An exciting mystery keeping literary types engaged this year has been the identity of Italian novelist Elena Ferrante. Having published hugely successful novels in quick succession, Ferrante refuses to reveal her real self before the world. Several writers have been "outed" as possibilities but no one has yet agreed that they are, in fact, her. Meanwhile, the fame of the elusive Ferrante rises unabated.
A New Yorker profile of the writer says: "More than these occasional and fairly trivial overlappings with life, the material that the early novels visit and revisit is intimate and often shockingly candid: child abuse, divorce, motherhood, wanting and not wanting children, the tedium of sex, the repulsions of the body, the narrator's desperate struggle to retain a cohesive identity within a traditional marriage and amid the burdens of child rearing…The Days of Abandonment is Ferrante's most widely read novel in English, with good reason. It assails bourgeois niceties and domestic proprieties; it rips the skin off the habitual."
Last year, on the eve of the release of her latest novel, The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud, along with her husband, the literary critic James Wood, gave a wide-ranging interview to New York magazine. During the interview, Wood read extracts from The Lost Daughter by Ferrante. A radically feminist work, The Lost Daughter showcases its protagonist, question her role as a mother, and subsequently, details her abandonment of her children.
While Wood professes admiration for Ferrante, later in the interview, conducted at home, Wood and Messud say: "F*** the outside world. F*** the work. Children are right in front of you. That's the work, and the joyous work."
This, while not surprising, is certainly different. We think of writers as insular people who, if they happen to have a family, do not skip letting on what a pain it is. Here, on the contrary, is a writer couple who has been there and done that, has gloried in the burden of knowledge that shifts us from our bourgeois roots, only to return to a world of domesticity and bliss.
For women writers especially, the conflict between art and domesticity is a recurring theme. Virginia Woolf wrote pressingly about this in her polemic, A Room of One's Own. Messud, married to a man who is part of the same literary firmament to which she aspires, adds another dimension to this battle. She acknowledges the sly battle for supremacy between her and her husband with the smart analogy: "I certainly have felt at various moments that the reluctance of a certain world to take me seriously as a writer is not unlike the fact that only one of us can actually work in the house at any given time. That there isn't enough air."
This battle, of course, goes beyond feminism. From the time of the greats, namely the fight between nature and man in Moby Dick, or the brutality of racial discrimination in To Kill A Mockingbird, to the literary landscape of today straining to make sense of religious fundamentalism and economic malaise, writers have frequently set David against Goliath, the individual against society, in trying to throw light over darkness and ignorance.
Be that as it may, there is also something to say for the comfort, the sheer social cachet of being in, and of, a dominant setup. Why must art only look at escape, is a reasonable question. Is art only about subverting known things and stereotypes or is it, broadly speaking, about fashioning a self while being a part of this world?
This question is pertinent with regard to the willful process of "creating the self". Am I necessarily to find solace in creative expression that pits me against the world? Or might I find other, less antagonistic ways to express my politics? To an extent, all art is adversarial in that it holds a mirror to society, but how it might interact with the world it operates in is a trickier question.
Isn't my constant avowal to disregard the world and manufacture themes for myself a sort of arrogance that belittles not merely other's intelligence but also that ineffable quality: faith? Doesn't my belief in only one, right, oppositional self indicate a sort of determinism that paradoxically reinforces the "blatant hierarchies" of the world around me that I wish to suppress?
I found a deep resonance with what Wood and Messud said about children in the interview. Life, and its persistent agonies, is not a grand project where one can place oneself in a virtuous, self-righteous avatar. Life is about the little compromises and tiny victories that rely on compassion and love. Writers must recognise that whatever exists, even if wrong, provides both the grand themes for their work, and also, at a personal level, surprisingly sturdy templates for sustenance and belief.