Ferrante, Knausgaard

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.
Lake (MB)

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.


Most constant readers will have heard of the six-volume work by Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle. Those who have not yet dipped or plunged into it, however, should know that the struggle does not apply to the writing or reading. Knausgaard appears to write effortlessly, fluidly, a rhythmic prose that has reeled this reader in and held her for two of the thick volumes. As for the life he documents in careful detail, well that is often a struggle; avoiding his father's anger, dealing with the disgusting aftermath of his death; so struck by the rejection of a girl that he self-harms, as it is called in current parlance, literally cuts himself.
     I like the way he plays with my attention. At one point he fixes it on the scene at a tawdry amusement park where he and his family have stopped after having left the home of friends who were not used to young children. Everyone's hot and the baby starts wailing, for no apparent reason, unless he's been stung by a wasp. But nothing dramatic happens, in fact there is little conventional drama in the 700 pages I have read so far. Nothing and yet somehow everything happens. Daily life makes the ever ongoing foreground, with occasional time outs for literary musings and philosophical thoughts, deep discussions with his friend Geir. The forementioned cutting turns out not to have been deep enough to score Karl Ove's face; embarrassed by his extremes of feeling, he chalks it off to drunkeness. Not long after the amusement park incident he is writing about Dostoyevsky and the drama of the soul.
    While most writers of realism use at least some material from their own lives, My Struggle is deliberately autobiographical. I heard Knausgaard say in an interview that basically everything is true.  The characters are actual people identified by their real names, as are the places he refers to. It is unlikely that he would be walking around the world with a notebook or a recorder of some kind, but he's a wizard with details and dialogue. And he doesn't merely report. He relates the yellow and grey of a restaurant's decor, the grey green white of a landscape to the use of colour in modern art. He has made enemies in Norway because of his honesty; yet the feel of truth makes the book compelling and not because of voyeurism. I don't know any of these people and for those of us who are in no danger of having his thoughts on our appearance or character or our relationships with him exposed, he is a sympathetic narrator. It has often been woman authors who use dailiness in their work. As a writer who has done that myself, aimed to depict the spectacle of so-called ordinary life, I have felt I must explain why I do it. But Knausgaard freely recounts what he made for dinner, how he cleaned the apartment or painted it, the neighbours, the activity on the street outside the balcony where he smokes and smokes, though by late in Volume 2  he realizes he's going to have to quit. His lungs are burning and his throat full of phlegm in the morning. When he and Linda fight, I wonder if this will be it for them while knowing perfectly well that in the last Wikipedia entry they are still together and now have four children. Portrait of a marriage day by day. The marriage of two highly charged people, too, or so Knausgaard's driving pace impels me to think of them.
     I don't know if I will read all six books. I wonder if he can keep me enthralled. Will his acute self-consciousness eventually seem like a pose? A strategy? Will I feel that he has overstayed his welcome?
     I do know that reading the first two volumes of My Struggle has returned me to my late teens and twenties when I was always excited about reading, when a good day meant a pile of unread books by my chair and nothing to stop me from opening them. I will order the third volume, maybe the fourth when it is translated. In between I will miss him; I will feel that I have I moved to a different country where Norwegian names are rarely spoken and no one debates the difference between Nordic countries, and if someone describes how he made dinner and poured a glass of wine for his wife and watched his baby sleeping on her back, the scene may not be as captivating as it is in the words of the often tortured, always questing Karl Ove Knausgaard, though he would surely cringe to hear it.