Against the Anti-Art Literati: On Roberto Calasso’s ‘The Art of the Publisher’

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Readers new to Roberto Calasso’s work often feel a bit bewildered, as if his books ought to come with a warning: This book is unlike any you’ve ever read. In addition to addressing the actual subject of the book, the reviewer must therefore explain who Calasso is, unpack his unorthodox rhetorical strategy, and provide some orientation to his uncommon perspective. This is easier said than done.

The Art of the Publisher, Calasso’s most recent work, consists of only 150 smallish and deceptively simple pages containing his speeches, essays, and occasional pieces about publishing. Briefly, he argues that publishing is an art, books are art objects, and the publisher is an artist. The publisher’s art has always been to provide the guiding sensibility for the publishing house and for the works it publishes. This sensibility is the mythos or spirit, if you will, of the publishing house. Today’s publishing houses lack this kind of vision and thus do not produce art. And the every-writer-and-reader-for-himself universe of electronic publishing cannot be art either, because it, too, lacks a guiding vision and the art object, books.

There could scarcely be anyone more qualified than Calasso to make this case, and The Art of the Publisher offers entry into his fascinating world of leading edge literati. Intellectually, he is elegant and stylish in an Italian way: traditional, subtle, original. He writes from his formidable knowledge and from his experience as a founder and editorial director of Adelphi, an Italian publishing house of exceptional depth and quality with a backlist that includes the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, Milan Kundera, Vladimir Nabokov, and Leonardo Sciascia. He considers publishing itself a literary genre. He writes erudite and highly original works on subjects few have considered, never mind named. He has an international following.

Calasso’s rhetorical method is “always a mosaic.” [Paris Review, 2012] His PhD thesis concerned the theory of hieroglyphs in Sir Thomas Browne. He says, “[The] idea of a language made up of images is connected with all of my work.” [Paris Review.] His books often begin with an image, almost a digression, that he deconstructs bit by bit as he traces its presence here and there; explicating its relationship(s) within mythology, religion, art, literature, history, languages (he knows eight), and the classics; making unexpected and seemingly effortless connections; and finally arriving at a new meaning for which the original image is now an emblem of a much larger whole. To those accustomed to a linear, PowerPoint-like arrangement of information, this “agglomerative” way of proceeding can be baffling. The following is my own attempt — not Calasso’s — to show what the experience of reading Calasso can be like:

While out walking you spy a coin on the sidewalk. You pick it up, intending to make a wish and throw it over your shoulder, a gesture that already connects you to a distant past. But, wait, it’s a gold coin with the image of a head crowned with a laurel wreath. And old. Did a coin collector accidentally drop it? You turn it over in your palm, recalling your own coin collection — the buffalo nickel, the pure silver dollars, the tiny pockets in the album. Did you know that the Smithsonian’s coin collection, the largest in the world, has more than 450,000 coins? Unfortunately, the exhibit closed years ago for lack of money. Upon closer inspection, you see that the image on the coin is likely Roman. The Romans minted coins from the 4th century BC at the temple of Juno Moneta, (the source of our word money), and they set up mints across the Empire, establishing minting practices for all time. Earlier still, Ploutos, the sometimes-blind Greek god of wealth, carried a cornucopia and dispensed riches. His near contemporary, a Phrygian named Midas, and the latter’s fairy-tale descendants had a different attitude toward wealth, one akin to the hedge fund manager’s. Along with coins and money came trade, banking, and the Medici, though the Romans had already invented checks, which are today dispatched on smartphones.

Question: When you toss the coin over your shoulder, what do you toss? Answer: Civilization. A book by Calasso is always a journey into and through civilization in the company of an expert guide.

