The love told of in L’amore molesto is a maddening kind of love. It can be, like the Italian word used to describe it, annoying, bothersome, irritating—nasty, even. Or, borrowing from the English translation of the novel, troubling. This love, between a mother and a daughter, is, one might say, the most primal kind of love. It is the original love. And while Ferrante’s novel does not reveal what love itself is, it certainly makes it clear that the act of loving and being loved is a viscous affair. One we cannot escape from, as it adheres to the self as skin does to flesh. We can only, this novel suggests, try to understand it, or rather, mold it and reimagine it in an effort to make it coherent—palatable. It is precisely this imaginative exercise that stands at the center of Ferrante’s first published novel, which opens with the death of a mother. Unlike Camus’s Meursault, Delia knows the exact date and place of her mother’s death: “Mia madre annegò la notte del 23 maggio, giorno del mio compleanno, nel tratto di mare di fronte alla località che chiamano Spaccavento, a pochi chilometri da Minturno” (8). This death, like the eponymous love, is primordial, inasmuch as it sets in motion Delia’s investigation of her mother’s last days. L’amore molesto, thus, opens with one of the essential tropes of the detective novel, and it borrows from the genre in that the action must move backwards in order to move forward. Yet Delia’s examination of her mother’s death is really a proxy for her investigation of the maternal figure (sagoma—figure, outline, contour, shape—is a word that repeatedly comes up in the novel) and the relationship that it bears to her past, present, and future self.
It is no coincidence that the event which inaugurates this process happens on the day of Delia’s birthday. Amalia’s death is the necessary catalyst for Delia’s rebirth, which can only be realized through the separation from the maternal womb. The occasion arrives, we might think, belatedly (forty five years, to the day). We see echoes here of Irigaray’s 1981 essay on mother-daughter relationships: “what I wanted from you Mother, was this: that in giving me life, you still remain alive” (quoted in Hirsch 137). Only through death can life come, and as the novel opens with this event, Delia must revisit the imaginary and real places of her childhood. Images of regression abound in the novel. Most prominent, perhaps, is the sea, the perennial trope of things generative. It is at once the place where Amalia’s life ends, and the place where, at the end of the book, Delia will come to have her own version of an epiphany. But it is the in-between—the journey to this epiphany—that takes up the bulk of the book. We learn that although Delia had left her native Naples years ago to live in Rome, she never succeeded in shaking off her mother’s influence. Whenever her mother visited her and took to clean the apartment, Delia confesses, she felt, curled up in bed, like a “bambina con le rughe” (16). This infantilization continues throughout the book, originating from Delia’s fear of abandonment—her constant clinging to her mother and the jealousy she feels at the thought of having to share her affection: “La sua socievolezza mi infastidiva” (17). What troubles her (what maddens, upsets her) about Amalia’s sociability is the realization that her mother is a woman of her own who is capable of giving herself over to other people besides her daughter. It must be said, however, that it is Amalia’s rapport with men that most troubles her daughter, as little to nothing is made of her affection for other women, not even her other daughters.
This fear of abandonment is present in Delia from her early childhood days, when she would impatiently wait for her mother by the window: “l’ansia diventava così incontenibile che debordava in tremiti del corpo” (29). In the face of this overflow, the child’s reaction, to lock herself in a closet, is telling. She sees this as “un antidote efficace” (32). The closet, an enclosed and dark space, is strongly suggestive of a womb in which the little girl takes refuge when overpowered by the fear of losing her mother. Such a tight space provides comfort and, of course, harks back to the prenatal stage, when mother and daughter inhabited the same body, neither separated by the act of birth nor estranged from each other by the phallocentric apparatus. It gives Delia a sense of grasp over her mother that she never truly achieves in reality. When she finally loses her, Delia’s first instinct is to hold on to her dead body “per non finire chissà dove” (56). Although it is clear that she will, in fact, end up somewhere, the fear expressed in this statement shows the extent to which daughter has molded her own self in association with, as well as against, the image (the figure) of the mother.
