by Leah Cohen | Literary Fare | Fall 2017
Literary muses in female friendship.
Act I: In which I sit in various places and write about Virginia Woolf and Margaret Atwood and think about my friend Thea. Mostly in my carrel in the library, on the second floor.
In A Room of One’s Own, during Virginia Woolf’s fictional speech on the subject of “women and literature” for the graduation ceremony of a women’s college in 1929, her narrator tells her audience about her surprise at reading the debut novel of a woman named Mary Carmichael. It read to her as a fairly standard novel until she encountered the sentence: “Chloe liked Olivia.” The sentence stopped her in her tracks, because “it struck me how immense a change was there. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature.”
When women are depicted in novels, Woolf ’s narrator reasons, it’s in their relation to men. For an author to so boldly and plainly admit that one woman likes another is to shatter the structure of the marriage-plotted novel, which insists that male-female interdependence is everything. “If Chloe likes Olivia and Mary Carmichael knows how to express it,” she urges, “she will light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody yet has been”—the territory of female friendships.
In the last seven years or so, there has been a flood of novels about dyadic female friendship. Most fabulously, there is Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, a four-volume epic about two women, Elena and Lila, who grow up together in a ghetto in Naples, competing and collaborating in their efforts to escape the limitations of their circumstances and make their lives meaningful. Ferrante’s books are the most ambitious, soaring, and internationally acclaimed of these literary female friendship novels, but beyond them there’s a long list of books published just since 2010. How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti is an experimental “novel from life” that interjects letters and play-scripts to tell the story of Sheila and Margaux, two middle-class artists living in Toronto, embedded in friendship and struggling with the meaning of art and life. Then there’s Zadie Smith’s most recent novel, Swing Time, in which the unnamed narrator tracks several of her relationships, including the one with her childhood best friend, Tracey, whose seemingly inborn ability to dance inflames the narrator in envy. And just this summer, two books came out about teenage-girl friends, Marlena by Julie Buntin and The Burning Girl by Claire Messud. There are also novels by Sally Rooney, Dana Spionotta, Emily Gould, and others, but you can’t read everything, and I haven’t.
This isn’t the first time that female friendship has been in literary vogue. In 1986, Margaret Atwood declared that, “Despite their late blooming, women’s friendships are now firmly on the literary map as valid and multidimensional novelistic material.” But this recent flare-up of the subject in the literary zeitgeist has its unique qualities, most obviously that many of the books feel umbilically linked to Ferrante. Or at least, critics see the link—every review of a female-friendship novel seems anxious to pull it into conversation with Ferrante’s monolith. It makes sense to make these connections, and I think that if, like good critics, we look at what these books have in common with each other, we might learn a few things.
Act II: In which I don’t know how to write the essay. Takes place a little bit in the library, while walking between classes, but mostly in a single night in my bedroom.
Take the sentence: If we look at what these books have in common with each other, we might learn a few things. It’s deceivingly straightforward, and yet I don’t know what kind of sentence should follow it. If we line these books up next to each other and point out their similarities and differences, we might learn a few things. But what kind of things? We might learn something about the structure and properties of female friendship. But the friendships represented in these novels can’t be typical of the kind of friendships most women experience; they must have to be extraordinarily dramatic or interesting, in order to make it into fiction. These have nothing to do with the day-to-day banality of actual friendship between real women, or between anyone (including between myself and Thea: Remember that, Leah).
We might learn a few things about why female friendship lends itself to drama, or the conveying of a certain kind of emotion—love, investment, anger. Or maybe, we might learn about what element, when alchemically combined with female friendship, produces a good story, a story worth reading, and writing about. Now we’re getting somewhere.
So what are the elements? Art is one; a lot of these friendships are mediated by it—writing, animation, dancing, painting. Elena’s a writer, Sheila’s a playwright, Tracey dances. The centrality of art in these narratives is important, because it signals the ascendency of the character of the ‘female artist,’ and adds layers of psychic complexity to these stories.
