October 2015

Arts & Letters


By Helen Elliott

Naples, 1961. © Mondadori

The femaleness of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels

“Naples,” Elena Ferrante has said, “should always be in the spotlight.” Ancient, eternally new, the uncontainable Italian city spills down to the sea, the fabled Bay of Naples. To one side Vesuvius slumbers. And here, in August 1944, four months after the volcano’s last eruption, Ferrante’s Elena Greco (known as Lenù) and Raffaella Cerullo (known as Lila) are conjured into life. In four novels that run to more than 1600 pages combined, Ferrante relates their childhood, young adulthood and maturity until Lila’s disappearance in 2010.

Childhood? Young adulthood? Maturity? Words too neat and too vague to describe the story of Lenù and Lila. Ferrante distils, compresses, hammers the force of life itself into the pages. Lenù and Lila, brilliant girls, were never children in the tender way we like to think of children, and their lives never reach any state of happy conclusion. They remain in constant, flying motion until the last pages, when Lila vanishes, Lenù stops enquiring, and the reader is left bereft.

Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym of an Italian writer who has kept her identity secret for more than 20 years. In that period she has published seven novels, the last four comprising the Neapolitan tetralogy that has caused a global sensation. The fourth and final volume, The Story of the Lost Child, has now been published in English, and readers are already grieving about that chill word “final”, the way children reacted when JK Rowling announced the final Harry Potter book.

In contemporary times, only the work of Karl Ove Knausgaard, among adult novels, has caused such literary drama. Ferrante, though, might better be compared to Charles Dickens. As each new Dickens instalment appeared, working people, often illiterate, collected around gas lamps in the street to hear it read aloud. Dickens gave working people a voice. Ferrante, whoever she might be, presents a new paradigm for being female in the world. And, I am reluctant to say this, women read her differently from men.

It’s complicated.

In an email interview with Francesco Erbani of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica in 2006, Elena Ferrante remarked that the “true reader” should not be confused with the fan: “The true reader, I think, searches not for the brittle face of the author in flesh and blood, who makes herself beautiful for the occasion, but the naked physiognomy that remains in every effective word.”

So Ferrante. Profound, sincere, poetic and humourless.

The interview was titled ‘The Writer Without a Face’, but Ferrante isn’t quite without a face. Several measured and expansive email interviews over the years fix her in the amber of the actual and dispel the idiotic suggestions that she is either a man or a collective.

She (the author who bears the name) was born into a poor Neapolitan family, but through intelligence and discipline she got an education that took her away from Naples and into the rarefied world of Italian intellectuals. She speaks several languages and has worked at jobs that allow her flexibility: “I study, I translate, I teach.” She has children – writing is just one of the three or four things that give “weight” to her life – and lives somewhere in Italy, but not in Naples. Throughout her life she has moved around more than she would have liked.

Ferrante has been consistent in her belief that if an author is to be known she is to be known by her work, through language alone. Her philosophy is salted with a dislike of the media and a disdain for that “faux-intimate” connection, engineered by publicity departments, between an author and their public. Can readers really believe they are seeing the real writer in interviews at writers’ festivals or in the few words they exchange at a book signing? A signed Ferrante book is unthinkable (and, to compound the paradox, both priceless and meaningless if it were obtainable).

Lionising an author is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Homer? Shakespeare? Or even Jane Austen? What do we know of them? Virtually nothing. Yet millions of readers swear they are their intimates. This intimacy occurs only through reading and being alert to a particular tone or voice belonging to a physical body that has been dead for centuries, a being that lives again as you read. As Shakespeare wrote in the closing lines of Sonnet 18: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

Ferrante’s elusiveness has only enhanced her fame. Nothing is more desirable than that which we cannot have. It drives us mad that in a world where privacy is now just a quaint notion there are still some secrets. If ever there was a brilliant marketing ploy, this was it. But this is no ploy. Although her reasons for anonymity have slightly changed over the years, Ferrante is as sincere in this need for privacy as she is about everything.