Once her mother has been taken by the sea, Delia is unanchored, even more so because she is abruptly confronted with her aging mother’s sexuality. The provocative underwear that Amalia was wearing when she drowned is presented as a clue that will advance the structure of the mystery, as well as tangible evidence of Delia’s suspicions (and fears) that her mother was, in fact, a sexual being. L’amore molesto is perhaps at its darkest and most poignant in the moments when we witness the ways in which the obsessive jealousy of Delia’s violent father (who, very tellingly, remains nameless) is mirrored in Delia herself. Certainly the parallels hold only to a very limited extent; Delia’s father remains steeped in, and a representative of, a patriarchal oppressive society. Nevertheless, Delia’s own policing of her mother’s life is many a time presented as a paternal inheritance. By paternal inheritance I do not only mean what her father in particular has passed on to her, but also what she has absorbed from the Neapolitan society in which she grew up. Such a society has not only set women against—and as the possession of—men, but it has also altered male relationships, making men alternate between a fiery protectiveness of what is perceived as one’s property and a complicity in the state of dominance. A simple ride on the tram, the novel suggests, suffices to witness this condition:
I passeggeri in piedi si curvavano su di noi respirandoci addosso. Le donne soffocavano tra i corpi maschili, sbuffando per quella vicinanza occasionale, fastidiosa anche se all’apparenza incolpevole. I maschi, nella ressa, si servivano delle femmine per giocare in silenzio tra sé e sé. Uno fissava una ragazza bruna con occhi ironici per vedere se abbassava lo sguardo. Uno pescava un po’ di pizzo tra un bottone e l’altro di una camicetta o arpionava con lo sguardo una bretella. (597)
Yet, in this world, Ferrante reminds us that it is not only men who police the female body, but even women themselves. Even when Delia recognizes that such a fiercely protective and territorial attitude was all but self-obliterating to her father, she internalizes his fears about Amalia’s body, especially when it is displayed in public: “Allora mi prendeva la smania di proteggere mia madre dal contatto con gli uomini, come avevo visto che faceva sempre mio padre in quella circostanza. Mi disponevo come uno scudo alle sue spalle e me ne stavo crocefissa alle gambe di lei [...]” (612 emphasis mine).
Of course, this acquired anxiety damages Delia’s own relationship with her mother. Female as they are, Delia and the women around her have grown up speaking the language of the aggressor; they have been defined in terms that are fundamentally alien to their condition, and this has led to an estrangement both from themselves and from one another. Delia is aware of this fact (perhaps she is more critical of it in her mother than in herself) and alludes to it when she writes: “Forse adesso ero sotto quel cavalcavia perché [...] di nuovo mia madre, prima che diventasse mia madre, fosse incalzata dall’uomo con cui avrebbe fatto l’amore, che l’avrebbe coperta col suo cognome, che l’avrebbe cancellata col suo alfabeto” (1428). In this sense, the English translation of the novel might take on a new meaning if we are willing to read troubling as a verb instead of an adjective: Troubling Love is about men troubling the love between women. The effacement instigated by the imposition of a phallocentric language obscures the relationships between women and renders communication more difficult. Having been oppressed and conditioned by the males around her, Delia must find a different way, a more feminine way perhaps, of understanding her relationship with her mother. This search can be formulated in terms of Kristeva’s chora or Cixous’s écriture feminine; thus, Delia’s main and most difficult task is to try to understand the mother-daughter relationship in intimate terms that are removed from those imposed by the men around her.
To what extent is this possible? Delia carries this inheritance like a burden. Her relationship to her mother has been so damaged that it, too, has become a burden. Ferrante literalizes this burden in the scene of the funeral: “Durante il funerale mi sorpresi a pensare che finalmente non avevo più l’obbligo di preoccuparmi per lei. Subito dopo avvertii un flusso tiepido e mi sentii bagnata tra le gambe” (67). As brilliant as this literary move is, there is many ways in which we can read Delia’s particularly violent period at her mother’s funeral. On the one hand, menstruation is a common signifier for the life that did not come to be realized; on the other hand, it is the ultimate affirmation of the possibility to create life. We are told that the discharge is particularly powerful (“Il flusso di sangue era copioso”). Its potency sets Delia, living and bleeding, in stark contrast with her mother, whose coffin she decides to carry on her shoulders along with other men, even if “le donne non portano bare in spalla.” The coffin, of course, becomes the literalized burden, a sort of object correlative. “Quando la bara era stata deposta nel carro,” Delia writes, “e questo si era avviato, erano bastati pochi passi e un sollievo colpevole perché la tensione precipitasse in quel fiotto segreto del ventre” (92). If the coffin precipitates and increases the blood flow, it is because, as mentioned above, Amalia’s death has become the rebirth of her daughter, and, in performing the ritualistic carrying of the coffin, Delia is, in a way, going through her own rite of initiation: a second first-menstruation, characterized by its force. This connection does not escape Delia, who very directly—and effectively—juxtaposes her and her mother’s situations: “Mia madre era stata sotterrata da becchini maleducati in fondo a un interrato maleodorante di ceri e di fiori marci. Io avevo mal di reni e crampi al ventre” (147).
