A Writer’s Journey
PAPERBACK COMING SEPTEMBER 12
Elena Ferrante is the author of The Days of Abandonment (Europa, 2005), Troubling Love (Europa, 2006), and The Lost Daughter (Europa 2008) and the four volumes of the Neapolitan Quartet (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of The Lost Child), published by Europa Editions between 2012 and 2015. She is also the author of a children’s picture book illustrated by Mara Cerri, The Beach at Night and a work of non-fiction, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey.
#FerranteFever, join the conversation
News & Reviews
by Natalie Bakopoulos
“It’s not my absence that generates interest in my books,” the Italian writer Elena Ferrante notes in an interview, “but the interest in my books that generates media interest in my absence.” Ferrante has been famously adamant about her anonymity, only giving selective, careful interviews. And though many have speculated about her identity, it had remained unknown, or at least unnamed—and most of us liked it that way. And then this past October, the Italian journalist Claudio Gatti conducted a heartless investigation for the New York Review of Books to uncover it. I won’t go into its details here.
Frantumaglia, released this past November, comprises Ferrante’s various interviews and written correspondence. Critics have noted the irony: a writer such as Ferrante—who insists the work should speak for itself—publishes a book of personal interviews, letters, and deleted scenes. Ferrante herself even asks, in a letter contained in its pages: “Why, above all, add so much of my chatter . . . ?”
Me, I don’t see the contradiction. My question is, Why would she not? Her letters and interviews are decidedly not mere chatter: they, too, are literary works. They show artistry and imagination, and Ferrante even notes the difficulty of answering interview questions because they lead her into a complicated maze of storytelling, artifacts, and searching. Frantumaglia is in itself a compelling narrative, and while immersed in its pages, I often felt I was immersed in a work within a work, a story in documents.
The Neapolitan Quartet, comprising four novels narrated by an Italian writer named Elena Greco, is also a work within a work. The novels focus on the complicated, often antagonistic friendship between Elena and her friend Lila Cerullo, set against the backdrop of their neighborhood in Naples and its cultural, political, and social concerns. Elena Ferrante is the author who writes under a pseudonym. Though Ferrante has not herself called her work an autofiction, Elena Greco’s book is arguably masterfully so, a writer in an urgent attempt to write—and preserve—the self. Elena Greco is the writer of the text we read. And within the book, Elena Greco discusses books she has written, but we don’t have full access to them.
Frantumaglia, then, adds a new artful layer. The book is not without its own meta-elements; it contains dozens of letters between Ferrante and her publisher, many of which discuss the actual making of the book that we hold in our hands. It also includes scenes that were cut from her novels—adding yet another meta-layering. But make no mistake: reading Frantumaglia is not as simple as reading the other half of Elena Ferrante. It is far more complicated than simply splitting her between the I who writes at her desk and the I who exists on the page.
She notes in an interview:
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.
The word frantumaglia she defines as “a jumble of fragments”: “the storehouse of time without the orderliness of a history, a story.” But the boundaries between these fragments—writer at the desk and the writer inhabiting the invented world—are blurred. “Over the years,” Ferrante writes, “ . . . I’ve come closer and closer to the idea that real writing is what emerges by itself, from an ecstatic condition. But often I discover that ecstasy is imagined as a disembodiment. The ecstasy of writing is feeling not the breath of the word that is liberated from the flesh but the flesh that becomes one with the breath of the words.”
She says: “I tend to throw into words . . . my entire body.” Creating, for Ferrante, is also a deeply physical act. She demonstrates a keen awareness of the overdetermined nature of the female body, both in Frantumagliaand in her work in general. Ferrante is not necessarily claiming she wants to be without a public, cultural voice, but perhaps one without a public body. And if we examine the commentary on the appropriation and fragmentation of the female body in Ferrante’s work: as abject, as decaying, as appropriated, as object of the male gaze, as a corpse, her reasons to not want to become, as she writes of one of her characters, “an erotic gift to the spectator” or one up for mockery or comment, seem self-evident. For example, she writes of not wanting to dress nicely, in form-fitting clothes that showcased the body, or with makeup—“I hid in big shirts, sweaters two sizes too large, baggy jeans”—because she feared a man might think it was for him, and then laugh about it behind her back. This complicated fear, of both being misunderstood and humiliated, is telling.
But I don’t want to read Ferrante’s request to remain hidden as solely a feminist statement. It’s an artistic one too, and she’s careful not to simply blame the patriarchy:
I don’t like to think, as we often do, that the tremendous actions of the heroines of myths are merely the product of a pernicious male racket, of a patriarchal plot: in the end it’s like attributing to women a lack of humanity, and that isn’t useful. We have to learn, rather, to speak with pride of our complexity, of how in itself it informs our citizenship, whether in joy or in rage.
Frantumaglia shows her unyielding interest in female complexity. She notes: “The process of fragmentation in a woman’s body interests me very much from the narrative point of view. It means telling the story of a present-day female I that suddenly perceives itself disintegrating, it loses the sense of time, it’s no longer in order, it feels like a vortex of debris, a whirlwind of thoughts-words.”
And this fragmentation needs self-care. When a male interviewer asks her if she’d be willing to give a physical description of herself, she replies with a firm “No.” She calmly explains herself, but she does not apologize. To which any woman—or any man for that matter, though it’s rare for a male writer to be asked about his children, or spouse, or work-life balance—can attest, it is difficult to refuse to answer, without apology, when asked about one’s private life. Our share-all world has made protecting the private seem almost like a perversion, a deviance, an act to view with suspicion. More than once she cites Italo Calvino, who says: “Ask me what you want to know, but I won’t tell you the truth, of that you can be sure.” It’s not that Ferrante necessarily draws a line between the Iwho writes and the I who appears on the page; it’s that perhaps she knows the boundaries between art and life are tenuous. Writing for Ferrante, then, is a sort of frantumaglia, and it’s no wonder that once the book has been released in the world, she’d like to attempt to shore up all that fragmentation.
Throughout this collection, Elena Ferrante asks us to not only respect the boundaries between the work and what remains outside it, “an invisible gutter,” but to also consider what boundaries the work dissolves. “In my experience, the difficulty-pleasure of writing touches every point of the body. When you’ve finished the book, it’s as if your innermost self had been ransacked, and all you want is to regain distance, return to being whole.” In short, her self-preservation becomes a political act. By rejecting her authorial persona as a public body, she forces us to readjust our biases, refuses to let us apply the same language, the same discussion, to her work.
The work is the public presence: “The voice is part of your body, it needs your presence—you speak, you have a dialogue, you correct, you give further explanations. Writing, on the other hand, once it’s fixed on a support structure, is autonomous, it needs a reader, not you.”
“The rest,” she says, “is ordinary private life.”
I run a Facebook group called “What Would Virginia Woolf Do?” (a twisted joke about one of my literary and feminist heroines) of super candid, super smart women over forty, and we’re all huge readers. The group started as a private forum for me and some girlfriends to bitch and moan about perimenopausal woes, but it has grown into so much more: a vibrant community where we “discuss, support, and share things that we may not care to share with the men and children in our lives.”
On March 8, 2017, in commemoration of International Women’s Day, a Woolfer posted a list put out by the New York Public Library of 365 published female authors from all around the globe to keep us inspired all year round. Their list is inspiring, but we were shocked by how many of our truly beloved favorite women writers were left off, so we created our own, and we think it’s so good, and so important, that it’s worth sharing:
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
Dorothy Allison, Bastard out of Carolina
Isabel Allende, House of Spirits
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
Jane Austen, Persuasion
Jane Austen, Lady Susan
Djuna Barnes, Nightwood
Lynda Barry, Cruddy
Jane Bowles, Two Serious Ladies
Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
Charlotte Brontë, Villette
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
Frances Burney, Evelina
Octavia Butler, Lilith’s Brood
A.S. Byatt, The Children’s Book
Ann Carson, The Autobiography of Red
Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus
Willa Cather, My Antonia
Jung Chang, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China
Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street
Laurie Colwin, Happy All the Time
Lydia Davis, Break It Down
Simone De Beauvoir, The Second Sex
Joan Didion, The White Album
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
Margaret Drabble, The Waterfall
Margaret Drabble, The Millstone
Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad
George Eliot, Middlemarch
Nora Ephron, Scribble Scribble
Jennifer Cody Epstein, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment
Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine
Jenny Erpenbeck, The Old Child
Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate
Elena Ferrante, The Neapolitan Novels
Melanie Finn, The Gloaming
Marilyn French, The Women’s Room
Mary Gaitskill, Bad Behavior
Cristina Garcia, Dreaming in Cuban
Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm
Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman
Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies
Jean Hegland, Into the Forest
Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt
Alice Hoffman, White Horses
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle
P.D. James, Devices and Desires
Erica Jong, Fear of Flying
Miranda July, No One Belongs Here More Than You
Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
Nicole Kraus, The History of Love
Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies
Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth
Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Doris Lessing, The Diary of a Good Neighbour
Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook
Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star
Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
Daphne du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel
Grace Metalious, Place
Mary McCarthy, The Group
Elizabeth McCracken, The Giants House
Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding
Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces
Nancy Mitford, Love in a Cold Climate
Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love
L.M. Montgomery, Emily of New Moon
Toni Morrison, Beloved
Alice Munro, Collected Stories
Iris Murdoch, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine
Alissa Nutting, Tampa
Joyce Carol Oates, Blonde
Flannery O’Connor, Everything That Rises Must Converge
Jenny Offill, Dept. Of Speculation
Mary Oliver, Upstream
Tillie Olsen, I Stand Here Ironing
Tillie Olsen, Tell Me a Riddle
Cynthia Ozick, The Pagan Rabbi
Cynthia Ozick, The Shawl
Grace Paley, Collected Stories
Gail Parent, The Best Laid Plans
Gail Parent, Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in NY
Ann Patchett, Bel Canto
Elena Poniatowska, Tlatelolco
Annie Proulx, The Shipping News
Mary Rakow, The Memory Room
Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter series
Lore Segal, Her First American
Marie Semple, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
Denzy Senna, Symtomatic
Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries
Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book
Mona Simpson, Anywhere But Here
May Sinclair, A Cure of Souls
Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres
Patti Smith, Just Kids
Zadie Smith, On Beauty
Murial Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club
Barbara Trapido, Brother of the More Famous Jack
Joanna Trollope, Other People’s Children
Joanna Trollope, The Rector’s Wife
Ann Tyler, The Homesick Restaurant
Alice Walker, The Color Purple
Helene Wecker, The Golem and the Jinni
Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent
Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth
Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country
Isabel Wilkerson, Warmth of Other Suns
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
E.H. Young, Miss Mole
The great explorer Thor Heyerdahl, when asked to consider the question of borders, answered: “I have never seen one. But I have heard that they exist in the minds of some people.”
Heyerdahl, I think, would nonetheless have enjoyed two of the timeliest travel books to have appeared in the past six months; books that I would urge you to make room for wherever you’re heading this summer.
Devotees of Elena Ferrante, author of the bestselling novels of female friendship in post-war Naples, have readily accepted her argument that she writes under a pseudonym because it’s essential to her work. They were outraged when a journalist claimed last autumn to have “unmasked” the writer. In Frantumaglia (Europa Editions), a collection of letters and interviews whose publication was overshadowed by the row, Ferrante offers a glimpse into her working life and the way in which jumbled fragments of memory find fictional form.
A few years ago, I collaborated with a friend to write about the double standards young girls face in Bangladesh. We wrote about how it’s a health risk for young boys to smoke, but immoral and scandalous for girls to do the same; how the girls we interviewed aren’t allowed to make plans after a certain time of the day, while their younger brothers come and go as they please. The article received 2.5k shares online when it was published in this newspaper’s SHOUT magazine. The irony? I wrote it under a pseudonym. I didn’t have the courage, at the time, to tag my name onto something so controversial yet so relevant to my own life.
Anonymity can be liberating. The pen names Currer and Ellis Bell, respectively, allowed Charlotte and Emily Bronte to use influences from their local neighbourhood to craft Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. George Elliott, the famed writer of Middlemarch, was actually Mary Anne Evans. The aliases allowed these women to break into a literary market that was rigidly male-dominated at the time, giving us some of the seminal works of 19th-century western literature. In the decade that followed, Charles Dodgson disrobed the identity of a mathematician to write Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as Lewis Carroll. The gender-neutral initials of EL James allowed the writer of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy to engage with a particularly notorious topic. And closer to home, Rabindranath Tagore composed poetry in the literary language of Brajabuli as Bhanusimha, a name he found in the torn leaves of an old library book.
The removal of a name tag brings on the freedom to shift genres, write from the perspective of a different gender, or tackle topics that are particularly sensitive or experimental. This makes the pseudonym itself a powerful and useful tool. But it’s troubling to think of how we, as readers, often make writers feel like they can’t use their own identity for their work. A talented young writer I know prefers to use a pseudonym for his published fiction pieces. He doesn’t want to have to answer probing questions, from relatives in particular, about what his stories might mean about his personal life. Why these questions? Why do fictional works lead to assumptions about an author’s private life? Given that this is a concern I’ve heard on several occasions, it forces us to notice how the hasty judgments and prying nature typical of our society are stifling the creative spirit of so many aspiring young artists in our midst.
“You’re missing out on the perspective that an opposite sex can provide. Much, much more importantly, you’re closing yourself off to a plethora of ideas that have nothing to do with gender, because there’s no such thing as a woman’s topic or a man’s topic, contrary to archaic belief.
And then there’s the battle of the sexes. Joanne Rowling, as we know, was advised by Bloomsbury to use the initials JK for the Harry Potter series to appeal to a wider audience—boys in particular, who are seemingly more likely to read books by male authors. This was later supported by a 2014 Goodreads survey, which found 90 percent of men’s 50 most read books that year to have been written by men. Eighty percent of a woman writer’s audience was similarly found to comprise of women.
It’s one thing to respond better to a writer of one’s own gender; even natural, one might say. But to deliberately choose not to read works written by a certain kind of author deprives both parties. You’re robbing an artist of the chance to share the product of their hard work with you, work that might be just the kind of thing you’re looking for. You’re missing out on the perspective that an opposite sex can provide. Much, much more importantly, you’re closing yourself off to a plethora of ideas that have nothing to do with gender, because there’s no such thing as a woman’s topic or a man’s topic, contrary to archaic belief. Some of the biggest bestsellers of the past few years span a range of topics written by women. Gillian Flynn created an entire genre of mystery/thriller, writing from both a man and a woman’s perspective, in Gone Girl. Zadie Smith has been detangling the nuances of race, identity and academia since the publication of White Teeth to more recently Swing Time. And authors like Jhumpa Lahiri and Arundhati Roy have become icons in their rich portrayal of South Asian history. On the flipside, some of the most iconic women in literature have been created by men, from Anna Karenina (Tolstoy) to Madame Bovary (Flaubert) to Binodini (Tagore). Even Hazel Grace Lancaster (John Green), if you like your YA fiction.
Casual Vacancy was the first book JK Rowling published in her own name after the end of the Harry Potter series. It didn’t work out so well, unfortunately. But, instead of hanging it up simply as a hit-and-miss, readers were quick to pass the judgment that all she’s capable of handling is the magical world. Hence the creation of Robert Galbraith, a nom de plume she took up yet again, for a fairly successful crime series known as the Cormoran Strike novels (starring a gritty male detective, FYI).
But perhaps the most extreme example of pseudonyms gone wrong is that of Elena Ferrante. An Italian writer who kept her identity hidden since her first book of the Neapolitan Novels, Ferrante, in many of her interviews, has repeatedly emphasised how the pseudonym allows her to concentrate on her writing, to make her literary identity exclusively about her work. Last year, however, an Italian journalist set about revealing her real name, which set off a media explosion into the personal sphere that she had determinedly preserved since 1992.
As much as we’d like to believe that times have changed, these subtle instances of gender bias, intrusiveness, and hasty judgments continue to stifle creative pursuits in our midst even today. We’re all too quick to judge that a woman can write about only a woman and a man about just a man, that an author of magical realism cannot handle crime fiction, and that reading an author’s works entitles us to pry into what is off limits.
But the joke’s on us—the loss, of missing out on fascinating, manifold literary realms, entirely ours.
I’d like to get to Elena Ferrante’s books if possible too.
Jilted wives, drunk uncles & seagreen chiffon — it’s wedding season!
It’s wedding season. These days, that doesn’t mean a few DJ-ed buffets at the local rental hall. Going to a wedding, more and more often, means getting on a plane to some far-flung destination, driving to the middle of nowhere to drink specialty cocktails in a rustic chic barn, and taking silly-sexy pictures in a photo booth so as to capture the one use of your very expensive bridesmaid dress or groomsmen’s suit.
If you’re feeling exhausted, bored, or financially depleted, take heart — literature has come up with weddings that can far outweigh the horror of the parties you’ve been to. These 11 novels remind us that, at the very least, we can be happy that the bride and groom came willingly and without the baggage of a still-living spouse, and the guests, while drunk, were not also out to kill.
