Elena Ferrante's Troubling Love

Stiliana Milkova

Published in Italy in 1991, Elena Ferrante’s novel Troubling Love caused a literary sensation and earned its author the Elsa Morante prize—one of Italy’s most prestigious awards for literature. Thanks to translator Ann Goldstein, the book now affords us English-speakers the guilty pleasure of delving into dark and forbidden places—the insides of the mother-daughter body, the ins and outs of the mother-daughter relationship. In Troubling Love, Ferrante cuts open and examines the female psyche and body against the backdrop of gritty, unforgiving Naples.

The novel tells the mother’s story as it is seen through the daughter’s eyes and experienced through the daughter’s body. The text opens as the narrator, Delia, finds out that her mother, Amalia, has drowned on her way to visit Delia in Rome. The mother’s body has washed ashore, completely naked save for a piece of lingerie that the mother did not—could not—have owned. Ferrante introduces the mother’s body through Delia’s gaze:

I saw the body and, faced with that livid object, felt that I had better grab onto it in order not to end up in some unknown place. It hadn’t been assaulted. It showed only some bruises, a result of the waves that, though gentle, had pushed her all night against some rocks at the edge of the water. It seemed to me that around the eyes she had traces of heavy makeup. I observed her for a long time, uneasily, her legs, olive-skinned and extraordinarily youthful for a woman of sixty-three. With the same uneasiness I realized that the bra was very different from the shabby ones she usually wore. The cups were made of finely worked lace and revealed the nipples. They were joined by three embroidered “V”s, the signature of a Neapolitan shop that sold expensive lingerie for women, that of the Vossi sisters. When it was given to me, along with her earrings and her rings, I sniffed it for a long time. It had the sharp odor of new fabric.

As Delia tries to reconstruct her mother’s last days, slowly stitching together the events of that night, she ends up in an unknown place—the dark closet of history—where she encounters the abusive men of her own and of her mother’s past: her uncle, her father, their friend Caserta, and Caserta’s son Antonio. As we travel farther into Delia’s memories, we are sucked into a whirlwind of obsession, love, jealousy, fear, and sexual abuse.

Although dead, the mother pervades the text through the daughter’s compulsive act of remembering. While Delia traverses the city in search of clues, she excavates her childhood and summons the vital, voluptuous, uncontainable body of the mother, which, as it were, takes over the narrative space. We see Amalia negotiate the streets of Naples under desirous male gazes; we see her on the crowded funicular trapped by male bodies; we see her wash her hair in the street, water dripping on her shoulders. But it’s the mother’s clothes that we scrutinize most, together with Delia—from the drowned Amalia’s bra to a bag of old underwear Delia finds in her apartment to her habitual blue suit.

Dressing and undressing the mother’s body is a thread that runs throughout the text. Delia comes to realize that before she drowned, Amalia dressed in the lingerie she had intended as Delia’s birthday present. Towards the end of the novel, Delia dresses in the blue suit Amalia had worn the day she died. It is a suit that Delia remembers from her childhood and one that Amalia—an indefatigable seamstress—had sewn and resewn to fit the changing fashions. By wearing her mother's suit, Delia comes to terms with the past, inhabits her mother’s seductive body, and accepts her own femininity. The act of sewing—or making attractive garments to clothe the female body and thus create a feminine identity—recurs in Ferrante’s subsequent works as well. In Ferrante’s world, to dress the mother is to acknowledge her sexual body, to give it shape and substance, to grant it agency and its own narrative.

Troubling Love is a difficult text, yet hard to put down. Ferrante counts on the reader's scopophilia, our pleasure in surveying the female body both inside and outside—but our pleasure borders on repugnance, too. For example, Ferrante uses a detached, almost clinical tone to describe one of Delia’s sexual experiences, making the scene both compelling and repulsive: “However much I caressed myself, the only result was that the liquids of my body overflowed: my mouth, instead of getting dry, filled with a cold saliva; sweat ran down my forehead, my nose, my cheeks; my armpits became puddles; not an inch of skin remained dry; my sex got so wet that the fingers slipped over it without purchase.” Throughout the novel, Ferrante’s language—as capably translated by Ann Goldstein—is lacerating, and her imagery is visceral, often evoking disgust; menstrual blood, sweat, and other fluids exit the body and then are internalized metaphorically.

Still, the omnipresence of the disgusting seems less powerful in the translated text than does is in the Italian original. For example, when Delia encounters Caserta in the English version, we are told, “I was hit by a stream of obscenities in dialect, a soft river of sound that involved me, my sisters, my mother in a concoction [frullato] of semen, saliva, feces, urine, in every possible orifice.” Apart from “concoction” or “mixture,” the Italian word frullato is commonly used to signify a “milk shake” or “smoothie”; thus, Ferrante’s particular lexical choice intensifies the image of the mouth ingesting the bodily fluids evoked by Caserta. To confirm the image of oral ingestion, Ferrante later portrays Delia eating with sensuous pleasure [con gusto] a fried pizza stuffed with ricotta.

Ferrante’s subsequent novels, The Days of Abandonment (2002) and The Lost Daughter (2006), continue this exploration of the female psyche, and especially of the mother-daughter nexus. In all her novels, Ferrante also sets up a kind of intellectual mystery. In Troubling Love, we uncover with Delia not only the reasons for her mother’s death but also the secrets of the past. In The Days of Abandonment, the protagonist agonizes over the identity of her husband’s lover and over the sudden death or her dog. The Lost Daughter traces the origins of a mysterious lesion on the protagonist’s body.

The author also presents us with a mystery of her own, as “Elena Ferrante” is a pseudonym, and nobody—except perhaps her Italian publisher—is privy to her real name, profession, or whereabouts. Interestingly, it has been speculated that a male intellectual—the literary critic Goffredo Fofi or the writer Domenico Starnone—stands behind the pseudonym.

Stiliana Milkova is a literary scholar who works on Russian, Bulgarian, and Italian literatures.

Troubling Love
Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein
Europa Editions, 2006
$14.95 (paperback), ISBN-10: 1933372168
139 pages