operandi of the ever-present head of the family. The situation can be explosive.
I was talking recently with a woman – I’ll call her Lucia – who moved to the area to live with a man – I’ll call him Franco – in a situation like this. Lucia brought her children and a history of difficult relationships; kind, gentle Franco seemed like the perfect antidote to a harsh life. But dealings with his parents made life very tense. When Lucia found Franco’s father groping her teenage daughter she upped sticks, of course, and moved out.
For me, the situation in itself is atrocious enough: as I’ve observed to locals, I would have marched straight to the police station. But no, they assure me, she couldn’t possibly do that. Just think how it would upset Franco.
And anyway, he probably didn’t mean anything. It’s just how old people are.
How does that feel, I wonder, to a teenage girl? Franco would indeed be upset, but how about the justified horror and disgust of an adolescent manhandled by a nasty old man? Should her only compensation be to have to flee what she thought was a safe home to live with a mother who doesn’t earn enough to pay the rent? What does she take home from this? That women’s place is to expect men’s brutishness and know that they’ll suffer as a result while the men are defended for reasons that trample on women’s pain?
He didn’t mean anything: does that mean – she must be asking herself – she’s worth nothing?
And ?it’s just how old people are’ is a disgusting dereliction of duty, keeping us too close to the brutish Ferrante world. This old man, who had been placed in a position of trust, has committed a crime. But he didn’t mean anything. Would he have meant something if he’d raped her? Would he have meant something if she had fought him off and in the scuffle someone had been injured or – as happens to so many women – killed? Where does the ‘it’s what they do’ stop and the felony start? The shocking brutishness and misogyny of the Neapolitan novels isn’t that distant at all.
Such a strange incident in a local eaterie the other evening. I arrive – awaiting two Anglo friends – and the only other person present is a squat elderly lady whose little dog is yapping wildly. As she feeds it (scallops, as I’m later told), it quietens down a little. My friends arrive. The woman begins smoking a cigarette inside, her dog starting to yap again, but the waiters ask her stand outside. She does, with a fuss.
When she returns, the dog is being disruptive again. But so is she, sauntering up to tables unbidden and striking up conversations. She has clearly been drinking and it’s becoming hard to say who’s noisier, her or her dog. The three men on the table next to us stand up and storm out without eating. She asks us where we’re from and asks if the dog is annoying us. It’s not ideal I tell her, sweetly. She looks miffed and goes off to annoy someone else.
The dog-volume soars. The couple with children whom she is assailing with her stories look bewildered. On the only other occupied table, I can hear them discussing how bad it is that the restaurant allows this situation to go on. One of my companions gets up to ask the waiter to deal with the situation: we can’t hear ourselves speak.
But the woman has noticed that we’ve complained. The floodgates open. In bad French, worse German, deafening Italian (with the dog chiming in for good measure) she tells us how she lived abroad, how she was treated like dirt, how we come here and think we rule the world whereas in fact we’re just dirt dirt dirt. It goes on and on, the people on the other table looking elsewhere.
Finally the manager reappears from his evening off and escorts her away gently, then bars the door as she tries to return to shout some more. It has rather disturbed out pleasant conversation.
The odd thing though, was the lack of intervention from anyone else. Italians are so wonderful at complaining about things but not – I thought after this incident – if it means drawing attention to themselves in closed situations, especially where their chances of coming out victorious are absolutely zero. They’ll call the waiter to criticise their food or their wine; they’ll complain about their politicians endlessly but generally to people who agree with them. Against this yapping dog and sozzled old lady, there was no chance of winning an argument, no chance of bringing her round to your point of view, no chance of beating her in an argument either shouted or talked through reasonably and every chance of making a brutta figura (looking bad) in a public space as a result of engaging with her. So they preferred to keep their heads down and mutter quietly without being drawn in or even signalling their displeasure. Most strange.
The woodburners are going on most evenings now, but I’m still watering my garden. End of October, still watering – ridiculous. The autumn fruit are as prolific as the summer ones. We have about three times as many walnuts this year as last; the persimmons are spectacular; I have sent out a “help!” round robin for my quinces: I don’t know what on earth I’m going to do with the medlars because I still have such a huge stock of medlar jelly from last year. Too much bounty.