Another consistent element in these novels is their reliance on the frame of the narrator-as-writer. In Ferrante’s first book, My Brilliant Friend, Elena sits down to write the story of her friendship with Lila after her friend disappears without a trace in her ’60s. Opening her computer, Elena tells us: “We’ll see who wins this time… I turned on the computer and began to write—all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.”
The story the fictional Elena (who shares a name with the author) “writes” will go on to span four volumes, over 1,200 pages, and 60-some years, and will include a narration of Elena writing another novel (much slimmer than these, only 80 pages) about the friendship in question.
And How Should a Person Be? plays a similar trick—near the end of the book, Sheila reports that after she went into her studio to throw around all the “trash and shit” inside of her, “slowly the castle began to emerge;” the castle being the book we’re reading. It isn’t the first time the book turns in on itself—throughout the novel, Sheila’s been recording her conversations with Margaux and transcribing some of them for the reader. Sheila has a huge, climactic fight with her friend after she writes their conversations into a short story—an aestheticization of Margaux’s private life that drives her friend into a self-conscious rage. And there’s the fact that the novel itself blurs the line between fact and fiction—the main character, Sheila, shares the first name of the author, who really does have a friend named Margaux, and many of the conversations in the novel are transcriptions from real conversations. (Heti’s calling it “a novel from life” prompts the genuine question, what other place do novels come from?)
In Swing Time, too, the unnamed narrator consistently refers to the fact that she’s writing—the second chapter begins with the resolute, “I want to describe the church now, and Miss Isabel,” which she does. Similarly to Elena’s admission that the story isn’t “true” as such, but just made of “everything that still remained in my memory,” Smith’s narrator motions to her own unreliability. In one snowy scene, she meets her half-siblings, and ends the chapter by recounting her telling of the story to her mother, years later: “Maybe I never got out of this habit of elaboration. Twenty years later over a difficult lunch I revisited the story of my ghostly siblings with my mother, who sighed, lit a cigarette and said: ‘Trust you to add snow.’”
Trust you to add snow, along with a Chekhovian gun—as his narrative logic goes, if a gun appears in the first act, by the third it will go off. The first time Cat meets Marlena, her own version of Lila/Tracey in Marlena, her friend’s drug addiction appears in the form of a pillbox around her neck. By the end of the novel, because of the pills, she’s dead. But the story isn’t about her death, it’s about Cat telling the story of it: When Cat goes to college after the fact, she learns about principles of storytelling, and grafts them onto her mission to make sense of her past. “In a college English course, I learned Aristotle’s rule for story endings… How had I tricked myself into thinking that the murderer chasing us from the opening paragraph wouldn’t wind up killing someone at the end?” she wonders, referring to Marlena’s drug addiction. This is the intelligence of Marlena: Cat knows how to tell a good story, and she could have told it straight, without flashing forward to her present and without weighing in from the sidelines, but she doesn’t, because the story is about Cat’s processing of her own trauma, which she’s doing the way she’s been taught—by examining her life as a story, searching for the promised catharsis. She’s interested in how storytelling is supposed to work because she thinks it will help her heal, and live her life more wisely (a doomed mission, ultimately; Elena Ferrante’s character tells us wisely that, “unlike stories, real life, when passed, tends towards obscurity, not clarity.”)
This fascination with dramatic principles is also present in The Burning Girl, which is a slog to read—it’s written mostly in summary and the voice is gratingly self-serious, immaturely epiphanic—but thematically kind of interesting. The simple story is that Julia and Cassie are friends, and in high school Cassie’s home life becomes increasingly hostile, to the point where she runs away and spends a night sleeping in an abandoned asylum outside of town. It’s an asylum the girls found as children and used to play in, and it’s Julia who eventually finds Cassie there, so sensitive is she to the foreshadowing in their intertwined life story. Julia is mystified by her almost psychic connection to Cassie and her ability to sense where she’s hiding, and near the end of the book she protests that she’s not just some teacher whose friend got really depressed, but a girl with an ability to “know stories, how they unfold, and people, how they are.”