There is something perversely satisfying about seeing an event that is so heavy with expectations get trashed, and in these cases, it is illuminating too. These authors don’t accept weddings as the flower-strewn manifestation of assured romantic bliss. They take one of humanity’s oldest customs and scrutinize and question it, and the results, while not always pretty, are always interesting.
2. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
The first book of Ferrante’s Neapolitan series concludes with Lila’s wedding to Stefano Carracci, who is the heir to the local grocery store and, in what should have been a huge red flag, the son of Don Achille, the man who terrified Lila and Elena as children. Before the boozy wedding feast is over, young Lila — and she is still so very young — realizes that Stefano is just like his father and the wedding was a terrible mistake, one that will haunt her for the rest of her life.
Nicholas Hytner: Late to the party, I read Elena Ferrante over Christmas and I’d happily read her again this summer, on the terrace of a farmhouse overlooking the foothills of the French Alps.
JESSIE CHAFFEE READS DEEPLY INTO EMPTINESS, FEAR, DESIRE, AND ELATION
July 3, 2017 By Jessie Chaffee
When I was 22, I developed an eating disorder, an experience equal parts horror and euphoria that took me outside of myself, turning me into someone I wasn’t, or perhaps revealing a part of me that had always been there. Intellectually, I recognized that I was negating, erasing, and isolating myself. But my emotional experience was not one of loneliness or loss. On the contrary, I often felt painfully clear, high, satiated, connected to something more than myself. I felt ecstatic.
By the time I sought help, I was whittled down, haunted, and searching for a way to describe those months when I had disappeared from my life. I had always identified as a writer, but anorexia stripped me of words, alienating me from the world as I previously understood it and from the language I used to give shape to that world. In its wake, I was searching for a new language, one that, as a lifelong reader, I hadn’t yet witnessed in literature.
And then a close friend handed me a copy of Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight. Like many people, I had read Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a retelling of Jane Eyre from the perspective of Bertha (aka, “the madwoman in the attic”), but this novel, published decades earlier, was different. It was unlike anything I’d ever read in its depiction of a woman who is losing herself to the seduction of alcoholism, the ghosts of her past, and the increasingly self-destructive decisions she makes as she tries to survive both. What was new was not the content but the telling. Rhys collapses the distance between the reader and her protagonist. We don’t witness Sasha’s descent; we live it. We feel the too-small dirty hotel room, the jeers and stares of strangers who may or may not actually be there, the grief and weight of memory. And we feel the messy intermingling of emptiness, fear, desire, and elation as reality unravels, and language with it, along the beautiful and horrific knife-edge of addiction.
Good Morning, Midnight gave me not only a mirror for my own experience, but it altered completely the type of work I wanted to produce as a writer. I consumed the slim, used paperback in a single sitting—and consumed is the right word, as it nourished me, became a part of me, and then left me hungry for more writing like it. From Rhys, it was not a far leap to Marguerite Duras and then Elena Ferrante and Claire Messud, all women who write about women on the fringes grappling with the most foundational questions of meaning and identity. These writers deal in contradictions, in the seductive gray areas where the high lives, in the things that might destroy us but that we nevertheless pursue. Their protagonists are complicated, flawed, brilliant, extreme, and, quite often, ecstatic.
I began writing my novel out of a desire to be in conversation with those writers, and to give language, through fiction, to an experience that had left me mute. In the writing I realized that there was another group of women writers whose stories I needed to read—the Catholic mystical saints, women who claimed a direct relationship to God through their ecstatic visions, and who recorded those visions in fiery and sensual language. Their vitae read like the ancestors of Rhys and Ferrante. Their ecstasies were not always celebrated—they were also used as evidence that they were possessed, deceitful, or calculating in their ambition. But like the protagonists of their contemporary counterparts, the saints’ telling leaves no room for doubts as we live the experiences with them.
Below are my favorite works about ecstatic women brought to life by my favorite women writers. These narratives don’t grant us the safety of distance or room for judgment, but place us within the protagonists’ realities, daring us to feel what they feel, and suggesting that if ecstasy is madness, then we the readers are mad too.
Elena Ferrante, The Days of Abandonment, tr. Ann Goldstein
Written before the uber-popular Neopolitan novels, this slim, visceral work follows a woman’s violent struggle to make meaning in the chaos and isolation that follows the dissolution of her marriage:
I was not the woman who breaks into pieces under the blows of abandonment and absence, who goes mad, who dies. Only a few fragments had splintered off, for the rest I was well. I was whole and whole I would remain. To those who hurt me, I react giving back in kind. I am the queen of spades, I am the wasp that stings, I am the dark serpent. I am the invulnerable animal who passes through the fire and is not burned.
A reading list in defence of the ‘global novel’
If by chance you are still looking for a summer reading list, Adam Kirsch’s brilliant, and short, inquiry, The Global Novel: Writing the World in the 21st Century, may provide one. Many of these are beloved texts that have been around for years, but his particular line of analysis to defend “the global novel” brings them together in a pattern that makes a reread a relook: Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, Roberto Bolano’s 2666, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island, and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels.
Stripped for export?
Take Murakami, around whom speculation settles as a yearly ritual in the days leading to the announcement of the Nobel Prize, but whose writing is sometimes criticised back home in Japan for Japanese prose that is, as Kirsch puts it, “stripped for export”. It is not that simple. Comparing Murakami’s magnum opus 1Q84 to Pamuk’s Snow, Kirsch notes that while the plot and the characters of the latter are necessarily particular to Turkey, “the urban isolates of 1Q84 could almost as easily be living in New York or London” as in Tokyo. This, he concludes, is not a distortion inflicted by Murakami’s vaulting ambition to be something to everyone, but is perhaps a reflection of the common threads in our lives and curiosities worldwide.
He calls Adichie’s and Hamid’s novels “migrant literature”, different from the immigrant literature of writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri, whereby “America is a stage of life rather than a final destination” in the characters’ lives. As a contrast, there are the novels of Ferrante, whose success as a global writer is intriguing. Her novels are very strongly located in Naples, she uses local dialects in the original Italian, and she refuses to reveal her identity, thereby denying her overseas publishers the big marketing essential, the book tour.
In their particularity, her novels speak to common human emotions, of course, but they also, Kirsch helps us understand, suggest we must “see fates in an international perspective”, just as the other books listed here do. His tour is an invitation to read some of these books, and work out our individual appraisals of the appeal, and importance, of the global novel.
It’s hot as something down here in the South, and Chris and Annie are back to talk about what they read in June. It was a light month of the highest quality. Also, Chris Pine: hot or not? And happy anniversary, Harry Potter.
+ The End We Start From by Megan Hunter (on sale November 7)
+ Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson (on sale July 11)
+ Heating and Cooling by Beth Ann Fennelly (on sale October 10)
+ Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (on sale (on sale September 12)
+ Theft by Finding by David Sedaris
+ The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante
+ Marriage of a Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu
Hey, did you know that we read and recap books in literally every episode of this podcast, not just the ones labeled “Reading Recap”? I just want to make sure that you do because we have so many recommendations for you all the time always and want you to enjoy!
The wonderful thing about being a reader is that even when you’re familiar with the classics of English literature, there are still bookshelves all over the world to explore. These writers, featured in Radio 4’s Reading Europe series, are some of the most famous novelists in their own countries – but the rest of the world has yet to discover them.
Here’s why you should read them.
Italy: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Ferrante fever has been sweeping Europe for the past few years, and reached a fever pitch when journalist Claudio Gatti claimed to have “unmasked” the reclusive author. However, fans remain more interested in her novels than her life stories. In My Brilliant Friend, we’re introduced to Elena and Lila, whose friendship is one of the most believable in fiction – they’re not braiding each other’s hair at sleepovers, they’re jealously competing to escape the neighbourhood of Naples and trying to avoid the attentions of local gangsters.
Look out for: Lila’s wedding – it’s so tense and troubling that it makes the wedding sequence in The Godfather look like it was guest directed by Richard Curtis.
Rumpus: In Lucky You, there are tidbits of information about the characters’ pasts. There are time gaps between sections. There is a lot that goes unspoken. This seems to require you, as the author, to have a lot of trust in the reader. Can you talk a bit about this relationship of trust between author and reader?
Carter: When I was writing this, I had no agent or publisher, and was far from even thinking about having readers. So, that was freeing, because I wasn’t trying to please anyone. It’s interesting now, though, because I’m writing my second book, and I’m still not trying to please anyone—I feel like I’m just writing what has to be said, in the best way I know how to say it.
Lucky You is definitely not for everyone, but I would never want to write a book for everyone. I’d like to quote Elena Ferrante here, from her interview with the Paris Review, on this subject:
I employ all the strategies I know to capture the reader’s attention, stimulate curiosity, make the page as dense as possible and as easy as possible to turn. But once I have the reader’s attention I feel it is my right to pull it in whichever direction I choose. I don’t think the reader should be indulged as a consumer, because he isn’t one. Literature that indulges the tastes of the reader is a degraded literature. My goal is to disappoint the usual expectations and inspire new ones.
I grew up in a beach town; the salt water is in my blood. I like to read “beach reads” (whatever they are) all year round. But now that it’s summer, I feel free to shine some sunlight on all the books I love that take place at the beach!
From board books to wordless picture books, from classic middle grade novels to contemporary YAs, from evocative literary fiction to adult thrillers, there are beachy books for every type of reader. So even if you’re land-locked this summer, you can feel the sand in your toes when you pick up one of these titles.
Here are some of my all-time favorite books that take place at the beach:
(…) And Julia chose Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Much of the second book, The Story of a New Name, takes place in an Italian beach town. (See my note above about Italian beaches!) Julia says, “I love Ferrante’s writing because she can sustain long periods of intense human emotion for hundreds of pages, and it’s riveting and exhausting. There’s no better example of this intensity than during Lenu and Lila’s summer on the beach in The Story of a New Name.”
The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child (The Neapolitan Novels #2-4) by Elena Ferrante
I really, really liked Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which is an incredibly blase way to compliment a book so raw and confrontational and, well, brilliant. The remaining three books in the Neapolitan Novels series build on the strong momentum established by the first and, in the process, continue to be some of the most poignant reading I’ve experienced in ages. The feelings that these books provoked in me were strong and visceral, inflamed and tender in their ebb and flow. These are not feel-good stories, but they don’t feel gratuitous in their misery, either. As a woman, my vicarious anger has an undercurrent of resignation, because each injustice and pointed strike at Lila and Elena — the character — (but also, all of the other Neapolitan women in the books) rings a little too true to feel like emotional manipulation.
Taking place from the 1950’s all the way through the 2010’s, beyond coming of age into mature adulthood, the series chronicles the personal and professional achievements and failures of two very intelligent women who are both products of their time, but who also rise above the expectations of the era and of the microculture in their misogynistic, violent Naples neighborhood. For all that they are exceptional, though, the neighborhood has indelibly tagged them. Lila, despite her potential, is never able to leave, while Elena, despite a fancy education and a high-class marriage, is still condescended to because of her background, never allowed to forget how she is different.
The Story of a New Name takes place immediately after Lila’s marriage to the neighborhood grocer, the young man in charge of one of only two of the neighborhood’s prosperous families. Getting bogged down in the details of the plot of each book is kind of missing the point, so I will try to avoid doing it, but I mention the marriage because this is the single moment that changes the two women’s lives. It is the first and most concrete piece of evidence that the lives they are “meant” to have, as women, are not for them. Lila begins chafing at her vows and new identity (her new name) before the ceremony is even over, and the rest of this installment is, for her, about how she struggles to carve out necessary freedoms for herself, both inside and outside of her marriage. Meanwhile, Elena has left the neighborhood to attend secondary school and university. Academically, there is no denying her talent, but she has what we would, now, instantly identify as impostor syndrome, in spades, and she is nearly undone on multiple occasions by a crippling sense of inauthenticity. When she speaks among her educated friends, she always feels like she is pretending at intelligence, only hiding her poor vulgarity; when she as at home in Naples she simultaneously desires to impress with her accomplishments and be accepted as one of them, unchanged. It’s the story of moving within of two communities, but not truly being a part of either.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is a masterful thesis on the feminist axiom “the personal is the political.” It puts a point on the inseparable bond between the women’s professional endeavors and the sociopolitical mores they engage with. Discovering feminism in an official capacity, Elena incisively observes the relationships between women and men in her writing and is struck by the messiness of applying what should be clear-headed logic on the subject to her own relationships with men. As much as this book is about Elena and Lila’s marriages and families, though, it is still at its core very much about the friendship between the two women. In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, it is an undeniably strained relationship, but the strength in their bond is something beyond amiable appeasement and shared interests. There is something deeper and more elemental that binds them. At times, you wonder why they still bother being friends, with the various trespasses, minor and otherwise, that they commit against each other. But Elena is forcefully inspired by Lila; she’s an unyielding, driving specter in Elena’s creative mind and she represents the well of genius that Elena is only able to access when she’s at her most honest and candid.
A notable condition of the second and third books is that Elena and Lila are separated, so a lot of what Elena reports about Lila’s life is second-hand information, information she finds out much later and is writing in retrospect, or information that was taken straight from a diary that Lila gives Elena for “safekeeping.” This all worked for me to keep Lila involved in the story and to keep Elena connected to her, but finally in The Story of the Lost Child the women are together again, living in Naples. The official reunion is ostensibly a happy one, but many of their interactions remain terse. Elena, who has always written from the perspective of someone who is constantly compared to her friend and found wanting, now feels increasingly compelled to justify herself and her choices to Lila in the flesh. Raising their children together, Elena struggles with how, despite their wildly different paths, they have still ended up in the same place. She interrogates the decisions that led her, a moderately successful woman with her own notoriety, to still have been so moved by men that her and Lila, now both raising children as single women, appear on the surface level to have minimized themselves and their ambitions so to remain comfortably in the neighborhood, just as all of the other girls without the same intelligence and drive did. It’s too reductive to say that it’s merely sad, or disappointing, that Elena winds up where she did, or that Lila’s growing position in the neighborhood seems to come at the direct expense of Elena’s current popularity as an author, as if they sit on opposite ends of a see-saw and one is always looking down on the other if either of them is to be much off the ground.
Ferrante’s character Elena is a writer, and she writes a lot of this meta-criticism about the flaws in her writing. Primarily, despite Elena’s formal education surpassing Lila’s by several stages, Elena attributes to Lila’s writing an unparalleled quality of natural brevity. Elena is always struck by her own writing having a false affect, while revering the clarity of Lila’s unstudied prose as the epitome of skill. As a reader, I’m struck by Ferrante’s skill with language, and — with this feeling possibly being magnified by Ferrante being a pseudonymous author, and wondering how much of this work is auto/biographical — I can’t help but notice that the lauded qualities of Lila’s writing appear to more or less describe Ferrante’s. (Or Elena’s voice, as depicted by Ferrante. How meta is this exactly? Is this Ferrante suggesting that Elena more successfully adopted those attributes of her friend’s writing than she gave herself credit for? Or that it was Elena herself whose writing had those characteristics, but her bouts of inferiority blinded her to it? Or is it Ferrante, herself, at the top line, voicing her authorial insecurities through her character?) In any case, the writing is magnificent. As I’ve seen it said, the pages practically turn themselves. The language is frugal but expansive inside the reader’s mind — a true case of “leaving it to the imagination.” I’m continually astonished at how much Ferrante does with so little, syntactically.
If you weren’t put off by this unhelpfully vague review, I urge you to read these books. I have tried to touch on a few reasons why I find them so excellent, but even more than those definable things there is just something about them overall that makes them unforgettable.
Sometimes we saw him climbing up the scaffolding of new buildings that were rising floor by floor, or in a hat made of newspaper, in the sun, eating bread with sausage and greens during his lunch break…”
Even though it is the first of four Neapolitan Novels, finishing My Brilliant Friendby Elena Ferrante left me bereft – or, as my nine-year-old self once said, “end-of-book lonely”. Also it left me feeling guilty: I galloped through the last 60 pages in much the same way I often eat food – greedily and not really chewing properly. What happened between Fernando and Silvio Solara? Why was Marcello wearing the shoes Stefano bought? Answers – and no doubt more questions – would come with book two, which could be bought from the English bookshop near the Spanish steps… It was only 4:30pm: I had more than enough time to get there. Or was that hasty? I would read the last 40 pages again. On the train to Naples.
It is not just Ferrante. Journalist Rachel Donadio is also responsible for my Sunday whim. A few years ago, she wrote an article in the New York Times called Seduced By Naples in which she describes her enduring love for the city, and how, when living in Rome, she would often escape to Naples – “a surefire adrenaline rush, a slap in the face, a semi-failed state only an hour south by train”. Naples had slapped me some years before I read the article – it was the city I arrived in when I first came to Italy – but her words persist, as good writing can, and tempt me. It takes an hour and six minutes to get from Roma Termini to Napoli Central if you catch the Frecciarossa, which I did, leaving a recuperating five-year-old and patient partner watching The Incredibles, beside them a floor fan with a death rattle. “The last train back is at 9:37pm,” Vincenzo reminded me as I closed the front door. “The one after that is 1am,” echoed down the lift shaft with me.