But we want to know about Ferrante because of something quite specific. Ferrante’s great literary creations, Lenù and Lila, have the same emotional weight as Anne in Persuasion, Jo in Little Women, Maggie in The Mill on the Floss, Jane in Jane Eyre. There’s also a phantom inhabiting these pages: Lenù, the narrator, is herself a writer and is, tantalisingly, named Elena. Ferrante’s novels certainly have an autobiographical tone, a force of personal emotion, but their texture is entirely new. Austen, Louisa May Alcott, George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë brought our brilliant and beloved earlier fictional friends to life within a circumscribed world of patriarchy. Elena Ferrante, on the other hand, relaxed and versed in modern feminist thought, has an infinitely more flexible reach. As do her characters; Lenù and Lila live in a dynamic world where anything seems possible, anything might be recut, remade, reshaped.

The titles of the Neapolitan novels are a concise chart of Lenù’s and Lila’s lives as they become themselves. My Brilliant Friend – ambiguously applying to both Lenù and Lila – is the story of their violent girlhood, early adolescence and burgeoning sexuality. It ends with Lila’s wedding party in Naples, March 1961. The Story of a New Name opens with Lila newly married and newly named, while Lenù moves to Pisa for university and, aspiring to refinement, sets about eliminating every trace of her coarse upbringing. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, again a totally ambiguous and fluid title, sees Lila choosing to stay in the neighbourhood and fight for justice in a city run by the mafia-style Camorra, while Lenù continues her ascent in the intellectual and social world before becoming ambushed by her own marriage and ensuing domesticity in Florence. The Story of the Lost Child follows Lenù’s distressing private life, her return to Naples and her strained relations with her daughters, while Lila, after an unspeakable tragedy, become less and less attached to the world, and obsessively educates herself about Neapolitan history.

Lenù’s and Lila’s lives, even their bodies, are stamped with the city’s teeming history. Naples “was mine”, says Lenù in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. “My voice, my gestures, my whole body had been subjected to its influence.” In various interviews Ferrante says exactly the same thing about herself. She has thought about living there again.

The girls’ childhood world is “full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection”. People they know are murdered, and they take it for granted their parents will beat them (or throw them out of a window, as Lila’s father did), that their mothers are silent drudges, or bitter harpies, or mad, that their houses are squalid. “While men were always getting furious,” writes Lenù, “they calmed down in the end; women, who appeared to be silent, acquiescent, when they were angry flew into a rage that had no end.” As capable six-year-olds they help their mothers by caring for the other children and working in the house. Men run Naples, and the Camorra run the men.

The opening page of the first of the Neapolitan novels has cockroaches and rats, it has the two girls each digging into their palms with a rusty safety pin as a test of courage. Their precious dolls, Tina and Nu, are children they can mother, and also mouthpieces for their yearning and angry feelings. Then Lila brutally drops Lenù’s doll through a grate into a cellar (and Lenù responds in kind).

Lila, “that terrible, dazzling girl”. Her baptismal name, Raffaella, is the name of an angel, but Lila runs like a wild flame through the tetralogy.

It’s a momentous symbol, the unmothered girls intentionally dropping their “children” into fear and darkness. Days later, when they get the courage to go into the filthy cellar to look for them, the dolls have vanished. Lila insists that the local moneylender and bogeyman, Don Achille, has taken them and put them into the bag he always carries, the bag that the children think contains things both alive and dead. Lila says they must confront him and ask for them back.

For the conscientious, obedient Lenù this is a moment of living nightmare, but when she follows Lila she is more alive in her skin than she has ever been. She writes, 60 years later, that she can still feel her physical terror – and the exhilaration. “I was frozen with fear. Don Achille was the ogre of fairy tales, I was absolutely forbidden to go near him, speak to him, look at him, spy on him.”

The girls climb the stairs to Don Achille’s apartment, waiting for him to come at them with a long knife.

We climbed slowly toward the greatest of our terrors at that time, we went to expose ourselves to fear and interrogate it.

At the fourth flight Lila did something unexpected. She stopped to wait for me, and when I reached her she gave me her hand. This gesture changed everything between us forever.

Those opening scenes, the language, the hand offered and grasped, contain entire lives. Lenù, fair, pretty and acquiescent, and Lila, dark, scowling and wicked, live their childhoods defined not by what is real around them but by how their entwined imaginations can slice through that reality, and the fate that Naples has in store.