There’s a lot of attention paid in the end of the novel to how and why stories are told, and Julia has what’s essentially a 20-page revelation about how bad storytelling simplifies reality and keeps us stupid. She’s interested in how other people tell the story of Cassie, and everything they miss. She’s interested in how she and her boyfriend begin to speak and behave like TV characters, saying and doing the things they think people are supposed to in relationships. And while all of this teenage-voiced scrutiny gets exhausting, there is something really interesting about what Claire Messud’s doing with Julia’s sense of how stories are supposed to unfold, especially in the context of other contemporary novels about female friendship. Unlike Marlena’s narrator, who’s caught unprepared because she fails to understand how stories work and gets run over by the juggernaut of narrative motion, Julia in The Burning Girl escapes this fate by naming her world for what it is: A story. She’s not writing it, as are Ferrante and Heti and Smith’s narrators, but in a Stranger-Than-Fiction way she knows it’s being written, and in a sprint to beat the house (the house in this case being Messud, her author-creator), she outpaces the narrative momentum of the story, where her friend is supposed to die in the very asylum where they secured their friendship, and at the last minute, saves her.
Novels that turn in on themselves, novels that turn themselves inside out… what does all of this have to do with the organizing principle, which is friendship between women? These novels do channel each other in an endless chain of repetitions, so there’s a hall-of mirrors effect when you read them in quick succession, as I did. In Swing Time, Smith’s narrator even has a Burning-Girl moment, lamenting the dramatic principle-infused way that people around her talk about her friend: “The way they began to speak of Tracey took on a tragic dimension, or isn’t it only tragic heroes who have no choices before them, no alternative routes, only unavoidable fates?” I don’t think these similarities are a coincidence. I think it has something to do with postmodernism, sure, and the self-conscious way that we’re conditioned to tell stories, but I think it also has something to do with what it means to write about women right now—the considerations that have to be made when you want to turn a woman you’re intimately connected to, existentially entangled with, into art; especially when she’s no longer around to ask for permission.
Act III: In which I argue with my roommate about how to write this essay. Takes place in Wilder Bowl, but also in some small part of my mind reserved for intense, dramatic, and self-pitying memories of my friendship with Thea.
Me [noticing Claire is in shorts]: Claire! Aren’t you cold?
Claire: Hey! Not really, not if I keep moving. [Moves to keep moving.]
Me: Claire, wait. Can I get your advice? I’m having some problems with this essay.
Claire: What essay?
Me: This essay about female friendship in literature.
Claire: Oh right. The one you mentioned last week and then got really quiet about when I asked you more questions about it and then told me I wasn’t allowed to talk to you about it ever again.
Me: Exactly. I’ve been interested in it for two years, since I first read Elena Ferrante. I’m obsessed with it. But now that I try to write about it, I’m having all these methodological problems. I don’t know what to say about these books. How do I know they could be important to other people? They’re important to me. That’s all I know.
Claire: So say that, maybe?
Me: No, no. That’s boring. What would I say, when I was in high school I met this girl Thea and I was obsessed with her and the obsession ruined my life until I read Elena Ferrante’s books and finally could see my own experience reflected and was comforted by the recognition and also eased by reading them, because I was able to watch Elena’s reverence of Lila gradually diminish to the point where the premise of her total sublimity is abandoned by the end of the last book and I could recognize that Elena was an unreliable narrator and that helped me feel much better in the end about everything because it showed me that I wouldn’t gain access to some sort of transcendence by holding onto my idealization of my old friend?
Claire: I don’t think that’s boring at all. That’s auto-theory. I love reading that.
Me: I’m sick of auto-theory! Everyone wants to write it. I just want this piece to be about ideas, not my life. Auto-theory can be so narcissistic!
