Dostoevsky, Ferrante, and the Challenge of Writing Authentically

by Sarah Hudspith and Olivia Santovetti

The North American Dostoevsky Society stands with all the people of Ukraine, Russia, and the rest of the world who condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. See our statement here.

One of the criticisms sometimes levied against Dostoevsky is that for all their depth and power, his novels are chaotic, prolix and unpolished. Dostoevsky himself was forever anxious about the artistic accomplishment of his works, by contrast with his confidence in the truth of their poetic ideas. In this blog we explore how the contemporary Italian writer Elena Ferrante engages with Dostoevsky to show that authentic writing must eschew formal elegance and instead embrace heterogeneity, in the form of polyphony. Ferrante also demonstrates how polyphony, acknowledged by scholars to be a defining feature of Dostoevsky’s art, is a technique especially suited to expressing the female experience.

When Dostoevsky had finished writing his novel The Idiot, he wrote to his niece Sofia Ivanova, lamenting his disappointment with the novel’s form: “It has not expressed even a tenth of what I wanted to express, although I do not disclaim it, and I still love my unsuccessful idea.” [1] Here Dostoevsky alludes to his keenly-felt sense that ideas exceed our means to communicate them effectively, something he frequently summed up by quoting a line from Fyodor Tiutchev’s 1830 poem, Silentium: “A thought once uttered is untrue.” For Dostoevsky, as soon as a writer begins to consider how to arrange and shape his or her narrative, what is produced is a form of artifice, literally an untruth, at odds with the integrity of its message. This paradox preoccupied him all his life, leading him to explore it throughout his fiction, and culminating in The Brothers Karamazov, which among other things can be seen as an extended study of the problems inherent in discourse of different kinds. There the multitude of equally weighted narratives represent the fullest example of what Mikhail Bakhtin termed polyphony, “a plurality of independent and unmerged voices” [2], enabling the text to transcend the paradox of fiction and express a truth about the human condition.

The Brothers Karamazov marks one of Elena Ferrante’s explicit engagements with Dostoevsky. In the first novel of her Neapolitan tetralogy, My Brilliant Friend, the narrator Elena uses it as a means to initiate a flirtation with Nino, the object of her affections. The series of novels about Elena Greco, budding writer, and her friend, muse and antagonist Lila is, like Dostoevsky’s text, a sustained reflection on the nature of writing, the difficulties of authentic expression, and the necessity of multiple voices for exposing existential truths.  The voices of Elena and Lila constitute a polyphony not only in that the narrative is divided between them, but also in terms of how that narrative is shaped: whilst Elena seeks order and coherence for her work, she needs Lila to remind her that any attempt to do so ultimately renders it inauthentic. Lila argues, “Either one is capable of telling things just as they happened, in teeming chaos, or one works from imagination, inventing a thread.” [3]

But Ferrante’s reception of Dostoevsky extends the concept of polyphony and reframes it in explicitly gendered terms. She invokes Dostoevsky again in an interview, in response to a question as to whether Elena and Lila should be considered two halves of the same identity:

If we were made only of two halves, individual life would be simple, but the “I” is a crowd, with a large quantity of heterogeneous fragments tossing about inside. And the female “I”, in particular, with its long history of oppression and repression, tends to shatter as it’s tossed around, and to reappear and shatter again, always in an unpredictable way. Stories feed on the fragments, which are concealed under an appearance of unity and constitute a sort of chaos to depart from, an obscurity to illuminate. Stories, characters come from there. Reading Dostoyevsky when I was young, I thought that all the characters, the pure and the abominable, were actually his secret voices, hidden, cunningly wrought fragments. Everything was poured, unfiltered, and with extreme audacity, into his works. [4]

This passage is a passionate tribute to Dostoevsky (and to the way in which his polyphony captures authenticity) but it is also a manifesto of Ferrante’s own poetics: the “I” is a crowd’, yes, but the focus is on the ‘female “I”’, which for its ‘history of oppression and repression’ is more likely to be shattered and exposed to the crisis of the self that Ferrante calls ‘smarginatura’. Dostoevsky’s polyphony is viewed by Ferrante through the lens of the Feminist thought of the 1980s. The theory of the ‘narratable self’ (1997) of the feminist philosopher Adriana Cavarero (inspired by women’s consciousness-raising activities characteristic of 1970s Italian feminism) is key to understanding Ferrante’s polyphony. In the Neapolitan Novels, observes Cavarero, there is ‘a continuous exchange whereby each becomes the narrator of the other woman’; this results in ‘a new literary genre that is neither purely autobiographical nor simply biographical. […] At the center of the plot is a relational subjectivity that is continuously in progress, continuously narrated’. [5] ‘I wish she were here.’– says Elena – ‘That’s why I am writing. I want her to erase, add, collaborate in our story’.[6] The narrator is not Elena but Elena and Lila: writing is a collaboration between the one who writes to bring order, to make sense of the world and the one who ‘leaves abysses’ and ‘forc[es] the reader to establish the flow’.[7]Not only does Lila’s voice emerge, as Tiziana de Rogatis specifies, ‘from the various forms of documentary materials that she left behind’[8], but Elena herself continuously draws attention to how the voice of her friend ‘appears in hers’, in a dynamic movement of ‘less’ and ‘more’, mine and yours:

‘My life forces me to imagine what hers would have been if what happened to me had happened to her, what use she would have made of my luck. And her life continuously appears in mine, in the words that I’ve uttered, in which there’s often an echo of hers, in a particular gesture that is an adaptation of a gesture of hers, in my less which is such because of her more, in my more which is the yielding to the force of her less. Not to mention what she never said but let me guess, what I didn’t know and read later in her notebooks. Thus the story of the facts has to reckon with filters, deferments, partial truths, half lies: from it comes an arduous measurement of time passed that is based completely on the unreliable measuring device of words.[9]

This is Ferrante’s polyphonic narration: one that keeps the readers alert (as they must be in order to deal with the narrators’ ‘filters, deferments, partial truths, half lies’) but also directly involves them in this relationship in progress. What compels the readers is the forensic, raw, unhinged exploration of the female experience through the unmerged, strident voices of Elena and Lila, who keep narrating and exposing each other, one the ‘mirror of [the other’s] inabilities’. [10] The Elena-Lila duo can also be seen as a metaphor of the writing process: not only as the battle between order and disorder, but also as the recovery of the unfiltered raw material: ‘pull[ing] up from the depths of my experience’ – as Ferrante says – ‘everything that is alive and writhing, including what I myself have driven away as far as possible because it seemed unbearable’.[11]

In this ‘pulling up from the depths’ one might hear an echo of Dostoevsky’s ‘underground’. It is tempting to say that Ferrante transforms the tragedy of the underground into the tragedy of women – and women writers – under the patriarchy (‘the battle with the raw material of our experience as women’)[12], not only because all her female characters experience the underground and are consequently survivors, not victims, but also because she turns writing into a gendered and militant activity. The dissatisfaction that both Ferrante and Dostoevsky experience as writers in their constant battle with the raw material (to keep the authenticity in spite of the embellishment of fiction), acquires here a gendered dimension, becomes, as Ferrante remarks in a 2015 interview, a ‘systematic dissatisfaction’:[13] that of a woman writer battling with the male literary tradition. The woman writer not only ‘must know the tradition thoroughly’ (as she does, and her tribute to Dostoevsky is a good example) but she needs ‘to learn to reuse it, bending it as needed’ in order to ‘to fight against submissiveness, and boldly, in fact proudly, seek a literary genealogy of our own’. [14].


[1]  Letter to Sofia Ivanova, 25 January 1869.

[2]  Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), p. 6.

[3] Elena Ferrante, The Story of the Lost Child, trans. Ann Goldstein (New York: Europa Editions, 2015), p. 464.

[4]  Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, trans. Ann Goldstein (New York: Europa  Editions, 2019), p. 322.

[5]  Isabella Pinto, Stiliana Milkova, Adriana Cavarero, ‘Storytelling Philosophy and Self Writing—Preliminary Notes on Elena Ferrante: An Interview with Adriana Cavarero’, Narrative, 28, 2, May 2020, pp. 236-249 (p.239).

[6] Elena Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, trans. Ann Goldstein (New York: Europa Editions, 2014), p.105.

[7] Ferrante, The Story of the Lost Child, p.169.

[8] Tiziana de Rogatis, Elena Ferrante’s Key Words, trans. Will Schutt (New York: Europa Editions, 2019) p.43.

[9] Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name, trans. Ann Goldstein (New York: Europa Editions, 2013), p.337.

[10] Ferrante, Those Who Leave, p.274.

[11]  Ferrante, Frantumaglia, p.226.

[12] Ferrante, Frantumaglia, p.342.

[13] ibid.

[14] ibid.

Olivia Santovetti and Sarah Hudspith are co-directors of the University of Leeds Centre for World Literatures. As individual academics they have published research on Ferrante and Dostoevsky respectively, and they are currently collaborating on a parallel reading of Ferrante’s latest novel The Lying Life of Adults and Dostoevsky’s The Adolescent.

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