There is certainly also the element of a bodily sense of release. On a superficial narrative level, Delia connects the realization that she does not need to worry about her mother anymore to her menstruation (“non avevo più l’obbligo di preoccuparmi per lei”), and thus presents it as a sort of breathing out and letting go. But it is more complicated than that. We learn that Delia is not able to shed a single tear for her mother. Her body, I would argue, finds a psychosomatic outlet for this bottled-up and unresolved anxiety in the stream of blood (in this book, bodily fluids—semen, urine, blood, tears, sweat—are as ubiquitous as they are almost undistinguishable from one another). In other words, Delia, at this point, is still reluctant to face many aspects of her relationship with Amalia. Although her journey has begun, she must still come to a fuller understanding of the inner mechanisms of her and her mother’s psychological rapport. And it is precisely as if her body, at that moment, were alerting her to something, for it is first and foremost through the physical experience—the sensual, and by extension, the sexual—that this understanding can come about.
Not by chance does Delia only manage to cry when, later that day, she remembers her own menstruating mother:
Vidi nella penombra mia madre a gambe larghe che sganciava una spilla di sicurezza, si staccava dal sesso, come se fossero incollati, dei panni di lino insanguinati, si girava senza sorpresa e mi diceva con calma: «Esci, che fai qui?». Scoppiai a piangere, per la prima volta dopo molti anni. Piansi battendo una mano quasi a intervalli fissi sul lavandino, come per imporre un ritmo alle lacrime. (119)
Delia’s imposition of a rhythm to her tears is reminiscent of Kristeva’s chora and the assumption that a more feminine language would be lyrical, highly attentive to rhythm, more instinctual and inextricably linked to the body. Regardless of whether one reads it in psychoanalytic terms, one can see how Ferrante’s highly curated prose in L’amore molesto is in itself a receptacle of meaning, detached from content. It is in the utterance itself, in the reimagining and wording of her past, that Delia will arrive at some sort of realization, as she acknowledges when, toward the end, she writes: “Dire è incatenare tempi e spazi perduti” (1763). The truth hides in the dark corners of her utterances (and we cannot fail to observe how comfortably this novel inhabits dark spaces). It also hides in the hidden spaces of the body. Delia remains profoundly marked by this scene because of its visceral quality, and it is the experience of inhabiting a female body in a male context that connects mother and daughter. Later in the book, the furtive quality of the moment discussed above will be replicated, though overturned, when Amalia accidentally walks into Delia’s room and catches her looking at her genitalia in a little mirror. This connection between the two women—with the burden it represents for Delia—is seemingly unbreakable. Any distance that she might try to impose between herself and her mother seems to ultimately vanish. Delia’s intense desire to dettach from her mother and finally become herself is shown in the juxtaposition between: “accadeva dopo che negli anni, per odio, per paura, avevo desiderato di perdere ogni radice in lei, fino alle più profonde [...] Tutto rifatto, per diventare io e staccarmi da lei” (776), and, later in the book, “mi resi conto con tenerezza inattesa che invece avevo Amalia sotto la pelle, come un liquido caldo che mi era stato iniettato chissà quando” (1094). But part of Delia’s anxiety seems to come from the fact that the same was not true for her mother—that she did not have Amelia under her skin.