Claire: But look, now you’re really animated. What if you made this, like, part of it? Like, figuring out how to write the essay, what you did and didn’t want it to be?
Me: But the problem with this is that it’s so about my feelings. And are my feelings really interesting to anyone besides me? Would anyone care if I just said, look, Elena Ferrante is my favorite author because she made me feel better. Because everyone always asks me if I was in love with Thea, romantic love, and I used to just say no, it wasn’t like that, but then the Ferrante books came out and I could point them and say, in fact, it was like this. You follow me?
Act IV: In which the castle emerges.
How about this for a conclusion: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many of these explicitly self-reflexive novels take female friendship as their terrain. In this way, the books play with the autobiographical imperative for women artists—the expectation that they will make art about their own lives, and the conflating of their characters with their actual persons. Interestingly, Elena Ferrante’s books were often discussed alongside Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume autobiography, based on the assumption that Ferrante’s series was autobiographical. (Elena Ferrante is a pen name, and at the time that she was writing the series, nobody knew who she was; her identity has since been rudely revealed, and her life has little to do with the novels. She’s not even from Naples.) But in some cases, the expectation is fulfilled: Sheila Heti’s book takes much of its content from her personal life, and Julie Buntin really did have a friend who died from an overdose as a teenager.
Not all of the books are inspired by true events, but to the extent that they mimic autobiography, they comment on a prejudice that women write out of emotional need, to soothe their own feelings, that their writing is somehow vindictively subjective. Is this, then, a way of getting ahead of the perception of women by creating a Russian nesting doll of narrative—which layer am I hidden in? Or is it an obsession with the act of narrative construction, an obsession so deep that the story wouldn’t feel complete without its inclusion—maybe these books are just typically postmodern. After all, there’s a Woolfian element in them. In A Room Of One’s Own, Chloe and Olivia are fictionalized twice over—they’re characters who live inside a story that Woolf’s narrator read in Woolf’s story. And there’s a distance that this layering creates, almost a privacy; I come away knowing very little about Chloe and Olivia, and having no access to the story, because Woolf’s narrator has only excerpted it for me (really, excerpted it for her audience—here I am almost a century later, overhearing).
This distance, this shielding, is also present in these contemporary novels. We never see what Sheila makes of her conversations with Margaux in How Should a Person Be?—the text that makes Margaux so angry and confused that she paints a self-immolating picture of herself and hangs it in a gallery for Sheila to see. We never see the slim novel that Elena writes about Lila against Lila’s wishes in The Neapolitan Novels. She outlines it, but we never find out how she condenses the 1200-page story of their friendship into 80 pages: what she leaves out; what details and characterizations she finds most important; how she bends the obscurity of real life back towards clarity. We don’t get to see the actual fruits of these women’s aestheticization of their friends, and so we’re shut out of a vital part of the relationship. Why is that?
Maybe it’s as simple as when Julia says in The Burning Girl that she’s going to grant Cassie some privacy by not sharing the story with anyone in their town: “I thought it was the one gift of friendship I could give Cassie… to keep to myself the story I knew, or thought I knew.” It’s paradoxical that within the layers of soul-searching and confession that some secrets might remain hidden, some boxes unopened, but there it is: In all of these stories, the intimacy of a friendship between women is represented by the self-conscious crafting of a story, and then the deliberate frittering away of information.
It must be tempting for these narrators to show everything, especially when they see themselves in a saviour position to their friend, a dynamic especially present in Ferrante and Smith. After 50 years of anticipating a final, conclusive competition with her best friend in The Neapolitan Novels, Elena says, “I took it for granted that there was not and never would be a manuscript of Lila’s… something that reassured me and yet truly upset me. I loved Lila. I wanted her to last. But I wanted it to be I who made her last. I thought it was my task. I was convinced that she herself, as a girl, had assigned it to me.” Smith’s narrator in Swing Time has a similar reflection when she visits Tracey in her apartment, after her old friend has given up dancing: “There is no case I can make to change the fact that I was her only witness, the only person who knows all that she has in her, all that’s been ignored and wasted, and yet I still left her back there, in the ranks of the unwitnessed, where you have to scream to get heard.” In both of these situations, the narrator feels a duty, perhaps irrationally, to amplify her friend, even after she’s spent the length of the novel competing with her. And in both of these cases, there’s a sense of ownership that emerges: This wonderful woman should be known to the world, but I’m the one who should announce her.