There is nothing like a train journey with a good book, your eyes on the page, but also aware of the world flashing past. The 60 pages reread, and mind now on a Napoli-style charity dinner I was going to help cook in London the next day, I flipped back through the book. References to food punctuate My Brilliant Friend, but in a restrained way – lean details such as the “yellow peach” given to Elena by her dad – which turns out to be a revealing part of Ferrante’s lucid and compelling storytelling. As I walked around the ancient heart of the city on Sunday, all the details were there: a woman washing vegetables, the yellow peach, the scent of frying pizza and so much fruit on a hot day. All this mingled with the the kids on the hot steps, washing; almost violent beauty, breeze blowing in from the sea. “What a sea… the waves rolled in like blue metal tubes carrying an egg white foam on their peaks, then broke in a thousand glittering splinters”.
Then we have Pasquale, the son of a carpenter, in a hat made of newspaper, in the sun, eating greens and sausages during his lunch break. The greens Ferrante mentions are no doubt friarielli. Known as broccoletti in Rome, cime di rapa in Puglia and rapini in Tuscany, friarielli are a slightly bitter cooking green related to both broccoli and turnip tops, with softly spiky leaves and scattered clusters of broccoli-like buds. Opinions and thoughts about how best to prepare these greens are strongly held, and nowhere more than Napoli, where they are often cooked with sausages.
As we prepare the dinner in east London a day later, Paolo, the Neapolitan chef at Campania & Jones just off London’s Columbia Road, warns me never to boil friarielli. Trim rigorously to get rid of tough bits, he continues, then cook them in lots of oil, with chilli, garlic and white wine until tender, then add the sausages.
Not that we have friarielli. It is not the season. But with Ferrante in mind we are cooking greens with sausages. Tenderstem broccoli can tolerate a par boil. We re-cook the florets with olive oil, garlic and chilli until tender – a good bed for meaty sausages. Paolo also prepares tortelli stuffed with aubergine, sartus of rice that seem like little red sandcastles in a puddle of tomato sea, fried dough balls called zeppole, and marinated vegetables. A good cook is a curious one and never too proud to learn something new, he reminds me, then laughs.
The small kitchen and back room are overflowing with goodness: crates of date-shaped tomatoes, cherries, bulbous onions the colour of a bishop’s cassock. Two caprese (chocolate torte) balance on a window ledge, sloshing tubs of putty-coloured batter and wet dough. Containers are brimming with grilled aubergine slices in olive oil. The stove seems alive, sputtering: “Passing by you caught a whiff of spices, of olives and salami, of fresh bread, of pork fat and crackling that made you hungry.” And not just for food.
Sausages and greens
6-8 tbsp olive oil
1-2 garlic cloves
A small red chilli, finely chopped
White wine (optional)
4–8 pork sausages
1 If you are using broccoli, romanesco, sprouting broccoli or tenderstem, trim and cut into florets, then parboil. If you are using broccoletti, friarielli or rapini, just trim away all the tough parts.
2 Warm the oil in a large frying pan. Peel and crush the garlic for a milder flavour; chop it for a fiercer one – then add to the pan with the broccoli, chilli and a pinch of salt. The par-boiled broccoli will need a few minutes until is is ready. Uncooked greens will need longer – and possibly some wine and time under a lid. It should be tender and tangled in the end.
3 Keep an eye on the greens and taste now and then. Cook the sausages in another frying pan or under the grill, then unite them with the greens and leave to mingle for a bit. Serve hot or at room temperature, with bread … possibly wearing a paper hat.
- Rachel Roddy is an award-winning food writer based in Rome and the author of Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome (Saltyard); @racheleats
‘Why did you do all this for me?’ asked the pig in Charlotte’s Web. I don’t deserve it. I have never done anything for you. ‘You have been my friend,’ replies Charlotte. ‘That in itself is a tremendous thing.’
It’s a simple quote that encapsulates beautifully the at times miraculous, at times mystifying nature of a relationship that novelist after novelist sets out to portray. Yet the subject of female friendship — complex, affectionate, insecure, and necessary, forged in the fires of school, university and shabby rented flats — is one surprisingly few novels have truly explored.
Yes, gender is on a spectrum; yes, many girls have great guy mates; yes bromances are a beautiful thing; but the fact remains that a fromance, if you will, has a unique and magical quality that is ripe for literary exploration.That’s why Elene Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet was such an extraordinary feat. It’s subject was Elene and Lila’s friendship: not marriage, romance, adventure, though such things inevitably come into it, but friendship ‘in itself’ — in all it’s technicolored intensity. Here, then, are the stories of sisterhood that we think achieve a similar feat:
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Where to start with this rich, dazzling, devastatingly insightful quartet of companionship — the most fluent (according to me and everyone I know who has read it) rendition of female friendship you could hope to find in literature? It begins with 66 year old Elena finding out her best friend of six decades, Raffaela—Lila, as she is known—has deliberately disappeared without trace: disturbing Elena, but giving her license to reflect on their relationship without her input. Growing up in 1950s Naples, the pair are drastically different: where Elena is blonde, busty and industrious, Lila is dark, small and ‘brilliant’, intellectually speaking—inspiring in Elena a bilious mixture of admiration and writhing jealousy as she, working day and night to justify her going to school rather than helping her family, is pipped to the post by her more naturally gifted peer. Ferrante captures the obsessive nature of close friendship—‘I decided I had to model myself on that girl; never let her out of my sight, even if she got annoyed’—and the oppressive effects of that: receiving an extraordinarily evocative letter from Lila while away on holiday, Elena writes: ‘Lila’s world, as usual, rapidly superimposed itself on mine.’ In friendships, as in all relationships, there is always an element of dependency, and Elena lives through Lila. ‘If she withdrew, if her voice withdrew from things, the things got dirty, dusty,’ Elena writes, and this vicarious energy pervades the novel as it propels and quashes her by turns. She is fascinated, inspired, motivated and subordinated. If you’ve ever inhabited this kind of all-consuming communion with a BFF, this is your song.
By E. CE MILLER
‘My Brilliant Friend’ by Elena Ferrante
Sure, an armchair journey through Italy is not the same as actually traveling there — because um, hello, the food. But author Elena Ferrante has captured the very essence of Naples in her Neapolitan novel series (coming to screen, if you haven’t yet heard!) Elena and Lila are best friends living in 1950s Naples, Italy — a city undergoing as much change and growth as these two young girls are. As the world Elena and Lila live in evolves, their friendship evolves as well, as the novels follow each woman through the different and often divergent choices they make in their lives. My Brilliant Friend explores places as much as it does people, demonstrating how friendships are not only influenced by those experiencing them, but by their setting as well.
by Saskia Lacey/ June 8, 2017 at 7:00 am
Here are fifty incredible literary works destined to become classics (in no particular order!). Many are Pulitzer Prize winners, but there are a few dark horses. If your favorite literary masterpiece has not been included, fret not, the comments section awaits! Tell us about any we’ve missed, any you disagree with, or any you think are spot on. And then add the ones you may not have gotten to yet to the top of your teetering To Be Read pile…
My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante
Elena and Lila are friends living in 1950s Italy. In their violent neighborhood, death is not a stranger. As the two friends grow and change, so does their environment. Elena reaches towards writing as an escape, while Lila’s ties to their neighborhood only become stronger. My Brilliant Friend is the first of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet.
Is the unnamed, faceless author the true superstar of the 21st century? A new book explores the history of anonymity in pop culture, and beyond.
GENEVA — Daft Punk and J. T. Leroy. Romain Gary and Gorillaz. Elena Ferrante and The Residents. You may have already spotted the element connecting these creators: all conceal their identities behind avatars, aliases or pseudonyms. It is either a way to play with our changing times or intensify public interest; and it can help trigger scandals, question the very concept of what it means to be a celebrity, or even illustrate a whole new mode of existing in the world. It is a new twist on the classic story of the one who wears the mask becomes a legend.
In the Odyssey, Homer recounts how Odysseus deceives the Cyclops by swearing to him, “My name is Nobody,” which helps him escape a cruel fate by becoming anonymous, an “incognito: being complex, elusive, multifaceted, mysterious,” as the French journalist Yann Perreau writes in his essay “Incognito.”
While practices of anonymity have always existed, their benefits began to multiply during the late 20th century. In our times where mass surveillance and self-promotion coexist with the Internet’s power to obliterate individual identity, all areas of both public and private creation are being transformed.
Characters in the shape of a question mark
But a deeper exploration is needed of such strategies of laughingly deceiving the world, mocking the star system or denouncing the failings of public leaders. And it is not about uncovering the identities of those who want to remain anonymous. After all, who really cares about knowing the face behind the French street artist Invaders or the English producer SBTRKT? Rather, we should try to better understand this reinvention of self that both haunts popular culture and mobilizes fans. “What does it matter who the actual person behind the fiction is?” says Yann Perreau. “It’s only the invented characters that are interesting. Characters in the shape of a question mark.”
An author claiming their work through an individual signature: this actually would have seemed quite curious to the earliest creators, for the conception of art was once considered a collective undertaking. But this came to an end in the early Middle Ages. “The Word then bans anonymity, considering it as heresy,” says Perreau. The very notion of authorship began with the invention of the printing press and was reinforced in 1537 when French King Francis I imposed legal deposits on writers for their works, a maneuver that paved the way for state censorship and forced intellectuals to use borrowed names in order to express themselves freely without ending up in jail. François Rabelais published his work Pantagruel in 1532 under the anagram Alcofribas Nasier, Montesquieu attributed his Persian Letters to the mysterious Usbek and Rica in 1721, and later, Arthur Rimbaud wrote satiric articles for the newspaper Le Progrès des Ardennes under the pseudonym Jean Baudry.
We could find a multitude of examples, but let’s fast-forward to 1917 when artist Marcel Duchamp sent a white porcelain urinal signed “R.MUTT” to the Selection Committee of the Society of Independent Artists of New York. Scandalous. Once unmasked, the master claimed, “The art of tomorrow will be clandestine.”
“Singular, but without identity.”
A steady flow of artists would follow over the next few decades. Romain Gary, who employed the pseudonym Emile Ajar, would become the only author to win the prestigious French literary award Prix Goncourt under two different names; David Bowie took multiple identities on stage and film; Michel Foucault engulfed himself in his study of the “process of subjectivation”; Andy Warhol added production value to emptiness; Banksy makes himself a masked hero on walls around the world.
If we turn back to the final years of the 20th century, and the dawn of 21st, we see the Mexican anti-globalization activist Subcomandante Marcos, nebulously anonymous hacktivists or whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Fuat Avni. “It was because they were invisible that these actors were able to denounce authoritarian excesses and express a demand for democracy,” explains Perreau.
Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben described the phenomenon this way: “The being that comes: neither individual nor universal, but whichever. Singular, but without identity. Defined, but only in the empty space of the example.”
What then of this contemporary nothing? Warhol had an answer: “Look, nothing is exciting, nothing is sexy, nothing is not embarrassing. The only time I ever want to be something is outside a party so I can get in.”
by Franco Baldasso
Last fall’s noisy dispute around Elena Ferrante’s biographical identity ignited a wealth of contrasting yet instructive reactions. Whether troubled or newly admiring or indifferent to the apparent divergences between the empirical author’s life and that of her character Elena Greco, readers and critics did not venture to question the assumed existential parallel between the two. The books themselves, along with their marketing materials, quite clearly encourage it. But what if the alleged correspondence between Elena Ferrante and Elena Greco were just a diversion? What if the characteristics we identify in the latter, and implicitly attribute to the former, were only a carnival mirror shielding a deeper but less obvious commonality, the one between Ferrante and the brilliant friend herself, Lila Cerullo: namely, the unbearable loss of their presence?
The formulation and answering of this question was greatly assisted by the publication, in the same season, of Ferrante’s first work of nonfiction, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey. Thanks to the scattered pieces comprising the collection—interviews, unsent letters to critics and readers, pages expunged from the author’s novels—we can further appreciate the author’s intellectual prowess and talent as a storyteller by measuring not only the affinities, but also the distance, between her and the character who shares her first name. The carnival mirror emerges from Frantumaglia quite cracked, yet it is through such minute gaps that one of the underlying themes of all of Ferrante’s work becomes visible.
From the opening pages of My Brilliant Friend, the story told by Elena Greco is haunted by the loss of Lila Cerullo. The loss finds full narrative disclosure only in the fourth installment of the cycle, Story of the Lost Child, with an uncanny doubling, as both Lila and her daughter abandon the scene with hardly a trace. In fact, Lila consciously erases any remnant of her existence; she decides to disappear, choosing an autonomous destiny that ambiguously overlaps with the fate of the entire city in which she has been living—and struggling—her whole life. At the end of the Neapolitan Quartet, the boundaries of Lila’s character lose their edges and seemingly overlap with the contours of Naples, a city that is obsessively present throughout the four books with its uncanny beauty, unrestrained violence, and blatant lack of social justice. Naples’s unresolved contradictions are before our very eyes throughout. Like Lila, the city offers no index, defies any conclusive description, blurs contours, and subtracts itself from external gaze. In the Quartet’s last pages, however, Naples’s obsessive presence fades away from our view; its countless voices, vigorous yet enervating, turn into a distant echo. In the same vein, Lila, with her disappearance, chooses absence over the courageous and stubborn presence that marked her life—at least as it was narrated by Elena Greco.
While Lila never leaves Naples, establishing the city’s contours as the ultimate extension of her vitality, her friend Elena chooses an utterly different path to establish her own presence. The Neapolitan Quartet is also the novel of Elena’s conquest of personal independence and her emancipation from the suffocating air of the rione, from the family-ism and gender inequality that the city of Naples epitomizes, like a Pandora’s box open to the bluest sky. Elena’s liberation from the restrictions of her city is hardly straightforward and never definitive. Exemplified by her tortuous relationship with her mother, Elena’s emancipation is an ongoing repudiation of her own origins, which runs parallel to and recurrently intermingles with Lila’s struggles. To be complete, however, Elena’s emancipation needs to transcend her origins and Naples’ very boundaries—and essentially free herself from Lila’s shadow. Instead of infighting and openly challenging the violent tensions of the rione, Elena will build and solidify her presence through assiduous work toward a radically different emancipation model. By becoming a public figure as a writer, she aims at the acquisition of literary authority and intellectual respectability, a status seemingly unharmed by the quarrels of her poor neighborhood. Nevertheless, Elena’s new role requires her subjugation to other dynamics, more opaque and no less pervasive: such as the commodification of intellectual labor in the literary market and media circus. Crucially, Lila might admire, envy, even misunderstand and aggrandize her friend’s intellectual authority, yet she grasps that such a path is not for her, as it would not allow her the continuous shift of direction that best characterizes her life and exuberant vitality. To the novels’ characters and readers alike, Lila’s charisma and gravitational power lie in her creative resistance, in her obstinate refusal to accept subjugation of any sort. Her strange magnetism derives from her unique noncompliance to any steady configuration, or, to borrow a key term from Italian contemporary philosophy’s biopolitical debate, to any stable “form-of-life.”1
ELENA GRECO’S STORY SEEMS TO MIRROR ELENA FERRANTE’S EXPERIENCE. YET FERRANTE IS NOT THERE. INSTEAD, SHE HAS CHOSEN LILA’S PATH.
“A story begins when, one after another, our borders collapse,” Ferrante writes in Frantumaglia. It could be a perfect motto for Lila. Like the eccentric protagonists of Luigi Pirandello’s groundbreaking play Six Characters in Search of an Author, Lila refuses to be a character fixed once and for all. By withstanding subjugation, she preserves the constitutional fluidity of her life, culminating in her choice to disappear. Remarkably, Elena Greco’s story of their friendship begins only after all the borders have collapsed. Lila’s story can start because of her attempt at self-erasure, the final sign of her unyielding commitment to otherness. “The disappearance of women,” Ferrante argues, “should be interpreted not only as giving up the fight against the violence of the world but also as clear rejection. There is an expression in Italian whose double meaning is untranslatable: ‘Io non ci sto.’ Literally it means: I’m not here, in this place, before what you’re suggesting. In common usage, it means, instead: I don’t agree, I don’t want to. Rejection means shunning the games of those who crush the weak.”
For Elena, instead, writing Lila’s story and their decades-long relationship is something akin to casting a spell, maybe even to conducting an exorcism. It is a form of magic she has been training for her entire life. Elena encapsulates her friend’s irresistible vitality in a character, so as to control her haunting presence—in a phase of her existence when ghosts from the past are more pressing than real people. And yet this exorcism is not the confession of a failure, but the beginning of a journey: “a writer’s journey,” as in Frantumaglia’s subtitle. Such a journey is not Lila’s anymore; it is only Elena’s.
