Elena Ferrante

I only made it about halfway through this interview with the Paris Review, because I was at work and couldn’t maintain the thread of it. But all of this, everything I shared here, I find so beautiful. I need to get around to one of her books; I’ve had her on my list for a while.

FERRANTE

I don’t think anyone really knows how a story takes shape. When it’s done you try to explain how it happened, but every effort, at least in my case, is insufficient. There is a before, made up of fragments of memory, and an after, when the story begins. But before and after, I have to admit, are useful only in answering your question now in an intelligible way.

INTERVIEWER

What do you mean by “fragments of memory”?

FERRANTE

You know how when you have in your head a few notes of a tune but you don’t know what it is, and if you hum it, it ends up becoming a different song from the one that’s nagging at you? Or when you remember a street corner but you can’t remember where it is? That kind of thing. My mother liked to use the word frantumaglia—bits and pieces of uncertain origin which rattle around in your head, not always comfortably.

But how I moved from the frantumaglia that I’d had in my mind for years to a sudden selection of fragments, welded into a story that seemed convincing—that escapes me, I can’t give an honest account. I’m afraid that it’s the same thing as with dreams. Even as you’re recounting them, you know that you’re betraying them.

INTERVIEWER

Do you write down your dreams?

FERRANTE

The rare times that I seem to remember them, yes. I’ve done it since I was a girl. It’s an exercise that I would recommend to everyone. To subject a dream experience to the logic of the waking state is an extreme test of writing. You can never reproduce a dream exactly. It’s a losing battle. But putting into words the truth of a gesture, a feeling, a flow of events, without domesticating it, is also an operation that’s not as simple as you might think.

INTERVIEWER

What do you mean by “domesticating the truth”?

FERRANTE

Taking overused expressive paths.

INTERVIEWER

In what sense?

FERRANTE

Betraying the story out of laziness, out of acquiescence, out of convenience, out of fear. It’s always easy to reduce a story to clichés for mass consumption.

INTERVIEWER

James Wood and other 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.

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