In these novels about female friendship, the drama is as much in the contemporary telling as it was in the past-experiencing, and maybe this tension is implicitly involved in writing about friendship between creative women. An ethical narrator doesn’t want to exoticize or fetishize their friend, expose them to the light in a way that will burn them, and yet they want to tell a good story. Women know what it feels like to have their images exploited, and yet exploiting the images of their friends to make good art is tempting, especially when within the art world, it’s permitted.
So in the context of a long tradition of male artists exploiting women in order to make art, a tradition of a scale that we’re really just beginning to get a handle on, I can’t help but think about these books as representations of women looking at women, in mostly platonic, though sometimes sexually tinged situations, and taking into account ethical as well as aesthetic concerns involved in using their images for artistic production. So while all of these narrators are telling their stories ultimately for themselves, for their own ability to understand the past and heal from it, they have some sense that you have to get there without over-simplifying your friend, or demonizing her, or idealizing her—that has to be part of the conversation. But that’s not to say these models demonstrate ethical behavior in the end—all of these books (with the exception of The Burning Girl) are stories of the narrator somehow betraying her friend. In a review of Marlena for The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert calls many of these female friendship novels “Bildungsromans where one young woman comes of age, but at a profound cost to another.”
In a dazzling paragraph in Marlena about how incredible it is to go on a friend-date with a woman (the only paragraph, honestly, that you need to read from the book), Cat explains that “I begin to see the outline of the best friend, the girl she shaped herself around, according to. For so many women, the process of becoming requires two.” But what if that becoming is parasitic? In her 1986 essay, Atwood noticed a similar theme of competitive flare-ups between women friends, pointing out that “the treatment runs the gamut, from selfless idealism to pointy-toothed ego-devouring.” The literary moment she drew attention to in the ’80s helped establish the problematics of female friendship—the selfless as well as selfish behavior that takes place within its parameters. And while the ends may remain the same—coming of age at profound cost to another, that is, or in some cases being selfless—the means seem to have changed. Now that these novels are narrated by women artists, who are devoted to aesthetic questions, the process of tearing down or building up their friend is accomplished through storytelling. These existential entanglements are ultimately facilitated by a mutual love of storytelling and language, elements which, when mixed with female friendship, produce a story aimed towards transcendence. In one elegantly simple passage in the Neapolitan Novels, Elena remembers, “Those moments lighted my heart and my head: she and I and all those well-crafted words.”
At what cost to Thea have I come of age through her image? She was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. I was platonically infatuated, addicted to her way of being, her way of speaking. I was devoted to her mind, convinced that if I hitched mine to hers that we could fly together, that it was the only way I could hope to touch off the earth. I thought it could be just me and her. She and I and all those well-crafted words, I must have been thinking. All of this allowed me to ignore or glamorize the fact that she was and is very sick, and in need of help and healing. All of this meant that I encouraged her incoherence, aestheticized it, worshipped it. “My thoughts are like rocks and I want them to be water!” She once exclaimed to me. This is poetry, I thought, without stopping to think about, to hold, the pain that she was in.
What I wanted to say to Thea the first time she left me to go back to her country was, “You saved me.” I’m not sure what exactly I thought was the problem before I met her—most likely, boredom. But when our friendship started going badly, when big silence moved in and I thought she no longer loved me, it was Elena Ferrante’s books that saved me, or at least stabilized me. But now it’s been too long and I miss her. Now it’s time to go looking for her again, my brilliant friend Thea.