It is precisely when Elena Greco emerges as a public figure that the assumed existential parallel between her and Elena Ferrante proves to be misleading. Through her writing talent, Elena Greco resolves to become a public persona. She sets out to fight her personal battles by following an intellectual model intimately connected to so many of the glories and delusions of the 20th century. She chooses impegno (engagement)—a form of intellectual commitment to present time—which distinguished the lives and works of numerous left-wing Western European writers in the postwar period, alongside the widely popular theories of Marxist philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Antonio Gramsci. Although in different ways, the two philosophers argue for the necessary conjunction of intellectual responsibility with political action. In fact, the debate over the intellettuale impegnato (engaged intellectual) is a conspicuous component of postwar cultural, intellectual, and political history in France and Italy, and it is only partially comparable to the Anglo-American concept of “public intellectual.” In Italy, the intellettuale impegnato was clearly linked to the Communist Party and, to a minor extent, the Socialist Party. The space and impact this model had in Italian civil society had no correspondence in English-speaking countries. For the majority of postwar intellectuals in Italy, the Communist party represented the only alternative to the restoration of conservative forces after World War II.
Many of the Quartet’s characters strive to approximate this model with their public actions and personal behavior, each of them in highly idiosyncratic ways. Elena Greco’s Neapolitan teachers, her boyfriend Franco along with other students at the Scuola Normale di Pisa (Italy’s equivalent to Harvard), the entourage of academic excellence and intellectual prestige constituting Pietro’s family (which backs Elena once she marries him), and even the infamous Nino: all get personally involved in this political season. Pietro embodies the crisis of this intellectual model and Nino its progressive corruption, as they both equally steer clear of a real confrontation with the previous generation’s responsibility. As it historically appeared in Italy, the intellettuale impegnato is predominantly a male model, not without narcissistic connotations. Yet Elena initially embraces it in her personal battle to excel, to find a suitable position in a field barely accessible to women, which eventually enables her to articulate original views and gain an intellectual credibility that are fully her own.
In fact, Elena’s feminism is not ideologically predetermined; its acquisition does not have the trajectory of a destiny. She is no stock character, for she elaborates her individual ideas on gender inequality partly by emulation of other characters, female and male alike, partly by reflections on her own experience. As Ferrante is at pains to explain in Frantumaglia, “Every woman novelist, as with women in many other fields, should aim at being not only the best woman novelist but the best of the most skilled practitioners of literature, whether male or female. To do so we have to avoid every ideological conformity, every false show of thought, every adherence to a party line or canon.” Like her male counter-models and the men of her life, Elena’s struggle is not devoid of narcissistic undertones either. It is not by chance that in the Neapolitan Quartet, Elena’s anxieties to live up to the many expectations that her public persona implies often overwhelm her and recurrently take central stage.
Elena Ferrante’s own choice in this regard is precisely the opposite. Nowhere does she put it more clearly than in her 2014 New York Times interview, collected in Frantumaglia: “I didn’t choose anonymity; the books are signed. Instead, I chose absence. … This choice created a small polemic in the media, whose logic is aimed at inventing protagonists while ignoring the quality of the work, so that it seems natural that bad or mediocre books by someone who has a reputation in the media deserve more attention than books that might be of higher quality but were written by someone who is no one.” Still, this decision has a history: from this angle, the disparate pieces collected in Frantumaglia can be read as the intellectual history of Ferrante’s choice of public “absence,” to abandon the stage—or rather, to desert TV studios—and let her works speak instead of her. Through her “absence,” Ferrante questions both the commodification of intellectual engagement as a media event and its debased, male-dominated forms.
Ferrante’s self-effacement continues with the very title of her first nonfiction book. “Frantumaglia” is an untranslatable word that Ferrante claims she owes to her mother’s personal version of Neapolitan dialect. It literally means “a jumble of fragments,” which she describes as a precondition of her writing. Publishing dates, the only guiding criterion of this disparate volume, chart the emerging intellectual stature of Ferrante over the past 25 years, along with her literary achievements, the resounding noise triggered by her personal withdrawal from the media circus, and all the hype surrounding her global success. Present in all the interviews included in Frantumaglia are the obligatory questions that journalists ask Ferrante regarding her real identity. Her decision to let her books speak for themselves—with no interference from their author’s biography—is supported by literary and personal reasons, which are stated throughout the volume. Ferrante’s most articulated response, however, is to be found in the dialogue with her editors first published in The Paris Review in the spring of 2015. Her provisional conclusion on this pivotal issue, which might have appeared not too long ago as a relic of old-fashioned literary snobism, looks politically timely today: “I’m still very interested in testifying against the self-promotion obsessively imposed by the media. The demand for self-promotion not only diminishes the role of the works in every possible sector of human activity; it now rules everything.”
Ferrante’s decision to desert the public sphere allowed her to pursue otherwise unviable narrative possibilities. Unlike her character Elena Greco, she avoided concentrating on the public construction of her figure as an author, exploring instead an alternative mode of communication with the reading public based on writing alone. Her absence is both a story of self-education and a form of resistance to subjugation by any model imposed from the outside—a path that echoes that of her character Lila. In a 2014 interview for the Italian daily La Repubblica, Ferrante claims: “It’s not a small thing to write knowing that you can orchestrate for readers not only a story, characters, feelings, landscapes but the very figure of the author, the most genuine figure, because it’s created from writing alone, from the pure technical exploration of a possibility.”
FERRANTE RELUCTANTLY ADMITS, “I LOVE LILA MORE, BUT ONLY BECAUSE SHE FORCED ME TO WORK VERY HARD.”
Because of the unique space of creative freedom Ferrante has carved for herself, Frantumaglia’s subtitle—A Writer’s Journey—bears only partial witness to the complexity of Ferrante’s choice of absence. Yet this subtitle openly reinforces the impression that her path overlaps with Elena Greco’s. The impression of superimposition between author and character, however, was not a feature of the original 2003 version of the collection published in Italy, in which the dialectal term forming the title stands alone, with no subtitle. A more fitting description of Frantumaglia would instead be “autobiography of a character,” of a unique literary character called Elena Ferrante presented as the author of her novels, whom readers around the world have loved as possibly her own most fascinating and controversial literary creation.
Yet Ferrante’s authorial absence not only occasioned her literary experiments, the “pure technical explorations of a possibility,” it also became a generative force, one of the fundamental questions her novels address, each from its unique standpoint. With her narrative, Ferrante investigates the absence of the beloved person, in the terms analyzed above, not only from a psychological perspective, but also as an anthropological and somehow transhistorical category, without indulging in essentialisms of sorts. As a trigger for storytelling, absence defies literary and genre restrictions; the universality of this experience extends beyond the circumstantiated account of recent Italian history and social structures that constitute the setting and ambiance of Ferrante’s stories, as her international success attests.
Ferrante’s authorial absence found a correspondence in the very fabric of her stories, in a narrative device that is both highly idiosyncratic and universal. Her novels work through the mourning for an intimate loss—almost always that of a woman. From the elusive Amalia in Troubling Love, to the many lost daughters of her fiction, to the missing Lila at the beginning of My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante’s stories are occasioned by a disappearance, which leaves other characters bereft not just of a person they deeply loved, but of something essential they are unable to explain. This disappearance radically shatters everyday life as they always knew it. “Disappearance” in Ferrante is never an occasion for abstract philosophical speculation, but always features narrative contours and context. It acquires a profound literary necessity through the multilayered depiction of historical contingency—as in the case of postwar Naples for her Quartet. Disappearance signals the loss of the object of desire: embodied by a full-fledged character always exceeding its simple biography, ambiguously imposing its absence over the entire story.
Ferrante portrays her characters as both supremely realistic, in the long-standing tradition of the European novel, and as allegories of loss (the mother, the daughter, the brilliant friend), whose retrieval, or lack thereof, soon becomes other characters’ dominating obsession. In a certain sense, disappearance is the true moment when all the “borders collapse,” and in which her stories’ characters are born, as they are forced to enter in a new life’s cycle, a sort of rebirth. “The loss of love,” writes the author in an early piece published in Frantumaglia, “is the common experience closest to the myth of the expulsion from the earthly paradise.” In other words, it is through this loss, which Ferrante describes explicitly as a sottrazione (subtraction) that human history originates—not unlike in her own stories.
By disappearing, by erasing their traces and thus inflicting a more piercing loss, Ferrante’s characters, such as Lila in My Brilliant Friend or Amalia in Troubling Love, actively impose on others their choice for absence. The author narrates their choices as a subtraction, literally the action of taking away a quantity from another to obtain a difference. Their absence is synonymous with their difference: profoundly affecting, if not devastating, other characters’ existences, such as Lila’s lifetime friend Elena Greco or Amalia’s daughter Delia. It does not come as a surprise, then, that in Ferrante’s novels the narrators are not characters who impose their absence by disappearing, but the ones who have been abandoned. Elena and Delia’s mourning prompts the tales of their absent friend and mother, stories which uncomfortably turn into a creeping criticism of their own lives.
Ferrante’s authorial absence engages readers in a similar way. With a piercing irony, Ferrante distances herself from the Neapolitan Quartet’s narrator, Elena Greco, in the precise moment when the accord of the two voices seems most firm and well-defined. In Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, when Elena Greco glimpses for the first time her newly published novel in a book store’s window, she is truly unable to contain her trepidation: “But the effort of finding a form had absorbed me. And the absorption had become that book, an object that contained me. Now I was there, exposed, and seeing myself caused a violent pounding in my chest.” In the instant when Elena Greco follows in the footsteps of her author—describing the contrasting drives within her chest after seeing her novel in a bookstore—the character-narrator goes in exactly the opposite direction of Ferrante, resolving to become an intellettuale impegnato, a public figure. The story of Elena Greco’s engagement with her own times is a major plotline of the Quartet that grows in intensity and complexity, even beyond her choice to work for public recognition and visibility. Painful difficulties and contradictions between her private behavior and public pronouncements arise, especially in the last two novels. Elena Greco proudly chooses presence despite all the difficulties and personal setbacks, as one of the hallmarks of her literary and intellectual success. In so doing she embodies a model antithetical to the ethics of writing professed in Frantumaglia.
In the New York Times interview mentioned above, Ferrante claims: “Today what counts most for me is to preserve a creative space that seems full of possibilities, including technical ones. The structural absence of the author affects the writing in a way that I’d like to continue to explore.” Ferrante’s authorial absence was born decades ago as a polemical stance against the commodification of writing and life, countering a prescriptive intellectual environment that ultimately narrowed down women’s participation in the public sphere. Today it has become an unpredictable heuristic tool, acquiring persuasive cognitive penetration and unsettling literary force in her novels.
Ferrante’s absence multiplies the sense of bereavement at the center of her stories. It brings about a fictional short circuit with the narrative disappearance of characters she is creating out of writing alone, an idiosyncratic interaction that dismantles traditional literary dynamics that we as readers are used to accepting. By implicitly suggesting—but not forcing—readers to associate Elena Greco with her real persona, Ferrante highlights the ironic distance between her own nonconformist intellectual practice and her character’s urge to become a public figure. Readers, encouraged by Ferrante to empathize with Elena Greco’s search for Lila, experience the character’s confrontational relationship with her brilliant friend. They not only endure the pain of Lila’s disappearance, but also undergo Elena’s anxieties to live up to the difficult standards set by Lila with her uncompromising difference, the radical resistance to subjugation which best describes her. Readers are supported in this feat by the impression that they are not alone in this troubling quest, as Elena Greco’s story mirrors Elena Ferrante’s experience. Yet Ferrante is not there with them. Instead, she has chosen Lila’s path, challenging power dynamics—first of all, the burden of personal biography over her own writing—and leaving readers completely alone to confront Elena Greco’s ghosts.
In the Quartet, Ferrante resolutely refrains from taking sides between Elena and Lila. Still, in a Frantumaglia interview, she reluctantly admits, “I love Lila more, but only because she forced me to work very hard.” Ferrante’s preference for absence turns into an artistic ethics, one which implicitly disavows the character that readers are led to take for an alter ego. The kind of intellectual engagement Ferrante pursues aligns her instead with Lila’s path: the intransigent resistance to the gaze of the other, to the economics and power dynamics shaping lives—female or male alike—through forced self-promotion. As it is for her character Lila, Ferrante’s “I’m not here” means at the same time, “I don’t want to.”
- For a compelling inquiry into the concept of “life” and its biopolitical consequences (seen as fundamental to the Italian philosophical tradition, though in a different manner than for other strands of continental philosophy), see Roberto Esposito, Living Thought: The Origins and Actuality of Italian Philosophy (Stanford University Press, 2012). ↩
JEANNE BONNER VISITS THE SALONE DEL LIBRO TO LOOK BEYOND FERRANTE
June 7, 2017 By Jeanne Bonner
Long before arriving this month at the Salone del Libro, an annual book fair in Turin that’s Italy’s largest, I was asking myself this question: where are the great Italian women writers?
I’ve been reading Italian fiction for two decades but this particular question has motivated much of my reading since I discovered Elena Ferrante, the author of The Days of Abandonment and the Neapolitan series of books, beginning with My Brilliant Friend. Her emergence, for me, was like a wakeup call, particularly since she’s created female characters who seethe with ambition, anger and longing. Women with wandering, industrious minds who choose their sexual partners with abandon. Yes!
I want to find more of these female characters, which are particularly well-wrought when created by a woman. So where are the great Italian female writers, doing justice to this topic and genre, and countless others?
Well, in fact, there are many fine Italian women writing fiction and nonfiction today. But other than la Ferrante, few of them appeared on Italian best-of lists at the end of last year or roundups of up-and-coming authors. I know—I scoured the year-end best-of lists, the mid-year versions and a few other lists, too. I also thumbed through suggestions on services like Audible.
Italian women writers, of course, do emerge from these searches—but they never constitute the majority of the writers suggested, or even simply half. Perhaps it sounds like a pedestrian observation or a problem well-known to everyone. But I’m reminded of political protest signs I’ve seen this year: We’re still dealing with this?
It bears mentioning that best-of lists often have currency only within a clubby world of type-A literary folks who keep score on everything.
Yet such lists are a mirror for any society (they also constitute a handy guide for readers and serve as primers for book fairs—more about this shortly). And it is telling that a few of the lists of top Italian books of the year, or recommended reading for the summer, include no women at all!
To wit, the cultural magazine Panorama, one of Italy’s largest weeklies, published a list earlier this year of the ten best Italian novels of the 21st century so far, and included a single woman: Michela Murgia’s Accabadora.
While women are mentioned prominently in places like the magazine Il Libraio and the blog Sul Romanzo, in most roundups, best on best, you’ll find three out of ten spots going to Italian women authors (and sometimes the lists are mixed with foreign authors—notably, foreign women authors at times fare better than Italian women). On its website, the giant publisher Italian Mondadori, for example, includes Simonetta Agnello Hornby and Margaret Mazzantini on a list of top contemporary Italian authors, in addition to Ferrante.
(The same math is at work in this year’s Strega competition, in which three individual women have cracked the list of twelve finalists, including author Wanda Marasco; a fourth woman, who is a co-author, has also been nominated).
This phenomenon is unsettling because the question behind these lists wasn’t how many copies of the books were sold, but which were the best? After all, even prominent male authors of literary fiction and nonfiction sell poorly, reflecting the market’s taste.
This is the final Neapolitan novel. If you have read them all, you have followed Elena and Lila as they marry, divorce, bear children, and become successful: Elena as an author, Lila as the owner of a computer software business. Despite their success, they continue to live in the neighborhood, with its history of violence and crime. Lila never left, Elena returns to raise her daughters, and they live in different apartments in the same building as their late middle age unfolds. The lifelong friendship between these two women is the core of this story, with episodes from their childhood forming recurring themes. I found each of these novels to be more compelling than the last.
I contacted the author Elena Ferrante, who chooses to remain anonymous and publish under a pseudonym, for a story I wrote for The Times about a citywide casting call for children in Naples to fill the starring roles in a mini-series based on her hit novel “My Brilliant Friend.”
Ms. Ferrante missed deadline by a good few days, but nevertheless the author had worthwhile thoughts. Below are her answers about what it’s like for a writer to have their major work adapted to the screen, to have regular kids incarnating her characters, how much she contributes to the production and whether she thinks the show will take off like “Game of Thrones.”
The first thing I’d like to know is what it feels like to have all these young kids in Naples, many from really disadvantaged sections of the city, lining up in the hopes of being Lila and Lenù? Obviously the books have had great acclaim, but I wonder what thoughts and feelings it evokes in you to actually have the works entering the lives of kids not so dissimilar to the ones you described.
