‘Elena Ferrante’s Key Words’ by Tiziana de Rogatis (Review)

Given that I’ve finished off just about everything Elena Ferrante has had translated into English, both fiction and non-fiction (including the short essays I covered a few days back), you’d be forgiven for wondering how I plan on stretching my latest Ferrante project out into a week of posts.  Well, you see, I’m far from the only one out there writing about the enigmatic, elusive (and possibly invented) Italian writer, and some of these people have taken a far more rigorous and academic approach to their criticism.  Today, then, we’ll be taking a close look at a close look at Ferrante and her novels, with particular reference to some rather important words that crop up repeatedly in her books.  Pay attention, now – there may be a test later…

Elena Ferrante’s Key Words (translated by Will Schutt, review copy courtesy of Europa Editions) is a book-length analysis of Ferrante’s work by the Italian academic Tiziana de Rogatis.  Over almost three-hundred pages, the writer closely analyses Ferrante’s books, with a major focus (of course) on the Neapolitan Novels, taking the reader on a journey through the quartet and patiently pointing out how Ferrante constructed them and what she wanted to say in the process.  Covering topics as diverse as female friendship, the mother-daughter relationship, the city of Naples and the importance of language and dialect, the book is nothing if not thorough, and by the time we’re done, I don’t think many readers will feel that a lot (if anything) has been overlooked.

The titular key words are introduced early on, with the main focus on the linked concepts of frantumaglia and smarginatura.  The first has to do with fragmentation and instability, the sensation of the world crumbling and reforming and a feeling that everything we know could be destroyed in an instant; the second refers to an instability of boundaries and identities, a sensation experienced by both of the main protagonists of the quartet at different times.  The two characters seem to melt into each other, too, in the sense of Lenù and Lila’s interdependency, with the girls (then women) drawing strength from each other, while also stealing ideas and energy in what becomes an absorbing, unusual model of friendship.  Here, de Rogatis introduces another key word, polyphony, one she frequently refers to, seeing the Neapolitan Novels as a series where two voices can be heard, even if one dominates.

However, surprisingly perhaps, de Rogatis actually focuses more at times on mother-daughter ties than on friendship.  One of the most interesting parts of the book is an extended section on women, where she describes at great length the connection the two main characters, and all the women growing up in the city they inhabit, share with their female ancestors.  In trying to escape their past, Lenù and Lila are fated to fall into what the writer calls the pit, where they become part of a never-ending line of oppressed women.  Here, de Rogatis refers to scenes from The Days of Abandonment to clarify her point:

The mother/poverella imposes her own negative legacy, dragging the daughter into the vortex of an ancient world where she risks repeating the same suicidal act caried out by countless unknown women.  Abandoned by her husband, at odds with her own motherhood and her children, whom she views as the cause of her abandonment, the “stink of motherhood” (doa 92) having repelled her man and precipitated her desperation and death, the poverella is a symbol of the inextricably difficult coexistence of two opposing states: motherhood and womanhood.
p.94 (Europa Editions, 2019)

Just like Olga in the earlier novel, Lenù and Lila will find themselves struggling to escape the fate generations of female ancestors appear to be dragging them towards.

This issue is tied to an important topic for de Rogatis, that of class, with the novels existing in an uneasy space between the working-class suburb the girls were born in and the richer areas, both within Naples and beyond, that Lenù discovers.  This aspect of the quartet is what really drew me into the series as Lenù’s journey is very similar to mine, with education providing an escape route out of a world with few options.  Just as was the case with Ferrante’s creations, university was a bewildering, alien concept (my father wanted me to leave school early to get a job, just as Lenù’s did…).  However, this escape, as the writer explains, is often incomplete – one door shuts behind you, but the one in front is never fully open:

As Ferrante points out,”[…] class origins canot be erased, regardless of whether we climb up or down the sociocultural ladder.  Even when our circumstances improve, it’s like the color that inevitably rises to one’s cheeks after a strong emotion” (fr 356).  (p.192)

In effect, a first-generation student (like Lenù – or myself) can become trapped between classes, at home in neither sphere.

Another fascinating theme linked to this idea of class mobility is that of language and dialect, and given my background in languages, this was always likely to be one of my favourite sections.  De Rogatis examines how Ferrante uses them, particularly in the Neapolitan Novels, with each having rather different undertones.  The Neapolitan dialect is often used in the books as a marker of violence and crudeness, with standard Italian offering a way out of the darkness, the only possible way of expressing more complex thoughts and ideas.   Yet there’s another side to this duality, with the national language also one of lies, allowing the speaker to mislead and confuse the listener, in contrast with the earthy, direct local variety.  Interestingly, de Rogatis sees the lack of actual dialect used in the novels as intensifying its effect.  She believes Ferrante uses it as a pervasive, ghostly presence, with readers picking up echoes of what might have been said in the standard translation Lenù provides.

An idea de Rogatis returns to across all the sections is that of genre as she attempts to explain what kind of books the quartet actually are.  Her answer is more complex than you might expect:

For Ferrante, “resorting to low sources,” rummaging through the “cellar of writing,” and reckoning with “a fund of pleasure that for years [she] repressed in the name of Literature” (fr 64) means drawing on subgenres, like thrillers, serial novels, the Neapolitan sceneggiata, even photo romances – that is to say marginalized genres – to create her own work. (p.30)

In effect, Ferrante’s use of different genres equates to what de Rogatis labels a hypergenre (another of our key words?), with the end result being a sort of frustration of the reader’s expectations.  While there are times when the novels have elements of a romance, a Bildungsroman, a political novel or a feminist work, in truth, we’re never able to pin the books down to one overarching genre – which, perhaps, is one of Ferrante’s strengths.

There’s much to absorb in Elena Ferrante’s Key Words, and I got a lot out of it, but it’s certainly not a book I’d recommend to everyone.  Any potential reader would need to have finished the quartet, and possibly Ferrante’s other novels, too, since there are frequent references that will otherwise make little sense.  While de Rogatis (in Schutt’s translation) generally reads smoothly, with little to confuse the average reader, she’s very much the academic, and occasionally a touch too dry.  There were definitely times where the reading felt a little more of a duty than a pleasure.

However, overall, the book does what it should.  De Rogatis provides a number of fascinating insights into Ferrante’s work, some of which the casual reader may not have considered (or at least not in this much detail).  Elena Ferrante’s Key Words is also a book that whets readers’ appetites for Ferrante’s fiction, making us want to dive back into the quartet.  More importantly, though, (for me, at least) it’s had the effect of increasing my anticipation for the forthcoming novel.  In that sense, then, it’s a book that has certainly achieved its goal 🙂

2 thoughts on “‘Elena Ferrante’s Key Words’ by Tiziana de Rogatis (Review)

  1. I had not heard of this book, but I like that someone is taking a deeper dive into the Neapolitan Quartet. The class mobility commentary interests me especially, since it’s such a recurrent motif in the books, from the dubious effects of the “Boom” to the class jockeying that goes on between the main characters – without their ever really being able to escape their origins. Interesting too that de Rogatis notes the swirl of genres in the books. I’m curious to know if she mentions this i the context of the New Italian Epic, with its emphasis on “unidentifiable literary objects” – as well as its penchant for anonymity.


    1. Scott – From memory, it may have been mentioned in passing, but it certainly wasn’t a central theme. To be honest, I think both of the books I posted on this week by critics were fairly reluctant to spend too much time on the elephant in the room…


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