In The Art of the Publisher, Calasso concerns himself with what the good publisher is and argues in favor of the publisher’s critical role in the furtherance of civilization through the expression of his own, highly refined sensibility. Consequently, it seems surprisingly self-evident when he says that the good publishing house is one that publishes “only good books,” i.e., “books of which the publisher tends to feel proud rather than ashamed.” Or that, as in most artistic activities, success in publishing is frequently unremunerative:

…along with roulette and cocottes, founding a publishing house has always been one of the most effective ways for a young man of noble birth to fritter away his fortune.

At this point, Calasso explores some questions in contemporary publishing the answers to which aren’t necessarily obvious.

1. Why does one become a publisher?

[Because]…publishing has always involved prestige, if only because it is a kind of business that is also an art…[and]…in order to practice it, money is an essential element.“

With respect to publishing itself, he allows that “very little has changed since [Johann] Gutenberg’s time.” He takes the reader down a rabbit hole of publishing history — typefaces, woodcuts, prefaces, publicity, and, of course, books — wherein we meet Aldus Manutius, an Italian humanist (1449-1515), the creator of “the most beautiful book ever made,” the inventor of the paperback, and “the first to conceive of the publishing house as form:

…the choice and sequence of titles to be published; the texts that accompany the books; the way in which the books are presented as objects.

In other words, the good publisher gives form to the “essential reading of his time.” This is very, very important to Calasso.

Today’s dispersed and disparate publishing business, particularly the digital universe, directly challenges Calasso’s claim that a good publisher has an essential role and is himself artist. Even among the well read, Calasso’s kind of publisher seems a relic of an earlier time. In advocating for the relevance of those very few publishers who still remain faithful to the publisher’s art, Calasso can seem like a unicorn among donkeys. Undeterred, he insists that the good publisher by imposing his judgments, his noes and yeses, his style, his taste on the available possibilities…
. . . give[s] form to a plurality of books as though they were the chapters of a single book. . . [and takes] . . . a passionate and obsessive care over the appearance of every volume.
In this way, a good publishing house becomes:

…a single text formed not just by the totality of books that have been published there, but also by all its other constituent elements, such as the front covers, cover flaps, publicity, and quantity of copies printed and sold, or the different editions in which the same text has been presented…[and this totality is]…a literary work in itself, belonging to a genre all its own.

This vision is at the heart of Calasso’s argument. It is both secular and spiritual. The “single chain” that is “formed by all the books published by the publisher” is the unique work of art that the publisher brings to the literary table. It is both tangible — the books — and intangible — a reflection of the mythos or sensibility that is expressed in the “chain” and the “totality,” which “imply other related books not written.” For Calasso this totality is numinous.

2. Couldn’t these tangible and intangible connections exist without the publisher?

For the most part, publishing today, whether print or digital, lacks the overarching sensibility that only the good publisher provides:

There would still be good and bad books, but those good books would appear as sporadic, isolated events with no congenial context into which to fit them.

Calasso’s good publisher is an endangered species in a business sense as well. In publishing today, form has become the organization chart, and mythos is merely brand power:

There are very few people today who can be given the title of publisher. They could probably be counted on the fingers of two hands. Editors, on the other hand, are many and increasing, if editors are those who discover, follow, develop, and launch a certain number of books within the catalog of a publishing house. All editors are associated with a list of authors and books as though they are theirs. This, however, does not include the form itself — the catalog, the program of the publishing house for which they work. If a publishing house is not conceived as a form, as a self-sufficient composition held together by a high physiological compatibility between all of its constituent parts, it easily turns into a casual association, incapable of triggering that magical element — brand power — that even marketing experts consider essential for achieving some degree of success.

Managers in today’s publishing houses often know little or nothing of books and care even less about form. Their mandate is profits. Calasso believes this organizational pattern precludes the publisher’s art. It is, in fact, anti-art.

