In 1967, William Styron won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for his novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, based on the real life slave rebellion in 1831. He later wrote the haunting fictional story Sophie’s Choice that echoed real life survivors’ personal horror of the Holocaust. The success of Nat Turner in the midst of the civil rights movement created a backlash among a number of African-American authors who not merely resented the appropriation of their ancestors’ experience by a white, male Southerner but who also made the argument, essentially, that if you haven’t experienced it, you can’t authentically write about it.
In the early ‘80s when Sophie’s Choice came out, Styron did not encounter the same criticism for failure to be a female Holocaust survivor, a mother tortured by the forced choice Nazi guards inflicted upon her as she entered a camp and had to decide between her daughter or her son.
In the later ‘80s, as a young American historian at the University of Buffalo, I nonetheless still pondered this debate. Taking it upon myself to read all of Styron’s work, and under the influence of psychotherapy, I sought common threads among his first semi-autobiographical and lovingly lyrical novel, Lie Down in Darkness, and his later works. In 1988 I gave a paper to the UB History Department Colloquium (damn it if I can’t now find it because it is on some 5” floppy disk!) identifying the depressive emotional qualities, and the deep-seated anger that often goes with it, woven throughout his work. Two years later Styron published his first person Darkness Visible, describing his intense struggles and treatments for depression. The debates over authenticity of his work were by then long gone, tucked into their own historiographical moment. Something fundamentally human emerged to bind experiences across time, race, class, gender -- to name a few common contemporary highlighted categories – and place.
Revelations about the identity of a contemporary author – pen name Elena Ferrante – and a maelstrom of controversy now surrounding authorship reminded me of Styron. Ferrante is the author of a quartet known as the Neapolitan Novels depicting the lives of two girls from Naples born after the Second World War and growing up amidst poverty, violence, corruption, opportunity and crushed expectations and hope. Reflecting another literary life obsession of mine – the quest to find a female Italian-American coming of age story the rough equivalent of Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior or Alice Walker’s Meridian – I glommed onto Ferrante’s work because, although in translation and not American at all, I could nonetheless hear the staccato cadence of my youth, I had and have abiding relationships born out of that life, and have lived or observed similar qualities of experience.
Turns out that “Elena Ferrante” might very well be one Anita Raja. The daughter of a Jewish refugee from World War II camps and an Italian father, Raja was born in Naples but not in poverty and, at the age of three, whisked off to Rome where her father was a magistrate. It did not surprise me to learn that she and her husband, who, it is thought, influenced her books, come out of publishing; there was almost no way the identity could have been masked for this long without insider knowledge. In another interesting twist, especially since Ann Goldstein, Ferrante’s American English translator, has garnered much attention in Ferrante’s deflected light (and because her translations are excellent), Raja’s day job is as a translator in publishing. The procedural threads are starting to line up. Soon we may well learn that Raja and Goldstein, who is an editor at the New Yorker by day, knew each other all along. That, too, may have created a bond that worked to further hold the secret.
Meanwhile, in the readership world, some noses are out of joint. Highest among the praise readers bestowed upon Ferrante was the authenticity with which she depicted her characters. I concur. By the fourth installment, the plot gets extenuated and long in the tooth. While right on the mark of the Neapolitan cadence, the style is therefore constrained by it. Put it this way, it is not Keats or Joyce; lyrical it is not. But it does feel authentic, not least because of the emotions that the author evokes. And indeed the voice moves with the characters as they leave, and don’t, respectively, the ancient and modern, mystic and tortured Naples. To now discover that the author had neither the long unbroken generational line back into antiquity nor even the proper ethnicity, and on top of that did not live in poverty has thrown readers’ understanding for a loop.
Fascinating! We are back to the argument that one must experience something in fact to write about it. If they have not, authenticity is lost. Without reviving an entire body of literary criticism on this subject, allow me a couple of thoughts. If it is not already obvious, I think not. If it were so, we would all be literarily impoverished. Indeed, not even the civil rights advocates of the Nat Turner experienced slavery per se, even if historical ties exist between one generation to the next in the African-American experience. Styron’s rendering of Nat Turner is not perfect, nor could it ever attain such Platonic heights, but aren’t we better off to have his work as a touchstone to that event? Not least because of what it tells us about Styron, and maybe even karma itself. Why would a white, privileged Southern boy bring his prodigious imagination and talents to a historical figure who, in the tradition of Spartacus, savaged Styron’s kind, lived free in the wild for two months, and was ignominiously hanged for his crime of what the civil war and half a million lives later accomplished?
In these debates we learn much about readers. The identification they bring to characters is such that they don’t want to break the spell that a good author creates. How fiction mixes with fantasy … what is at the bottom of that? It is the emotion from and with which he wrote and that which he translated, spoke and evoked. The depression, the fight against its dark and malevolent force, its dance with death. Nat Turner, Sophie, himself. And now Anita Raja, with a mother whose family perished in the camps that she escaped and who came to the DNA polyglot Italian boot (that has a long history of Jewish presence) and who then thrived through translations … literal and literary. Out of the depths of oppression and depression, through the characters set in time and space, comes an empathy so deep that readers not only feel but believe in it. That’s authentic.
I am not done yet. I want to make a further argument about how this literary debate comes out of an era with an opposing theory, “deconstructionism” that featured the death of the author. And believe it or not, I have a connection to make to the internet, anonymity and hate speech … but alas, dear reader, that analysis shall have to wait until next week’s installment.
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