For me it was a radical change. The characters, the neighborhood are all created from words, and yet they move from literature to the screen. They leave the world of readers and enter into the much more vast world of spectators, they meet people who have never read about them and people who, for social circumstances or by choice, would never read about them. It’s a process that intrigues me. The substance of the books is reworked according to other rules and other priorities, and it changes nature. The kids themselves who show up at the auditions are the first sign of this. They know little or nothing about books. They are spectators who hope to become actors, either for play or a shot at deliverance.
You’ve clearly described the characters, and the casting director, director and producers all have a clear idea of what they are looking for based on your descriptions. And they think that kids who have grown up in tough environments are best to convey the spirit of those kids. What do you think? Would you also rather have non-actors playing the roles (there is some risk there!) or would you prefer more practiced child actors?
Child actors portray children as adults imagine children to be. Children who are not actors have some chance to break free of the stereotype, especially if the director is able to find the right balance between truth and fiction.
A lot of these kids, frankly, have never heard of Elena Ferrante or the Neapolitan novels. Most of them have visions of TV stardom dancing in their heads. Are you, someone who has studiously avoided the stardom track, worried that the hysteria around the auditions could fuel the celebrity obsession so many young people now have?
They are children who take their lead from the myths of cinema, of television, definitely not those of the written word. They want to be on screen, to be center stage, to become stars, and this is not their fault — it’s the air breathed in the adult world and, as a result, in theirs. To be part of television today is one of the most powerful aspirations of the masses, and anyone, poor or well off, considers it an extraordinary opportunity. Across all the social classes, poor and rich, cultured and uncultured.
On the flip side, do you feel like this is an opportunity to introduce kids, many of them disadvantaged, to the joys of reading? I don’t mean just reading your books, but getting them interested in books in general.
Naturally, I hope that happens. But the opportunity we are talking about has little, if anything, to do with reading. Children are there to be part of show business, and that’s it. That doesn’t mean that some of them won’t discover that this all started with a book; that behind the world of show business, with its many moving parts and conspicuous cash flow, there always is, albeit in a subservient position, the evocative power of writing and reading.
What is your hope for this production as far as its impact on Naples and its image in the world, especially after the unflattering depictions in the movie and popular television show “Gomorrah”?
Do you want to sign off on the children before they are officially cast? Do you want to make sure that they are true to your vision?
I don’t have this skill set. Sure, I’d very much like to weigh in, but I would do it cautiously and knowing that it is useless to say, “Lila has little or nothing to do with that body, that face, that gaze, that way of moving,” etc. No real person will ever match the image that I or a reader have in our minds. This is because the written word, of course, defines but by nature leaves much to reader’s imagination. The visual image instead shrinks those margins. It is destined to always leave out something that the words inspire — something that always matters.
What has your involvement been with the production? The director and producers told me you send notes on the script, and have helped them design the set out near Caserta. What do you want the set to look like?
The neighborhood is a composite of different places in Naples that I know well. That’s always the case when I write, both with people or things. I don’t know what will happen on the screen. For now, my contribution to the set design is limited to a few notes on whether they look right. As far as the collaboration on the script, I don’t write, I don’t have the technical skills to do it, but I am reading the texts and send detailed notes. I still don’t know if they will take them into account. It is very likely that my notes will be used later on, in the writing of the final draft.
They have also told me that you imagine the show visually as a fairy tale, that they shouldn’t be scared to go beyond the book and depict villains as monsters, etc. How faithful do you want them to be to the novels?
No, no, it is a realistic tale. It is childhood that is colored by elements of the fantastic, and surely Lila is too. As far as faithfulness to the book, I expect a faithfulness compatible with the needs of visual storytelling, which uses different means than writing to obtain the same effects.
And lastly, HBO is involved in the production. Do you hope, or maybe fear, that this becomes the next global phenomenon, Italy’s “Game of Thrones”?
Unfortunately, “My Brilliant Friend” doesn’t provide the same kind of plot points.
• Ferrante Fever has flared up in Naples, where nearly 5,000 children are vying to audition for HBO’s adaptation of “My Brilliant Friend,” the first of the four smash-hit novels by Elena Ferrante.
The open casting call has injected hysteria and hope in parts of the southern Italian city that is poor in resources but rich in characters.
Separately, our correspondent visited the nearby Villaggio Coppola, built in the 1960s with utopian ambitions. It’s now, in her words, “a sad illustration of Southern Italy’s violated beauty and neglect.”
By JASON HOROWITZ
MAY 18, 2017
NAPLES, Italy — A legion of children raced up a dead-end street in Sanità, a tough Naples neighborhood dripping with laundry and suddenly brimming with the promise of stardom.
Marta Reale, 10, her smile broad, her bangs blanched, made her way to a recreation center’s doorway through the dense crowd of other children, sunlit cigarette smoke and mothers fanning themselves on the seats of scooters. Above her, more children were hanging out the window, and above them, more were crammed onto a balcony.
Then she approached the desk where she gave her name and age and got a numbered slip of paper and a parental release form. The sign above her head read, “Dream.”
This was not just any casting call, but one for “My Brilliant Friend,” an adaptation of the first of the four smash-hit Neapolitan Novels written by Elena Ferrante, whose hidden identity enthralled the literary world and whose books have sold more than a million copies.
HBO and the Italian state broadcaster RAI caught the Ferrante Fever and are producing an eight-episode mini-series inspired by that first book, introducing international viewers to the complicated relationship of two remarkably gifted girls, Lila (“that terrible, dazzling girl”) and Lenú (“I liked pleasing everyone”), as they grow up and apart in a violent, vivid Naples neighborhood in the lean postwar years.
From a structural point of view, tension and compression often meld into each another. In this building, two volumes are interwoven by strong connecting rods, extended columns and daring beams, with one of the two seemingly suspended from the other. With its mass and swirled dynamism, the suspended volume (that we will call Lila) seems to be slipping away from the one that is holding it up (that we will call Elena) making it extend and stretch as if it was Lila that was shaping Elena and providing her with her dynamic energy, so vital to any piece of architecture.
The name of this architectural complex is My Brilliant Friend, after Elena Ferrante’s novel in which the relationship between its two protagonists (Elena, the narrating voice, and her childhood friend Lila) is a constant, alternating flux of blurred identities and imperfect dreams.
Now that we know that this is My Brilliant Friend, let’s try to analyze and allow ourselves to be transported by the stresses that occur within its architectural elements. As with structural calculations, the reading and interpreting of a building of this kind are not at all linear and predictable, but rather fluid and certainly not univocal.
It is evident that if one of the two elements were to be missing, the other would have no reason to exist. Without Lila there would be no Elena, and vice versa.
There are points in the structure where it is not clear in which direction stress is expressed. The weight is transferred from the supporting structure onto the supported one—a problem for both the calculations and the idea we were getting of the relationship between Lila and Elena.
It is a building in which neither volume has, so to speak, clear control over the other—i.e., upon which element the functioning of the whole depends. At times it seems like Elena, while making the extraordinary effort to support her, wants to detach herself from Lila.
We, too, are suspended—suspended between tension and compression. Motionless. If we were the very fibers of the structure, if we were—as we actually are, as both visitors of the building and readers of the novel—experiencing these forces, we would also understand and feel the additional torsion, shear, and momentum.
In reading a structure such as this, it is better not to stop at its surface. “ … We delayed, challenging each other, without ever saying a word, testing our courage.” Suspension, patience and attention. The physics of narrative has its own way of arriving at structural audacities made of hidden tensions and compressions. We must always be ready.
In collaboration with Giuseppe Franco.
HBO recently announced its decision to bring Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels to the small screen, signaling even greater heights for the quartet of bestsellers. The series of books, translated from Italian and written by a pseudonymous author, includes My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child.
The groundbreaking success of these novels did not come as a surprise to Carole DeSanti, who has championed women’s original voices in literature throughout her editing career at Viking Penguin. In the following interview, she examines why and how this series of novels has turned reading and current notions of “authorship” on its head. Ferrante fans and curious readers can join DeSanti for an in-depth exploration of the Neapolitan books during the Aspen Summer Words writing conference and literary festival this June.
The Neapolitan novels seem like unlikely bestsellers. What do you think accounts for the unanticipated success of these books?
So much of what is “anticipated” or touted in the world of popular books turns out to be less than satisfying, and sometimes real originality is rewarded, reader by reader. The best bestsellers, in my view, are those created by word-of-mouth and the pleasure we take in sharing what resonates with us. These are the books that stand the test of time. What I think we respond to in the Ferrante novels is their stark truthfulness — in the sense of the author’s fidelity to the emotional lives of her characters over the arc of days and years. And with that, her ability (which is masterful) to locate and bring forth an epic drama that unfolds over a lifetime. In terms of the two women at the center of these novels this reaches a depth not before seen in fiction. Their world is an easy one to enter, but then the scope grows and grows.
From your perspective as a reader, what do you love about these books?
So many things! Bringing a place, Naples, so alive — from Vesuvius looming over the city to a brilliant young girl furiously making beautiful shoes when she’s not allowed to stay in school. From a cup of coffee in a pastry shop with a bedeviled history to the way a writer creates her voice, renounces it, and circles back again to re-making it: fiercely loving, full of struggle, tender and brutal all at once. But it’s the ever-spiraling, conflicted, ultimately extraordinary feminism in these novels that most touches me. That difficult, ultimate, affirming-of-being, but in a feminine context. I’ve just never read anything like it. I don’t think it’s ever been done. And it’s about time.
From your perspective as an editor, why are these books significant in the publishing landscape?
In publishing we’re living in a moment of great worry and concern (warranted or not) mostly because of digital technologies and the pace of change. What the popularity of these novels suggests to us — confirms, really — is that what we come back to, again and again in literature, is strong and steadfast, regardless of all of the things we worry about in the industry. One way these novels are significant is the way they transmit nuanced emotion over time and place and bring to light what we have not yet seen or examined. This is a quality peculiar to literature. It’s not going to go away, and from time to time is proved anew. So, many in publishing had to sit back and take notice. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies, but in the publishing of these books, Europa reminds us that we can still befriend our deepest passions as well.
Can these novels be compared to any other books that have come across your desk over your editing career?
Absolutely not! I have worked on some wonderful books, but these novels stand apart which is why I am championing them as a reader. To survive, literature must be a joint project among writers, publishers, and readers. I would love to have worked on them, but I’m grateful that others had the wisdom and foresight to do so.
Why do you think the anonymity of the author has caused such a stir?
Well, again, it goes against the grain. We have a culture of literary celebrity that has become entrenched. What the anonymity of “Ferrante” tells us is that there is something about the unknown-ness of the author that allows for something that we value even more than what songs she has on her playlist, whether she writes in a nightgown at midnight or jeans on the weekend, or what she happens to enjoy when she’s not at her desk. All of that trivia that authors and publishers (and all have done it, sometimes with the best intentions) have tried to merchandise. Ferrante’s anonymity has reversed the received wisdom and inspired us in doing so. She has said, quietly, “this is what I need to preserve my voice and its integrity.” We appreciate its result. We see that it is valued by others. To authors, I hope Ferrante has sent a new message: You don’t have to do it that way. Find your own way. That’s what she did. It took a long time and, I’m sure, great faith.
You are known as a champion for new voices and diverse points of view in literature. Do you think these books have helped to widen the scope of what publishers might be willing to consider? Will we start to see more translations, or books centered on women and female friendship?
I can only hope that it’s the start of a kind of corrective movement in writing away from the cult of self-publicity and onto a new and interesting path to authenticity. What I really wish for is that her work will allow writers — men and women — to feel more empowered to do what is truly their own. Of course, Ferrante’s novels are about the blurring of boundaries, how we borrow and re-make continually from those we love and envy and compete with, and I would love to see us more boldly claim those influences too. She has thrown open a door to many new wings of literary endeavor, should we choose to venture in.
What might Readers’ Retreat participants expect to get out of this session that they might not otherwise glean from an independent reading?
My experience of reading these novels is that I was bursting with the need to talk about them, and I’ve heard that from others, too. I think it is because they speak to us so intimately, but are also highly social — showing us so many interrelations and co-creations, how we make and un-make one another, find and mirror each other – in all kinds of ways. What is it about these novels that feels so different, and so important? What do they crystallize about this moment in history, especially for women? I want to hear what others have to say about this. I’m eager to know it all!
Carole DeSanti is Vice President, Executive Editor at Viking Penguin, and the author of a novel, The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R.
ROME – HBO and Italian state broadcaster Rai have teamed up on “My Brilliant Friend,” the hotly anticipated drama series based on the first of four “Neapolitan Novels” written by Italian author Elena Ferrante, whose books have legions of fervent fans around the world.
FremantleMedia-owned Wildside and Domenico Procacci’s Fandango are producing the Italian-language series. The plan is to start shooting this summer in Naples for a premiere targeted in 2018.
Italian director Saverio Costanzo (“Private,” “Hungry Hearts”) will direct. Jennifer Schuur (“Big Love,” “Hannibal”) will serve as executive producer on “My Brilliant Friend” for Wildside and Fandango. The international distributor is FremantleMedia Intl.
Costanzo told Variety that Ferrante’s sweeping saga is “very literary but also very cinematographic” and said he planned to stick as closely as possible to the storyline of the book. “The characters really leap out of the book and come alive,” he said. “That makes it easier for us to transpose this cinematographically.”
Wildside and Fandango envision the series as 32 episodes covering all four books. HBO is on board for the first eight episodes.
Though casting is still being decided, the production is expected to draw widely from the large Neapolitan talent pool.
“My Brilliant Friend” tells the story of elderly woman Elena Greco who, after her best friend Lila disappears without a trace, starts writing the story of their 60-year friendship. It begins in the 1950s in the tough streets of Naples, which undergoes transformations along with the rest of Italy as the two women’s symbiotic, though often conflicted, relationship evolves.
“Through her characters, Elena and Lila, we will witness a lifelong friendship set against the seductive social web of Naples, Italy,” said HBO Programming president Casey Bloys. “An exploration of the complicated intensity of female friendship, these ambitious stories will no doubt resonate with the HBO audience.”
The Ferrante skein marks HBO’s second high-end Italian TV series, following “The Young Pope,” directed by Paolo Sorrentino, which was also co-produced by HBO with Wildside. “Pope” aired in Italy on Sky Italia.
This time, the Italian broadcaster on “My Brilliant Friend” will be Rai. Its hefty investment in the Ferrante adaptation marks a drastic departure from the more mainstream and largely local TV dramas that have been staples for ages on its general entertainment channels.
“This is an ambitious project that satisfies many of our public service goals,” said Rai Managing Director Antonio Campo Dall’Orto. Striving for quality and cultural value at the mammoth pubcaster represents a novelty.
Costanzo said the vivid characters that Ferrante has crafted will be compelling to a wide range of viewers.
“They are characters that each one of us can inhabit no matter what country you are from,” Costanzo said. “They are so well told, in such detail, that we can all identify with them and their desire to emancipate themselves….Elena Ferrante has managed to tell in the first person things that are very intimate, risky, that we all feel but that you need plenty of courage to admit.”
The 41-year-old director broke out internationally in 2004 with “Private,” which was set in a Palestinian home in an occupied zone. More recently he lensed the New York-set “Hungry Hearts,” co-starring Adam Driver and Alba Rohrwacher, an offbeat drama based on a novel about New Age diet obsessions.
Costanzo said he was approaching the Ferrante series “as if I were making a big movie. For me the difference between TV and cinema is very subtle; today’s great TV series are cinematographic.”
He added: “From our conversations, I have a sense that HBO are the right people to help us make a great show because they have great faith in the audience.”
Costanzo is currently working on the screenplays for the eight hourlong episodes with top Italian scribes Francesco Piccolo (“Human Capital”), Laura Paolucci (“Gomorrah” the TV series) and with Ferrante herself, although “Elena Ferrante” is a pseudonym. He said he’s been communicating with Ferrante via email.
Last year, an investigative journalist for Italian financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore identified Italian literary translator Anita Raja as Ferrante. Costanzo says his focus is strictly on translating Ferrante’s work to the screen.
“I am among those who are not interested who she [really is]. I am just interested in her literary world, not her human reality,” Costanzo said.
Frantumaglia is a collection of letters, interviews, and other correspondence between the author Elena Ferrante, her editors, and fans/journalists/artists. It was at the suggestion of her editors in fact, Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, that this book even came to fruition. It chronicles the time from when her first book, Troubling Love was published in Italy (1992), through the publication of the final installment in the Neapolitan Quartet, The Story of the Lost Child in America in 2015. All of the writings were originally in Italian, but have been translated into English by Ferrante’s exclusive English translator – Anne Goldstein.
For fans of Ferrante’s work, this book gives insights into the themes she has explored, as well as some recommendations of authors whom she finds inspiring and formative. For readers who are new to Ferrante, this correspondence demonstrates the thoughtful and precise way she utilizes language. Her writing style isn’t particularly poetic or fluid, but is incredibly well-crafted. She puts so much thought and care into every phrase, and that is part of why I find it so addicting to read.
