Not far into My Brilliant Friend,
the first of Elena Ferrante's four Neopolitan novels, it was clear that I was setting out on a journey similar to what I had started with the novels that make up My Struggle
, Karl Ove Knausgaard's hexology. The similarities astonish. Both writers address their childhood in detailed, autobiographical fashion. Both create page-turning narratives. Both address contemporary issues, especially those of gender, though Ferrante does it analytically, while Knausgaard takes the opposite tack, largely shows instead of tells. He provides a modern male perspective, while Ferrante presents the view of a woman who changed as society changed. Their approaches challenge the trope that women write about the domestic and men about the larger world. That's just one of the differences that make comparing the two novelists irresistible, and many journalists, writers, and book lovers have been compelled to do so. When I first read Knausgaard, earlier in the year, his humanity stood out as much as his wizardry at scene creation. Ferrante is direct, political. I loved it that she kept returning to the neighbourhood where she grew up, both literally and figuratively, and how she inspired me to read "neighbourhood" as Italy in general. Actually, the entire western world, as she declares in the final volume of the series, Story of a Lost Child.
Ferrante's work is dominated by Mount Vesuvius, by sun and traffic, people who yell at each other and threaten to kill each other, on one hand, and discuss splits in left-wing politics on the other. The narrator is haunted by her insecurities, childishly pleased with, but also defensive about her successes as an author. Temperatures low enough to keep beer cold, even freeze it, ice, snow, and sylvan summers on the farm weave through Knausgaard's work and feel more essential to it than the beach towns and cities of Ferrante's Italy, until near the end of the last volume, when Naples gains historical weight.
Ferrante is the author's pen name. She prefers to remain anonymous and eschews public appearances, explaining in a Vanity Fair interview
that was conducted via email,
"I simply decided once and for all, over 20 years ago, to liberate myself from the anxiety of notoriety and the urge to be a part of that circle of successful people, those who believe they have won who-knows-what. This was an important step for me. Today I feel, thanks to this decision, that I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful." Yet her fictional self, the narrator Elena Greco, seeks just that kind of engagement with the literary establishment and feels unsuccessful when readers, editors, journalists stop paying attention to her.
Knausgaard is famously shy. The journalist Heather Mallick
suspects he agrees to the appearances he makes out of courtesy. But he isn't a complete loner. The eurozine
article Mallick refers to in her piece reveals him to be dependent on his editor and a small group of friends for feedback as his novels take shape. Almost anything one reads by him reveals him to be verbose, in print if not in person.
Italy feels violent, although, despite the many threats Ferrante's characters aim at each other, the murder rate there is actually less per capita than in Canada. The violence in Norway seems sinister because, perhaps, hidden, as in the case of Karl Ove's father. I imagine glowering faces, clenched jaws, narrowed eyes.
There's a clear arc in Ferrante's novels. Although they are about much more, they focus on Elena Greco's relationship with her friend Lina. This leads to some neglected threads of other storylines and a fair bit of repetition. Since the last two novels in Knausgaard's series are not yet translated, I don't see as clear an arc and doubt there is a single one. His prose depends for its forward movement on a series of arcs. Each scene, each chapter rises and falls, and cunningly draws the reader to the next.
With eleven novels between them, Ferrante and Knausgaard provide a literary feast. Pasta? Pickled herring? It's impossible to choose one over the other. I'll take both.