If there is constant regression in the book, brought about by compulsive remembrance, it is shown most glaringly in those moments when Delia wishes to connect with and understand her mother’s body, perhaps as a means to return to the prenatal stage. She promptly smells the brassiere that Amalia was wearing when she died. Similarly, when going through her mother’s apartment, she notices: “Di lato alla tazza c’era una busta della spazzatura semicolma. Dentro non c’erano rifiuti; c’era invece quel lezzo di corpo affaticato che conservano i panni sporchi o fatti di tessuto invecchiato, intrisi in ogni fibra degli umori di decenni” (247). She finds her mother in that stench, and later tries to inhabit her body by wearing her underwear. This act is executed as compensation for all those years she was denied the maternal body; not only would Amalia not allow her daughter to touch her, but she also remained “morbidamente ambigua come sapeva essere” (543). This maternal interdiction stands behind Delia’s desire to inhabit her mother’s body. The book is filled with such moments. Even when using her mother’s face cream, Delia remarks on the trace her mother’s finger has left. She goes on to erase it and leave her own trace on top of it. “Ciò che di lei non mi era stato concesso,” writes Delia, “volevo cancellarglielo dal corpo. Così niente più si sarebbe perso o disperso lontano da me, perché finalmente tutto era già stato perduto” (774). The desire for the annihilation of the other remains a fundamental part in the development of the self, and in this moment Delia seems to be reenacting Freud’s fort/da game. In other words, rather than submissively enduring her mother’s absence, Delia takes it on herself to anticipate the loss—take charge of it—by enabling it herself, and thus, in a way, keeping her mother all to herself.
Elizabeth Bishop told us how to be better equipped for loss. Practice losing farther, losing faster, she said. And although she remained skeptical about the results of such practice when it came to the big loss, she nonetheless kept losing compulsively. Delia, too, exemplifies the back and forth freighted with tension between losing and clinging. Language, in this context, is particularly relevant. Although I have mentioned that the women in L’amore molesto are forced to define and speak themselves with the language of the oppressor, Neapolitan dialect is, on one level, associated with Amalia. It is one of the fundamental aspects of her upbringing that Delia most staunchly attempts to leave behind: “Era la lingua di mia madre, che avevo cercato inutilmente di dimenticare insieme a tante altre cose sue” (149). But more than the language of her mother, Neapolitan becomes associated with the abuse inflicted on her mother by Naples and its men. For Delia, every iteration in Neapolitan becomes a reenactment of the violence inflicted on her and her mother. For this reason, she has tried—unsuccessfully—to detach herself completely from it by adopting a curated Italian (here, we are assuming, too, that Delia, and not Ferrante, is the author of the novel). Neapolitan becomes a narrative technique that enables both anamnesis and analepsis. Even before Delia comes back to her native Naples, she experiences a moment of regression after one of the cryptic calls she gets from her mother the night before her death. During this call, Amalia utters obscenities at her daughter over the phone: “Quelle oscenità mi causarono una scomposta regressione” (46).
In a way, then, even before the death that marks the beginning of a journey, Delia is propelled into her past life by the appearance of dialect. But this is not a joyful, nostalgic dialect, Ferrante warns us. It is a dialect that, in the book, is almost exclusively spoken in obscenities, yelled in insults, grunted and spat at passing women. It is tainted with abuse, as exemplified in one of the novel’s most disconcerting moments, when Caserta, “in un sibilo incalzante e sempre più sguaiato,” directs at Delia “un fiotto di oscenità in dialetto, un morbido rivolo di suoni che coinvolse in un frullato di seme, saliva, feci, orina, dentro orifizi d’ogni genere, me, le mie sorelle, mia madre” (131). This passage, perhaps more than any other in the text, highlights the interconnectedness of the bodily, the spoken word, and the ways in which the latter is used as a tool to suppress the former. The only other instance in the entire novel where the word fiotto appears is when Delia speaks of her menstruation—“quel fiotto segreto del ventre.” The word emphasizes the forceful discharge of both Delia’s body and Caserta’s oppressive words. Fiotto, a gush or spurt, conveys the sense of a sudden overflow, which the word “stream,” as used in the English translation, does not. More than that, the word juxtaposes the public setting of Caserta’s abuse (he is, after all, yelling at her in the street, in broad daylight) to the most intimate nature of menstruation, thus signaling just how engrained violence is and the extent to which aggression can penetrate into the darkest crevices of the self. This becomes more evident by the involvement of “me, my sisters, my mother.” Ferrante is being loud and clear: this is not an isolated event, but rather a singular occurrence of a common fact that involves the aggression perpetrated on women. In that moment, Caserta becomes everyman, in the way that Delia becomes everywoman. The frullato, a smoothie (or as Goldstein translates it, a concoction), takes this image even further, alluding to the consumption of this violence, the way in which these women—porous women—have to absorb abuse on a daily basis “dentro orifizi d’ogni genere.” This ingestion, Ferrante suggests, is as commonplace as the ingestion of food; it enters and is exchanged by bodies in the way that “semen, saliva, feces, and urine” are. Insults are the currency that Neapolitan men seem to trade in.
