Over the past year, I have repeatedly found myself in conversations about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I admit that I am often the instigator of those conversations—both works inspire a kind of obsessive devotion—but my party talk has also been cultivated by the effusive praise given to the two authors by the kinds of people who are paid a great deal (as well as those who are paid almost nothing) to have informed opinions about literary matters. Given such widespread praise, the most surprising thing is that I have not yet had a single conversation that has covered both.
In some ways, it seems impossible not to compare the two. Indeed, that’s likely why reviews of one often detour into a comment on the other, and why Joshua Rothman claims in the New Yorker that “the temptation to compare them is…irresistible.” The list of similarities is simply too long: both are highly praised, commercially successful, expansive, multivolume (four for Ferrante, six for Knausgaard) autobiographical European novels about (at least in part) the narrator’s attempts to write the very books we’re reading, focused especially on the narrator’s psychological trauma and domestic life.
Nonetheless, in most cases the authors merely stand as foil to each other, as though critics can only stomach one or the other, though they recognize the need to mention both. Perhaps that stems from the same thing that has caused fans of the respective series, according to Elissa Schappell in Vanity Fair, to “have on more than one occasion nearly come to blows.” Rothman offers more of an explanation in one of the few extended meditations of the relationship between the works in an article titled, fittingly enough, “Knausgaard or Ferrante?,” arguing that the separation between the two works, and thus their fans, is their politics. The works offer “two visions of reality,” he claims, concluding:
Knausgaard offers us intimations of the beyond while Ferrante offers us the dignity and concreteness of the world we share. Solitude or friendship; spirituality or materiality; the unseen or what’s right in front of you; the unknowable world or the world as it is—these are some of the commitments behind our preference for Knausgaard or Ferrante.
What this reading obscures, though, is that what distinguishes Ferrante and Knausgaard is precisely the thing that binds them together: their interest in ordinary, domestic life. The differences between them arise not so much from opposing political outlooks, but from the precise social situations they are responding to—that is to say, from whose domestic life is at stake. Both are interested in questioning their identity, and thus the things constituting it: gender, class, place, and relationships included. Because they come from different (social) locations, the same method of questioning can’t help but lead to opposing places.
Take Knausgaard to start. The very title of My Struggle puts Knausgaard-the-author on display with its overt allusion to Hitler, raising the immediate question about just what struggle Knausgaard-the-narrator will undergo. Yet Knausgaard’s work is famously only domestic: to paraphrase one the books’ back-cover blurbs, plot can be hard to define in a rambling, six-volume retelling of an author’s attempts to write a six-volume retelling of his life. The subject matter is intensely picayune: awkwardness at a child’s birthday party, fearing his father, fearing becoming a father, fighting with his wife over who will care for their children and who will follow their career dreams, battling with the little things that interrupt his writing. Knausgaard “treats no detail of middle-class life as too banal to recount,” in Evan Hughes’s words. The most harrowing moments in My Struggle—like Knausgaard’s description of cleaning up the squalor his alcoholic father lived in after his father has died—are harrowing precisely because their everydayness, and because of the background they occur against: namely, Karl Ove’s ordinary existence.
And that is the crux of the novel. The struggle of My Struggle is simply living with other people, being a part of a social world. “I do not want anyone to get close to me, I do not want anyone to see me, and this is the way things have developed: no one gets close and no one sees me,” he says at one point. What Knausgaard is putting on display is his battle with the myriad minutiae of life that often go unnoticed but build up into nothing less than the totality of our lives.
On a surface level, Ferrante’s works seem less self-indulgent than Knausgaard’s. Anyway, there is a clear narrative direction in the Neapolitan novels with events that strike one as anything but banal: opening the first volume with the disappearance of her best friend, Lila, Ferrante’s narrator (also named Elena) begins to tell the story of her life, from childhood to old age—murders in the neighborhood, abusive and loveless marriages, passionate affairs, attempts to flee poverty, and battles between Cammorists and communists included.
But to focus solely on the spectacular events on Elena’s life is to miss what makes the Neapolitan novels so beloved. The real weight from Ferrante’s work comes not from a bird’s eye view of Naples, but from the deeply personal way life there is experience by Elena. More than mafia violence, the power of the novels stems from scenes depicting Elena’s worries over her duties to her family, the sense of self lost when she moves to Pisa for college, and the inability to focus on her work after she has children—the very kinds of domestic issues Knausgaard is concerned with.