Again and again, Lenù reminds us that Lila, no matter how much Lenù momentarily hates her, no matter that she sometimes wishes her dead, is, simply, the most important person in her life. There’s nothing contradictory about this. And Lila will say the words “I love you” to no adult but Lenù. As children exchanging ideas, they “tore the words out of each other’s mouth”. Neither finds that connection with another human being throughout their lives.

However, to suggest that Ferrante’s books are primarily about female friendship is a misreading, a taming and enfeebling of something far grander than friendship.

One feminist thinker whom Ferrante has mentioned is Luisa Muraro. Muraro, herself influenced by Luce Irigaray, the Belgian-born French philosopher who posited the influential theory of the language of “difference” between the sexes, searched for a way for women to flourish in a world where female authority could have equal value to the accepted patriarchal authorities. She developed a theory of entrustment, of women supporting and enabling one another. This mutual recognition and regard she called affidamento and she saw it in mother–daughter–friend relationships, all with their specific differences. Affidamento is what Lenù and Lila have and always had. But Ferrante then goes further: with her famous insistence on that tormenting and prized thing “sincerity”, she constructs affidamento between herself and her readers. There is no model for this, the reader has to give herself over to the author, and there is not the even the thinnest tissue between the words of the author and the emotion they provoke.

Lenù and Lila, without models for anything they aspire to be, exchange blood vows that make them more than friends, more than sisters, more than lovers. They become each other’s mothers too, their lives crisscrossing and intersecting, though sometimes they don’t see one another for years. They love and attend each other’s children as a matter of course, and this has shocking consequences in one terrible moment when the identities of a child and a mother are mistaken. They become equals, each part of the other and each best defined against the other, in love, loyalty and respect, and in fury, hate, malice, envy, jealousy and spite.

In an interview with the Paris Review this year (her only face-to-face interview, conducted by her Italian publishers, Sandro and Sandra Ferri, and their daughter), Ferrante said, “Feminist thought and practice set in motion the deepest, most radical of the many transformations that took place in the last century. I wouldn’t recognise myself without women’s struggles, women’s nonfiction, women’s literature – they made me an adult.”

Her novels narrate what Ferrante calls “a sort of female alienation-inclusion”, an interior female world set against an exterior male world.

While male characters cause most of the action in the novels, Ferrante’s eye doesn’t linger. The men are generally versions of gendered stereotypes – violent, jealous, crude, bullying, narcissistic, everyday Achilles and Agamemnons. Ferrante scarcely bothers to make them anything more. Even Enzo and Pietro, men whose behaviour is more nuanced, are hurried over so that she can return to Lenù and Lila.

As the girls try to educate themselves they must also learn the grammar of their own bodies, as the teenage Lenù does, for instance, through her evening sexual encounters with Antonio, an older boy from the neighbourhood. Has the eroticism and detachment of adolescent sex ever been so truthfully, finely drawn? For Lenù, sexual experimentation with Antonio has little to do with Antonio.

The one exception is the intellectual Nino, the romantic centre of Lenù’s life. Nino comes from a long line of fictional lady-killers – Tom Jones’ charm, Heathcliff’s sexuality and Darcy’s arrogance. Resistance is not possible, especially for a girl like Lenù (who speaks, according to Lila, like the pages of a book). Desire can make a woman put aside her deepest self, as Lenù’s years-long obsession with Nino (and Lila’s briefer obsession with him) despairingly illustrates.

Lila, who was in thrall to Nino for a time when she was just married, saw the havoc desire can cause. Unsentimental as always, clear-eyed, Lila chose not to let sexual desire destroy her. Yet sex isn’t at the heart of Ferrante’s work. Desire is – in all its forms and mysteries – but not sex, banal sex.

There is one mystery Lenù puzzles about. Nino tells her that Lila is “made badly” for sex. Lila? The goddess who inspires lustful chaos in every male she meets? Whose wedding photograph stirs Naples like an image of Loren or Lollobrigida? How can she be “made badly” for sex? Later, Lenù understands: Lila is made badly for sex because she’s more interested in becoming who she might be, rather than any man’s fantasy of who she is.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, often touted as the male version of Ferrante, is extraordinary when in his confessional mode, piling detail upon detail. Naming the banality is for him a talismanic way of distancing his anguished creative self from daily life. Ferrante is the opposite of confessional. Her mode, a descriptive enquiry, is devoted to the immense task of validating and communicating female experience in a world shaped by men.

