Durham Book Festival 2020: Our Brilliant Friend Ferrante with Cathy Rentzenbrink and Tiziana de Rogatis

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Vedi Napoli e poi muori. Roughly translated as “see Naples and then die,” this was an age-old saying family members often said to me and my siblings about what can be termed as Rome’s rowdy younger sibling. A city outwardly known for its sparkling blue bay and Baroque architecture, acclaimed author Elena Ferrante explores Naples from the inside – a city much like others – rife with tension, class-conflict, and socio-economic divides. 

The ever-elusive Elena Ferrante (her literary pseudonym) is known for her four Neapolitan Novels which focus on female friendship in a turbulent post-war Naples as two girls try to navigate their lives in times of major social change. Celebrating Ferrante’s newest novel, The Lying Life of Adults, DBF offered an insightful retrospective and analysis of her works. 

Ferrante explores Naples from the inside – a city much like others – rife with tension, class-conflict, and socio-economic divides. 

Chaired by Durham University’s Dr Kathrin Wehling-Giorgi, we were joined by Tiziana de Rogatis, an Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at the University for Foreigners of Siena, and Cathy Rentzenbrink – author of Dear Reader and long-time Ferrante fan. 

The event started with a question about the uncomfortable yet widely known truths Ferrante confronts us with, and whether part of her appeal is due to or in spite of this discomfort. Rentzenbrink revels in Ferrante’s depiction of difficulty as one who does not shy away from difficult topics; “the author has wrestled with their humanity and has created this beautiful thing.” She commends the degree of thought and concision that goes into Ferrante’s portrayal of a very human discomfort.

De Rogatis followed up with a comment on Ferrante’s position within “a constellation of global novels” and how part of this positioning comes from a re-emphasis  on the importance of plot in current literature. She observes that there has been a return to nineteenth century gritty realism where most of the meaning is found in the plot, yet at the same time Ferrante evades meaning where there is ultimately no explanation.

The discussion was opened up into the larger depiction of identity and social class as Dr Kathrin Wehling-Giorgi posed a question on the universal qualities of Ferrante’s depiction of Naples, and how a reader may identify with this.

“If you do the specific very well, the universal looks after itself”, Rentzenbrink comments as she lauded Ferrante’s interplay of localised, Neapolitan and universal situations. A novelist of multiplicity, Ferrante swings from emotional situations that can be placed beyond her home city. Rentzenbrink further comments on her capacity as “a noticer” – an author of observation and perception – and how much great writing comes from this. 

As a native of Naples, de Rogatis notes the obvious proximity of Ferrante’s novels to her as she reads them. Yet she also comments on her ability to connect many readers around the world, as seen through this event as the comment section proudly hailed people from Cambridge to Bulgaria, avidly listening to this discussion on Ferrante. 

Another point raised by de Rogatis was the impact of perception, and how her Neapolitan Novels particularly are always filtered by her two female protagonists’ experiences in a “world learned, world perceived, world comprehended.” Through coming of age, how does one navigate a world of trauma and violence? As a directive on how to survive, Ferrante’s characters are indeed “survivors” and that is why they are as believable as de Rogatis comments.  

As a directive on how to survive, Ferrante’s characters are indeed “survivors” and that is why they are as believable as de Rogatis comments.  

The discussion swiftly switched to social situations as de Rogatis observed the register shift from “very polite Italian” in the first 30 pages of The Lying Life of Adults, and how this is indeed typical for middle-class Napoli who do not want to speak in Neapolitan. A clash of dialects, this gives us a “real flavour of how the middle class can live in the fear of being surrounded by the underclass in Napoli, and in every city of the world.”

Rentzenbrink brought this point home as she comments on similar connections with regional accents in the UK, and how register morphs depending on the company had. “Put on a posh voice when you need to,” she quips as questions of authenticity and inauthenticity emerge in our life as well as Ferrante’s works. Rentzenbrink notes Ferrante’s harshness as she spotlights this instance of code-switching in The Lying Life where Giovanna’s father says that “it’s good you’re spending time with people better than you, it’s the only way to go up, not down.”

This discussion raised many pressing questions that do not solely apply to the daughter of a proud Neapolitan (aka me), but anyone and everyone who wishes to learn about social class, social change, and coming-of-age in Italy. As de Rogatis writes in her recent book on Ferrante, she is “a classic of our time.” Rentzenbrink observes that Ferrante’s novels are a “literary mosaic”, works where you are “diving into some underwater labyrinth that you want to carry on exploring.”

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