It is undoubtedly a conscious decision on Ferrante’s part not to incorporate any Neapolitan dialect in her novel. There is not one word of dialect in the book, and the narrative constantly distances itself from Neapolitan in different ways and on varying degrees. In the passage cited above, for instance, Delia narrates speech by saying she was reached by a “fiotto di oscenità in dialetto.” We do not know what these obscenities sound like in dialect, but their seamless incorporation into the narrative might make the lack of reported speech less conspicuous. This technique places more distance between the reader and the event that is being described, while, in a sense, suggesting that there is less distance between the narrator and the narrative, for the former has absorbed the latter. This last point might be pertinent insofar as we argue that Delia is trying to distance herself as much as she can from Neapolitan dialect, but is ultimately helpless as she was born into it, and is thus enveloped by it, at least subconsciously. At any rate, there is, on a conscious plane, a clear refusal to allow Neapolitan dialect any direct and active role in the narration. We see this even more clearly in those instances where Ferrante does report speech that is spoken in dialect; here, however, instead of transcribing the actual words, she reports them in standard Italian.
During her conversation with Caserta on the phone, we are told that he says: “«Non sono Amalia», in falsetto, e poi riprese in un dialetto strettissimo: «Lasciami all’ultimo piano la busta coi panni sporchi. Me l’avevi promessa. E guarda bene: troverai la valigia con le tue cose. Te l’ho messa lì»” (314). This is misleading; it might give off the impression that Delia is citing verbatim what Caserta has said, while, in reality, she is filtering his words through her own consciousness. What Caserta says in dialect, she translates into Italian. We must ask: why this insistence on keeping Neapolitan out of the picture? We get an answer in one of the moments when Delia herself narrates her speech in dialect: “Nei suoni che articolavo a disagio, c’era l’eco delle liti violente tra Amalia e mio padre, tra mio padre e i parenti di lei, tra lei e i parenti di mio padre” (149). Dialect, as I stated before, bears the imprint of the abuse that Delia and her mother have suffered. By trying to keep it at bay from her own life, and thus from her narrative, Delia is making an effort to distance herself from the violence, all the while showing how impossible it is. Dialect, like love, is viscous—it sticks to Delia and will not let go of her, just like her past: “Le oscenità in dialetto – le uniche oscenità che riuscivano a far combaciare nella mia testa suono e senso in modo da materializzare un sesso molesto per il suo realismo aggressivo, gaudente e vischioso” (1391).
This last passage links, once again, the linguistic and the bodily, enabling us to read in Delia’s aversion to Neapolitan not only a refusal to re-inhabit the violent spaces of her childhood, but also a fear of facing her mother’s sexuality, the “sesso molesto per il suo realismo aggressivo, gaudente e vischioso.” There are, in fact, no examples of joyful or satisfying sexuality in L’amore molesto. All sex seems to be just that, molesto. There is, of course, the image of Amalia as a liberated woman who enjoys her sexuality, but we only see this through the anxious memory of Delia, whose one sexual encounter with Antonio after the funeral is described in painfully awkward terms. There is an overflow (here, too) in Delia’s body, but contrary to what we would think, there is no gratification. We learn that her sexuality has been one of many ways in which she has tried to inhabit her mother’s skin. If she let Antonio touch her as a child, it was only because she wanted Antonio to become his father, so that she could become Delia: “Ero io ed ero lei. Io-lei ci incontravamo con Caserta” (1732). Similarly, when Antonio’s grandfather molests the five-year-old Delia, she reports to her father the incident, but as if it had happened between Caserta and Amalia. This last fact repositions the narrative and comes as a realization toward the end of the novel. On the one hand, Delia confesses to the own unreliability of her memory, while, on the other, by admitting to herself, and, by extension, to readers, that she was partly responsible for her parents’ divorce and Amalia’s punishment, her jealousy and desire to replace her father (and all men) come to the surface. It is implied, of course, that coming to the surface is the beginning of coming-to-terms.