Because this book includes transcripts of decades’-worth of interviews, there are some recurring questions. The most frequent one regards the author’s identity. It is widely known that Elena Ferrante is a pen name, and the user of that nom de plume has taken great pains to ensure that her true identity is concealed. She does not take part in any in-person or audio interviews, and requires all correspondence to be funneled through her editors. Because of this, the media (especially the Italian literary media) have made it their mission to “uncover” the true identity of Elena Ferrante. As recently as October, 2016 (long after Frantumaglia was published) an Italian article was published that purports to have uncovered Elena Ferrante’s true identity, going so far as to obtain (through what means..?) financial documents that show unusually large transactions between a publisher, an author, and a translator – to give weight to the claim. In what universe do people care so much about the identity of an author that they would go to such extremes? To what extent is an artist allowed privacy and the choice of a non-public life?
This cult of discovery is troubling on many levels. First, once one releases a work of art into the world, is that person then obligated to have any further involvement in the work? There seems to exist, in some perspectives, an umbilical connection between a work and its creator, that the personality branding of the person who wrote the book must carry some weight on the book itself. I also wonder how much attention there would be if the pen name of the author was masculine – Emilio Ferrante, let’s say. There runs an undercurrant of sexism here – suggesting that this writer must be revealed because it is so difficult to believe a woman capable of creating such a vivid and expansive world. In a culture where fame is seen as the pinnacle of a career, for someone to eschew such recognition may be difficult to understand.
Over and over again, interviewers make comparisons between her and famous Italian authors, and ask if she and those other authors are the same person. She never answers these questions, nor gives any particular details that might clarify any part of her identity. In fact, she, at one point, tells her editors that she may follow writer Italo Calvino’s lead and freely answer questions…but not with the truth. That is part of what is so interesting about Frantumaglia – you can try to read the personal into her answers, but ultimately what matters is the creative process and its products. Wondering whether characters, descriptions, or plots in any of her stories are autobiographical is a waste of energy. She believes wholeheartedly that the author’s job comes to an end once the writing is complete. It shouldn’t matter who the author is, as long as the story explores some greater truth.
By Dina Kleiner
Elena Ferrante, a contemporary Italian author who’s gained a large following in the United States, is most widely known for two things: her highly-acclaimed Neapolitan series and her identity, which was a mystery until last September.
“Elena Ferrante” is a pseudonym. The writer is fiercely private—she doesn’t do publicity, she doesn’t do any promotion, and she doesn’t do book tours. She rarely does interviews, and when she does, they are via email. She’s blown up in the literary world, yet remains largely unknown to the average person. She’s also one of the best writers I have ever read in my entire life.
The Italian author has said in written interviews that she would stop publishing books if her real identity were revealed. Fans of Ferrante didn’t want to know her real name. They aggressively defended her anonymity with a kind of protectiveness that’s rare for fans of anything in this era, an age in which people believe they’re entitled to the private lives of artists. In September, an Italian investigative journalist named Claudio Gatti outed Elena Ferrante’s alleged real identity, igniting anger from fans and drawing a surge of new readers to her novels.
As intriguing as the writer’s anonymity is—especially in a publishing era where press tours are the main way publishers market books—the secrecy surrounding Ferrante’s identity isn’t what attracts readers to her work. Ferrante is regarded by many as one of the best contemporary writers, earning stunning reviews from critics across the board and attracting fervid fans who’ve developed a cult-like obsession with her work.
The positive reception of Ferrante’s work in the United States took form far before the controversy surrounding the exposure of her identity. It’s rare to see so many critics uniformly praise Ferrante in such an effusive manner. They don’t review her work so much as they seem to personally urge readers to read it. Her Neapolitan series has been called a tour de force and a modern masterpiece.
Ferrante isn’t marketed as a feminist writer, but her books undoubtedly are just by virtue of her unabashed honesty about sex, adolescence, violence, and the body. Her illustration of the female psyche is so spot-on that it makes other works that aim to achieve similar depictions appear shallow and half-hearted, as though they only touch the surface of what reality feels like when compared to Ferrante’s words.
The New Yorker wrote, “Ferrante’s polished language belies the rawness of her imagery.” But don’t be fooled—her prose is layered with emotion, rage, and grotesqueness. Underneath the timid nature of many of Ferrante’s protagonists lies an anger that slowly reveals itself within narration, an indignation at the world that wells up and bursts like a tsunami crashing against a lifetime of subtle oppression. Critic John Freeman wrote, “Ferrante’s fictions are fierce, unsentimental glimpses at the way a woman is constantly under threat, her identity submerged in marriage, eclipsed by motherhood, mythologized by desire. Imagine if Jane Austen got angry and you’ll have some idea of how explosive these works are.”
Those looking to immerse themselves in the “Elena Ferrante experience” should start with her Neapolitan series. The first of the four-book series is My Brilliant Friend, which illustrates the childhood of two young girls growing up in a poor town outside Naples, Italy. I have never read anything that so accurately portrays what it feels like to go through puberty as a young girl. The series grows with its characters, exploring adulthood, classism, abuse, and independence with Ferrante’s signature emotion and underlying rage.
People who want to read Ferrante but don’t want to make a four-book commitment (although I highly recommend starting the series, even if you’re not committed to finishing it) should start with one of her slimmer novels, Troubled Love or Days of Abandonment. These novels are less epic in nature than the Neapolitan books—they feel like an intense dive into the psyche of women at critical points in their lives rather than a sprawling bildungsroman. These novels are angrier. They are jam-packed with quiet fury, brimming with an outrage that makes itself known instead of moving surreptitiously beneath the surface.
The cover of Ferrante’s novels are uncool at best and tacky at worst—they look like the kind of books that grandmothers buy at airports. I think it’s because no one expected Ferrante to become such a huge hit—they didn’t think they should bother putting money toward a more modern cover design, the kind of cover meant for books targeted for best-seller lists. They didn’t know what a success Ferrante would be. They didn’t know that an anonymous, elusive Italian writer could gather a fan base so dedicated it defends her privacy, that she would write one of the best depictions of female friendship and womanhood of all time, that her words would hold so much power and truth that they cause women across the globe to look up from their novels and exclaim to themselves: “That’s exactly what it feels like.”
My Brilliant Friend, theatre review: Ambitious, satisfying attempt to realise Elena Ferrante’s world
April De Angelis condenses 1,600 pages into two plays but it’s still an epic experience, writes Henry Hitchings
Elena Ferrante’s four richly personal Neapolitan novels have won her legions of admirers. Eloquent about the power of memory, they’re an addictive portrait of friendship at its most intense. The central characters, Lenù and Lila, are often apart, but their destinies are intricately connected. Beginning in the Fifties, amid poverty and violence, their relationship is explosive, involving joy and betrayal, and outside forces — whether fascism or family rivalry — are constantly impinging on their more intimate narratives of jealousy, reversal and survival.
This adaptation by April De Angelis condenses 1,600 pages into two plays. It’s still an epic experience — a running time of five and a half hours represents a big investment for theatregoers. Yet much has had to be sacrificed. Details of gangster thuggery, political injustice and the travails of motherhood are abbreviated or omitted. Some fans may also protest that the Italian flavours and textures have been compromised, though an interpretation more infatuated with them might just have seemed hammy.
Director Melly Still has crafted a fluent production. Inevitably there’s a lot of exposition, but the storytelling is mostly nimble, with moments of visual ingenuity — Soutra Gilmour’s design makes simple and effective use of iron stairways and billowing sheets. The thoughtfully economical approach may mean that while devotees of the books notice what’s been missed out, those unfamiliar with them feel that there’s too much to take in.
Crucially, the two main performances are superb. Niamh Cusack is both luminous and gritty as the earnest Lenù, apparently wholesome but also vain and jealous. Catherine McCormack’s Lila is a streetwise shapeshifter with a wild streak. At times she seems to have a death wish, and in McCormack’s hands she’s a fascinating mix of aloofness and feral dynamism. Their bond is ardent and ambivalent — part collaboration, part competition.
The male characters fare less well. As performers juggle multiple roles, only Toby Wharton’s cerebral and caddish Nino is genuinely memorable. But while it would be easy to complain that the adaptation could dig deeper into particular strata of its source material, this is an ambitious and satisfying attempt to realise Ferrante’s world. And it’s true to her novels in presenting as a soap opera what is in fact a radical vision of aspiration, crisis and desire.
Play Talk: April de Angelis on adapting Elena Ferrante’s novels and cadging roll-ups on opening night
In our Play Talk series, playwrights discuss the joys and struggles of the writing life
Few writers have chronicled the female experience better than April de Angelis. Her plays – of which she has written over twenty – put women centre stage, often boldly spanning history. Always imminently watchable, her latest project has been the mammoth task of adapting Elena Ferrante’s hit Neapolitan novels for the the stage. You can currently catch My Brilliant Friend, performed in two parts, at the Rose Theatre in Kingston.
What was the first play to make you want to write plays?
Waiting for Godot. I didn’t get it all but I loved the dialogue!
“Vladimir: I’m glad to see you back. I thought you were gone forever.
Estragon: Me too.” – Sad and hilarious and scary all at once!
What was your background to becoming a playwright?
I was an (not very good) actor. I think I must have absorbed some stage craft stuff through the pores of my skin and that helped (a bit).
What is the hardest play you’ve ever written?
A Laughing Matter. It was at the National Theatre in 2003, about David Garrick. It had characters like Samuel Johnson – in order to write him I had to read loads in order to ‘get his voice’.
Which play brought you most joy?
Probably My Brilliant Friend Part 1 and 2. I love being in Naples!
Which playwrights influenced you the most?
Hard to say. How do you account for influence? I love all the usual suspects: Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Strindberg, Shaw, Miller, Williams, Caryl Churchill.
What is your favourite line or scene from any play?
The last scene in Top Girls. It’s the most thrilling political argument ever but totally ‘in character’ and it ends with a thrilling visual/bathetic punch in the guts appearance and single line.
The biggest surprise to you since you’ve had your writing performed by actors?
First time it ever happened I cried, I was overwhelmed! Also I learnt a rule of thumb – If the writing is good – good actors always make it better.
What’s been your biggest setback as a writer?
I don’t believe in setbacks. I think you are on a journey as a writer and you can’t expect it to be all painless. You have to try and understand your own flaws and blocks and accept they are all part of the life of a writer. Sometimes things going wrong wake you up!
And the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn?
You can’t be lazy.
What do you think is the best thing about theatre? And the worst?
Best thing: when it all comes together in collaborative ecstasy. Worst: when it doesn’t.
What’s your best piece of advice for writers who are starting out?
Read lots of plays – see lots of theatre. Read everything about the craft of playwriting. Value your imagination.
Are there any themes and stories you find yourself revisiting?
Mothers and daughters.
Are you on Twitter? Do you find it a help or a hindrance as a writer?
I’m on Twitter but I always forget to tweet.
How do you spend opening night?
Watching the play and unconsciously mouthing the words in a deeply irritating manner. Cadging roll-ups in the interval.
What’s the best play you’ve seen recently?
Ella Hickson’s’ Oil. I loved its imaginative scope. A mother and daughter move through centuries but age only through one life time – their story dissects with the history of the black stuff.
What’s your favourite theatre?
Royal Court because it’s the writer’s theatre.
What other art forms do you love when you’re not in a theatre?
If the Prime Minister said they were abolishing the theatre tomorrow, what would you do?
Agitate for a revolution. Seriously would life be worth living without it?
There is a striking shared lexicon that unites fans of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet: they will routinely speak of how they “devoured” the books; how “immersive” the experience was; how – yes – they were “impossible to put down”. This is not all to denigrate them; indeed, we have previously written glowingly about the series. It is merely to note that there is something extraordinary, especially for a work of literary fiction, about the way the books are consumed. As Joanna Biggs wrote in the LRB: “Ferrante’s writing seems to say something that hasn’t been said before – it isn’t easy to specify what this is – in a way so compelling its readers forget where they are, abandon friends and disdain sleep.” This new stage adaptation of the novels – adapted by Jumpy writer April de Angelis – appeals to same kind of maximalism, splitting the material into two shows across five hours.
From the minute the lights went out, there was a kind of collective rapture. Jon Nicholls’s mesmerising sound design, aided by opera music, transports us instantly to war-torn Naples. The cycle – if two plays makes a cycle – charts a lifelong friendship from childhood to their elderly years, battling political disputes, class division, violence, marriage, love affairs and motherhood along the way.
We first meet Lila (Catherine McCormack) and Lenu (Niamh Cusack) in the childhood years of their friendship, talking about their dolls, Tina and Nu, and beginning their adventure together. From the moment they meet, Lila is an intelligent, headstrong, adventurous spirit – perhaps even, at first glance, fearless. Lenu, in contrast, is a quieter personality, somewhat needy and fearful of consequences but ultimately willing to go along with Lila’s whims. Costume designer Soutra Gilmour dresses them in cheap, cotton dresses, indicative of their poverty; in these horrific conditions, these two girls are each other’s only beacon of hope.
Then we flash forward sixty years. Lenu is being visited by Lila’s son Gennaro, looking for his missing mother; Lenu then reflects wistfully on their tempestuous friendship. Director Melly Still handles the temporal shifts with an incredibly confident hand – and so, sure enough, we are soon back in the girls’ childhood, immersing ourselves again in their early war-torn world. With violence everywhere, they’re desperate to leave – in particular Lila, who sees writing a book, The Blue Fairy, as her ticket out of her neighbourhood. She has more intelligence than any of her peers at school but her family’s poverty causes her immense problems. Between her father’s opposition to women staying in education, and her mother’s concern that Lila might embarrass the son of one of their creditors by excelling above him in school, she is trapped in the poverty of Naples. Although Lenu doesn’t have the same aptitude that Lila has, she is allowed to stay in school, learning Latin. It’s at this point you see their economic status begin to shift. Lenu is in education; Lila is working in her father’s shoe store.
As they age into their late teen years, gang crime becomes more and more endemic. Lila has given up on reading, claiming “it gives me a headache”, while Lenu is in a relationship with her neighbour Antonio (Justin Avoth), even though her heart really belongs to Nino (Toby Wharton). It’s not long before Lila is married in an abusive and loveless relationship to Stefano (Jonah Russell), a local boy with connections to the gangster family of the neighbourhood, the Solaras. The day she said “I do” and realised the sort of man she married was the same day that her initial fieriness died away. Lenu’s confidence, however, continues to grow.
The jealousy we see between McCormack and Cusack is depicted very subtly. Lila sees everything in Lenu’s life that she craved for herself and so embarks on an affair with Nino, which makes her feel alive. In the same way, Lenu envies Lila’s motherhood and seeks to emulate it herself. While Lila is deeply unhappy in her marriage, Lenu enjoys success as a novelist, eventually marrying a professor. The differences in their marriages and social status become still more pronounced when their daughters are growing up together in their childhood neighbourhood of Naples following Lenu’s mother’s death. Again, Lila’s child has more brains than anyone in the neighbourhood, while Lenu’s child doesn’t quite measure up; however, it is Lenu’s child who has the greater opportunities.
McCormack and Cusack both perform with incredible passion and humility, imbuing their characters with life. The production, too, is a visual treat: Rachael Canning’s puppetry and Rachel Bown-William’s fight choreography are nothing short of genius. The violence is handled sensitively, as one would hope, and never played for shock value or indeed melodrama.
Any theatrical adaptation of Ferrante’s novels will inevitably be fraught with all kinds of questions beforehand. What events or characters are you going to compress? How do you translate the brutal honesty of Ferrante’s voice? Is that even possible? However, within minutes of the curtains coming up, I put all these questions aside, utterly absorbed into the grand theatrical sweep.
Rose theatre, Kingston upon Thames
Catherine McCormack and Niamh Cusack ignite April De Angelis’s five-hour staging of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan saga
What a nerve. To think that Elena Ferrante’s transfixing novels could take another form. To imagine that these tales of female friendship, Neapolitan life, political strife and personal independence could be adapted. For a Ferrante addict, the story of Lenù and Lila – which one are you? – is not a fictional feat but something more internal: part of the reader’s own memory.
And yet. Against the odds, adapter April De Angelis and director Melly Still have pulled off their dramatisation in My Brilliant Friend. There are absences and some awkwardness, but the essence of the books – intensity – wins through.
Ferrante is subtle but not delicate. Her plot is boldly coloured. Her timescale is long, from 1944 to 2010. Her saga is full but fractured: changes of love, mind and behaviour are not, any more than in life, always fully accounted for. De Angelis and Still give us quick scenes on Soutra Gilmour’s uncluttered design. Naples is there in the huge bed sheets waved from iron balconies. The earthquake is conjured by a whirl of light and a ripping of paper. Crucially, a marvellous string of musical numbers winds through the action, providing a timeline that beautifully bridges inner and outer landscapes. Lazzarella gives way to Where the Boys Are and Purple Haze. The five-hour, two-part epic begins and ends with the most searching of laments: Dido’s. Her plea could serve as a motto for Ferrante’s vital enterprise: “Remember me, but forget my fate.”
