There are very few positive male characters in your books. Most of the men are weak or boastful or absent or bullies. Is that a reflection of the society you have grown up in, or does it reflect the imbalance of power between men and women in wider society? Has that imbalance improved or changed in recent years?
I grew up in a world where it seemed normal that men (fathers, brothers, boyfriends) had the right to hit you in order to correct you, to teach you how to be a woman, ultimately for your own good. Luckily today much has changed but I still think the men who can really be trusted are a minority. Maybe this is because the milieu that shaped me was backward. Or maybe (and this is what I tend to believe) it’s because male power, whether violently or delicately imposed, is still bent on subordinating us. Too many women are humiliated every day and not just on a symbolic level. And, in the real world, too many are punished, even with death, for their insubordination.
Your novels seem to be concerned with boundaries — emotional, geographical, social — and what happens when those boundaries are crossed or broken down. Is that something that particularly affects women of a certain age or class, or does it apply to all?
The awareness of limits keeps weighing down on women — I’m talking about women in general. This isn’t a problem while we’re dealing with self-regulation: it’s important to set limits for oneself. The problem is that we live within limits set by others, and we are disapproving of ourselves when we fail to respect them. Male boundary-breaking does not automatically entail negative judgments, it’s a sign of curiosity and courage. Female boundary-breaking, especially when it is not undertaken under the guidance or supervision of men, is still disorientating: it is loss of femininity, it is excess, perversion, disease.
You refer to characters “liquefying” or “dissolving” as a way of describing emotional breakdown. Is that a feeling you recognise — in yourself? In others?
I have seen it in my mother, in myself, in many women. We experience too many ties that choke our desires and ambitions. The modern world subjects us to pressures that at times we are not able to bear.
The narrators in your novels find motherhood difficult. It devours them, reduces them, they long to escape it, and when they do, they feel liberated. Do you feel women would be stronger if they didn’t have to bear the burdens of motherhood?
No, that’s not the point. The point is what we tell ourselves about motherhood and child-rearing. If we keep talking about it in an idyllic way, like in many handbooks on motherhood, we will continue to feel alone and guilty when we brush up against the frustrating aspects of being a mother.
The task of a woman writer today is not to stop at the pleasures of the pregnant body, of birth, of bringing up children, but to delve truthfully into the darkest depth.
The Neapolitan novels have similarities of character and plot to your three earlier novels. Are you, in some ways, telling the same story?
Not the same story but definitely the same features of a single malady. Life’s wounds are incurable and you write them and rewrite them in the hope of being able, sooner or later, to construct a narrative that will account for them once and for all.
- FT Magazine, interview with Women of 2015: Elena Ferrante, writer