Troubling Love. Elena Ferrante.

Ferrante, Elena. Troubling Love. Europa Editions, New York. As L’amore molesto (Italian) 1991; English translation by Ann Goldstein 2007. Hachette/Kindle.

This one really surprised me. It’s a short book containing events of at most a few days. But narrating Delia presses on us a fabulously female, sexual, artistic, and ambiguous picture of her life and family from childhood to present forty-something. I don’t remember running into quite such a violent, vicious, bloody, dirty, and heavily personal vision of love and imagination.

Delia’s mother Amalia has just been found dead in the ocean. There is a funeral, and Delia who comes from Rome to her hometown of Naples tries to sort out what happened, exploring Amalia’s apartment, an exclusive ladies’ clothes/lingerie shop, a sweet shop she had frequented as a child, her father’s apartment where he lives, and eventually the beach (venue of childhood summers) where Amalia drowned. The father, long separated from his wife, is a violently jealous painter of cheap portraits. Amalia’s probable lover Caserta who must have been with or near her when she drowned is an ambiguous (sleazy and broke but at times well-dressed and distinguished) sexual fetishist. His son who runs the lingerie business was a childhood playmate of Delia’s, whom she meets at the store, recalling sexual play as children.

What happens, and what happened? It’s never completely clear who had sex with whom (numerous possibilities encompassing three generations of Caserta’s family and two generations of Delia’s) in the cellar of the sweet shop, and who told Delia’s father his wife was unfaithful. Mother Amalia is gorgeous and uninhibited, and represents Delia’s personal enigma:

Not even her voice, which had been sure and clear: no. Not a single sign that might lead me to think that she was lying. Thus I had no doubt. She was lying.

“You have a lover,” I said to her coldly.

Amalia obviously attracted the father but also drove him crazy:

(Her) tone of voice, according to him, was too easily engaging…she could charm without effort and without the ambition to charm. It happened, even if she didn’t intend it. Oh yes: for that, for her charm he punished her with slaps and punches.

A dazzling scene in real time involves Delia and Antonio (Caserta’s son), Caserta, and a torrential storm in the city. They all rush in ambiguous pursuit to a funicular railway, where Caserta pointedly shows Delia a coarse public frotteurism with a “shabby” stranger girl on the tram. But at the same time in the station Delia sees cardboard figures of a high-class couple and is reminded of her mother’s beauty and the lovely clothes she made for herself. Delia is having trouble not only understanding how and why her mother died, but who she, Delia, is herself, how much like her mother or of her mother she really is.

Sex and art are pulled together using physical events and Delia’s connected stream of consciousness, often through clothing. Caserta exchanges Amalia’s suitcase containing beautiful new lingerie and dresses from the high-class store for a bag containing Amalia’s old and dirty underwear. Amalia was a dressmaker working with paper patterns, producing clothes for wealthy people who resemble cardboard cutouts, who speak in a dialect which Delia imagines makes sex insignificant: ... softened in an unexpected way, becoming a kind of rustling against the roller of an old typewriter.

Beautiful seductive (and dirty intimate) clothes, paper, cardboard, artifice, and sex strangely softened into something used to produce a written manuscript.

This author (who writes under a pseudonym whether out of coquettish playfulness or through not wanting everyone to understand how body-centered and violently imaginative her writing is) has what I call literary charm. I’m reminded of some of my old favorites (Nadas, Cunningham, and Ondaatje): I knew within a few pages that I could embark on the author’s superficially disconnected imaginative flights with confidence. Something even more complicated, mysterious, and personal than the psychological plot was reliably being pointed to. This, this writing I’m doing, can produce an experience that feels like the fabric of reality.

Make no mistake, that fabric is sensual, sensuous, filled with detailed body references and metaphors, and packed like the low-income quarter of an old Italian town with seductive disgusting fascinating smells. Some reviewers find it a little strong for their taste.

I liked it. I think this is the first time I’ve read a book twice. It is short. The second time through I got a better sense of the plot, but also a better experience of its feeling of Italy, no-nonsense feminism, hard and ambiguous feelings of family and personal identity, and great courage and complexity in the writing. Well worth the trouble. 9.2/9.4.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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