But Ferrante’s details are never banal. Never. They are moments of drama hewn, snatched, hacked from a world where violence might flare at any moment. Drama, a form forged and honed in violence, is daily fare. Reflection and self-pity are privileges for those who have time. For a different class.

Ferrante’s tone has the authority of knowledge and experience, and she does not write about emotion, she writes of it, from within. There is no detachment. Towards the end of the final novel, Lila, “in a mixture of dialect, Italian, and very educated quotations”, asks Lenù if she remembers how, as children, they absorbed and used violence: “You remember how we used words to cause suffering, and how many we invented to humiliate?” Words have always been a weapon for fighting back. Submission or surrender means figurative death, as with their friends from school who become trapped by marriage or work, or, in one case, actual death.

Throughout the lives of Lenù and Lila, the most intense moments happen in their mother tongue – dialect, literally the language they speak with their mothers. They speak it in the neighbourhood and at home, and use it to describe their most intimate bodily parts. Dialect, a class identifier, is associated with shame, coarseness, vulgarity.

Naples has an extraordinary and rich dialect, with overlays of Arabic, Greek, German, English and a lot of French. Ferrante has commented that as a child and an adolescent the dialect of Naples “frightened” her.

The melodious Italian spoken outside their poor neighbourhood is a separate, second language, learned through books and at school. Starrily clever as Lenù and Lila are, they know that the world beyond is rendered entirely in this other language. All their aspirations – knowledge, light, beauty, refinement, grace, wealth – are symbolised in this other language.

Lenù, as disciplined as a soldier, becomes adept at using the new language. She understands that she must master this external reality in its own language before she can describe her own world, in her own voice. Lila, the more natural linguist, but stonily herself, often chooses to use dialect but at significant moments she uses, with immense skill, the “vigilant Italian” that is their second language. Living vigilantly, in another’s language, configures and reconfigures much of their lives. Entire worlds of class distinction and aspiration are contained in the use, or misuse, of both languages.

Later, Lenù’s daughters know that speaking the language of Lenù’s embittered and – most shaming – ignorant mother is the best way to hurt their own mother. At such moments Lenù wonders if her lifelong struggle has been mere class aspiration. In this world, meaning and identity are as disorderly as the city itself. What seemed immutable and permanent last week might prove hollow and shifting in new circumstances. Nothing is clear-cut, nothing is permanent. Ferrante’s nuanced observations of the famously cultivated and powerful Airota family into whom Elena marries are as revelatory and enlightening as her observations of poverty and violence.

Enticing female lives out into the open is Ferrante’s vocation, and she uses every narrative device at hand. Her work is inhabited and informed by the ghosts of great European works, as much as the ancient divinities of Naples. Lenù’s given name is insistent. In translation, Elena is the Greek Helen. The ghosts of Medea, Dido and Cassandra slip naturally, silently, between the pages. “I renounce nothing,” Ferrante said in the Paris Review interview, “that can give pleasure to the reader; not even what is considered old, trite, vulgar, not even the devices of genre fiction.”

One notable absence, however, is humour. Perhaps she doesn’t consider it to be pleasurable. Few great writers manage without it but Ferrante does. That, and irony. But, and this is puzzling, it doesn’t matter.

In a literary world habituated to humour, and where irony is required if we want to appear sophisticated, it’s easy to forget the pleasures of seriousness. Ferrante’s writing has no time for complex seductions of charm and comedy, or any drollery that will make horrible truths more acceptable; it is urgent, grave, direct. In hard lives, irony and wit are luxuries, more likely to appear as sarcasm and bitterness. And surely we read for deeper pleasures than an uncomplicated desire to enjoy? At some level we read to understand. Still, understanding can be unbearable. In an interview with the Italian newspaper L’Unita she wrote:

To tolerate existence, we lie, and we lie above all to ourselves. Sometimes we tell ourselves lovely tales, sometimes petty lies. Falsehoods protect us, mitigate suffering, allow us to avoid the terrifying moment of serious reflection, they dilute the horrors of our time, they even save us from ourselves. Instead, when one writes one must never lie. In literary fiction you have to be sincere to the point where it’s unbearable.