3. But won’t information technology make all written works more widely available?

A little web-surfing — mine — turns up dozens of niche sites for contemporary fiction, poetry, essays, and works of art — an argument in favor of art for art’s sake as the artists contribute their work gratis. Publishers’ websites — publicity arms, really, but presented as literary hubs — display varied imprints defined by consumer preferences. Other sites are more serious literary efforts that vanish when the editor gets a paying job. Barriers to entry are low, and some sites are scarcely more than hobbies. Often, sites are cross-listed, the better to achieve a higher ranking within the Google algorithms. The result is ever more self-referential and enclosed universes. A few sites, such as this one, grow and thrive because they serve real needs.

Calasso doubts the literary value of such websites and that Google books can become the greatest library in history. Quantity is not quality. He finds Google’s ambitions totalitarian and oppressive and the implications for publishers negative:

In the face of…[immediate access to everything]…which grows wider and better every day, the publisher can only seem like a miserable obstacle.

Democratization in literary publishing isn’t necessarily desirable either:

…information technology aims toward a situation — its own utopian vision — in which, as everything is connected with everything else, the result is…[a state of confusion and disorder]…in which everyone can claim to have contributed…Whether or not a world of this kind is desirable does not, for most people, seem a question of any urgency…

The “cloud” is an apt image for this digital fog:

…if we limit the field to that of publishing, it can be said with certainty that there is one element that the cloud of knowing (or, more accurately, the cloud of information, though hasn’t the very distinction between information and knowledge become blurred?) can do without: judgment, that primeval capacity to say yes or no. But judgment was the basic founding element for the existence of the publisher…[who]…has always had the one undeniable prerogative: to say yes or no to a manuscript and decide in what form to present it. But if judgment can be easily dispensed with, this is even truer of form. Indeed, discussion about form could soon become meaningless.

4. Still, doesn’t the existence of literary sites, publishing houses driven by consumer preferences, as well as the self-publishing boom refute Calasso’s claim that only the good publisher can provide a meaningful place for literary output?

In the digital universe everyone with a computer can be his own publisher, his own arbiter of taste, his own stylist of content, his own “decider,” but absent the publisher’s taste and judgment, there can be no art in Calasso’s sense of the word. Absent the “chain,” the “totality,” the publisher’s vision, there is no form, no mythos. Writers, readers, and books bob alone on a sea of dreck.

5. Why is someone like Calasso better at choosing what to bring to our attention than we are?

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Calasso has been accused of elitism and paternalism. To be fair, however, his argument rests on more subtle grounds than simply that the good publisher is the necessary, singular arbiter of quality. Rather, he sees the publisher as having a responsibility to establish a vision and within that vision to practice his art. In this way, the publisher becomes the custodian and purveyor of what he believes is essential to his culture and time. “The gods are the fugitive guests of literature,” he says, meaning that the publisher’s mission, while secular, has a sacred element: the carrier or custodian of a mythos that guides and is reflected in the collective works he publishes. This “spirit” unites otherwise solitary authors, readers, and books. The sum of his acts as a publisher thus constitutes a form, which is, like sculpture or painting, art.

Calasso ends by returning to the image of Manutius. He wants publishers to aspire to create new books that are equally as beautiful as Manutius’s perfect book. For some this charge may seem precious and as suffocating in its imposition of critical judgment as the Internet is in its lack of discrimination. This much is certain: No other publisher today has dared to claim as his own the singular judgment and unique artistry of the publisher-artist Calasso describes so precisely. That is because the one he has in mind is himself and the art his own.

Elena Ferrante Names the Devil and Slays the Minotaur

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How to explain that feeling of astonishment and relief that Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet engenders for so many readers, especially her recent Story of the Lost Child, the fourth and concluding volume? It’s easier perhaps to talk about the tumultuous lives of Elena and Lila, their determination to do the very things that will destroy them, the complex and contradictory plots of female friendships. Easier perhaps to ponder Ferrante’s reclusiveness and speculate on her identity rather than what she reveals about our own. Easier to talk about female friendship rather than face the dark underbelly of all human relationships. In the end, easier to find some way — perhaps any way — to avoid the wounds Ferrante opens and probes for 1,500 pages. What is Ferrante dissecting and how does she keep us attending breathlessly in her operating room?