Adaptation is reinvention. Some important episodes are not explicit here but translated: Lila’s recurring feeling that she is dissolving is suggested in changes of light, shifts in movement. The only substantial loss is in the treatment of political engagement. Nino, the intermittent lover of both women, is a slippery sod: opportunist and plausible, but seductive. Not as clever as he thinks, but stimulating. Toby Wharton turns him into a chump who makes all political theory sound merely academic and absurd, comic relief rather than something with the power to stir.
The two leads power the evening through. What casting! Catherine McCormackhas the essential quality for Lila. An insouciant – almost negligent – originality. She has the restless intelligence of an artist. That is a constant. Yet her guises are always changing. At one moment she is the swankiest person on stage, in big shades and a gauzy headscarf à la Sophia Loren. At the next, she is the most woebegone: gaunt and rawboned, hauling the carcass of a skinned animal across a factory floor.
Niamh Cusack brings her lit-up intensity to Lenù, the narrator. She is the achiever, the girl who uses cleverness to escape poverty, dialect, family, thuggery. Yet she is also in anxious thrall to her friend, both envious and admiring. Cusack glows, explodes like a maenad, suggests someone whose heart is in a knot. Cleverly the plays end with Lenù as author, signing books that contain her account of what we have just seen. For a moment it is as if the elusive Ferrante has materialised in front of us.
Elena Ferrante’s extraordinary quartet of novels about the passionate, treacherous friendship between two women in post-war Naples inspires masochistic behaviour among devotees. There are tales of readers skipping mealtimes, sleep, even social arrangements in order to gobble them up. So I suspect fans will shrug off the challenge of watching April de Angelis’s adaptation, which condenses the quartet into two two-and-a-half-hour shows that can be seen either on a single day or over two consecutive evenings. (This is not the sort of project in which it is not done to see only half. You are in for the long haul or not at all.)
So does it work? Namely, how do you put on stage the borderline narcissistic, relentless mono-perspective of these novels, each one an implacably interior account by a writer called Elena of her turbulent, decades-long relationship with her former school friend Lila? You don’t, is the answer.
Instead, de Angelis’s fleet, sleek adaptation breaks away from Elena’s omnipotent viewpoint to release all the cinematic drama seething beneath. This, in Melly Still’s noirish production, is The Sopranos by way of women’s lib, where slick-suited gangsters mingle at weddings, where communists fight with the fascists and where, amid the broiling violence and poverty, two intellectually precocious girls, Lila and Elena (known as Lenu) wrestle against both the gender expectations of their heavily circumscribed upbringing and the mythic ties of an impossible friendship in which both women are destined to fight forever against the shadow of the other.
There is something of an Italian Hedda Gabler about Catherine McCormack’s Lila, the uncontainable, self-sabotaging brilliant young girl who combines a “refusal to submit to reality” with a yearning for self annihilation. McCormack plays her with plenty of scorn and a streak of lethal nihilism – even as a seven-year-old, maliciously dropping Lenu’s favourite doll into a cellar, McCormack finds in her long-haired, bare-footed Lila a dead eyed fatalism, as though the character already knows how her story will turn out. The stench of clinical depression hangs over her like a cloud.
Niamh Cusack is less obvious casting as Lenu and, for Part One at least, is the bit player in Lila’s drama. Yet as the production grows, so does her performance. Unlike the more talented Lila, Lenu becomes a novelist but struggles to combine motherhood with her career. We are told throughout that Lenu is “good” but Cusack captures the softly monstrous ego behind Lenu’s seemingly placid surfaces – a writer who stealthily steals stories from both Lila’s life and imagination and who years later has to wrestle with whether an act of self promotion is the cause of an unspeakable loss.
Still’s muscular staging, in which a pop soundtrack eloquently tracks the changing years, beautifully summons the claustrophobic heat of downtown Naples, where washing hangs from iron balconies, wives fight like alleycats over husbands and business men are knifed in broad daylight.
It’s full, too, of moments of visual flair: when Lila is beaten up – by her dad; by her husband – she sheds her dress and the men pummel the empty cloth instead. For the most part, both play and production powerfully combine a shocking intimacy with a widescreen account of post-war Italian history. They manage, too, the seemingly impossible: despite the almost unquantifiable number of hours I have now spent in the company of Lila and Lenu, I left this wanting still more.
Elena Ferrante, writer
‘I Took Power in My Hand’ by Emily Dickinson (1862)
At times I’ve read these lines as a reflection on women’s writing, at times as a symbol of any female venture. The first painful fact is that Dickinson has no models of her own sex to refer to, nothing, anyway, that has the aura of David. This is the source of the inevitable comparison with the male figure from the Bible. His hand is bigger, the Power at his disposal is bigger. As a result, Dickinson, in order to make an equivalent gesture, needs twice the boldness.
But what’s the use of being bolder? The woman who takes aim and throws her stone does not confront simply the Goliath of the youth with the slingshot: her Goliath is the entire world. Thus that throw can only be ineffectual, its sole victim the thrower. And so we arrive at the wonderful last two lines. Is the Goliath of the audacious Emily ‘too large’ or is it that she is ‘too small’? That adjective, followed by the question mark, moves me. I wish all Emilys not to be small by nature, I wish they would just try, and try again, and so become large. (Translation by Ann Goldstein)
I took my Power in my Hand–
And went against the World –
’Twas not so much as David – had –
But I – was twice as bold –
I aimed my Pebble – but Myself
Was all the one that fell –
Was it Goliath – was too large –
Or was myself – too small?
Lauren Strain , March 5th, 2017 13:41
For two decades, Italian author Elena Ferrante maintained her privacy – until a recent article claimed to reveal her ‘true’ identity. Twenty-five years after the publication of her first novel, Lauren Strain considers the example that her fight for selfhood – and the struggles of the women in her novels – sets for us today.
“I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful.”
Consider the motivations of a man who, on reading this statement, sets out to deprive the speaker of that freedom they have found.
This was the pursuit of journalist Claudio Gatti, who in an incendiary article published by the New York Review of Books last October, announced his belief that the pseudonymous Italian author Elena Ferrante was, in fact, a translator named Anita Raja. He’d spent months rooting through real estate records and other financial data, including anonymously obtained details of payments to Raja from her publishers.
That a woman’s word is neither believed nor respected is hardly a surprise. But what’s been particularly nauseating about Gatti’s and other journalists’ efforts to ‘out’ Ferrante is that, if you’re even slightly familiar with her work, you’ll know that her whole output is an examination of the lives of women who are denied their right to self-determination.
Spirited, clever and aspirant, Ferrante’s women grow up in oppressive neighbourhoods polluted by fear and fascistic family ties. Under relentless pressure to behave one way, to look another – to be who others want them to be rather than what they choose for themselves – they commonly experience a sense of brokenness, of coming apart. They fragment, dissolve and sometimes even disappear completely.
In Ferrante’s debut novel, Troubling Love, artist Delia tries to trace the final movements of her mother, Amalia, who after a life suffocated by the demands of men – a husband who beat her and a lover who never stopped pursuing her – has drowned herself in the sea. In My Brilliant Friend, the first instalment in the Neapolitan series, childhood best friends Lenù and Lila both endure frightening feelings of disintegration at the hands of their violent, 1950s Naples community. Most famous are Lila’s episodes of “dissolving margins”, when things seem literally as well as inwardly to blur (“she had often had the sensation of moving for a few fractions of a second into a person or a thing or a number or a syllable, violating its edges”), but Lenù also experiences similar dysmorphic terrors: “sometimes I had the impression that, while every animated being around me was speeding up the rhythms of its life, solid surfaces turned soft under my fingers or swelled up,” she writes. “It seemed to me that my own body, if you touched it, was distended… I felt squeezed in that vise along with the mass of everyday things and people… as if everything, thus compacted, and always tighter, were grinding me up, reducing me to a repulsive cream.” This horror of a loss of solidity echoes Ferrante’s earlier novel, The Days of Abandonment, where a wife left reeling from her husband’s sudden departure must gather all her strength to overcome a profound internal shattering.
But while many of these nightmarish passages suggest the threat of breakdown, the books also offer the possibility that Ferrante’s women, by withdrawing from the language and roles expected of them, are able if not to resist then at least to evade their oppressors. Troubling Love‘s Amalia, leaving home in strangers’ clothes, indulging in forbidden behaviours and concealing her tracks, denies her pursuers’ desires and eludes capture. Lila’s final vanishing, meanwhile, fulfils a long-held intention: “She wanted not only to disappear herself… but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind”, writes Lenù in My Brilliant Friend.
There is a sense in which, by becoming unreachable, unknowable and even unintelligible, perhaps these women can claim for themselves a space outside of the viciously patriarchal culture they inhabit. It’s an idea Ferrante puts forward herself in an interview included in Frantumaglia: “The disappearance of women should be interpreted not only as giving up the fight against the violence of the world but also as clear rejection,” she tells Belgium’s De Standaard. “There is an expression in Italian whose double meaning is untranslatable: ‘Io non ci sto.’ Literally it means: I’m not here, in this place, before what you’re suggesting. In common usage, it means, instead: I don’t agree, I don’t want to. Rejection means shunning the games of those who crush the weak.”
Surely it is possible, too, to see Ferrante’s absenting of herself from the media circus as a rebuke of this kind. In remaining pseudonymous and participating only on her own terms (she answers select interviews in writing, via her publisher), the author enacts a sort of dissolution of her own. It is interesting to see this refusal to engage as a political act; of a piece with the concerns of her work, and perhaps even an extension of it.
Which is to say that, when Gatti so clinically peels back Ferrante’s skin, he also rolls back a 25-year project, a body of work that spans a quarter of a century. When he invades Ferrante’s hard-fought space, he tramples, too, on the content of her seven novels and the lives that they narrate. It is this that makes the reveal of Ferrante’s identity more than just gossip, and symbolic of the very struggles that lie at the heart of her stories.
The dogged determination on the part of critics to forcibly expose a woman who has chosen a particular way of life has been a useful reminder that, still, in 2017, those who follow their own path face expectation to conform, even from people who would consider themselves permissive. Fortunately, in Ferrante’s case the work itself is armoured against this kind of assault, since its other key theme, alongside her women’s battle for autonomy, is the futility of anyone’s attempt to define them. Over the course of 1500 pages, Lenù’s resolution at the outset of My Brilliant Friend to not let Lila “win,” to “write all the details of our story” and record the definitive version of their history, proves impossible; and in Troubling Love, Delia, giving up the search for her mother, finds that she “couldn’t impose on her the prison of a single adjective.” Ultimately, Ferrante’s canon asks the question: Who knows Lila but Lila? Who knows Lenù but Lenù? Who knows Ferrante but Ferrante? Who knows you, but you?
At a time when women’s control over their bodies in even ‘progressive’ societies is increasingly challenged, when they are dismissed and degraded by their political leaders, Ferrante’s refusal to allow others jurisdiction over her image sets an emboldening example for women everywhere. While she stresses that her work is not written with an expressly feminist or other ideological message (“I don’t like stories that are a programmatic enactment of the theory of the group one belongs to,” she says in a letter to her publisher), her comments made on a more personal level about the precarity of women’s position seem to carry a clear warning.
“Girls like my daughters appear convinced that the freedom they’ve inherited is part of the natural state of affairs and not the temporary outcome of a long battle that is still being waged, and in which everything could suddenly be lost,” she said in an interview with Vanity Fair in 2015, later expanding in The Gentlewoman: “even in those areas where many of our rights are safe, it’s still hard to be a woman who challenges the way in which even the most cultured and forward-thinking men represent us.”
We encounter these men in the pages of Ferrante’s novels, in the figures of Donato and Nino Sarratore, whose learning and cultivated airs do not prevent them from abusing the women around them. We encounter them in the workplace, in education and at the highest levels of society. And we encounter them, too, in our current year, in “the premier literary-intellectual magazine in the English language,” striving to undo an entire life’s work.
Last year, the playwright April De Angelis gave her book group a copy of My Brilliant Friend to read. The novel was the first in a quartet by Italian author Elena Ferrante, charting an intense 50 year female friendship, and was already a publishing sensation.
De Angelis had read it some months previously and instantly fallen in love. But not all her fellow readers were convinced.
“It split the group a little bit,” says De Angelis when we meet in the lobby of the British Library in London. “It’s quite a difficult account of female friendship and some people don’t like that.”
Her own reaction was “obviously to try and be generous and not just say to them – ‘you’re stupid!’” She catches herself, then laughs.
The Ferrante novels tend to split people into two camps: either you don’t get what all the fuss is about and stop half-way through the first instalment, or you love them with an all-consuming, protective, fire-breathing passion. De Angelis falls into the latter set and has now adapted the four books for the stage; the first time anyone has done so.
The story charts the course of their entwined life: from a shared childhood in an impoverished Naples neighbourhood, through to adulthood with its passionate love affairs, burgeoning careers and complex family struggles. De Angelis has crunched the Neapolitan novels into a little over four hours and the two parts can be seen on the same day, or separately.
Ferrante’s novels, written over three years from 2012, have sold well over a million copies worldwide and been translated into 27 languages. Along the way, they have been heaped with critical and popular acclaim. The New York Times Book Review has called Ferrante, “one of the great novelists of our time” and her devoted fans include everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Zadie Smith.
What makes her success even more dazzling is that Ferrante writes under a pseudonym and has never given an interview in person, only ever answering questions in writing.
De Angelis is no exception.
“I bloody hate him,” she says of Gatti. “He’s trying to control how a woman should be. She’s deliberately – for artistic reasons – chosen not to be known.
“It’s not hiding something or being deceptive. It’s her right not to say who she is. It’s a creative act to write under another name because it gives you freedom as a woman; to assume another identity and to step out of your own head.”
It is the same argument put forward by other women who have written under pseudonyms and been unmasked. Indeed, JK Rowling – who penned The Cuckoo’s Calling as Robert Galbraith in 2013 said that she was yearning “to work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback… I certainly wanted to take my writing persona as far away as possible from me.”
De Angelis believes that what makes Ferrante so compelling as a writer is her refusal to respect traditional boundaries. Her depiction of a lifelong female friendship does not shy away from uncomfortable truths: Lenu and Lila both love and hate each other. They are defined by their passion as much as their enmity – and often they act in brutal, unforgivable ways.
“It doesn’t fit into the sentimental idea of female friendship,” explains De Angelis. “It’s really quite transgressive because she writes about all the stuff that is meant to be kept out of the official account of what it is to be a woman.”
In her novels, Ferrante gives clear-eyed descriptions of both menstruation and pregnancy (which, at one point, is compared to having an “alien” growing inside you).
One of the big debates around the stage adaptation, says De Angelis, was whether to keep in such visceral descriptions. For the most part, she did, a decision that the director called “brave.”
“But Ferrante was brave!” says De Angelis. “She put the female body at the centre.” Besides, she continues, that is how women actually talk to each other. “There are thoughts you can share safely when you’re with other women and some of the stuff that comes out is fabulous.” De Angelis sips her coffee. “Would life be worth living without female friends? Probably not.”
I thought it was the most fabulous thing ever. A real Ferrante word! Now I just want to use it all the time in my daily conversation.
De Angelis, who lives in Walthamstow, east London, was not in regular contact with Ferrante while she was adapting the books. She had read all four in late 2015 and loved them, describing them as the literary equivalent of “a TV box-set”.
She and her husband, Evan Marshall, a television producer, had just been on holiday to Naples and were in the process of learning Italian (De Angelis is half Sicilian), so there was a special serendipity to discovering the Neapolitan novels at that particular time.
Then, in mid-December that year, De Angelis received an email out of the blue from her agent asking her if she had any interest in adapting the Ferrante novels for The Rose Theatre.
“It was my dream job,” she says. In the end, she had to write the whole thing – from the 1,600 pages of the English translations – in just three months. “It was a crazy timescale. It’s all been a bit headlong but sometimes it’s good to have that pressure.”
This is not the first time De Angelis has adapted a much-loved novel – her previous works include Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights. She originally trained as an actress, attending the East 15 theatre school after Sussex University, but recalls being “constantly nagged” by an inner voice telling her to write.
The difference with her past adaptations was, of course, that the authors were no longer around to pass comment.
Ferrante had to give her blessing for the first draft of My Brilliant Friend the play, “which was terrifying [but] she came back and said ‘Fine, I agree with it’ and she gave me one note which was amazing. She said ‘Don’t be too oneiric.’”
I stare at De Angelis blankly.
“I had to look it up,” she laughs. “It means, ‘dream-like’, from the Greek ‘to dream’. I thought it was the most fabulous thing ever. A real Ferrante word! Now I just want to use it all the time in my daily conversation.”