One reason Ferrante’s writing is so difficult to characterise or pin down is that her labile, dynamic style – she loves the comma – is forever transforming, circling, arguing within paragraphs, even sentences. The writing, through her characters, carries ideas as inconsistent and fluid as life itself. If anything, it is a dialectic mirroring life itself. Lila and Lenù are not always rational or even reasonable, let alone likeable. They can both behave badly. They are, in fact, fully human. Perfection is a fantasy, as it is in real life.

It isn’t that Ferrante despises convention. She takes it and refurbishes it. All of this is reflected in the dialect word her Neapolitan mother often used, frantumaglia, which she describes as “bits and pieces of uncertain origin which rattle around in your head, not always comfortably”. It can translate as “fragments” but it is far more. It represents a spiritual restlessness and a physical agitation that cannot be soothed. Her novels take these individual bits and pieces inside a woman’s head and patiently draw them into the light and examine them from various angles. The result is never tranquil, but it is illuminating and eventually, with enough pieces, coherent. It is exactly this that makes female readers, in particular, stop and then reread with the excitement of recognition.

Ferrante has the same sinuous sensibility as Virginia Woolf, the first modernist to capture the shimmer of the moment, but Ferrante’s experience, her education, her world, are more extreme, more dramatic and primitive. Ferrante also has an agility in her ideas and use of language that surpasses her illustrious predecessor. She compresses worlds into words, and the result is a texture that comes as a shock. Is it the texture of a new, grander écriture féminine? In Ferrante’s first novel, Troubling Love, Amalia cuts and recuts her favourite dresses to reinvigorate them; Ferrante takes what she wants from other writers, reusing, reshaping them with her voice or dialect. Yet it is not renewal. She makes something new, and in the process dislodges what she has described as our “most secret feelings”.

Ferrante finds language for feelings that have previously had no language, and for many readers, women especially, reading Ferrante is the enchantment of being fully seen – understood and recognised – for the first time.

Ferrante has said that she was first influenced, dazzled, by the great male writers. She believed that you had to be male to be great. Later, feminist thought and practice gave her inspiration and direction. But, she confesses, amid all her reading and theorising, for years she struggled to produce an original voice.

Like EM Forster, she is a writer uncertain about what she wants to say until she’s written it. In Ferrante’s second novel, The Lost Daughter, Leda says, “The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can’t understand.” Ferrante explained further, in her interview with the Paris Review: “The ‘I’ who narrates my stories is never a voice giving a monologue. It’s always a woman writing, and this writer always struggles to organise, in a text, what she knows but doesn’t have clear in her mind.”

At one point in the Neapolitan novels, Lenù is about to achieve real recognition as a serious feminist writer. But she does not really know what she has written. When she tours as an author she finds herself performing. She performs herself as she feels the intelligent, ambitious men she knows best want her to be. But, later, eager to please as always, what is she to make of her then husband Pietro’s jibe that she speaks only in clichés?

Pietro also observes that she’s just an educated version of the mother she is so desperate not to become. Lenù thinks that she is where she wants to be, that she is saying the right things, wearing the right jewellery, writing the clever words, but despite her determination not to look back she can’t escape the pull of the neighbourhood, and the family. And Lila.

As children, Lila and Lenù were precocious readers, and fairy tales defined the world for them. They imagined themselves as the brave little girls rescuing the lost dolls Tina and Nu from the ogre in the tower. The ogre, however – Don Achille – gave them some money to buy new dolls. They kept it, and later used it to buy a copy of Little Women. It became a secret, and sacred, text to them, and they decided to imitate its author. Lila, quick, wild, tenacious, rushed into writing and presented Lenù with a ten-page story she called The Blue Fairy.

We never get to read the amazing story written by the amazing girl, but these flimsy pages become a motif throughout the tetralogy. Years later, about to publish her first novel, Lenù is reunited with a copy of The Blue Fairy. Lenù has become the writer, while Lila has turned her brilliance to other matters. What Lenù reads electrifies her: “Lila’s childish pages were the secret heart of my book.” Like a watermark on every page of a handmade book, the force of Lila is behind everything Lenù writes.

Lila, who in the second novel is married and rich enough to buy Lenù books for her studies, is, by the third novel, separated, has a child and is working in a brutal sausage-making factory. Lenù, now on the ascendant path in her life as a writer and brimming with love and gratitude for her friend, dresses with utmost care and goes to visit Lila, to return the rediscovered and treasured manuscript.