Whereas Karl Ove can’t take notice of other people, though, Elena can’t help but notice them. Ferrante’s story is, perhaps above all, one of friendship, and its vision of human life is one built by the relationship between Elena and Lila. Karl Ove frets about what others think of him, about being unliked by his classmates, but he does so in a dissociated way, claiming that he can see that he’s stuck-up and a braggart, all without changing his behavior. Elena, on the other hand, is worried most about Lila’s opinion because she is afraid that she can’t live without Lila. As children, Lila writes a story that Elena remembers even into her adult years, taking inspiration from it for her own career as a novelist. As Elena-the-narrator remarks, “Every word of Lila’s diminished me. Every sentence, even sentences written when she was a child, seemed to empty out mine, not the ones of that time but the ones now. And yet every page ignited my thoughts, my ideas, my pages as if until that moment I had lived in a studious but ineffectual stupor.”
In writing about Lila, Elena is writing about herself, and in order to write about herself, she must write about other people, Lila most of all. Consider the title of the first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend. As readers we assume the phrase refers to Lila, Elena’s eternal muse, but the phrase itself is actually one Lila uses to describe Elena. More than a simple twist, this borrowed description is a demonstration of the way that Elena’s identity is one she can only see through the mirror of her community.
It is here that we find the question of politics. The issue, I think, is not what ideals Ferrante and Knausgaard hold, but the differences in the domestic lives of their characters—and of the authors themselves. As the current reign of identity politics makes clear, universality in human experience cannot be taken for granted. Ferrante’s novels show that the women of Naples bear burdens its men will never know: the promise of violence in the household (heard through the walls of all of Elena’s neighbors’ homes), the threat of men on the street (like the Solaras, known to pull women into their car), the expectation of pregnancy as a condition for security through marriage. And, of course, each of these dangers is compounded for the poor, for those who don’t have recourse to leave by other means. All of these factors constrain Elena’s self-image, force her hand in various ways, ensure that her identity is connected to the other women, the other poor, who she sees suffering the same way she is.
Knausgaard, in comparison, is relatively unconstrained. For instance, both Elena and Karl Ove struggle to find time to write while they must care for their children, but while the duty falls to Elena to work out a solution that does not involve her husband ceasing his long hours at his academic job, Karl Ove refuses to compromise. At one point, in the second book, he simply moves into his office to finish a novel, leaving his wife to care for their newborn daughter, alone.
The result is that Ferrante’s tale is political because it’s personal, to alter the familiar phrase. In telling this story of Elena’s life, Ferrante takes ownership of the experience of poor women. The Neapolitan novels transcend the domestic, making clear that what happens to women in the home, that the difficulties of making a home while poor, aren’t issues just for those who experience them. The publishing world tends to market such stories as women’s stories or not at all, as though their interest could not be universal in the way, say, Jonathan Franzen’s could be. Ferrante’s work proves otherwise.
On the other hand, by refusing to transcend the domestic, Knausgaard subverts any claim to something beyond Karl Ove’s personal experience. In that way, his work is prepolitical, investigating what ties him to society in the first place and questioning the basis on which he cares for other people at all. Karl Ove’s struggle, I think, would never occur to Elena as a struggle: she never had a choice to be otherwise than connected. In other words, Knausgaard’s work traffics in white man’s privilege. Normally that privilege is shorthand to a presumed universal experience, to something that defines human existence. It’s the stuff of the Great American Novel. But My Struggle problematizes that assumption, resisting it at the same time that it depends on it. It is, in essence, a wager on readers’ interest in how privileged men connect to society. Its success and its failure stem from the same thing, and if it fails, it will fail wildly. My Struggle is of interest only to those who take an interest in the issue of privilege, of the make-up of the Western world that allows white men to think of ourselves as we do. By creating a work that makes that the very issue, Knausgaard has turned his story into something that is, perhaps, the last possible refuge of the white man’s novel.
This contrast between Knausgaard and Ferrante is heightened by differences in their public personae. My Struggle is also famous for being about real people, names unchanged. Knausgaard has met with international fame for his work, but the people surrounding him—his wife, his family, his friends and ex-girlfriends—have been forced into the spotlight as well. They have become accoutrement to his career. Perhaps that’s no surprise: if your goal is to connect with other people, spending years writing six books about yourself is an odd way to go about it. Ferrante avoids that issue by writing under a pen name, her identity a jealously guarded secret until recently. All she will say of the motivations behind the Neapolitan novels is that “it comes from what I know of a long, complicated, difficult friendship that began at the end of my infancy.” By ensuring that “the author is purely a name,” Ferrante lets Elena’s story expand beyond both the character or the author, something that Knausgaard could never do.
That fact that both Knausgaard and Ferrante’s books, in light of all this, have inspired readers to identify completely with the respective narrators shouldn’t come as a surprise: both works are masterpieces offering a diagnosis of different, but equally prevalent issues of identity, and as such offer readers a sympathetic sounding board for their own search for identity. Contrary to Rothman’s claim in “Ferrante or Knausgaard?,” then, our preference for one work or the other doesn’t show a difference in ideals, politics, or worldview; it shows our interest—or at least our tolerance—for questions about particular facets of identity.