The Neapolitan quartet is, among other things, a novel of expectations and friendship, not only Elena and Lila’s, but by extension those of women from less-than-affluent circumstances during a period of great social change in the later 20th century. What is possible for them and the men in their lives? Against those possibilities and with the framework of European feminist thinking, Ferrante explores their passionate desires and social limitations. I’ll venture that her encompassing vision of human experience, the aliveness of her characters, and her unique voice rank with those of William Faulkner, Marcel Proust, and Charles Dickens.

1. La Frantumaglia
Ferrante’s female characters suffer from la frantumaglia. The Italian verb frantumare means to break into pieces, to shatter. Frantumazione, a noun, means a breaking or a shattering, and frantume are the shards themselves. According to Ferrante, in her Paris Review interview, la frantumaglia is a Neapolitan dialect word meaning “bits and pieces of uncertain origin which rattle around in your head not always comfortably.” There is no comparable word in English, though unquestionably the feeling exists. La Frantumaglia is also the title of a collection of Ferrante’s essays and responses to interviewers. The book is not yet available in English, but here is a translation of Ferrante’s description.
From her dialect my mother left me one specific word that she used to describe how one felt when one was pulled here and there by contradictory feelings that tore her apart. She said that she had inside a frantumaglia. La frantumaglia (she pronounced it frantum-maglia) depressed her. At times it made her dizzy, caused her a metallic taste in her mouth. It was the word for a discomfort, illness not otherwise definable, manifested out of the throng of heterogenous things in her head, like refuse on turbid water of the brain. La frantumaglia was mysterious, caused mysterious acts, was the origin of all suffering not attributable to a single obvious reason…Often la frantumaglia made her cry, too, and the word remained in my mind from childhood to define first of all the crying that is sudden or without a reason one is aware of: tears of frantumaglia.
Ferrante says that these bits and pieces are the origins of her novels. Indeed, all of Ferrante’s novels recreate la frantumaglia both in structure and content. For example, in the Story of the Lost Child, Elena begins a complicated relationship with Nino Sarratore with whom she has been infatuated at various times since childhood and who is also a fraught connection with Lila, Elena’s friend and one of Nino’s previous lovers. It is as if Elena goes to a high school reunion and learns that someone she’s always had a crush on shares her feelings, and thus impassioned, the two pursue a relationship consisting of equal parts lust, self-deception, fantasy, rage, guilt, despair, and exhaustion.

The following scenes occur in quick succession early in The Story of the Lost Child and together they recreate something of the experience of la frantumaglia. Against the advice of Lila, her mother, and others Elena has finally left Pietro, her husband, and her children and is attending an academic conference with Nino in Montpellier, France. Initially, she feels liberated.
Of the days in Montpellier I remember everything except the city…I felt the limitations of my outlook, of the language in which I expressed myself and in which I had written…It seemed to me evident how restrictive, at thirty-two being a wife and mother might be…I felt freed from the chains I had accumulated over the years…It was marvelous to cross borders, to let oneself go within other cultures, discover the provisional nature of what I had taken for absolute.
When the truth of earlier warnings about Nino’s character soon becomes apparent, Elena ignores these signs. The two have separate rooms, she says, but “We slept together, clinging to each other, as if we feared that a hostile force would separate us in sleep.” Then, Elena assumes a less liberated stance:
During the day I went with him to the assembly hall and, although the speakers read their endless pages in a bored tone, being with him was exciting; I sat next to him but without disturbing him.
At lunch, Nino converses in various languages, and Elena is “struck by Nino’s mobility.” Her pride in Nino and in their relationship coincides with doubts about herself. A kind of disappearance of self occurs:
There was a single moment when he changed abruptly. The evening before he was to speak at the conference, he became aloof and rude; he seemed overwhelmed by anxiety. He began to disparage the text he had prepared, he kept repeating that writing for him wasn’t as easy as it was for me, he became angry because he hadn’t had time to work well. I felt guilty. Was it our complicated affair that had distracted him? —and tried to help…To me the speech seemed as dull as the ones I had heard in the assembly hall, but I praised it and he calmed down…That evening one of the big-name academics…invited him to sit with him. I was left alone, but I wasn’t sorry.
So great is Elena’s admiration for and pride in Nino that she is happy to sit back unnoticed. This stance, however, leaves her an outsider in other ways, too. For example, when Elena and Nino meet a French couple, Augustin and Colombe, Elena observes that Nino and Augustin “began to criticize the speakers. Colombe joined in…with a slightly artificial gaiety. The maliciousness soon created a bond.” Elena observes but doesn’t participate in their petty bonding.

