Italian novelist Elena Ferrante is a cult author. She is defined as “one of the great novelists of our time” in The New York Times Book Review, “the best contemporary novelist you have never heard of” in The Economist, and “one of Italy’s finest novelists” in the Times Literary Supplement, and so on and so forth.
She is also known for fiercely protecting her true identity.
We know she was born in Naples, studied classics, her favourite Italian novelist is Elsa Morante; she discovered the pleasure of telling stories when she was 13. We also know she has humble origins, she has a day job (other than writing), and feminist thinkers from Irigaray, Cavarero, to Haraway, Butler, and Braidotti have influenced her writing. Her international popularity has been growing since 2005 when her books began being translated into English. Her Neapolitan Novels are now an enormous success.
She is, nevertheless, intangible. Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym that has been protecting her identity for more than 20 years. Information on how and why she writes is cautiously scattered across only written interviews (as in The Paris Review and Vogue, or the collected letters and notes in her La Frantumaglia (2003).
Elena Ferrante published her first book, Troubling Love, in 1992, followed by The Days of Abandonment (2002) and The Lost Daughter (2008). Through an often violent, carnal language Ferrante narrates complex, gripping, passionate stories of women: daughters, mothers, abandoned or abused wives, lovers, adolescent girls, friends of other women, and writers.
Her female protagonists are repressed by their men and the environment. At the same time, they are uncontrollable rebels, resisting conventional models of femininity. Ferrante’s narrating “I” is always a woman (Leda, Delia, Olga or Elena) and – supposedly - her books are inspired from experiences, people and places from her childhood.
In 2011 Ferrante started her popular Neapolitan quadrilogy – My Brilliant Friend (2012), The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay (2014), and the latest, The Story of the Lost Child (2015). These books tell the lives and consuming friendship of Elena and Lila, against the backdrop of social and political upheaval in Italy from the 1950s to the present day (with a particular attention to the social tensions of the 1960s and 1970s).
In around 1,700 pages we follow Elena and Lila from their adolescence, growing up in a poor crime-infested area of Naples, through years of love affairs, unsatisfying marriages, and tortuous careers. Their inextricable, intense and mysterious friendship resists disillusionment, treachery, and mental illness.
The novels are easy to read and one is carried away by a prose that is solid, lucid and controlled, without any of the excessive embellishment many contemporary Italian writers are often accused of employing.
The first three volumes of the Neapolitan series have sold around 130,000 in the United States and similarly in Italy where reviews are favourable and appreciative. Yet, most of her popularity has been abroad where they are published by Europa Editions (owned by Edizioni E/O, Ferrante’s Italian publishing house) in New York, and distributed by Melbourne-based Text Publishing in Australia.
Why are Ferrante’s books so successful? Her novels are pleasant to read through the brilliant translation of Ann Goldstein. In between soap opera, Greek tragedy, opera, Neapolitan drama (sceneggiata napoletana) and thriller, Ferrante’s characters, places, and situations sustain a type of Italy many readers in Anglophone countries like to envision: loud, theatrical and picturesque.
A gloomy chaotic Naples and its Vesuvius operate as backdrop of crime, family plots of love, betrayal and jealousy (a bit The Sopranos style), and explicit sexual descriptions. All is cunningly knitted in novels that seem to confirm current systems of expectations and values according to the typical romanzo popolare (popular novel) style, as defined by Umberto Eco.
There is, however, something more. The power of Ferrante’s books stands in the simple and intense manner emotions are narrated. The reader feels inundated by the violent passions, obsessions and illusions of the vulnerable protagonists. An exploration of women’s psyche, these stories, in fact, display emotions the reader has experienced (in friendship and family relations), but that she is hardly able to express and acknowledge.
Furthermore, the evasiveness of the author clearly intensifies readers’ fascination with these stories. A woman, a man, a committee of men or, even, just a commercial stunt? Fuss and speculation surround her ghostly figure. Whoever this writer is, it is doubtless that her “absence” makes her works powerful.
Feeling the burden of exposing herself she wants her individual books to have a life on their own, independent from the author’s incumbent presence.
Invisibility gives her the opportunity to be more sincere, more profound, and much more risk-bearing. She is against self-promotion as it would weaken any work of art. Her elusiveness, in this way, opens up a creative space for her and her addicted readers who (without any interference and limitations) are placed in the position of being able to extract the author from the text itself. They can, consequently, experience a stronger emotional bond with the protagonists.
In line with Roland Barthes’s 1968 essay The Death of the Author, Ferrante’s books leave the reader to bestow the meaning they want to the “multidimensional space” of the text. This is, itself, a complex fabric resulting from other, previously existing, sources (other texts, stories, ideas and memories).
In My Brilliant Friend, Lila tells Elena that there is always a “before”. With regard to the way their neighbourhood, in the outskirts of Naples, had developed:
every stone or piece of wood, everything, anything you could name, was already here before us, but we had grown up without realising it, without ever even thinking about it.
In a game of hide and seek, the reader is conferred, therefore, with the power to discover and imagine, that “before”, which is Ferrante herself, but absent.
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante is published by Text Publishing.