No doubt her legions of other fans will feel just the same way.
Laura Freeman talks to Melly Still and April De Angelis about their adaptation of the Neapolitan quartet for the Rose Theatre Kingston. Will Ferrante fangirls approve?
Reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet is a heady experience. You not only see, hear, know her characters — you can almost taste them. The villain of the first of the four books, which follow the friendship of mercurial Lila and striving Lenù from childhood into their sixties, is Don Achille, an ‘ogre’ who sweats the smells of ‘salami, provolone, mortadella, lardo and prosciutto’. Lila herself, always wriggling free of the nets of others, is ‘skinny, like a salted anchovy’. Nino, loved by both Lila and Lenù, is ‘an anomalous, sweet fruit’. Naples itself, the backdrop to the books, acting as a succubus, pulling the characters back when they try to escape, stinks of the exhaust from Fiat cars, the roasted almonds of the street sellers, fried pizza from the cafés.
How do you put all that on stage? On the page, on the nearly 1,600 pages of My Brilliant Friend (childhood), The Story of a New Name (adolescence), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (young married life), and The Story of the Lost Child (maturity, success, bereavement), you lose yourself in Lenù and Lila, in six decades of slights, quarrels and alliances, triumph and betrayal, vendetta and omertà, feuds and petty hair-pulling. Can you do all that in just four acts over two evenings?
‘When you initially set it out like that,’ says Melly Still, director of the first theatre adaptation of Ferrante’s novels, ‘it doesn’t seem as if it’s possible. There’s this strange, wonderful experience, which I think is particular to reading. It becomes personal and consummate.
‘The role of theatre is very different, because you can’t put the novels on stage. A big long mini-series — a Netflix series — could do that. You can really explore all the detail. Theatre has a different role, somehow distilling the experience of reading. Of course you end up losing some of the characters who you’ve grown to know and love, but once you do that, you exist in a distilled Ferrante world.’
Knowing and loving — that’s the other challenge of Ferrante. Her readers are fangirls — and they are almost all female — of the most fanatical stripe. There was a period a year ago when I was the only one of my girlfriends not to have read Ferrante. You must read her, they said. You cannot understand friendship, love, what it is to be a woman until you’ve read her. I thought they were being absurd, knew I wouldn’t like the books with their syrupy beach-holiday covers. Lenù, a published novelist by the third book, makes a joke about ‘ugly’ covers with ‘women in black dresses… laundry hung out to dry’. Then I read the first book, with an attitude of give-it-a-go-give-up-when-I’m-bored, and kept on in a greedy, unstoppable rush, all four books in eight days.
Now, I am protective of my characters. Is Niamh Cusack (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Northern Lights, the RSC) right for Lenù? Can Catherine McCormack (Sherlock, Life in Squares) do justice to the untameable, detestable, irresistible Lila?
Melly Still knows the syndrome. ‘I was always reluctant to see Wolf Hall on stage or television. You can’t replace the novels. It’s about an interpretation, making them plays in themselves.’ Wolf Hall is one precedent, Harry Potter another. Still went to see the two-part Harry Potter and the Cursed Child as she worked on My Brilliant Friend. The difference is that while everyone in the Harry Potter audience ‘will know everything, will have read every book and seen every film’, there’s no Ferrante franchise, no Lego, no theme park, no tweeting J.K. Rowling. Her books may have been sold in 40 countries, more than 1.2 million copies in the US alone, but Elena Ferrante is an enigma, her name a pseudonym. Interviews are granted rarely and then only by email. She has explained her reasons for refusing publicity: ‘I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it.’
Last October, however, she was ignobly ‘unmasked’ as Rome-based editor and translator Anita Raja by investigative journalist Claudio Gatti who sold his story to the Italian newspaper Il Sole, the New York Review of Books, the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the French website Mediapart. It was an ungentlemanly ambush. April De Angelis, who has adapted the books for stage, says: ‘He’s an arse, isn’t he? It’s an artistic act, an artistic gesture not to be known. Not being a commodity. The books may be bought and sold, but she doesn’t have to be.’
‘It is invasive,’ says Still. ‘One of the reasons Ferrante wanted to remain anonymous was that she wanted to write in that candid and uncensored and forensic way.’
Since the Gatti revelations, Raja has made no comment and no public appearance. In Frantumaglia, a collection of her non-fiction writing, Ferrante insists that characters matter more than their author: ‘Even Tolstoy is an insignificant shadow if he takes a stroll with Anna Karenina.’
Of all the characters, I found Nino, liar, egoist, philanderer that he is, the most compelling. De Angelis agrees: ‘Nino is educated — rather, he’s trying to become educated, which is even more charming. He loves books. So everyone reading the book is going to love Nino because they love books too.’
‘And he’s also played by a really gorgeous actor [he is — I saw him arrive for rehearsal], so it’s very easy to find him really charming. Which I think you’re supposed to. Otherwise your main characters, your heroines, are idiots for loving him.’
Still decided early on that there would be no Just-One-Cornetto Italian accents. A recent BBC Radio 4 adaptation had the characters as Mancunians, Manchester standing in for Naples. But De Angelis has allowed the actors to speak in their own voices. ‘There’s something really weird about masking your voice. If you’re Irish, having to speak in RP or then cockney.’ When they’re speaking neighbourhood dialect the script, says Still, is ‘more direct, more coarse, more crude, more colloquial’. When it’s classical Italian, the script is richer, more rhetorical.
In 2005, when the Italian director Roberto Faenza made a film of Ferrante’s early novel The Days of Abandonment, she gave notes on the script by email. Did De Angelis hear from Ferrante?
‘I got one thing back. Ferrante had to read the first draft. She said: “Fine.” But she had one note which was: “Be careful not to be too oneiric.” It’s such a brilliant word. I thought: “Oh my god, look, this is a word, a real Ferrante word.” And that’s the only thing I’ve ever heard.’
Ferrante’s editor, Maurizio Dell’Orso, has sat in on rehearsals, relaying news back to Rome. ‘I’ve had this sense,’ says Still, ‘of a person very, very aware of our daily activity… But maybe she’s doesn’t know? Maybe she doesn’t give a damn? I really don’t know. We really don’t know. We have no idea.’
My Brilliant Friend Parts 1 & 2 is at the Rose Theatre Kingston until 2 April. The Neapolitan quartet is published by Europa Editions.
by Mika Provata-Carlone
Elena Ferrante is traditional in the most radical, boundary-dissolving ways; conventional with subversive fervour and delicately powerful talent. In Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey she proves above all the invincible strength of her authorial translucence, the rock-solid presence of her so-called anonymity, which she invariably corrects as being a determined gesture of absence.
The word frantumaglia, we are told, belongs to her mother, a dressmaker, and comes from that maternal world of tattered fabrics, frayed hems, unravelling stitches, matted skeins and tangled bobbins. It is a passe-partout term to encapsulate female suffering, its cobweb of existential angst that is inarticulate as well as unspeakable. “The frantumaglia was mysterious, it provoked mysterious actions, it was the source of all suffering not traceable to a single obvious cause.” Bursting with the ineluctable impetus of dialect, frantu derives from frantumare, to shatter, shiver, smash, crush; maglia is a knitted jumper, a jersey, as well as a knitter’s stitch, secured or dropped (see Erasures). It is an image that conjures up a certain ethereality, a metaphor of evanescence and mystical transparency, of life as an elusive aurora borealis of words and stories, but also an allegory of the tactility and permanence of traumas, of the salvaging, re-patching process that is, inevitably, at the heart of all reconstruction, recollection and perhaps narrative itself.
Yet this self-proclaimed collection of ‘fragments’ is anything but fragmentary or precarious, gossamer-thin or spurious. Nor is there anything tangled or disorderly about it, even if many of the statements by Ferrante or her vicarious interlocutors may appear anarchic and defiant. To pursue the dressmaking metaphor a step further, this is more like wool-felting than unpicking, a process which will result in a dense fabric of stories, laboriously and expertly welding together yarns of memory and the strands of the past.
There is an irresistible mystique about this intensely intimate, personal collection, and Ferrante’s voice often has the timbre of a lover and not just of a correspondent, an essayist or diarist. For all her assertions that she will not burden her books (or this epistolary miscellany of thoughts and conversations) with her presence as their writer, the friction and tension between creator and creature, as well as the connective umbilical cord, is constant, tantalising, something Ferrante has also explored extensively in her fiction. Frantumaglia is, in a way, the geography of an uncharted life, the cartography of a human terra incognita, which promises dazzling light on the absolute premise of an indissoluble and cryptic darkness.
One gets a distinct sense of Ferrante as a mystic, a Pythia-like figure holding on to a holy as well as terrifying trance, which alone will engender and enable that ultimate vital process, writing.”
Ferrante not only responds to but also piercingly questions her interviewers, and this often reveals both what she has called “a somewhat neurotic desire for intangibility”, but also a latent, yet dominant, demand to be discovered and sought after, a yearning for an almost virginal admiration. She is hounding and charming, enchanting in her persistence that detail is of supreme importance, exuding a seductive grande dame aura, vivacious and eccentric, a rebel who refuses to relinquish absolute control over her work. One gets a distinct sense of Ferrante as a mystic, a Pythia-like figure holding on to a holy as well as terrifying trance, which alone will engender and enable that ultimate vital process, writing.
What seeps indirectly though the lines is a non-desire of detachment, a refusal to abandon what is in fact a very intimate, total relationship with her texts, evinced in the difficulty she admits to regarding the reading of scripts that are born out of her novels, and the meticulously exhaustive, almost exegetic engagement that ensues. In contrast to her emphasis on anonymity, it often feels as though Ferrante is anxious to guarantee the scope and conditions of a very precise ‘Ferrante philology’. And bizarrely enough, this does not seem like a contradiction, but as a natural extension and development of her authorial presence and identity. One could be tempted to say that there is nothing authentic about this very intense, de profundis, almost obsessive commitment to writing, to discoursing on the themes of literature and readership, the human self and the psyche, that it is a brilliant, magnificently erected construct to house Ferrante’s omnipresent, evasive persona. And yet it feels alive with a fundamental genuineness and truth. Were Ferrante to reveal all, perhaps this is how she would speak.
A curious but not unexpected feature of this book is that it is pre-empted by an explanatory note by Ferrante’s publishers, Sandra Ozzola and her husband Sandro Ferri, affirming that the authorial deliberation and initiative, perhaps even the authorship, should be firmly delegated back to them as editors, collectors, arbiters of these extra-authorial writings. Ferrante is confirmed as a real person with private thoughts, with scattered scribblings on the flotsam and jetsam of the mind and of consciousness, with a correspondence – i.e. a bilateral relationship with equally real others – rather than existing only in an ingenious, inimitable and groundbreaking monologue; at the same time, she is preserved behind veils that diffuse all that is private, so that the balance between the genuinely personal and the insularly individual becomes a feat but also a challenge, an aporia for the reader, and, one feels, ultimately also for the writer herself. The game of peering through these veils, through light and shadows, to a corporeal as well as spiritual life, the numerous titillating glimpses of a real centre of being, are not an unpleasant experiment, on the contrary the experience is mesmeric, absorbing, provocative and thought-provoking. Does it matter whether literary judges will ever be able to pronounce a verdict at this court of ‘authenticity’, where purported letters to the editors become purloined excuses for languorous peregrinations into the furthest recesses of interiority? Part invention of resplendent sincerity, part crystalline distillation of a singular voice, Frantumaglia emerges as yet another heteronym full of the elusive whole.
Except perhaps for Thomas Woolfe’s long-suffering, brilliant editor Maxwell Perkins, who also had to care for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, few publishers have had to nurture and at the same time shield such talent as that of Ferrante. Since the publication of her first novel, the Ferris have been embroiled in a suspense novel of their own, a novel of infinite complexity and complications, as Ferrante herself acknowledges repeatedly, indulgently, unequivocally. Sweeping aside the manifold conspiracy theories about Ferrante’s identity or non-identity, they have collected letters to her publishers and readers, any interviews given or conceived of, they have retrieved a remarkable body of unusual drafts (begging several obvious questions), and put together a constellation of responses, creating, quite literally, a fully controlled archive for future academic research.
How much editorial intervention has gone into the final presentation of this material is unknown, yet the addressees, irrespective of whether they were, in point of fact, addressed at all in the end, are certainly real, remaining staunchly undaunted by silence. What emerges is a veritable anthology of reflections, guttural reactions, urgently pressing wisdom, throbbing contributions to the question of what is literature, why we write or read, how stories shape reality and how truth is only possible in fiction; we are given a resounding apologia for a genuine female voice, or what Ferrante calls a “literary genealogy of their own”. Frantumaglia is the ultimate treat for Ferrante devotees, but also a rare delight for those who feel that literature is a vital, living gesture. Ultimately, it is a bold quest after absolutes, for the “space of absolute creative freedom.”
Ferrante shows a piercing shrewdness about politics, literature, art, life, all that provides her with a sharper lens for a more sincere and more pugnacious gaze upon reality.”
Intriguingly, it is not merely a mosaic of philosophical meditations: it is also, and unabashedly, a treasure-trove of the sort of biographical anchorage we have been denied all along, for all the caveat of Calvino’s declaration, “ask me what you want to know, but I won’t tell you the truth, of that you can be sure.” By the end of Frantumaglia we have learned all this, which may be true, or a very elegant, flawless, infinitely human and magnificent fabric of true lies: Elena Ferrante grew up near Secondigliano, a suburb in the north of Naples. Her father was “jealous of the possible” and her mother was very beautiful, cantankerous, a dressmaker of great creative vitality. Ferrante had a cat, which was taken away from her, and she lived in many rented houses as a child. She fled Naples and lived in Greece for a time. Contrary to popular belief, she has never been in analysis or trained in any relative field. She has a degree in classical literature, and describes her professional world as follows: apart from writing, “I study, I translate, I teach.” She rejects any feminist label: “to assert I have a feminist mindset seems to me exaggerated.” She likes smells, especially of “creams, of lipsticks, a smell of sugared almonds.” Above all, “I have a life I consider satisfying, both on the private and on the public level.” She is a mother of daughters, to whom she has promised not to be too much of an embarrassment – a promise she knows (like most mothers) that she will be unable to keep. She has read most of the feminist pioneers, is in awe of Elsa Morante, considers Chekhov, Walter Benjamin, Hans Christian Andersen, Karen Blixen, Melanie Klein, Federico Tozzi, Alba de Cespedes and Madame de La Fayette as some of her companions. She loves Virgil, especially the Aeneid, the tragedies of Sophocles and Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths, but also sentimental stories in women’s magazines.
We learn that she “still [has] this childish wish for marvels, large or small”, that she “look[s] for ideas by running after words”, and that it takes her “many sentences, real, confusing, jumbled speeches, to arrive at an answer.” That she thinks of “writing now as a long, tiring, pleasant seduction”, aiming to “seize what lies silent in my depths, that living thing which, if captured, spreads through all the pages and gives them life.” For Ferrante, the central motive force in everything is love, lost, gained, nurtured or destroyed: “someone who takes love away from us devastates the cultural structure we’ve worked on all our lives, deprives us of that sort of Eden that until that moment had made us appear innocent and loveable.”
Frantumaglia is an irrepressible torrent of such revelations, intimations and declarations, and Ferrante shows a piercing shrewdness about politics, literature, art, life, all that provides her with a sharper lens for a more sincere and more pugnacious gaze upon reality. A simple reference can launch her into a bravado, often tongue-in-cheek, display of extraordinary sensitivity and erudition, whether it is an analysis of the third book of the Aeneid by way of Apollodorus’ Library, or the remark that “Bovary and Karenina are, in some ways, descendants of Dido and Medea.” This is a compulsive tome to relish, cherish and read with the leisure of slowness and humanity, a beautifully confessional chronicle of all that should matter in the life and mind of an artist.
Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia is published by Europa Editions, along with her novels The Days of Abandonment (2005), Troubling Love (2006), The Lost Daughter (2008), the Neapolitan quartet My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child (2012–2015) and the children’s picture book The Beach at Night (2016), illustrated by Mara Cerri. All are translated by Ann Goldstein.
My Brilliant Friend, a two-part stage adaptation of Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet starring Niamh Cusack and Catherine McCormack, premiered at the Rose Theatre, Kingston on 25 February and continues to 2 April.
Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.
By the Book – Chelsea Clinton
Which writers—novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets—working today do you admire most?
In addition to the other writers I talk about in this space, I deeply admire che work of Colson Whitehead; Hilary Mantel; Masha Gessen; Haruki Murakami; Andrei Makine; Margaret Atwood; Erik Larson; Lin-Manuel Miranda; Marilynne Robinson; Elena Ferrante; Julian Barnes; Ian McEwan; Anne Applebaum; Timothy Egan; and more. I also hope Gita Mehta writes again. (…)