In the next paragraph, Elena thinks of her children and is drawn away from Nino and the “liberating” experience of being with him.
Suddenly my world and theirs were back in communication…And the children’s bodies rejoined mine, I felt the contact violently. I had no news of them for five days, and as I became aware of that, I felt an intense nausea, an unbearable longing for them. I was afraid of the future…
Elena is no longer free, no longer able to do as she wishes, and this reality humiliates her. Though it is after midnight, she telephones Pietro to ask about the children, and Pietro rejects her inquiry. Frightened, she goes to Nino’s room for consolation, but hesitates when she overhears Nino talking to someone, perhaps his wife, on the telephone. Nino denies that he has contacted his wife. Elena says:
“I refused for a long time to make love, I couldn’t, I was afraid that he no longer loved me. Then I yielded, in order not to have to believe that it was all already over.”
Elena becomes even more anxious and insecure. In an effort to hang on to Nino and their time together, she urges that they accept the invitation to return to Paris with Augustin and Colombe, but this decision only raises more questions about their relationship:
The journey wasn’t always pleasant: sometimes I became sad. And I quickly formed the impression that Nino was talking to Colombe in a tone that he didn’t use with Augustin, not to mention that too often he touched her shoulder with his fingertips. My bad mood gradually worsened, as I saw the two of them were getting very friendly. When we arrived in Paris they were the best of friends, chatting away; she laughed often, smoothing her hair with a careless gesture.
When Elena asks Nino about his feelings for Colombe, he is irritated:
“Do you want to quarrel?”


“Then think about it: how can I like Columbe if I love you?”

It scared me when his tone became even slightly harsh; I was afraid I would have to acknowledge that something between us wasn’t working.
Despite her belief in her own liberation, Elena finds no reassurance or security in her own talents.
It was as if, since I loved Nino and he loved me, that love made everything good that happened to me and would happen to me nothing but a pleasant secondary effect.
Elena is not far from the mark. Somewhat later, she tells Nino about the success of the negotiations to have her work published in France.
He seemed very excited. But, then, sentence by sentence, his displeasure emerged.

“Maybe you don’t need me anymore,” he said…”You’re so involved in your own affairs there’s not even a tiny spot left for me.” 
Nino demands Elena meet him in Naples for Christmas and then fails to show up. Elena says, “I didn’t have the strength to leave him.” Still later Nino confesses that he had earlier prevented the publication of one of her articles because “I couldn’t bear that you were so good.” Tellingly, Elena says, “Suddenly, starting from that moment, I felt that I could always believe him.” Ferrante discusses this feminine strategy of disappearance in her Paris Review interview:
It’s a feeling I know well. I think all women know it. Whenever a part of you emerges that’s not consistent with some feminine ideal, it makes everyone nervous, and you’re supposed to get rid of it in a hurry…If you refuse to be subjugated, violence enters in.
What could be more violent than Nino’s cavalier disregard for Elena and her work, especially when it is disguised as love?