So how exactly does this coming-to-terms happen, if indeed it does? I would suggest that it is through Delia’s recreation of her childhood in the period after her mother’s death that the process of detachment begins. The novel remains, in this aspect, unresolved, yet there is an inkling of hope that Delia might actually be able to—eventually—separate herself from her mother’s figure. This recreation, or simply the aspect of creation, is central to L’amore molesto. We must not forget that Amalia was a seamstress, and it is precisely through her profession, through creating garments, adapting fabrics to changing times and fads—by making something where nothing was, that Amalia is able to delineate the contours of her own identity, much as she would delineate the contours of dresses—the figures—on large pieces of fabric: “Mi piacque insperatamente, con sorpresa, quella donna che in qualche modo s’era inventata fino alla fine la sua storia giocando per conto suo con stoffe vuote” (1333). This is the ultimate legacy that she bequeaths to her daughter, whose uses her own kind of fabric—memories—to fabricate a story with which to make sense of her life. We soon find out that Amalia’s provocative underwear was, in fact, meant as a gift for her daughter. In light of this, we can argue that what she is giving Delia after her death is really a new skin, under which Amalia herself will live no longer.
It matters little whether Amalia actually had a sexual relationship with Caserta—or whether she did in fact cheat on her husband when Delia was young. What matters is that Delia can conjure up experiences—lived or imagined—from her past and fabricate something out of them. If childhood is a tissue of lies that endure in the imperfect, then it is the acknowledgment of this fact, perhaps, that constitutes truth. This is the shape that Delia’s ultimate realization takes: “La storia poteva essere più debole o più avvincente di quella che mi ero raccontata. Bastava tirare via un filo e seguirlo nella sua linearità semplificatoria” (1789). The story that Delia creates in her mind about her mother’s last hours might, for all that matters, have not happened at all; what counts is that it was formulated, that it took the shape of a story. The book ends on an ambiguous note. After drawing on her ID so as to make herself look like her mother, Delia writes: “Amalia c’era stata. Io ero Amalia” (1860). This complete identification with the mother figure might, on a more literal level, be taken as an assertion of the impossibility of ridding oneself of that figure. I would suggest, however, that it is only because she has finally come to terms with her own story, and because she can fully embrace the mother figure and identify with it, that Delia can finally delineate the contours of her own identity. That final act strikes me as more humorous, reflective of a more mature Delia who has left her mother and her old self not in the past, but in the imperfect. That is, in the continuous existence of things left behind.
Ferrante, Elena. L'amore Molesto. Roma: Edizioni e/o, 1999. Print.
Hirsch, Marianne. The Mother/daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989. Google books.
Join the colloquy
Join the colloquy
When it comes to Ferrante, we may feel, indeed, stranded on a beach, at night, left there to collect the tokens of her presence and whereabouts in this world. The tokens are words and in them we find the lucid exactness of worlds inhabited by characters who are as vivid and real as she is elusive. They deal with what the author has called frantumaglia, a term she borrows from her mother and her Neapolitan dialect (frantummàglia): "it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain. The frantumaglia was mysterious, it provoked mysterious actions, it was the source of all suffering not traceable to a single obvious cause" (Frantumaglia, Kindle edition). Ferrante’s compelling narrative dives into terribly muddy waters and surfaces from them with the strength of truth, where truth means not moral clarity but the unmistakable verity of naked human emotions. The origin of the word frantumaglia is very material; it refers, in fact, to a pile of fragments from broken objects that cannot be pieced together again.
This Colloquy seeks to bring together in one ongoing conversation, from a variety of intellectual perspectives, the voices of the international discourse about Ferrante’s novels and the significance of her work in the contemporary literary landscape.
As for who Ferrante might be, I propose again her response to a reader who sought to know her identity: "[. . .] what is better than reading in a room that is dark except for the light of a single reading lamp? Or what is better than the darkness of a theater or a cinema? The personality of a novelist exists utterly in the virtual realm of his or her books. Look there and you will find eyes, sex, lifestyle, social class, and the id" (Frantumaglia, Kindle edition)