Lenù wants to tell her friend, the brilliant friend whom she sees as the real writer, that her first novel is being published. The scene, recounted by Lenù, is heartbreaking; the once incandescent Lila shivering beside the factory fire in an overcoat pulled on over her filthy apron, Lenù in her careful clothes:

[Lila’s] complexion was gray, she seemed bloodless, and yet she flared up. I saw the red move up along her throat, her cheeks, up to the edge of her eyes, so close that she squeezed them as if fearing the flame would burn the pupils. Then she took my hand and kissed it, first on the back, then on the palm.

A few moments later Lila hurls The Blue Fairy into a fire. “I was an arrogant child,” she says.

Thankfully, the story does not stop here. Lila has yet another language to learn, that of the computers that will yet again transform her life.

Lila’s imagination is seditious and Ferrante makes this clear in careful ways. Lenù sees power in her friend’s fearlessness, although often does not understand her. Lila, for her part, admires the discipline and determination of her friend, and recognises an equal intelligence. What the reader should never forget is that Lila is refracted through Lenù’s – Elena’s – words. And only Lenù calls Lila by the name Lila. These are Lenù’s books, the same Lenù who, as a young woman slowly, deliberately, pushed all the writing Lila entrusted to her into the river Arno.

Just as Medea at the end of Euripedes’ play is whisked away in a chariot drawn by dragons, when Lila vanishes no trace remains. However, Lila has always seen and understood what others do not. Lenù might have drowned her words but not before studying them and remembering parts by heart. Lila will vanish, as everything vanishes and streams into something else, but she can trust her friend to recast her words. Physically she, Lila, might disappear, but Lenù’s writing will last. By giving her friend her detailed diaries, Lila, the brilliant girl on whom nothing was lost, gave Lenù the precise gift that anonymity has given Elena Ferrante. Lila, in her writing, achieved “ruthless accuracy … without worrying about anything or anyone”. In catching her life and fixing it in her diaries, Lila enabled Lenù to “see” another life as intimately as if she were seeing her own. A gift beyond price. In return, Lenù sets about writing down “all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory”.

“Our story” sounds like romance, or love. It is both, and more. Their story is about their desire to know themselves, not in a narcissistic way (Marguerite Duras, Anaïs Nin), and more ambitiously than the exquisite domestic nuances of Alice Munro or Anne Tyler. Lenù and Lila’s desire is existential. If they find any rest in the world it comes from a sense of being properly seen, as in known, by one other. “How splendid and shadowy our friendship was,” Lenù writes in the final book. When everything else falls away, this friendship validates both women’s lives. It is fixed in the art they have created for the world to see.

The story of Lenù’s literary success – Elena Greco’s or Elena Ferrante’s? – is the story of the progress, and process, of an author becoming an original voice over her lifetime. It is an explicit gesture and response to Ferrante’s own early belief that to be great you had to be male. It is the voice of Lila, who understood very early on that neither brilliance nor beauty have much purchase in a transient world, but that art, as Shakespeare noted, does. Marks on paper will outlast any human body or structure. It is up to Lenù to make the art from the writing Lila has given her, the purest form of affidamento. Like Ferrante herself, Lila can only be known through Lenù’s language.

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels rest by your bedside as innocent as the dormant Vesuvius but with the same seismic possibility. Ferrante is impatient with the polite. The word “great” can, for once, be used with the strictness and precision of truth. She is writing about all that we have forgotten or are reluctant to see, those ancient, profound differences as well as the anxieties and curiosities of the contemporary world. Finally, here is a writer who can validate our world without resorting to sentimentality or laughter. Her hardness is as bracing as her humourlessness. In an interview for the New York Times, the final question Rachel Donadio asked Ferrante was what she hoped readers would take from her work. She replied, “That even if we’re constantly tempted to lower our guard – out of love, or weariness, or sympathy or kindness – we women shouldn’t do it. We can lose from one moment to the next everything that we have achieved.”

I have an image of these words being delivered, or flung, from Olympus, by Hera herself. Ferrantissimo.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, Labor MP Emma McBride and shadow housing minister Jason Clare after meeting with young renter Lydia Pulley during a visit to her home in Gosford on May 3, 2022. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

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What will it take for Australia to fix the affordable housing crisis?