Ferrante’s minute dissection of this constant oscillation in women’s psychological and emotional experience, perhaps especially in relationship with men, is not duplicated elsewhere in serious fiction that I’m aware of. Proust’s lapidary observations document from a sociologist’s distance while Elena’s frank and frequently unpleasant revelations arise from insight within and in the moment. Elena’s denial of what is happening with Nino is not merely ironic, as we might expect with a somewhat unreliable narrator, but horrifying, as if we’re looking into the abyss with her and are as powerless as she to avoid it. In this way, both the organization and structure of the writing and the content itself are the experience of la frantumaglia. The reader shares Elena’s desperation and desire to escape, but her ongoing uncertainty keeps us turning the pages because we cannot look away.

2. Il Quartiere
Ferrante depicts la frantumaglia as an inherent state of mind, but we see that it is based in what society and culture demand of women, particularly women with backgrounds like Elena and Lila’s. Americans with their orientation to land, space, and future may find it difficult to imagine or understand how the pull of Elena’s Neapolitan neighborhood could so completely inform Elena and Lila’s lives and their decisions. Americans like to consider their origins much less important than they are, and typically believe social mobility more possible than it likely is. They often regard their neighborhood as a temporary location, something that can be established anew wherever one goes and likely improved upon. Hence, we have “starter houses.” I think this attitude is reflected in the complaints I sometimes hear that Elena is “too self-involved” and “should get over herself.” After all, she went to school and bettered her situation. She did well. She succeeded. She got out. It was unfortunate that Lila didn’t go to school, but she bettered herself anyway, maybe more so than Elena.

American social mobility is never a realistic possibility for Elena or Lila no matter how much education or status each gains or whatever their talents and skills. That this could be the case may seem incomprehensible to Americans, but Italians readily understand the pull and push of the quartiere, the neighborhood. It is the place that defines you and your social class from birth, especially if you are poor like Elena and Lila’s families, the Cerullos and the Grecos. Historically, Italian cities like Naples have been organized around parishes. Though it may be less true today, there is typically a church, a piazza where people gather, and a street where people both live and make their livings. The residents seldom leave the quartiere, and some live their entire lives within a very few, crowded blocks. This miniature society has its own history, social classes, politics, wars, grudges, intrigues, and love affairs. Gossip and custom are its currency, and fear and violence its weapons. The permanent influence of the quartiere is much more encompassing than that of most American neighborhoods.

As in the novels of Elsa Morante and Vasco Pratolini, the quartiere in Ferrante’s novels has a persona and is a character. This vivid sense of place gives a particular energy to Ferrante’s novels similar to the role of place in Faulkner’s south, Dickens’s London, and Proust’s drawing rooms. The Snopes and the Solaras have much in common. Pip seems as ambitious and conflicted in his expectations as Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo are in theirs. Issues of status and class pervade the works of all of these writers.

The quartiere marks Elena no matter how far she goes or how high she rises. Montpellier offers her new perspective, but it is temporary:
the impression that my boundaries had burst and I was expanding…and was “proof that the neighborhood, Naples, Pisa, Florence, Milan, Italy itself were only tiny fragments of the world and that I would do well not to be satisfied with those fragments any longer…I felt the limitations of my outlook, of the language in which I expressed myself and in which I had written…it was marvelous to cross borders, to let oneself go within other cultures, discover the provisional nature of what I had taken for absolute.
From her new perspective, Elena views Lila with a certain degree of smugness:
She was mired in the lota, the filth, of the neighborhood, she was satisfied with it. I, on the other hand, in those French days, felt that I was at the center of chaos and yet had tools with which to distinguish its laws.
And later:
I noted…the rigidity of the perimeter that Lila had established for herself. She was less and less interested in what happened outside the neighborhood. If she became excited by something whose dimensions were not merely local, it was because it concerned people she had known since childhood. Even her work, as far as I knew, interested her only within a very narrow radius…she had never moved…
Elena’s exchanges with her in-laws belie her claims of escape from these Neapolitan origins.
[Elena’s father-in-law] began to praise Nino, but not with the absolute support of years earlier. He said that he was very intelligent…but—he said, emphasizing the adversative conjunction—he is fickle…Sarratore is intelligence without traditions…
When Elena asks Adele, her mother-in-law, what “intelligence without traditions” means, Adele replies:
That he’s no one. And for a person who is no one to become someone is more important than anything else. The result is that this Signor Sarratore is an unreliable person.

