Elena Fer­rante

Why I re­write oth­ers’ sto­ries

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents - Trans­lated by Ann Gold­stein

Some­times I play a game with my­self in which I take sto­ries with male pro­tag­o­nists – fa­mous sto­ries that I like a lot – and ask my­self: if the pro­tag­o­nist were a woman, would it work just as well? Could Melville’s Bartleby, for ex­am­ple, be fe­male? Or Steven­son’s Jekyll? Italo Svevo’s Zeno? Calvino’s Baron In The Trees?

For many years, the game has re­volved mainly around Wake­field, a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Wake­field is a man who lives in crowded 19th-cen­tury Lon­don. One morn­ing, he says good­bye to his wife and goes out. He’s sup­posed to be away for a few days; he doesn’t leave the city, but in­stead, for no rea­son, with no plan, he goes to live near his own house, and for 20 years – un­til, in the same im­pul­sive way, he re­turns to his wife – con­fines him­self to observing his own ab­sence. The story is well known and much stud­ied.

What if Wake­field were a woman in­stead of a man, a wife in­stead of a hus­band? Once, I even tried to maul poor Hawthorne by rewrit­ing the story that way, but I quickly got stuck: some­thing wasn’t work­ing. I’m not sure I un­der­stood what the prob­lem was. There are plenty of sto­ries, true or in­vented, about women who all of a sud­den leave home, aban­don­ing ev­ery­thing; ev­i­dently the is­sue isn’t that. And it doesn’t seem to be in the re­turn home, ei­ther – al­though, in my ex­pe­ri­ence, a woman who de­cides to give it all up rarely turns back, while men gen­er­ally, at a cer­tain point, need their Ithaca. (I know nu­mer­ous cou­ples who have got back to­gether af­ter one or even two decades, and he is the one who pro­poses it – es­pe­cially when old age peeks in, along with the fear of ill­ness and death.) A fe­male Wake­field fal­ters, I’m afraid, right at the heart of things, at its dark­est, most mys­te­ri­ous and hence finest mo­ment.

When you have to imag­ine a woman who, for no rea­son, aban­dons ev­ery­thing and for 20 years lives near her fam­ily, meets them on the street, sees them suf­fer, ob­serves them as they change phys­i­cally, yet doesn’t go back, the story floun­ders. The Wake­field who is present and ab­sent like an idle di­vin­ity, sim­ply watch­ing, with­out in­ter­ven­ing, seems to me in­evitably male.

And yet the sit­u­a­tion that Hawthorne de­vel­oped still at­tracts me – the im­pas­sive sur­veil­lance, the in­dif­fer­ent prox­im­ity. Some­times, I think that it’s only cliches about the fem­i­nine that make us con­sider cer­tain be­hav­iours es­sen­tially mas­cu­line. To­day, a fe­male Wake­field might go fur­ther than the male Wake­field. Maybe, em­pha­sis­ing the ab­sur­dity of be­ing ab­sent and at the same time present, she would dig more deeply into a con­tra­dic­tion that is well known to her: the need for the other – and the ne­ces­sity of sep­a­rat­ing from him

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