Monday, April 12, 2021

Why Do I Care About The Gender Of Elena Ferrante?

When I first encountered the kerfuffle around the true identity of the novelist Elena Ferrante, I had two immediate and diametrically opposed reactions. First, smugness: I never concern myself with the autobiographical details of authors I love. So who cares? Second, freak out: wait, "Elena Ferrante" might not be a woman?

Normally I use mental discipline to avoid finding out about fiction writers. If I love a novel, thinking about which parts might be based on real life leads me down a mental rabbit hole of pointless philosophical questions. "If that part is real, did it really happen like that? Or is the author changing the details to manipulate me into feeling one way or another about a thing?" Then I'm like "What do you mean, 'manipulating,' anyway"? Talk about pointless and dumb.

However, I have also been shaken to learn certain facts about books I love, especially books representing the experience of women, especially books representing the experience of women and sexuality.

As a young person, I fell in love with Colette, the early twentieth-century French writer whose work and life challenged gender norms and all other kinds of conventions. Colette is best known now for the book that inspired the movie Gigi, but if that's all you know about Colette then you have the wrong idea -- as so often happens, the novel is darker, weirder, and more interesting. Colette is also famous for her many short stories. But the books I feel hardest for were the Claudine series.  

Over the course of the four Claudine books, Claudine grows from a precocious and rambunctious fifteen-year-old into a comfortably bourgeois but also free-thinking and unconventional adult. The first book, Claudine at School, gives an amusing side-on look at French social life in the provinces and the complex emotions of mid-adolescent feminine life. Among other complexities, Claudine has a massive crush on her young school teacher Aimée; they have a budding sensual romance when Aimée throws her over for the head schoolmistress, mystifying Claudine and giving her minor heartbreak. Aimée's younger sister Luce develops an unreciprocated love for Claudine, who doesn't understand her own desire to hurt Luce and cause her pain.

The way Claudine has romantic feelings for women and men and the way at fifteen she is both highly sensual and also a child both profoundly resonate with me. So I was disturbed to learn that the first version of Claudine at School may have been a more chaste and childlike story, and that Claudine's husband -- the writer Willy, who first told her to write up her memories and initially published the Claudine books under his own name (!), may have told her to tart them up, to liven them up with sex. I don't have sophisticated thoughts about this, but the idea that my favorite things were in there because some guy wanted them in there made me feel sad and weird.

Then a similar thing happened with erotic novel Story of O. That's not a book I loved (and the kind of submission/dominance thing in that book is not my kind of thing), but I always appreciated Story of O as a frank and explicit presentation of a certain version of positive sexuality from a woman's point of view. How many stories depict a woman being sexually adventurous and just basically enjoying it and having a great time? It's not a lot.

So, again, I was unsettled to learn late in life that while the author is a woman, the book may have been originally written for a man. That is, the author was in a relationship with a man, and wanted to get his attention, to turn him on, and to flirt with him. Again, I don't have sophisticated thoughts about this, but I find it disappointing to think that this, too, like so many things depicting women's sexuality, was ultimately crafted to appeal to a man's taste.

I loved Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, and I found The Days of Abandonment conveyed vividly what if feels like to be trapped in your life and in despair. Like Claudine at School, The Lying Life of Adults shows a textured experience of girlhood-womanhood adolescence.

It's been suggested that Ferrante may be a woman, or may not be a woman, or may be a woman and a man writing together. I feel like there's some sense in which I shouldn't care: the books are the books whoever the author is, and Ferrante herself has suggested that it's misogyny and sexism that makes people want to know.

But I also can't shake the feeling that the thoughts and feelings of people who aren't women so often affect what gets presented as the truth about women. It happens in pornography, it happens in movies, and it happens in books; given the way social gender norms work, it probably happens whenever there is an audience. While the books are the books whoever the author is, I also don't want the books by Elena Ferrante to be another example where the tastes, attitudes, and feelings of people who are not women are shaping narratives of our woman- and girl-hood experience.

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