“I, too, am an intelligence without traditions.” [Elena says]

Yes, you are, too, and in fact you are unreliable.
Despite her remarkable success as a writer, the quartiere remains Elena’s milieu, drawing her back to where she came from. She acknowledges that it is the source and subject of her writing and doubts that she can write if she loses contact with her origins. Lila who has never left is the conduit by which Elena maintains this creative lifeline and a source of inspiration. For Ferrante, the quartiere (and by extension the city) is a mythic place and exerts a mythic power.

Unlike many writers, Ferrante is not concerned with beauty of form or with pretty writing per se. Her prose is intentionally raw and direct. In fact, it can sometimes be difficult to remember that Ferrante’s work is fiction, not memoir, when the boundary between fiction and reality seems so thin. Similarly, she turns the conventions of fiction to her own purposes. From the Paris Review interview:
I employ all the strategies I know to capture the reader’s attention, stimulate curiosity, make the page as dense as possible and as easy as possible to turn” and “I renounce nothing that can give pleasure to the reader, not even what is considered old, trite, vulgar, not even the devices of genre fiction.” And later, I use plots, yes, but, I have to say, I can’t respect the rules of genres…In the Neapolitan Novels, the plot avoided every kind of trap set by fixed rules and convention.
Though Ferrante’s plots are as entertaining and compelling as those of detective stories, she has a larger purpose that is founded in the cultural and social changes in the conditions of women starting in the 20th century and supported by her continuing commitment to feminism. Again, from her Paris Review interview:
I wouldn’t recognize myself without women’s struggles, women’s nonfiction, women’s literature — they made me an adult.

My experience as a novelist…culminated, after twenty years, in the attempt to relate, in a writing that was appropriate, my sex and its difference.
Ferrante also identifies Morante’s first novel, Menzogna e Sortilegio (House of Liars), as inspiration for her own explorations of the intersection of passion and societal demands. She is committed to saying the unsayable. From her Vanity Fair interview:
Often that which we are unable to tell ourselves coincides with that which we do not want to tell, and if a book offers us a portrait of those things, we feel annoyed, or resentful, because they are things we all know, but reading about them disturbs us. However, the opposite also happens. We are thrilled when fragments of reality become utterable.
I don’t intend to spoil the ending for those who haven’t yet had the incredible pleasure of reading The Story of the Lost Child and will instead simply offer the observation that the conclusion for me marks these novels as a full account of what it is to be an artist and a woman in our time. Elsewhere, Ferrante has likened the quartiere to the labyrinth, and one imagines Lila the figurative minotaur at its center. I believe Elena and Lila can be seen as singular, two sides of the same figure. Elena cannot write without Lila. Lila cannot speak without Elena. It doesn’t give away the end of the story to say that only when Elena slays the minotaur, i.e. her dependence on Lila for inspiration and creative energy, can she finally believe her work is truly her own. Only by taking back the power she attributes to Lila can she truly leave the quartiere.

Ferrante validates women’s experience in a way that recognizes our common humanity. Her work distinguishes between who we are and the imprint of social class and origins. It may seem a stretch to consider Ferrante in the same breath with Proust, Faulkner, and Dickens, but I’m convinced of her stature as one of the greatest writers and artists of this or any other time. All give us a world of such scope and insight that they establish another reality within which we can understand our own experience in ways that permit us to be more integrated and whole than we otherwise would be. If this is not truly the greatest art, what is?